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16 January 2014

Tucson Lands Its First Rock n' Roll Hall of Famer

(And I couldn't be less thrilled)

Jason LeValley

I suppose the politically correct thing to do would be to ramble on about how great it is that Tucson finally has its own Rock n' Roll Hall of Famer, as Tucson native Linda Ronstadt is set to be inducted with the class of 2014. I realize Ms. Ronstadt is much beloved by the city that spawned her and I don't begrudge her at all. She had an enormously successful career that included 21 Top 40 hits.

My problem is with the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame's lack of consistency and its failure to establish any qualitative criteria for inducting new members. Primarily, what happened to the "rock" in the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame? How is it that soft pop acts like Abba, Brenda Lee, and Dusty Springfield are in the hall when critical bands like The Zombies, The Moody Blues, and The Cure are not? Why are the Bee Gees in the Hall of Fame? They made some outstanding pop records early in their career, then sold their souls down the river and cashed in on the disco craze only to embarrass themselves with their matching sequin-encrusted bell bottom jumpsuits and exposed chest rugs. And rock n' rollers hated disco. HATED it. So why would the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame reward these helium voiced cheese-mongers? They didn't just start a joke, they became a joke. I mean, who hasn't chuckled at Jimmy Fallon's bearded Barry Gibb impersonation? It makes me wonder who the Hall is going to induct next. Yvonne Elliman? The Tavares?

I also don't understand why there are artists in the Hall of Fame that are barely on my radar. Not that I'm the ultimate authority, but I've been listening to rock, reading about rock, and watching movies and TV shows about rock for 30-odd years. I even sometimes study rock reference books (full disclosure: I'm a geek), so it seems like I'd be familiar with all the artists in the Hall. I know hundreds, maybe thousands, of obscure artists and can tell you all kinds of random facts about them. I am ridiculously aware of the rock n' roll canon yet, upon perusing the list of Hall of Fame inductees, I see that there are acts I've barely heard of: The Moonglows, The (Young) Rascals, etc. How can this be? They couldn't have made that much of an impact, could they?

One thing I've noticed about the RnRHoF is that it overdoes it in terms of inclusiveness. The Hall attempts to serve as the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame too, which is probably why I'm less familiar with some artists (and probably how the Bee Gees got in). R&B is a different animal with its own fan base. The Hall founders may have had the best of intentions by incorporating R&B, but it makes it confusing to the fans. Rhythm and Blues is important enough and popular enough to warrant its own hall of fame. If the RnRHoF was built to honor rock n' roll, then that's what it should do. It doesn't make sense to honor jazz, country, polka or R&B artists when the Hall was intended to commemorate rock n' rollers.

The RnR Hall of Fame could definitely use help establishing some viable criteria for induction. On its web site, it says that its goal is "to recognize the contributions of those who have had a significant impact on the evolution, development and perpetuation of rock and roll by inducting them into the Hall of Fame" and "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".

Okay. That's something, I guess. But it still leaves more questions than answers. Perhaps we can refine the criteria a bit. For starters, I don't think it's asking too much for inductees to have to rock in some way -- in sound or attitude. I'm not talking about some narrow Sammy Hagar "There's Only One Way to Rock" version of rock n'roll -- all heavy riffs and flying V's. Artists can rock without cranking the saturation level to 11. Perfect example: Tom Waits. He's never been one to rely on a standard power chord, but he rocks by being so consistently original ... and brilliant. So can't we all agree and doesn't it make sense that rock n' roll hall of famers should, in some way, rock?

A second criterion might be fame, as the name implies. I don't think the artist necessarily has to be a household name, but it should be someone who's relatively known amongst rock n' roll listeners. Los Angeles band Love, for instance, created one of the most critically acclaimed albums (Forever Changes) of the past 50 years, but they somehow never achieved the level of fame necessary to enter the hallowed Hall. In fact, it's safe to say that most casual rock fans have never even heard of the band.

I think the third criterion that should be considered is influence on other artists. Bands like Styx and Journey may have rocked and they were certainly famous, but who did they influence exactly? Perhaps only their respective tribute bands. While the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame web site pays lip service to "influence" and "significance," it doesn't really enforce it -- at least not as much as it should be.

If the Hall of Fame continues to elect non-rockers, it's going to be mighty confusing for future generations to decipher what rock n' roll really is. And I have to think that posterity was a major factor in the creation of the Hall. It's about more than just honoring the groups and individuals who rocked, it's about identifying the best of the bunch for the neophytes and the as-yet-unborn so that they can understand what rock n' roll was and why it mattered. It would be a shame if we messed that up.

Let's take a look at this year's Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame class and see who meets these criteria.

  • Nirvana

    This is a no-brainer. Nirvana threw radio programmers into a tizzy when they released their seminal 1991 album Nevermind with its frantic first single "Smells Like Teen Spirit". Programmers soiled their shorts because they didn't know how to balance the demand for this new rock without alienating the old-timers. Nirvana's explosion onto the airwaves necessitated a new radio format: alternative rock, and opened the door for a swarm of newer, more original artists to catch a taste of radio glory.

    Anyone paying attention to rock n' roll has known for 20 odd years that Nirvana would be a shoo-in for the Hall. Not since The Beatles and the Stones has it been more certain that an artist would be elected in its first year of eligibility.

  • Kiss

    I don't like Kiss. I haven't listened to many of their albums, but what I have heard is just not that impressive to me. Their target audience was the junior high set and, even though I was that age at the height of their popularity, I didn't care for them. I was sensitive and wanted to believe that girls were sugar and spice. They were vulgar sleaze merchants in comic book costumes who tapped into a common adolescent male fantasy -- just not mine. They were over-sold and bombastic. They had nothing in terms of redeeming value and their oeuvre is frighteningly shallow.

    They should have been a flash in the pan, but they endured -- much to my chagrin. If we could judge them simply by listening to their body of work, they wouldn't have a chance of making it into the Hall of Fame. But we can't look at them in such rigid terms. They were a sensation, and that sensation had more to do with the way their product was marketed more than the product itself. If there's a marketing hall of fame, they certainly belong there. But do they belong in the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame? Well, they did rock. In fact, they rock and rolled all night and partied every day and probably helped turn a whole bunch of people into alcoholics and drug addicts. Plus, they were enormously famous in the 70s and still are cultural icons. Ahhh. But were they influential? Sadly, they were. They certainly inspired a butt load of 13 year-old boys to pick up guitars and drum sticks. Some of those boys grew up, became dependent on hairspray and make-up, and started bands like Poison and Motley Crue where they performed in the 80s on that odious stretch of asphalt known as The Sunset Strip. So, yes, dammit! Kiss does belong in the R n R Hall of Fame. Grrrr ...

  • Cat Stevens

    Stevens began his career in the UK in the late 60s and helped usher in the singer-songwriter movement of the 70s with a number of Top 40 hits. As his success waned in the late 70s, Stevens converted to Islam, retired from the music industry, entered an arranged marriage, and changed his name to Yusef Islam. In a late 80s interview, Stevens (Islam) stated his support for the Ayatollah's fatwa (death call) of author Salmon Rushdie, whose book The Satanic Verses was considered offensive to Islamic purists. He backpedaled on the issue years later and claimed that he was really just stating what the Koran has to say about such matters, but I think he just got worn down by all the criticism directed at him. Stevens made some nice records, but never extended his style beyond his acoustic, easy-listening approach. After he became a religious extremist, he denounced his recording career and stated that he wanted his records removed from the shelves. Consequently, I really don't know why the Hall of Fame is choosing to honor this person. He didn't rock to begin with and, let's face it, there's nothing less rock n' roll than being an uptight religious fundamentalist. So, come on, RnRHoF! There are so many artists more deserving of the honor than Cat "Kill the Infidel" Stevens. Please do a better job of electing members from here on out.

  • Hall and Oates

    This blue-eyed rock n' soul duo from Philly has never received much respect, but they've served as a high level guilty pleasure for many people for many years. Their commercially successful period lasted a surprisingly long time: from the early 70s to the late 80s and ranged from and adult contemporary sound to sharp rock to doo wop to groovalicious R&B. They produced hits like "Rich Girl", "You Make My Dreams", and "Maneater," while appealing to both black and white audiences. Because they're considered a guilty pleasure by many, artists haven't crawled out of the woodwork to cite them as an influence but some, most notably Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, have recently admitted their love for the duo. Now other artists seem to be following suit. So do Hall and Oates deserve a spot in the Hall of Fame? I think Hall does more than Oates, but they're a package deal, right? Because they got increasingly commercial in the 80s, I wouldn't have been upset if they'd been denied. But as a fan of their career up through their 1980 release Voices (okay, I liked about half of Private Eyes too), I am delighted that they made it.

  • Peter Gabriel

    Gabriel began his career as the singer for Genesis at a time when Phil Collins was just the drummer (with a head full of hair!). He helped usher in progressive art-rock and adopted a theatrical stage presence that put Genesis among the elite British bands of the era After he left the band in 1975, Gabriel went on to a productive solo career that really took off in 1980 when his third consecutive eponymous album produced a radio hit with the eerie "Games Without Frontiers". He went on to enjoy massive commercial success in the 80s while staying true to his art and championing causes that he believes in. He also managed to make cutting-edge videos that still look cool today, as opposed to some of the cringe-worthy videos of so many of his contemporaries (Kajagoogoo, anyone?). That, in a nutshell, is why Peter Gabriel deserves a spot as a solo artist in the RnRHoF.

  • Linda Ronstadt

    A native Tucsonan is now in the RnRHoF! That's pretty cool for Ms. Ronstadt and for Tucson, where the Ronstadt name is held in high regard, and deservedly so. Ronstadt began her career as the singer for LA-based folk-rockers The Stone Poneys and scored a hit with the Mike Nesmith-penned "Different Drum". The group dissolved during the making of its third record and Ronstadt pursued a solo career. She was matched up with some young session musicians, who eventually left to form their own band called The Eagles. Blessed with a powerful voice and a beautiful face, Ronstadt scored dozens of pop hits throughout the course of the 70s. In the early 80s, she took a commercial turn toward traditional pop standards and, by the mid-80s, indulged in a sappier type of adult-contemporary pop and scored duet hits with both James Ingram ("Somewhere Out There") and Aaron Neville ("Don't Know Much"). She also made a couple of records that featured traditional Mexican/Spanish-language folk.

But my question is this: Do industry-led Top 40/adult contemporary pop singers who don't pen their own tunes belong in the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame? Maybe if they were a creative force to be reckoned with or maybe if they somehow embodied the spirit of rock n' roll. But how can the RnRHoF justify inducting an industry-led non songwriter into its hallowed halls? Look, I have listened to Ronstadt's Greatest Hits 1&2 and they are very enjoyable records, but she wrote exactly zero songs on the two volumes. When you consider that creative giants like The Zombies, The Moody Blues, and The Cure are not in the Hall, how can they justify inducting Linda Ronstadt? It makes me wonder who they're going to elect next. Barbara Streisand? Celine Dion??? Yuck! Which direction are we headed, folks?

Being in the RnRHoF should mean something and when lightweight acts are inducted, it diminishes the value of enshrinement. It becomes as meaningless as the Grammies. Winning a Grammy means nothing to most true artists because Grammies basically just reflect how many units an artist moved or how much interest will be generated for the Grammies by honoring a particular artist. That's why the Hall needs to develop clear criteria and stick to it. Let's look at Ronstadt's selection through the criteria that I discussed earlier. Number one is rockitude. RAWKITUDE! Just where does the lovely Linda fall in terms of sonically or spiritually rocking? She gets a point by association for happening to have the Eagles as her backing band before they broke away to become one of the biggest-selling acts of all time. That still only puts her at about a three on the 10 scale. Number two is fame and she's got plenty of that. In a random conversation, you can drop her name and pretty much assume that the people you are talking to, assuming they're not from Uganda or Myanmar, are going to know who she is. I'd give her a nine on a 10 scale of fame. The 3rd criterion that I discussed at the beginning of this article is influence. Fame aside, I don't think that Linda Ronstadt has been any more influential than any other industry-led singer. She wasn't a songwriter or a creative force and that is the critical point here. That's the difference between, say, The Dave Clark Five and Herman's Hermits. Both were British Invasion bands who scored a bunch of hits in the 60s, but only one group, the Dave Clark Five, wrote their own tunes. That's why the DC5 are in the Hall and the Hermits aren't. Ronstadt had the benefit of working with skilled producers and record companies that marketed her product very well. But the industry probably could have picked another gorgeous gal with great pipes (and there are lots of 'em) and had the same level of success promoting the other lucky lady. As such, Ronstadt's influence factor is very low.

My hunch is that Ronstadt was chosen largely for sentimental reasons, as she disclosed recently that she has Parkinson's disease and can no longer sing. While that is certainly a tragedy for her and her fans, it doesn't justify placing an industry darling in the Hall when so many significant and influential entities (e.g., Judas Priest, Joan Jett, Yes, etc.) are left out in the cold.

I have a word of advice to the people who vote to induct members into the RnRHoF: choose your inductees wisely if you want to maintain the interest of people who care about rock n' roll. Otherwise, we might just get together and start a new, real rock n' roll hall of fame and legally force you to change the name of your less enlightened one to the Pop Music or Whatever Hall of Fame.