Last night, some of the most successful and iconic songwriters of the past half-century captivated an audience of about 800 with performances and speeches at the ASCAP Centennial Awards in New York City. Stevie Wonder discussed how songwriting can encourage and inspire love before playing a stunning three-song set, including “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Superstition,” which got the audience dancing. Garth Brooks premiered a touching new tune, “I Am a Song,” Billy Joel sang “New York State of Mind,” Joan Baez revisited Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” and Bernadette Peters paid tribute to Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim with his Into the Woods tune “Children Will Listen.”
Celebrating its 100th anniversary, ASCAP, a non-profit that collects licensing fees for songwriters, held the gala to honor the four singers and one composer mentioned above. A benefit dinner before the ceremony also helped raise money for the organization’s ASCAP Foundation, which provides scholarship and educational opportunities for young musicians.
Aside from their own performances, honorees also received a special tribute from a famous fan. Sting performed Joel’s “Big Man on Mulberry Street” with trumpeter Chris Botti (“It’s got that swinging jazz thing, where I began my career,” he told Rolling Stone of the selection); Emmylou Harris offered a touching rendition of Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust” (“Joan is the reason I picked up a guitar,” she said); Trisha Yearwood sang Brooks’ “If Tomorrow Never Comes”; and India Arie played a Wonder medley that included “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and “Happier Than the Morning Sun.”
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Wonder best captured the spirit of the event in his acceptance speech, where he admitted that before he wanted to be a singer, he wanted to be a songwriter. “It’s an amazing world when you think about writing songs and talking about things and people say, ‘Well, how can you write about them? You can’t see them,'” he said. “But the reality is, seeing them is feeling them. Feeling them is in the spirit.
“So once it’s described to you, you get it,” he continued. “You hear the ocean and you know how beautiful it is. You feel the sun and you realize how blessed we are. You hear songs about the moon and you know how romantic it is. You hear of pictures about how someone looks and you write songs like, ‘Isn’t She Lovely,’ the song that I wrote about my first child.” The crowd applauded. “You hear about the suffering of people and people being denied, children starving, war and destruction, and your heart pains and you want to write about it, because you want to make a difference…. You write songs like, ‘If It’s Magic,’ because you say, ‘What is the most magical thing in the world?’ And the most magical thing that I see in this world is love.”
Brooks paid tribute to the power of songwriting with a ballad he had never recorded or performed before called “I Am a Song.” Playing an acoustic guitar part that started sparse before building to a passionately strummed rhythm, Brooks sang, “I am a song, I am a feeling/A righter of wrongs, I’m conscious and healing.” The verses referenced the power of music at the Walls of Jericho, in The Wizard of Oz and the “Day the Music Died.”
The singer-songwriter, who was dressed head to toe in black – including his cowboy hat – performed the tune after basking in the fact he was being recognized for his craft. “I guess it’s kind of selfish of me tonight – because when you get to hang out with big names like this, I suppose you say you let it go to your head – so I’m going to say this just tonight,” he said with a giggle. “But I’m very proud tonight to call myself,” he paused for dramatic effect, “a songwriter.”
But for all of the evening’s revelry, some of the songwriters also struck a serious note. Since the event was being held by an organization dedicated to protecting the rights of songwriters, its president – Paul Williams, whose oeuvre includes hits by the Carpenters, Three Dog Night and Daft Punk – referenced the changing industry in his opening remarks. “We are facing perhaps our greatest [challenge] in today’s digital environment,” he said. “As you know, we’re doing everything in our power to ensure that ASCAP could be around for at least another 100 years.”
Talk of Taylor Swift’s stance against Spotify, the rates the company pays artists and the seemingly murky nature of songwriter’s rights in the digital age were the main topic of conversation on the pre-event red carpet. All of those who spoke to Rolling Stone wanted to see changes.
“My song ‘Livin’ on a Prayer,’ which I co-wrote with Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora, got six and a half million plays in the first quarter of 2012 and we had to split a check for $110,” producer Desmond Child said. “That’s just enough for a big pizza a piece.” He went on to throw his support behind Fair Trade Music, which labels songs and albums that have been paid for fairly from beginning to end.
Sting declared the old model of songwriter’s licenses to be “dead and gone” and added that the new model hasn’t been settled upon in a way that could satisfy listeners and artists. “I think Taylor raised the argument in the public eye, so I back her on that,” he said. “Her making that statement brings people into the debate, and I think that’s important.
“I’m kind of open to the change,” he said of his own stance on it. “It’s gonna change. You have to be open.”
Bill Withers, the voice of hits like “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” took a self-deprecatingly humorous approach to the debate. “Everybody’s going to have to figure it out,” he said. “Fortunately, I’m at the age to where I’ll probably pass away before it gets too complicated.” He laughed. “But it’s a complicated thing. It’s new. Whenever something’s new, nobody knows what to do with it.” He said that he accompanied a group from ASCAP to Washington, D.C. to discuss the issue with congressmen but was greeted by “some aid that hasn’t shaven yet.”
Despite the challenges, the evening ended on a positive note, with Stevie Wonder issuing a powerful call to artistic action. After speaking about love and the miracle of life he encouraged the crowd to “shoot that positive bullet” with the power of the heart and loving.
“All of us here, let’s continue to write,” he said. “Let’s continue to encourage and inspire, because without writing, the world will lose its magic because the world will lose its love.”