Kennedy Center Dishonors (2012 edition)

The new Kennedy Center Honors list is out. Now, granted, there’s no reason anyone should care about the Kennedy Center Honors, but nevertheless…

This year’s popular music honoree is…Led Zeppelin. More specifically, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones. This is two years running that I can’t even start my rant properly this year, because instead of it being Paul McCartney (2010) or Bruce Springsteen (2009) it’s been Neil Goddawful Diamond and the guys who inspired Tap. Who would, some would argue, have been just as good a choice (and at least they’re American, sort of). At any rate, Zep? C’mon. They’re not even trying, now.

I mean, you can’t really argue with McCartney or Springsteen, both obviously deserving, as were Diana Ross in 2007, Smokey Robinson in 2006, and Tina Turner in 2005. That’s fine; they were making their way through the 1960s and 1970s, but it’s clear they’re just going to keep doing that well beyond reason. And even so, Neil Diamond over Carol King is still nuts, and while I’m in the unusual middle ground on Zep, I just can’t see it. The Byrds are still alive, and they’re at least American, if you have to go with classic rock acts. But, you know, they started with the 1960s in the mid-90s, putting in Aretha about thirty years after her first hit; it’s been more than 30 years since Prince’s first album, and 35 since Talking Heads ’77, and both of them are far more deserving than Led Zeppelin. Maybe it’s just time to move on. But all that is a distraction from the main point of this rant.

Here’s the list of original rock’n’rollers who have received the Kennedy Center Honors:

1. Ray Charles
2. Chuck Berry

That’s it. Now, it can’t be helped that Buddy Holly died long ago, and that Elvis Presley was gone just before the Honors opened for business in 1978 (and long before they noticed rock-era performers with Charles in 1986). Fine. But: notice anyone missing?

Where’s Little Richard?

(For that matter, where’s Fats Domino? Jerry Lee Lewis? If Perry Como rates…well, granted, if Perry Como rates, why not the Everly Brothers, Danny & the Juniors, and plenty of others, but still, Fats Domino and the Killer are pretty damn important).

I have no inside information here; I suppose it wouldn’t shock me if they had offered it to Little Richard and he turned them down flat. But I’ve been following this for well over a decade, and there’s never been any reporting to that effect, and he showed up in 1993 and 2000, apparently, to take part in the festivities for others.

Little Richard is a more important figure in American culture than Diana Ross, Paul Simon, Elton John, or Tina Turner…I hardly even have to mention Neil Diamond or Led Zeppelin, do I? Or, as much as I think he’s great, Smokey Robinson. He wasn’t greater than the other rock-era nominees (Bob Dylan, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and the Who), but he certainly preceded them. Paul McCartney? Without Little Richard, there’s no “I’m Down”, no “I Saw Her Standing There”, no “Oh! Darling.” In the comments last year, I asserted that If I was to try to make a list of the ten most influential singers of the recorded music era, I’d probably say there are about five real obvious ones (Crosby, Armstrong, Sinatra, Elvis, Ella) and then you can start getting into fights, but Little Richard is to me at least very much part of the conversation after those five, right?

I mean, I’m not asking them to celebrate the careers of Bob Mould or KRS-One or Andy Partridge. This is Little Richard. C’mon! What’s the hold up?!?

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.