- The Washington Times - Friday, December 18, 2009

The history of pop music is not written by the victors, but by the grudge-nursing losers.

“The victors tend to be out dancing, while the historians sit at their desks, assiduously chronicling music they cannot hear on mainstream radio,” writes author-musician Elijah Wald in his book “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music.”

Could there be a richer illustration of the snob appeal/mob appeal divide than the news this week that Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band’s “Greatest Hits” anthology topped Billboard’s decade-end chart of catalog albums — ahead of the Beatles’ “1” and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”? Mr. Seger’s “Hits” has sold more than 9 million copies since 1994, according to a spokeswoman.

It’s true that Mr. Seger, 64, was not initially dismissed as a lightweight jukebox hero by the burgeoning new class of rock critics drawn to his blues-based biker rock — Seger System-era cuts like “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” commanded respect then, as now — but his subsequent mass popularity and softening made him a poster boy for all that was wrong with rock ‘n’ roll circa 1975.

Critic Dave Marsh, for instance, wrote of 1980’s “Against the Wind” that it “betrays all those years that Seger worked in the Midwestern wilderness, trying to find a national audience for his odd blend of heavy rock and pop smarts. … This is the LP that makes such a victory meaningless.”

Mr. Seger did pass the Jann Wenner smell test when he was granted entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004 — but that was after 11 years of eligibility.

Mr. Seger’s ubiquity was, for critics pining for the purity of the late ‘60s, the manifestation of a calcifying, increasingly risk-averse industry — of album-oriented rock-radio programmers content to shove new flavors of vanilla down the throats of listeners.

Yet the continuing, quiet success of Mr. Seger’s hits lends a certain amount of credence to fellow Michigander Kid Rock’s declaration at the 2004 Rock Hall ceremony that Mr. Seger is “the voice of the working man and the living proof of the American dream.” Sounds suspiciously like the encomiums offered to another, more widely respected voice of the downtrodden with the same last name (plus one “e”), doesn’t it?

Hall of Fame classmate Prince, of all artists, had similar thoughts on Mr. Seger’s appeal: “We are both Midwesterners, and Seger had a lot of influence on me at the start of my career; he certainly influenced my writing.”

Indeed, Rick Coates of the weekly Michigan newspaper Northern Express pointed out that, according to author Alex Hahn’s “Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince,” the “Purple Rain” singer once asked his keyboardist, Matt Fink, why Mr. Seger was able to notch so many hits. Mr. Fink replied that Mr. Seger had a heartland touch: “Write something like that, and you’ll cross right over.”

This explanation from class won’t likely sway critics who long ago tired of hearing “Old Time Rock & Roll”; they have Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and even John Mellencamp to fit their preconceptions of proper heartland tribunes.

They have no need for Mr. Seger and his pickup-truck anthems.

But the listening public — still — apparently does.

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