The Kennedy Center Honors are where power briefly pays homage to talent, especially unpolitical, upbeat, pretty talent. Britain has its Queen’s Birthday and New Year honors, Finland has its Independence Day medals and gala, and this what we have. Every year in early December five veterans of the performing arts are garlanded with rainbow striped ribbon and made to sit at the Kennedy Center next to the President watching a variety show about themselves. They don’t get to make an acceptance speech, but can mug and mime from their seats. The 20-minute segment for each laureate consists of an introductory speech by another celebrity; a short documentary film with mellow voiceovers like, “He grew up poor in Chicago,” and “She was chasing the American dream”; and live performances by others of the laureate’s signature works, or if this is impractical, testimonials. Recurring categories include:
- The national treasure who never left our screens: Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Bruce Springsteen
- The formerly famous performer of the narrowcast arts who is now nearly forgotten: Sondheim muse Barbara Cook, opera singer Martina Arroyo, Natalia Makarova, exponents of bebop and free jazz
- The funny person you wish could give an acceptance speech: Neil Simon
- The person who seems heavily sedated, watching it all from a high altitude, and really ought not to give an acceptance speech: Brian Wilson
- The adopted American: Sir Paul McCartney, Mikhail Baryshnikov (“He grew up poor in Riga”)
It is a show of performers performing emotion: “I’m so honored by this honor!” “I’m so honored to be here honoring you!” “I’m so moved by your homage!” “America loves you!” “I love America!” “Overcome!” “Humbled!” The politicians act too, laughing at jokes, singing along: “I too am a human being who likes a good show.” Most of the time emotional exchange at this scale is comically rote: Meryl Streep scrunching up her face and inclining her head and making praying-hands gestures. But sometimes you get a moment: Arroyo looked genuinely shocked this year as four of her former students came out to sing.
Most numbers are executed by younger performers who, inevitably or by design, seem light and inferior to the honoree. Session musicians and Washington choirs fill out the stage in a sort of WPA performance project. But I repeat: there are moments. For example, Ben Harper and Jennifer Nettles singing Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” as a duet in 2009, reforging the creepy-stalker lyrics into something beautiful. Another was Edward Norton’s imitation of De Niro, also in 2009. Karen Olivo shone this year singing “Irma La Douce” in the Shirley MacLaine tribute. Sheila E. introduced herself to a new cadre of viewers when she performed a Carlos Santana song with Steve Winwood. Indeed, the opportunity to discover or rediscover performers is the best thing about the programme; this is the year I finally really learned about honoree Herbie Hancock, whose “Watermelon Man” was a staple in our high school band.
The award can reframe the honoree. This year Billy Joel’s tribute speaker, Tony Bennett, placed him as a contributor to “the American songbook” rather than a performer or a writer of pianocentric music. Throughout the tribute segment, the piano was played by a backing musician. Apparently Sara Bareilles, Ben Folds, Lady Gaga, Jamie Cullum etc. were not available. It would have been interesting to know what Joel thought about this reframing. He has said in interviews that he can’t write pop songs anymore and always disliked lyric writing, calling it “like painting a mustache on my already finished painting.” But all right. The songbook is complete. Let’s see who else can sing from it.
First Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco appeared (I hadn’t heard of him either). Joel’s face: “Really?” Urie sang “Big Shot,” neither well nor so as to recall the ’70s. Then Don Henley – Joel face-acted, “Hotel California, respect” – sang “She’s Got a Way,” competently enough to survive a round or two on X Factor. That is a song that could have easily been refreshed by assigning it to a woman, with or without flipping lyrics. Garth Brooks was next; Joel looked like, “Okay, this could be interesting.” It wasn’t. Brooks sang three songs without much twang of his own, one accompanied with a chorus of veterans whose presence stimulated the emotional-ideological climax that is an essential ingredient of the Kennedy Center Honors: hands on hearts, tears, salutes. Finally Rufus Wainwright – “Hey, they finally got a singer!” – sang “New York State of Mind” and “Piano Man,” with feeling and a hint that outside the constraints of the occasion he could have given an even more idiosyncratic reading.
The last element of the ceremony is the speech from little Caroline, grown up at last, talking about “my father.” She was absent this year and Glenn Close, for some reason, filled in. I’m still waiting for awards for Allen Ginsburg, Tony Kushner, Tim Robbins, John Waters, Spike Lee, Mark Morris, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joan Baez, the cast of Saturday Night Live. It could happen; Pete Seeger was an honoree in 1994. Who are their heirs and what will be the vaudeville numbers? That would be a show to remember.