Once again the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced its nominations for this year's class of inductees, fueling spirited speculation about which artists should or should not be voted into the Hall. As I did last year, I have profiled the sixteen nominees for the 2014 class and have indicated whether I think Hall voters will vote for the nominee, and whether I would vote for the nominee if I were a voting member of the Hall.

The sixteen nominees are the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Chic, Deep Purple, Peter Gabriel, Hall and Oates, Kiss, L.L. Cool J, the Meters, Nirvana, N.W.A., the Replacements, Linda Ronstadt, Cat Stevens, Link Wray, Yes, and the Zombies. Five of the nominees are returning from last year: the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Chic, Deep Purple, the Meters, and N.W.A..

As always, discussion about which artists are or are not worthy of the Hall of Fame is lively, impassioned, and contentious, made even more so this year with a ballot of artists for 2014 that ranges impressively across a stylistic and historical spectrum. Each year broadens that range, prompting increasingly heated debate about just what exactly is the "rock and roll" in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The Hall itself does not provide much insight or even clarification in that regard, nor does it adequately define the criteria that qualify an artist as a Hall of Fame-caliber act. The entire statement of eligibility from the Hall of Fame's own website is as follows:

  • "To be eligible for induction as an artist (as a performer, composer, or musician) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the artist must have released a record, in the generally accepted sense of that phrase, at least 25 years prior to the year of induction; and have demonstrated unquestionable musical excellence.
  • "We shall consider factors such as an artist's musical influence on other artists, length and depth of career and the body of work, innovation and superiority in style and technique, but musical excellence shall be the essential qualification of induction." [Emphases added.]

That is an authoritative statement with only one minor omission: What exactly is "musical excellence"?

What Is "Musical Excellence"?

The Hall of Fame does not define "musical excellence"; presumably, it is one of those qualities that is self-evident, such as knowing art or pornography when you see it. The Hall of Fame website features an Education section that provides a glossary of terms, but "musical excellence" is not among them.

That Education section, which includes materials for teachers to use to instruct their classes on the history and impact of the music, does contain some instructive information. For example, it does emphasize aesthetic reflection and aesthetic judgment as important concepts in helping to determine "musical excellence" (they are also listed in the glossary of terms), but the Education section still does not help to define "musical excellence" except by indirect, allusive example.

Those definitions of aesthetic reflection and aesthetic judgment are key concepts worth examining; from the Hall's glossary:

  • Aesthetic reflection: The act of becoming aware of one's own process of understanding and responding to the arts, and of examining how others respond to artistic expression.
  • Aesthetic judgment: The ability to form and articulate a critical argument based on aesthetic criteria.

Everyone who expresses an opinion on whether an artist belongs in the Hall of Fame follows those two concepts to arrive at that opinion. How well we formulate that opinion is a function of individual bias and limitations, with the correspondingly wide variance both in the range and in the quality of that opinion.

In essence, though, this is a two-stage operation. First, with aesthetic reflection, we sort out why it is that we respond favorably or unfavorably toward a certain form, style, or genre of music, and toward individual artists within those forms, styles, and genres. Developing a conscious understanding of why we like or dislike different types of music and different artists helps toward the next step of then being able to evaluate those types of music and those artists.

However, that is a big next step because that requires us to not only recognize why we like or dislike a musical type or musical artist, but to recognize why someone else may like or dislike a musical type or musical artist—and, more importantly, why that musical type or artist may be significant regardless of how we feel about it. Music appreciation is an intensely emotional experience, and it is overwhelmingly subjective, but it is possible to put our individual judgments into perspective, into a picture of the overall body of music of the Rock and Soul Era, to try to determine the significance of a musical type and a musical artist within that overall picture as the basis for evaluation.

None of which helps with defining what exactly the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame means by "musical excellence," particularly as it regards "musical excellence" as the overriding factor in whether an artist is worthy of the Hall of Fame. In political statecraft, the term "national security" serves the same function: It is never defined but it is used to justify war-making capabilities, invading other countries, enacting potentially oppressive laws, and spying on everyone including the state's own citizens. That ranges a bit far afield for our purposes here, but it illustrates how a broad, vague term lacking clear definition enables any and every kind of action, with the corresponding consequences.

Regardless of what "musical excellence" may actually mean, I have developed what I call Defining Factors to assess whether an artist is worthy of inclusion into the Hall of Fame. These five Defining Factors are:

  • 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.

Unlike the Hall of Fame, though, I maintain that the "essential qualification of induction" is not "musical excellence"—again, whatever that might mean—but rather legacy. This is implied in the Hall's one unequivocal criterion for eligibility, which is that an artist is not eligible until twenty-five years have elapsed from the release of the artist's first recording. This enables historical perspective, to put the artist into context within the overall continuum of the Rock and Soul Era to assess whether the artist really has had an impact on the music and, to a greater extent, on the culture that fostered the music.

In essence and in fact, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a museum, an institution designed to evaluate and recognize how the past has shaped our present and how it may suggest our future. Simply put, seeing an artist in the Hall of Fame means that the artist had some significant bearing on the music. The term "significant" is a notoriously subjective one, one that becomes an ill-defined and -placed boundary separating those artists who are worthy from those who are not. Perhaps this is the elusive "musical excellence" of the Hall's statement?

Nevertheless, as I have done for my assessment of the 2013 ballot and for my six "audits" of the artists already in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I have used my Defining Factors to assess the sixteen nominees for the 2014 ballot. And no matter how much aesthetic reflection and aesthetic judgment I use, these assessments cannot help but reflect my own biases and limitations.

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

Background: This home-grown outfit was among the first to explore American blues-rock but found itself overshadowed by the spate of British acts that leapt to prominence in the mid-1960s from the Rolling Stones on down. The irony is that the Paul Butterfield Blues Band learned at the feet of the Chicago masters and at times even featured members of Howlin' Wolf's bands. Led by singer and harmonica player Paul Butterfield, who picked up his instrumental cues from Little Walter, and highlighted by guitarists Mike Bloomfield—arguably the greatest white blues guitarist you've never heard of—and Elvin Bishop, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band released a debut album in 1965 that was a high-energy, if overly literal, distillation of Chicago blues—from "Born in Chicago" to "Mellow down Easy" to "Look over Yonder's Wall"—that spotlighted both Butterfield's and Bloomfield's impressive chops.

The next album, 1966's East-West, was even better as the band blended jazz and even East Indian influences into its blues-rock core, the former with a cover of Nat Adderley's "Work Song" and the latter with the lengthy title instrumental: "East-West" was a revolutionary track that stood at the forefront of the extended instrumental workouts soon to be found in psychedelia and in the next wave of blues-rock jamming—the seeds of the Allman Brothers' guitar interplay, for instance, can be found here in Bishop's and Bloomfield's fretwork. When Bloomfield departed, Butterfield regrouped with a horn-based approach (1967's The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw) that anticipated the big-group jazz-R&B sound soon to be associated with Blood, Sweat and Tears and the Chicago Transit Authority as well as with Bloomfield's own short-lived Electric Flag. However, Butterfield's curse was being able to forecast trends but being unable to capitalize on them, either through inadequate songcraft or modest arrangements that, barring exceptions such as "East-West," didn't fully explore the implications he had uncovered.

Will the artist be voted into the Hall? No. It is possible that with no African-American blues artists nominated this year, and with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band making a surprising return engagement on the ballot, that voters will consider the band to be the 2014 blues artist of choice. But this is still an act that appeals to aficionados and not to general listeners—in other words, a marginal one.

Would I vote for the artist? No. Although it might be unfair that the British blues-rockers nabbed the spotlight from Butterfield and his band, it is not unjustified—they used the form as a springboard to more substantial developments. Butterfield did anticipate a number of musical trends but he couldn't translate them into commercial success or significant influence.

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Last modified on Monday, 23 March 2015 17:57

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