Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Subjectivity and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

So Peter Gabriel, KISS and Nirvana got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Say, which of these things is not like the other?

(hint hint: of the three artists mentioned,
these two guys are the ones who have
a lot in common)
When a band as polarizing as KISS still is—after all these years—getting discussed, the conversation can get heated. They've got a lot of fans, and generally speaking, if you're a fan of KISS, you're a pretty hardcore fan: in my experience, there aren't a lot of people who like KISS a lot but don't love 'em. When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way.

I don't quote a Broadway musical offhandedly. While I'm glad that the Hall is taking fan fanaticism seriously, there's an obvious downside to this, as well. To wit: KISS's 2012 album, Monster, sold 59,000 copies its first week. Justin Bieber's 2012 album, Believe, sold 374,000 copies its first week. Would KISS's fans agree that the Beeb belongs in the Hall, since he's so wildly popular? How about if his popularity—which seems like it's about to collapse any second now—keeps up for another 25 years? Or, more accurately, what if in a few more years his popularity plummets to a fraction of its current state for a decade and a half and then, to everyone's shock, his comeback tour is a monster success, and he's able to more or less ride that goodwill for another decade? How's about then?

I'm guessing most KISS fans wouldn't think so. (I'm also guessing Gene Simmons himself would say the Beebs should indeed get in.)

Popularity is a non-inconsequential factor for inclusion to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You can't analyze the importance of Elvis Presley or the Beatles or Michael Jackson or Madonna or U2 without talking about their popularity: it's a big and important part of their legacy. But obviously that's not the only factor, or the Velvet Underground wouldn't be in the Hall, and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without the Velvet Underground wouldn't be an entity worthy of serious discussion.

So that brings up the issue of quality. Of good versus not good. Or even good versus bad.

Ah, but when such issues are raised, the "s" word is rarely far behind: subjectivity. "It's all subjective," you'll hear. "What's good to one person may be considered bad by another and so on and so forth."

Which is, of course, absolutely true. And...well...unfortunately, somewhat facile. Even when said in good faith—and for what it's worth, I think it's nearly always said in good faith—it's, if not a strawman, at the very least distracting, adroitly leading attention away from the heart of the matter.

(Whether something is facile or not is, of course, also a matter of complete subjectivity.)

Look, here's the thing: it's the rare person who doesn't believe that some works of art are inherently good or bad. You might like stuff you or others think is bad (hello, Osmonds), and you might dislike things you concede are good (hey, Ginger Baker). But to claim that it's all subjective is to believe that a random Hallmark greeting card is the artistic equal of King Lear, or that "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" is the artistic equal of Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata, or any given Cathy cartoon strip is the artistic equal of the Sistine Chapel. And I've yet to meet the person who would make those arguments in good faith.

So. There are standards. There is good art and there is bad art—and just because, incidentally, something is bad doesn't mean it's not art. "Lick It Up" may suck, but Gene Simmons' own claim to the contrary, it is art. It's just terrible art.

But if there are standards, what are they? Well...that's where things get a bit trickier, at least for me. I'm not saying, not for a moment, that I'm The Ultimate Arbiter or What Is or Is Not Good™. Far from it. I'm not claiming my personal opinions are right and all others are wrong. I'm simply saying that there is a difference in quality between, say, The Beatles and Nickleback, or between Billy Ray Cyrus and Willie Nelson. And while I'm not the naïve romantic I was in my youth, I also believe there's such a thing as art and that while it often (always?) crosses paths with commerce, that they are not inherently the same thing.

So let's take a look at what the Hall itself says about such matters:
To be eligible for induction as an artist (as a performer, composer, or musician) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the artist must have released a record, in the generally accepted sense of that phrase, at least 25 years prior to the year of induction; and have demonstrated unquestionable musical excellence.  
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, but musical excellence shall be the essential qualification of induction.
Unquestionable musical excellence. Oy. If we accept that there is such a thing as a way to judge unquestionable musical excellence, that'd seem to be an unleapable hurdle for KISS right there. Unquestionable musical capability, sure. They can all play. And to their credit, they seem to rehearse with the kind of obsession rarely seen outside a James Brown band. Paul Stanley's an okay singer, from a technical point-of-view, and Peter Criss actually had a surprisingly soulful voice. But he was and is just a remarkably pedestrian drummer of the sort rarely seen outside the original Eagles. And obviously neither of the others are much of a singer, although Ace Frehley was certainly a fine guitarist, if well short of the Page/Beck level to which he was often and absurdly compared back in the day. (Oh, 1970s, you were a cute 'un.)

As to the second set of criteria, only "influence" and "length of career" would seem to apply, and unfortunately, neither are terribly convincing. Sure, they've been popular for a long time, and good for them, since hard work accounts for much of that. (Nostalgia, knowing what the fans want and willingness to give it to them, and good timing account for most of the rest.)  As for influence, musically they mainly influenced subsequent hair metal bands, with their inspired combining of pop progressions, cadences and melodies out of the ABBA songbook with ostensible metal trappings. So a song that disco-era Rod Stewart could have written is played with explosions and a demon spitting blood and breathing fire. I guess that's an innovation? Unfortunately, it mainly inspired the likes of Poison and Ratt and Warrant and Skid Row.

Perhaps their biggest influence on subsequent artists was their stage show, and that's nearly unimpeachable. Except that all they did was take what Alice Cooper and the New York Dolls had already done and simplify and magnify it for the masses. Which, hey: David Bowie's just warmed over Lou Reed with some Eno and some Philly soul thrown in, right? The difference is that 1) no, he's not but 2) even if he were, he created some brilliant art out of those influences. KISS created enormous bank accounts. Meanwhile, P-Funk were mining more or less the same territory on their stage shows. The difference being, of course, that P-Funk were monster musicians creating some indelible art. So it could have been done. It just wasn't.

Which is why I quoted West Side Story up above. Because more than anything else, KISS is like an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. They both borrow the appurtenances of rock and roll but are really Broadway productions: tons of spectacle, sing-song melodies and the same amounts of professionalism and improvisation. You want a show? You came to the right place. As Gene Simmons said:
"Kiss is a Fourth of July fireworks show with a backbeat."
And what higher praise? What could possibly be more rock and roll than that?

Simmons also said:
"Anyone who tells you they got into rock n' roll for reasons other than girls, fame and money is full of shit." 
Thus, I think, revealing more about himself than he meant to. Not that he's ever hidden his ambitions—more than he's unable to comprehend that anyone else might ever have different motivations. If they claim they do? They're clearly lying. No one could ever transcend the most base desires.

He also said:
"The root of all evil isn't money; rather, it's not having enough money."
"Whoever said 'Money can't buy you love or joy' obviously was not making enough money."
which must have just made his family feel swell.

And most telling of all, he said:
"If someone offered me a billion dollars for the Kiss brand I wouldn't sell. We now have 3,000 licensed products. There's no limit to what Kiss can do. We have everything from condoms to caskets—we'll get you coming and we'll get you going."
Yeah. Hey, did you notice what he didn't mention there? That's right: create a great album.

Look. I liked KISS when I was a kid. In fact, for a while there, I pretty much loved 'em. In college, my band, Übërsphïnctër, covered a couple KISS songs and we were only pretending to be ironic—in reality, it was a hoot. And even now I have some residual fondness for them and can listen to a few of their songs with some pleasure.

But beyond the fact that they were openly, cynically a cash grab with no pretensions towards even attempting to create great art...they simply weren't very good. Their musicianship was admirably adequate, their melodies jejune and their lyrics...oh, their lyrics. Even for a genre and a decade that can often seem fairly horrifying with 20/20 hindsight, KISS's lyrics are repulsive for their level of misogyny. And sadly, they don't seem to have improved significantly with middle-age. Not that that should be especially surprising. After all, this is the band whose leader once proudly ridiculed the very the notion of artistic ambition:
"I'm sick of musicians saying 'I don't care what you want to hear, I'm gonna play whatever I want 'cause I'm an artist.' You're an artist? Paint my house, bitch!"
(When it comes to horrifying misogynistic lyrics, of course, it's not like we're living in paradise at the moment, given that one of our biggest and best stars, Kanye West, released the odious Yeezus just this year, featuring lyrics so vile even KISS would have been taken aback.)

I remember reading a piece once which said that the third album—back when artists were allowed three albums, even if the first two didn't do well—was when you knew whether or not you had a serious artist, one with something to say and staying power. As the saying goes, you have your entire life to write your debut record, and a few months on the road to write the follow-up, hence the typically problematic sophomore album. But then it comes time for the third album, and it's make or break time. Do you really have what it takes? Do you have a The Who Sell Out or Learning to Crawl in you? How's about an Electric Ladyland or Born to Run? A London Calling or Dirty Mind? A Ladies of the Canyon or Fables of the Reconstruction? A Hard Day's Night or Zen Arcade? A The Times They Are a-Changin' or Let It Be?

Let's take a look, then, at the opening tracks off those vital third albums from a trio of this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees.

Here's Peter Gabriel's:

I know something about opening windows and doors
I know how to move quietly to creep across creaky wooden floors
I know where to find precious things in all your cupboards and drawers
Slipping the clippers
Slipping the clippers through the telephone wires
The sense of isolation inspires
Inspires me

It's a brilliant opening to a brilliant album. Creepy in a way rock and roll almost never had been before, Gabriel has the stones to get inside the mind of a stalker terrifying a homeowner, while drummer Phil Collins and producer Hugh Padgham casually invent the sound of drums for the entire coming decade. Later on, the album will do something not dissimilar with a Lee Harvey Oswald-like assassin in "Family Snapshot," visit a patient in a mental institute in the ricepaper sketch "Lead a Normal Life," take a catchy stab at geopolitics in "Games without Frontiers," and what's perhaps a tortured prisoner of war in "I Don't Remember" before, oh, yes, introducing millions of white fans to hero Steve Biko in the overwhelming "Biko." Gabriel went on to much higher heights, commercially, with 1986's So, but he never got better, because you cannot get better than this record.

Then there's this, featuring one of the most famous opening couplets in rock and roll:

Teenage angst has paid off well 
Now I'm bored and old

After changing the pop landscape in a way only a tiny handful of artists ever had before, with Nevermind, Nirvana decided to try going back to their punk roots for one of the most abrasive rock and roll albums—no, Metal Machine Music doesn't count—ever, and a remarkably bold, defiant gesture towards not just their label or the record industry but to a huge percentage of their own fans. As the Rolling Stones and the Who have proven again and again over the past several decades, no matter how much you got in the bank, it's never an easy thing to leave money on the table, yet that was precisely what Nirvana was determined to do with this album. And they did. In Utero sold 15,000,000 copies less than its predecessor. As they suspected it would. And twenty years later, it's widely (if erroneously) considered the best album of the band's career, with blistering rock and roll such as "Heart-Shaped Box" and "Rape Me," not to mention "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter"and "tourette's," alongside gorgeous, heart-rending tracks like "Dumb," "Pennyroyal Tea" and "All Apologies." And the opening cut laid the entire thing bare right from the beginning. Gone were the double- and triple-tracked guitars and the arena-rock friendly drums. In its place were plain, crunchy instruments placed front and center with a minimum of sonic sheen. And the lyrics were straightforward, saying, hey, look at me and my suppurating warts: how you like me now? The entire band always loved pop too much to ever be as punk as they dearly wanted to be...but that's pretty damn punk anyway. And, far more important, it's great.

And then there's this:

I'm feelin' low, no place to go 
And I'm a-thinking that I'm gonna scream 
Because a hotel all alone is not a 
Rock and roll star's dream

But just when I'm about to shut the light and go to bed
A lady calls and asks if I'm too tired or if I'm just too dead for

Room service, baby I could use a meal
Room service, you do what you feel
Room service, I take the pleasure with the pain
I can't say no

My plane's delayed and I'm afraid
They're gonna keep me waiting here till nine
Then a stewardess in a tight blue dress says
"I got the time"

But just as I'm about to take my coat and get my fly
She says "Oh please," she's on her knees
And one more time before I leave I get some

Room service, baby I could use a meal
Room service, you do what you feel
Room service, I take the pleasure with the pain
I can't say no, no

In my home town, I'm hangin' 'round
With all the ladies treatin' me real good
A sweet sixteen lookin' hot and mean says
I wish you would

But just as I'm about to tell her "Yes, I think I can"
I see her dad, he's getting mad
All the time he knows that I'm in need of

Room service, baby I could use a meal
Room service, you do what you feel
Room service, I take the pleasure with the pain
I can't say no

Room service, well maybe baby, room service


Nice job, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Well done.

1 comment:

  1. From that photo I thought Gabriel was gonna get slammed by some Cobain loving gen-x'er, but no. Instead a thoughtful piece on art, fame and some great third albums, Nirvana included. And oh man...I played that record over and over. Anyway thanks