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Kennedy Center

The Kennedy Center Honors

Mack Male from Edmonton, AB, Canada [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
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There were no youngsters there.

That’s what I’ve realized, we’ve become our parents. The boomer favorites are ignored by kids and when we salivate and go to shows they roll their eyes. Then again, this is CBS, the supposed Tiffany Network, the land of oldsters, and in truth no one e-mailed me about the show, demonstrating it’s a closed universe.

I was caught off guard that Joni Mitchell was first. The deeper you are in the show, the more gravitas you exude. It was almost a minimalization. Norah Jones is talented, she played the piano and sang well, it’s just that her voice lacks character, at least enough to make her rendition of Joni’s material transcendent. And let’s forget Ellie Goulding.

Brandi Carlile delivered, but we’ve seen this trick multiple times. Even better, there should be a film of Brandi’s rendition of “Blue,” that would be good for posterity. As for Brittany Howard… It was a show-stopping performance. It was both incredible and so slow as to remove the essence of “Both Sides Now.” The lilting melody of the hit Judy Collins version (and Judy was in attendance, recognizable with her white hair, yet when they panned the audience it was tough to make most people out, everybody was wearing a mask), and even the slower Joni original match the lyrics in impact, but when the song is so slow it’s all about the lyrics, it becomes a dirge, depressing, BUT BOY COULD BRITTANY HOWARD DELIVER! Which had me sitting there contemplating that none of these singers is capable of writing songs in the league of Ms. Mitchell’s, if only they could.

As for the tribute to Lorne Michaels… That was the highlight of the night. It was so weird seeing young Lorne juxtaposed against old Lorne. The young Lorne was not so self-assured, he was not the Grand Poobah, he had something to prove, and now he’s part of the glitterati, not realizing that outside the New York media world the show has very little impact, I mean just look at the ratings (and there is very little in the way of viral videos).

They focused on the best part of the show, the news, but Jimmy Fallon looked like an empty suit compared to Chevy Chase, and there was little mention of the original cast, no Belushi moment to remind us of what really made the show’s bones. And Paul Simon… It was just plain scary. His vocal quiet…you figured they’d recut it and get it right. You watched Paul and you realized he was wise to retire from the road, these oldsters are really on their last legs. “America” is one of Paul’s best songs, but what they should have had was Paul come out in a chicken suit singing “Still Crazy After All These Years.”

Bette Midler’s tribute had an irreverence, a sense of humor absent from the rest of the show. She was enjoying herself in the box. As for the performances…blah. But Mellissa Manchester did give a good speech.

The opera guy? Quick, do you know who he is? I rest my case.

And then we come to Berry Gordy, the man is 92 and looks like he’s still in his sixties. He had the most impact of any of the honorees. Motown was the crossover music, so good on record and in performance it was undeniable, changing the world in the sixties as part of the youthquake. But Stevie Wonder… Maybe it’s TV sound, or maybe it was the TV I was watching it on, but his performance just wasn’t special enough, it wasn’t over the top, he didn’t kill like Aretha Franklin, and you wished she’d come back, just to show us what we’re missing, when stars were just that.

But you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

And the truth is the boomers are dying off. As is so much of their culture, that they thought was forever. It’s become an insular world. The boomers dress like kids, but they think their age. They want to be comforted, they don’t want any riff-raff, they’d rather lounge in front of the flat screen than go to a movie theatre, never mind a show.

Then again, the legends keep putting up numbers. Going to see McCartney, the Stones and the Eagles has become a ritual. Because their music reminds us of when we were our best selves, when what we had to say was important, when we were against the man before we became the man, when we wanted the new instead of the old and familiar, when we wanted change instead of stasis.

Watching a TV show with commercials is interminable. Maybe if it was more exclusive, with a fee. No, if it launched on a weekend on a streaming service. Disney+ made “Get Back” an event, the Kennedy Center Honors was just a repetition of what once was, hewing to formula, and that’s a recipe for death. Want to last, still have impact? Switch up the formula. Change. Your old fans might rebel, but you’ll make new ones and possibly still stay relevant.

I mean Lorne… Can’t you start the show with the news? Or the musical performer? Mess with our expectations? And have multiple guest stars an episode, not only old cast members and hosts, but people who just happen to be in NYC, most people can read cue cards and so many of the hosts are wooden actors anyway.

And this show… Could they have somebody in the audience who is not connected? Or do one show for the oldsters and then tape again with a young audience? And could we see just a little more edge? And have the bios tell us something we don’t know? I mean the kind of person watching this show knows by heart the highlights presented, they’ve been beaten to death. But that’s network TV, which tries to appeal to everybody and ends up appealing to nobody. Disney+ allows Peter Jackson eight hours to do a deep dive on one album… Maybe the Kennedy Center Honors could be eight hours long, one honoree per night, do something different, keep us on our toes.

This endless victory lap for Joni Mitchell is getting a bit tedious. As for Herbie Hancock and that lame album, only the Grammys could award such an exercise, have you ever tried to listen to that record, you just lift the needle and put on the originals.

But those originals…

As for Lorne Michaels… SNL was a seventies thing. SNL still oozed the irreverence of the sixties when the boomers were contemplating selling out, it was the end of their heyday.

Bette Midler? She was so busy becoming an everywoman that we’re not quite sure who she is anymore. She was a singer, a performer, and then an actress in movies. It’s like the comedians who want sitcoms…that’s where the money is, but that’s not where your talent resides. Bette was great in movies, truly, “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Ruthless People,” but she was never transcendent like she was on record, on the stage, because movies and music are different things, and when done right music always triumphs, because it sets your mind free to go on its own hejira, whereas films keep you focused on the narrative.


I just read somewhere there’s a renaissance amongst young people. But the truth is, all the elements of our parents’ culture, the so-called “Greatest Generation,” are we going to perpetuate them? They cost a lot of money and audience support is not sufficient, they run on fat cat money, burnishing the image of corporate criminals, like the Sacklers. It’ll be interesting to see.

And Motown?

Motown is forever, just like the Beatles. It’s the songs, plain and simple. Berry Gordy insisted his records, his acts, have everything, so that they could not be denied…songs, looks, performance, the best arrangers, players and writers. We heard symphonies from not only the Supremes, but endless others, whether they be Marvin, Stevie or Smokey or…

But when they focused on the audience…

Everybody was old. Most especially our president, Joe Biden. This guy was never hip, he was a member of the generation just not OF THE GENERATION! He’s got no soul. Like Hillary. Unlike Bill. Come on, the saxophone playing recipient of fellatio? In hindsight, having experienced Trump, Bill’s activities look pretty good.

But that was our generation. Testing limits. Embracing change. Not puritanical and steeped in its own ways.

Actually, most of the greatest artists will never get Kennedy Center Honors. Even though they’re now aged, they’re not lovable. You see if everybody loves you, you’ve stopped evolving and become a relic, whereas if you’re still pushing the envelope you’re making people uptight, a point of conversation as opposed to nostalgia.

The Kennedy Center Honors were like a cruise ship show. Making you feel good and instantly forgettable.

It’s hard to make moments, to capture lightning in a bottle, but when we’ve seen it all, or think we have, you have to shock us, do it differently. MTV used to specialize in this, but the internet killed its paradigm, and MTV missed the internet, like seemingly every established institution.

Now I’ll put links to the two best performances below, but really the whole show was a miss. You could survive quite nicely never having seen it. Then again, isn’t the internet all about looking forward? Did you see that TikTok was the world’s most visited site last year? Eclipsing even Google? And Instagram wasn’t even in the top ten, imagine that, you’re propping up your image where none of the trendsetters reside, you’re just like this show.

You were hip once…

But you’re not anymore.

Brandi Carlile performs “River”:

Brittany Howard performs “Both Sides Now”:

P.S. Too much Googling to not find the complete performances. CBS has the complete show, but if you’ve got ad-blocking software on your browser, like me, like seemingly everybody, sponsors are blocked and you cannot watch. Why can’t these ancient enterprises just put their stuff up on YouTube like everybody else? If you think we’re gonna patronize your platform…you’ve got another think coming!

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