Critic's Notebook: Rock Hall's dark horses
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions are all about musical history, but the producers of March's fete at the Waldorf Astoria might want to consider playing a current hit to greet the latest batch of inductees. “Raise your glass if you are wrong in all the right ways — all my underdogs,” Pink sings in the titular chorus of her No.1 song.
The rabble-rousing diva had no way of knowing that her trash anthem would apply so perfectly to those being honored by the Cleveland-based canonizing institution. But the strongest quality shared by 2011's chosen ones is that they're five dark horses, forming a winners' circle that looks different than any the Rock Hall has ever had.
That's not to say that Neil Diamond isn't a towering figure in genre-spanning postwar pop or that Darlene Love doesn't possess one of the signature voices of the girl-group era or that Tom Waits hasn't produced one of the most enduring recorded legacies of the rock era. I would never underestimate Alice Cooper's influence on several generations of theatrical rockers or marginalize New Orleans piano man Dr. John, who has turned on millions to the magic of the Crescent City under that name and as “Mac” Rebennack.
Add to this group one more significant performer, Leon Russell, whose reception of the Musical Excellence Award completes the comeback he's made with the graceful assistance of Elton John, and you have a selection that will mostly please pop aficionados but may also puzzle many. (Two worthy inductees in the nonperformer category were also announced: Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman and Specialty Records head honcho Art Rupe.)
Each 2011 Hall of Famer deserves a spot. What's unusual is that they're all arriving together, minus any of the central figures who've defined rock's classic chronology. Each stands tall in a different spot: Diamond on rock's poppiest plateau and Waits at its artiest edge, Love emerging from behind better-known girl group stars such as Diana Ross and Ronnie Spector, Cooper from within heavy metal, a genre he helped invent, and Dr. John, willingly bound to his particular locale, New Orleans.
Obviously, the greatest figures from rock's early and classic years have been in the Hall for a while. Yet by taking a year out to honor mostly older, overlooked figures (Waits, at 61, is the youngest), the Rock Hall's voting constituency is giving the institution a breather from its task of figuring out how to tell pop music's tale after the classic rock period.
With a few exceptions (such as noble hippie Donovan), the nominees snubbed for the Class of 2011 were artists who would have helped the Rock Hall define its next steps.
Chic and Donna Summer would have widened its appreciation of disco, a move already begun by this year's ABBA induction. The Beastie Boys and LL Cool J are key future inductees as the Hall wrestles with the hip-hop era. And Bon Jovi, whose fans may be the most outraged by a snub, must eventually be included as a way of acknowledging that commercial rock during the 1980s mattered even when it wasn't critically admired.
This class, however, isn't about advancing pop's big story as much as it is acknowledging previously overlooked chapters within it. The individual triumphs of each inductee do connect to larger themes, just not the usual ones the Rock Hall has tackled.
Diamond's inclusion is especially important in regards to this: He represents the many artists who've engaged with rock and thrived alongside it without being considered fully part of the scene and whose success undermines the notion that the music-driven counterculture changed everything.
It will be interesting to see whether Diamond's success bodes well for others, such as Barbra Streisand, Burt Bacharach and Harry Belafonte, down the line.
Such weighty questions don't really suit the mood at the Rock Hall this time, however. It's probably wiser to just enjoy the variety this class offers and to anticipate the final jam during that induction party.
Imagine the chaos that could ensue if Waits, Love and Cooper were to sing background on Diamond's “Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show” while Dr. John pounded the keys. It might not be classic, but it would definitely rock.
-- Ann Powers
Images: Darlene Love and Tom Waits. Credit: Getty Images