What do Kendrick Lamar and Bob Dylan have in Common?: Recognizing Singer-Songwriters with Literary Awards

It is certainly no secret to publishing professionals that literary awards boost book sales. A 2014 study by BookNet Canada noted that literary award nominations boost sales for anyone nominated, with winners being the ones seeing the greatest increase.[1] The study also points out that the two literary awards the public is most aware of are the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature. These two institutions also happen to have very recently awarded prizes to previously unheard-of winners: Singer-songwriters. Kendrick Lamar, an American rapper, won the Pulitzer Prize in music in 2018 for his album, “DAMN.,” being the first artist outside of classical and jazz genres to win the prize. The Pulitzer Prizes said of “DAMN.” that it offers “affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”[2] Just two years earlier, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature, making him the second singer-songwriter to ever win that prize. The first (and the only other) songwriter the prize was given to is the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, who won in 1913.[3] Dylan was given the honour for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”[4] Recognizing these two singer-songwriters with such prestigious awards sparked a divided conversation about what constituted “Literature.” I argue, however, that these awards have imbued the two writers with even more cultural capital than they already had, re-shaping what we think of literature, and therefore what we think of as literary publishing as well. Certainly, the fact that these two awards are also the most publicly recognized awards proves the influence they have over the masses. While accepting song lyrics as a form of literature may be beneficial to the songwriters and to scholars who study them, should awarding them literary honours become a trend, this could have many drastic consequences for the publishing industry.

In a 2016 article, “Reading Song Lyrics as Literature,” J. Rubén Valdés Miyares points out that pop song lyrics are rarely used as objects of literary study, and are typically only discussed by scholars in the fields of music or cultural studies or musicology. He also points out the lack of theoretical framework for studying or discussing song lyrics within a literary framework, especially since lyrics “do not make complete sense independently from the music they were written for.”[5] Song lyrics, however, are often included in literary anthologies and there are an increasing number of scholarly papers being written that discuss them as literature.[6] Even Dylan himself questioned the literary merit of his lyrics in his Nobel Lecture: “When I first received this Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature. I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was.”[7] Luke Strongberg said of Dylan in The Hopkins Review that “from early on in his career, he was labeled a poet and lavished with attention by academics, most (but not all) of them focusing on his achievements as a lyricist.”[8] Indeed, recognizing song lyrics as literature can certainly have a poisitive impact on both genres:

As I see it, that’s one of the biggest arguments for why Dylan may deserve the Nobel: he played a central role in bringing something new to American literature. We don’t necessarily have to call him a poet to celebrate this honor (Though I do not think that poetry is hurt in any way by calling Dylan a poet). He showed that the lyrics of popular songs could be literature, could rise to that level, could speak to us as great literature does. That’s not bad for a song and dance man.[9]

Kendrick Lamar is also one of the first rappers to be recognized with an honour this prestigious. Indeed, in a 2018 New Yorker article, Doreen St, Félix states, “I would argue that the award is a bigger event for the Pulitzers than it is for Lamar,” reminding readers that of the lasting impact that will be caused by recognizing singer-songwriters with awards such as these.[10] Certainly, the scholarly community has been increasingly recognizing these genres as sources of literature, and this is being mirrored by their recognitions from these two prestigious awards. While Kendrick Lamar was not awarded the prize for literature, his lyrics are frequently studied by literary scholars for their commentary on contemporary America and the African American identity. Dylan’s lyrics are frequently included in anthologies and studied in courses, often discussing his political critiques and advocacy for protesting. I do not mean to suggest in this paper that these songwriters should not be recognized, nor do I wish to comment too deeply on the debate about song lyrics as literature. I do, however, think that honouring singer-songwriters with literary awards is a dangerous precedent to be set as it affects the publishing industry.

While Dylan and Lamar have been recognized for their literary merit by the academic community and by these two prestigious awards, they also have a combined total of 31 Grammy Award wins and 75 nominations, not to mention their countless other musical awards.[11] Traditional authors and poets will never be recognized by awards such as these. Not only are singer-songwriters benefiting from receiving recognition by both music and literary awards, music awards are watched by a much larger audience. An estimated 19.9 million viewers tuned in to the Grammy Award Show in 2019.[12] Certainly, when authors and their publishing teams must compete with highly-watched events such as these ones, there could be a significant impact on publicity, recognition, and subsequently on their sales. Indeed, recognizing musicians with literary awards gives them two opportunities to reach audiences by depriving authors of one.

Continuing to honour singer-songwriters with literary awards could also have a negative impact on agents. An agent who already represents a musician will certainly have a competitive edge over agents who only represent literary authors. if publishers become more interested in popular singer-songwriters due to these awards, they will certainly favour agents who represent those clients. In an era where agents and publishers are already the “gatekeepers” of literature, creating an environment where writers would have to compete with popular musicians would certainly be detrimental to the writers.

Lastly, continuing this trend would have a significant impact on authors and on publishers. Writers and their publishing teams often rely on literary awards to boost sales. Submitting a book to awards is typically part of the book’s marketing plan, and even a nomination can boost a book’s sales. Award nominations and wins can also boost sales of an author’s entire body of work. Many Nobel winners, for example, are awarded for their many years’ worth of contributions to the literary canon, not just for one book, which increases the sales of almost all their books. Should other literary awards, like the Scotiabank Giller Prize or the Governor General Award in Canada for example, begin to recognize singer-songwriters as well as literary writers, these writers could face a potential decrease in all areas of sales.

Ultimately, though we have no way to know if this trend will continue, if it does, it could have a very complicated impact on the literary publishing industry with everyone from authors to editors to agents being affected. While the literary lover in me certainly believes these singer-songwriters should be recognized for their literary merit (and it seems the institutions providing these awards would agree), the publishing professional in me would argue that they should be left to the music recognition awards, which authors or written poets will never be considered for. Indeed, should the trend continue and begin to impact other less prominent but still sales-impacting literary awards, like the Giller or Governor General Awards, the publishing industry and its authors will be forced to compete with an industry and with artists that they never previously had to compete with. Certainly, this is a dangerous precedent to set despite its potential benefit to literary scholars and consumers.

[1] “Canadians Reading Winners: Are Book Buyers Influenced by Literary Awards?” Booknet Canada, https://www.booknetcanada.ca/canadians-reading-winners/, (2014). Accessed 9 December 2019.

[2] “DAMN., by Kendrick Lamar.” Pulitzer.org, https://www.pulitzer.org/winners/kendrick-lamar. Accessed 8 December 2019.

[3] Amit Chaudhuri, “Bob Dylan is not the first songwriter to win the Nobel prize for literature.” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/21/dylan-is-not-the-first-songwriter-to-win-the-nobel-prize-for-literature, (21 October 2016). Accessed 9 December 2019.

[4] “Bob Dylan Facts.” Nobelprize.org, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2016/dylan/facts/. Accessed 9 December 2019.

[5] J. Rubén Valdés Miyares, “Breaking Joy Division’s “Glass”: Reading Song Lyrics as Literature.” Atlantis: Revista De La Asociación Española De Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos 38, no. 2 (2016). 162.

[6] J. Rubén Valdés Miyares, 162.

[7] Bob Dylan, “Nobel Lecture,” Nobelprize.org, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2016/dylan/lecture/, (2016). Accessed 9 December 2019.

[8] Luke Strongberg, “”Inside the Gates of Eden”: Bob Dylan and The Nobel Prize.” The Hopkins Review, 11, no. 2 (2018). 267. Accessed 9 December 2019.

[9] Luke Strongberg, 272.

[10] Doreen St, Félix, “What Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Means for Hip-Hop.” The New Yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/what-kendrick-lamars-pulitzer-means-for-hip-hop (17 April 2018). Accessed 9 December 2019.

[11] Recording Academy Grammy Awards, https://www.grammy.com/. Accessed 9 December 2019.

[12] Rick Porter, “TV Ratings: 2019 Grammy Awards Inch Up in Viewers, Hit New Demo Low.” Hollywood Reporter, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/grammy-awards-tv-ratings-sunday-feb-10-2019-1185245, (11 February 2019). Accessed 9 December 2019.

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