Some Highlights from the 2010 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Ballot

The 2010 nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have been announced. The ballot includes KISS, the Stooges, Genesis, LL Cool J, ABBA, Jimmy Cliff, the Chantels, Darlene Love, Donna Summer, Laura Nyro, the Hollies, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Of these 12, five will be chosen for induction into the Hall early next year. That’s a pretty diverse selection.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has long suffered from two main flaws when it comes to choosing artists for induction. First, the Hall subscribes to the Rolling Stone definition of rock music: basically, all popular music since the late 1950s that isn’t country. In particular, what is favored is the music the baby bomber generation grew up on and loved. This makes perfect sense as the Hall was co-founded by Rolling Stone creator Jann Wenner, and features several contributors to the magazine on its nomination committee and in its voting pool. More problematic is that there is no hard metric to help decide an artist’s merit for induction. Unlike with sports hall of fames, artists are not measured by figures or performance statistics in order to ascertain their worthiness to join the Rock Hall. The only hard criterion is that an artist is only eligible for induction 25 years after they have released their first recording. Aside from this one rule, the 30-member nomination committee weighs concepts like influence and longevity in choosing artists for the ballot in lieu of more concrete measurements like record sales or number of awards won. Additionally, members of the nomination committee can easily exert their own personal prejudices, leading to the active lobbying of induction for some artists and the active dismissal of others held in low critical regard, regardless of that artist’s impact or influence. These factors combined explain why Percy Sledge, Miles Davis, and Madonna are in the Hall, and why Deep Purple, Genesis, and the Cure aren’t.

The Rock Hall of Fame has made some strides in addressing common criticisms of its induction process. For starters, the number of artists on the nomination ballot has been increased from nine to 12 artists this year. Additionally, the Hall’s Chief Curator Jim Henke has explained that the nominating committee has created three subcommittees to suggest nominations in particular genres (“one on progressive rock and heavy metal, one on hip-hop and one on early rock and rollers and rhythm & blues”), which inspires confidence that the Hall is aiming to reach outside the baby boomer music canon. Those considerations have resulted in a pretty intriguing ballot; while there are still head-scratchers (really, Laura Nyro?), there are a fair number of artists who definitely have earned their places in the history of modern music. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

Aside from the surprisingly effective disco single “I Was Made for Loving You”, I’ve never been a big fan of KISS’ music. My main issue with the group is that I’ve found its ability to channel its over-the-top stage presence and image on its records rather lacking. For all the band’s showmanship, songs like “Rock and Roll All Night” aren’t the most effective of rock anthems when removed from a live context. The band is definitely far more skilled at transferring the excitement of its live performances into a myriad of licensed products, ranging from toys to comics to caskets. Still, that’s not entirely a bad thing. Even if you don’t know the names of the session players Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley have hired to join them on guitar on drums for the latest KISS tour, you recognize the iconic makeup, some of the most iconic imagery in rock music. Furthermore, the band’s musical influence is massive. Every 11-year-old kid who picked up a guitar in the late 1970s probably did so because they were members of the KISS Army. This includes people ranging from Pantera’s Dimebag Darrell to Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

It’s easy to dismiss Genesis. In many minds, Genesis is remembered for a series of slick radio-ready AOR hits, largely indistinguishable from the concurrent solo hits of frontman Phil Collins. But the band is so much more than that. Long before the days of “Invisible Touch”, Genesis was the most intriguing, exciting, and ultimately the best of the 1970s progressive rock titans. The band’s material under the leadership of original singer Peter Gabriel was extraordinary not merely for its technical skill (which was admirable, to be sure), but for its humanity. Unlike most prog singers of the day, Gabriel’s voice was soft, tuneful, and delicate, allowing him to indulge his lyrical eccentricities without sounding detached or foolish. Genesis’ 1970s material is long-overdue for a critical examination (even the initial material after Collins replaced Gabriel on vocals is great), and is the definitive argument for why the group belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Still unconvinced? If you have ten minutes to spare, I highly suggest you watch this Belgian television performance of “The Musical Box”, the standout track from its third album Nursery Cryme (1971). I am convinced that if you watch the performance all the way through, you will become a fan of the group; that’s what happened with me. Note an uncommonly shaggy Phil Collins on the drums.

The Stooges are the prime example of why consideration for induction into the Hall cannot be based solely on the number of records sold. With the Stooges, it’s more important who picked up their albums. If not for the raw and primal sound of the Stooges, punk rock and by extension New Wave, post-punk, and alternative rock would not exist. Amazingly, this year marks the ninth time that the group has made the ballot. Will the group finally make it into the Hall in 2010? I say it could go either way. As with Black Sabbath before them, at this point it’s a given that the Stooges will be inducted into the Hall some point in the future. Currently there seems to be no rush, though. The Stooges’ relative obscurity and nonexistent commercial success seem to be the key factors that keep them on the Hall’s backburner. Hopefully it won’t be too long a wait; after all, at this point frontman Iggy Pop is eligible for induction for his solo work. Speaking of which, this 1977 performance of “The Passenger” by Pop is one of the most riveting examples I’ve seen of how one man can dominate a stage.

There are some solid arguments that disco queen Donna Summer deserves to be inducted into the Hall more than Stooges. Aside from dwarfing the band when it comes to measuring commercial impact, Summer’s late ’70s work has proven as epochal and influential as the punk rock movement that sprang up alongside her (if not more so). Without her work with producer Giorgio Moroder, much dance and electronic music of the last 30 years would simply not exist. On the surface, Summer’s hits seem like mere escapist dance fodder. But then again, that’s what early rock ‘n’ roll was. And those classic 1950s singles by Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry certainly weren’t as carefully produced and constructed as “I Feel Love”.

LL Cool J is one of the key figures of the golden age of hip-hop. Unlike many of his 1980s cotemporaries, LL Cool J was able to sustain his success in the face of the advent of Death Row and Bay Boy Records, through the 1990s and beyond. In respect to his longevity, I will refrain from posting his video for “Deepest Bluest”, his awful single from the equally awful genetically-engineered killer shark movie Deep Blue Sea. However, I will note that it’s amusing that LL Cool J boasted about putting a muscle-bound man’s face in the sand in “I’m Bad”, then proceeded to gain a muscular physique.

To think, that even a few years back the idea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers being the next alternative rock back to follow R.E.M. into the Hall would have seemed fanciful. However, over the last decade the Chili Peppers have transformed into respected elder statesmen of the genre, one of the few band comfortable playing at the stadium level while turning out hit after hit. In fact, despite their current hiatus, the Chili Peppers are currently one of the biggest rock bands in the world. While dismissed early on by critics for their frat-boy rowdiness, all three current instrumentalists in the group are fantastic musicians; guitarist John Frusciante in particular has seen his stock as a respected guitarist rise even since he rejoined the group for its comeback album Californication (1999). The Chili Peppers have made the ballot in their first year of eligibility, which is a rare feat. While I feel they could wait a year or two to enter the Hall when compared to other artists nominated, they’ve certainly proved their staying power over the years. If they do make it in this year, here’s hoping they work in some of their more energetic material during the induction ceremony performance instead of sticking to the more recent contemplative ballads.