Today it was announced that Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his 2017 album, Damn. Since I come from the world of concert (“classical”) music, I had a front row seat to the social media reactions coming from it. While a lot of people in my circles were genuinely excited about the choice, others really didn’t take it well, and it wasn’t pretty.
Here’s the thing: I can understand concert composers who are worried about pop(ular) music taking one of the few awards that traditionally places a spotlight on one of their own, and, by proxy, on them. One composer candidly said that he is worried about the money:
I completely get where he is coming from. Concert music depends on wealthy donors to keep it alive, and one of the biggest motivations for these donors to donate is the potential of being associated with "The Next Beethoven”.
I’ve experienced this first hand: Years ago, I was a fellow at Tanglewood Music Center, a prestigious summer festival with a history of fellows who went on to be the big-name composers of the 20th and 21st century. Almost every day, me and the other five composers were invited by donors who wanted to mingle with us to fancy dinners/receptions. I even remember being asked for an autographed CD on more than one occasion, which was pretty shocking to a non-famous person like myself.
What I also remember is that they rarely actually listened to or cared about my music. They only cared about the fact that I was a Tanglewood fellow, which statistically gave me an outside shot at becoming a “famous” composer (I didn’t, by the way…).
I’m not a concert composer anymore, but I get it. Concert composers by definition cannot count on commercial success to earn a living. The little money available come from prizes and institutions that are all supported by donors, and if those donors lose interest, people’s livelihood is at stake.
I can also understand the sentiment that an artist who has won five (televised) Grammys probably does not need the spotlight and the $15,000 that come with the prize, while his co-finalist could probably use both.
What I can’t get behind is stuff like this (these are all from one long thread because I was too lazy to collect them from different threads, but trust me, there are quite a few of those):
It’s really baffling to me that people who consider themselves to be artists can be so closed-minded. I get that it’s scary when you feel like you’re losing ground, but this is just ugly. Beyond the nasty rhetoric, what they are implying is that concert music is by definition “Great” and pop/hip-hop cannot be considered on the same level.
Honestly, anyone who thinks this way betrays their ignorance of the craft that goes into making great pop and hip-hop (as well as lack of self awareness when it comes to their own music). I would say they make the mistake of judging Lamar's music on concert music’s terms rather than on its own terms, but I think that statement would be too generous. The truth is that they likely never bothered to listen to Damn.
I’ve been to enough composers’ conferences to know that some concert music can be really awful, and I’ve heard quite a few pop and hip-hop masterpieces. And vice versa, of course. A genre is simply a kind of musical template—it doesn’t define whether the music is good or bad. The only defining factor is the individual piece of music.
Hopefully once things calm down, some of these people will try to actually listen to Damn with an open mind and understand why so many consider it a masterpiece. I won’t hold my breath, though.
On a final note, the former NY Times critic Allan Kozinn proposed a very reasonable solution that I think should be considered (I did not obscure his name since he is a public figure and has enabled sharing his post on Facebook. I also believe he has publicly expressed similar sentiments in the past, if I'm not mistaken):
I think this is something both sides can get behind.
Asaf Peres is a music theory Ph.D. who researches and writes about pop music.
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