Last summer I stumbled across an opinion piece on nbcnews.com entitled “Passing Michael Jackson, the Eagles now have the best-selling album of all time. And they’re still terrible.“
This thing has been bugging me ever since.
My wife has wondered aloud why I would be bothered by something so trivial, and that’s a fair question. First, it’s not a bias against the author, Jeff Slate (whom I do not know or follow), nor against music critics in general. Yes, it’s true that my first wife had some kind of extraprofessional relationship with a music critic. That critic also said some nasty things about a musician I liked on the occasion of the artist’s death. I don’t dislike all music critics just because I knew one with some character defects.
And my beef with the article isn’t just because I like the Eagles. Yes, I said it: I like the Eagles.
My dislike of the column has a lot more to do with its tone and its sophistry.
Mr. Slate wrote his diatribe after reading an AP News article about the Eagles’ first greatest hits collection being certified by the Recording Industry Association of America as the best-selling album of all time, with over 38 million units sold. This is, it seems, an example of nothing failing like success. Mind you, no one is saying that the album at issue, the Eagles’ “Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975” is the BEST album ever recorded, just that it has sold the most copies.
Is there something wrong with selling something that a lot of people want to buy? Apparently so. The author compares the record with junk food and characterizes Eagles’ recordings generally as “bland, soulless music” that “sounded like a cocaine bender coming out of my speakers…”
Slate accuses the band — which he says isn’t a real band, but an act or a group — of a “coldblooded pursuit of stardom,” disbanding in 1980 “amid petty squabbling over (of course) money and control,” and lacking “a keen connection to and appreciation for their audience.”
At one point, Slate flatly states, “Indeed, I believe that through sheer greed and avarice, they have single-handedly brought on the long, slow decline of rock ‘n’ roll as an art form.”
There’s a lot to dislike in that last statement. For starters, is it universally agreed that rock and roll is an art form in a long, slow decline? This assertion immediately reminded me of an scene from 1973’s “American Graffiti.” John Milner, who got stuck with underage Carol as a cruising passenger, turns off the radio while the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ Safari” is playing. Carol asks why he did that, to which Milner responds: “I don’t like that surfing shit. Rock ‘n Roll’s been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died.”
Rock ‘n roll has been in a damned long, slow decline indeed if it started when Buddy Holly died, which was sixty years ago this week. For Jeff Slate, somehow, it was brought about by something the Eagles did.
Slate evokes a different movie scene to underscore his dislike of the Eagles: a scene from the Coen brothers’ 1998 cult hit, “The Big Lebowski.” Lebowski asks a cab driver to change the channel because he’s had a rough night and hates the bleepin’ Eagles. Lebowski’s favorites run more along the lines of Creedence Clearwater Revival, who had their heyday in the late 60’s and early 70’s. To each his own.
Slate himself seems partial to the Clash, who were never anything special to me.
Whether the Beach Boys are better or worse than Buddy Holly, or the Eagles are better or worse than Creedence Clearwater Revival, or Joe Strummer and the Clash are “the only band that matters” is largely a matter of personal preference.
What really bugs me the most about Jeff Slate’s hit piece on the Eagles is that it isn’t just a criticism of their greatest hits collection or even their music in general. It’s an attack on the Eagles as people. A music criticism piece has no business attacking musicians, even if the critic doesn’t like the music or the people making it.
And last of all, music criticism should not attack the listener, who may also be a reader. Is the music critic’s taste somehow better than everybody else’s? This seems to be the idea that Mr. Slate is trying to convey. Eagles music is aural junk food, the Eagles themselves are bad people (except for Joe Walsh, who somehow gets a pass), and Eagles fans are just being duped into paying for and listening to stuff that is the very ruination of rock and roll. We’re all a bunch of fools for being taken in.
There is an ongoing debate as to whether the Eagles are great or the Eagles suck. I liked some of their songs and didn’t care for others. Has some of it been played nearly to death? Undoubtedly. And they say that familiarity breeds contempt. But really, does anyone think that they’re going to persuade anybody else one way or the other?
What brings about the perception that some musical genre is in decline, I think, is that we grow up, but the music of our youth will always have a special place in our hearts. A particular song instantly transports us to a time or a place we remember fondly.
Have the Eagles brought about the long, slow decline of rock and roll as an art form? Of course not. I could think of some artists and songs that I especially dislike, and generally, instead of railing against them, I simply change the station.