Paul McCartney’s Library of Congress Gershwin Prize Concert
I know I said I’d write a follow-up post to the job wiki, which I will do soon. But I wanted to write a few thoughts about the Paul McCartney award concert that aired last night on our local PBS affiliate.
First, how wonderful is it that PBS can run a series titled “In Performance at the White House”? Check out their website, which features a full video of the McCartney concert, extras, as well as past programs on Hispanic music and music of the Civil Rights movement. Live music at the White House beyond the pageantry of the brass band or the string quartet of state dinners. Pretty cool.
As I blogged last year, the Library of Congress’s Gershwin Prize for Popular song honors, “artists whose creative output transcends distinctions between musical styles and idioms, bringing diverse listeners together, and fostering mutual understanding and appreciation.” The selection of Paul McCartney as this year’s recipient was announced at the end of May and this concert in his honor took place on June 2nd. In the interim, PBS prepared footage from the event for broadcast, adding a brief introduction that included a precis on the award itself. It contained the seemingly obligatory shot of George and Ira together and some sheet music from Porgy and Bess. They also showed McCartney examining Gershwin’s holograph score of Rhapsody in Blue, which was a thrill for me since I spent several days with that very same document this past month. (It was touched by George and Sir Paul. Double cool!)
As with the concert that accompanied Stevie Wonder’s receipt of the prize last year, this program featured McCartney’s music performed by a variety of artists. Although unacknowledged on the part of the organizers, it strikes me as as completely appropriate that this award should be accompanied by a concert featuring other artists’ interpretations of McCartney’s oeuvre. After all, we only really know any of Gershwin’s popular songs as performed by others.*
Of course, some of the performances were more successful than others. After McCartney began the concert with “Got to Get You Into My Life” (I could have done without the pre-programed synthesized brass), Stevie Wonder offered an expectedly funky rendition of “We Can Work it Out,” which brought to mind Ray Charles’s take on “Elenor Rigby.” Corinne Bailey Rae performed a guitar-less “Blackbird” to the free-flowing accompaniment Herbie Hancock. His Amy Beach-ian “Hermit Thrush at Eve”-like bird calls were a welcome replacement to the canned chirps heard on the original White Album recording of the song. The Jonas Brothers (likely there because of Malia and Sasha) gave the least inspired performance. Though I have to give them credit for being the only performers of the night that could convincingly hit the high notes that populate so many of McCartney’s songs. It’s called transposition people. Try it.
McCartney turned 68 this year. For a performer of his age who has continued to tour and perform (almost non-stop) for more than half a century, his voice has held up remarkably well. Sure he no longer has the range he used to, but based on what I saw last night, he has adapted quite well to his older voice. Backing off of the high notes, for example, in the “I love you” bridge of “Michelle” gives an extra sentimentality to the piece.** Elvis Costello took a similar approach: the break in his voice led to a more contemplative and reflective rendition of “Penny Lane” than I’ve heard before.
As a huge fan of The Beatles and I think that the selection of McCartney as this year’s recipient is fantastic. However–and this is my problem with the award in general–I find that it trivializes the contributions of so many others to the songs themselves. I guess it boils down to that ever debatable and flexible “work concept.” That is, what is the essence of the “songs” being honored here? With respect to popular music, Michael Talbot has identified three defining parameters. It must be discrete, reproducible and attributable. Although there is a great deal of flexibility in each of these conditions, the various performances encountered in this concert meet the first and second parameters fairly clearly. The third, it would seem, remains a bit more elusive. The Gershwin Prize is given to an attributable songwriter, but fails to acknowledge the highly-collaborative process that brought these songs to our attention in the first place.
For example, I found it odd that so little mention was made of John Lennon. Given their extensive and at times inseparable work, I can’t help but question why this prize wasn’t awarded jointly. Sure, the songs performed in this particular concert were either completely or mostly written by McCartney and clearly chosen for this reason. However, it would be like giving a songwriting award to Ira Gershwin and not George. Even when you can break down individual contributions, there is a mutual influence that informs all of their songs.
The work of George Martin was also absent. So many Beatles songs remain dependent on the production elements added at the time of their recording. Imagine “Penny Lane” without the piccolo trumpet, or “Yesterday” without its string quartet–both of which featured prominently in performances on this concert: the trumpeter was pointed out as a member of the President’s own marine band, the quartet played on Stradivarius instruments.
That said: In the end, the love you make is equal to the love you take. There is no denying the impact of McCartney on popular music and culture writ large. Given the amount of staggeringly good music that he played an active role in releasing into the world, this honor is certainly much deserved. Next year’s Gershwin Prize recipient has a tough act to follow.
* Unless, that is, you are a fan of Gershwin’s piano rolls…
**The President and Mrs. Obama, for obvious reasons, were thrilled that he performed this song. They even sang along in French.