Bob Dylan is a Nobel Prize winner.
The iconic singer-songwriter won the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature on Thursday, becoming the first American to earn the honor since Toni Morrison won in 1993.
Dylan’s win comes as a shock to many. The Nobel Prize is awarded by the Swedish Academy, which keeps its shortlists top secret — under the Academy’s rules, it’s forbidden to reveal the names of each year’s finalists until 50 years have passed — so analysts traditionally turn to the Nobel Prize betting markets (yes, there are Nobel Prize betting markets) to get a sense of who has a shot at winning. Dylan has perennially found a place on that list, but not a great place: This year he was seeded with 50/1 odds, and the New Republic’s analysis of his chances was downright dismissive. “Bob Dylan 100 percent is not going to win,” they wrote. “Stop saying Bob Dylan should win the Nobel Prize.”
But now that Dylan manifestly has won, it’s hard to say he doesn’t deserve the honor. The Nobel committee announced that Dylan won “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” — or as Dylan himself once put it, “Tin Pan Alley is gone. I put an end to it. People can record their own songs now.” Dylan is a consummate innovator, constantly changing identities and voices and genres, but always preserving the same lyrical, poetic sensibility.
Born Robert Allen Zimmerman, Dylan renamed himself Bob Dylan after the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. He first rose to prominence in the American folk revival movement of the 1960s, singing acoustic anti-war protest songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” — but he didn’t stay there long. Famously, the crowd booed him when he pulled out an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival to play “Like a Rolling Stone.”
In the 51 years since, Dylan has also explored gospel, country, and British folk music. Over the course of his career he’s recorded 37 studio albums, and he’s been on a never-ending tour since 1988. In 2008, the Pulitzer board gave him a special citation for "his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power."
But Dylan has always maintained an uneasy relationship with his many accolades. In his 2004 biography, Chronicles: Volume One, he describes his shock at being awarded an honorary doctorate: “I couldn’t believe it!” he wrote. “Tricked once more … I was losing all kinds of credibility.”
It remains to be seen how he’ll react to winning the Nobel.
The award will be presented on December 10 in Stockholm, Sweden.