When shortstop Barry Larkin was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in July, Reds fans looking to defend his entry had mounds of measurable data at their disposal: 12-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner, league MVP, first shortstop to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in a single season. The truth of his talent was in the numbers.
How does one gauge the worthiness of Donna Summer’s entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, announced this week along with five others? By the tally of faked orgasms in “Love to Love You Baby” or the volume of thrilling dance moves born of the “beep-beep” refrain in “Hot Girls”?
Did Public Enemy bum-rush the show, or did the hip-hop group deserve entry despite hype-man Flavor Flav’s reality show misfires? Is there a way to accurately quantify the act’s inclusion over that of fellow nominee N.W.A, which didn’t make the cut? Should album sales matter? Does the fact of Canadian prog-rock power trio Rush’s induction, propelled by an organized, voting fan base, stand to turn the whole thing into an “American Idol”-esque popularity contest? Could Fine Young Cannibals or Debbie Gibson be next?
These questions and more spring to mind in the wake of the rock hall’s announcement. In addition to the three acts mentioned above, the Cleveland institution this year added Los Angeles singer and songwriter Randy Newman, electric blues guitarist Albert King and Seattle arena rock band Heart.
There are no Barry Larkins among them (let alone a Rickey Henderson). Nor are there any Pete Roses — even if, to some, the voice of Rush’s Geddy Lee’s is a disqualifiable infraction. And considering which nominated acts didn’t make the final cut, the question of validity is as open in 2012 as ever — at least to those who care to spend time debating music in such a way.
Nominated acts that’ll have to have to wait another year at least include Kraftwerk, the Meters, Chic, Deep Purple and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
That list offers more than enough weaponry to kill arguments that anything about the process is definitive. Flip the list and just as many beefs would be born. The only truth to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is that its intentions are admirable — honoring musicians for their creativity is always a good thing — at the same time, the futility of the endeavor becomes more apparent. There’s no valid argument to be made, for example, for Kraftwerk’s exclusion; the group’s as important to the evolution of popular music over the past four decades as the Beatles.
What’s also inarguable is this opening verse from Newman’s 1968 song “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”: “Broken windows and empty hallways/ A pale dead moon in the sky streaked with gray/ Human kindness is overflowing/ And I think it’s going to rain today.” King’s song “Drownin’ on Dry Land,” from his 1969 Stax album “Years Gone By,” with its heart-wrenching Booker T. Jones piano solo and King’s mournful licks, touches on a truth.
Public Enemy’s defiant “Night of the Living Baseheads” helped reconfigure rap’s wiring. Heart brought female energy to arena rock, building on Led Zeppelin’s foundation to create a grandly successful, if moderately derivative, sound.
Rush? It’s wonderful that the fans got what they wanted, even if the act’s induction will be forever marked with an asterisk. Due in large part to outcry at the band’s repeated brush-offs, the rock hall this year gave fans a say, with their votes counting toward the final outcome. Rush won by a landslide in fan voting. (That popularity helped in the final vote by a group of about 500 rock hall members.)
Less contentious are the two recipients of the Ahmet Ertegun Award, given to nonperformers. Lou Adler, responsible in part not only for the birth of the Roxy Theatre but also the rise of Dunhill Records, the Monterey Pop festival and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” has played a key role in California music for half a century.
And Jones is the producer behind Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” That single credit gains him entry. The golden chariot that should deliver him to the ceremony, though, was earned not only through his voluminous work over the years with Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn and Billy Eckstein, but also for his 1962 gem “Soul Bossa Nova.”
Still, the whole process is a mess. But then, rock ’n’ roll was born of messes: The cultural kind created through musical collisions that birthed the genre — neighbors’ tunes floating across property lines. Drunken ramblers stealing guitars and making noise. Kids borrowing riffs from the radio and inverting them. Institutionalizing such chaos is, at bottom, a fool’s errand.