Thursday, September 12, 2013

Kennedy Center Dishonors (2013 edition)

(An annual tradition. Warning: No real political content here, and nothing new except the details. Updated and lightly edited from the last years' complaints. Rant follows:)

The new Kennedy Center Honors list is out. Now, granted, there's no reason anyone should care about the Kennedy Center Honors, but nevertheless...

This year's popular music honorees are Carlos Santana, who I suppose is fine,, can't be. Not Billy Joel? Yup. Billy Joel. That makes three years running that I can't even start my rant properly, because instead of it being Paul McCartney (2010) or Bruce Springsteen (2009) it's been Neil Goddawful Diamond, non-Americans Led Zep, and Billy Even More Goddawful Joel.

I mean, you can't really argue with McCartney or Springsteen, both obviously deserving, as were Diana Ross in 2007, Smokey Robinson in 2006, and Tina Turner in 2005. That's fine; they were making their way through the 1960s and 1970s, but it's clear they're just going to keep doing that well beyond reason. And even so, Neil Diamond and Billy Joel over Carol King is still nuts. But, you know, the Honors started with the artists from 1960s in the mid-90s, putting in Aretha about thirty years after her first hit; it's been more than over 30 years since Prince's first album, and 36 since Talking Heads '77. To put it another way: with the two exceptions below, the Kennedy Center Honors for rock music has still, in 2013, only honored people whose careers began after 1960 and before 1975. To put it yet another way: Ella Fitzgerald was the first (primarily) recording artist to receive the Honors, in 1979. She was 62. Debbie Harry is 68 today. Can we ever break that 1975 barrier? But all that is a distraction from the main point of this rant.

Here's the list of original rock'n'rollers who have received the Kennedy Center Honors:

Ray Charles
Chuck Berry

That's it. Now, it can't be helped that Buddy Holly died long ago, and that Elvis Presley was gone just before the Honors opened for business in 1978 (and long before they noticed rock-era performers with Charles in 1986). Fine. But: notice anyone missing?

Where's Little Richard?

(For that matter, where's Fats Domino? Jerry Lee Lewis? If Perry Como rates...well, granted, if Perry Como rates, why not the Everly Brothers, Danny & the Juniors, and plenty of others, but still, Fats Domino and the Killer are pretty damn important).

I have no inside information here; I suppose it wouldn't shock me if they had offered it to Little Richard and he turned them down flat. But I've been following this for well over a decade, and there's never been any reporting to that effect, and he showed up in 1993 and 2000, apparently, to take part in the festivities for others.

Little Richard is a more important figure in American culture than Diana Ross, Paul Simon, Elton John, or Tina Turner...I hardly even have to mention Neil Diamond or Led Zeppelin, do I? Billy Joel? C'mon; has he had any influence at all? Or even, as much as I think he's great, Smokey Robinson. He wasn't greater than the other rock-era nominees (Bob Dylan, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and the Who), but he certainly preceded them. Paul McCartney? Without Little Richard, there's no "I'm Down", no "I Saw Her Standing There", no "Oh! Darling." In the comments last year, I asserted that If I was to try to make a list of the ten most influential singers of the recorded music era, I'd probably say there are about five real obvious ones (Crosby, Armstrong, Sinatra, Elvis, Ella) and then you can start getting into fights, but Little Richard is to me at least very much part of the conversation after those five, right?

I mean, I'm not asking them to celebrate the careers of Bob Mould or KRS-One or Andy Partridge. This is Little Richard. C'mon! What's the hold up?!?


  1. I think Billy Joel and Neil Diamond just stuck around long enough to be celebrated as warriors/survivors. Not that uncommon. Aerosmith refused to go away and somehow managed to come back even though they've not done anything worthwhile since the '70s. Red Hot Chili Peppers have always stunk, but they just didn't go away and stumbled into an audience somehow. I don't get it.

    Joel, at least, has some talent, even though I think his work aged poorly and his "edgy" lyrics seem a little pathetic at this point. Diamond wrote a song that UB40 covered definitively, and that's about it.

    1. Billy Joel is a great singer and got to some places before Springsteen (who can't sing and is vastly overrated) did, such as "Allentown", which was released years before "Youngstown".

      I think the mistake here is that people associate being an untalented singer with "authenticity". Because Joel can actually sing, he has to be a fake when he sings about ordinary people's problems.

      But at any rate, Jonathan was at least right about one thing. The Kennedy Center Honors are stupid. Nobody cares who a second-rate taxpayer subsidized arts complex in a town not known for original artistic productions honors.

  2. "Yeah, sure. But he's America's greatest songwriter and he's our hero." Wayne LeFessier.

  3. I wouldn't be surprised if Fats isn't physically well enough to make it to the ceremony at this point. Let me rephrase that: I would be surprised if Fats was physically capable of making it to the ceremony. He's 85, diabetic and obese.

    1. @TN - Me either. But that's no excuse for not recognizing him 10, 20 or 30 ago.

  4. There are more deserving honorees, but I may disagree with you on this more strongly than on any political issue you've ever blogged about.

    Chesemesiter though he may be, I'll always love Billy.

  5. Apropos of nothing, the cool thing about Billy Joel is that his iconic song (Piano Man) comes across pretty arrogant

    Cause he knows that it's me they've been coming to see/To forget about life for a while...And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar/And say "Man what are you doing here?"

    But given the backstory (Joel as rising pop star, signed first contract, record company released wierdly remixed album and Joel had to flee while trying to get out of the contract, incongruously working in a piano bar while he waited) doesn't come across offensive at all.

    That doesn't merit a Kennedy Center honor...

    ...but it got him a shout-out on this thread!

  6. What has always struck me about Joel is not that he's bad (I actually think he's very good), but that he managed to achieve wild commercial success without ever developing a distinct, recognizable style. (I mean, really, can you imagine someone saying "I'm going to sing in the style of Billy Joel"? You could say it about Springsteen or Michael Jackson or Kurt Cobain or any other superstar, but Joel? I don't think so.) Instead, he mostly imitated the icons of the '60s--Lennon, Jagger, Dylan, Frankie Valli, among others (he even did a reasonable Elvis impression, if Elvis came from New York). He was essentially a polished mimic who happened to be a decent songwriter. It leads me to suspect there was always an element of nostalgia in his appeal, and that his haters are partly reacting to a feeling that he was watering down the more anarchic roots of rock n roll.

    1. @Kylopod - I suspect you're onto something with your observation about Joel's nostalgic appeal...but the same holds true for many of his contemporaries including Springsteen (perhaps the least "original" popular music star of the past 50 years---which may be an argument that originality is overrated, but that's another discussion).

    2. Springsteen is interesting to this conversation, as he sort of illustrates that the fame the Kennedy Center honors is often the very demise of the art supposedly honored. Like Joel, Springsteen hit the early 70s as a rocker of great promise and little success, who found himself with "one last chance to make it real, to trade in (his) wings on some wheels", secluded himself and his band for 18 crazy months and came out with a transcendent album.

      Except it sort of isn't. Or it used to be. Songs like the title track and Thunder Road have been so overplayed on adult contemporary radio that their original effect has been mostly diluted. Other songs, especially the anthems "Backstreets" and "Jungleland" are mostly untouched and as powerful as they were 40 years ago. This makes listening to Born To Run kind of weird: starts out warmed over and cheesy, builds to a powerful end of side 1, then back to the cheese to kick off side 2, and once again builds to another powerful conclusion for side 2.

      Point being that there seems to be some correlation between getting the attention of Adult Contemporary DJs and entities like the Kennedy Center honors. Come to think of it, a similar argument could be made for Van Morrison: Moondance as mostly warmed-over adult contemporary widely-regarded album, Astral Weeks as largely ignored transcendent predecessor.

      So it goes.

  7. And what a wonderful, righteous annual tradition it is! Dave Marsh's "The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made" includes no fewer than 10 Little Richard songs...and that's not counting the numerous other references to Little Richard's deep and enduring influence on American popular music.

    Side note: I'd argue with McCartney's selection in 2010. First of all, he's a Brit and already has his OBE (or MBE, or whatever). And second, as you noted, without "the Originator, the Architect of Rock & Roll", all (well, not all...but most!) that's left of McCartney's contribution to popular culture is an updating of British music hall traditions. (Lennon was the real bandleader of the Beatles, and he too was influenced by Little Richard.)

  8. I think this is a relevant commentary text:

  9. Speaking of Bob Mould (or at least his world), I just got around to reading the somewhat recent oral history of the The Replacements --- The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting --- and I thought it was quite good.

  10. I never would have guessed that the most depressing thing I'd ever read on Plain Blog would be comments from people whose judgment I otherwise respect saying nice things about Billy Joel.

  11. I never would have guessed that the most depressing thing I'd ever read on Plain Blog would be comments from people whose judgment I otherwise respect saying nice things about Billy Joel.

  12. Hey Geoff, here are some nice things you can say about Billy Joel, even if you're sitting with the hipster kids in the SubPop Records Corporate Cafeteria:

    1) He's a fairly likable guy. In a recent interview with Howard Stern, Joel expressed his shock that Christie Brinkley wanted to date him. When Howard pushed back, Joel said "I don't know if you noticed, but I'm not exactly a looker".

    2) His daughter's middle name is Ray. As in, Ray Charles.

    3) Recent comments suggest he 'gets it'. In particular, noting that playing his cheesy music leaves him bored and distracted, such that he routinely thinks about what's for dinner while he performs "She's Always a Woman" live.

    4) The lengthy Elton John tours. The longest, and most successful of their kind, in history. Of course, John sucks cheese too, but in the world of sex drugs & rock n' roll, surely there are few bigger mensches than Sir Elton. If Elton John is cool with Billy Joel, he's fine by me.

    5) That Second Wind song. Apparently helped talk a bunch of kids off the suicidal ledge. An achievement not credibly claimed by Nirvana - or any other hipster band, for that matter.

    So sure, Billy Joel sucks. Take another step, though, and look at the particular person in light of your expectations for one who chose his path, and I think in that regard Billy Joel holds up fairly well.

    1. CSH - you're a very generous guy, maybe even a mensch. Thanks for reminding me that there's good in everyone. And, if I chance to hear "Always a Woman" starting up on the radio (or any number of other songs which shall remain nameless in my newfound spirit of loving kindness), I'll think about dinner while changing the station.

  13. So sure, Billy Joel sucks

    The first side of "The Nylon Curtain" is amazing. Holds up perfectly well after all these years.

    And, of course, the guy has a great voice.

    You don't have to like his music if you want to, but the guy's a major talent.

  14. Interesting that Jonathan Bernstein mentions Ray Charles as the kind of iconic artist the Kennedy Center should be honoring rather than someone like Billy Joel.
    Perhaps Mr. Bernstein doesn't recall which iconic artist chose to induct Billy Joel into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
    It was Ray Charles.
    Perhaps he didn't watch the televised Kennedy Center Honors event to see who wrote and delivered the introductory speech welcoming Joel as a Kennedy Center honoree.
    It was Tony Bennet.
    Perhaps he doesn't know that one of America's most celebrated conductors and composers often expressed his admiration for the popular songs of Billy Joel.
    It was Leonard Bernstein.
    I assume he is no relation.


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