Standing before a packed auditorium at the Marquis Marriott Hotel in New York City Thursday night, Justin Timberlake seemed to finally feel at home. Standing amongst his peers to accept the Contemporary Icon Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the pop star summed up the honor, saying, “Being recognized by the people who work alongside me means so much to me. I think for the first time in my career, in my life, the thing that I love to do, I feel like I’m in a room of people and I feel like all of us are in it together.”
Timberlake capped off a night that also saw a slew of songwriting legends enter the Hall of Fame: Missy Elliott, Yusuf/Cat Stevens, R&B maestro Dallas Austin, country scribes Tom T. Hall and John Prine and early Eagles whisperer Jack Tempchin. Halsey also received the Hal David Starlight Award, pop great Carole Bayer Sager accepted the Johnny Mercer Award and publishing giant Martin Bandier was honored with the Visionary Leadership Award.
To be honored by the Songwriters Hall of Fame is to be honored purely for craft, and every inductee and award recipient seemed floored by the particular gravity of this distinction. In his speech, Timberlake spoke about visiting New York City for the first time as a teenager and realizing that music could be the thing that brought him not just to a city like New York, but to people “who are just like me — and now we’ve found each other, all the weirdos, look at us!”
Timberlake’s speech was poignant, earnest and often funny — “Church is the best place to get your start because even if you go up there and completely shit the bed, at the end, everyone says, ‘Amen'” — and afterwards, he closed the night with a euphoric medley that started with “Theme from New York, New York” and included hits like “My Love,” “Cry Me a River,” “Say Something,” “What Goes Around… Comes Around” and “Mirror.”
He also deftly captured the elusive magic of writing music that many of the other inductees and recipients spoke of throughout the night. “There’s no feeling like finishing a song; the only feeling that can even measure up is when you actually hear someone sing it back to you, and how lucky am I that I get to do that?” he said. “I’ve also said this, but if there is a God, then writing a song and having that experience — because you heard the great Yusuf say it, you’ve heard everybody say it, you don’t know exactly how they happen. That, if there is a God, writing a song, connecting to that meditative moment, that’s the closest that I will get to Her. I feel like this is the room that really understands that.”
Upon accepting the Hal David Starlight Award, Halsey similarly tapped into the potent power of songwriting, while also capturing the unique essence of a Songwriters Hall of Fame prize. Standing at the podium, the singer acknowledged she was particularly nervous because accepting a songwriting award meant that she was not accepting an award as Halsey — whom she called “the best version of myself” — but as a 24-year-old girl from New Jersey named Ashley Frangipane.
“I somehow found the ability to put into words a version of myself I actually didn’t mind being so much at a time where I really fucking hated myself,” Frangipane said of her songwriting efforts. “The Halsey that I get to be on paper, in songs and on the radio, she’s cool, I like her! She’s like, pretty badass. And so now I’ve immortalized a version of myself that’s amazing, but underneath all that is still just me: Self-critical and vulnerable and terrified and so, so, so overwhelmingly thankful for this.”
Even at four hours, the 50th annual Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony featured plenty of highlights. Jermaine Dupri opened with a DJ set of Dallas Austin’s biggest tracks, before the hitmaker took the stage and recalled pitching Prince songs to Warner Bros. as an 8-year-old, and — unsurprisingly — getting a rejection letter that nonetheless spurred him on. Lukas Nelson performed Jack Tempchin’s “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” after which Tempchin sang his other Eagles classic, “Already Gone.” And Yusuf/Cat Stevens waxed philosophical on mortality and the power of songwriting before singing “The Wind” and “Roadsinger.”
Later in the show, Jason Isbell honored Tom T. Hall — who could not attend, but did share a video message — with a performance of “Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken).” And Bonnie Raitt reminisced about her Becky and Tom Sawyer adventures with John Prine in the early days of their careers before taking the stage with Prine to perform an indelible version of “Angel From Montgomery.”
Elsewhere, Clive Davis spoke glowingly of Carole Bayer Sager, who sang her smash “That’s What Friends Are For,” with special guest Patti LaBelle. And Lizzo tapped Da Brat for a bombastic cover of Missy Elliott’s “Sock It 2 Me” to honor the iconic MC, who became the first female hip-hop artist to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Missy also delivered one of the night’s most memorable speeches, recalling how she honed her early songwriting chops by writing on the walls of her home when she ran out of loose leaf paper (much to her mother’s chagrin). And while inducting Missy Elliott, Queen Latifah offered the surprise of the night when she shared a special video message from Michelle Obama.
“For her entire career, Missy has been popping into all sorts of places people didn’t expect her,” Obama said. “Everyone told her that she wasn’t gonna make it, that she didn’t fit the right mold, and she didn’t have the right look, that she wasn’t what people expected. But Missy knew better, she knew she had something unexpected to say, and she had a feeling that people might want to hear it.”
That kind of drive, originality, voice and belief were ultimately the qualities that united all the night’s honorees. Much was said throughout the night about the ineffable nature of songwriting, but for the masters of this craft, there’s also a concrete certainty that comes from years of work. “It’s a killer feeling,” John Prine said during his speech, “when you have a really great song in your pocket and you’re the only one who’s heard it.”