Soaring Eagles’ success sees critics sharpen their claws

The US rockers’ 1976 ‘Greatest Hits’ has beaten ‘Thriller’ in the all-time album chart, but provoked a backlash, writes James Kidd

American rock group the Eagles, with special guest Jackson Browne (second left), perform onstage at the Chicago Stadium, Chicago, Illinois, October 22, 1979. Pictured are, from left, Timothy B Schmit, Jackson Browne, Glenn Frey, Don Henley (behind drums), Don Felder, and Joe Walsh. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Timothy B Schmit;Jackson Browne;Glenn Frey;Don Henley;Joe Walsh;Don Felder
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It's official. America's venerable country rockers the Eagles have the bestselling album in history – at least in the United States. The band's 1976 release Their Greatest Hits 1971 – 1975 now tops the sales charts for a second time. When figures were last released in 2009, they were displaced by Michael Jackson's Thriller, that classic 1982 album given a now-traditional boost by Jackson's death on June 25.

The numbers are truly astonishing. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, Their Greatest Hits (which features Eagles founding members Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner) has been certified platinum 38 times, which equates to sales and streams of 38 million units. That's five million more copies than Thriller, which has been pushed into second place, and almost double Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, in at number 10. The Eagles also occupy the third spot with their album Hotel California certified platinum 26 times.

Reaction has been varied. "Congratulations to the Eagles, who now claim the jaw-dropping feat of writing and recording two of the top three albums in music history," said RIAA chairman Cary Sherman. Other media – including Rolling Stone and Fortune – emphasised the Eagles' usurpation of Michael Jackson, often dubbed the King of Pop. The contrast carries disapproving hints, which were made explicit by Esquire's Matt Miller. "Stunning blandness triumphs again," he fulminated. "Blame the Boomers" for this "disappointing moment in music history," he exclaimed again. Almost as bad, he adds in a final outburst: it's a greatest-hits compilation.

This latter at least is inescapably true. But then the RIAA chart assesses commercial not critical success, and the presence of an artist's Greatest Hits is not new, unusual or necessarily troublesome. The usual suspects in polls to find "The Best Album Ever" – Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Radiohead – are artists whose creative impulses express themselves through the progress of a long player. Others are simply better suited to writing great individual songs. If they write enough, they can sound even greater when gathered together. See the vast appeal of compilations by Elton John (17 million sales), Bob Marley (15 million), Simon and Garfunkel (14 million) and, yes, the Eagles Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (11 million sales).

The genius of Thriller was in criss-crossing these high/low art distinctions. Stuffed with no fewer than seven hit singles (the title track, Billie Jean, Beat It, The Girl Is Mine etc), it also wowed the critics: Thriller is ranked 20th on Rolling Stone's Top 500 albums, and has been preserved by America's Library of Congress for its cultural significance.

What is at stake when Jackson's cultural significance is pitted against that of the Eagles is competing conceptions of 1970s America. Jackson overcame a profoundly racist country (not to mention an abusive father) to become one of the most popular, innovative and enigmatic performers in history. His restless experiments with soul and pop, but also heavy metal and rap make him the godfather to the current roster of endlessly inventive black American recording artists: Beyonce; Kanye West; Kendrick Lamar; Cardi B; Drake; Solange; Tyler, the Creator; Kelela and SZA.

The Eagles, so the naysayers say, represent the polar opposites: a toxically nostalgic brew of complacency, middle-of-the-road conservativism and white male privilege, which elevates the pursuit of commercial success over artistic ingenuity. The narrowness of their American sound and vision is exposed on the international stage. Their Greatest Hits is still the second-bestselling album on the global chart. But here they are miles behind – guess what – Michael Jackson's Thriller. The statistics tell a tale: Their Greatest Hits has sold only three million copies outside the United States to Thriller's whopping 14.3 million.

It's not hard to detect political undercurrents. Esquire's Miller berates the Eagles as poster boys for the "failures of the Baby Boomers" which, he splutters, include: 'neglecting global warming, incredible debt ... Donald Trump, etc" It's interesting Miller's "etc" forgets any mention of race, gender or sexuality, which in the case of Michael Jackson are all admittedly complicated issues.

So, is the Eagles' 2018 triumph a victory for lacklustre, white male country rock over the genre-hopping futurism of, say, Danny Brown? Does it reflect Trumpian outrage against #blacklivesmatter and #MeToo?

To find out, I decided to bite the bullet and play Their Greatest Hits. I had certainly heard the Eagles – their ubiquity in the middle of the road means avoiding them is practically impossible – but I had never really listened to them.

This too proves strange, in part because hits like Take It Easy, Lyin' Eyes, Witchy Woman and One of These Nights are so familiar as to be very nearly anonymous. But this slipperiness has aesthetic dimensions. Take It Easy, which Glenn Frey co-wrote with singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, foregrounds their signature sound: effortless close harmonies and unassuming, mid-pace strumalongs. Not for nothing does opening line – "Well, I'm running down the road" – celebrate the car. Whereas Thriller makes you dance, the Eagles drive you to driving, preferably with the roof down, the radio blaring and endless landscapes drifting by.

The rest of the song's lyrics put this musical philosophy into words. After a little gentle macho boasting ("I've got seven women on my mind"), the four voices intone a hymn to the laid-back life: "Lighten up while you still can/Don't even try to understand." If you want to disparage Frey, Henley, Leadon and Meisner, here's the place. If the Eagles sound laid-back, it's because American society allows them to be laid-back – no police are arresting them and beating them without reason. "Lighten up while you still can/Don't even try to understand." Is this the opening article of a dumb slacker creed, or even a couplet praising proto-Trumpian myopia and self-attention? It's not that hard to imagine the Eagles soundtracking one of the current president's many political rallies. Would it be the anthemic Take It to the Limit? Or, more appropriately perhaps, Is It True?, taken with all due irony from 1974's On the Border: "Is it true?/I can't believe it…" How about Lyin' Eyes? "And your smile is the best disguise?"

There are other transgressions. The inane sexism of Witchy Woman affects wild abandon in its opening tom-toms and hints at drug use, voodoo broomsticks and much more: "She's been sleeping in the devil's bed," Henley sings. It says a lot about the Eagles that this danger is parried by the nondescript groove guitar and ever-plummeting lyrical codswallop.

And yet, Their Greatest Hits is never less than attractive or catchy: I hope Trump never uses Take It to the Limit, which possesses one of the Eagles' gorgeous, stately melodies that outsoars the syrupy strings.

Albums don't sell 38 million copies by dividing opinion, shocking audiences with sonic fireworks or avant-garde experiments. The Eagles may be bland at times, but they are also consummate songwriters who know a good tune when they hear one. In addition to Jackson Browne, they cover Ol' 55 by a young artist called Tom Waits.

More impressive is the sheer glory of their close-harmony singing – a feat of extraordinary mutual sympathy that enacts their broad mass appeal. The loveliness of the effect can be overwhelming, part of the band's frictionless appeal. In contrast to their unconvincing macho theatrics, the play of their voices is also oddly effeminate. This helps turn Lyin Eyes from a maudlin, misogynistic revenge fantasy towards a humane portrait of a woman making bad choices.

At such times the Eagles even sound eerily close to Michael Jackson himself, whose nightingale voice and pop sensibilities could achieve its own middle-of-the-road beauty. No wonder together they sell more than everyone else.


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