Led Zeppelin made history yesterday as the first hard rock/heavy metal act to be selected to receive the Kennedy Center Honors. Several rock acts have received the award in the past, including Bob Dylan (1997), Chuck Berry (2000), Elton John (2004), Tina Turner (2005), Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey (2008), Bruce Springsteen (2009) and Paul McCartney (2010), but none of them rocked as hard as the mighty Led Zep.
Moreover, Led Zeppelin is the first group of any stripe to be selected for the Kennedy Center Honors. Musicians have been receiving the honor since the awards were created in 1978, but always as individuals. This year, the Kennedy Center brain trust finally acknowledged that in some cases, it makes more sense to honor the group itself.
This year's other honorees are Dustin Hoffman, David Letterman, blues musician Buddy Guy and ballerina Natalia Makarova. Letterman is the second late-night TV host to be selected, following Johnny Carson (1993). Guy is the second blues musician to be selected, following B.B. King (1995).
The Kennedy Center Honors grappled with the group/individual issue in 2008 when it honored Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, the two surviving members of The Who. They were honored as individuals, though The Who's name is also listed next to theirs on the roster of recipients on the organization's website (www.kennedy-center.org.). This year, for the first time, the group identity takes precedence. While the band's surviving members John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant will receive the awards, the Kennedy Center made clear in a in a press release announcing this year's choices that "Led Zeppelin is being honored as a band."
Other alumni of groups or duos who have received the honor over the years (as individuals) include Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Tina Turner, Paul Simon and Pete Seeger (of the Weavers). In some cases, it makes perfect sense to recognize these musicians as individuals. By saluting Simon, for example, they recognized not only his work with Simon & Garfunkel but also his solo triumphs such as Still Crazy After All These Years and Graceland. But the roster of Kennedy Center Honorees would be more reflective of the currents of pop culture if it included the names The Beatles and The Beach Boys instead of McCartney and Wilson. Both musicians have done meaningful work on their own, but both did their most significant and lasting work in those groups.
Only individuals received the Kennedy Center Honors from 1978 through 1984. Between 1985 and 2011, the award went to eight pairs, including three Broadway songwriting teams (Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe, Betty Comden & Adolph Green and John Kander & Fred Ebb); three married acting couples (Hume Cronyn & Jessica Tandy, Paul Newman & Joanne Woodward and Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee); the tap-dancing duo the Nicholas Brothers (who were honored under their individual names Fayard Nicholas and Harold Nicholas); and the aforementioned surviving members of The Who (Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey).
Led Zeppelin received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. The band notched seven #1 albums on The Billboard 200 from 1969 to 2003.
Letterman, surprisingly, has yet to be voted into the TV Academy Hall of Fame.
The Kennedy Center Honors medallions will be presented on Dec. 1 at a State Department dinner hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The show itself will be taped on Dec. 2 for broadcast on CBS on Dec. 26.
Honors recipients are "recognized for their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts—whether in music, dance, theater, opera, motion pictures, or television," according to a statement on the site. They are selected by the Kennedy Center's Board of Trustees.
The Kennedy Center Honors don't present awards to films, but if they did, The Graduate might be a good place to start. Dustin Hoffman, who starred in that 1967 classic, is an honoree this year. Mike Nichols, who directed the film, was chosen in 2003. Paul Simon, who wrote the songs for the film, was honored in 2002.