Huh-huh huh huh
If I understand the purpose of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame correctly, it’s an attempt to properly acknowledge the founders and innovators of the past half-century’s defining art-form. That’s a nice goal and all, but it’s not as though most of rock’s originators haven’t already been recognized to death. We’ve all lived through all the reverent biopics and PBS documentary series and retrospective issues of Rolling Stone that we’ll ever need. And the Hall of Fame does all the same stuff that those things do, except it does them in creepier and less defensible ways. Artists become eligible for induction 25 years after they release their first record, which is a pretty good way of insuring that only old people and dead people will ever get in. And it’s not as though there’s a foolproof and objective way of measuring the worth of a certain artist’s catalog. The Baseball Hall of Fame and the Football Hall of Fame and the Basketball Hall of Fame all make a whole lot more sense, since there are quantifiable ways of measuring athletes’ achievements: number of hits, consecutive games played, championships, whatever. And people still argue about who should be inducted into those things; witness the ongoing Pete Rose debacle. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doesn’t base its inductions on record sales, although that might at least explain what the hell Traffic is doing in there. Instead, it gets into thornier ideas about originality and timelessness and lasting impact, and all those ideas are so nebulous and subjective that the very idea of organizing everything into a definitive canon feels pointless and futile. Anyway, I can rant about this shit for days, but the Hall of Fame has just announced this year’s list of honorees, and it’s pretty good as far as these things go. All five of this year’s inductees have at least a couple of unbelievably great songs to their credit, and there’s no Traffic equivalent, so I guess I should be happy. The Hall of Fame also passed over Chic and the Stooges this year, and I’d rather listen to both of those bands than any of the actual inductees, but whatever. There’s not a whole lot else going on today, so let’s have a look at the artists who made the cut this year and consider what the Hall is trying to say about itself by bringing these people in. (I’m not actually going to grade these inductees. That would be ridiculous.)
Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five. This one is the big news for this year, as Flash and the Five are the first rap group to be inducted. It’s basically impossible to argue with this choice. They didn’t have the first rap record or the first rap hit, but they were one of the first groups out performing, and both “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” and “The Message” were unprecedented records at the time. And “The Birthday Party” is a great song. I don’t know how much the Hall of Fame plans to recognize rap in the coming years; they’re certainly going to have a lot of artists who are going to want in. Run-DMC will be eligible next year, and they’re a no-brainer. But what about Eric B & Rakim in a couple of years? Slick Rick? Too Short? You could make great arguments that all these people deserve inclusion, but I can’t imagine too many of them will make the cut. In a way, Flash’s induction highlights the self-imposed limits of the Hall itself. Kool Herc hasn’t been inducted. He never released any music, and by the Hall’s definition, he wasn’t an artist. If he ever does get inducted, it’ll be in some nonmusical category. But he was a musician and an artist, and the Hall’s own guidelines prevent them from recognizing him as such. Anyway, pretty soon rap will have its own Hall of Fame, and we’ll be able to have all these ridiculous conversations all over again.
R.E.M. A total no-brainer. R.E.M. is universally respected. They’ve sold a ton of records, and they’re still around. They had an enormous impact on underground rock in the 80s and 90s; in a way, they’re the Hall’s first indie-rock inductees. They also have a whole bunch of really boring albums, but “Everybody Hurts” is a really good song, so I’m happy.
The Ronettes. This is an interesting choice. The Ronettes had a handful of indisputably great and important singles, and they probably warrant induction just based on the opening drumbeat from “Be My Baby.” But, of course, none of the girls in the group actually played that opening drumbeat or wrote the song, and that’s probably why they’re only just getting in now after being eligible for something like twenty years. And that’s another problem with the Hall of Fame. They can’t process great singles as great singles; they have to get into the thorny matter of assigning credit. Phil Spector, who produced all of the Ronettes’ great material, was among the first inductees. The girls were just singers, but they were also the public faces of these songs. By denying them entry for so long, the Hall almost made it look like a backhanded compliment when it finally got around to letting them in. The Hall of Fame is based on the great-man concept of history, the idea that a few transcendent figures came along and remade popular music in their own image and that these people should be rewarded by getting their plaques on a wall in Cleveland. But history, especially pop-music history, doesn’t work that way. It’s based on messier things like fads and dances and regional hits and brief explosions of excitement and momentary fluctuations in kids’ tastes. Plenty of transcendent geniuses have made pop music their work over the past fifty years or so, but the music would’ve been just fine without them.
Patti Smith. If they were going to induct the Doors, they pretty much had to induct her, since she was basically Jim Morrison except not as popular and not dead and female. She also has much, much better songs, so maybe that also played a role.
Van Halen. I might not like the whole phenomenon of assigning people credit for stuff, but metal might actually sound a whole lot different if not for Eddie Van Halen, whose guitar playing was built on showy, pyrotechnic displays of technical skill and who essentially eliminated any remaining blues influence from a whole lot of strains of blues-based music, replacing it with the pseudoclassical bombast that pretty much runs all genres of metal right now. I’m not sure whether Eddie Van Halen’s lasting influence was a good thing or not, but it certainly had its impact. Van Halen also had a whole lot of unspeakably awesome pop singles and even better videos up until the moment when they kicked David Lee Roth out of the band, and it should be fun to see whether they’ll let Dave share the stage with them at the ceremony or not, since every year has its token bullshit controversy and last year had two.