The Pulitzer Prizes startled a lot of people this year with an award that’s usually greeted as an afterthought: the music prize, which went to Kendrick Lamar’s album “DAMN.” It was not only the first time a music Pulitzer was given to a hip-hop album, but also to any work outside the more rarefied precincts of classical and, occasionally, jazz composition — indeed, to an album that reached No. 1 on the pop chart.
While it has been reported that “DAMN.” was the unanimous choice of the Pulitzer music jury, the award was met in other quarters with disgruntlement and even outrage. Here, Zachary Woolfe, the classical music editor of The New York Times, and Jon Pareles, the chief pop music critic, discuss the choice.
JON PARELES: To me, this prize is as overdue as it was unexpected. When I look at the Pulitzers across the board, what I overwhelmingly see rewarded are journalistic virtues: fact-gathering, vivid detail, storytelling, topicality, verbal dexterity and, often, real-world impact after publication. It’s an award for hard-won persuasiveness. Well hello, hip-hop.
ZACHARY WOOLFE: One comment I read on Facebook, from a gifted young composer and pianist, was “I have complicated feelings about this, but also, I mean, about damn time.” Yes, and yes. There seems to be broad agreement, which I join, about the quality of “DAMN.” — its complexity and sensitivity, its seductive confidence and unity, its dense weaving of the personal and political, the religious and sexual.
But there is also wariness, which I join, about an opening of the prize — not to hip-hop, per se, but to music that has achieved blockbuster commercial success. This is now officially one fewer guaranteed platform — which, yes, should be open to many genres — for noncommercial work, which scrapes by on grants, fellowships, commissions and, yes, awards.
PARELES: That response is similar to many publishing-world reactions when Bob Dylan got the Nobel Prize in literature — that a promotional opportunity was being lost for something worthy but more obscure, preferably between hard covers. A literary figure who had changed the way an entire generation looked at words and ideas was supposed to forgo the award because, well, he’d reached too many people? Do we really want to put a sales ceiling on what should get an award? The New York Times and The New Yorker already have a lot of subscribers … uh-oh.
WOOLFE: I don’t think there is a universal desire for the Nobel to reward obscurity; I’m sure many who were skeptical of Dylan’s win would have been just fine with the best-selling Philip Roth. But it has felt for decades like an integral part of the Pulitzer’s mission is to shine a light on corners of music that are otherwise nearly ignored by the broader culture. The award has acted as a reminder — though long a way too stylistically limited one — that art-making exists beyond the Billboard (and now Spotify) charts.
“DAMN.” is surely deserving, yet its victory feels like another sign of the world, and therefore the musical culture, we live in — embodied by the streaming services, through which the biggest artists and albums get more and more, and everyone else gets a smaller piece of the pie. This system is corrosive to music, period — classical, jazz, hip-hop, everything. It’s the reality — and there are certainly a lot of very popular artists who are very meaningful, Lamar among them — but I don’t like every aspect of it.
PARELES: I completely agree with you about the unhealthy overall effects of winner-take-all culture. The word “trending” makes me instinctively recoil; as critics, you and I both want to direct people beyond popularity charts. But choosing “DAMN.” wasn’t a capitulation to mere popularity. The album is a complex, varied, subtle, richly multilayered work, overflowing with ideas and by no means immediately ingratiating. You have to give it genuine attention and thought to get the most out of it, just as with any other Pulitzer-winning composition.
Meanwhile, wasn’t the music Pulitzer, for many decades, largely the captive of a small, insular academic music scene? The Pulitzers refused a special citation for Duke Ellington, who never won the award. They ignored jazz — artistically subtle and sublime, commercially endangered — until Wynton Marsalis finally got a Pulitzer in 1997. They were unconscionably late — looking awfully cliquish to me — even in recognizing minimalism: Steve Reich got his Pulitzer in 2009, not in 1977 for “Music for 18 Musicians.”
To me, it looks like some of the squawks are complaints about exclusivity being breached. And if you ask me, it should have happened sooner. I hereby nominate, for a retrospective Pulitzer, Public Enemy’s 1988 album “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”: an experimental sonic bombshell, a verbal torrent, a mind expander. For that matter, the Pulitzers were late on Kendrick Lamar, too: “To Pimp a Butterfly,” from 2015, has even more musical breadth than “DAMN.” (which has plenty).
WOOLFE: There have been so many missed opportunities. The year after it turned down Ellington — the main Pulitzer board rejected the music jury’s recommendation — it could have given the regular prize to Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” How about Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” which could have won in 1972 — over a decade before the prize finally got around to recognizing a female composer? Philip Glass, never quite beloved in the academic realm, remains Pulitzer-less. And I’ll just leave this right here: Kanye.
You could play these fantasy games forever. It is belated and necessary that the award widen to encompass a fuller picture of what music is. But if that widening further marginalizes noncommercial work — which doesn’t view itself as exclusive but simply as endangered in an economic system that conspires against it — something important will be lost. Responsible eclecticism is what I’d want going forward from Pulitzer juries, for whom the “DAMN.” award will hopefully be freeing in the best sense.
PARELES: What were the pieces from the other two finalists, Ted Hearne and Michael Gilbertson?
WOOLFE: Like Lamar, who’s 30, these guys are strikingly young. Gilbertson, 30 as well, wrote a string quartet that veers from glassy to robust, and Hearne, 35, wrote “Sound From the Bench,” a cantata for chamber choir, electric guitars and drums. Like Lamar’s album, the finalists are politically charged: Hearne, always socially conscious, here mashes up texts from Supreme Court decisions to suggest the ambiguities of identity and humanity. (A corporation has speech, you say?) And Gilbertson has said that he adjusted his initial sketches for his quartet after the 2016 election, making them “more introspective and comforting.” Almost as significant as Lamar’s win, for me, is the trio taken together: a new generation, turning the world around it into music.
PARELES: I’ll have to put them in a playlist. I’m not suggesting that the Pulitzers mirror the Top 10 or the Grammys. (Please, no.) And next year, sure, give the prize to an album that sold 11 copies after a lone college gig somewhere. But I think we’re seeing a shifting perspective on the way contemporary classical and jazz composition often draw on the ideas of hip-hop or world music or pop, as if to elevate them by carrying them into the concert hall.
According to the Pulitzer reporting, “DAMN.” got added to consideration when the jury was looking into a composition with hip-hop influences, and decided to go to the source — where the ideas, in this case, are even stronger, both rawer and smarter. The prize citation praises “DAMN.” for its “vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism,” which to me has a whiff of condescension — there’s all sorts of brainpower and artifice in there, too — but let’s enjoy the win. Regarding noncommercial outreach, Lamar often collaborates with first-rate, innovative jazz musicians, like Kamasi Washington, who not only are happy to work with him but also benefit — in their own audience growth — from showing up in his album credits.
One thing that also strikes me about giving the award to “DAMN.” is that it quietly sets aside two previous Pulitzer givens: that the winning piece was performed by live musicians in real time and that it was written by a solitary composer. But “DAMN.” has multiple producers, composers and performers (even Rihanna and U2 cameos!) layering tracks in studios. Lamar is the auteur, fully in charge but not the sole creator. It’s another way of making music that deserves respect.
WOOLFE: This year’s Pulitzer actually reinforced that old romantic illusion of the singular composer. It was given to Lamar alone — not, as in the Grammys, to the album’s songwriting or producing teams, too.
PARELES: Maybe they should change the citation to “Kendrick Lamar and staff” — like the reporting prizes. To me, both the Dylan Nobel and the Lamar Pulitzer — which is not the first hip-hop Pulitzer; Lin-Manuel Miranda got that for drama with “Hamilton” — are signals that the old prize-giving institutions are rethinking the ways in which they used to circumscribe the idea of quality. As long as they’re conscientious, that can make the awards only more significant.