One of the television shows i find myself watching a lot is That Metal Show on VH1 Classic. This is odd, because i have very little affinity for most of the music they feature on the show (not to say i don't respect it; i just rarely listen to those artists). However, what i enjoy about it is that the show is done by music fans for music fans; the discussions that take place on the show come from a place of passion and excitement, and it is one of the few shows on TV that is all about passion. It's funny, while the internet has become an institution dedicated to anyone being able to express their opinions, TV is still pretty much closed off in that regard. Movies, TV, music, all bring in literally billions of dollars a year for the same companies that own television stations, and yet there are very few shows dedicated to intelligent discussion of these types of media. That Metal Show is a place where people who are fans of hard rock/heavy metal can turn to hear people having an actual discussion about music. This is rare, and should be celebrated.
The host of the show is Eddie Trunk; as a fellow denizen of the Garden State, i have been familiar with Eddie via his radio show for 15+ years. One of Eddie's soapboxes is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - he feels that the Hall discriminates against heavy music and is run by (my words not his) snobs. He also makes a claim that selling a ton of records should factor in there somewhere.
Now, while i am sympathetic to Trunk's argument, i think we need to pull back a little and discuss what the Hall is, what it is supposed to be, and what can be done to improve it. Let me also say off the bat that i am not trying to bag on Eddie Trunk; he and i simply disagree on some of this stuff (we agree on a lot of it, too), and hearing him recently talk about this got me thinking about this issue.
From the official website, here is what appears to be their mission statement: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum exists to collect, preserve and interpret the impact rock has made on our world.
First of all, let's call bullshit on this statement. If that was truly the purpose of the institution, then it would be displays on the supposed connection between heavy metal and suicide, or the West Memphis Three, or other academic ideas. This is there to celebrate the landmark people in rock and roll.
Well, sort of.
My first change i would make to the RNRHOF is the name: it isn't just about rock and roll. It is also about funk, doo wop, heavy metal, bubblegum pop, disco, rap, and every other form of popular music invented since 1955. Let's face facts, the name is a misnomer. So, i suggest a new handle for the place:
The Museum of Popular Music, 1955-Present
Sure, it doesn't have the same ring as "The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," but the only way to make people stop saying things like "Grandmaster Flash, yeah, HE'S really rock and roll!" is to change the name. The toothpaste is out of the tube, and we're not going to suddenly un-invite all the artists that don't meet the strict guidelines of what "rock and roll" should mean. Plus, those guidelines change on a whim to support arguments, so who gives a shit. Change the name.
Secondly, there needs to be something more concrete in terms of what it means to be inducted. Let's call this the Buffalo Springfield corollary:
Buffalo Springfield released two albums during its active lifespan, and a third shortly thereafter that was made up of mostly outtakes and doesn't feature the full band on any one song. They had one bona fide hit, "For What It's Worth," and their members went on to form other, more successful bands, as well as influence the growing movement of folk, country and rock music blending together. This whole process, from forming to break up, took less than 3 full years.
And yet, this band is in the RNRHOF, and went in in 1997.
Why are they there? It isn't because they were an unquestionably influential band. They had influential members, but the band itself isn't exactly the Beatles or the Stones. It isn't because they were so popular that they dominated the charts for years - they barely made a blip on the sales radar during their years active. It isn't because the band contained the best work of its members - many members went on to do better stuff afterwards.
No, they are in because they are an answer to a fun trivia question, and because some people are insufferable nostalgists who think they were so important because they exist in the cultural sweet spot of 1967.
But why should any band be in the RNRHOF? I can think of six good criteria, and any inductee needs to meet at least four of these. I present to you, the Salvatore Scale:
1) Their influence can be felt today in more than just a niche sector of the music world
2) They signaled, or were part of, a sea change in the music industry
3) Featured superb musicianship or songwriting ability
4) Well respected by a significant percentage of the critical intelligentsia
5) They were popular to the point of ubiquity
6) They had a career exceeding 5 albums/10 years
No matter what the criteria was, the Beatles and Chuck Berry were getting in (and, actually Buffalo Springfield would be a close call on my new criteria). But let's look at a band that isn't in, and pisses a lot of people off, including the aforementioned Eddie Trunk, and see if they'd get in based on my criteria; let's take a look at Deep Purple.
Now, let's look at 2008 inductee John Melloncamp:
Melloncamp is out.
See, what this does is it neutralizes the two polar ends of the spectrum: the critic and the fan. If only critics picked who went in, the average person would be flummoxed at the prospect of visiting the John Fahey exhibit. If only fans picked, Bon Jovi would be in, and that may be worse. In fact, let's take those two artists and put them on the Salvatore Scale:
1) Arguable, leaning towards no
2) Yes (albeit a terrible one, hair metal)
3) Arguable, leaning towards no
That's a no on both. And while i think John Fahey is an amazing, singular talent, he shouldn't be in the HOF. And neither should a band that had a few huge hits with zero substance and who critics loathe.
Now, where Trunk loses me is advocating for people like Bon Jovi or Journey - if these bands have influenced any real segment of the music making population, i don't hear it. They are both known by the general public for less than 5 songs. They are not my cup of meat, but they are fine bands if that's your thing (and Bon Jovi is my wife's thing, much to my chagrin). But i guarantee you, if i read the tracklist to Journey's Greatest Hits to a man on the street, he'd recognize just as many songs from Manfred Mann's Greatest Hits, and no one in their right mind is advocating for Manfred Mann to go in.
As for longevity, i put it last because it is probably tied with the ubiquitous popularity in terms of least important criterion. The Clash weren't a band for ten years, but they are supremely important (and have 5 truly great records). Guns N' Roses, eligible this year, have four full length original albums to their credit, an EP and a covers album. One of the four records came out 15 years after their peak, and only one of those albums is considered a "classic." They don't make the cut for me; if there was a category to induct albums, you'd be insane not to induct Appetite for Destruction. But i think you'd be more insane to put GNR up there as one of the most important bands of all time.
Just because someone sells a ton of records or records for 30 years doesn't mean they are great. To put this in baseball terms, this would be like Roger Marris being in the HOF - everyone knows him because of one stat, but he isn't a HOF caliber player, and it makes the Hall stronger to have him not in there. I would much rather have a Hall of Fame that is harder to get in to (but is fair) than to have Nickelback one day grace the Hall.
I also want to point out that i put songwriting and technical proficiency on the same bullet point, but that i weigh songwriting higher, and anyone who doesn't is a fool. This is why the Ramones are in the HOF and Steve Vai isn't, sans rubric or by the Salvatore scale.
The final point i want to make is that people who don't want to see pop or rap (or funk or whatever) groups go in need to think more broadly about this. I am 29 years old; i don't remember a time before rap music. Even if i wanted to not be influenced by hip hop culture, that would be impossible, it is part of the world in which i live. Run DMC changed music forever with both its original songs and its "Walk This Way" duet with Aerosmith. Madonna is a hugely important cultural figure. Their influence is felt in the "rock" world, like it or not.
And, much like interracial marriages, broad musical tastes produce the most beautiful children. There wouldn't be metal if Bill Ward didn't dig jazz, and Ozzy didn't idolize the Beatles, the Tony Iommi didn't play the blues. This is all part of the cultural soup we're floating in, and should be recognized as such. Sure, it is weird to see Madonna inducted alongside the Ventures, but tell me - who is more important to the music of the 20th century? If you say the Ventures, i'm going to kick you in the face, because you're a no good liar.
Most importantly, the Salvatore Scale gives a way to actually measure what a band has done, and judge it against a rubric. It protects against the snobs that Trunk has a problem with and the slobs that buy Miller Lite. It finds middle ground, and promotes the bands that really do matter. Next year, my favorite non-Beatles band of all time, the Pixies, are up for nomination. I doubt the Hall will recognize them, but let's see if the Salvatore scale vindicates them:
6) If you count Come on Pilgrim as an album (their debut EP), then they have five albums or if you include their reunion tour, they have more than ten years.
Regardless, they are in.
And so, yes, the RNRHOF needs a serious re-evaluation. But to do it based simply on record sales and/or longevity is a slippery slope to having Creed in there one day. And, to quote one of the original members of the Hall, that'll be the day that i die.