If all art aspires to the condition of music, all the sciences aspire to the condition of mathematics.
— George Santanaya
We are the robots.
It’s easy to be cynical, but I’m not like that. Nope. No way. I prefer to focus on the ultra-super positive, which is less depressing and more financially rewarding. I give props to my ninjas and kudos to my serfs. I attack reality with well-placed, nonironic, nonrefundable LOLs. I’m not afraid to tell people how great they truly are, even if they’re average or less-than-average or openly evil. So let’s all put aside our petty complaints and be real, if only for a moment: As a society, we’re pretty awesome.
Now, I’m not referring to American society, per se; I’m referring to human society, starting with the Mesopotamians and ending with the first wave of solo projects from Odd Future. As a species, we’re totally killing it. We’ve already accomplished way more than we deserve: The Great Wall of China (not to mention the numerous Chinese restaurants that share its name), the Renaissance (I wasn’t directly involved with this, but whatever), the moon landing (“maybe”), and countless other triumphs that can’t be counted (as they are unaccountable). We’ve almost totally conquered polio, racial intolerance, and werewolves. Assuming we exclude most of Europe during the 12th century, it’s been a quasi-terrific, can’t-miss, semidelicious 9,000 years — and we humanoids have been the catalyst for everything. Dark-hearted humanity critics always want to rave about how “brilliant” dolphins are, but do dolphins have Twitter? No. They don’t even have Tumblrs.
WE ARE THE PEOPLE, AND WE ARE OUTSTANDING.
And yet … not perfect.
Not quite. There’s still a lot of greatness to be achieved. We’re still struggling with cold fusion and time travel. It seems like our ACLs are constantly tearing. Cats remain undomesticated. Many of the existential paradoxes originally raised by Gallagher continue to haunt us (parking on driveways, driving on parkways, etc.). To truly live, man must forever joust against himself. He must wage war against his own sexy demons. And I think we’d all agree that one of these demons looms larger than all others combined — we still haven’t figured out a way to arbitrarily turn art into math.
Well, that is about to change.
That is about to VORM.
Several weeks ago, key members of the Bill Simmons Institute for Randomly Idealized Utopian Statistics (B-SIRIUS) asked me to create a formula that mirrored the popular baseball statistic VORP, an acronym for “Value Over Replacement Player.” The VORP metric (popularized by MIT-schooled Baseball Prospectus writer Keith Woolner) attempts to isolate the merits of a particular hitter or pitcher in comparison to a fictional “replacement player” — a hypothetical strawman who’s an average fielder and a mediocre hitter. “Would it be possible,” pondered the ever-pondering Simmons, “to create an identical statistic for music in the popular genre of rock ‘n’ roll?” In other words, is there a mathematical way to calculate how essential a given musician is to his or her band, and would it then be possible to extrapolate that artist’s value in comparison to other artists in competing groups?
My initial answer to this query was, “Of course not, that’s stupid, it will never work, it’s antithetical to the very concept of creative endeavor, art is by nature ephemeral and impossible to quantify, and there isn’t even anyone who wants this to statistic to exist.”
But then we did it anyway.
ROCK VORM! (Part I):
Inside the Numbers
So how could this be done? How can one quantify how valuable someone like Mick Taylor was (or wasn’t) to the Rolling Stones, relative to the drug addict who came before him (Brian Jones) or the alcoholic who came after (Ron Wood)? And is there any mathematical means for comparing Taylor’s specific worth to a similar guitarist from a different era (say, Izzy Stradlin of Guns N’ Roses), or to someone who plays a totally different instrument in a totally different scenario (such as Human League keyboard player Ian Burden)?
The short answer is, “probably not.” But the long answer is the only one we care about, so let’s keep going: Start with the premise that every band1 is comprised of 100 points.
These 100 points encompass the totality of every group in every context, regardless of the band’s popularity or the quality of their work — the Kinks, Los Lobos, Geggy Tah, Broken Social Scene, and your high school ska band are all built on the same 100-point scale. If you were to start a band today with the first four people you encounter in the company bathroom, that band would have an immediate composite value of 100 points. These 100 points are broken into six weighted categories, and the points are distributed among every individual who’s ever been an official, full-time member of the collective. The six categories are as follows:
1. Songwriting (40 points): Since the most important aspect of any band is the music they create and perform, this is the heaviest category. Points are awarded for both the amount of songs a specific individual wrote and the quality of those songs over time (hit singles count more than album tracks, but timeless, iconic anthems count more than ephemeral hits). If we use the Beatles as an easy example, Lennon and McCartney would get 17 points apiece, George Harrison would get 6, and Ringo would get 0. In a band like Creedence Clearwater Revival, John Fogerty would get 37 points, and the other three members would each get 1. If a band doesn’t write any of its own material, no points are awarded to anyone.
2. Sonic contribution (20 points): This relates to how much an individual contributes to the “sound” of a band — essentially, how much they are personally responsible for what the group sounds like as a unit. Since the main thing most people notice about pop music is the vocal track, lead singers have a clear advantage (in the case of Blondie, Debbie Harry would get 18 of the possible 20 points). Lead guitarists also tend to score higher, especially in metal bands. Both of these disparities stand to reason, since singers and guitarists are traditionally the hardest aspects of any lineup to replace. However, highly distinctive backing vocals can also play a role — someone like Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony would be awarded as many points (3) as former lead singer Sammy Hagar (and only one point fewer than David Lee Roth), since his soaring background vocals were essential to all VH studio recordings for almost 30 years.2 Musicians who produce their own records themselves (Jimmy Page, Jeff Lynne, Tom Scholz) also score higher in this category.
3. Visual impact (10 points): Mostly an aesthetic taxonomy, visual impact pertains to how much someone contributes to the look and memory of the band. When you envision a group like Culture Club within your own mind, whom are you imagining? In all likelihood, you’re almost exclusively imagining Boy George, so he scores a 9 (Mikey Craig, better known as “the black guy in Culture Club,” gets the remaining 1 point). In Cheap Trick, Robin Zander, Rick Nielsen and Bun E. Carlos all get 3 points apiece, but Tom Peterson gets only 1. In Interpol, ex-bassist Carlos D would get 5 points, Paul Banks would get 2, and everyone else gets 1. This is a hard category to describe, but it’s easy to calculate once you grasp the concept.
4. Live performance (10 points): This is a two-pronged qualifier. The first part of the equation is self-explanatory — it measures how captivating the musician comes across during a live concert or in a recorded video. Is the person watchable on stage? Do they try? If they don’t try, how cool do they look while not trying? The second part of the equation involves how they conduct themselves “in reality” — basically, the degree to which they treat their entire life as a performance. What do they say during interviews? How do they behave in public? Do they ever appear on TMZ? This is an exceptionally strong metric for Courtney Love.
5. Attitude (5 points): This connotes how much value someone offers as a human idea (regardless of how that idea manifests itself musically). It rewards people who represent who or what a band supposedly “is.” In Duran Duran, Nick Rhodes gets 3 of the potential 5 points; in the Sex Pistols, Sid Vicious would have gotten 4; in Motorhead, Lemmy gets all 5. These points specify how accurately a person embodies the perceived spirit of the entire group, and it typically contradicts the scoring pattern from the first two categories (for example, Jack White gets only 1 point here, but Meg White gets 4). People who smoke a lot of cigarettes or are often photographed while drinking in airports tend to do well within this classification.
6. Intangibles (15 points): This is everything else about the candidate — a swirling jambalaya of all that makes a musician essential: smarts, chemistry, sexuality, drug use, infidelity, insanity, a bizarre origin story, a propensity for crime, memorable dance moves, inappropriate joking about fatal diseases, their personal taste in guitar strings, a strident unwillingness to sell out, a charming willingness to sell-out immediately, high-profile ownership of dragon pants, involvement with the H.O.R.D.E festival, involvement with Farm Aid, involvement with Hear ‘n Aid, boating accidents, cult membership, nonmembership in the Cult, emaciation, obesity, a willingness to wear neckties for promotional photographs, a willingness to compose the theme song to That Thing You Do!, a willingness to collaborate with Bob Ezrin, a checkered history of collaborating with Lenny Kravitz, anachronistic facial hair, and/or the inability to be the person in the band who is not Joe Walsh.
The calculation of these six categories is how the so-called “Gross VORM” is generated — you take one member of any random band and figure out how many points he or she warrants. So let’s do that right now; as our stylish guinea pig, we’ll use Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr.
Gross Rock VORM & Adjusted Rock VORM (Part II):
[Subject: Albert Hammond Jr.]
Here’s how Hammond scores within the five categories we just outlined:
1. Songwriting (6 out of 40): On the early Strokes albums, vocalist Julian Casablancas wrote almost everything (J.C. would probably get a career score of 25 in this category). But the most recent Strokes album (Angles) gives songwriting credits to all five members equally, and Casablancas wasn’t even in the studio (he mailed in his vocal tracks electronically). Hammond is now a registered factor. He also made two solo records that sound like decent Strokes facsimiles, so one assumes he must play a role in the creation of actual Strokes songs. As such, he gets 6 of the remaining 15 points that didn’t go to Julian.
2. Visual impact (4 out of 10): In the past, I would have given Hammond 6 points here, as he’s traditionally been “the most Stroke-like” Stroke. That will remain true over time, since the image of the Strokes we’ll all inevitably remember is how they looked in 2001. However, Hammond recently went to rehab, lost a bunch of weight, and cut his hair; this costs him two points of visual impact. He gets a 4.
3. Sonic contribution (3 out of 20): The two most distinctive aspects of most Strokes tracks are Casablanca’s woozy-sloth vocals and Fab Moretti’s precision drumming. Moreover, one could argue that Hammond is the second-most important guitar player in a band with only two guitars. He only gets 3 points here, which hurts.
4. Live performance (6 out of 10): When you watch the Strokes perform live, Hammond is usually the only person who seems excited to be there. He supposedly selects clothing that makes dancing easier, and he sometimes makes jokes during interviews that are authentically funny. He gets the lion’s share of these points.
5. Attitude: (1 out of 5): All the Strokes get 1 point apiece. In this regard, they are equal.
6. Intangibles (7 out of 15): Hammond’s father recorded at least one song (“It Never Rains in Southern California”) that’s probably better than any song the Strokes have ever made. Al Jr. wears three-piece suits on warm days, holds his guitar like Buddy Holly, is pictured smoking (!) in the liner notes for Is This It, and has not dated Drew Barrymore. In a broad sense, Hammond’s role in the Strokes is inherently intangible; as a result, he dominates this category.
We now have Albert Hammond Jr.’s Gross Rock VORM: 27 (this is slightly higher than two of the other three Strokes, but lower than the irreplaceable Julian, who pulls down a 41). But this is only his gross score; since there are five members of the band, we need to divide by five.3 This is how we establish the Adjusted Rock VORM (ARV). Hammond’s ARV is 5.4, which denotes how much more valuable he is compared to any random rhythm guitarist the Strokes could pull off the streets of lower Manhattan. We work from the premise that our hypothetical replacement musician would earn an ARV of 1.0, which means Hammonds is 5.4 times better.
However, this statistic tells us only how Hammonds performs in comparison with his own group. How does he compare to the world at large? That’s more complicated, and it brings us to Part III …
Calculating the “Real” Rock VORM
Since every band starts on the same 100-point scale, the GRM and the ARV allow us only to measure a group against itself, which generates a logic gap (certainly, the 19 points Morrissey gets for being the principle lyricist in the Smiths doesn’t accurately compare with the 19 points Pete Wentz gets for being the principle lyricist in Fall Out Boy). In order to calculate someone’s “Real” Rock VORM (RRV), we need to multiply his or her personal ARV by the “established value” of the group itself. A group’s established value encompasses all aspects of its existence (musical and otherwise). All bands are ranked on a scale of 1.0 to .01, with the Beatles representing the 1.0 designation. Due to space limitations, I can’t list the established value of every single band that has ever existed — but here’s a partial list:4
1.0: The Beatles
.989: The Rolling Stones
.98: Led Zeppelin
.97: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Beach Boys, the Velvet Underground, Pizzicato Five
.929: Black Sabbath, CCR
.914: Steely Dan, Bad Brains
.91: The Replacements, the Smiths
.909: The Clash
.88: Thin Lizzy, The Carpenters
.84: The Stooges
.825: Pavement, Radiohead, the Grateful Dead, The Police
.78: Nirvana, Parliament-Funkadelic
.71: ZZ Top
.7099: The Pixies
.685: Queen, Cheap Trick
.64: The Faces, Fleetwood Mac
.635: Oasis, Sleater-Kinney, Rush
.6: The Drive-By Truckers, Sleep
.59: Sonic Youth, Motley Crue, the Go-Gos
.55: My Morning Jacket, Rancid, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments
.543: The Fall, Journey
.53: The Chills, The Eagles, The Stone Roses, Cinderella
.47: Metallica, U2, Soundgarden, the Japandroids
.469: REO Speedwagon, Husker Du, Wings, Best Coast, Slade
.444: Sweet, Poison, Crosby Stills & Nash, Depeche Mode, Supergrass
.39: Ra Ra Riot, Cornershop, Dokken, Roxy Music
.345: Aerosmith, Styx, Paramour5, Black Oak Arkansas
.32: Uriah Heep, Grizzly Bear
.28: Rage Against the Machine, Rilo Kiley, The Doors
.24: Primus, Black Flag, Yngwie Malmsteen’s Rising Force
.2: The Dave Matthews Band, Wavves, Foo Fighters
.18: April Wine, Black Eyed Peas, Joy Division
.15: Incubus, Spoon, Gaslight Anthem, Iron and Wine
.1: Porno for Pyros, Kaiser Chiefs, Bat for Lashes, Asia
.05: Crash Test Dummies
.025: Green Day, Alabama
.01: The Fabulous Thunderbirds
I will concede that some of these rankings are debatable. The scores themselves are also fungible and constantly evolving: In 1995, Elastica would have received a .61 (on par with the likes of My Bloody Valentine); today, Elastica would get a .35 (somewhere just below the Moody Blues). Regardless, these scores are what we use to establish any specific individual’s “Real” Rock VORM — we multiply his or her ARV with the preexisting established value of his or her band.
So let’s conclude our look at Albert Hammond Jr.: His “Adjusted Rock VORM” was 5.4. As a band, the Strokes’ overall value is .51 (roughly in the same neighborhood as Fugazi and Britny Fox). When these two factors are multiplied, the final product is 2.754. And that, my mathematical adversaries is the worth of Albert Hammond Jr.: His “Real” Rock VORM is 2.754, which means he is better than any rock musician with a lower RRV (and worse than anyone whose RRV score is higher).
Problem solved. Next problem.
Chuck Klosterman is the author of six books. His novel The Visible Man will be released in October.