The best is the greatest is the best

September 10, 2010 — Leave a comment

Last night I turned on the TV to watch Brett Favre, and ended up watching VH1’s Top 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. I tuned in at #14 Nirvana and watched the final countdown to Michael Jackson and The Beatles. (spoiler alert! too late. like we didn’t know.) After that I watched the next episode, #40-#21. Then they repeated the #20-to-Beatles episode, so I got to see #20-15.

Last night I was also reading for a Best Books competition I’m judging.

What is the Best? Who is the Greatest? How do we know?
These are questions on my mind.

Part of the answer is: It depends on who you ask. After The Who was featured at #13, the VH1 host said, “I think The Who should be Top 10, but they didn’t ask me.”

Which makes sense. The host has probably listened to a lot of music and is surely a fan, but his training is probably in, well, hosting. Maybe they’ll ask his vote for the Top 100 Hosts of All Time.

Who did VH1 ask? Many famous musicians and music journalists – people whose lives and livelihoods are intertwined with the music industry, people who themselves are on the list. So that’s good. The top 5 lists of a few of those people were posted on the screen at different points. Alicia Keys’s top-5 list included Sade; Billy Idol’s, The Velvet Underground. (I’m with Billy on that one.) Such diversity of judges allows for a diversity of results, in a good way.

Then there’s criteria. A lot of the people featured on interview clips (musicians and journalists) invoked criteria such as: influence, songwriting, performing, guitar-playing, singing, risk-taking, longevity, “changed the way we thought of ____,” “voice of the generation,” etc. These seem like good criteria to me.

[…googling pause…]

Oh dear. I just found a link to the top 100 list, which says: “Vh1: Top 100 Artists Of All Time list is a major source of controversy on the internet right now. . . . One of the main problems with the list reportedly is the lack of female presence in the top end: Madonna is the only one who made the top 20.”

And now, as I look at the list, by my count there are only 14 women artists in the total 100. And that’s counting the Pretenders and Abba and Fleetwood Mac as women artists (sorry, Mick Fleetwood; sorry Abba dudes).

[I so wasn’t going to go there, but I also read this last night about how The New York Times reviewed 62% men to 38% women in the last two years.]

WHAT I WAS GOING TO SAY is that VH1 seems to be asking the right people to judge, and the people seem to be using good criteria, and that even if we would put The Who in the top 10, most of us can feel good about and agree with them being in the top 20.

AND THAT I expect to have a similar top-3 list as my fellow judges in the contest I’m reading for, based on fairly noncontroversial criteria for good writing. (A necessarily over-simplified claim I’ll elaborate upon in my next post.)

AND FURTHER THAT BEST AND GREATEST are both subjective and somewhat objective. That once you objectively sort out the wheat from the chaff, you can get into your subjective brawls. We can.

BUT NOW I’m just depressed.

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