If you want to see anguished artists who bleed American, look no further than Kendrick Lamar. He has a strange, contradictory relationship to the country where he has discovered fame and its effects, both good and bad, unlike any of the celebrities of pop music. It’s American justice and Afro-futurism with him; it’s American racial injustice and the need for loyalty and discipline. It’s using fame without forgetting suffering. It’s a powerful mix, and now he has a Pulitzer, too, for his album “Damn.” This is the first time the prize is awarded to an album with lyrics. It’s previously gone to classical music or, in the last twenty years, jazz.
Lamar is the closest thing popular music has to the voice of a generation. The combination of popularity, agony, and sense of destiny required to speak to the broad American audience is getting rarer and rarer as we sink in the chaos of digital democracy. But while we had popular poets it seemed that that’s what it took to speak plausibly about how confusing freedom has gotten and how much suffering we undergo in our souls.
America and our identities are changing very quickly with the emergence of digital tech and it’s possible that we will no longer have celebrity-poets. I don’t know who will address our secret suffering. This may be a last hurrah. Neither the broad audience popular music has enjoyed for two generations nor the intense admiration its creators excited seem to be part of our lives anymore. We used to look to popular music for our identity, at least we have since the ’60s. But maybe no worthwhile identity is possible anymore and that’s why social media and digital tech produce, furiously and futilely, identities that get ever more perishable.
This is why I offer congratulations to Lamar on receiving this unusual honor. Maybe people will reflect on his strange career now. Let’s also note, however, the only thing stranger than his Pulitzer award: he was confined to winning in the rap categories at this year’s Grammys, as the important awards went to fairly unimpressive pop music instead. Apparently, Lamar’s political art is not in favor, and only shallow statements need apply.
The same album was considered in the two venues and the elite institution seemed much more interested in anointing the voice of a generation than the popular institutions. Yet another upside down sign of our times. The contradiction, of course, is that the revolution in the rules at the Pulitzers is part of their backwardness — they cannot influence the culture, however hard they try, because only elites care about such prizes and the elites have lost control of the culture themselves.
TV itself and its pageants look just as ridiculous. Lamar gave a remarkable performance at the Grammys, which included Dave Chappelle and U2. It was as political as Lamar’s music usually is. What can one say? On the one hand, the people complaining about America’s race and class troubles on that stage really had an experience of them and were not there to flatter aging liberals and confirm their prejudices. On the other hand, nothing was ever going to come of it and the press ignored it as much as the Grammys themselves.
It ended up making the awards look like they were trying to solidify celebrity by a cheap offer to buy street cred. In reality, it’s over for the Grammys, too, which saw a significant ratings drop, much like every other big TV event. It’s over. We just don’t know yet how to deal with digital events and how digital tech is changing how we experience events.
Lamar knows a few things about the future these institutions don’t know, above all that the way to move through the social and technological chaos is loyalty, which is what he’s always coming back to. In his acceptance speech for best rap album, he explained why he loves hip-hop: he can support his family and do something for the next generation.
He explained he started out thinking wealth and celebrity were the purpose of hip-hop, reveling in all the pleasures America lavishes on the successful. Rather than that, art is an education for democracy — that’s what he means by helping the next generation and the next listener to evolve, like he learned from previous musicians. This has a much better chance to make for an inclusive understanding of America than anything in pop these days.
This is another reason he’s worth a Pulitzer. The rapper of anguish fits our times. I’m seriously considering which future celebrity will even be interested in talking about God. In fact, who will treat talking about any fundamental human experience as existentially important — treating confrontation and confession in words as the most urgent form of artistic expression? Lamar defines himself by his interest in politics and the profession of his faith and the call to discipline and loyalty to make a better future for anguished ambitions. Agonizing in public for America to see and participate in, itself an attack on celebrity culture, is one of the few things in pop culture that’s not a scam or a sham.