After Dylan's Nobel, how about Springsteen, Mitchell, Cohen?

Story highlights

  • Gene Seymour: Now that songwriter Bob Dylan has won literature's highest prize, which other musical innovators deserve consideration?
  • In some ways, he says, Dylan made most of the other songwriter contenders possible

Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)For those who annually pay attention to such things (other writers, mostly), the Nobel Prize in Literature always offers an occasion for often-impassioned chatter over who won and, even more ardently, who didn't.

For every fan who delights over, say, Canadian Alice Munro being acknowledged by Stockholm three years ago for her long career achieving mastery of the short story, there are at least three or more spoilsports insisting that a Nobel Prize for American novelist Philip Roth and his formidable and influential body of work is long overdue.
    This year? Hoo-boy.
    Those who believed the whispers that Bob Dylan was lined up for a Nobel Prize in Literature were somebody's idea of a joke got the shock of their lives when the singer who penned "Blowin' in the Wind," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Don't Think Twice," "Subterranean Homesick Blues" among scores of other unforgettable songs, and shook up the folkie universe a half century or so ago by bringing amplifiers with him to perform at Newport, was added to the ranks of Nobel literary laureates whose numbers include Thomas Mann, Samuel Beckett, Doris Lessing, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, Albert Camus, William Faulkner, W.B. Yeats and (wait for it) Winston Churchill.
    Churchill's been dead about as long as Dylan's been using electric guitars. And, yet, there are those so aggrieved by the iconic British Prime Minister receiving a literary Nobel for his writing, including the long and now little-read history of World War II, that they want to sue his ghost to get it back so they could give it to a more deserving ghost who didn't get it when alive. Vladimir Nabokov, say, or Jorge Luis Borges or James Baldwin or... or ... well, you see the problem. Everybody.
    Inevitably similar grievances have been raining hard on the Swedish Academy's head since it disclosed Dylan's Nobel; this time, not just with who got excluded, though it's come up a lot (What DO they have against Philip Roth, anyway?), but over the whole idea of somebody associated with pop music getting the biggest, fattest certification for immortality global literature has to offer living wordsmiths.
    Does any songwriter, no matter how cerebral, inquisitive or impassioned deserve such an honor?
    Well, let's survey some alternatives...

    Leonard Cohen

    His name has been among the first to be submitted as not just a potential successor among singer-songwriters getting the Nobel, but as a more worthy alternative to Dylan. After all, he's actually published novels ("Beautiful Losers," "The Favourite Game") and collections of poems that weren't all set to music.
    He has written song lyrics with imagery as allusive, resonant and occasionally enigmatic as Dylan's. (And if you ever wonder if Cohen ever gets as riled up as Dylan has about the state of society, listen to "Everybody Knows" and you might come to believe he's even closer to how we live today (-- unfortunately for us).

    Joni Mitchell

    Another Canadian with a broad, diverse and poetically charged body of work. She's known for being, perhaps, more introspective and intimate in both her imagery and content than Dylan, though her work in the '80s and '90s has bristled with more raw anger and exasperation over political conservatism and global polarization.

    Bruce Springsteen

    His recently published memoir has drawn enough positive reviews from serious literary types to suggest that he could receive the same consideration as Dylan, whose own 2004 memoir, "Chronicles," was favorably compared to his most enduring songs in execution and impact.
    Some have likened his widescreen vision of blue-collar American life to the classic movie epics of John Ford -- an analogy that at this point could still use some added heft and shading.

    Stephen Sondheim

    Probably the most lauded and certainly the most decorated living lyricist in America. Eight Tonys, eight Grammys, a Pulitzer Prize, an Oscar, a Presidential Medal of Freedom ... Why not a Nobel?
    Maybe, in Sondheim's case, one finds everything -- formidable ingenuity, breadth of content, prodigality -- except the emotional urgency, fiery imagery and headlong energy powering, say, Dylan's "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" or "Idiot Wind."
    And yet, Sondheim, alone among these other possibilities, is a product of a musical theater tradition. The others (and for that matter, Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and dozens more in their generation and subsequent ones) emerge from a sensibility that -- let's face it -- wouldn't have come into being without Bob Dylan. The Beatles were one kind of rock 'n' roll group before Dylan went electric in 1965 and another kind of group afterward; one whose music and lyrics took chances, made allusions and performed tricks that Bob Dylan's freewheeling ways with words made possible
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    Dylan didn't need a Nobel Prize to legitimize such insurgency in popular music. Nevertheless, having it certified by the Swedish Academy carries the same sense of liberation and possibility that such groundbreaking albums as "Bringing it All Back Home," "Blonde on Blonde," "John Wesley Harding" or "Blood on the Tracks" still have on their listeners.
    Whether Dylan is the first or last in his line of pop craftspeople to receive a Nobel, his win means a win for all the rest of them -- and for those of us emboldened by their inventions in our own arts or crafts.