English - Free topic E: Writing U.S. popular music: fiction, journalism, memoir

Course content

In 2016, Bob Dylan became the first American since Toni Morrison twenty-three years earlier to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Nobel committee cited Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” The Nobel announcement reignited ongoing debates about the “literary” qualities of Dylan’s lyrics—debates that dated back to Dylan’s adoption by certain English departments in the 1970s. However, the Nobel moment also brought into focus the deeper relationships between popular music and literary culture that have developed over the last four decades. At least since the publication of Don DeLillo’s early novel Great Jones Street (1973), which features a rock star protagonist based partly on Dylan, American novelists have taken popular music and its material cultures as a subject for fiction. Prominent examples include Walter Mosley’s R.L.’s Dream (1993), which draws on the mythology surrounding Delta blues guitarist Robert Johnson; Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document (2006), in which the legacies of Sixties political activism and popular music continue to loom large; and Jonathon Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (2003), in which Sixties soul music soundtracks a troubled interracial friendship.


The rise to cultural respectability, even canonicity, of popular (especially rock) music has also been facilitated by other forms of writing. The pioneering journalism of Seventies writers like Lester Bangs (Creem) and Ellen Willis (The New Yorker) has been anthologized. Greil Marcus’ series of books since Mystery Train (1975), often informed by American Studies scholarship, are merely the most obvious manifestation of “serious” writing about U.S. popular music inside and outside the academy. Elsewhere, the generic conventions of the “rock memoir,” established in the Seventies, have been transformed in critically acclaimed books like Dylan’s Chronicles (2003) and Patti Smith’s Just Kids (2010).


This course will consider these various ways of writing U.S. popular music. We will consider how American fiction has embraced popular music as subject matter; how U.S. popular music came to be regarded as worthy, even “literary” art, and the role played in this process by music journalism (once derided as “dancing about architecture”; and how figures like Dylan and Smith have recast the “rock memoir” as a form of life writing.

Classes, with particular emphasis on reading primary and secondary texts, oral discussion and developing proficiency in English.

This course only leads to exams Free Topic 1, Free Topic 2 and Free Topic 3.

Continuous feedback during the course of the semester
Feedback by final exam (In addition to the grade)
Type of assessment
Portfolio, A joint portfolio uploaded in digital exam: Deadline June 9th 2021
Essay, 10-12 pages, submitted around midway through the course weighted 50%; essay 11-13 pages, submitted around the final week of the course, weighted 50%.
Criteria for exam assessment

Single subject courses (day)

  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 56
  • Preparation
  • 353,5
  • English
  • 409,5