Surprise presenter Julia Roberts and a string of stellar performances marked the 36th annual ASCAP Pop Music Awards (May 16). The Academy Award-winning actress presented the organization’s Vanguard Award to breakthrough stars Billie Eilish and Finneas at the ceremony, which saluted the songwriters and publishers of the past year. Also honored were Louis Bell as pop music songwriter of the year, “The Middle” as song of the year, and music legends Jeff Lynne and Blondie, who received ASCAP’s Founders Award and Golden Note Award, respectively.
“It is a great mystery to me how an artist or artists, in this case, take a blank page and create something remarkable,” said superfan Roberts after taking the stage to loud applause inside the Beverly Hilton Hotel’s ballroom. She continued in part, “Well, to be a fly on the wall where Finneas and Billie compose indelible words again and again. It’s thrilling to be here tonight to help celebrate these two people who are so uniquely gifted, such inventive wordsmiths, such wondrous musicians; that they are in fact brother and sister is pretty darn special … they are like dancers weaving their verses and music around each other and us, knowing just when to turn this way and that and to move away and move closer and closer still. I personally am completely taken with both of them. The Vanguard Award recognizes those who talents and innovation shape the future of music. I could not think of better choices.”
A visibly moved and frank Eilish noted, “This is crazy … When I started this shit, I did not think anyone would give a f*&k. So thank you for giving a f*&k. To just be appreciated for not just being a brand, name or face and actually appreciated for actually creating something, of writing it especially when we wrote it for nobody except us … especially by Julia Roberts? Geesh. The baddest bitch around.”
After thanking her team for not wanting “me to be something I’m not,” Eilish turned the podium over to brother Finneas who continued the thank-you’s by acknowledging the pair’s touring family and real family. “To be in a room with so many people who have written all of my favorite songs is unbelievable,” he added. Then the Los Angeles natives delivered stirring acoustic readings of Eilish’s “When the Party’s Over” and “I Love You” with Finneas soloing on his “I Lost a Friend.”
First-time songwriter of the year honoree Louis Bell was recognized for his work on songs including Post Malone’s “Better Now,” “Havana” by Camila Cabello featuring Young Thug and “Wolves” by Selena Gomez & Marshmello. Song of the year “The Middle,” a hit for Zedd, Maren Morris & Grey, was co-written by Stefan Johnson and Anton Zaslavski. The award for most streamed song of the year went to Drake’s “God’s Plan,” co-written by Ronald “Cardo” La Tour, Matthew “Boi-1da” Samuels and Noah “40” Shebib. Among the songs garnering the most-performed distinction was the Dua Lipa hit “New Rules,” whose songwriter Emily Warren played a moving acoustic version for the ASCAP audience.
After he and his team were presented with the publisher of the year award (for multiple hits including Drake’s “God’s Plan” and “Girls Like You” by Maroon 5 featuring Cardi B), newly minted Sony/ATV chairman/CEO Jon Platt emphasized the importance of songwriters. And citing Bell as an example, Platt also underscored — to hearty applause — why songwriters should never give up.
“There’s so much positive energy in this room tonight celebrating songwriters,” said Platt. “Songwriters change lives every day, including ours. Congratulations also to Louis Bell for winning songwriter of the year. He’s a great example for any songwriter in here who is struggling and thinks they won’t make it. I met Lou in 2008 and he’s been grinding ever since then. Now he’s having his moment. He’s the epitome of a saying I learned a long time ago: There are no losers in this game. There are only those who quit before their turn comes. Years ago, a record executive told me that music publishing was like selling popcorn at a basketball game. That the music publisher is in the arena but not in the game. And I say to that, songwriters are the game.”
Fellow publisher Kobalt Music claimed honors for the first time as independent publisher of the year. The award was in recognition of top songs including Ariana Grande’s “God Is a Woman,” Cardi B, Bad Bunny & J Balvin’s “I Like It” and Panic! At the Disco’s “High Hopes.” On hand as hosts throughout the evening were ASCAP’s president/chairman of the board Paul Williams, CEO Elizabeth Matthews and executive vp of membership John Titta.
Topping off the evening were the special presentations to music icons Blondie and Jeff Lynne. Given the Golden Note Award in recognition of their career achievements and influence on music, fashion and art, Blondie members Debbie Harry, Chris Stein and Clem Burke were welcomed to the stage by a rousing standing ovation and a host of cell phone cameras. Noted Harry, “It’s great to be here tonight and to accept this … and carry on.” And Harry did just that as she and band members rocked the ballroom with a riveting performance of signature Blondie gems “Call Me” and “Heart of Glass” plus the 2017 hit “Long Time,” co-penned with Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes.
Equally as mesmerizing was Jeff Lynne’s closing performance after receiving the Founders Award. Complemented by the keyboard wizardry of Benmont Tench, Lynne’s stripped-down acoustic set — featuring “Telephone Line,” “Evil Woman” and “All Over the World” elicited singalongs, not to mention a roomful of bobbing bodies.
Fellow Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Joe Walsh presented the award to Lynne, the musical mastermind behind Electric Light Orchestra as well as production collaborations with Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, the Beatles and others. Walsh jokingly shared that he thought he was being asked to present an award from the ASPCA because “I know Jeff loves animals.” Adding that they “blasted out of the ‘70s together” and later became good friends, Walsh said, “His body of work is profound; his music continues to inspire and spark. We may never decipher the full genius of what hides behind those sunglasses, but we’re all beneficiaries of it.”
In accepting the honor, Lynne said, “It’s wonderful to receive this award. It’s the golden thing at the end of the road; a really great one to get. I’d like to get on now and play for you. There’s only two of us playing, me on acoustic guitar and my pal Benmont Tench on piano, so watch out for low-flying notes.”