Friday, April 29, 2011


(This is part one of a two part discussion of Game of Thrones, the second part of which will is featured here at The Factual Opinion.)

It should surprise no one at this late date that I have read my fair share of fantasy novels. However, I have not read George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones series. Perhaps an explanation in is order.

When I was just a little shaver coming up in the world I split my reading time pretty evenly between sci-fi and fantasy. (I'm going to type sci-fi and if you've got a problem with you can just suck it.) My tastes in sci-fi were, even at the time, hopelessly retrograde. I had a teacher in high school - we all had this teacher in high school - who was really, seriously into sci-fi and used to tease me for being stuck in the mud with my Heinlein and Asimov while he was jazzing out to Lucius Shepard and Bruce Sterling. He actually gave me a couple books when I graduated - Shepard's Kalimantan and The Difference Engine by Sterling and William Gibson. I finally got around to reading the former a few years back and it was pretty tepid, and the one time I tried to read The Difference Engine I just about had a stroke because it was so damned dry. It's still there on my shelf, unread, next to my autographed (and similarly unread) copy of Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon's The Chrome Borne. (True story: Lackey & Dixon are the nicest people you could ever want to meet, and if you're ever in northeast Oklahoma you should stop in and say hi. I have no idea if they remember me fondly at all.)

Fantasy is an easy genre for a kid to like, but all the same more problematic than sci-fi. Sci-fi can always fall back on (at least the appearance of) a patina of sophistication and rationality. It's the Literature of Ideas! I loved fantasy but at the same time I was always deeply skeptical of the genre. Even as a kid it was pretty easy to tell that some of that shit was just not right. Fantasy, after all, is the Literature of LARPing! I will say for clarification that while I have read books (plural) by Piers Anthony, I have never read a Xanth novel. I have never read read Terry Goodkind, L.E. Modesitt, or R. A. Salvatore, but I have to my eternal shame read a Dungeons & Dragons novel. (In my defense it was actually pretty good.) However, with the exception of rereading some Tolkien in the middle of the decade, I haven't read any "high" fantasy in over a decade. There is one very simple reason for this, and if you know fantasy at all you'll understand exactly why I walked away from the genre: The Wheel of Time.

Epic fantasy is a strange beast, but even in the world of epic fantasy The Wheel of Time is a remarkable and sui generis specimen. The genre is notable for its extreme depth of field: every epic fantasy series (and all epic fantasy comes in series) walks in Tolkien's footprints, and Tolkien's primary virtues as an author were his extreme attention to detail and unparalleled sincerity of affect. That is why his books endure even after decades of awful fandom and mediocre movie adaptations. I'll stand by The Lord of the Rings even after all the shit that has been perpetrated in its name - damn fine books, and the ending of The Return of the King still chokes me up every damn time. (Don't talk to me about those fucking movies!) So every epic fantasy series is long and long and long, composed of multiple thick door-stops of cheap newsprint, published every couple of years like periodical drugs, and dissected with the ferocious loyalty of Thomas de Quincey rushing the doors of his favorite opium den. There's money to be made ad infinitum from nerds forever chasing that dragon, trying to somehow reclaim that first high, pretending as if their arms weren't already covered in the scabby purple track marks of narrowed expectations.

I'd be lying if I didn't say that the type of people who read these books was, at a certain point, a major factor in my having become seriously disinclined to read more of them. Besides Tolkien, the only series to which I ever gave my heart fully was Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books. I loved those books partially because of the way they gleefully dismantled so many of the genre's hoariest cliches. (The protagonist was a physically deformed rapist, for crying out loud.) A lot of hardcore fantasy fans seriously dislike Donaldson for just those reasons. But then against my better judgment I got sucked into The Wheel of Time. It it not without good reason that I say "against my better judgment": I had a number of friends who kept pushing the damn things on me over the space of about a year. I resisted and resisted, made a couple false starts but then finally got sucked in. The problem was that the books themselves were awful things in which to get sucked, totally aside from any discussion of quality, simply because they never ended. The first book in the series, The Eye of the World, was published in 1990. The series' author, Robert Jordan, died before the books could be properly completed, but the series will finally be completed in 2012 with the help of an assistant hired by the estate to flesh out Jordan's final notes and outlines. The last volume of the series will be the fourteenth volume. The story when completed will be larger than Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle, and that's the second biggest non-genre fiction series that comes to mind. (The longest is most likely Balzac's Comédie humaine, which stretched over 95 finished and proposed novels and short-stories.) You could fit two and a half Prousts inside the Wheel. (Maybe you could actually find Marcel somewhere in the Wheel if you looked hard enough, nibbling on a madeleine and swinging a sword against rampaging trollocs.) Check this out: when all is said and done, the whole thing will top out over four million words. Nerds are masochists, not to mention slaves to habit.

I freely admit I loved the books in the beginning. They are great fun, and even if the characters are about as transparent as saran wrap the stories themselves can be quite novel. So over the course of many months I kept reading and kept enjoying myself, until around book five a torpid kind of lethargy set in . . . book six was a dutiful obligation . . . and finally in the middle of book seven, after reading literally six chapters in a row of different characters I couldn't remember all arriving in some vaguely defined spot in the woods whose location I couldn't remember without an atlas, I gave up. I don't know if I literally threw the book against the wall but I wanted to, real bad. I was done. No more! No more epic fantasy! Because that shit . . . never . . . fucking . . . ENDS. Life is too short: in the years since I gave up on reading fantasy, I actually read War & Peace, which really isn't all that difficult if you've hacked your way through The Shadow Rising.

It was around that time that Martin's Game of Thrones first came onto my radar. The first book was actually hand-sold by a very enthusiastic bookstore clerk at The Other Change of Hobbit in Berkeley, California. This was back in 1999. That book, the titular volume of A Game of Thrones, has been sitting on my shelf, unread, for 12 years. In that time i have encountered many, many people who have urged me to give the books a try. Give it a shot, they said. Read to page 80, they said. (Everyone says that, "read to page 80"!) Die-hard fantasy fans love it. Even a few friends of mine who have no real interest in contemporary fantasy have found themselves surprisingly devoted. But I had been burnt so badly by the Wheel that the thought of ever diving into another fantasy series just made me want to die a little on the inside. I am not feeling the whole "fantasy" thing so much these days, for whatever reason . . . maybe there's a statue of limitation regarding how long one man should be expected to care about elves and kobolds?

And now HBO has saved me the trouble of deciding whether or not I eventually wanted to commit to Martin's series (not as voluminous as The Wheel of TIme but still quite large, and still frustratingly unfinished). If a slavish adaptation on TV's premiere network for prestige serial drama can't sell the books, then the books aren't worth being sold, right?

I am not unconvinced but still somewhat nonplussed. I didn't absolutely hate these first two episodes, and I am firmly on board for the rest of the season (it's pretty to watch and well made, if nothing else, and I'd rather watch fantasy on TV than a crime procedural or a singing competition) . . . but based on the story I see, I can't for the life of me imagine why these characters and these situations have resonated so strongly with so many readers over the last fifteen years. Either the charm of the stories themselves is becoming obscured by the difficulties of adaptation, or the stories are less compelling than the manner in which they are told on television - I don't know the answer, and unless and until I read the books myself I will be in no position to judge one way or another.

There is also the fact that, frankly, I am sick to death of the default medieval setting for epic fantasy. Anyone who writes this type of fiction is still essentially playing in Tolkien's toolbox, and even the most clever inversion (such as Donaldson's books) is still just a clever inversion of an instantly recognizable and intimately familiar archetype. So we see the castle, the swords, the furs and the rusty armor, and we already know going in what the stakes are and what the general shape of the story is going to be. Genre is a phenomenon that trades on familiarity: people love The Lord of the Rings so they want more books like that but different, preferably for the rest of their lives.

The reason these series become so big is that the fans want extreme immersion. It's undoubtedly a byproduct of publishing evolution: series became bigger and more elaborate over the last few decades since the original publication of The Sword of Shannara. Shannara in 1977, moreso even than Tolkien, was the spark that lit the epic fantasy boom. Writers and publishers were rewarded for providing "more but different" all down the line, until the emphasis on "more" ran straight into the creation of electronic word processors. Looking at the history of genre fiction especially it's easy to see how the invention of word processors made the act of physically producing reams of regrettable prose far, far easier than it had ever been in the age of pen or typewriter. (Remember manual correcting fluid?) Perhaps there has been something of a backlash in the wake of The Wheel of TIme. Everything I have seen on the matter indicates that Martin is very much adamant about not wanting to needlessly inflate his series too far past the point of absurdity. With his hand firmly in the back pockets of a generation of fantasy readers this is an admirable show of restraint.

So here we are once again in a society that vaguely resembles medieval Europe, complete with struggle over hereditary kingships. Oh boy. You know you're in fantasyland (in more ways than one) when the audience is immediately invited into ethical complicity with royalty. Again, this is Tolkien talking: Tolkien was a professor of medieval history and language. He was a philologist of the old school. We are not. I do not automatically respond to hereditary authority with deference and respect, and I am actually resentful of any author (or director or screenwriter) writing in the year 2011 who takes it as a given that my sympathies will automatically lie with the king without giving me a damn good reason. Shakespeare was a man of his time writing historical propaganda, alive in an era when absolute monarchy was all the rage - he gets a pass. But don't forget: not 46 years after the peaceful death of Good Queen Bess, Charles I was executed for treason by a rebellious parliament.

This is especially important to remember now, of all times, when so many eyes are focused on another "spontaneous" outpouring of naive enthusiasm for a royal wedding. We are perpetually attached to our fairy tales of noblesse oblige. We want to believe that the marriage of William and Kate is a grand romance and not the wedding of two social parasites propitiously timed to distract a weary body politic from a series of regressive, crippling cuts into the social welfare state on the part of David Cameron's penurious austerity measures. These medieval fantasies appeal to us in moments of societal upheaval and uncertainty. Who wouldn't rather be a serf under stolid, wise Eddard Stark than a contemporary citizen in our current burnt-out shell of a democratic republic?

There is a profound lack of imagination at the heart of the popular fantasist's persistent refusal to reiterate any vision of society besides the most reactionary kind of feudalism. I like Geoffrey of Monmouth as much as the next guy, but the reason he wrote the stories he wrote was because he was a propagandist for the house of Normandy in the years immediately following the conquest of 1066. Tolkien's masterwork was an incredible synthesis of a thousand years of English (and Welsh, Irish, Germanic and French) heroic tradition. But the fact that we're still writing and reading all these stories that are content to begin with Tolkien's presets intact is deeply distressing. (And yes, I know that there's a lot more kinds of fantasy out there than can be dismissed on these grounds - but those aren't the kind of fantasy stories that Hollywood pays hundreds of millions of dollars to realize.) I like fantasy, and I've even got a big old soft spot for epic fantasy, but I'm not twelve anymore and I would like to believe that there is something in the genre of popular fantasy fiction that will not insult my intelligence.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

That Was It

Speaking of the Strokes, New York's finest continued their comeback at Coachella (after recently releasing their first album in five years), although the tracks from their breakthrough debut Is This It drew the most elated audience response. "Hard To Explain," "Last Nite," "The Modern Age," "Someday," "New York City Cops," and "Take It Or Leave It" all sounded so fresh, so relevant, so freakin' cool, it was mind-boggling to realize that these songs were recorded (prepare to feel old) TEN YEARS AGO. The Strokes truly set the blueprint for the indie-rock revolution of the 2000s; many baby bands playing Coachella '11 owe them a huge debt, and a huge amount of respect. And their Coachella concert, with sunglassed-at-night, trucker-hatted singer Julian Casablancas in fine surly form and Albert Hammond Jr.'s distinctive guitar as tinny and angular and, well, Strokes-y as ever, was a welcome reminder of their influence and impact. 04/18/11

I saw the Strokes at Coachella in, I want to say, 2002? They were playing in the middle of the day on the main stage, a very short set composed of the entirety of Is This It with, I want to say, two new songs. One of those songs was "Meet Me In The Bathroom," which later appeared on Room On Fire. I remember standing there in the crowd at a fair distance and enjoying the set in a mild enough fashion - they played their songs with an admirable degree of precision, but they seemed a bit lost on a giant festival stage. It must be said, however, that no one really looks good in the midday slot at a festival.

Listening now to Is This It, I am struck as much by the simplicity of the music as anything else. I'm not a musician, I want to stress: it's been a decade since I held a guitar for an extended amount of time, and even longer since I beat a drum. (I was a moderate duffer.) But listening to their earliest songs, the purposefully sparse style is nevertheless impressive. There aren't very many guitar parts on the album that you couldn't play with a basic knowledge of power chords and some simple scales. Give me some tablature and I could probably figure out the rhythm guitar for "Last Night" in ten minutes. But it sounds pretty damn nice all the same.

The production is crisp and naked in a way that positively screams New York: no lush Los Angeles atmosphere, no British warmth, everything is bright and even tinny, very trebly with not a lot in the way of bottom end. If the album sounds like anything, it sounds like Television's Marquee Moon. To my ears that album has one of the most fascinating sounds of any rock album ever recorded. Television maybe weren't the best songwriters (I'll get pilloried for that in the comments) but they got by on a hypnotic degree of atmosphere and some truly stunning arrangements. At a certain point I don't think it even matters whether or not the members of the Strokes are or were as well-versed in rock history as a lot of critics (including myself) always gave them credit for being. Either the Strokes knew Television and the New York Dolls or they heard all the bands who were influenced by them - the result is a wash. Anyone with half an ear for music history can identify where the disparate parts of the sound came from, either first-, second-, or third-hand. Milo (in the comments to the last post) was right to point out the Cars as an influence - I had never made that connection before, and I quite like the Cars. But I suspect that someone, somewhere along the line - perhaps producer Gordon Raphael - had to have heard Marquee Moon. All the details, right down to Julian Casablancas' omnipresent fuzzy vocal filter standing in for Tom Verlaine's croon, are just so dead on that it would stand as an amazing coincidence of convergent evolution if the Strokes had arrived at the same sound without any prompting.

The Strokes have been around as a cultural force for ten years now. Their new album really isn't much to write home about but they've been met by rapturous crowds everywhere on their current tour. People like the Strokes an awful lot. This is funny, for anyone with a good memory of the last ten years. Is This It was hot for a while but their second album - the aforementioned Room On Fire - was a disappointment, commercially if not critically. Their third album, First Impressions of Earth, received negative reviews and was met with wide indifference. by 2006 people were writing the band's obituary - maybe they had influenced a great deal of the music that followed, but they seemed trapped in amber themselves, of their moment but unable to move beyond a certain image suspended in time.

Personally, I quite liked Room On Fire. For all the complaints of it being a retread of their first LP, I thought their sophomore effort was an improvement in every way. For one thing, the songs were better. There were a number of standout tracks on their first album, but it feels overlong at 30 minutes. Room On Fire, however, is strong throughout and ends with the one-two punch of "The Way It Is" and "The End Has No End," two of the best rock songs of the last decade. "The End Has No End" also gets credit for the fact that the video is an unannounced and completely sincere sequel to 2001:


Anyway, I liked their second album, but I loved their third album. First Impressions of Earth was the type of album I didn't think the Strokes had it in them to make. It was different - longer, with many types of songs, denser arrangements and heavier riffs. I listened to it a lot when it first came out and I still go back to it. I thought, this was a fantastic album, this is change, this is the kind of stylistic evolution that people like to hear. And then no one else liked it. It got some polite notices from the usual suspects but a savage 5.9 from Pitchfork. The air went out of the balloon, the band drifted apart. Albert Hammond. Jr. went off to do his awful solo stuff. (I saw him open up for Bloc Party when Bloc Party was touring behind A Weekend In The City. Completely innocuous but instantly forgettable.) Casablancas released a solo album too.

What i didn't understand at the time was that, regardless of my reasons for liking their third album, the band was in a torturous bind. Normal rock bands are expected to change, to evolve and to grow. We all know what's supposed to happen because we all know the critical shorthand: Pablo Honey becomes The Bends becomes OK Computer; Please Please Me to Revolver to The Beatles. We expect our great bands to be smart bands, filled with smart people who want to stretch and who chafe at any self-imposed limits. Even when they don't quite make it we applaud the effort anyway (see: Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys). But the Strokes couldn't play that game. They had not rose to popularity solely by virtue of an acclaimed debut album. They were popular because of what they represented at a certain point in pop music history: they were rock stars, they had that swag. The moment they had to try, the moment they needed to either put up or shut up, they lost a bit of their glamour. The difficult second album? The arduous third album? These were not the kinds of narratives that you could stick on a band like the Strokes, because their whole appeal was anti-narrative. They were cool. They didn't sweat. The moment we caught them working at it, the spell was lifted.

It is an inescapable fact that the Strokes are wealthy children of privilege. This makes them, by any stretch of the imagination, fairly despicable creatures. It's hard not to hate them just a little bit when you learn that Casablancas met Nikolai Frature at the Lycée Français de New York, for instance. There is a class element to their appeal: their image is composed entirely of signifiers pointing to their class status. Urban petit bourgeoisie could see in the group something to which to aspire, an image of cool made of smoke rings, Pabst Blue Ribbon and po-faced Members Only jackets. The Strokes didn't invent hipsters, but the existence of the Strokes crystallized the category of "hipster" as a concrete object, either for aspiration or derision.

Look around record stores and takes a glance at the people buying contemporary rock records - not Nickleback or Coldplay, but the good stuff: Spoon, TV On The Radio, the National, Neko Case, Fleet Foxes. Who's buying the good critically acclaimed and interesting rock records? Middle class white people. College students. NPR listeners. Intellectuals. Contemporary rock has dropped out of the mainstream and into a solidly upper-middle-class socioeconomic niche. Listening to rock now isn't as simple as plugging in your FM radio, it's a lifestyle choice. It's fashion. It's contingent. It's identity politics. The idea of a rock star coming up now and making a bald-faced populist appeal without sacrificing their credibility is simply laughable. Credibility matters, but credibility these days isn't tied to integrity, it's tied to the consistency of your brand.

I can't lay all these sins at the Strokes' feet. There's a ton of good rock music being made right now that doesn't fit neatly on any kind of hipster fashion axis. But rock doesn't occupy anywhere near the central position in our culture that it once did. (Hip-hop doesn't either, anymore - good hip-hop has become just as much of a niche as good rock. It's all balladry, dance pop and R&B. That's the cultural center, because that is the kind of music most easily marketed towards children.) Perhaps that was inevitable - nothing lasts for ever. Established forms always grow in complexity and increased self-referentiality as they approach obsolescence. I hear the Strokes and I can't help but think that the supposed "renaissance" of rock in the last decade was also a definite restriction. The bands can say: now we know who the audience is. It's not kids, it's not casual listeners who don't get the allusions and post-ironic genre signifiers and the post-post-ironic-but-not-emo-new-sincerity. It's people who can dress like us. Find a band that dresses like you and follow them. Dress in casual blue jeans and deceptively expensive cardigan sweaters. That's it.

Friday, April 15, 2011

That Was It

In hindsight the 90s was a strange time for music. It would be a mistake to overstate the amount of influence Nirvana in specific and grunge in general exerted over the musical climate, but at the same time it's hard not to see the general outlines of the "alternative" exerting an influence over large swaths of the musical landscape beyond the strict confines of guitar-based rock & roll. It wasn't just a matter of how people dressed - although the general shapelessness of 90s fashions was also felt across the music industry, right up until the end of the decade and the concomitant rise of teen pop and metrosexuality. (The phrase "metrosexual" wasn't in common usage until the early 00s, but when seen in contrast with the likes of Limp Bizkit, it's not hard to see the widespread popularity of 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys as precursors of the following decade's fashion consciousness.) Music across the board - from Pearl Jam on through Tupac - was fixated on the concept of authenticity. Even the obsession with irony was a product of this fixation: the only way to truly care about what you were doing was to seem as if you didn't care at all, because that kind of ambition - in any field, not just music - could easily be seen as rude careerism. Of course, there's a good argument to be made that this focus on conscious self-effacement in the rock world provided ample opportunity for hip-hop - with its enthusiastic celebration of material success and unabashed commitment to conspicuous consumption - to leapfrog over white rock and achieve lasting popularity as the "good-time music" of the 90s, occupying the space that hard rock had abdicated in the late 80s.

Let's look at SPIN's Top Twenty Albums for the year 1999, a year in music I remember as being particularly strong. Many of my favorite albums didn't make SPIN's list, but it's nonetheless a good cross section of what critical consensus looked like in US music critic circles at the fin de siecle:
1. Nine Inch Nails - The Fragile
2. Rage Against The Machine - The Battle of Los Angeles
3. Moby - Play
4. The Magnetic Fields - 69 Love Songs, Vol. 1, 2 & 3
5. Prince Paul - A Prince Among Thieves
5. Handsome Boy Modeling School - So…How's Your Girl?
6. Basement Jaxx - Remedy
7. The Flaming Lips - The Soft Bulletin
8. Goodie Mob - World Party
9. Beck - Midnite Vultures
10. Fiona Apple - When the Pawn…
11. Built To Spill - Keep It Like A Secret
12. The Chemical Brothers - Surrender
13. Ol' Dirty Bastard - N***a Please
14. Ibrahim Ferrer - Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer
15. Mary J. Blige - Mary
16. The Promise Ring - Very Emergency
16. Rainer Maria - Look Now Look Again
17. Wilco - Summer Teeth
18. Sleater-Kinney - The Hot Rock
19. Kruder & Dorfmeister - The K&D Sessions
20. Eminem - The Slim Shady LP
If one thing jumps out at me about this list, it's that the late 90s was a time when the leading trends in critically-acclaimed pop music were definitely skewing older. Nine Inch Nails had been around for over a decade before The Fragile, Play was an "overnight" success ten years in the making on Moby's part, the Flaming Lips had been around for fifteen years before The Soft Bulletin conquered the universe. Sleater-Kinney were punk but they were very serious punk, Wilco was "dad rock" long before "dad rock" was even a thing, the Chemical Brothers were retro revivalists for genres most Americans hadn't even experienced the first time around. Making sweeping generalizations about periodization is hazardous business under the best of circumstances. But I've been thinking about this for a little while, so bear with me. As someone who lived through this era in music and who bought around half of those records new off the rack way back in the day - some of them even at a Tower Records, and a couple downloaded off Napster 1.0, for God's sake! - it definitely seemed as good music was really . . . mature back then. Adulthood was a "thing."

Contrast that with the best selling albums of that year:
1. Backstreet Boys - Millennium (13x Platinum total sales)
2. Britney Spears - ... Baby One More Time (14x Platinum)
3. Shania Twain - Come on Over (20x Platinum)
4. 'N Sync - 'N Sync (10x Platinum)
5. Ricky Martin - Ricky Martin (7x Platinum)
6. Limp Bizkit - Significant Other (7x Platinum)
7. Santana - Supernatural (15x Platinum)
8. TLC - Fanmail (6x Platinum)
9. Christina Aguilera - Christina Aquilera (8x Platinum)
10. Kid Rock - Devil Without A Cause (11x Platinum)
There is nothing new in the observation that the music that sells best is often not very good, or that the music industry made a lot of money over the course of many decades by marketing disposable pop music to children. Of the top 10 selling albums of that year, four of them were prefab teen pop, three or four (depending on how you count TLC) were slightly older skewing adult contemporary pop, two were rap-rock albums, one was a complete fluke of a hit by an artist who had been around since the late 60s.

The contrast between what the critics were listening to and what the masses were buying was pretty phenomenal, but not necessarily unusual. What was unusual would not be obvious until a good few years after the fact. See, 1999 was pretty much the high-water mark of recorded music in the fin de siecle period - the last supper, so to speak. We didn't know it at the time, but remember how I said just a few paragraphs back that I downloaded a couple albums off Napster? That was important. The following year, 2000, the number one album on SPIN's top twenty list was "Your Hard Drive." It seemed silly at the time, a puckish response to the fad of music piracy. Remember when it just didn't seem like that big a deal? Remember when it just didn't seem possible that the proliferation of personal computers and broadband connections would really have any effect on the way people consumed and purchased music? It was hype, it was industry fear-mongering, it was hyperventilating futurism on the cover of Wired magazine.

Until it wasn't, and suddenly people just . . . stopped. Stopped buying records, that is. Which is not to say they stopped listening to music - quite the contrary. But the old business model was transformed by changing circumstances into something almost beyond recognition. Lady Gaga is perhaps the biggest pop star to come out of the last decade, and yet her first album - The Fame has sold only 3 million copies in the US since its release in 2008. 3 million records is a big deal now - but for comparison, Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope was released in 1997, sold only 3 million copies in the US, and was considered a relative disappointment.

So far I've put out a fair amount of information, a pair of lists and some numbers. What does it all mean? I'm not sure it all means anything. Correlation does not equal causation, after all, and at the end of the day the gut feelings of an aging industry trainspotter are just that - gut feelings. But if you want to know what brought on this sequence of thoughts, I'll answer that I've been listening to and thinking about the Strokes a lot lately.

If you don't remember or weren't paying attention at the time, the music industry really was violently divided in the last years of the 90s. Guitar-based rock music only sold if it was nu-metal (almost all of which was awful) or sub-Pearl Jam grunge excrescence like Creed. (Rage Against the Machine was very popular and also very good, but they were an anomaly among all the other groups who rode similar sounds to chart success.) When the Strokes came around in 2001 they were a big deal - which is something that I imagine might become more and more difficult to explain to younger listeners the more time elapses. Rock was seen as being officially in the doldrums, and the critical metastory - certainly enabled by reams of recording industry propaganda - was that rock, real rock, was ripe for a rebirth. The twinned forces of grunge and 90s post-college "alt" rock had ran their courses. Hip-hop had stolen the thunder in the mid 90s, and the rise of teen pop had dominated the industry for a solid three years (although, it must be said, teen pop as a universal fad died pretty much the precise moment we hit Y2K). It had been ten years since Nirvana broke! Nirvana! We needed a new Nirvana! Brooklyn was the new Seattle! If this seems a bit intense, remember, I was working college radio at the time: the people who made money off selling records wanted badly for the Strokes to be a huge hit that reignited America's love affair with rock and roll. They said as much in the promo material they sent to radio stations to accompany the US release of Is This It. Because, as I said, teen pop had run its course, and rap-rock was showing its age as well. Sales were maybe, kind of, sort of beginning to get soft. The British press was hyperventilating over these guys, they had to sell a zillion records, right? Right?

The Strokes were never going to be the "next big thing" in America. Is This It dutifully sold one million copies in the US, but no more. There were a number of reasons for this - certainly, the fact that it was released in the US right after 9/11 couldn't have helped. The album's best track, "New York City Cops," was voluntarily excised after the attacks because of its derogatory nature. But regardless of timing, the Strokes were never going to achieve the kind of mass popularity that a large part of the industry breathlessly anticipated. They were too deeply enmeshed in the vocabulary of hip New York at the turn of the century to sell to the heartland. But even moreso than the Stroke's specific appeal, the larger question was whether or not the music industry was still operating under a viable thesis - i.e., whether or not rock music like the Strokes had the chance of shifting the culture once again and making a stab at universal appeal, or whether rock was doomed to diminishing returns as a contingent genre standing largely on the cultural sidelines.

It wasn't the Strokes' fault. I quite like the Strokes now, although I didn't so much at the time. The problem was, and I see this now, that the band wasn't really meant for me. I hear in the Strokes the sum of their influences. They've got the rhythm of the Ramones slowed down from 45 to 33 1/3 RPM, the sparse and nervous energy of Television, the smirk of 70s glam Lou Reed. They sound a little bit like the New York Dolls and a lot like the Feelies. If you can get all that just from listening to Is This It - and if those influences get in the way of appreciating the music - then you're too old. Because the reason the Strokes were popular to the people for whom they were popular and important for the people to whom they were important had less to do with the music - and I really don't want to seem like I'm denigrating them, because really they have grown on me over the last few years - than with the swag. This is something that I just could not understand.

Just watch this, if you haven't seen it in a while. Weird to think that some of them are married with babies. The whole point, back in the day, as that they were young and they had that swag. If the late 90s was all about serious music that older college students and urban intellectuals sat around contemplating while they stroked their beards - I'm looking at you, The Soft Bulletin - then the Strokes were about wanting to be "cool" again. It seems like such a simple idea now but at the time it seemed positively obscene. Remember, the biggest rock album of 2000 was Kid A. Rock was Serious Business. Some kid singing about meeting up with other kids at the bar and getting drunk seemed - well - perhaps revanchist is not too strong a word? Positively atavistic.

Looking back on the 90s, I can now perceive the common denominator between groups as disparate as Pavement and the Chemical Brothers. It was all about the anti-swag. It really got started, I guess you could say, when Kurt Cobain threw on some thrift-store sweaters and torn jeans and called it an outfit - the point was that it wasn't "an outfit," it was just what he happened to be wearing at the time he had the camera pointed in his direction. The clothes you were wearing were not - or were not supposed to be - important. Being a musician meant being a serious person who really wasn't particularly interesting when he wasn't making music, and didn't particularly want to be. Of course, there were still lots of people who wanted to play the rock star game, and many who did - but you always knew that the Stone Temple Pilots and the Smashing Pumpkins were less cool because they wanted to be cool. Pavement were just some dudes who looked like they might just as easily be hotel clerks or accountants in their day jobs; the Chemical Brothers might easily have been university professors if they hadn't gotten into acid house in the early 90s. That was what the 90s - the real 90s - was all about: the best way to show you truly cared was to not care.

The Strokes, on the other hand, tried to say that they didn't care at all by appearing, well, not to care at all. They were louche in a way that no one had been in quite some time. They had no desire to pretend to be anything other than super cool rock stars who just happened to be fabulous. And that's why, when they first came out, it felt to me as if I had set my hand down on a hot plate. What was this kiddy shit?

Next, whenever I get around to it: Swag Stories of the Early Aughts.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

You Know It's True

Ultra Boy can only use one super power at a time - i.e., he can't be both super strong and invulnerable at the same time. Why doesn't he shatter every bone in his hand every time he throws a punch with super-strength?

One of the best bits in Kirkman's Marvel Zombies was the bit where Wolverine's arm got torn in half when he tried to slice the Silver Surfer open. His bones were unbreakable but his ligaments were not. It was funny in the book because zombie Wolverine was a rotting corpse but that should really come up more often. Just because his bones are strong doesn't mean that he couldn't be torn limb from limb, unless he had magic ligaments and cartilage.

And while we're on the subject of Wolverine: his claws are super sharp but he's not super strong. Even the sharpest knife in the world is only as strong as the force behind it, so his ability to cut metal and stone would be limited unless Colossus was standing behind him pushing his elbow forward.

Also: as annoying as the "super" Wolverine of the last decade is, I do appreciate that a few writers (such as Jason Aaron) have taken the time to establish that Wolverine's true weakness is drowning. It makes sense, since he's not super-strong, that he would sink like a stone.

One of the few things that the Daredevil movie did well was actually showing how Daredevil's radar sense might actually work: he "feels" the reflection of sound waves off surfaces and objects. Would Daredevil's radar sense work in a completely silent room?

I generally liked Geoff Johns' work on Superman but one thing that has always bugged me about the "Superman and the Legion of Superheroes" arc is how Superman's powers instantly return the moment Sun Boy turns the sun back from red to yellow. Even if we accept for the sake of the story that Superman wouldn't need any kind of interregnum to recharge, we're still left waiting the seven minutes it would take yellow sunlight to reach Earth from the sun. The way that scene was written required precise timing to work the way it does, but unless we bypass the most elementary understanding of the physics of light we're left with a situation where Superman would be dead long before the new sunlight could revive him.

It is practically a law of nature that the more popular a character becomes, the stronger he will be. This is true of Wolverine to an absurd degree, but it's also become true of Luke Cage as well. As originally written, Cage was just not very strong - in his earliest stories, his invulnerability is far more prominent than his strength. But now he's gone from being maybe roughly Spider-Man's equal to someone who can hoist an eighteen-wheeler above his head and walk half the length of the city.

It is a continuing per peeve of mine that so many creators seem to believe that the Silver Surfer is still human underneath his silver shell. The whole point of the Surfer is that he was completely remade by Galactus: he is his shell, he's solid silver throughout. Otherwise, this wouldn't make any sense. It is always within his power to pretend to be human, but no force this side of Galactus has the power to actually make him human again.

It's really quite awesome that Thor possesses the ability to communicate with amphibians. It's probably not something that comes up very often, but I imagine it's a really neat party trick.

I've said it before but it bears repeating:
Thor = Green Hulk = Juggernaut > Wonder Man = Thing > Grey Hulk = Colossus = She-Hulk
The Silver Surfer can theoretically be as strong or stronger than any other character if he chooses to be, based on his theoretically limitless ability to channel the Power Cosmic, but he rarely chooses physical confrontation.

Traditionally, Superman > Everyone. This was not strictly true in the years right after Crisis when Superman was depowered considerably. It made for some memorable stories not because Superman was weak but because he could be an underdog against enemies like Darkseid and Doomsday. Now he's basically back to pre-Crisis levels. So:
Superman = Captain Marvel > Power GIrl = Martian Manhunter = Wonder Woman
Among villains, Doomsday is by far the strongest since he's been shown almost killing Darkseid, and Darkseid is easily the better of Mongul, Despero, or any other of the strong villains.

Friday, April 08, 2011


Fear Itself #1

Let's hope it drops so much of the "relevance" hoo-ha. I still don't see how this is a story for the whole Marvel Universe and not just a Thor storyline, but at least we now know that, yes, Fraction's first Thor storyline was padded because it had to kill time on its way to setting up this. Not terrible, but we'll see if people care in half a year.

Brightest Day #23

The series to date has been uniformly awful, there is no doubt. But I will admit to being slightly impressed with how well they pulled everything together here: turns out the series did have a plot after all, and seeing how all the pieces fit together was actually quite neat: I honestly was surprised by how things came together at the end. If only the previous #22 issues hadn't been so dire.

Uncanny X-Men #534.1

Perhaps because it's a done-in-one issue, but Kieron Gillen's maiden solo flight on the flagship mutant title reads really well. It's kind of funny and kind of sad how badly Fraction's run on Uncanny was a non-starter - something about the book just never gelled. EIther he didn't "get" the characters or had trouble with the Utopia status quo or whatever, his stories were distractingly superficial, barrels of misshapen plot filled with a cast of rotating ciphers. Just in this one issue Gillen shows more insight into Magneto's character than Fraction did in two and a half years. Maybe I'm reading too much into one issuer, but frankly, it's easy to see in hindsight that Fraction just didn't work on this book. Gillen is off to a hopeful start.

Avengers: The Children's Crusade #5

This is a Very Good Book, especially for old-school Avengers fans. There's a vocal minority of Avengers fans who have been unhappy ever since Disassembled with the franchise's sharp turn away from its historical roots. The problem is that since New Avengers dropped a lot of the historical trappings of The Avengers, the book has been the centerpiece of the number one franchise in comics, so there wasn't really a lot of room for complaint on any grounds other than personal preference. But oddly enough, Allan Heinberg appears to be very much of the Old School, and despite the fact that his main cast of "Young" Avengers is composed of entirely new characters, they are all plugged into established Avengers continuity in such a way that this feels like far more of a direct continuation of the good old Thomas / Englehart / Stern days than anything else since Busiek. It doesn't hurt that he seems to be inching towards selectively rewriting parts of Disassembled, an awful story whose awfulness has not diminished with time. Personally, I'm hoping the explanation for Wanda's behavior these past seven (!) years is revealed to be Chthon - demonic possession essentially let Hal Jordan off the hook for murdering thousands of people and destroying the universe (it got better!), so that's be a nice way out.

Secret Avengers #11

Who Is John Steele? No one cares, I'm sure. Brubaker seems like a nice guy who is capable of writing good comics when he feels like it, but his heart was so not in this book that it's not even funny. Considering how many people were genuinely excited by the eclectic cast of characters when this book was first announced, the fact that Brubaker has shown a methodical disinterest in actually doing anything with most of them is just perverse. Perhaps that's not the book he wanted to write, but that is without question the book the fans wanted to read. This, however, is the living definition of Weak Sauce.

Ultimate Spider-Man #156

I'm probably going to die a peaceful death of natural causes long before they get around to "killing" Ultimate Spider-Man, right?

Deadpool Team-Up #883
Now cracks a noble heart.—Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

This Year's Bitchfest

Because I love pointing out the obvious, let's run down all the people who haven't been inducted into the Hall of Fame yet despite their eligibility.

Estimated Years Eligible: 16
Chances of Eventually Being Inducted: Even

The same crowd who complained when Madonna and ABBA were inducted (and Grand Funk once again overlooked!) would probably weep tears of blood to see Kraftwerk inducted. And yet: without a doubt one of the five most influential bands ever. I mean, they're German! But without Kraftwerk the shape of modern music would be so different as to be recognizable. Every group either goes through a Kraftwerk phase or they go through a phase where they emulate the no-/new-wave bands who were influenced by Kraftwerk, or the 70s Bowie albums that were made under the direct influence of Kraftwerk and cocaine, in that order. Even U2 went through a Kraftwerk phase, for Chrissakes. If you're a rapper, you've got Kraftwerk so far back in your RNA that even if you don't know who Florian Schneider is, you know all the guys who built hip-hop out of sampling "Trans-Europe Express." If you sing pop music in 2011, you're basically standing on Kraftwerk's shoulders. They'll get in eventually, I'll wager, but probably not before half the band is dead.

Afrika Bambaataa
Estimated Years Eligible: 6
Chances of Eventually Being Inducted: 10-1

Founding Father of hip-hop. Let me repeat that for emphasis: Afrika Bambaataa is the guy who named hip-hop. After DJ Kool Herc and DJ Kool Dee, this guy here was right in the center of things, using the idea of throwing hip-hop parties as a way to keep Bronx kids from joining gangs. Afrika Bambaataa sampled Kraftwerk to make "Planet Rock." "Planet Rock" is one of the handful of most influential hip-hop songs ever recorded, and therefore fully 2/3 of the songs on the radio straight-up would not exist if this man hadn't figured out how to sample the hook from "Trans-Europe Express." Unfortunately, it looks as if we might have to wait a while before more artists fromthe early days of hip-hop are inducted - they inducted Grandmaster Flash in 2007 and Run-DMC last year. Unfortunately, so much of early hip-hop was a singles genre that it's hard to make a case for the fact that so many early rappers and DJs can only point to a handful of songs to make their case for history. That didn't stop any of the 50s doo-wop or Brill Building groups who've been inducted over the years, but it might be a while before they get around to folks like Afrika Bambaataa - we will probably see more prominent groups such as Public Enemy (a sure first-ballot pick for even the most conservative voters) and NWA inducted before Bambaataa, Fab Five Freddy or the Sugarhill Gang.

DJ Kool Herc
Estimated Years Eligible: 10-ish
Chances of Eventually Being Inducted: 250-1

You know what I said earlier about Afrika Bambaataa being one of the "Founding Fathers" of hip-hop? Well, this is the man who actually, you know, created hip-hop. As in: before Kool Herc there was no hip-hop, then after him there was. Of course, the fact that he was never a recording artist means his chances of being inducted are pretty near zero, but there are two other types of awards for which he qualifies: the sporadically given "Lifetime Achievement" award (for "unique contributions" that fall outside the strict roll of producer or artist, folks like Jann Wenner and Seymour Stein), and then the Ahmet Ertegun Award, given to non-performers. Often this goes to producers such as Phil Spector and Berry Gordy, but they've also given it to folks like Alan Freed and Dick Clark. Either The Man Who Created Hip-Hop gets one of these awards before he dies (which might be soon considering he's been in need of an expensive kidney transplant for some time), or the whole damn thing is just a joke. Every millionaire in the music biz who has made so much as a single dollar off hip-hop owes that dollar to this man, end of story.

The Cure
Estimated Years Eligible: 7
Chances of Eventually Being Inducted: 5-1

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the Cure will actually get in one of these years, but it probably won't be soon. Despite the fact that they check all three boxes on the Induction Schedule (popularity, acclaim, influence), they are just too British to sit well with the old white guys on the induction committee. The let in John Cougar Mellencamp the first year he was eligible because Mellencamp is a "serious" American artist who does rootsy Americana type stuff, regardless of the fact that it's awful and boring. The Cure started off as punk - sort-of - and evolved with that genre in the direction of new wave and synth pop but not before taking a detour in the direction of industrial. Their prime period careens between jangly college guitar rock and synthesizer tracks. So far, not a single new wave or synth-pop group has been inducted, despite that fact that anyone around since 1986 is now eligible for entry. Robert Smith puts on makeup, which is just about the worst thing you can do in terms of getting the Hall of Fame to pay attention. (See: Alice Cooper, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis). They're big enough and still relevant enough that it's hard to imagine them not being inducted at some point, but don't hold your breath.

Depeche Mode
Estimated Years Eligible: 5
Chances of Eventually Being Inducted: 10-1

Much of what I said for the Cure applies to Depeche Mode as well, but moreso. Despite the fact that they were for a good decade one of the biggest bands in the world - maybe not quite as big in America as everywhere else - they also played synths and made dance music. They certainly have the critical heft and the influence. But they're just too . . . well, fey and poppy, I guess. Maybe someday, I can see them waiting a while and then having a big synth-pop year just to get rid of these guys in one big rush.

Joy Division / New Order
Estimated Years Eligible: 7 / 5
Chances of Eventually Being Inducted: 25-1 / 10-1

If they induct either band, it will probably be New Order, because it's as New Order that they sold millions of records and performed across the world. But in a perfect world, if Eric Clapton can be inducted thrice than Bernard Sumner can be inducted twice. (But in a perfect world, would Clapton really need three inductions?) I can see these guys, Depeche Mode and the Cure being lumped together in a box somewhere in Jann Wenner's office that says "silly British disco shit." Ironically, the one time I actually visited the Hall of Fame in Cleveland they had a very nice display of Joy Division / New Order memorabilia, including a few of Ian Curtis' hand-written lyric sheets. So it's not like they're not on the list, but I doubt they're very high on the list.

Big Star
Estimated Years Eligible: 14
Chances of Eventually Being Inducted: 50-1

Pretty much the poster boys for all those bands who have exerted a completely disproportionate influence relative to their popularity. I just checked Wikipedia and I see that the Box Tops haven't even been inducted yet. If anyone deserves a double induction it's Alex Chilton, yet I see his first band getting the nod a long time before anyone thinks to give it to the guys who, you know, pretty much invented "indie" rock.

Estimated Years Eligible: 8
Chances of Eventually Being Inducted: 15-1

I'd say the odds are good these guys will eventually make it, but it won't be soon. They've got the whole "funny" think working against them, despite their undeniable influence, and despite the fact that the ideas behind their music were about as funny as a heart attack. Old white guys don't care for satire in their rock & roll, don't you know. And they don't care for synthesizers either, despite the fact that they were by all accounts always a ferocious live band.

Meat Puppets
Estimated Years Eligible: 5
Chances of Eventually Being Inducted: 30-1

The best chance these guys have will be in a few years when all the grunge guys get inducted - you know, all the guys who built their careers off the riffs on Meat Puppets II. (Which is a lot more people than just Kurt Cobain.) One of the biggest problems the Hall of Fame is going to have in the coming years is the fact that, starting in the late 70s and working through the 80s, the majority of critically acclaimed acts were simply not very popular by any reasonable stretch of the imagination. There's a huge disconnect in the 80s and 90s and 00s between what the critics and musicians listen to and what actually sells records. Are we going to see the Smashing Pumpkins inducted before Pavement? Amazingly, the Meat Puppets do actually have one Gold record to their name - 1994's Too High To Die - but their weirdness and obscurity will probably keep them out of the Hall of Fame.

The Replacements
Estimated Years Eligible: 5
Chances of Eventually Being Inducted: 25-1

Just slightly more likely than the Meat Puppets. Made some of the best records of the 80s, left an enduring legacy, but just not very popular. Again, when the 90s guys start getting in there's a chance they might sneak in under the radar as "influences" if people like Eddie Vedder make a big deal about it. There's a slight chance. And, you know, in thirty years when all the current old white guys are dead and the old white guys will be people who grew up in the 80s, then there will be another chance that some rich and powerful established artist might lobby for an aging Paul Westerberg in much the same way Elton John obviously did for Leon Russell this year.

Minor Threat
Estimated Years Eligible: 6
Chances of Eventually Being Inducted: 100-1

Hah! I'm sorry, what? You founded a whole genre of rock but you also did it by flipping the proverbial bird to every old rich white guy in the business? Eh, sorry, I think this is the year we finally give Grand Funk Railroad their long overdue recognition.

Sonic Youth
Estimated Years Eligible: 4
Chances of Eventually Being Inducted: 10-1

I give good odds on these guys making it eventually. Maybe they'll make it the same year as Nirvana - which is, you know, only three years away! Do you feel old yet? But in the meantime, you know, Eric Clapton's Taint ain't gonna nominate itself, guys.

They Might Be Giants
Estimated Years Eligible: 1
Chances of Eventually Being Inducted: 15-1

They Might Be Giants will be eligible for nomination this coming year, I believe. (If you didn't feel old yet today, you do now.) I think they have a pretty good chance, in time. Their career trajectory has been almost as influential as their music at this point, and their significance to the evolution of indie rock in the late 80s and early 90s cannot be overstated, even if it only seems as if they were on a different planet entirely from bands like Nirvana and Sonic Youth. They started out as DIY as possible, went to a major label and got a Platinum plaque, then went indie again and probably make more money now than they did then by a wide margin. They were the first band to release exclusive original material on the internet. They might have a few more gray hairs before they get the call, but I think in the long run they stand a better chance than Big Star or the Meat Puppets.

Monday, April 04, 2011

If No One Else Cares . . .

I look forward to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony every year. I stopped caring long ago about whether or not we should care about the Hall of Fame, when I realized something very simple: it's not really about trainspotters and armchair critics such as you and I, analyzing and discussing who is and isn't worthy to be inducted next to industry giants such as the Eagles and David Crosby (twice!). It's about people who actually do deserve the award and who really, really, really appreciate the honor.

I came to this realization back in 2007 during the induction ceremony for Patti Smith. Now, Smith by then was a few years' overdue for induction. Her status as a critical darling "musician's musician" meant that while she wasn't guaranteed to get in soon, she would probably get in eventually. If you were to compile a list of all the people in rock who probably don't need any more affirmation to prove that they are incredibly awesome and influential, Smith is near the top of that list. She influenced half the people who influenced all the people currently bumping on your iPod. And yet . . . up on stage clutching her statue, Smith started to cry, talking about her late husband Fred Smith and how he had been certain she would be inducted . . . eventually. When the day finally came, it meant a lot to her, and it was great to see.

So that's why I pay attention every year. While there may be any number of less deserving nominees, and always the obvious picks who hardly need the additional recognition, there will always be those who really do deserve it, and who deserve to have the recognition and respect of their peers validated in as definitive a way as possible. 2009 is a good year for comparison: yeah, Metallica were always getting in on the first eligible ballot, and yeah, they certainly deserved it. Run DMC were similarly "sure things." But you know who probably appreciated the award most that year? Bobby Womack and Little Anthony.

This year was an odd year. There were no young first-ballot inductees, it was all old folks who had either been overlooked in previous years or simply forgotten. Alice Cooper, Dr. John, Leon Russell, Darlene Love, Tom Waits and Neil Diamond. Of them all, the biggest surprise was obviously Waits, another one of those "critical darlings" so firmly entrenched on the far side of the mainstream that one could easily imagine him never getting the nod. I've never been the biggest Waits fan but it was still nice to see him get the nod. (Maybe it's time for one of my periodic attempts to get into Waits?)

New Orleans funk had always been one of those genres that people claimed never got any respect from the Hall, so putting in Dr. John and Leon Russell in one fell swoop, while long overdue, certainly felt like "unfinished business." Dr. John basically looks like Dr. John always has, but Leon Russell - if you've seen his picture recently - has obviously seen better days. He's practically a ghost - Wikipedia says he's only 69 but you could be forgiven for thinking he was twenty years older from his pallor and obvious weakness. By all accounts Elton John apparently resurrected the man after a string of debilitating illnesses and an end-of-career depression: it's always truly great to see that kind of belated but long overdue respect and recognition for someone who obviously very desperately needed it.

Darlene Love is someone who was similarly appreciative, even if she had - comparatively speaking - been doing fine for herself, still performing. When I heard she was 70 you could have knocked me over with a feather - since when can septuagenarians pull off those kind of plunging necklines?

It was nice to see Bette Midler induct her, although - sorry, Bette - you might have a while to wait before your induction. You've got a triple curse: you're primarily known as being a "standards" singer (hardly the most popular artist in today's climate), you spent a disconcerting amount of time in the schlocky adult contemporary ghetto, and you've never taken yourself particularly seriously. How many people remember the glory days of her sui generis "Divine Miss M" cabaret / rock show / Borscht belt comedy revue? Maybe if you come out with some super-serious Americana roots think produced by T Bone Burnett and / or Rick Rubin you've got a chance.

Alice Cooper deserved his shot, but it's not hard to see why it took so long. The Hall of Fame basically operates under the guiding principle that if it wasn't getting 4-and-a-half star reviews from Rolling Stone in the mid-70s, it doesn't count as good - with the exception, of course, of groups who have sold hundreds of millions of records. Which means that groups and artists who may not have been critical darlings in their time but who have nevertheless proven to be singularly influential and of enduring quality might be stuck waiting. Black Sabbath had to wait a long time for their induction, despite the fact that they are (obviously!) one of the most influential bands of all time. Greil Marcus never wrote an essay about Ozzy Osborne's relation to Herman Melville, no doubt. Cooper was overdue even if you could still sort of sense some of the gray-hairs in the audience bristling when he brought a choir of blood-stained schoolchildren for a rousing chorus of "School's Out." If Sabbath and Cooper are in I think we will probably live to see Kiss inducted, but it will undoubtedly be the most grudging acknowledgment in the history of awards show.

But of course, the big name of the night was Neil Diamond. His induction was so overdue that Paul Simon made a point of leading off his induction speech with the fact that it was twenty years overdue. I think he might have been eligible for even longer than that, but the point stands: how is it that we're even still talking about this in 2011? I mean, seriously, you're not going to find many fervent Diamond fans in the under-fifty set, but the fact that he wasn't inducted decades ago is simply perverse. To his credit he responded in kind during his acceptance speech. He was obviously drunk, had not bothered to prepare any words other than a backhanded "fuck you" to Paul Simon for slagging on Barbara Streisand during his induction speech, and spent half the time taking pictures of the crowd with his iPhone. But then he launched into a pitch-perfect rendition of "I Am, I Said," and at that point it was almost kind of funny to see someone who, let's be honest, was at one point one of the biggest mega-superstars on the planet before settling down to be just a normal garden-variety superstar, slumming for a long, long, long overdue recognition from the Hall of Fame. Like, "fuck all y'all, when I'm done here I'm going home to sit in my sapphire-encrusted hot tub and watch season four of Mad Men on a plasma screen TV the size of Ecuador."