Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Pulitzer Prize and Kendrick Lamar


What will those zany members of the Pulitzer Prize committee come up with next?  First it was the Nobel Peace Prize committee awarding Bob Dylan for "literature.”  (He’s not a poet, unless you own a copy of Tarantula, and if you do, you’re stouter than I.  Chronicles, a partial autobiography, is a rambling mess: a fun read, especially for fans, but not Pulitzer material.)  Now the Pulitzer committee is giving the prize for music to Kendrick Lamar, as opposed to some respected-but-obscure jazz or classical musician.

Let me check off the names I’m familiar with in the list of past winners: Aaron Copeland, Wynton Marsalis, Ornette Colman, Steve Reich and in 2015, Julia Wolfe for Anthracite Fields.  I actually went out and bought this, based on the similar Pennsylvania Coal Region background.  (Unfortunately, it didn’t register with me.  I like the fourth movement, "Flowers," but there's a lot of modal choir patterns in the longer pieces that felt repetitious.)

I want to listen to more classical and jazz music, particularly more modern pieces.  I do, as I go along.  I’m a provincial in these areas, but a well-meaning one who wants to learn more.  As opposed to hiphop which, along with the rest of society, I’ve been bludgeoned with since the mid-90s or so, when the majority of a cool genre devolved into gangsta rap and overbearing clich├ęs.  It’s been a major industry since that time, like any other, like rock or country before it.  Much as with rock or country, things get strange and hollow when they become industry and dominate the culture.  It would be nice to walk past a jeep with blacked-out windows and hear bass-heavy Mozart blasting from the speakers, but come on now.

I hadn’t realized the monetary reward for the Pulitzer was $15,000 … which Lamar could spend in one night in the VIP section of a trendy L.A. night club.  That sort of money can probably make a huge difference for a classical or jazz musician struggling to make ends meet.  I’m sure the cultural exposure puts a few more asses in seats, which is what it’s all about for performing artists.

The whole endeavor feels hollow and self-congratulatory, like any other prize, be they Oscars or Nobel Peace Prizes.  It feels like it’s given more to prove how wonderful, insightful and all-encompassing the august group of people giving the award are, as opposed to the artists themselves or their work.  A look at the Pulitzer Board reads like an Upper West Side wine-and-cheese fund raiser for Bernie Sanders.  Shamefully, a majority are New Yorkers.  Gail Collins?  Do you really picture her listening to Kendrick Lamar?  And do you picture her or any of these women being OK with being called “bitch” as a matter of course (as is the case in Lamar’s lyrics)?  I’m certain their explanations would be the usual condescending “different cultural qualifiers” tripe that subtly creates lowered expectations for off-white people and holds white people who don’t agree with them to irrational standards.  (You would be taking your life in your hands to call any of countless number of women I’ve worked with in NYC “bitch." This is abhorrent behavior in our every-day lives, particularly at work.  Why is it OK in this instance?)

The comments sections of publications and message boards have been the predictable shootouts between older, white rock fans and younger, white hiphop fans.  Or even worse, this type of person.  I was writing about indie rock snobs in that piece, but college-educated hiphop snobs fall roughly into the same category.  (All those 90s kids wearing sideways baseball hats are now around 40.)  With the caveat that they’re “of the people” because they’re championing a genre that’s selling in the overall culture.  But not omniscient in that old way we were raised to believe in with 60s and 70s rock.  Those days are gone.  I’m certain that I’m oblivious of the Top 10 hiphop acts of the past few years.  Most people are.  If I’m aware of them, it’s because they’re being hyped ad nauseum via reality shows or social-media fanned negative press coverage.  Like most sane people, I don’t pay attention to things that don’t appeal to me.

I’ve seen more than a few incidents where the offended hiphop fan, having his unquestionable taste called into question, quotes direct lyrics, often for the entire track.  Supposedly for the lyrics they consider the best Lamar has to offer.  I actually found a few sites that let the fans state their favorites.

Maybe it’s like comedy?  When someone describes it to you, the humor somehow disappears?  I’m reading those lyrics, and all I’m seeing is the blustery, violent posturing that decades in NYC has taught me is adolescent male insecurity, half-assed political statements that sound like someone drunk spouting off, and shallow self-aggrandizing that has always annoyed me with hiphop.  And the occasional good one-liners and rhymes!  I’m reading a lot of emptiness, a lot of lines that sound like they're trying to impart something important but are actually saying nothing important.  Let’s not forget the silly cultural references to products, movies and TV shows … which a lot of people seem to mistake for brilliance.  It just means the dude had the TV on when he wrote the lyrics.

And that’s fine.  Most lyrics do not stand alone when separated from the music.  (The music I've sampled on youtube is OK, the usual repetitious riffs that hiphop employs that are boring more often than not, but sometimes pretty cool and inventive. Lack of melody or memorable choruses are what turn off most rock fans.  Cool production touches and smart musical references are two of the few things I like about most hiphop.)  People like Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen wrote far better lyrics than this, but even with them, you read their lyrics on the printed page, they’re not anywhere near as meaningful without the music.  Lyrics are not poetry.  They’re not meant to be.  If Lamar’s lyrics read like gibberish to me?  Well, so do David Bowie’s lyrics, although I find Bowie’s music far more compelling that anything in the history of hiphop.  Little Richard sounds like a mental patient in his lyrics.  His music changed the world.

So, I can accept that and expect the usual defensiveness you get with fans of any genre when someone points out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.  All emperors stand naked to anyone who simply doesn’t subscribe to what the emperors put forth as common wisdom.  Millions of people get this?  That’s true.  Millions of people got Arrested Development and De La Soul, too.  For however many of millions got it, there are far more people who didn’t get it.  Or who got it, and time marched on.  (The great lesson most rock fans learn as they age: yes, time even marches on your favorite artists you thought would last forever.  Very few do.)

That's taken me decades to wrap my mind around as a rock fan.  Not everyone gets it.  Not everyone is on your wavelength.  Especially with music, which tends to intertwine itself with pop culture of given time periods and specific age groups of the fans.  It might stand the test of time in your life, but most lives, it won’t.  Very little does.  The problem with hiphop tends to be the avalanche of words in each track … there’s often nothing solid to grab onto over the course of time.  That’s the key to people listening to something decades later: something identifiable in a piece of music, something that really stands out, grabs the listener.  In the case of music, it’s usually a melody or a riff, a memorable chorus, something that makes sense to people beyond the immediate fans.  There’s very little of that in hiphop, which is why older artists tend to get ploughed over.  Maybe it says something about me, but the most memorable thing about Public Enemy to me is that screeching sound in “Don’t Believe the Hype.”  Believe me, when I was new in NYC, living in the Bronx, the summer of 1988, all you could hear blasting from cars was that sound!

At that time, I was a lot more amenable to exploring that sound.  Decades on, I’ve done the same dance too many times, with the overall culture, with critics, with white hiphop fans acting like they need to educate me, when I spent close to a decade living in a neighborhood they would never set foot in.  I recall Chuck D. stating that hiphop was CNN for black America.  It seemed more like The Cartoon Network, or at least became that in a hurry.  I was living there and didn’t need him, much less an army of white suburban shitheads, to define my experience.  All I was seeing was poor black and hispanic people in much the same boat as the poor white people I had left behind in rural Pennsylvania.  And they were being encouraged to ignore and hate each other with horseshit like hiphop fanhood and divisive politics, rather than recognize they had much more in common.  It goes on today, maybe even worse given Trump’s berserk victory.  (If the working and under classes of America ever get on the same page culturally and politically, look out.  But that won't happen any time soon.  I don't see too many white liberals with any understanding of the white working class, nor non-white people who are politically engaged but can't seem to recognize this important bridge that needs to be crossed.)

On one hand, it feels like an empty gesture for the Pulitzer Prize committee to give a music award to a hiphop artist.  Much as with the Nobel Peace Prize in literature for Bob Dylan.  They’re trying to generate hype for their prize, and it seems as though they’ve shied away from hype over the course of decades.  Why now?  Maybe there’s a younger wave of voters on the committees, and they feel a need to make a point, to “move with the times”?  I’d say it would be just as intriguing to pull the same stunt with a country act, but tip of the hat to Kendrick Lamar and hiphop in general, there is nobody on a mass level in country doing anything remotely interesting these days (nobody in rock either).  Plenty of cool stuff going on in alt. country, but I don’t want to come off sounding like one of those white hiphop-fan jackasses preaching about “underground hiphop” and how much better it is.

On the other hand, yeah, this is pretty interesting, not a bad move. I don’t particularly like the guy’s work, it sounds false to me, then again, a lot of hiphop does, and has since the mid-90s.  It’s all right to recognize a lot of kids and young adults do get this guy on some important level that makes no sense to me.  It’s fruitless to say I don’t get everything.  It’s obvious.  When you really understand music, the depth of it, how many hundreds of genres there are, how many decades and centuries of history there are with some genres, how many artists have come and gone in the history of the world … I’m OK with accepting that I “get” maybe a dozen genres and a number of artists somewhere in the high hundreds.  And I’m someone who pays far more attention to music than your average fan of any genre.  The more you learn, the less you know.  I suspect understanding how dumb you are probably prevents one from being nominated to join organizations like Pulitzer Prize committees!