While Smith was wearing her radical bona fides on her sleeve, Diamond continued plugging away at his day job, writing and recording one hummable tune after another, including (gasp!) the patriotic anthem “Coming to America.” Yet Diamond, whose largely apolitical career began more than a decade and a half before Smith’s, and who has outsold Smith roughly 25 to one, had to wait until 2011 for his induction; Smith got her call in 2007.
Still, we shouldn’t read too much into the political angle. Though ideological bias is surely a factor in the nomination and election process — bet the farm that Charlie Daniels, who once published an open letter in defense of the invasion of Iraq, will never make the cut — it cannot by itself account for the overriding quirkiness of the Hall of Fame’s roster. For example, James Taylor and Jackson Browne both performed at the proto-Green No Nukes Concert in 1979, and both are in the hall. But Carly Simon, who also performed, and who in her heyday was a bigger star than either of them, has yet to be enshrined.
Indeed, if you take a step back, the hall resembles less a roll call of immortals than a high-school clique rooted in the anti-establishment ethos of the late 1960s. The sophomoric perception of coolness, rather than any discernable artistic or popular measure, seems the coin of the realm. Thus, a third-tier band like Buffalo Springfield gets in because two of its members — Stephen Stills and Neil Young — went on to perform at the boomer-hallowed Woodstock concert, whereas the Monkees, who rivaled the Beach Boys as the biggest American act of the decade, get shafted because they were put together by an entertainment conglomerate. (Ewww, like a corporation, man!) To be sure, rock and roll has always embodied a puerile spirit of rebellion and restlessness; nevertheless, you’d think that the passing decades would have taught even its diehard fan base that there’s scant difference between, say, the Spice Girls and Niggaz With Attitude, that Posh Spice and Ice Cube are both fictional characters — one a little girl’s lunchbox fantasy, the other a grumpier Stepin Fetchit. (The Niggaz, in fact, turned out to be better actors than the Girls.) Yet NWA is a mortal lock to make the hall once they become eligible in 2013 whereas the Spice Girls have no more chance of induction than the Partridge Family does — though both, by the criteria of record sales, fan base, and lasting influence, should get in long before Patti Smith. (Smith versus the Archies is a tougher call.)
The question of criteria, of course, is the 800-pound gorilla in every discussion of the Hall. Despite the fact that rock and roll is an avowedly proletarian art form, its Hall of Fame is even more of an elitist enterprise than most comparable institutions. Think about it. If I want to argue that Bobby Murcer belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame, I can bring forward verifiable evidence — career stats, individual awards, team championships — to support my case. I’ll lose, based on that evidence, but at least I’ll have the satisfaction of engaging in a fair and open debate. What satisfaction is available to a fan of Grand Funk or the Moody Blues? All the verifiable evidence — again: record sales, fan base, lasting influence — points in their favor. But their case is denied, year after year, by a priesthood of industry insiders, who may take into account verifiable evidence, but in the end decide based on their own Beavis and Butthead aesthetic: “That kicks ass!” versus “That’s lame!”
So here’s a suggestion: Give the fans a voice. Keep the current requirements — artists become eligible 25 years after their first recording — but once the journalists and music execs have made their selections, let the people vote to induct one overlooked artist from every decade . . . one whose career began in the 1950s, one from the 1960s, and one from the 1970s. In 2015, open the fan voting for the 1980s and close the voting for the 1950s. Oh, and no prepared ballots with pre-screened candidates. Nothing but write-ins. As John Lennon, the patron saint of rock and roll, once sang, “Power to the People!”
If there’s a rock-and-roll heaven, I don’t think Jimi Hendrix will mind keeping company with Karen Carpenter.
— Mark Goldblatt’s latest novel, Sloth, was published last summer by Greenpoint Press.