Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Battle Royale for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Cultural Impact


Today we’re going to try to assess the cultural impact of each of the candidates for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. This is different from their status as musical influence, asking questions like: How often were they on the cover of Rolling Stone? Or better yet, the cover of Time? Did they ever become the proverbial household word? Were they on Saturday Night Live? Or The New Scooby-Doo Mysteries? (As far as I know, the only Hall of Famer with that distinction is Mama Cass Elliot, although Sonny and Cher and Jerry Reed still have a shot.)

This isn’t an easy thing to assess, since people like the New York Dolls (only there aren’t any people like the New York Dolls) had an exceedingly narrow but nevertheless noticeable impact on the culture. So, as with most of this categories, there will be a great deal of judgment involved. As President Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Let’s do something that’s hard:


  1. Carole King A true superstar in the early 1970s, at that moment when Long Island housewives started wearing caftans and getting divorced. The best-selling album of all time at one point, Tapestry was on the charts continuously from April 1971 to January 1977. Lorne Michaels wanted her to appear on the first episode of Saturday Night Live (he settled for Janis Ian instead).
  2. Tina Turner Tina became an icon in the midst of her solo comeback in the 1980s, with not just hit records but a best-selling book and even an Oscar-nominated movie based on her life. What she did with Ike may have been more important musically, but her solo career was more impactful on America as a whole.
  3. Jay-Z Playing off a lyric in “Empire State of Mind,” my friend Rob Sheffield has made the case for J-Hova as the Frank Sinatra of rap. It’s a bold claim, and I am not in a position to say it’s wrong. At the same time, you could call Jay and Bey the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor of the modern age. 

  4. The Go-Go’s 
    They came along at the perfect time, just as MTV was happening, but they also did an awful lot to create that moment. A greatly enjoyable, photogenic band with a sneakily original sound, welding together punk and pop and surf music in Gina Schock’s drumming. They posed for Rolling Stone in their underwear, like many other women had done, but nobody ever had more fun doing it.
  5. Dionne Warwick The sophistication she brought to the pop charts with her string of Bacharach/David hits in the 1960s was something that didn’t really exist aside from Ms. Warwick herself. That impact lessened as her career went on, although her biggest hits came in the 1970s (“Then Came You”) and 1980s (That’s What Friends Are For”).
  6. LL Cool J A huge figure in the first wave of rap that crossed over to not just the pop charts but mainstream American culture. He headlined a sitcom that ran for two seasons and has been on one form or another of NCIS in recent years. I’m not sure whether any of that counts toward the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, though.
  7. Devo They were on Saturday Night Live in 1978, when that was the hippest show on TV, and the nerd on Square Pegs (where they made a guest appearance) claimed his Devo helmet as his dearest possession. In between, they became MTV superstars with “Whip It.”
  8. Chaka Khan Chaka has the respect of everybody who’s anybody in R&B: Stevie Wonder and Prince wrote songs for her to sing, and she made huge hits out of both of them. She also has a street in Chicago named after her, but having said all that, I don’t see very many ways in which she has impacted the culture.
  9. New York Dolls Had a shot at being the Velvet Underground of the 1970s. But they weren’t.
  10. Rage Against the Machine One of the leading acts of the late 1990s, with a great deal of notoriety among the MTV crowd. My sense is that they were a bit of a supernova, whose fame diminished very quickly, although “Some of those who work forces are the same who wear crosses” has had a bit of a comeback lately.  
  11. Fela Kuti An international superstar who never had a lot of impact here in the States. Frankly, I don’t know what to do with him in this category.
  12. Foo Fighters Dave Grohl is a big star, and seems both well-liked and well-respected throughout the world of music and with the public at large. But let’s be honest: Foo Fighters will always be his second best-known band.
  13. Todd Rundgren Rundgren was part of that Seventies series of rock stars who were basically faceless; if anyone today remembers what he looked like, it’s probably because he was so homely.
  14. Mary J. Blige Despite all her hitmaking, Mary never became a household name, or even very visible. She didn’t really make a lot of magazine cover, aside from Essence.
  15. Kate Bush She was probably a big deal in Great Britain, right? I don’t live in Great Britain.
  16. Iron Maiden Ugh.

1 comment:

  1. No. 2 & 6 are already Disqualified,so go ahead and strike them from this list.