What were they thinking?
That’s my question, often enough, when I get the news of prizes awarded to works of music. The Oscar for Best Original Song this year went to “Remember Me,” written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez for the Pixar/Disney animated film Coco. But why that piece of trite sentimental pastiche instead of, say, “Mystery of Love,” the subversively lyrical valentine of same-sex love written by Sufjan Stevens for Call Me by Your Name? The Grammy for Album of the Year went to 24K Magic by Bruno Mars. But why that slick, numbingly predictable confection instead of, say, DAMN., a blunt and ravaging statement in hip-hop by Kendrick Lamar?
With the announcement that DAMN. has won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, Lamar has clearly gotten a kind of validation that makes the Grammy loss seem a distant inconsequence. At the same time, quite a few people seem to be wondering, “What were they thinking?” How could a piece of popular music of any kind, let alone a hip-hop album, qualify for an honor awarded in the past to composers of symphonies, operas, and works of intellectually ambitious avant-garde jazz? What has Kendrick Lamar done to put him in a class with Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, and Ornette Coleman?
I can try to answer, having served on the jury for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music, along with the violinist Regina Carter, the Metropolitan Opera executive Paul Crema, the scholar and author Farah Jasmine Griffin, and the composer David Lang (a past winner of the Music Prize). A tradition of circumspection regarding the closed-door deliberations prevents me from discussing the process in its particulars. But, as a critic as well as a juror in ardent support of DAMN., I can tell you exactly what I was thinking.
Our charge as a jury was pretty much the same as my job as a critic for The Nation: to listen carefully, with open ears and an equally open mind, to the music under consideration—more than 180 pieces in all, as the director of the Pulitzers, Dana Canedy, has acknowledged. The focus was on the work itself and its effect when it is heard. Considerations of genre, style, authorship, performance history, critical reputation, or commercial success had little or no bearing. The only clerical matter considered was when a piece had been performed or recorded. After all, the Pulitzer is a prize for new music, not an award for a body of work or lifetime achievement.