The R&R HoF and the lingering problem of “subjectivity”

I’m not the only one yarping about the Rock & Roll Hall of “Fame” this week. Most people are duly and appropriately disgusted with the whole charade, but every once in awhile people reach the right conclusions for the wrong reasons. On one of my lists, a regular contributor noted that the Hall is “a sham” – correct – but then completely misses the boat by chalking it up to things being “subjective.”

The failure to properly understand subjectivity and objectivity isn’t just a problem for people thinking about the HoF, it’s a much larger problem we have in our culture, and it’s one I’ve held forth on for years now. So I responded thusly:
Here’s the problem, Xxxxxxx. Our culture has bought into the foolish notion that “subjective” = “arbitrary.” That’s just not true. Subjectivity properly arises from the critical function of smart, educated people, and so much of what is presented as “objective” is flawed at best. “Objective” journalism is anything but objective, data and statistics are subject to more kinds of cynical manipulation than you could ever believe, and even things as rigidly “objective” as high-level research science are the playthings of government and corporate ideologies (because the money has to come from somewhere, and somebody is making a decision on what to fund and what not to fund).

The RnRHoF could be something significant. Sure, it would be subjective. We’d have people who knew music, loved music, respected and revered music making evaluations based on informed criteria. Below you can see the criteria I used when putting together my Best CDs of the 90s list, for instance. We might disagree on which are more important, although I suspect we’d quickly find that we agreed on a lot more than we disagreed on, and that the disagreements were hardly fatal. We might find ourselves engaged in spirited debates over who was greater, The Stones or The Who, but if we were appropriately chartered and had the right people involved we would never reach a point where we were nominating goddamned disco acts while Genesis, Peter Gabriel and Graham Parker were standing around wondering why they were being ignored.

The HoF is what is, and that’s a pile of crap. I get that. My problem is that it’s so tragically less than what it should be and could be.

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Evaluation Criteria: Best CDs of the 90s

1: Social Relevance (Art as Social Document). A great album should in some way affect or impact the social/cultural context. Whether it provides insightful comment on the political issues of the day, stands as a monument to a moment in time, or even spurs members of the culture to some kind of important action, the greatest of albums are more than music – they’re cultural landmarks.

2: Artistic/Lyrical Substance (Art as Art). A great album should offer artistic substance in something approximating a “traditional” fashion, even if that substance is more personal than social. Perhaps the lyrics are accomplished imagistically in the same way the finest poetry is, or maybe they tell compelling stories; maybe the musicianship is innovative and groundbreaking and so splendid that it ranks among the finest performances ever; or perhaps the totality of the work allows the artist to accomplish something that words or music alone couldn’t capture. Rock is a fun form, but at its best it uses its popular platform to do the kinds of things great art has always done.

3: Influence. Great art begets great art. The greatest albums/CDs are ones which influence and inspire other musicians to greatness, and as such their import extends well past the direct impact they have on audiences. So when many brilliant recording artists point to a common influence, a greatest albums list would do well to include that influence.

4: Musically Engaging. Lyrics often provide the depth, but the music itself is the hook. While everybody perhaps has a different idea of what’s hip and listenable, almost nobody sits through music which doesn’t appeal to their sense of “catchiness.” Well, duh. Maybe this goes without saying, but I thought I’d say it anyway.

5: The Artist. Greatness is about context. Albums are the products of all sorts of factors, and one of the most critical is the context of the creator. It’s no accident that most great albums are produced by people we consider to be great artists. As such, if we’re faced with something like a hypothetical tie between album A and album B, the notion that album A was created by, say, The Beatles ought to be a consideration if album B were the one great shot by an otherwise undistinguished artist.

6: Critical Response. Just because a famous critic liked it doesn’t make it great, necessarily, but we’re engaged in some small way with a larger, longer cultural dialogue over art, music, and the socio-political dimensions thereof. It’s valuable to occasionally engage the thoughts of our peers. Maybe we agree, maybe they guide us, or maybe we decide that they’re morons, but they represent another context which we’re better off being familiar with.

7: Innovativeness. The greatest art changes art. Artists who come after are forced to consider the way in which the genre is different, and in doing so find that their own work is changed, hopefully for the better.

8: Popularity. And we’re well-advised to go in fear of this one, because sales and airplay do not equate to quality. That said, a work’s ability to resonate with many people matters. A critically accomplished album that somehow fails to engage an audience is arguably less great than a similarly accomplished album that sells 20 million copies and lodges itself in the public consciousness for decades.

One note as to what I think is not a fair criteria: personal taste. This is a bit ingenious, I admit, because nobody can listen to everything, and we’re necessarily limited to what we hear. So I acknowledge that my taste dictates, sometimes to a large degree, the things I will hear and the things I will not hear. I’m FAR more likely to hear the latest from a dreampop/space rock band than I am the latest from a “jam” band like Phish. That said, I don’t listen to Phish because I have a good idea what to expect and my list of relevant criteria tends to place lesser value on the things they’re best at and higher importance on the things they’re not very good at (or very concerned with).

If I’m wrong to do this, we can have that argument later. I’m just ‘fessing up in advance.

That said, my “greatest” and “favorite” lists might overlap on a maximum of 50% of the discs included in a particular project, and in my annual list of Best CDs of the Year, I have only named my favorite disc of the year #1 once. On the forthcoming Best of the ‘90s list I can tell you in advance that over half of the Top 20 wouldn’t be on my “favorite discs of the ‘90s” list. So I’m not perfect, but I’m trying very hard to separate my taste from my critical function, to the extent that is possible.

So, how does this relate to the Best o’ 90s? Well, it does change things. When evaluating stuff from the past year you can pay more attention to criteria that deal with direct artistic merit – songwriting, performance issues, etc. But it’s hard, if not impossible, to do justice to longer-view criteria like “social relevance” or artistic influence because you simply haven’t had time to tell how important a work is going to be.

However, when analyzing a decade (or longer period) those “big” categories become a lot more important. As the clock approaches 2000 we sort of DO know what defined the decade (at least we have a decent idea – who knows WHAT historians might think 50 years from now?) So in assessing my best of the decade I’ll be a little less concerned with the criteria that dictated what I had to say when these same records were first released and more concerned with the longer view.

Of course, as I have said a thousand times before, there’s no formula, and some things on the list might not have been especially famous or defining in an obvious way, and when that happens I’ll try to explain why I rated it as I did.


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