As the last American Nobel Laureate for Literature once wrote (and sang), “the times they are a-changin’.” Of course they are, they always are. But it’s not everyday that people are unlucky enough to witness cataclysmic change in the making, as at present. Change this large and this momentous filters out to everything, naturally including the arts.
Bob Dylan’s controversial Nobel Prize in 2016 is one recent example. Dylan is widely acclaimed for his “lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power,” as a special 2008 Pulitizer Prize citation noted. One of his ballads (“Boots of Spanish Leather”) was even included in the Norton Anthology of Poetry, 5th edition. But the Nobel Prize for Literature? That was unexpected and, many believe, undeserved. Meanwhile, Philip Roth, who had been expected to win this prize for years, has died.
Now we have another sign of changin’ times, in the latest Pulitzer Prize for Music. It went to hip hop artist Kendrick Lamar for his album DAMN. This 2018 award marks the first time someone from outside the realms of classical music and jazz has won.
It should be acknowledged at this point that both of these famous prizes, and in fact all prizes, are inherently flawed—they frequently do not go to the most deserving recipient. Indeed, after winning a Pulitzer in 2003, composer John Adams expressed “ambivalence bordering on contempt” because “most of the country’s greatest music minds” had been long ignored. Just as Philip Roth was repeatedly ignored by the Nobel Committee (which will not make an award in literature this year due to a sex scandal, another sign of the times).
DAMN, in context, is actually quite good. Lamar has an inventive rhythmic sense that lifts these songs out of the ordinary; his lyrics surpass the current general standard as well. Songs like “DNA” and “Humble,” while recognizably hip hop, have musical appeal beyond the genre. If “genre” is even the appropriate word here—hip hop is now the most popular “popular music” we have. In addition, songs like “Fear” express current racial relations in this country quite powerfully. All in all, then, if the Pulitzer people had to shake things up, they shook things up in a generally positive way. Still, I hope the prize reverts to a composer next year.