December 30, 2016

Open Arms: The Rock Hall Embraces Populism

The people have spoken—they want Journey in the Rock Hall. And so it shall be. Once again, the winner of the official Rock Hall fan vote will be inducted. This fact indicates various things, but perhaps most significantly, it reveals that the Hall has now completely embraced Journey's particular brand of populist, FM radio-friendly arena rock. Whether that's agony or ecstasy for you, it's time to accept that, going forward, the Hall will absolutely induct acts that get a thumbs-down from critics, yet are adored by a vocal majority of rock fans.

In short, the Rock Hall is on a Journey, steering this boat toward the Styx.
Surprised? You shouldn't be. The signs have been there for awhile now. For the Class of 2016, longtime Rock Hall snub/fan vote victor Chicago got in, and right alongside of such other AOR acts as Cheap Trick, Deep Purple, and Steve Miller. The year before, rock radio staples Joan Jett and the Blackhearts got in. Not to equate or disparage any of these exceptional artists at all, it's just that their inclusion collectively demonstrates a strong undercurrent of "crowd-pleasing" going on here. You could even argue that Guns N' Roses' first-ballot induction is another example of the Hall navigating toward the mainstream; they are increasingly canonizing artists that have dominated radio airwaves/soundtracked proms and backwoods keggers. Journey is just the latest of these.

Another example of the Rock Hall's pivot toward pop-rock's often syrupy center was Rock Hall CEO Joel Peresman's 2015 interview where he expressed surprise that Journey and Bon Jovi weren't inducted yet. Steve Perry and company's current welcome into the Hall feels less like prescience on Peresman's part than the Rock Hall's apparent institutional mission to enshrine acts that will drive viewership of the HBO induction ceremony broadcast, as well as visitors to the museum.

"Who cares?" many will say. Why examine or care so much about all this? That's more than fair—ultimately, this isn't life or death stuff. No one will die. (They will be inducted after they do, however.) The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony may just be another music awards show to the casual observer, but it's still one of the most intensively discussed music events of the year. It's partly notable because it legitimizes musical taste, and ascribes the elite "Rock and Roll Hall of Famer" distinction (which, sadly, has been slapped onto far too many popular musicians' obituaries this year). Still, the debate over who is qualified to enter those hallowed halls rages on, and will continue to in the coming years.

Speaking of the future, and now that Journey has been voted into the Hall, it's time to consider what other acts they are blazing the trail for in Cleveland. Groan or exult if you must, but there are many bands that fit the specific Journey AOR/arena rock template that could potentially start seeing nominations. Here are just a few:

Boston Just another band of Boston? Not quite. A staggering 75 million records sold, with their 1976 debut, Boston (a veritable greatest hits, track by track) shifting 17 million units. Guitarist Tom Scholz, a guitar, songwriting and production wizard, laid down a powerful musical foundation for late singer Brad Delp's warm, unmistakable vocals. Songs include "More Than a Feeling," "Peace of Mind," and "Foreplay/Long Time," where their prog-rock ambitions were especially on display. They're a "Rock and Roll Band" with Rock Hall written all over them. You can't turn on a classic rock FM station and not hear Boston (for better and for worse).

Foreigner - "Feels Like the First Time," "Double Vision," "Hot Blooded" and the mega-ballad "I Want to Know What Love Is" distinguish Foreigner, another band that has saturated FM airwaves for decades, and, impressively, has sold 80 million records globally. "Cold as Ice"? Hardly. Foreigner's chances of nomination are actually starting to heat up, with a possible reunion of a classic lineup and their 40th anniversary, according to band founder Mick Jones. Radio and TV personality/Rock Hall voter Eddie Trunk recently said he thinks Foreigner should be next after Journey, in terms of priority. He might have a point there.

Styx - "Oh, this truly IS Hell!" - Homer Simpson, literally floating down the river Styx as "Lady" plays. Hey, satire was going to happen to these guys. They might laugh last, as a Rock Hall nomination is very possible. There is some reunion potential/drama with their estranged singer Dennis DeYoung, and the unique yin/yang of their hard rock/musical theater pastiche, which has yielded multi-platinum records on the strength of such songs as "Renegade," "Too Much Time on My Hands," "Come Sail Away" and Kilroy Was Here's dystopian cyber-pop hit "Mr. Roboto."

REO Speedwagon
REO Speedwagon - With their 1980 album Hi Infidelity in RIAA's "diamond status" with 10 million records sold, plus 40 million albums sold overall, REO Speedwagon might have the right combination of industry and chart success to achieve a Rock Hall nod eventually. Overall, they have a boatload of hits, and their heavy MTV presence in the '80s can't hurt either. Sadly, REO guitarist Gary Richrath, co-writer of "Take It on the Run," died in 2015, but the group still hits the road, often with some of the other bands mentioned here.

Kansas - Hailing from Topeka, this legendary troupe is best known for their ubiquitous hits "Dust in the Wind" and "Carry on Wayward Son"—both classics that have become heartfelt verses in purist rock fans' collective song. Mainstream acceptance has far outweighed Kansas' critical respect, but the recent documentary Kansas: Miracles out of Nowhere nicely detailed the origin story of how a scrappy band with art-rock/prog ambitions (check out the remarkable "Icarus (Born on Wings of Steel)" from their Masque album) ascended to headliner status. They're easily a long shot, but with the current Rock Hall shift toward big, unabashed classic rock, they cannot be left out of the conversation entirely.