update: baseball's "new" paradigm
r&r hof addendum

it's a great day for enos cabell

What follows assumes something no one really believes, myself included: that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame matters. We all know it doesn't, and we all know I'm going to jabber about it, anyway.

Since all anyone wants to talk about today is baseball, I'll try to stick some appropriate references in this post. First, I'd direct your attention to a fine blog called A List of Things Thrown Five Minutes Ago. They have an interesting take on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: they apply the Bill James "Keltner List" to musical acts, to examine the viability of their nomination to the Rock Hall. I mention this because, in a recent discussion of Hall nominees, I referred to John Mellencamp as the Enos Cabell of rock and roll. Cabell played in the major leagues for fifteen years, despite the fact that he wasn't particularly good, relative to other major-league players. Similarly, John Mellencamp has been playing rock and roll for more than thirty years ... I suppose I don't need to finish this sentence, do I?

Those of you who have read my previous discussions of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame know that I am fond of a web site called Acclaimed Music. The people at that site collate critical opinion from around the globe and tally bunches and bunches of charts. When I make this site my go-to place for discussions like this, I am admitting to certain biases. I think critical opinion matters more than, what, public opinion as expressed in sales? I guess that's a good way to put it. I also like the accumulated force of the Acclaimed lists, because if you just let one critic be the judge, you aren't learning a whole lot beyond what that one person thinks.

My point, therefore, isn't that John Mellencamp isn't popular, or that he never made any good music ... Enos Cabell did some good things on the baseball field, and many fans liked him, I'm sure. But when it comes to the Hall of Fame, I'm looking more for critical consensus.

And with that, we're on to a look at the 2008 inductees, as performers, to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Might as well start with Johnny Cougar. Acclaimed Music has Mellencamp ranked 456th on its all-time list of artists, just under Bright Eyes. In his career, he has had four albums which were among the top 50 albums of the year according to critical opinion, with the highest, Scarecrow, coming in at #26. He has also had three singles finish in the top 50 for their year, led by "Jack and Diane" at #31. His highest-ranked album of all time is Scarecrow, at #1391.

Now, some of you are John Mellencamp fans, and right about now you're preparing to rip me in the comments section. But, with all due respect, your opinion doesn't matter, nor does mine. If you want to make your own personal Hall of Fame, please do ... I'm sure it would be different from mine, just as mine would be different from everyone else's. The point of a Hall of Fame is to get past subjectivity, and a good way to do that is to see what a cross-section of critics thought. You need to be careful, because certain genres are less than popular with critics ... metal, disco, bubblegum, things like that. But that's hardly the case with Mellencamp, who makes the kind of classic-rock Americana that critics seem to love. Nonetheless, critics don't make much of Mellencamp's career. If the best album you ever made is only the 1391st-best album of all time, you are not a Hall of Famer.

Who's next? How about the Dave Clark Five? They were supposed to go in last year, but missed out due to alleged voting shenanigans. Well, they made it this time. They don't fare as well in Acclaimed lists, because those lists are geared more towards albums than singles, and The Five were popular in a time when singles reigned. Nonetheless, it's worth noting that only one of their singles appears on the Acclaimed site, "Glad All Over" at #55 for the year 1963. It's a terrific song ... they had a few, they mostly all sounded the same but it was a good sound. The idea that a group that had a few good singles in the 60s belongs in a Hall of Fame is ludicrous, of course, although it shows the biases of the voters, I suppose ... the Hall is full of 3-hit wonders from the 60s.

Speaking of The Ventures ... they're like the Dave Clark Five, although their one Acclaimed appearance ranks higher (#9 in 1960 for "Walk, Don't Run") and they deserve some extra credit for having an influential sound. But Hall of Fame? Geesh.

That leaves two. Leonard Cohen is not my favorite, nor is he someone I dislike. I think the areas where he is influential (singer-songwriters) have resulted in mostly unfortunate music ... I prefer the Ventures' influence, myself. But you can't blame Cohen because his followers suck.

What does Acclaimed Music say? Cohen is #87 on the All-Time artists list, which is a lot better than John Mellencamp. Six of his albums were among the top 75 of their year, with two of them making the top ten for that year. His best album using this method, Songs of Leonard Cohen, is ranked the #182 album of all time. He also has seven individual songs on the Acclaimed list. And, of course, his songs have been widely covered by many important artists. The song "Hallelujah" all by itself is so ubiquitous, it might be easier to list the musicians who HAVEN'T sung it. Leonard Cohen would not make my personal Hall, but he is clearly a deserving inductee.

Which leaves Madonna. You know, there has never been a player in the history of baseball who got 100% of the votes for induction into the Hall of Fame. Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Bob Gibson, Cal Ripken ... in each case, there were people who decided not to vote for them as Hall of Famers. So I don't know why it surprises me that some people actually believe Madonna is a poor choice. Their arguments come under two general notions. First, people object to her inclusion in a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because Madonna "isn't rock and roll." Well, fuck them. If they want a Hall of Fame dedicated solely to their narrow definition of rock and roll, then no one past 1958 should be allowed in. It's less true with each passing year, but for a long time, popular music was a place where people of different backgrounds could come together. Yes, I'm trotting out my own 60s credentials now ... in my day, the Rolling Stones and the Supremes were rock and roll, the Beatles and Brenda Lee, Otis Redding and the Righteous Brothers. If you don't accept that punk and disco and rap and hip-hop are part of what still falls under the grand umbrella of Rock and Roll, then we have nothing more to talk about. I understand your position, and I think you are full of shit.

The other problem people seem to have with Madonna is that her art is more than just her music. For some, her non-musical work is MORE important than her music. There is no question that Madonna's cultural impact is enormous ... she is one of the most important cultural figures of the last several decades. But dismissing her music as peripheral only means you aren't listening. Madonna's best music matches up well with the best music of anyone. She is one of the biggest no-brainer inductees in the history of the Hall.

I suppose I should check with Acclaimed Music :-). They have her ranked #45 on the all-time artist list, with six albums in the top 25 for their year, 20 songs in the top 50 for their year, including one #1 song of the year ("Into the Groove," 1985). Furthermore, Madonna has maintained her importance over a far longer period of time than almost any rocker you could name ... her top 25 albums range from 1983 to 2000, her twenty top-50 songs from 1983-2005.

So, somebody tell me again how John Cougar Mellencamp is a Hall of Famer and Madonna isn't.

Finally, I'll anticipate in advance an argument that is often raised when I do this. Yes, I know that music, an art form, isn't the same as baseball, a sport, and yes, I know you can't reduce art to a bunch of numbers in a spreadsheet. So you don't have to remind me of that point. Nevertheless, once we've all announced our personal taste preferences, we are still left to ask which artists rise above the rest. If you think that's a dumb question, well, like I said at the top of this post, I agree with you, but we can't seem to help ourselves, can we? If you do decide to waste some time figuring out who are the best artists, and you want to get beyond individual taste preferences, then you need a system that brings a variety of taste preferences together. As I said earlier, critics as a whole have tendencies that must be considered. Once you've worked out those biases, I can't see any justification for the inclusion of John Mellencamp, the Dave Clark Five, or the Ventures in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Comments

Phil Dellio

Steve --

There'll be a barrage of inane commentary in the next few days explaining why Madonna shouldn't be in the HOF: Exhibit A from MSNBC. The thing that especially leaves me dumbstruck isn't so much this guy's contention that Madonna isn't rock and roll--fine, yawn, whatever--but that, since he doesn't raise a similar objection to Leonard Cohen's induction, we can therefore assume that he believes Cohen somehow is. I love some of Cohen's first LP, but honest to god...if rock and roll was, roughly speaking, originally created out of beat and rhythm and noise and jokes and sex and fun and lots of other such stuff, in what universe is Leonard Cohen more rock and roll than Madonna? As for the other three, I like the Dave Clark Five the best and consider them the most farfetched pick. They're about a chip shot away from Freddie & the Dreamers on that one.

Charlie Bertsch

I'll step to the plate. . .

I really love John Mellencamp. In terms of lyrics and music, his big four albums of the 1980s, from American Fool through Lonesome Jubilee are as good as Bruce's work in the 1980s, from my perspective.

That said, I don't think his career is as meritorious as Bruce's and I'm not sure he should be inducted. I imagine, though, that it's also Mellencamp's activism and good citizen behavior that are being inducted. Farm Aid mattered to a lot of people and still does.

Also, not that it matters, but Mellencamp is a fine painter.

Steven

I hear you. I really don't mean to diss Mellencamp, and I really don't mean to diss his fans. I save that for the Carpenters :-). But we all have artists we love, and the question is, does their art transcend the particulars of our personal love? As you say ... you can say you love him and still question his induction. And, in Mellencamp's case, there are all those record sales, which suggest a lot of people agree with you. On the other hand, Metallica sells a lot of records, and they may NEVER get in. My "use the critics" method doesn't work there, either, since critics tend to hate metal. Anyway, I place Mellencamp in the same category as Bob Seger, or Tom Petty, or ZZ Top ... all people I like to varying degrees, all of whom have done some fine work, none of whom belong in the Hall of Fame.

Jay

I remember a Neil Young quote from what I recall as a decade or more ago, and he suggested then that they just stop admitting people to the R 'n' R HOF for a while because they were admitting too many too quickly. If they're admitting acts like the Dave Clark Five now, it's pretty clear that he was right. I wonder what he'd say about inducting Madonna.

Personally, I think HoF designation should be saved for the artists who transcended the surrounding landscape, but good luck trying to quantify that. I will also add that Mellencamp has his merits, but I think penning the line "I cannot forget from where it is that I come from" should disqualify him from HoF consideration. ;^)

Oh, and Steven, have you seen this? I didn't know it existed until I spotted it on Amazon the other day. Have read it since then and, while it's not as much fun as a televised eighth season of Buffy would have been, it's well worth the $12.50 just to hear, er, read Wheedon's dialog for those characters again.

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