So it’s May again, traditionally the time when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducts its newest class of amazing artists. Of course, this year is different, as it is with baseball, basketball, car racing, graduations, movie premieres, and parades. The pandemic has shut all that business down and sort of made us long once again for the spectacle that maybe we had begun to grow a little tired of. The Hall’s ceremony has been pushed into November, but I suppose I’m feeling phantom excitement, like an itch on an amputated limb. As usual, I’m excited about all the new members, looking forward to seeing which bands are willing to make up and play a set together and which just can’t seem to get past all the old animosities. Mostly, though, by this time each year I’m usually grousing about who’s been overlooked by the Hall “yet again.” There’s a more positive way to spin this frustration, of course – “I’m really psyched to find out who will be nominated for next year!” The truth, though, is that my attitude tends to be mostly negative. My frustrations have been mitigated somewhat in recent years by the induction of bands whose omission had been leaving people scratching their heads for far too long – Chicago, RUSH, Journey – never the critical darlings, but bands without whom the rock landscape might look considerably different now. There are still plenty of deserving nominees out there, and plenty of time to talk about them before next year. How, for instance, does the Hall continue to go on without Carol King in it? Other snubs include Joy Division, New Order, and FFS Tina Turner. And personally I believe Duran Duran may be one among the most deserving Hall members, though they are rarely even mentioned on “overlooked” lists.
But here’s where my vote would go, if someone bothered to give me one: straight to The B-52s. Think about it for a second before you respond. Some of you – especially if you’re age-challenged -- may be under the misapprehension that the B-52s are a one-hit-wonder – that hit being “Love Shack.” And we could talk a long time about just how good that song really is – the way it perfectly melds Ricky Wilson’s signature guitar riffs, Fred Schneider’s punching commentary, and Kate Pierson’s effervescent vocals; the brilliant way it fuses the down-and-dirty sexualized romance of a “funky little” hangout with the more genuine affection felt for a beloved place.
If you go any deeper with The B52s, maybe you know “Rock Lobster” – pretty good novelty song, you think, and you really like that version Peter does on Family Guy.
But here’s the thing: no less a luminary than John Lennon confessed that the B-52s were his favorite band. Not a band he sort of liked. Not a band he was pretty into. His favorite band. And, for better or worse, you can kind of hear the connection in some of the Plastic Ono stuff Lennon put together with Yoko. So let’s start with this: I think if John Lennon thinks you’re good, well, you just ought to be in the Hall. And that was way back in the 1970s, well before they’d even thought up “Love Shack.”
But, you know, if Lennon’s not enough for you, there are at least a dozen other excellent reasons why they belong. No band, for instance, has ever fused style and substance better. Going to a B52s concert should be classified as an “experience,” up there with traveling the country as a deadhead or attending the Rocky Horror Picture Show every Halloween – all beehive hairdos and UFOs. And all of that personality that’s oozing out of every members’ pores is deeply rooted in the music itself. The band invented something absolutely singular, a mix of rock and kitsch, free love and deconstruction, surfing and postmodernism, urbane sophistication and small college town. Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson produce a double-barreled sound that on certain notes can make your head ring like a bell – check out the opening notes of “Roam if You Want To.” And Fred Schneider is simply like no one else. The Sugarcubes tried to emulate their sound, and while that band gave us Bjork (another criminally overlooked artist who belongs in the Hall), Einar Örn Benediktsson’s major contribution to music was to demonstrate just how irreplaceable Schneider really is. Schneider’s words often seem like boxing punches, and he can be completely outrageous – as he is in a classic like “Quiche Lorraine” – in a way that feels oddly natural. And Ricky Wilson actually makes something useful out of surfer riffs.
And while you can’t go wrong with “Love Shack,” many of their best tunes are more understated – “Dead Beat Club” captures teenage angst the way few songs ever have. “Private Idaho” is clever as hell – “Get out of that state you’re in!” “Give Me Back My Man” is aching in its desperation – “I'll give you fish, I'll give you candy, I'll give you everything I have in my hand.”
But after all this is the Pop Culture Academy, and so let’s talk a little about the B-52s’s depth. No artist does more, other than perhaps the great Andy Warhol himself, to manifest the postmodern condition that Lyotard, Baudrillard, Jameson, and Derrida were describing in the late 60s and 70s. Hell, Derrida wishes he could have done what the B-52s did. Derrida – for those who may not know their postmodern philosophy – invented “deconstruction,” a tool he thought could alert us to the way our language encodes our culture, perpetuating inequalities and hierarchies. If we look carefully, he argued, we can see how simply learning our languages – English, French, Spanish, Italian – turns us into racist, sexist, class-ist homophobes.
But the B-52s turn deconstruction into a game, make it palatable for people like you and me who haven’t studied at the Sorbonne. “52 Girls” is no more than what the title says it is – a list of girls names – though the choice of “52” already alerts us to the fact that the song is more than it seems. It’s a kind of homage to all those classic surfer tunes, especially those from the Beach Boys, inspired by girls in bikinis: “Well East coast girls are hip, I really dig those styles they wear, And the Southern girls with the way they talk, They knock me out when I'm down there.” But the B-52s manage to deconstruct those tunes at the same time they offer their respect – “what about these girls’ names?” they ask. And yet even those names become nothing but a song hook, a long list that’s ultimately forgettable.
“Rock Lobster” is good surfing fun as well. And yet within the ridiculousness that seems to float upon the song’s surface, there’s something deeper going on in the way words become sounds; the way the image of the “rock” and the image of the “rock lobster” get confused, reminding us that the name actually points to a fact about these creatures; the way the dog-fish “meows” and the cat-fish “barks.”
I’ve written elsewhere about the way new wave music not only captured the postmodern aesthetic, both consciously and unconsciously, but how it essentially set the stage for every work of music, television, and film that has been produced since. Not a good bit of it. All of it. The B-52s are one of the crucial components of that transformation. How can they not belong in the Hall?
Perhaps we’re destined to always be frustrated by the Hall. Maybe they can never really get caught up with the great artists of the past, and maybe that’s by design – a clever narrative tool that always keeps us hoping and looking forward to the next round of inductees. But The B-52s seem like a band that is overdue. Here’s hoping the Hall manages to catch up with them soon.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
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