The nine nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year are: Run-D.M.C., Metallica, the Stooges, Jeff Beck, Wanda Jackson, Little Anthony and the Imperials, War, Bobby Womack, and Chic.
I know pretty much nothing about any of these bands. So I'm not going to argue their merits or lack thereof. But I do want to talk about what it should mean to get in the Hall.
The impetus for this post is a conversation I've been having with my brother-in-law today over whether or not Kiss should be in. He, a rabid Kiss fan, says yes. I, who loved Kiss as a four-year old, but really know nothing of their music, say no.
Let me start by saying that the Hall will soon, by my standards, fall apart. They can’t not induct people, or they’ll lose attention and revenue. So they are going to have to lower standards every year so as not to have very small, or empty, classes. I’m actually impressed that Bon Jovi didn’t make the cut this year – I thought they’d get in for sure.
So - to my brother-in-law's argument. Why isn't Kiss in? As he says, they were hugely popular, had huge tours, and were very influential to 80s metal bands. But: for any Hall of Fame to have merit, critical consensus must be accorded as much, at least, importance as popularity. If popularity is allowed to be a sole criteria, then, sure, Kiss gets in, but so do WHAM, the Captain and Tennille, Hootie and the Blowfish, Boston, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, The Backstreet Boys, Journey, Phil Collins, Def Leppard, Celine Dion, and on and on.
Look at it another way: According to the RIAA, Kiss has sold 19 million albums. Pop/rock artists (and with Madonna’s inclusion it’s clear the Hall is treating rock as a very broad category) not in the Hall who have sold more include AC/DC, Mariah Carey, Metallica, Van Halen (or are they in? I forget), Neil Diamond, Chicago, Foreigner, Backstreet Boys, Rod Stewart, 2 Pac, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Phil Collins, R. Kelly, Linda Ronstadt, John Denver, Britney Spears, The Dave Matthews Band, Boston, Michael Bolton, ‘N Sync, Barry Manilow, Eminem, Boyz II Men, Janet Jackson, Jay-Z, Rush, Luther Vandross, Creed, Motley Crue, Jimmy Buffett, TLC, Green Day, Lionel Ritchie, Doobie Brothers, R.E.O. Speedwagon, Heart, Genesis, Kid Rock, Meatloaf, Alanis Morissette, Nelly, Hootie and the Blowfish, Usher, and Toni Braxton.
Many of these artists have had longevity similar to Kiss’ – and while Kiss may have produced those 19 golds and platinums over “three decades,” the bulk came in a relatively brief span (most of the more recent golds and platinums were for live albums and best ofs). Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond had two of the highest-grossing tours last year.
Inclusion in the Hall should indicate a certain degree of artistic quality. When it comes down to it, I’m enough of an elitist to want some kind of critical consensus in play. If it’s purely a popularity contest, we don’t need a hall – we have album sales and the charts for that. (I also reject the notion that being popular means that an artist is "doing something right." Well, I take that back – a “band” like New Kids on the Block was doing something right, but that “something,” namely producing pop strictly designed to cater to teenage girls’ simplest demands, most of them not musical, isn’t worthy of the kind of approval the Hall is supposed to signify.)
That being said, I’m also enough of a populist to want there to be a check on critical adoration. So, yes, the Hall should be about fame as well – but not only about fame. It’s got to be both. Inclusion needs to take both factors into consideration – an artist needs to be popular and to have received some degree of critical acclaim. If it’s just one or the other, no dice.
Music is not sports. It’s far more subjective. Critical consensus may be a piss-poor rubric, and wildly inconsistent, but it’s all we have, and much better than nothing. I don’t always agree with the critics either, but if we toss critical opinion out the window, the Hall, to me, becomes worse than useless. Bands like Kiss have already been lauded by the RIAA for being popular – that’s exactly what those gold and platinum albums mean. If the Hall isn’t different, if it doesn’t recognize something more than mere popularity, it’s useless.