An actual physical award, a bronze medal, gives token materiality to the court prestige conferred by the Gershwin Prize, which the Library of Congress has granted since 2007 to songwriters who “exemplify the excellence associated with the Gershwins.” The face of the medal depicts, in profiles layered in Romanesque relief, both the Gershwin brothers. George, the composer, appears in the foreground, and Ira, the lyricist, is behind him—or under him, in relief. Stamped in metal, the Gershwins symbolize the two sides of the songwriting process, the music and the words, with the writer of the music in front.
The recipient of the prize for 2013 will be the singer and songwriter Carole King, and she seems a natural choice to follow the past honorees, all of whom have been highly celebrated old (or oldish) creators of well-made and high-selling pop records of the late decades of the last century: Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, and the team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The prize is essentially an award for having gotten lots of Grammy awards, an honor bestowed by the national repository of copyrights for creative work that turned out well and earned out equally well. The Gershwins, fine artists in the business of writing hit songs, certainly exemplified that kind of excellence, and Carole King has, too. She’s a gifted composer of indelible pop melodies, the artist responsible for the music of some of the best crafted and best loved songs of the past fifty years: “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” the perfect expression of adolescent sexual anxiety; “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman,” the grown-up release of that anxiety; “Up on the Roof,” an urban teen playlet as vivid as anything Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim wrote for “West Side Story,” and “Chains,” the catchy paean to romantic masochism that John Lennon and Paul McCartney studied to learn songwriting.
Unfortunately, the second artist responsible for those songs, Gerry Goffin—the lyricist with whom Carole King worked during the fruitful first decade of her career—is not being honored along with King this year. Goffin and King met in the late 1950s while the two of them were both still undergraduates at Queens College, soon started writing together, then married, and, after nine years of marriage and hundreds of songs, divorced in 1969. Most of their work together was commercial pop, produced on demand for disposable top-40 acts like Bobby Vee, the Shirelles, and the Monkees. Still, Goffin’s lyrics were always at least as fresh as King’s music, always singable, natural sounding, and exquisitely crafted but never (or rarely) cutesy or precious. In the best of the Goffin-King songs, including “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “It Might As Well Rain until September” (which King sang on the first record released under her name, in 1962), Goffin brought a level of melancholy to leaven the bounciness of King’s music. He laced the bright yellows and pinks of her tunes with streaks of grey. Goffin, who has suffered from mental illness and, with King’s consent, was once given electroshock treatments, has been so esteemed by other songwriters that, when he got around to doing his first solo album, in the early 1970s, Bob Dylan offered to play on the record and co-write two songs. I don’t think Goffin would have earned a Gershwin award without King. But I don’t think King would have earned hers without Goffin.