Tom Waits, Bon Jovi, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J top eclectic list of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees
When the list arrived of this year's nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the first thing that occurred to me was a very current cliche. The roster -- eclectic, centerless, open to many interpretations -- seemed very much like an iPod playlist.
The nominees for induction in 2011 are Alice Cooper, the Beastie Boys, Bon Jovi, Chic, Neil Diamond, Donovan, Dr. John, the J. Geils Band, LL Cool J, Darlene Love, Laura Nyro, Donna Summer, Joe Tex, Tom Waits, and Chuck Willis.
Doesn't this unusually long and laudably diverse list seem like it could be on somebody's mix at the gym? Perhaps not a drag queen's, to steal a recent line from "Glee" -- but from one angle it does fulfill that stereotype, with disco favorites (and repeat nominees) Chic and Donna Summer sharing megabytes with glam rock's scary uncle Alice Cooper, coffeehouse chanteuse Laura Nyro, and girl group heartbreaker Darlene Love.
Or maybe it's the Nano of a suburban mom or dad. I regularly meet several on the soccer field who will be delighted for Bon Jovi, one of the hardest-working bands in show biz and this year's populist choice. Like so many artists once scorned for being "too pop" -- like Neil Diamond, for example -- Bon Jovi has been recognized more recently for its consummate craft and dedication to the art of entertainment. One thing that's gone upside-down in the iPod age is the notion of what's hip. Loving "Cherry Cherry" and admitting you rock out in the car to "Livin' on a Prayer" are now signs of open-mindedness.
J. Geils Band, an underdog but a favorite of some rock hall insiders, is in some ways the Bon Jovi of an earlier generation -- a bar band gone nationwide. And a parallel can be drawn between Diamond and Donovan. Both songwriters were seen in their prime as mainstreamers of countercultural sounds and styles; now, both are reborn proteges of Rick Rubin, contemporary pop's prime conveyor of the stamp of authenticity, and are recognized as legitimate rock-era titans.
Hip from the beginning, the previously nominated Beastie Boys get another chance this year, and in some ways, the pioneering hip-hop punks stand alone; they're this year's purest representatives of the 1980s college-rock crowd. Put the Beasties and Jon Bon together on a playlist, though, and add in heartthrob rapper LL Cool J, and what do you have? A quintessential 21st-century wedding reception mix. None of these artists are that far apart.
Indie types could also claim first-time nominee Waits as their own, though he really transcends any subculture or simply defined category. The singer-songwriter and Anti Records artist will likely be lauded by several varieties of music snobs as this year's bravest choice. He's an art-rocking innovator who's never had a big hit; it's hard to imagine him schmoozing at this spring's VIP induction ceremony.
Yet Waits would easily fit on a playlist with Dr. John. The New Orleans stalwart connected roots music to psychedelic rock in ways similar to what the California contrarian, in his mid-period, did for it and post-punk.
As for the two lesser-known, roots music-associated names on this year's list, both make fitting predecessors to this era of delightfully mixed-up flash. Chuck Willis was a blues-rock dandy known for crossing over from R&B to pop. Joe Tex was a soul shouter and rival of James Brown whose distinctive vocal approach pre-dated rap.
I'd be happy for virtually any combination of this year's worthy and widely varied nominees. Apart from specifics, I'm glad that the rock hall, by definition devoted to hierarchies, has fully embraced the iPod approach to canonization. That little device and the culture of downloading that it embodies have thoroughly shuffled pop's hierarchies, making this an era of alternate realities, proudly personal value judgments and left-field notions of greatness. Yes, there will be complaints about this year's nominees, as always. But no one can argue that this mix is one that will make the fancy folks at this year's induction ceremony shake in their seats -- in the best possible way.
-- Ann Powers
Photo: Tom Waits poses for the Times in 1989. Credit: Ellen Jaskol / Los Angeles Times