Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Singled Out (Consolation Prizes)

Last year at the induction ceremony, Little Steven announced the new category for the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, the Singles category.  It included six inductees: "Rocket '88'" by Jackie Brenston And His Delta Cats, "Rumble" by Link Wray, "The Twist" by Chubby Checker, "Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen, "Whiter Shade Of Pale" by Procol Harum, and "Born To Be Wild" by Steppenwolf.  At the time, Little Steven said this was for acts that have not yet been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, but they weren't being given up on.  Last month, when the seven Performer inductees were announced for the Class Of 2019, CEO Joel Peresman said there were going to be Singles category inductions as well, but they were not being revealed at that time.

When the category was announced last year, a lot of critics, commentators, and hobbyists jumped to weigh in on it.  I did not.  And for most of the past year since the ceremony, I've kept those cards pretty close to the vest.  A time or two, I've hinted at my feelings on the subject matter, but have never actually stated my stance.  Part of that was because at the time of the ceremony, I was already several posts into my series of Songs Of Proof.  Knowing how much I had wanted to say at the time, I knew it was going to be a long post, even by my standards.  There is a lot to say, and taking the time to write that post would have derailed the project I was doing, and I really wanted to keep that running smoothly, so I held off.  But now it's time.  For those who want the "TL;DR" version, here's the point: I hate the whole category in its entirety.

Conceptually, it makes a lot of sense though, right?  There are certain songs that are absolutely pivotal.  "(We're Gonna) Rock Around The Clock," "Hound Dog," "I Want To Hold Your Hand," Rapper's Delight," "Smells Like Teen Spirit," just to name a handful, are all considered massively important songs in the history of rock and roll.  Honoring songs makes a lot of sense, on the surface.  And even some of the big names at the Hall have talked about doing something like this for a long time.  So, in theory, it would seem a sound idea.  But even the most sound theories can go awry in their application.

And there is just so much that is absolutely wrong with this.  Starting with the least irritating thing about it, the semantics.  It's not singles being inducted, it's songs.  These singles all had B-sides.  "Haunted Castle" was not inducted by virtue of being the B-side to "Louie Louie," nor were "Toot" or "Twistin' U.S.A." with "The Twist."  It's just the A-side hit songs.  It's a petty thing to be irked about, but given everything else that's wrong with this category, let's add that to the list, too.

Next is the way it just suddenly happened.  The tweet from Little Steven in the days leading up to the inductions suggested he had something special for the ceremony, and then he revealed it at the ceremony.  The whole implementation of it has had almost no accountability whatsoever.  That's actually nothing new for the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, as the lack of transparency, the handling of everything completely in-house, and the way things have had to be handled when misspeaks were uttered, have all been pissing off fans, musicians, and hobbyists for years now.  But this... this had the veneer of even less accountability than normal.  The Nominating Committee is a group of thirty or so people.  They put together a ballot, and if someone tries to sneak in a name that wasn't agreed on, someone is going to speak up about it.  We don't know how many people counted the votes or how many times they were counted for accuracy's sake, but given the difficulty of particular pet projects not being able to get in over the years, I've always been willing to accept the vote totals as being relatively honest.  If Chic can fail eleven times despite Nile Rodgers being one of the initial founders of the Foundation itself, the classes themselves can't be completely arbitrary, no matter what the conspiracy theories about Jann S. Wenner say.  But this newest category, from all we've been able to find out, appears to be nothing more than Little Steven throwing a well-dressed hissyfit, because the names he keeps suggesting aren't getting in, and Peresman acquiescing to placate him.  Did anybody else have ANY say on which singles would be inducted?  I rather doubt it.

The sudden revelation of the category also was very disrespectful.  This was out of the blue with no respects paid to any of the artists who recorded these iconic songs.  As long as Chubby Checker has been waiting for his honors to be paid to him, this was sudden, seemingly designed to keep him from attending the ceremony, and if not for everything else that is slipshod about the category, I could actually believe that.  Link Wray's family has been taking to social media to get him in, and they weren't at the ceremony.  Same for the Kingsmen and the members of Steppenwolf and Procol Harum, or any surviving members of the Delta Cats or family members.  If you wanna pin it on the tail wagging the dog, to keep the ceremony from going longer, fine, but to not even give them any prior notice is extremely disrespectful.

Moving on from there is the fact that this is only for artists that have not yet been inducted.  That's explicitly what Little Steven said.  So, we're going to ignore landmark songs by acts who were inducted because they recorded those landmark songs?  Inductees usually have deeper catalogs, but to really have a proper songs category, there needs to be inclusion of "Why Do Fools Fall In Love," "Blue Suede Shoes," and "Summertime Blues."  The other side of that is the fact that of these six charter entrants, three of them had never even been nominated before.   It's one thing, but also still wrong, to cherry-pick Nile Rodgers when Chic fails eleven times, but to give up before it could even be tried?  Maybe there was some hemming and hawing about whether Jackie Brenston And His Delta Cats should have been an Early Influence or a Performer inductee, but the fact is, they were ushered in without having been on the ballot ever.  We honestly don't know how Chubby Checker or the Kingsmen would fare on the ballot.  They were never nominated!  And they gave up on Steppenwolf after one try?  Procol Harum and Link Wray with fewer than five nominations apiece?  What does that really say about the process when quitting becomes that easy, especially when other inductees have needed seven, eight, or ten nominations to get in?  This only further plays into the "hissyfit" component mentioned earlier.

And make no mistake, this is giving up and quitting.  Little Steven may have said, "But we're not giving up," but look for exactly that to happen.  Has Chic been nominated since Nile Rodgers got inducted?  Then don't expect proto-prog-rockers Procol Harum to show up again anytime soon, or ever.  I really, REALLY hope I'm wrong about this, but this is giving up, pure and simple.  It's a further slap in the face to the artists, realizing that this is as good as it's ever going to get for their Rock Hall hopes.

Further twisting the knife is the idea that these songs apparently say all that ever needs to be said about the artists.  I mean, I'll admit that "Louie Louie" is the best song by the Kingsmen, at least that I've heard, but they were more than that one song.  Steppenwolf had at least one other landmark song, "Magic Carpet Ride," along with a solid string of blues-rock jams.  To lay it all on the legacy of "Born To Be Wild" grossly misses the entire breadth of their catalog.  And don't even get me started on the lengthy string of hit singles by Chubby Checker.  Even if most of them were songs about doing specific dances, he was still a lot more than just "The Twist," and doing variations on a theme is not the same as being derivative.   He was more than one song.  "But wait," someone might say, "Isn't that what you essentially did with your whole 'Songs Of Proof' project?  Boil down the entirety of an inductee to a single song?"  No, that's not what I did.  My project celebrates the institution itself, by selecting a song for each inductee.  My project was never about claiming any inductee had only one song that ever mattered.  Furthermore, the project was inspired by a radio program that saluted as many inductees as possible in a four-hour time span by giving each inductee only one song.  I was using templates already in place when I created the project.

It's a slippery slope that gives license to remain ignorant, to not delve deeper into an artist's catalog.  Maybe you can accuse my project of the same thing, but my project was created after either having already been or making myself more familiar with the catalogs of most of the inductees, certainly familiar enough to never claim that "Jim Dandy" was the only song by LaVern Baker that mattered.  I even hinted as much when celebrating the Class Of 2016.  Stop and ask yourself: how would you have reacted if Deep Purple hadn't been inducted, but "Smoke On The Water" was inducted as a "Single"?  Really stop and think about it.  What if the Hall was saying that "Hush," "Highway Star," or any other song was insignificant?  Because that's what Dave Marsh said about Deep Purple for the longest time, blocking their nomination for several years.  But you know what?  He later actually took it upon himself to research their music further and had the guts to admit he was wrong and say that they do belong in.  Now apply that to other inductees.  It would not go over well to induct only "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and not Nirvana, or "Jeremy" and not Pearl Jam, or "Iron Man" and not Black Sabbath, or "Creep" and not Radiohead.  You get the idea.  As the saying goes, "It's the singer, not the song."  Or the guitarist, and not the instrumental.

Admittedly, it's an easy trap to fall into.  I've debated in the past about whether "Wipe Out" was big enough to warrant an induction for the Surfaris.  One of the most important drum solos in rock and roll history, charted more than once, covered multiple times, and added a term to our lexicon that has transcended its surfing origins.  In the past, I've stuck to my guns that no, it's not enough.  Maybe it's time for me to revisit that thinking, and it wouldn't hurt to spend time binge-listening to the Surfaris, for that matter.  Either way, I would not dare suggest to induct "Wipe Out" and call it good, and ask that we move on from there.  Nor would I do that with any other artist, unless they literally only ever recorded one song.  And even then I still might not advocate such an action.

And that has been one of the most appalling and frustrating things about this Singles category fiasco: the way most others of the hobbyist community have been okay, or even supportive of it, and have been suggesting other prospects.  Shortly after Little Steven inducted the six songs, came the comment about how this is what they should have done with Percy Sledge.  I'm not going to revisit the induction of Percy Sledge as a topic; I'm merely illustrating the reception to the new category.  People are running with this and posting lists of songs that they want to see shoehorned into this category, and move along, especially from folks who want to close the door on the first two decades of rock and roll, the 1950's and the 1960's.  It's particularly insulting when the claim of "Only one song that mattered" is the result of a mindset that is, perhaps unwittingly, rooted in a combination of industry-wide prejudice at the time, social norms in America at the time, the marketing models of radio formats that deal in nostalgia, and the allegedly revisionist bents of historians and critics.  Apparently, it's okay to look past the fact that the Velvet Underground didn't have any hit singles, but we can't be bothered to look contextually at the history of the Marvelettes.  We can just accuse them of never moving goalposts a second time (arguably not true), ask to induct "Please Mr. Postman," and go about pushing for other artists we're more adamant about.  And that's ultimately what all the enthusiasm from our hobbyist community about the Singles category is essentially saying: "We don't care about inducting other artists properly; just get to the ones that we prefer."  Well, it cuts both ways.  Just remember, the Hall can turn around and induct "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" and shuck Blue Oyster Cult, or "Rise Above" and raise the white flag on ever inducting Black Flag, or enshrine "Trans-Europe Express" and give up on Kraftwerk.  Are you okay with doing any of those things?  Then don't write off the Five Satins because "To The Aisle" couldn't properly duplicate the success of "In The Still Of The Night."  The Hall has inducted several artists that modern Oldies radio formatting generally revises the legacies of and calls them one-hit wonders; so if "I Fought The Law" was important enough, then dammit, just induct the Bobby Fuller Four.  Shame on us for applauding this atrocious practice.

The Hall could still theoretically salvage this category if they started inducting songs from Performer inductees, but given the origins and how it was executed this first go-round, I seriously doubt that will happen anytime soon.  I could be wrong, but even if I am, it will still reek of its bungled beginnings.

Ultimately, I loathe the Singles category because at its very core, it's a consolation prize.  It is the same reason we all hate these "back door" inductions that include Wanda Jackson, Nile Rodgers, and Ringo Starr; it's the same reason I oppose the idea of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame ever having a Veterans Committee (Legends Committee, whatever you would call it).  And it's also the reason I am dismayed when Joel Peresman said that the possibility existed that the timeline for the Early Influence category could be moved to formally include early rock and roll artists that were influential to '80's and '90's artists.  Call a spade a spade: the Singles category is a consolation prize that also recommends self-fornication to the artists who recorded those songs.  It's why the Award For Musical Excellence induction of Nile Rodgers was unsatisfying.  It was a consolation prize, and will always be until Chic is inducted as a Performer, and Nile Rodgers is inducted a second time.  If the Hall had introduced this category back in the earlier years, as Seymour Stein, Andy Paley, and Bob Merlis said was strongly considered, and if they included songs from inductees and non-inductees alike, it might be different.  And I might possibly feel the same about a Veterans Committee, if they had done it sooner, though I doubt my feelings would have changed.  An induction into ANY hall of fame--whether it's rock and roll, baseball, television, or Michigan high school athletic coaches--is by its very nature a lifetime achievement award, even when said institution has a separate category called "Lifetime Achievement."  A "hall of fame" establishment should never engage in consolation prizes.  Never.

And for that reason, when I resume burning CDs for my "Songs Of Proof" project, I will not, repeat NOT, be including any Singles category inductees.  Induct the artists.  Do it right the first time, and you won't have to do it again.  My project salutes the people enshrined in an institution.  This category is poorly originated, has been poorly handled behind the scenes, was sloppily executed at this past ceremony, and cheapens the point of an induction into a hall of fame of any kind.  Dump it.  Now.  Induct the six artists insulted by this consolation prize, and speak not of reviving the concept in its current form ever again.

I still stand firm in my belief that making induction classes bigger is the simple answer to this.  When we don't unreasonably shorten the number of inductees a class can have, when more room is possible, when more inductions happen, things will happen more smoothly, more diverse classes can occur, and we can free ourselves from the notion that what matters most is having a marketable three-hour television broadcast.

And it starts with a conscious decision to do away with these consolation prize inductions.