Of all the silly things that I spend way too much time obsessing over, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is surely the silliest. Established in 1983, the Rock Hall has been tasked with imposing an orderly narrative on the monumental mess that is pop history, using an ill-defined set of criteria to determine the Most Important Music of Our Time. Unlike halls of fame honoring sports figures, the Rock Hall doesn’t have the benefit of incontrovertible evidence. Nobody ever “wins” music (except for Led Zeppelin); there is no data-based paradigm that can be applied to satisfactorily compare musicians. At some point, it comes down to personal taste, and the people who decide who gets into the Rock Hall believe James Taylor is more intrinsically rock and roll than Thin Lizzy.
This is the sort of mess that I (and you) should cross the street to get away from. And yet, I can’t quit you, Rock Hall.
According to the Rock Hall’s website, an artist must meet two requirements to be eligible for immortality: (1) release music 25 years prior to the year of induction, and (2) demonstrate “unquestionable musical excellence.” What exactly is “unquestionable” musical excellence, you ask? Is it possible that nobody involved in the Rock Hall has seen the Internet yet?
“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,” the Rock Hall’s eligibility requirements state, “but musical excellence shall be the essential qualification of induction.”
Well, we all know that’s not exactly true. An institution ostensibly promoting rock excellence that doesn’t include the Replacements, Captain Beefheart, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Hüsker Dü, T. Rex, MC5, Roxy Music, Sonic Youth, Slayer, the Smiths, and the Cure (among many, many others) is severely derelict in its duty. But I’m not interested in rehashing past oversights. I’d rather make educated guesses about future oversights.
Which contemporary artists, if their careers ended today, would definitely get into the Rock Hall? Which artists need a little help? Who is going to get snubbed? The rank speculation that follows is rooted in five assumptions:
1. The Rock Hall will continue to exist well into the foreseeable future.
2. My personal taste will continue to run contrary to the Rock Hall’s choices.
3. The Rock Hall will become noticeably less rock-oriented in the years ahead. Pop, hip-hop, and electronic/dance artists will be ascendant. Metal and punk bands will (still) be largely ignored. But it will still be known as a “rock” museum.
4. The Rock Hall will always care more about commercial success than critical acclaim. But some critical acclaim is required.
5. None of this will ever matter, but I will find it interesting anyway.
I’m not a betting man, but if terrorists held my loved ones hostage and their release were contingent on my correctly guessing a future Rock Hall first-ballot inductee, I’d put their lives on Pearl Jam. It is the lockiest lock of all the Rock Hall’s foregone conclusions. Pearl Jam is arguably the last archetypal rock band that was insanely popular, generating boy band–level sales numbers at its peak in the early ’90s. And Pearl Jam can still pack stadiums nearly a quarter century into its career. Rock bands like Pearl Jam are history now, so you might as well put Pearl Jam in a museum.
There is a larger question here about how the Rock Hall will treat other ’90s alt-rock bands. I’ll be covering another lock from this era in a moment. I’d also classify Green Day and Nine Inch Nails (both eligible for induction in 2015) as locks. The Foo Fighters will also immediately get in, since the Rock Hall likes to re-induct members of generation-defining bands, even if their subsequent projects aren’t quite so transcendent. All the Beatles (save Ringo) were inducted as solo artists, for example. (I suppose Krist Novoselic will be Nirvana’s Ringo, which I wouldn’t have predicted in 1994.)
I’m less sure about the other monsters of ’90s rock. So many ’90s bands have incomplete legacies — they either flamed out or broke up before firmly establishing carved-in-granite greatness. Rage Against the Machine will probably make it, but I have my doubts about Soundgarden. (Kim Thayil never played — and never would play — on a Springsteen record. That’s a major black mark in this context.) In 1998, Smashing Pumpkins had the look of a Rock Hall slam dunk, but now my gut tells me it won’t happen. (Billy Corgan’s sadness truly is infinite.) Alice in Chains might get in eventually (having a dead lead singer generally helps your “icon” status), but I suspect Pavement will get in first, which will enrage Eddie Trunk. No Doubt will make it, because Gwen Stefani is the most enduring female star to come out of ’90s rock. Stone Temple Pilots won’t, though I play Purple more than any album by any other band discussed in this paragraph.
If those same theoretical Rock Hall–obsessed terrorists demanded a second first-ballot prediction, I’d say Radiohead, arguably the last archetypal rock band that was insanely popular and then consciously decided to become less popular. (Unless you count jam bands.)
Since Radiohead’s induction (due in 2018) seems as academic as “writing a song about a fucking tree,” let’s instead ponder a more interesting question: When exactly did Radiohead “clinch” its Rock Hall spot? OK Computer is the band’s most popular record — it’s the Gen X Dark Side of the Moon — but if Thom Yorke had died in a car crash in 1997, would we be having this conversation in 2014?1 I’m not so sure. Kid A was in some ways even more epochal than OK Computer — at the time it was considered the first 21st-century rock album, it set Radiohead’s artistic course moving forward, and it ended up in a Tom Cruise movie about how having sex with Cameron Diaz causes insanity.2 Kid A defines Radiohead’s esoteric-slash-pop aesthetic.
Kid A seems like the right answer, but I’d argue that Radiohead definitelyclinched it with In Rainbows, a really good record invariably remembered more for how it was sold than for the music (which makes it even more prescient than Kid A). That’s a 12-year run of cultural “importance” going back to Radiohead’s first great album, 1995’s The Bends. In music as in sports, performing at a high level for more than a decade will always get you a plaque of some sort.
Marshall Mathers still has another 10 years to sully his reputation. Some would argue that he’s done plenty of sullying already. But Eminem is still the best-selling artist of the past 15 years, with loads of credibility in the rap community as one of the most accomplished MCs ever. And in the years ahead, rap credibility will increasingly become synonymous with Rock Hall credibility.
Setting aside arguments about whether rap acts belong in a rock-and-roll museum, “rock” is used as a catchall term for popular music in only one remaining context, and that is the Rock Hall. If ’90s rock bands face an uncertain future as they come up for Rock Hall inclusion, ’90s rappers are likely to wage a full-scale invasion. It’s hard to imagine the likes of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, A Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang Clan, Tupac Shakur, the Notorious B.I.G., Jay Z, Outkast, the Roots,3 and Eminem not gaining entrée into the Hall as soon as they’re eligible. Also, it seems certain that rap acts from the past that have been denied entry — like N.W.A and LL Cool J — will get in sooner rather than later.
Before we discuss Beyoncé’s Rock Hall lockitude, let me cop to a (near) error on my part: Originally, I thought Beyoncé would be eligible in 2023, 25 years after the first Destiny’s Child record, 1998’s Destiny Child. It wasn’t until I was revising my column that I realized, “Wait a minute, Destiny’s Child is not technically a front for Beyoncé’s solo career, which didn’t officially commence until 2003’s Dangerously in Love. Which means her actual induction year is 2028. Do not write Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams out of history, Steve.” Clearly, the #illuminati brainwashing has taken hold inside my skull.
Somehow Beyoncé doesn’t seem like a legacy artist whose career goes back to the late ’90s, perhaps because (unlike the aforementioned “locks”) Beyoncé is more popular and critically respected now than she was at the start of her recording career 16 years ago. The hyperbolic hosannas that once greeted new Radiohead albums in the music press are now bestowed on new Beyoncé LPs. If the Rock Hall decides to rechristen itself “The We Love Beyoncé Will You Please Hang Out With Us Pleeeeeeeeez XOXOXO Stan Club” in 2028, I won’t be that surprised.
You could make a convincing case that Coldplay has already locked up a Rock Hall spot. Assuming the Rock Hall is still interested in honoring rock groups in 2023, the year Coldplay is eligible, it’s not like there will be a ton of other options among early 21st-century bands. The White Stripes (eligible in 2024) are a no-brainer, and Arcade Fire (possible class of 2029) could be, too, if it doesn’t fall off of a cliff both commercially and critically in the next several years. After that, who you got? The Killers? Kings of Leon? Fall Out Boy? Nah, no, and fuck no!
So, the lack of competition will help Coldplay’s chances greatly. Still, I feel like Coldplay needs one more definitive album to cinch its place in the Rock Hall. Let me make a sports analogy: For an athlete to make a hall of fame, a standard of dominance must be established. MVP awards, batting titles, passing records, that sort of thing. You must be able to prove that at some point in your career, you towered over everybody else in your field. I don’t think Coldplay can make that case. It has never been considered “the greatest band in the world” nor “the biggest band in the world.”4 Coldplay has always just been Coldplay, and I’m not sure if that’s quite enough at this point.
The Rock Hall has treated electronic and dance-oriented music shabbily in the past. If Kraftwerk and Chic still can’t get in, why would a group heavily influenced by Kraftwerk and Chic get in? Well, for starters, Kraftwerk and Chic will be inducted well before Daft Punk is eligible in 2019. By that time, Daft Punk could very well be regarded as one of the bedrocks of modern pop, a group responsible for shaping the vocabulary of electronic music as pivotally as the Beatles, Stones, and Led Zeppelin informed rock’s language.
The success and Grammy-friendliness of Random Access Memories put Daft Punk on the precipice of Rock Hall acceptance, as did its historic 2007 tour, widely credited with providing a blueprint for how to transform EDM into stadium music. Daft Punk could use another LP or two to shore up its Rock Hall CV. But the stature of Daft Punk’s pioneering first, second, and fourth albums,5 as well as its live show, will only continue to grow in esteem, assuming EDM continues to be a viable genre and not a potentially combustible fad destroyed by overexposure and the corrupting influence of corporate cash. As Skrillex goes, so goes Daft Punk’s legacy.
Speaking of Grammys, Taylor Swift would be in the “locks” category had Red won Album of the Year in February. That would’ve been her second Album of the Year Grammy in four years, a clear demonstration of the dominance standard. But Swift didn’t win. Why didn’t she win again? I’m listening to Red as I type this and I feel a powerful urge to hand Taylor Swift a gold-plated gramophone. Random Access Memories is a paean to the big-tent pop albums of the past, but Red is an actual big-tent pop album of the present. Perhaps in 20 years, two French cyborgs will make an homage to Red that will win a Grammy.
Two things hurt Red: (1) It came out in October 2012, almost a year and a half before the 2014 Grammy ceremony. If it had come out seven months later, around the time Random Access Memories was released, I think it would have won easily. And, (2) Taylor Swift is only 24 years old. She’s lived as long as bands that will be eligible for induction in 2015 have been making albums. It’s the Jennifer Lawrence Rule: Awards shows don’t want to spoil young, prodigiously talented women with overpraise. People are betting on Swift to not suffer from a drug overdose, a plane crash, or some other career-derailing incident, and produce more award-worthy work in the future.
Possible obstacle: Swift is ostensibly a crossover country artist in the mold of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, and Garth Brooks and Shania Twain aren’t getting into the Rock Hall. But judging from the direction she forged on Red, I’m guessing Swift will be moving even further afield from country in the years ahead, similar to how class of 2014 inductee Linda Ronstadt moved on from being a country rocker early in her career to a sax-heavy interpreter of prime-era Elvis Costello songs.
She’s put out only two albums, but one of them, 2011’s 21, is the record industry’s one true “old-school” blockbuster of the last several years. The success of 21 is truly historic: More and more, it seems impossible that another album will move more than 10 million copies like 21 has. Adele is set up to have a career that just goes on forever — she appeals to people who don’t normally follow pop music that closely, which is the single biggest audience a performer can reach. Whether Adele ever tops 21 is beside the point; her kind of stardom is not predicated on being on the cutting edge or remotely trendy. Whatever she does, Adele will always be the woman who made 21.
The Strokes were as much an idea for a great rock band as an actual great rock band on their first record, Is This It. Now, some of us believe that the Strokes have been plenty great in the intervening years. But the dominant narrative for this band (helped in no small part by the indifference of the Strokes themselves) is a familiar tale of squandered promise and an increasingly uninterested public.
Put another way: If they had been selling Rock Hall stock for the Strokes in 2001, how valuable would it have been right after the video for “Last Nite” debuted on MTV? And exactly how much would that same stock be worth today? Let’s just say there would’ve been a lot of investors jumping off bridges in the wake of Angles6 and Comedown Machine.
When James Murphy plotted the end of LCD Soundsystem, it was as if he had the Strokes in mind. His group didn’t start out hot and then carry on well after its cultural cachet had expired. Over the course of three LPs, LCD Soundsystem steadily grew into one of the most beloved indie bands of the ’00s (arguably the most beloved) and then bowed out after a series of triumphant concerts at Madison Square Garden. Murphy had painstakingly crafted a career arc as perfect as the cowbell sounds accenting his records.
But is 3-0 legitimate as an undefeated record, particularly since Murphy bowed out just as LCD Soundsystem was reaching its prime? Does it matter that LCD Soundsystem is virtually unknown to people who didn’t live in big cities in their twenties and thirties during the ’00s? Your belief in LCD Soundsystem’s significance is directly linked with your belief in the significance of ’00s indie rock, which approached but never quite achieved mainstream success the way alt rock did the previous decade. As an LCD Soundsystem fan, I’m inclined to tamp down my enthusiasm here, perhaps because few people I know in my “regular” Midwestern sphere know or care about this band.
You want to talk about the dominance standard? Let’s talk about Rihanna. Since 2005, she has released 20 top-10 singles on the Hot 100 chart. More than half those singles went to no. 1. Her last six albums have gone platinum. (Only her 2005 debut, Music of the Sun, failed to reach that benchmark, going gold.) It is impossible to survey the landscape of contemporary pop and R&B radio without coming to terms with the breadth of Rihanna’s tremendous reach.
Here’s the problem: Who is Rihanna? Her music is ubiquitous but her essence is untouchable — unknowable, even. She is on her records, but she’s not in them. It’s difficult to discern whether people love Rihanna or if Rihanna is merely the packaging for popular songs. Rihanna’s songs are woven into the fabric of modern pop; whether the artist herself is entitled to a memorial is another question.
Dave Matthews Band
What Rihanna has been for the pop charts, Dave Matthews Band has been for the summer-tour circuit. No group of its generation has packed them in as reliably and for as long. If you love DMB, you look forward to seeing them every July. For everybody else, Dave Matthews Band matters only as a synonym for “music I liked briefly in college and now reflexively make fun of when I’m around other people.” (See also: every ’90s ska band, Soul Coughing.) In the short term, DMB benefits from the support of a loyal jam-band audience. But in the long term, being a jam band limits the ability for normal people to comprehend whatever it is you do, no matter the merits. To make another sports analogy, being the most successful jam band of your generation is like winning a bunch of championships in the Canadian Football League. Commendable, yes. But it doesn’t mean jack if you care about the NFL.