I can’t remember where I was when I heard that Billy Joel would be honored by the Kennedy Center this year, but it was regrettably not on a barge, dumping thousands of copies of River of Dreams into the ocean. My horror at the announcement felt sadly familiar, since the Piano Man’s selection represents only the latest in what has become a tradition of bewildering choices. He joins Neil Diamond (2011), Oprah Winfrey (2010), Elton John (2004), and others in receiving the prestigious commendation for excellence and lifelong achievement.
Over the years, however, I’ve come to believe that no one actually deserves to be ornamented with the Kennedy Center’s telltale rainbow ribbon—our greatest stars least of all. This is because the Kennedy Center Honors are a debauched sham and their award a badge of disgrace. The 2013 ceremony, which was held earlier this month and aired Sunday night, epitomizes the event’s obsession with schlock and celebrity.
Washington has long been described (accurately) as “Hollywood for ugly people.” The Kennedy Center Honors, I suppose, could be seen as the city’s version of the Oscars. Rather than evoking in any meaningful way the fun parts of the Academy Awards, however, the Kennedy Center Honors exist as a kind of sad counterfeit, showing the dark turn the show might have taken if the entire thing had grown out of the Lifetime Achievement Award. In fact, they seem to ape the worst flaws of our various national pageants: the unconvincing joviality of the Golden Globes, the irrelevance of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, the unyielding classicism of the Super Bowl halftime show.
It’s easy enough to quibble with the individual honorees for a given year. With a galaxy of qualified actors, composers, dancers, directors, and musicians available, one can’t help raising an eyebrow at the selection of a Perry Como (1987) or a Kirk Douglas (1994) or a Charlton Heston (1997)—all renowned and treasured talents, but none of them essential. Indeed, the Honors seem to pursue rival predilections both for revered legends and for maestros of kitsch, such that Bob Dylan must share a songwriting distinction with Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Sean Connery can pretend he practices the same craft as Robert De Niro.
The broader biases are more troubling, however, and they reveal themselves over decades. The Honors obviously work their way through cultural phases chronologically, and it’s no fault of theirs that, say, Roy Orbison died while they were still paying tribute to pre-rock crooners like Como. But their fixation on mainstream Boomer culture—especially music—pathetically limits the scope of their attention.
Since Aretha Franklin’s 1994 induction, the Kennedy Center has spent nearly two decades spotlighting the classic rock giants of the 60s and 70s, but ignored most of the greatest genres and innovators that came before or after. As Jonathan Bernstein is wont to complain, chart topping epigones like Elton John and Bruce Springsteen have had their day in the sun even while their irreplaceable ancestors Little Richard and Fats Domino languish without recognition—nor have the Honors been extended to such architects of soul as Solomon Burke and Isaac Hayes, or punk progenitors like Lou Reed, Joey Ramone, or Patti Smith. A general, if nebulous, set of guidelines once seemed like a good enough reason to bar non-Americans like David Bowie and Bunny Wailer, but we now apparently cast them aside to fete the likes of Led Zeppelin.
Many of those passed-over luminaries are dead now, and you begin to wonder which others are likely to pass away before the Kennedy Center begins to acknowledge the great flowering of post-60s inventiveness and diversity in American art. Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen, although likely propsects for future nomination, aren’t getting any younger. Old-school hip-hop royalty has already seen its ranks thinned by illness and death, and we still haven’t considered possibilities like Elvis Costello and David Byrne.
The issue isn’t whether every hero of the Woodstock generation deserves national commemoration; it’s whether the enshrinement of yet another of my dad’s favorite bands fundamentally underrepresents the totality of American pop culture. There is no room for funk, reggae, or electronic music with smooth-rock impresarios like Carlos Santana gumming up the works. I mean, I suppose he’s fine, but who’s next? The Eagles?
Better not to find out. I propose that we discontinue these festivities in the most dramatic way possible, by dynamiting the hideous Kennedy Center itself. The building is, in a way, ironically appropriate for its current use, since its velveteen interior calls to mind the 70s-era lounges that Billy Joel haunted as a young songwriter. Perhaps we can arrange a special send-off in the form of a one-time Kennedy Center Honor for excellence in the field of North Korean Architecture and then finally be done with it. A less moribund, more inclusive awards show demands a venue of style and imagination, not a tacky, monumentalist bunker over the Potomac. That’s where you host the Tonys.