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Posted at 2:05 PM ET, 12/29/2010

Kennedy Center Honors -- Oprah, Paul McCartney, being and doing

By Alexandra Petri


What are these Kennedy Center Honors?

It's yet another bewildering American institution, like universal mail delivery or getting rid of the baby weight within weeks. And it occupies a hallowed niche in the midst of the holiday season. It provides an opportunity for American families to gather 'round the television set and watch two people they have actually heard of and three strangers that they think might be involved in the dance world receive bizarre-looking ribbons in the Kennedy Center.

John F. Kennedy said that "a nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers."

Based on this statement, the United States is often gay or British.

Becoming a Kennedy Center Honoree says one of two things about you: you are a noteworthy arts figure who remains vibrant, active, and capable of generating large audiences, or someone was worried that you were about to die. Lindsay Lohan is getting one next year.

Usually, these are an exercise in mismatched dedications. "Who," the organizers seem to ask, "will be the least appropriate artist to perform a tribute to Victor Borge?" Here is... Alec Baldwin? And... Sheryl Crow, whose entire life now consists of inflicting herself on regular concerts and turning them into benefit concerts.

But in some cases, this awkwardness is unavoidable. Some lives exist in dimensions that beggar replication on the narrow Kennedy Center stage, and their tributes are always the most disappointing. Look at Oprah. The least they could have done was hide something under her chair.

The Kennedy Center Honors recognize the peculiar alchemy known as career longevity. But this is becoming more difficult now. Becoming an institution no longer means shoring up a body of work that will resist the ravages of time -- except in the literal Joan Rivers sense. It means, somehow, remaining relevant yourself. And this is in some ways a taller order.

It's harder and harder to hide behind your work. People used to create great things and go home to languish quietly in obscurity. Mark Twain once said something along the lines that America is good at apologizing. That's what these honors were for. "Thank you for the multifarious joys you have bestowed on the public," they said. "Sorry about your childhood and those rough years before your recent revival."

But nowadays it's all about the Big Names. Oprah. Gaga. And if you aren't a Big Name, good luck!

In our era, when people become known not for what they've done but for who they are, the ceremony has gotten more and more bizarre. Our peculiar modern art form, the art of being rather than doing, is not only transforming the way we choose what to see (Oprah's presenting The Color Purple!) but making the individuals who specialize in this very difficult to honor. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it makes for a very strange Kennedy Center Honors performance.

"How do we honor Oprah?" I picture the committee saying. Then I picture a long silence. "She sits in chairs," one of the committee members says, meekly. "Great! That's great, Anthony! We'll have chairs!" "And she likes to talk," someone else suggests. "Wonderful! We'll have people sit in chairs and talk." "Sometimes she reads things," a third person pipes up. "Good thought. We'll have someone read something!" "Oprah's a celebrity," Anthony observes. "Why don't we have another celebrity read whatever the thing is?" "Right," the committee says. "Julia Roberts is a celebrity, isn't she?" "Sure," everyone says. "And then we'll have Jennifer Hudson sing! That seems about right."

And so we wind up with the spectacle that was presented to Oprah this December.

Contrast this to what happened to Paul McCartney. Paul's a big name, all right. But he's famous not because he has a distinctive performance style or because of successful self-branding -- although both things apply. Rather, he's known because he's given us a body of music that will endure for millennia, in spite of the fact that the Glee cast recordings recently beat his Billboard Hot 100 record.

But the trend is moving away from people like him, towards the Oprahs and One-Name Wonders who combine celebrity with art. For now, it's all right. But in forty years when Lady Gaga is receiving one honor, Jon Stewart is receiving another, and I'm taking the other three because they were confused and thought I was involved in the dance world, they'll have even less of an idea what to do.

It's not that today's artists are failing to give us lasting works. It's just that they themselves are so inextricably bound up in these works that it becomes impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.

And that never makes for a very good tribute show.

By Alexandra Petri  | December 29, 2010; 2:05 PM ET
Categories:  Petri, Reality? Television  | Tags:  Classic DC, Lady Gaga, art  
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Next: Dogs, Michael Vick and bow ties -- the world of Tucker Carlson


After watching the KCH last night, I didn't even imagine anyone would have anything negative to say about it. But clearly there are those people out there. I feel bad for you that you didn't get what was going on. I can't believe you put your name on this.

"Based on this statement, the United States is often gay or British."

Wow. You are the picture of ignorance. You must make your employer and parents very proud.

Posted by: GDBjr | December 29, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

Alexandra, I take it your main bone of contention is that the Kennedy Center was honoring Oprah, who apparently, in your opinion, was unworthy of such recognition. (That's fine. So don't give her an award on your next show.) But to make your point, you "contrast" Oprah's segment with McCartney's. Does it not stand to reason that a musician with a 50-year canon will present more possibilities for an event such as this than a woman whose forte is converation?

The Kennedy Center Honors has always been extremely varied. The honorees are from different areas of art and entertainment focus. Whether or not you like, or have heard of, a particular honoree is irrelevant. Accept it as an opportunity to learn something.

Now I will give you my main bone of contention. Alexandra, whether you were assigned to review this program or you elected to do so, you should have done your homework.

The Kennedy Center Honors recognize those who have contributed to American culture --regardless of whether they are "gay or British."

Oh, that phrase. It is baffling on so many levels. You toss it out with such dismissive flippancy. You are, I take it, a humorist. Is it supposed to be funny? If so, how so?

Were you British-bashing? Then why bother acknowledging, as you do, some appreciation for McCartney's work?

Was it gay-bashing? I take it then that you could not get past the nature of Bill T. Jones' relationship with his late partner, Arnie Zane, enough to appreciate what you saw before you: a stunning example of Jones' work. That is very sad indeed.

I am going to go out on a limb and assume you are a young person, perhaps in your twenties or thirties. I am in my fifties. When I was in my twenties, only old people in their fifties made flippant bad jokes about gays. I never got it. I was a member of the generation that was young when the gay movement happened; the women's movement; the Black movement. Those old folks who made those stupid jokes were so behind the times it was pathetic.

Alexandra, I suggest you stick to writing things you know about, whatever they are. You might also want to read a little more, experience more cultural activities. They are out there. They are available to you. They could broaden your horizons. They could certainly help your persepctive. After all, why inflict yourself on regular columns and turn them into embarrasing columns.

Posted by: KathleenNYC | December 29, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse

Welcome back, Alex. I see this column is already attracting satirically clueless commenters like flies to ... "fruitcake."

Although Oprah did win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Artist, that by itself is hardly grounds for this award. I guess you could say her award is for "best supporter of artists artist."

Of course, the bottom line is always the bottom line. Oprah and Paul get ratings, and ratings get money.

And I hate to break it to those who want to slam you, but much of this nation IS gay. Kennedy was right. The nation "reveals itself" by honoring its gay citizens.

As for the British McCartney, he gets by because he sounds American when he sings. Plus, Elton John already got his award.

Posted by: divtune | December 29, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

Alexandra Petri, you are a very narrow minded person and I hope the Washington Post will limit your exposure.

Posted by: collegebound1 | December 29, 2010 5:39 PM | Report abuse

Wait, I think I get it now. Alexandra, you're a satirist? Forgive me for being blinded to your acute Juvenalian wit. That the paper of Woodward and Bernstein has hired you is high irony indeed.

Posted by: KathleenNYC | December 29, 2010 6:07 PM | Report abuse

So Alexandra Petri doesn't like Oprah, okay. She dislikes Lady Gaga, Sheryl Crow, Alec Baldwin, the dance world, Jon Stewart, gay people and the British. It's utterly clear what this unpleasant woman dislikes, but did she actually watch the show? Did she see them honor Merle Haggard? He's neither gay nor British and as far as I know he has nothing to do with the dance world. Mavis Staple sang a duet with James Taylor and this silly woman is blathering on about Lindsay Lohan. May I humbly suggest that Ms. Petri go home to languish quietly in obscurity.

Posted by: thomascsmith | December 29, 2010 9:01 PM | Report abuse

I admit I only caught the end, but doesn't anyone else find Paul McCartney sitting between Oprah and the Obama's a little weird? Perhaps it was the camara angles, but the whole thing looked a little off.

Posted by: sunshine54 | December 29, 2010 10:25 PM | Report abuse

To complete my thought, in other words, I cannot speak to the whole show, but the last 15 minutes were weird. I enjoyed the writers commentary!

Posted by: sunshine54 | December 29, 2010 10:32 PM | Report abuse

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