By Daniel Gewertz
The Gershwin Prize and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exist to glorify popular song. Both, in a relatively short time, relaxed their initial high artistic standards.
May has been a fantastic month for Lionel Richie. First, Richie was announced as this year’s recipient of the prestigious Gershwin Prize for American Popular Song from the Library of Congress. Then he was chosen as a 2022 inductee into the performer category of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For Richie, it must sound like “Endless Love”. What a boost for the rep of this longtime R&B ballad and current American Idol judge!
The reputation of American music? He will survive.
Both the Gershwin and the Hall exist to glorify popular song. Both, in a relatively short time, relaxed their initial high artistic standards. Despite the apparent cachet of the two TV awards shows that promulgate these awards, the key word here is Pin up: neither defines the essence of the art form. They are public relations systems, partly invented to give prestige to companies that need a boost. Think of all the British literary, film and television prizes that sprung up after World War II to counter America’s growing cultural preeminence.
What does Richie – a silky R&B crooner – have to do with rock ‘n roll? Questions like this have been asked repeatedly about The Hall in recent years: an institution that deliberately ignores any intelligible definition of the genre it has chosen. Seemingly more desperate than ever to expand their popular reach — call it fame for fame’s sake — they’ve selected a group of artists in 2022 where the majority of inductees have no discernible connection to rock. In addition to Richie, there are Dolly Parton, Eminem and Carly Simon. (Parton tried to bow out, saying she never thought of herself as a rock singer or writer and didn’t want to take the award away from someone who was. They basically says she was in it, like it or not!) the real rock bands are Duran Duran, Pat Benatar & Neil Giraldo, and the Eurythmics.
It’s clear now that blurring the definitions of pop music is in the interest of the Hall’s financial gain. Since 1986, there have been over 350 inductees added to the Hall. Ironically, by ignoring the meaning of rock ‘n roll, Hall clung to one of rock’s key traits – a defiant “fuck you” attitude. Damn the world’s understanding of the rock ‘n roll genre! It’s a shrewd, if lamentable, move. It’s one thing to say that Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson or The Carter Family deserve a place among the ancestors of rock; it’s quite another to claim that rock is now everywhere and anything. The original meaning of the word fame was more about reputation and achievement than mere fame (hence the term disreputable house.) The Hall’s goal, meanwhile, is to become tourist attraction stardom, a growing Disneyland for adults. (I loved The Zombies when I was 15, but didn’t expect them to appear in a Hall of Fame more than 50 years later, given a measly three-hit total to their name.)
Question: If a shiny statue is tarnished, does it lose its appeal?
Answer: Not if it’s still on national television.
I admit that some of my aesthetics are based on my age (baby boomer), my birthplace (New York) and maybe my race (white). Perhaps all of this enters into my excitement for the first group of Gershwin Prize winners – Paul Simon, Burt Bacharach & Hal David, Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Carol King, Smokey Robinson and even the only non-American, Paul McCartney. They are all esteemed songwriters. Tony Bennett is, of course, a songwriter, but a singular force in keeping the Great American Songbook alive. As far as I’m concerned, Gloria Estafan, Garth Brooks and Richie are out of their league. And haven’t Estafan and Richie already been rewarded enough “by the government” with their recent Kennedy Center Honors? I remember our American generals, chests full of medals.
From his years in the Commodores, Richie certainly comes from a solid tradition. In my baby boomer opinion, Sam Cooke possessed both soul and sweetness, while Richie has an elegant, sweet charm, with aspects of saccharine. He’s an absolute expert at what he does, and he’s been doing it for 50 years. But does he deserve both the Kennedy Center Honors and the Gershwin Prize? At the heart of these awards is a desperate desire to bolster our country’s self-image – to choose a wide variety of popular icons.
When Neil Diamond won a Kennedy Center Honor a few years ago, I felt a similar lack of enthusiasm. Yes, he’s an insanely catchy hitmaker with plenty of talent, a musical ace with an amalgamation of influences, a stylist Robbie Robertson astutely called a latter-day link between Elvis and Sinatra. I sometimes hum his songs. But to me, it’s also corny. Worn out. A guilty pleasure. I guess I’m a snob. When the US government chooses its cultural heroes, I would be naïve to expect perfect taste. Were Emilio and Gloria Estefan chosen for a Gershwin Award because they needed Latinx recipients, and it was two for the price of one? If yes, why not? It seems like a profitable idea for a country that still boasts of being a melting pot.
The popular arts in America – perhaps all the arts – have lost tremendous luster over the past 40 years. Whether or not you agree with this unfortunate opinion, it is hard to deny that there is a vested interest in reinforcing the belief that all is well with culture, and, more importantly, that there is no no appreciable difference between the popular and the great. Democracy may be aeons away from a golden age, but thank goodness there’s plenty of gold and golden statues for everyone! The demolition of class distinction in the arts passes itself off as social progress: as a type of media-driven “power to the people” – one that, not coincidentally, is added to the coffers of the billionaire class. Simply put: in America, if it sells, it can’t smell.
There was once a widely accepted idea that there could be elements of fashionable, ephemeral pop culture that were both massively popular and unworthy of the highest accolades. It dates back to the early years of the 20th century, when dynamic and dynamic immigrants believed that a cultural “touch of class” could be a stepping stone to American success. It was a time when the great literature of the 19th century was often remade into popular film; a time when classical music—or pop variations—were regularly heard on commercial radio and movie soundtracks. This cultural attraction to “high end” or “serious” music was certainly a hallmark of the Gershwin brothers’ family home. The fact that Ira and George Gershwin were also inspired by hot jazz and pop song was essential to their success.
I think what might be most infuriating about the Gershwin award is the name itself. With a name like that, misleading the quality is a sin. Ira Gershwin was a wonderful lyricist, sublimely in touch with what was once called “the common man.” His brother George, however, seemed supernatural. In just 18 years, George became the original American crossover genius, king of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and the emerging sphere of American classical music. The golden boy left at 38. When Paul Simon was chosen as the original Gershwin winner, it seemed like a name-friendly choice. Yet how could this award continue to live up to its name…to continue to select equally qualified winners in perpetuity, especially given the gradual depletion of America’s pop talent pool? Nominally, it would have been better to pick a brilliant 20th-century talent who could use more posthumous fame. I would vote for the Jerome Kern Award.
For 30 years, Daniel Gewertz wrote about music, theater and film for the Boston Herald, among other periodicals. More recently, he has published personal essays, taught memoir writing and participated in the local storytelling scene. In the 1970s, at Boston University, he was best known for his impersonation of Elvis Presley.