About Kendrick Lamar winning the Pulitzer Prize…of course it’s a great moment for the evolution of music as an art. Or rather for the recognition of how music long ago evolved.
But then there are objections (to put it mildly) inside the classical music world. One of them (the only one I want to talk about right now) is that this is bad for classical composers.
I don’t agree. I think it’s good for us. But I do understand. Classical composers, as a group, have so little. They’re on the margins of the classical world, and outside it they’re barely known at all.
But then, at least until recently, one of them would win the Pulitzer Prize each year. And get things! Performances, commissions, maybe a tenure-track teaching job.
But now if pop stars are going to get Pulitzers, classical composers aren’t guaranteed these opportunities. Which of course won’t make them happy.
But he doesn’t need it!
Some will say that it’s unfair to give Kendrick Lamar a Pulitzer, because he doesn’t need it, because he sells so many records, makes so much money.
But awards aren’t charity! The best film Oscar goes to movies selected from a pool of nominees that we all know are good. That’s why we respect the Oscars. And if one of them goes to something we haven’t heard of, we take that seriously.
And, seriously, now…
The Pulitzer Prize might be the most important arts award given in America. Can we really limit it, in music, to — as the wider world will see it — one tiny corner of the musical universe? A tiny corner that most people barely know exists?
And can we really do that because the artists in that sector say it helps their careers?
This doesn’t seem at all defensible. Unless we revive the old idea that, in the vast universe of music, classical music has supreme and exclusive artistic importance, that it’s the only kind of music that can be art. An idea that used to be taken for granted, but now is dead, that won’t fly in the outside world, or even with most people in classical music (and certainly not with younger ones).
Why it’s good for us
But back to the Oscars and of course other major award shows, which don’t hesitate to give awards to things that are famous, things that are widely loved. Look at the Kendrick Lamar Pulitzer from that point of view, and it’s a great thing for classical composers.
To see why, let’s first stipulate that, to survive, classical music needs to rejoin the wider world.
This doesn’t happen if only classical composers win the Pulitzer. The wider world won’t notice that they win. Why would it? Why pay attention, when people whose names mean nothing to you win a prize for music you’ll never hear?
But now let’s imagine that Pulitzer Prizes regularly go to the full range of music. Which means they often go to artists and to music people know. And respect. And love. (And, of course, to music people argue about, because that’s what happens with awards. “You mean that piece of crap got the Pulitzer prize?”)
And now let’s say that sometimes a classical piece wins. Now people really do notice! “I don’t know that music. But it won the Pulitzer Prize! Gotta hear it.”
Could this be bad for classical music? Just the opposite, I’d think. It would be a classical music triumph. Another step on the path that classical music has to take, the path that brings it back to the world most people live in.