Sunday, May 1, 2022

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Vote '22: Pat Benatar

The nomination is technically for Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo. I'm not aware of any other credited solo acts who took someone else in with them, but Neil wasn't exactly riding Pat's coattails.

THE SONG: "Heartbreaker" was only the third single off Pat Benatar's debut album, In the Heat of the Night, but it was the first time most of us heard her. (The first single was her cover of John Cougar's "I Need a Lover.") Straddling the gap between hard rock and the incipient new wave, "Heartbreaker" stayed in the Hot 100 for four months despite peaking at just Number 23. There weren't a lot of women singing hard rock in 1979 aside from the Wilson sisters, so Benatar really stood out. That's Neil Giraldo wailing away on the guitar solo.


THE CASE FOR: With "Heartbreaker" in her back pocket, Pat Benatar was all over the radio in the early days of the MTV era, posting 15 Top Forty hits between 1980 and 1988, four of them reaching the Top Ten. Neil Giraldo joined her band in 1979, became her boyfriend shortly thereafter, broke up with her briefly, then married her in 1982. (When asked why they had gotten back together, Benatar answered simply, "Love, baby.") Giraldo eventually became her primary songwriter, although the only real hits he wrote were "Hell Is for Children" and "Promises in the Dark." 

There was an awful lot of talent on the charts in the first half of the 1980s: Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Prince. Pat Benatar held her own in this crowd, with her powerhouse voice and tough Jersey-girl looks. Again, other than Heart, who had considerably softened their sound by this time, there weren't a lot of female belters carrying on the hard rock tradition at this point. Is Pat Benatar an icon? She's at least iconic, or maybe icon-ish.

THE CASE AGAINST: One knock against Benatar is the same as with a lot of female stars - she rarely wrote her own songs. Including Giraldo on the nomination adds a bit more of that credit to her dossier, and Giraldo is also responsible for much of the toughness of her sound. 

More importantly, those records haven't really held up that well, aside from Benatar's opera-trained soprano and Giraldo's guitar solos. People are still listening to Journey and Toto, but I couldn't tell you the last time I heard "Fire and Ice." 

THE VERDICT: The whole reason I began writing these essays a few years ago was because I wanted to systematically evaluate each candidate, including reading up on their careers and listening to their music, before I made a decision on them. Then this year I started running out of time, which isn't uncommon for these essays, and was forced to send in my ballot for I had reached a final verdict on Pat Benatar.

I wanted to vote for her for two primary reasons: She was a huge star from an era when the Hall of Fame hasn't inducted a lot of people, and she was a female star and the Hall hasn't inducted enough of those either. As I dug into my research, though, I wondered if she was really worthy. On the bright side, 15 pop hits is a lot for someone more closely identified as a rock artist, and nine years is a long time to last on a rapidly changing music scene. 

On the other hand, the music's not that great. One reason that artists rely on outside writers is to have top-quality material, and hardly any of Pat's songs have much substance to them; it's the voice and the guitar that make them work. Going through that body of work, there isn't a single hit that lingers in the culture the way "Africa" or even "Lovin Touchin Squeezin" does.

In the end, I voted YES for Pat Benatar. I don't really regret that vote, but it is, at this stage of the game, with less enthusiasm than I would have liked.