A clear case of bias

I did some posts not long ago about the belief in classical music superiority — and how damaging it can be. Here’s one last approach to that. (Well, last for now. Previous posts:

Think of the prestigious Pulitzer prizes, and how the people who run them decided that the music prize should be open not just to classical music, but also to jazz. And, I guess, even to pop, because this year they gave an special award to Hank Williams (senior, of course), and in 2008 they gave one to Bob Dylan. Which — with admiration — I’d think opens the door to all music.

(Though why Dylan shouldn’t win a normal Pulitzer is beyond me.)

Clearly, though, this isn’t working. Go here to see a list of winners and finalists in music over the past many years. Granted, award shows (which, for all their high-church dignity, are what the Pulitzers at bottom are) are faulty. Won’t always give their awards to the best people.

But the music list! From 2000 to 2010, 11 winners, of whom only one — Ornette Coleman, who won in   2007 — isn’t classical. Worse still, not one of the 22 finalists (the second- and third-place finishers) comes from outside classical music.

So the prizes are, despite the purported change in direction — which began as far back as 1997, when Wynton Marsalis won — still overwhelmingly biased toward classical music. Nobody with a full understanding of current culture can look at these names (the winners and finalists since 2000), and say they represent the best in American music.

I say this with all respect for the classical composers involved, some of whom are friends, and most of whom I respect and admire. But what I’m saying is true. Much (if not most) of the best music in America for quite a while now hasn’t been classical, and it’s just not showing up in the Pulitzer Prize judgments.

Why is this? What can be done to fix it? (Assuming that the Pulitzer directorate wants it fixed, which — despite expressions of good will that have reached me — I’m not sure I fully believe.)

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  1. says

    “But what I’m saying is true. Much (if not most) of the best music in America for quite a while now hasn’t been classical,”

    Isn’t that statement as biased as the Pulitzer Prize list? “The Best”, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. If you really think that you can make a “better” prize list than the Pulitzer people, you have to wonder if you succeeded in understanding your own biases.

    My bias is in favor of good music. If you look through the list of Pulitzer winners and finalists, you see a fair number of reasonable but not outstanding classical composers. Meanwhile, outside classical music, Charlie Parker never won a Pulitzer prize, and neither did Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan (I’m not counting the honorary award; that’s like closing the barn door after the cows escaped). Or Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Stephen Sondheim, Dizzy Gillespie, and a huge, long, familiar list of other top names. If you think these people aren’t at the very top of American music, then you don’t live on the same planet I’m on.

  2. says

    Read the guidelines for the music award. It’s explicitly biased towards classical music, by mentioning “composer” and “a distinguished musical composition.” If you want a broader range of music and musicians to be considered, start there. Then you get one composer, one rock musician, one classical performer, a hip-hop artist, a producer (rock/pop/hip-hop/classical), maybe a presenter or agent, and you sit them down and let them thrash it out.

    Then you’ll have to deal w/ the fall-out of having a rock/pop/hip-hop musician accused of selling out to the mainstream by winning such an Establishment award.

    The judging would indeed by interesting, as I’m going to address in another post.

    But if you think a rock, pop, or hiphop (or for that matter country or dance music) artist would be accused of selling out if they won a Pulitzer Prize, that only shows you don’t know much about the nonclassical world. Most of those people would be thrilled. I remember what Dave Marsh, one of the leading rock critics, told me once about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. He said he was glad they’re black tie events, because rock & roll deserves that kind of respect. The one time I’ve met Bruce Springsteen, there he was at one of those ceremonies, happily wearing his tux. Feel free to disagree with me about things you know about, but don’t start inventing things.

  3. says

    It’s not that I don’t get your point that rock/pop/jazz are prize worthy, Greg, but I still find it hard to accept that somehow Pulitzer was false and you’re right, that somehow your bias “in favour of good music” is superior to that of the Pulitzer jury (or anyone else for that matter))

    In fact “the best-music list” depends largely on what the rules of the prize are (thanks Mark Geelhoed), and who’s allowed to vote on the nominations.

    Or looking at it differently, all prizes have a clear bias, and prizes say often more about the institution and its jury than about the nominee.

    I also believe Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan etc are all amazing musicians, but does it then automatically follow that Pulitzer got it wrong and Greg Sandow got it right?

    I think the Pulitzer people opened a huge can of worms when they decided to open the prize to nonclassical music. It’s not really a question of what you, I, Marc G, or the Pulitzer jury thinks is the most worthy music to win the prize. It’s the way the prize starts to function out in the world.

    People can argue about who should and shouldn’t win, in classical music, but there’s no doubt that — in the past ten years, if you look at the list of winners and finalists — the Pulitzer process has selected a good cross-section of classical composers, with many styles of music represented, and a good balance of famous and less famous names, popular and less popular names.

    But the awards to nonclassical artists, what few of them there are, show no such pattern. They’re practically random. A few great names, in effect pulled out of a hat. Other names could just as well have been substituted. No names appear that aren’t world-famous, no names appear (as does happen in the classical winners and finalists) of people honored more by musicians than by the public.

    So the classical awards, so far, have been responsible. They represent their area. The nonclassical awards don’t. This is simply a fact, and it makes the nonclassical awards seem like at best an afterthought. I’m sure this is one big reason why more nonclassical artists aren’t nominated. They just don’t think — and who could blame them — that this has nothing to do with them.

    None of this has anything to do with my taste. If I’d been asked for advice, I think I’d have told the Pulitzer board that they should have separate awards for classical and nonclassical music, precisely to avoid the bad position they’re now in.

  4. Richard says

    David Lang (btw I love his stuff) was a pretty “weird” choice. Downtowners are loathed by the classical mafia.

  5. Susanne says

    Might it have anything to do with the fact that classical music is rarely financially productive, compared to jazz,pop, etc. I know the other catagories do not have this issue but classical music is the bottom of the list when it comes to performance fees, market sales, etc.

  6. says

    I understand your concerns, Greg, and I think they illustrate what’s wrong with what the Pulitzer folks tried to do when they changed the rules – however, not in the way that you’re thinking.

    The closest analogue we have in this particular context is writers – people who write and organize words into various forms of creative artistic expression. People understand this and they understand the difference between a novel, a non-fiction work, a biography, a poem, a work for the stage, and a screenplay for a film or television. Eighty years ago the folks who were giving out the awards could figure out that you couldn’t put these various genres into the same pot and expect anyone to be able to figure out which one was “best” – how the hell can you compare e.e. cummings to Ernest Hemmingway to Tennessee Williams, even though they’re working with the same basic tools? They were smart enough back then to figure that out and over time make various categories within which one can fairly assess a work. At some point in the future, they may come up with a Pulitzer for best screenplay – that remains to be seen.

    So, if we actually try and look at this in an apples-to-apples context, why is the gut reaction to the lack of non-concert artists/songwriters/etc. in the Pulitzer mix to cram more and more genres into the same pot? Would it be so hard to create a category of Best Song? Best Jazz? Why should we as musicians be forced to decide which is better – pop, jazz or classical? Why not celebrate each within its own context and enjoy them all for what they bring to the table?

    If you’re looking for something to rail against, since you brought up American music, how about the Kennedy Center Honors? What could mean more to an American musician than to be sitting right next to the President of the United States and be celebrated for their art? How many concert composers have received this honor? Six – Copland, Thomson, Menotti, Schuman, Gould and John Williams (seven if you count Previn, who received it as much for his conducting as anything). How many jazz/broadway/pop writers have been given the nod? 39, though most of those (save some broadway songwriters) were also performers, and their music is indelibly linked with their performance, which to be honest, is the crux of the matter here.

    Giant Steps performed by someone other than Coltrane may be good, but the recordings of Coltrane himself performing them is what makes that tune great. Same with Dylan, same with Springsteen, same with Simon. But the Pulitzer is there to celebrate the composition – the act of sitting down and organizing notes & sounds into artistic creative expression – and not the performance of such works. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Just like there wouldn’t be anything wrong with a Pulitzer for Jazz or a Pulitzer for Song.

  7. William says

    Prize money aside, would a Rock or Pop musician really want to win a Pulitzer?

    Not right now. They’re not, for the most part, nominating themselves. But some — many, even — would love the prestige, if they thought they had any shot of winning.