Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Breakdown of the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Ballot
This is the first post of what I hope will become an annual tradition: A thorough breakdown of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RRHOF) ballot. Who should get in? Who doesn't even belong on the ballot? Who is conspicuously absent from the ballot?
The RRHOF is often difficult to talk to people about, because it constantly alienates a portion of its audience with almost every decision it makes. This isn't fair, of course. Like all awarding institutions--The Oscars, The Baseball Hall of Fame, etc.--The RRHOF will never ever have a track record of indisputable decisions and results, but even the most suspicious of them all shouldn't invalidate the entire institution, in much the same way that Bush "beating" Gore in the 2000 election does not invalidate the American government. (Though I'm sure there are those who disagree!)
No voting body, in any field, is a perfect one. They may be too vast or too narrow. They may be forced into too quick a decision, with limited data at their disposal. (Please, ask Oscar voters how many of the Best Documentary nominees they even watch in a given year.) The entire concept of "The Test of Time" is an ever-evolving one, and no isolated moment of voting can pin down an accurate assessment of such a thing.
But holy shit is it fun to try, and even more fun to argue about.
If I were one of the 700ish people with an actual ballot for the RRHOF (maybe one day!), here's who my five selections would be, in order of how easy they were to choose.
1. The Smiths
Any time I'm trying to assess the importance of a pop music artist, the first thing I consider is how the trajectory of pop music might have been different had said artist never entered a recording studio. That's why The Smiths are the easiest vote for me. When looking at the last 35 years of British rock music, particularly the peak influence and popularity of Britpop in the 1990's, it's extremely difficult to imagine things having gone quite the same way without The Smiths. I hate when music critics use the term "single-handedly" to describe anything, because virtually nothing in the music industry happens single-handedly, but having said that, The Smiths are at least heavily responsible for the return of guitar rock to prominence in English pop music. Maybe that seems too specific an honor, but when funneled through the lens of the major 90's English bands--Oasis, Blur, Pulp, The Verve, Suede, etc.--it's especially difficult to imagine who those bands would have been looking to for primary inspiration if not Morrissey and Marr. Obviously nothing in rock happens in a vacuum, and that's why we call them influences (emphasis on the plurality). A host of other bands mattered to the evolution of English rock into Britpop, but I'd argue--and I wouldn't be in the minority here--that The Smiths mattered most. And when you matter most to what the dominant music of England sounded like for an entire decade, you deserve to be in the RRHOF.
Here's a case where it's useful to differentiate between two kinds of importance. Did an artist take a style from obscurity (or non-existence) to the attention of the industry? Or did said artist take a style from the attention of the industry to mass popularity? Is either leap--obscurity to attention, attention to popularity--a more important or valuable one? It's a worthy debate, and one I won't get into at the moment. But I will say that the first kind of importance--the bringing of something from non-existence to the attention of an industry--IS an extremely important contribution, and it's one that should be absolutely sales proof.
Fact 1: The average public does not know who Kraftwerk is. Fact 2: Fact 1 should have absolutely no relevance to their RRHOF credentials. I still won't resort to the term single-handedly, but Kraftwerk is even more responsible for the advent of electronic music than The Smiths were to the advent of 90's Britpop. The only reason I have The Smiths ranked higher is because 90's Britpop became so immense, while electronic music has never entirely escaped the margins. But also relevant is Fact 3: Kraftwerk are the musical Ground Zero for more styles and sub-genres than any eligible artist not already inducted into the RRHOF. This is their third appearance on the ballot, and I hope they don't require a fourth. (Or fifth…)
Chic are in many ways the exact opposite candidate as Kraftwerk. While Kraftwerk experienced no popular success and is largely only known by serious music snobs, Chic are often dismissed by music snobs despite their huge popularity and lasting influence to dance music. For these reasons, it's sadly very difficult to imagine both bands being inducted this year, because they aren't likely to have a lot of voter overlap. But on this imaginary ballot (as in real life), Chic and Kraftwerk can coexist for their relatively equal importance.
Rap and dance music have a long history of sampling, but where those samples come from is all over the map, from the most obscure dustbins of history to the biggest hits of yesteryear. Chic and Kraftwerk are responsible for the samples that drive two of the great early rap epics, with Kraftwerk providing the basis for Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock," and Chic providing the basis for The Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." That's just the most obvious way of saying these bands are two sides of the same coin, with Kraftwerk being the Euro-art rock side and Chic being the NYC populist club version. Regardless, it's difficult to isolate the contributions of one without factoring in the other. And for what it's worth, this is Chic's NINTH appearance on the ballot. So there's that.
I was all for N.W.A. not getting in on their first nomination, because I felt like that would unfairly put them on equal footing with Public Enemy (also nominated for the first time the same year), and I believed a delineation of quality between the two would be helpful. And it worked; Public Enemy got in on their first year of eligibility, and N.W.A. are appearing on their third ballot. But now we're good. They're somewhere between the second and seventh most important rap group, depending where you stand on Run-DMC, Outkast, Wu-Tang Clan, The Beastie Boys, and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. They gave us Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Easy E, and (by extension) Snoop Dogg. Let's just induct them already.
5. Lou Reed
And now I will attempt to discuss Lou Reed without mentioning his former band. Seriously, I won't even type their name. Lou Reed has already been inducted into the RRHOF once, but I believe he deserves induction as a solo artist. He didn't do any one thing that tips him over the top, but rather, it's the totality of his aspects of notable importance. He's responsible for the all-time weirdest top 20 hit single, "Walk on the Wild Side." His 1975 "album," Metal Machine Music, is completely unlistenable, but it remains arguably the greatest "Fuck you" statement the music industry has ever seen. (And don't underestimate how important that was to the future of artists dealing with record companies.) His 1973 album, Berlin, brought vaudeville and European theater to rock music. His ubiquitous presence on the NYC music scene of the 70's heavily helped cultivate the CBGB punk explosion, and you could even argue that he's the most iconic NYC rock star ever. Add it all up and it should equal a second RRHOF induction. It's just a shame that Lou had to die first.
The Rest of the Ballot
The ballot for this year's RRHOF induction has fifteen nominees, and although six are likely to get inducted (at least that's the usual number), you can frustratingly only vote for five. Here's how I feel about the other ten, ranked in descending order of how difficult they were for me to not select with my imaginary votes.
6. Nine Inch Nails
When I first saw the ballot a few weeks ago, I thought for sure NIN would be one of my picks. But then I saw this list. That's every artist that has gotten into the RRHOF on their first year of eligibility. I mean, just look at those names. That's a murderer's row of absolute legends. Only three names on that list even remotely feel like they don't belong: The Everly Brothers, Fats Domino, and The Pretenders. Personally, I would not be comfortable adding Nine Inch Nails to that list.
Look, Nine Inch Nails is (that's the correct pronoun, right? I mean, it's just Trent Reznor we're talking about here) getting inducted to the RRHOF, it's just a matter of when. They/he is completely deserving. But inducting an artist on the first ballot sends a further message that they're one of the all-time greats, and I just don't quite feel like NIN are worthy of that accolade. They/he can wait a few years.
7. Green Day
Everything I just wrote about Nine Inch Nails is applicable to Green Day, except they have the added wrinkle of the whole 25 years thing being very questionable in their case. The RRHOF has set the rule that you can't be nominated for induction until 25 years after the release of your first recording, with the idea being that 25 years is an adequate amount of time to assess an artist's career and contribution to the art form. But with
Green Day, we simply haven't had 25 years; we've only had 20. The release of Dookie in 1994 was the first time anyone outside of their family members and high school classmates had ever heard of this band. The fact that they had technically been releasing music for five years at that point is such a minute technicality that it's ridiculous to even factor it in.
And yes, I know that Nine Inch Nails also didn't have their/his major breakthrough until 1994, but the difference is that 1989's Pretty Hate Machine and 1992's Broken actually did make small impacts and helped cultivate an audience. People heard those albums. No one really heard a Green Day recording until 1994, and that's why we should wait on them. 25 years may be a completely arbitrary number for the evaluation of an artist's legacy, but the fact remains that it's the number that was chosen, and it's the number that every other RRHOF inductee has had to acquiesce to. Inducting Green Day anytime before 2020 does not honor the wait that every other inducted artist had to endure.
8. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts
With Joan Jett, you have to figure out precisely what you're arguing about: the creator or the creations. As a figure, Joan Jett has been extremely important to women in rock & roll, and is likely responsible for the creation of an archetype. Her existence matters greatly, but the product she created frankly wasn't that special. She's a lot like Sid Vicious in that way. She mattered far more as someone for a generation of kids to look at than she did for any other reason. Is that enough? I don't know. Sid is in the Hall, but that's because he was a Sex Pistol, and they obviously deserved induction. Sid couldn't be separated from the rest of the band for us to have this debate, but Joan can and is.
Personally, I would say no. I think the product ought to matter more than the image and the idea. I know with Lou Reed I argued for the merits of Metal Machine Music as a part of his legacy, but that's still a tangible thing that he put into the world. It was an artistic statement, even if it was a shitty sounding one. With Joan, the statement was all in the image of her playing guitar and looking like a complete badass. I don't think that's quite enough, but I might be susceptible to the counter-arguments.
9. The Spinners
I like The Spinners, but I never thought of them as anything more than a good third-tier soul act. That would seemingly eliminate them, but things get a bit tricky if you factor in geography and the concept of scenes. While the Spinners might have nationally been a third tier soul act, they were probably the greatest Philly soul artist, and maybe that matters enough to push them over the top. Philly soul was an important music style of the 70's, and it made a huge impact to the advent of disco and the more polished sound of black music than was coming out of the south and midwest.
The other problem with arguing against The Spinners is the reality that Hall & Oates got into the RRHOF last year, and they were a lesser Philly soul act than The Spinners. So this could be a case of making a previous bad decision look less comparatively questionable. Do you induct The Spinners because Hall & Oates is indefensible without them? Or do you just call Hall & Oates a fuck-up and leave well enough alone? As with Joan Jett, The Spinners are the only other artist on this ballot that I feel on the fence about their RRHOF deservedness. My inclination is to say no, but I could probably be swayed the other way.
10. Stevie Ray Vaughan
If this were the guitarist hall of fame, I'd have absolutely no beef with Stevie Ray getting in. But I think of Stevie Ray as more of a craftsman than I do an artist. He was a remarkably gifted technical guitarist, but I think it's far more difficult to argue that he was an influential artist. To go back to my Smiths argument, would the trajectory of pop music have been any tangibly different without Stevie? I'm sure John Mayer would say yes, but I'm dubious. The RRHOF is about the importance of an art form. Stevie never forged enough of his own territory to be honored on that level. Rock and blues guitar have probably never seen a better imitator, but the RRHOF isn't the proper place to recognize that ability.
11.-14. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Marvelettes, War, and Bill Withers
These four artists all fit into the same interchangeable quagmire for me. They were good acts that released good music, and I wouldn't want their CDs to be stolen from my collection. But really, I don't see much beyond that. Like The Spinners, these acts were all third tier, but they don't have the added benefit of owning and embodying a certain musical style or scene. I wouldn't dispute that all four are good, but I don't see the argument for considering any of the four to be truly Great.
Well, here we are. The nadir of the 2014 RRHOF ballot. Look, I LOVE The Police. They made it in on their first ballot, and deservedly so. After The Clash and Talking Heads, they were probably the third best band in the world for a solid five years. But when evaluating Sting as an artist unto himself, one has to pretend that he had never released any music prior to his first solo album. And when considering him in that light… Oooof.
Sting is the only artist on the ballot that I'm genuinely baffled by. I don't understand how he could possibly be a candidate for induction into the RRHOF. We've all known for several years now that the RRHOF is not strictly for rock musicians; that's no mystery. Madonna and Public Enemy both got in on their first year of eligibility, and deservedly so. The RRHOF now stands as a testament to the counter-culture, and the importance artists can have to the trajectory of music that truly matters and speaks to people in a way that tangibly impacts their lives. Rock and roll may no longer be solely about "sticking it to the man" (as Jack Black memorably states in School of Rock), but it's still supposed to be about something that matters. Admittedly, that's difficult and maybe impossible to quantify, which is part of the whole problem the RRHOF runs into every year, and why so many people feel alienated by the results of its induction process. But Jesus, we have to draw the line somewhere, and I just don't see how Sting's solo career is any metaphorically different than Harry Connick Jr.'s. It's adult contemporary vocal jazz. They were both releasing albums to be played and ignored at dinner parties, and that ain't rock and roll no matter how you choose to define it.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2, where I break down the major snubs of the RRHOF who didn't even appear on this year's ballot.
And check out www.futurerocklegends.com for a wealth of information about the RRHOF inductions, past and present.