Don't get me wrong. I like Rush. They are a great band, and I am happy for them and their fans...
See, about a week ago, a friend posted a link on Facebook to an article about the induction of Rush into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His comment accompanying the link was that it was "a great day for prog geeks the world over." I could understand the sentiment, being a prog rock geek myself. In fact, it was this same friend who had turned me on to prog (or progressive) rock when I was a freshman in college when the two of us would have marathon listening sessions in his dorm room playing the likes of Yes, The Nice and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. I learned then that rock music could be more than "three chords and the truth." It could be beautiful, jarring, intricate, powerful and theatrical. It could create wide soundscapes of intricate composition, ethereal sounds and virtuosic playing. It also was decidedly uncool.
Apparently, most of the music I listen to is uncool.
I will say this, Rush's fans deserve their feeling of satisfaction. Rush has spent years as the world's biggest cult act, never having the acceptance of the mainstream (or even the cooler parts of the fringe), but still managing to place just under the Beatles and Rolling Stones for most consecutive gold or platinum records sold. If Rush fans are geeks, they are a large and dedicated group of geeks. This year was the first year that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame allowed fans a vote, and Rush's fans rallied more than any other group's to ensure that their much maligned heroes were given their due. It was also a victory for prog rock in general, which has been long reviled by critics as stuffy and bombastic and has been grossly underrepresented in the Hall of Fame.
Though I was never as into Rush as I was their other prog rock contemporaries (early Genesis was my favorite), I understand what it feels like to have to be constantly defending one's musical tastes to supposedly "hipper" kids. And it isn't even just progressive rock that I find myself getting defensive over. I often find myself listening to decidedly uncool music and find myself trying both to defend my tastes and to spread the gospel. Interestingly, it is actually another Hall of Fame inductee this year who has the dubious honor of being the artist who, more than any other, has inspired me to insane ramblings, endless pontification and countless attempts to convert unbelievers: Randy Newman.
Yes, Randy Newman was inducted this year, too... finally. He's been eligible for the past twenty years and, when finally inducted, he himself said that he was surprised to find the induction to occur during his lifetime. He was also famously nominated for fifteen Oscars before winning for his song "If I Didn't Have You" from Monsters, Inc.. He memorably began his acceptance speech by telling the audience, "I don't want your pity."
A songwriter's songwriter, Newman's praises have been sung by luminaries such as Harry Nilsson (who recorded an entire album of his songs), Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. In addition to being a gifted composer and arranger, his humor ranges from the random and absurd to painful, biting satire, often utilizing the more novelistic device of the unreliable narrator. Much has been said about songs like "Rednecks," sung from the point of view of a southern Lester Maddox supporter and which savages both blatant Jim Crow racism and more covert (northern) economic oppression and "Political Science," in which the singer complains about the lack of goodwill towards America and casually proposes global thermo-nuclear annihilation as a solution ("let's drop the big one and see what happens"). His satirical edge is so sharp that sometimes overlooked is his ability to create sympathetic but flawed characters in songs like "Guilty," which depicts a ill-advised, drug fueled late night visit to an (ex)girlfriend ending in an outpouring of pathetic self-pity.
Yet when I tell people that Randy Newman is my favorite songwriter (particularly to people my own age, a couple of decades younger than the majority of Randy Newman fans), they usually respond by chanting "left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot," demonstrating that they only know of Randy Newman from the way he was ridiculed on the cartoon, Family Guy ("just sits there all night and day singing about what he sees"). Others remember him from "You've Got a Friend in Me" from Toy Story or "I Love to See You Smile" from some toothpaste commercial they saw when they were kids. They seem to think of him as just a bit of commercial pap with a touch of watered down Americana thrown in. Feel good music for old folks and toddlers.
Much like Rush, Randy Newman has an odd relationship with the mainstream. Newman's side career scoring and writing songs for movies have given him a somewhat dubious mainstream MOR status (middle of the road, for those not down with 1970s radio programming jargon) that is at odds with the eccentric character of his main body of work. Indeed, his cult status has been injured by his day job, even though his own albums remain as scathing as ever.
And that's why I frequently find myself berating the skeptics. I quote them lyrics, give them recordings to listen to, point out essential tracks. I remind them of the artists that he influenced, and point out that he was the favorite songwriter of Charles Bukowski (that has to be worth some street cred, right?). These conversations tend to end with my victim looking at me with a dazed, frightened, deer-in-headlines expression, saying something like "okay, I'll check it out," hoping that I will ease off.
So for me and Randy Newman, as for the fans of Rush, the Hall of Fame induction is supposed to be a kind of a "told you so" moment, proving that the adroit and idiosyncratic can ultimately end up on top. However, from what I have read about the ceremony on April 18, I understand that it was really Rush's evening, and good for them. They deserve it. The ceremony was a triumph for them, their fans and for prog rock in general. For Newman, darling of the critics and inspiration to his peers, the induction was a slightly belated recognition of the esteem in which he is held by his colleagues (hey, at least he wasn't dead) and hopefully a little reminder to the general public of the unique voice presented in his body of work outside of Pixar movies.
I hope Randy feels honored, but I doubt that his induction into the Hall of Fame will have any significant impact on his reputation. While his work in scoring and writing songs for film has elevated his profile significantly, his concerts and albums have always been for the relatively few people who "get it." And that's fine. I imagine I will go on with my lecturing to unsuspecting victims, trying to win converts, but knowing that, more often than not, it will be a fruitless, self-indulgent exercise. Rush fans can celebrate together that their guys have been accepted at last, and that they helped to make it happen. As a Randy Newman fan, I will still just quietly smirk at the acknowledgement that I am one of the few who gets it.
The ceremony will be shown on HBO on Saturday, May 18.