Monday, November 28, 2005

The Trouble With Fame

I've complained in this space before about the induction criteria for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If you're still on the musical map 25 years after your first record, you'll probably get in, regardless of whether you've had any demonstrable impact on rock and roll beyond your longevity. (ZZ Top, the Bee Gees, I'm talkin' to you.) Also, the Hall casts its net a bit too widely sometimes, inducting performers only tangentially related to rock--including some, such as Nat King Cole, who had no love for rock at all. Such decisions actually minimize the achievement of artists who truly deserve to be honored for their real contributions to the form.

From the Hall's press release today announcing the 2006 inductees:
Artists become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first record. Criteria considered includes the influence and significance of the artist's contribution to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll. Past Inductees include: Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Cream, Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones.
This year's inductees are Black Sabbath, Blondie, Miles Davis, Lynryd Skynryd, and the Sex Pistols. How many of them could you append to that excerpt from the release without making it seem like the Sesame Street game of "one of these things is not like the others"? Berry, Domino, Elvis, Dylan, the Beatles, Cream, Springsteen and the Stones ought to have statues out in front of the building instead of just plaques inside.

In my view, two of the 2006 inductees are clearly separated from the others. Black Sabbath singlehandedly invented half-a-dozen genres of heavy metal--all the death and doom bands who followed them in the last 35 years are mostly recycling their ideas, and Ozzy Osbourne remains sui generis. The Sex Pistols were the most famous of the punks to emerge in the late 1970s--while others lasted longer and recorded more, few had the musical and cultural impact the Pistols did. You could argue that they represented a significant victory for fuck-you attitude over conventional talent, and that they opened the way for other performers, in both music and in other fields, to make careers the same way.

You can make a good Hall of Fame case for Skynryd, too, I suppose. They inspired a slew of loud, Southern-sounding rock bands in the 1970s--I suspect that a lot of current country artists and their fans were Skynryd fans in high school. Unlike Sabbath or the Pistols, however, there wasn't really a sense during Skynryd's peak period that they were doing anything groundbreaking. Blondie belongs in the ZZ Top wing, if that--we're talking about a group here that scored half-a-dozen hit singles in a little more than two years, then vanished from the scene. If, according to the Hall, they represent the height of New York new wave, New York new wave is less influential than advertised.

Jazz musician Miles Davis is an interesting choice. Not a good one (and I'm a fan), but an interesting one. In the 1960s, Davis began working with rock musicians and integrating rock rhythms into his music, to the point at which many observers believed it had ceased to be jazz at all. But it wasn't rock, either--and at times, it wasn't especially musical, no matter how you define it. Perhaps he can be credited with inventing jazz-rock fusion--which was controversial among both jazz and rock fans during its 70s heyday--or with influencing the development of hip-hop or even techno, although he didn't invent either one. Ultimately, it comes down to this: Are his contributions to rock and roll in the same league as those made by Berry, Dylan, or the Beatles? If not, what's he doing on the list?

The Hall is also inducting Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, founders of A&M Records, for lifetime achievement as non-performing contributors. I'm fine with that. They're not being recognized alongside performers (although Alpert had a Number One song as a performer in 1968, "This Guy's in Love With You," and recorded several hit albums as leader of the Tijuana Brass). And they did sign and record many popular artists of the 70s and 80s.

Ozzy Osbourne has criticized the Hall of Fame as "useless." He sees it as an elitist institution because it doesn't let the fans choose the inductees. But that simply doesn't hold up. Part of what got Sabbath in--and Skynryd and ZZ Top and lots of others--is the fact that their old albums remain in their record companies' back catalogs. Fans vote on them with their dollars year in and year out. That counts for a lot, even though snooty elitists like me believe it shouldn't count so much.


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