Fifty years ago, avant-garde composer George Crumb won a Pulitzer Prize for his "Echoes of Time and the River."
The orchestral piece debuted in late May 1967, just days before the dawn of another ambitious work that likely didn't enter into the Pulitzer judges' deliberations: the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."
A half-century later, the unexpected but welcome Pulitzer victory of Kendrick Lamar's "DAMN" stands as a four-decades-in-the-making landmark for hip-hop.
The award also extends hopes for more widespread recognition of music and other pop culture gems whose quality matches their popularity.
Lamar's honor comes about two years after two related events: Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature for a half-century of melding poetry, folk and rock, and Lin Manuel Miranda’s Drama Pulitzer award for “Hamilton” – a rarity for a musical and a first for a hip-hop-driven Broadway show.
Those high-falutin nods add up to promising signs of changing conceptions of what constitutes society’s most meaningful art.
Some might argue who needs an elitist stamp of approval when the people have already spoken. But there’s something to be said for rewarding – and spreading – strong work by as many means possible. Respecting artists – and their audiences – matters.
The Pulitzer and Nobel shifts, oddly enough enough, come at a time when some major award events struggle with hits that don’t fit into easy categories.
Sure "Hamilton," earned 11 Tonys. But we'll learn soon how voters handle Bruce Springsteen's brilliant one-man music-and-storytelling mix.
Meanwhile, the disconnect between Oscar pickers and moviegoers grows as Academy Awards ratings shrink. “The Shape of Water” is a fine movie – but "Get Out" was 2017’s best film and a major box office success.
Like "DAMN," Jordan Peele’s film offers a smart, layered, genre-bending and eminently entertaining ride with something to say about its time. And it delivers a message designed for a mass audience.
We’ll see whether Pulitzer voters ever again extend beyond classical music and jazz. But Lamar’s prize represents a damn good start.