Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Affirms it: People DO Pay Attention to Lyrics

In case you were wondering: yes, people do listen to lyrics. I’ve mentioned on this blog many times that if you take a look at “Worst-Songs-Ever” types of lists (all unscientific, of course, but still…), you’ll find that songs are considered bad, corny, or otherwise unsatisfactory based mostly on the quality of the lyric.

There has been a lot of discussion as to whether or not Bob Dylan deserves a Nobel for his song lyrics. Our likes and dislikes of music will always be nothing more than an opinion, so we’ll hear people cheer, and we’ll hear people boo. And I say long live the freedom to decide for yourself.

But beyond that discussion, Thursday’s announcement that Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature should serve as a reminder to us that the quality of your lyric is every bit as important as you thought it might be.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle: DreamingWriting a novel can require you to write 100,000 words or more. Making that work well is a rare skill, and more power to anyone who does it.

But let us be careful criticizing a song lyric which might “only” use dozens or perhaps hundreds of words. In those very few words, a songwriter needs to present a coherent train of thought that contributes to a complete musical journey, one that leaves the listener satisfied. And you only get 3 minutes or so to get it right.

Brevity is hard to deal with in the arts, and particularly so in songwriting. You must use your musical abilities with the kind of efficiency that wins an audience over quickly, and says what needs to be said poignantly but casually.

Why Dylan gets the award, while others were overlooked, it’s hard to say, but I suspect that it’s the influence that Dylan had in his early days, as well as his ability to make powerful statements about important things in a way that common, everyday folk wanted to hear. Not that Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and others I’ve heard touted didn’t do that, but as I say, this is where we get to cheer or boo, and that’s always fair.

So if you’re a songwriter who struggles with lyrics, Dylan’s award serves as a reminder: it’s worth the struggle. It can take years to polish your technique with regard to your use of words, but there is nothing like influencing the way someone thinks by virtue of one short powerful phrase that took you days, weeks or months to get right.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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  1. As you allude to in your piece viz Dylan – it’s very much subjective. His early work had the added ingredient of chiming with the times; torch songs, if you will. But whether or not his stand alone lyrics are worthy of such an accolade, I couldn’t possibly comment. Dylan’s downfall – if you can describe his runway success and cultural world domination as his downfall – is that he sings his own songs. When other people tackle his material they invariably make a better fist of it than him. And if you listened to PM on Radio 4 on Thursday evening you would have heard such luminaries as Tom Continue and Nigel Havers reading his lyrics and, for me, impart so much more than Dylan’s delivery. But, hey, that’s just me.

    • Hi John:

      I think I tend to agree with you on the point that other singers/bands that cover his tunes often create something more attractive than he was able to do with his own. And as you point out, that’s a matter of taste. I know of people who can’t get enough of Dylan singing his own songs, and fair enough. Maybe that’s a mark in his favour, though. Perhaps the fact that others can listen to his songs, and then work something out that goes beyond what he did, is the mark of a great song.

      Thanks very much for your thoughts on this, John.

  2. There is a parallel here to the world of running, in which it’s only the amateurs see the marathon (26.2) miles as “harder” than the 5000 meter (3.1 miles). The pros know that shorter races require a much faster pace and the training is very specific to each distance. Each is hard in its own, distinct way.

    I tend to find that less is more, shorter is harder. Like the quote says, “I’d have written a shorter letter if I’d had more time.”

    Lyric writing is the hardest part of song writing for me, and I’m never happy, can’t stand cliches, and I think everything has been said, and I have nothing to add. I can come up with musical motifs and ideas and grow them in minutes, but lyrics….ugh. Probably need to collaborate, but I’m an introvert who creates best in solitude.

    Good for Dylan. He truly is a talent that deserves it!

    • That’s a great analogy, Chris. As you say, each is hard in its own way. I’d encourage you to keep at your lyric-writing, and don’t necessarily jump into collaborations as a solution.

      I’d add that the fact that it may take a long, long time to come up with an acceptable lyric is not an indictment of your process. Some good music simply takes a long time. As an example from the classical world, Brahms could write quickly when he wanted to, but his symphonies took about 10 years each to complete.

      I’m also reminded of an interview with Leonard Cohen on the BBC a number of years ago. He mentioned that he was meeting with Dylan in a café in Paris once. He told Dylan that it took a couple of years of writing before he got the lyrics to “Hallelujah” working the way he wanted, and then asked Dylan how long it took him to write “Blowin’ in the Wind”. Dylan replied, “About 15 minutes.” So that’s just the way it is. Some songs take a long time. If everything you do takes forever, that might be an indicator that something could be fixed. But in general, songs that take a long time before they sound right is not automatically an indication that there’s a problem.

      Good luck with all your projects, Chris!

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