Sunday, February 26, 2006

Ain't That a Shame
Reading the main page of World Net Daily is like walking down the midway at some bizarre, slightly shady carnival on the outskirts of Wingnuttia. Many of the links on the page are sprinkled with exclamation points that give them all the subtlety of a pitchman's spiel: "Step right up, folks, and find out how liberals have been misleading you!" And like any good pitchman, once they've got your attention, they reach for your wallet. "You need to know the truth, and we'll tell you what it is for just $39.95!" The distinction between links to actual stories and to advertisements is, at best, hazy. So if you're a wingnut, you can read news stories to reinforce your worldview, and then buy products that reinforce the reinforcement. (I have been able to find nothing remotely like this on liberal news and commentary sites--the ubiquitous blogads found on liberal sites like Kos, Atrios, and others are clearly not the same thing.)

So anyway--buried a long way down the page this weekend is the following story: "Who's missing from Rock Hall of Fame? Effort initiated to induct pop pioneer Pat Boone". The story goes on to explain that Pat is as deserving of honor by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as Little Richard, Chuck Berry, or any other performers of his era, and reports on an effort by legendary radio programmer John Rook to petition the Hall to induct Boone. The WND article tries to debunk the idea that Pat is undeserving because many of his major hits were versions of R&B hits recorded by other people first. And, because this is World Net Daily, we are eventually told the main reason why Pat is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: It's because he's a conservative Christian.

Yes, Boone recorded several early rock songs (not as many as WND would have you believe, however), and yes, they sold a lot of copies. But "copy" is actually the operative word here. Boone got the chance to make his mark on music history thanks to a repeat of a familiar cultural phenomenon. It started not long after the Civil War, although it wasn't until the Jazz Age that it became commonplace. A black cultural product--gospel in the post-Civil War era, jazz in the first third of the 20th century, early rock and R&B in the 1950s, or rap in the 1980s--is viewed as exotic by white kids, and as a threat by white parents, who fear its influence on their kids' precious bodily fluids. Eventually, those threatening forms are co-opted by whites, and in the process of reconfiguration into "acceptability," the authenticity and/or edges of the original product are sanded off. The case of 50s R&B is textbook. Boone wasn't the only performer who did it during the 1950s, but he's the most famous example of someone whose career was made by it. Tellingly enough, he didn't go back to it once he'd established himself. It wasn't like he covered the Beatles in 1963.

(Boone's contention that his cover versions were helpful to black artists represents an interesting interpretation of history. I don't doubt that some of those artists feel warmly toward Pat for exposing their songs to a wide audience, but don't be confused into thinking that the exposure necessarily translated into money. In the 1950s, early R&B songwriters frequently signed, or were tricked into signing, publishing contracts that robbed them of the royalties that are paid when songs are recorded. I'm glad Fats Domino made some money, but he may be the exception that proves the rule--many other songwriters didn't make a dime from some extremely popular cover versions.)

But if you listen to Boone's recordings, especially to the rock classics World Net Daily cites as evidence of his fitness for induction into the Rock Hall, you'll hear quite clearly why he doesn't belong. His versions of "Ain't That a Shame," "Tutti Frutti," "Long Tall Sally," and "I Almost Lost My Mind" are pallid copies of the originals, aping the energy but completely missing the spirit. He sings like he's got the vocal equivalent of latex gloves on to keep from being contaminated by that spirit. This makes his comparison of his cover versions with those by Elvis and the Beatles especially silly, because in most cases, the love and respect Elvis and the Beatles have for the songs they covered is audible--they worked as hard to replicate the spirit of the originals as they did to remember the words. Boone's later hits, like "April Love" and "Friendly Persuasion" are pure mom-and-pop pop. Even a gospel record like "A Wonderful Time Up There," which a Bible believer like Boone should be able to sing from a place close to his true soul, lacks any feeling of soul at all.

I've written before (at my other blog, The Hits Just Keep On Comin') that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should not be exclusively for performers whose body of work stands up to serious critical examination. I've argued that performers whose work is considered disposable by many critics, such as Tommy James and Three Dog Night, are deserving of induction, too. Their best recordings were filled with a spirit of fun that typifies rock and roll's heart, they were made at a high level of craft, and they meant a great deal to the people who bought them at the time. And so I'm sympathetic to John Rook, at least, because Pat Boone clearly meant a lot to him in the late 1950s. But spirit and heart are what matters most, and Pat Boone's 50s recordings demonstrate clearly that he hasn't got either one in sufficient quantity to be immortalized alongside those who do.

His religion's got nothing to do with it. And anyway, fathering the woman who inflicted "You Light Up My Life" on an unsuspecting world is a much greater offense than being religious.

Quote of the Day: "And it’s sad that the actor that played Barney Fife is gone, while the closest living version of Barney Fife still plays 'President' Dress Up in the Oval Office."--KingCranky, quoted at Pandagon.

(A similar version of this post appears at The Hits Just Keep On Comin'.)

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