A roster like an iPod playlist
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s new nominees are laudably diverse.
POP MUSIC CRITIC
When the list of this year’s nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame arrived Monday, the first thing that occurred to me was a very current cliché. The roster — eclectic, centerless, open to many interpretations — seemed very much like an iPod playlist.
The nominees for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011are: Alice Cooper, the Beastie Boys, Bon Jovi, Chic, Neil Diamond, Donovan, Dr. John, the J. Geils Band, LL Cool J, Darlene Love, Laura Nyro, Donna Summer, Joe Tex, Tom Waits and Chuck Willis.
Doesn’t this unusually long and laudably diverse list seem like it could be on somebody’s mix at the gym? Perhaps not a drag queen’s, to steal a recent line from “Glee” — but from one angle it does fulfill that stereotype, with disco favorites Chic and Summer sharing megabytes with glam rock’s scary uncle Alice Cooper, coffeehouse chanteuse Nyro and girl group heartbreaker Love.
Or maybe it’s the Nano of a suburban mom or dad. I regularly meet several on the soccer field who will be delighted for Bon Jovi, one of the hardest-working bands in showbiz and this year’s populist choice. Like so many artists once scorned for being “too pop” — like Diamond, for example — Bon Jovi has been recognized more recently for its consummate craft and dedication to the art of entertainment. One thing that’s gone upside down in the iPod age is the notion of what’s hip. Loving “Cherry Cherry” and admitting you rock out in the car to “Livin’ on a Prayer” are now signs of open-mindedness.
J. Geils Band, an underdog but a favorite of some Rock Hall insiders, is in some ways the Bon Jovi of an earlier generation — a bar band gone nationwide. And a parallel can be drawn between Diamond and Donovan. Both songwriters were seen in their prime as mainstreamers of countercultural sounds and styles; now, both are reborn protégés of the producer Rick Rubin, contemporary pop’s prime conveyor of the stamp of authenticity and a big influence on this year’s list.
Hip from the beginning, the previously nominated Beastie Boys — like LL Cool J, early signings to Rubin and Russell Simmons’ Def Jam Records — get another chance this year, and in some ways, the pioneering hip-hop punks stand alone; they’re this year’s purest representatives of the 1980s college-rock crowd. Put the Beasties and Jon Bon together on a playlist, though, and add in heartthrob rapper LL Cool J, and what do you have? A quintessential 21st century wedding reception mix.
Indie types could also claim first-time nominee Waits as their own, though he really transcends any subculture or simply defined category. The singer-songwriter and Anti-Records artist probably will be lauded by several varieties of music snobs as this year’s bravest choice.
Yet Waits would easily fit on a playlist with Dr. John. The New Orleans stalwart connected roots music to psychedelic rock in ways similar to what the California contrarian, in his midperiod, did for it and postpunk.
As for the two lesserknown, roots music-associated names on this year’s list, both make fitting predecessors to this era of delightfully mixed-up flash. Willis was a blues-rock dandy known for crossing over from R&B to pop. Tex was a soul shouter and rival of James Brown whose distinctive vocal approach predated rap.
I’d be happy for virtually any combination of this year’s nominees. Like any music nerd, I have a few favorites.
Foremost is the previously nominated Chic — not just a great disco band, but a great band, period. The sound and style created by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards set the stage for both hip-hop and New Wave. I’d also advocate for Nyro, a similarly hard-to-classify artist known for defying racial stereotypes. Nyro, who died in 1997, made albums that were complex, joyful and genuinely unique. I’d like to see her friends in the all-female funk-soul trio Labelle get in first, but Nyro is up for the slot, and deserves it.
It goes without saying that I’d love to see Waits make it in. He’s a critics’ favorite, after all. But he also has a wicked sense of humor and a visionary attitude that never registers as pretentious. Conversely, perhaps, I’m hoping that Diamond gets a nod. With help from Rubin, the Jewish Elvis has recently updated his sound and gained some of the respect he’s due.
Finally, is it too much to hope that both the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J gain spots in the Hall? It’s only been a few years since the institution began to acknowledge hip-hop’s overwhelming influence on contemporary culture. It’s time for some catch-up.
If Nirvana pioneered the hard-soft dynamic in rock (and you know that band will get in the instant it’s eligible), LL did it for rap. He’s an all-around entertainer who’s still making his mark, now mostly as an actor. And the Beasties are much more than Brooklyn’s bratty rappers — they fused punk and hip-hop in a hugely influential way.
Apart from specifics, I’m glad that the Rock Hall has fully embraced the iPod approach to designating immortality. That little device and the culture of downloading it have thoroughly shuffled pop’s hierarchies, making this an era of alternate realities, proudly personal value judgments and leftfield notions of greatness. It’s tough to create any kind of canon now; music fans so rarely agree. But by going beyond the edges of its comfort zone into the territory of the great mix, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is now leading the way.
SINGER-SONGWRITER: Tom Waits, a first-time nominee and critics’ favorite, transcends any simply defined category of music or subculture.
DIVA: Donna Summer made her name in disco.