My, how time flies! Here it is more than a year since my last "audit" of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, my foolhardy attempt to evaluate the artists the Hall has inducted since its inaugural class of 1986, and I had better post my assessments now so I don't have to add another year's worth of inductees once the honorees for 2014 are announced.
To recap briefly, I have indeed evaluated the 186 performers who have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since 1986, in this audit and in five previous installments, each covering a five-year period:
Part 1 covers the first five years of induction, from 1986 to 1990.
Part 2 cover the next five years, from 1991 to 1995.
Part 3 covers the years 1996 to 2000.
Part 4 covers the years 2001 to 2005.
Part 5 covers the years 2006 to 2010.
Debates about the various Halls of Fame are legion and have existed as long as Halls have existed; they certainly continue today: Will the Baseball Hall of Fame ever recognize players associated with performance-enhancing drugs? Will Ray Guy finally gain admittance to the Football Hall of Fame in 2014? Is the Hockey Hall of Fame ever going to show some love to Dave Andreychuk?
However, unlike the sports halls of fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame faces specific challenges. First, the very term "rock and roll" is nebulously defined and has proved divisive to many listeners and fans. (By contrast, you know what sport you're getting at the Basketball Hall of Fame.) Second, the Hall itself uses vague criteria such as "musical excellence" to indicate its standards for inclusion. Third, and related to the previous point, there are no objective metrics—"stats"—that can be used to impartially evaluate artists. Fourth, the Hall has made some arbitrary and dubious choices over the years. Fifth, and related to the previous point, not only have those choices prompted denunciations from listeners of all stripes, but those very listeners, harkening back to the first and third points, have specific biases regarding just what "rock and roll" is and which artists are deserving of enshrinement.
All of which prompted me to undertake an audit of the Hall. This, as noted, is not only a foolhardy task but possibly an arrogant one as well, but—hey, baby—that's rock and roll. I have no insights or wisdom not available to the average listener willing to develop a basic understanding of how popular music has evolved in the West since the 1950s. I do have the following baselines, though.
First, at the end of any assessment, the artist either is or is not a Hall of Fame act. I don't subscribe to relativism or contingency, the idea that an artist may be a Hall of Famer but that another artist needs to be inducted first. It is either Yes or No. Now, I do use the term Borderline Yes, but that is to indicate only that the artist must have the case made for inclusion as that artist may not be universally accepted as a legitimate Hall of Fame act. Otherwise, I consider the artist to be qualified for the Hall.
The criteria for inclusion (or not), as indicated above, is ultimately subjective; however, I use what I call Defining Factors to help me evaluate each artist:
Innovation. The artist has invented or refined one or more aspects of the music.
Influence. The artist has made a demonstrable impact on the music of either contemporaries or succeeding artists.
Popularity. The artist has achieved an appreciable measure of commercial or critical success.
Crossover appeal. The artist is recognized and appreciated outside the artist's primary arena.
Legacy. The artist's accomplishments have lasting impact and appeal.
To be considered a Hall of Fame act, I think that an artist must rate as highly as possible in as many Defining Factors as possible. Again, this is a subjective assessment, but these Defining Factors help to form the basis of each argument.
But even with the problems the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame faces now, it is only going to get worse as time marches on.
"Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring"?As we move forward into potential nominees for 2014 and beyond, and as the list of eligible candidates grows to include artists whose first recordings were issued in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the title to that 1968 song by Traffic becomes ever more salient: The pool of candidates becomes both wider and deeper. This can only force reappraisal of what we consider to be "rock and roll" along with reappraisal of the criteria that determine whether an act is worthy of the Hall of Fame. Simply put, we don't know what tomorrow may bring because that "tomorrow" is becoming more expansive, more diverse, and more diffuse—and that makes it harder to know what the "fame" in the "Hall of Fame" really signifies.
The start of the 1980s was informed by the punk-rock explosion of the late 1970s, which was a schism in the development of rock music as profound as the advent of the Beatles and even Elvis Presley himself—it relegated the existing order to the past as it announced a new order. Punk itself was too abrasive and too limiting to survive for very long in its raw state, but its commercially successful—and, frankly, more adaptable and appealing—cousin New Wave heralded the birth of modern rock. And as we will soon see, punk itself soon submerged—and soon flourished in various guises.
The late 1970s also saw the birth of hip-hop, which also saw the transformation of soul music into hitherto unexplored territory. Simply put, punk stripped down rock music to its primitive roots and salted it with social expression. Hip-hop, though, encompassed an array of musical elements that had been isolated, extracted, and recombined into a new form: In lieu of instruments, DJs manipulated records of existing artists, primarily funk, soul, and disco records (although not exclusively: Africa Bambaata's seminal "Planet Rock" was built on a bed made from proto-electronica Kraftwerk's "Trans Europe Express"), while MCs rapped over the musical underpinning, with rapping derived from Jamaican "toasting" and even the tradition of "the dozens" from African-American culture. That rapping, at first confined largely to party and sexual boasts, soon extended into extensive social and political commentary.
Not only did punk and hip-hop help to broaden the range of rock and soul, but advancements in technology and media distribution, to pick just two elements, combined with the relatively accessible "do it yourself" attitude of both musical styles to produce a quantum change in rock and soul.
The 1980s heralded both the "Great Expansion" and the "Great Bifurcation" in popular music. The Great Expansion, which we have touched on already, is the broadened range of rock and soul as new hybrids and offshoots of existing styles and genres developed, and it does not need much more elaboration in this summary. However, the Great Bifurcation is much more intriguing—and it has even more problematic ramifications for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
What I mean by the Great Bifurcation ("bifurcate" means to split into two distinct branches) is that not only did significant sectors of rock and soul develop and transform, but that many of those sectors split from the mainstream branch and developed "underground." And not only did they develop—they flourished, or at least remained viable. The upshot was the establishment of two realms of popular music: the mainstream, or "overground," with exposure on commercial radio and MTV (itself part of the concurrent technological and media changes), and the "underground"—what we now call "independent" (or "indie") and "alternative"—with much less commercial exposure yet with its own growing outlets, for example, a growing number of college radio stations, leading to yet another label, "college rock."
Furthermore, the underground did not need as much overground support to thrive. For example, pop-metal (or "hair-metal") bands (Def Leppard, Poison, Ratt, Skid Row, and others) had the commercial exposure that was not afforded to harder heavy-metal subgenres such as thrash-metal (Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica, Slayer, and others), yet those bands developed and thrived without traditional promotion. The flourishing of independent record labels and advancements in home-recording technologies meant that musical acts were becoming less dependent upon major labels and their studios for creating, recording, and distributing their music.
As the 1980s went on, the underground continued to blossom as its own entity, although crossover was inevitable: R.E.M., for example, started on the I.R.S. independent label but the band's popularity grew to such proportions that it signed with Warner Bros. in 1988 (although its I.R.S. records had been distributed by another major label, MCA Records). Nirvana, too, began on Seattle's Sub-Pop independent label before moving to Geffen Records.
Arrangements became variable—sometimes the indie labels were seen as the "farm teams" grooming talent for the major labels; sometimes acts preferred to stay on their own smaller labels and just make distribution deals with the majors. Moreover, a growing contingent of acts embraced the underground designation as both an ethos and, having proved its viability, a business model. They and their also-growing legions of followers sneered at their brethren and sistren who "sold out" and went the major-label route.
"You Can All Join In" (and Be Divided)By the 1990s and the invention of the World Wide Web, another two barriers previously held by music labels, promotion and distribution, were taken down as artists used the web to market themselves directly to audiences. Listeners not only could receive updates from artists but could download the artists' material directly as bands such as Pearl Jam, Phish, and Radiohead, to name just three, made extensive, often exclusive material available to fans without needing to release it through the traditional channels.
Indeed, music downloading and the evolution of devices to support digital forms helped to spell the end to what had been historically the sole outlet for music acquisition: the record store. (And by "record store" I include record sections and departments in stores that sell other goods as well.) Those "brick and mortar" operations began to collapse as listeners could order and download music from internet-connected devices without having to go to a specific physical location. (And the demise of the local record store should be seen as a casualty in the overall revolution in retail shopping prompted by the internet.)
Into this environment came the ever-widening circles of musical styles and genres—and sub-genres, sub-sub-genres, and sub-sub-sub-genres as hybrids begat hybrids. By the 1990s and certainly into the 2000s it became a full-time job just to keep up with all the trends and variants going on in popular music. The obvious upshot to this will be: In the not too distant future, what will the "Fame" signify in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Popular music has become so expansive, so diverse, so diffuse that it is much more difficult for an artist to seize the dominance, the influence, the presence to signify the "Fame," at least as it is currently understood.
I've maintained for a while that we will probably never see an artist like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones again. That is not because either of those bands was so supremely talented and innovative that no one could hope to approach their legacy. It is because it is highly unlikely that the environment in which they established their fame will ever present itself again.
When the Beatles and the Stones came to prominence in the early 1960s, rock and roll had weathered its tumultuous birth in the mid-1950s, withstood the backlash, and despite a perceived abatement during the first couple of years of the 1960s, came roaring back stronger than ever; rock and soul have remained the pre-eminent musical forms ever since. (In the final installment of his sweeping documentary series Jazz, Ken Burns cites the ascendancy of rock, and specifically the rise of the Beatles, as being the event that pushed jazz, which had been at the forefront of American popular music since its inception in the early 20th century, permanently to the margins.)
Furthermore, other factors contributed to the keen attention paid to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The pool of rock and soul acts was much smaller at the time, with that pool to become much larger even a decade later, let alone the Great Lake, if not sea, it is today. Correspondingly, there were much fewer major producers and distributors of music than there are today. Professional recording studios were primarily in the hands of the recording industry, and even though local acts (at least in the United States) had been able to walk into a "mom-and-pop" recording studio and make recordings since before the advent of the Rock and Soul Era, the overwhelming majority of those never achieved more than regional fame. (Elvis Presley famously cut his first single ostensibly as a gift for his mother, although his having chosen Sun Records in Memphis, a professional label, lends credence to the supposition that he wanted to be discovered on a national scale.)
To gain widespread fame required promotion and exposure. There may have been many local or regional recording labels, but there were a relative handful of national or international labels, with the smaller labels usually acting as feeders to the larger ones. Getting discovered required hard work and luck over and above the talent necessary to be noticed. Even in the United States in the 1960s, there were only a handful of national television networks while each municipality had only a few radio stations, overwhelmingly AM radio as FM radio was in its infancy at least with respect to rock and soul. Not only was the pool of talent smaller than it is today, but the production, distribution, and promotion channels were narrower. And for audiences, there were limited outlets to learn about new music from either new or existing acts, which is why attention focused on the major acts, particularly sensations such as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, was magnified during this time—there simply were not many alternatives to diffuse that attention.
By contrast, listeners today have many alternatives beginning with an enormous pool of musical acts to choose from before getting to the wealth of media alternatives available—the internet and cable and satellite television and radio—choices that dwarf what was available in the 1960s, when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were both at their peaks. (And although the Beatles were done by 1970, the Rolling Stones' peak extended at least to 1972's Exile on Main St.)
The problem we face now is that with so many artists, styles, and genres available to us through so many different channels, it is difficult to establish that widespread exposure—that "crossover appeal"—unless an artist chooses to pursue the overtly commercial pop route and hope to become a household name such as Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, or Justin Beiber.
"Rock and Roll Stew"All of this means that as we move into the future and more acts become eligible, it is getting harder to assess artists' qualifications for the Hall of Fame. This greatly expanded range of artists makes it harder for any artist to establish dominance in the marketplace in general or in the ears and minds of an equally diverse, diffuse listenership in particular.
And as the pool expands with the corresponding lack of dominance—the conditions that fostered the Beatles and the Rolling Stones no longer exist—individual biases and limitations will only become more pronounced: To be truly conversant about so many different areas of popular music will require ever-increasing effort—these are the limitations—and as the music becomes more diverse, what one listener considers to be "rock and roll" is ever more likely to diverge from what another listener calls "rock and roll"—these are the biases—making it difficult to come to a consensus on whether an artist is worthy of the Hall of Fame.
Every year's addition of eligible artists only expands the "rock and roll stew" even as it seasons that stew with a greater array of popular music. However, that also forces more explicit definitions of "rock and roll" and of "fame" itself. For example, hip-hop and electronica, just to pick two forms, have developed extensive infrastructures over the last few decades, which might be all but unknown to devotees of industrial or heavy metal, and vice versa, even as elements of all four can be found in any of the four—and even as those definitions become more ambiguous: Is Massive Attack hip-hop? Electronica? Both? Is Ministry industrial? Heavy metal? Both? Does it matter?
These are just a few of the questions that will continue to inform the always-lively discussion about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, whose selections are bound to alienate at least as many as are delighted by them.
Using the baselines I described above, I hereby present my audit for the Hall of Fame's selections from 2011 to 2013. As noted, my conclusions are ultimately subjective, and are informed by my own biases and limitations.
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