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andrew johnsonCategory: Failed Ideologue

Term in Office: 17th president, 1865-1869

Party: Union

Home State: Tennessee

We’re almost at the very bottom of our ranking.  For the twelve or so lowest presidents, we have explored a variety of ways that presidents can fail: the unquenchable cynicism of Nixon, the callous unconcern of Coolidge, Buchanan’s blindness to treason, and Van Buren’s contentment in pursuing a deadly and unjust course of action set by his predecessor.  Why, then, is Andrew Johnson at the second-lowest spot?  I answer in this way: Andrew Johnson’s stubbornness and prejudice sabotaged a singular movement in American history: the chance to incorporate freed slaves fully into the fabric of participatory government as a consequence of Union victory.  Instead, Andrew Johnson took every step within his power to limit the expansion of voting rights, property rights, and education.  We could have had a functioning democracy with universal male suffrage a century ahead of schedule, but AJ strangled it in the bassinet.  When Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech” and talked about a check for equal justice having been un-cashed for one hundred years, he was referring in part to the hopes that were dashed and the possibilities that were stymied during Johnson’s presidency.

At the crux of all this were Johnson’s views on race, which were especially symptomatic of his background.  Andrew Johnson grew up a fatherless barefoot boy, then a tailor’s apprentice, an escapee from said apprenticeship, and finally a struggling and illiterate journeyman in an unforgiving place- the porous borders between the hill country of North Carolina and Tennessee.  There aren’t too many presidents who truly grew up not knowing where their next meal would come from, but AJ was one of them.  He was thus at the intersection of the South and Appalachia.  And he soaked in his surroundings: the stubbornness, the scrapping for a fight, the hard drinking, the populism, and the stump oratory.  As well as the racial prejudice.  In much of the South, every poor, luckless white man prided himself on his capacity to take part in the political process, and rested in the assurance that no matter what happened, there would always be a rung on the social ladder so far low that he could not descend to it.  This contributed to a fierce belief in white superiority within the South’s white Scots-Irish working class that no wealthy planter could match.

Andrew Johnson was, like much of the eastern Tennessee, committed to the idea of Union.  He was the only senator from a Southern state to remain loyal to the Union after secession, an act whose steadfastness and personal risk secured his place among my 100 greatest senators of U.S. history.  Lincoln soon appointed him military governor of Tennessee once large chunks of the Volunteer State were under Union purview.  With a tough re-election bid on the horizon, Lincoln decided to switch running-mates, and make the election not about the Republican Party, but about keeping the country together.  The GOP was rebranded the Union Party for that election, and to nail that theme down, Lincoln deliberately sought out a pro-Union Democrat, ideally a Southerner, to serve as his running mate.  Johnson fit the bill, and he might have been a very fine symbolic vice-president– until that fateful night at Ford’s Theatre.

Not only was Lincoln dead- but his sketchy but generally reconciliatory policies for bringing the South back into the country died with him.  Without much of a road map, Johnson ran headlong into opposition from Congress- which was trying to reassert itself after an exhausting war that stretched the limits of presidential power.  So began a tortuous tug of war with a Republican-dominated Congress, that harbored large numbers of so-called Radical Republicans after the 1866 midterms.  (If you think about it, that must have been the most badass midterm election in American history, with most of the South under military rule, and the Union victory buoying Republicans- including many veterans- to victory virtually everywhere except the border states.)

Since Lincoln died during a lengthy recess for Congress, Johnson got a head start in carrying out his own Reconstruction plan, which was lenient to an unseemly extreme, offering pardon to virtually everyone but wealthy planters and Confederate ringleaders, and ignoring any attempts to expand suffrage to freedmen.  In this interim, noxious “Black Codes” were passed in former Confederate States, often swindling black labor into peonage debt, with harsh and often strikingly violent penalties.  When acts of terror and violence were used to keep freedmen (and other Republicans) from the polls, Johnson did not lift a finger to come to their aid.  Johnson neglected the Freedman’s Bureau, claiming that blacks did not deserve, in his words, “special privileges.”  (Is this not sounding like the arguments against same-sex marriage just a little bit?)  He vetoed civil rights bills on the grounds that they violated states’ rights (Paging Senator Thurmond?  Paging Senator Goldwater?)  Consistently, he cited a strict interpretation of the Constitution and a desire to reunite the country quickly, and while these were strong elements of Johnson’s political worldview, they were also convenient cloaks for his desire to reinstate the old social order of the South.  Black citizens in the South meant that the old hierarchy was upended.  A successful black man might, in fact, rise higher than an unsuccessful Scots-Irish dirt farmer, and the prospect filled him with a sickening dread.

Radicals in Congress were horrified by Johnson’s actions.  They concluded- correctly, I think- that Lincoln’s landslide victory, and Republican majorities in Congress signaled a mandate for their policies, and as an unelected president, he had best follow their lead.  For two anguishing years, Congress would pass a bill, Johnson would veto it, and Congress would usually- but not always- find the votes to override the veto.  Did you know that there were 10 Supreme Court justices at the end of Lincoln’s term?  When two of them left office, Congress decided to simply let those seats expire, rather than let AJ appoint anyone to the Supreme Court!  This ended, of course, with the Tenure of Office Act, forcing Johnson to keep the disloyal Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in office.  Johnson fired him anyway, inviting an impeachment trial, where the president was saved from the ignominy of leaving office by only one vote.  Perhaps Johnson did not deserve impeachment- the Act was transparently unconstitutional, as the Supreme Court later ruled- but the farcical proceedings were the logical outcome of Johnson’s antagonism, ideological blinders, and his inability to seek out a middle road.

Perhaps the most amazing thing is that earlier in the 20th century, Johnson was portrayed as the good guy in this confrontation!  For decades, our understanding of American history was dominated by a small cabal called the Dunning school, named after a Columbia professor and his nursery of graduate students.  They were the first historians to really discuss Reconstruction and the figures behind it.  You know how you watch “The Birth of a Nation” and a part of you dies?  That film was very much inspired by this school of history- and that goes double for the romanticism of “Gone with the Wind.”

Almost without exception, historians from that time- Northern as well as Southern- put forth a pejorative view of Reconstruction that dominated the historiography for decades, and even found its way into my middle school textbook.  If you have a good memory, think back to the negative portrayals of traitorous scalawags and the Northern flimflam artists known as carpetbaggers from your schoolchild days.  Reconstruction, from this point of view, was a disaster of misrule, military tyranny, and petty corruption.  Claude Bowers, influenced by these views, wrote in his 1928 book on Reconstruction: “Never have American public men in responsible positions, directing the destiny of the Nation, been so brutal, hypocritical and corrupt than in the period between 1865 and 1877″ apparently forgetting the years of slave-catchers and gag rules that came before, and the lynchings and Klan terrorism that came afterward.  In many of these accounts, Andrew Johnson assumes a nearly heroic role for trying- with limited success- to stem the excesses of Reconstruction.

Andrew Johnson doesn’t have too many defenders these days (they tend to be Lew Rockwell types), but these brave few would come to his defense readily:  would not, they might say, have Lincoln been lenient with the South?  Did he not view the South as having never seceded, because the Union is indissoluble?  Eric Foner, the single most respected historian of this period, dispels that nonsense: “He lacked Lincoln’s broad-mindedness, he lacked his flexibility, he lacked his compassion for the emancipated slaves, he lacked Lincoln’s connection with the Republicans in Congress and Northern public opinion…the idea long embedded in our history that Andrew Johnson was simply following in Lincoln’s footsteps is ludicrous.”  Had Lincoln lived, he surely would have butted heads with Congress, who wanted to fundamentally punish and remake the South.  And yet it is highly likely that they could have worked together with a bit of horse-trading and cajoling; they had already done so in crafting the 13th Amendment, as well as the Freedman’s Bureau.  Lincoln would very probably have cleverly divided moderate and radical Republicans to get his way.  Johnson, through his dogged determination to see Reconstruction through only his own jaundiced perspective, drove these two rival factions closer together in opposition to himself.

Nothing can condemn Andrew Johnson more than his own words.  Consider the following: “if anything can be proved by known facts, if all reasoning upon evidence is not abandoned, it must be acknowledged that in the progress of nations Negroes have shown less capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary, wherever they have been left to their own devices they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.”  Holy shit!  Now, most 19th century presidents said something contrary to the idea of racial egalitarianism at some point in their career; even Lincoln professed a belief in European stock as the superior race in his debates with Stephen Douglas.  The crucial difference is that this drivel appeared in a goddamn State of the Union address setting his agenda for the year!  To a Congress that included, for the first time, men- and very capable men- of African descent!

So, maybe Reconstruction wasn’t carried out in the most ethical way imaginable.  Perhaps there were shady dealings, attempts to corral the black vote into voting for Republicans, and schemes to use GOP supermajorities to enhance and protect Northern industry.  I contend that however dodgy this state of affairs may have been, it was infinitely more preferable to the genteel farce of antebellum Dixie undergirded by violence, racial hierarchy, and chattel slavery.   It boggles my mind how some people can view Reconstruction as corrupt, and the “peculiar institution” as somehow less corrupt.  Worse, for years, the supposed debacle of “uneducated Negro voters” was, in the decades that followed, used as a justification for the poll taxes, absurdist literacy tests (one black applying to vote in the 1950s was told to name the entire cabinet of the 11th president), and outright violence that often accompanied black attempts to exercise the franchise.

General Lee reluctantly conceded in the aftermath of Appomattox that the “negro franchise” was a logical outcome of the South’s defeat.  Even if one accepted Johnson’s belief that the South never seceded because secession is unconstitutional, you can’t deny that they lost a war, and that there ought to be consequences of that loss.  Johnson gave the game away.   After centuries of complicity in slavery by northern industrialists, black rights and Yankee self-interest coincided, like a rare eclipse.  And a tremendous opportunity to further the cause of justice, to bring the reality of America closer to its ideals, was lost.  Imagine an America where a solid unbroken generation of African-American citizenship had been not only legislated but also enforced in the aftermath of the Civil War.  Imagine an America where George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington were in Congress, and Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens was under house arrest, rather than serving in the House of Representatives.   I don’t want to suggest that the millennium would have broken out had Thaddeus Stevens’ Reconstruction policy ruled the day, but the South was so sufficiently damaged and prostrate (thanks, General Sherman!) that it would have accepted much sterner provisions for re-entry into the Union, because there was no other choice.  The winners dictate the terms.  Coffee is for closers.

Not even the accomplishments of his presidency, including “Seward’s Folly,” his purchase of Alaska from the Russians, can mitigate this mismanagement.  Despite the common misperception that the acquisition of Alaska was greeted with ridicule, virtually every active politician of the time accepted the virtues of expansion.  And all but the dimmest bulb would have jumped at the opportunity for so much mineral wealth, available for pennies on the dollar.  Like Jefferson with the Louisiana Purchase, you cannot call someone a political genius for accepting such a lopsided bargain.

And for the record, lots of historians agree.  The first two rankings (1948 and 1962) were before the civil rights movement had reached its zenith, and most historians did not place racial reconciliation on a high priority.  Given the influence that the civil rights movement and other social causes had in academia, Andrew Johnson’s ranking in the presidential sweepstakes has plummeted, and with good reason.  You won’t find him outside the bottom 5 very often these days.  Today, he stands as a warning, and as a reminder that all too often, someone harboring strong racial animosities can explain inaction in the face of injustice with the excuse of “just following the Constitution.”

The Reconstruction years needed both a healer and a firm hand, able to reconcile the South back into the nation, but with the understanding that a very different political order must necessarily result from the Union victory.  It needed cleverness and creativity, not rigidity and inflexibility.  Unfortunately, Johnson wanted reunification with alacrity, rather then reunification with justice.  By any standard you want, he was the wrong man for the job.

With the last post, we finally made it past the halfway point.  Lots of great songs were covered in spots #201 thru 400, and things are only going to get better.  Please join me as I unveil the next twenty spots in the Top 400 Songs of the 1960s:

200. “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag”– Country Joe and the Fish (1967):  The live take recorded at Woodstock is an absolute riot to listen to, but the studio version has its merits as well.  Borrowing a leaf from Tom Lehrer in using ragtime to satirize contemporary social issues, the track skewers the military-industrial complex and the poorly thought-out goals for American involvement.  One of the most divisive tracks on this list, it is something every member of the counterculture would have loved, and every member of the Silent Majority would have reviled.

199.  “It’s Your Thing”– The Isley Brothers (1969):  Talk about a reinvention!  After hitting it big with “Twist and Shout” and just plain “Shout!,” the Isleys were, for a brief time, a take-it-to-the-bank favorite for dance music.  By decade’s end, they came back from relative obscurity, and created this song, once against guaranteed to get people moving on the dance floor.  I’m sure James Brown considered demanding some royalties the first time he heard this.

198.  “Matty Groves”– Fairport Convention (1969):  If you haven’t listened to Fairport Convention, do yourself a favor and give them a try.  Maybe start with their most famous album, Liege and Lief.  With rock and roll pedigrees, this group of Englishmen attempted to rediscover and reinvent the music of their home country.  With “Matty Groves” they took a classic tale of cuckoldry and infused it with drama and atmosphere.

197.  “Monday, Monday”– The Mamas and the Papas (1966):  This song is quintessential 1960s, and one of the great efforts from one of the most quintessential 1960s acts.  Even as their easygoing hippie demeanor belied the simmering interpersonal drama, the Mamas and the Papas served up this acoustic, orchestrated track, replete with one of the most famous false endings in pop history.

196.  “Midnight Confessions”– The Grass Roots (1968):  The Grass Roots still constitute one of my favorite guilty pleasures to this day.  With a heavy-handed producer, loads of material from outside songwriters, and outside musicians playing on their records, they were only slightly less fabricated than the Monkees.  But gosh- those songs are some of the best ear candy of the late 60s and early 70s.  “Midnight Confessions” was one of their first big hits, with alternating lead vocals and punchy horns that anticipated Chicago.

195  “Wishin’ and Hopin'”– Dusty Springfield (1964):  Lulu.  Cilla Black.  Petula Clark.  All artists were cut from the same cloth- and yet one of their number, Dusty Springfield, left all of them in the…well…dust, breezing into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and becoming a serious contender for the 100 Greatest Rock and Roll Artists of all time.  Why?  Versatility.  Springfield ambitiously hopped between Memphis-style excursions, girl-group retreads, and pieces like this one, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place from someone like Barbara Lewis.  And most importantly, she never tried to out-Aretha Aretha, possibly the definition of failure for female singers in the 1960s.

194.  “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”– Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (1968):  If I could have three music-related wishes, I’d bring back John Lennon from the dead, I’d bring back George Harrison from the dead, and then I would impose a total moratorium against using 1960s pop songs in commercials.  I never, ever, ever should have heard this song for the first time in a mid-90s Burger King commercial selling flame-broiled whoppers.

193.  “Conquistador”– Procol Harum (1967):  You could never accuse Procol Harum of lacking ambition.  Gary Brooker cooked up this track with a complex orchestral track that is expertly woven into conventional rock and roll backing.  Every time you hear of a rock and roll band doing a series of concerts with a philharmonic, Procol Harum more or less invented the concept- along with pretentious lyrics like “your death-mask face”.

192.  “I Can’t Get Next To You”– The Temptations (1969):  We are clearly moving into funky, less-polished Temptations Mark II in this track.  The Temptations’ secret weapon was always the interplay of their voices- impossibly high tenors, resonant deep voices, and some soulful, distinctive parts in between them.  Every Temptation gets a turn at the microphone in this number creating one of their most urgent tracks.  With a little help from the Funk Brothers, they manage to find a sweet spot between soul and the psychedelic.

191.  “Dead Man’s Curve”– Jan and Dean (1964):  For a while, Jan and Dean dominated the nascent surf scene and were its most visible icons in what began as a deeply local movement with nary a national following.  Then the Beach Boys hit, and suddenly Jan and Dean seemed like that old Calecovision, gathering dust in your basement. This was something of a comeback attempt, with a hint of angst and fatalism that is leftover from the “Leader of the Pack” era.  The song also proved sadly prescient; Jan ended up in a car accident near the very curve in the highway that inspired this song, leaving him in a coma for weeks.

190.  “Land of 1,000 Dances”– Wilson Pickett (1966):  Pickett’s exciting R&B stylings made him a standout, and I think he is somewhat overlooked as a grandfather to what became funk music.  I absolutely love what passes for the song’s chorus, just Pickett scatting the syllable “Nah”- followed by an entire chorus of backup singers.  Perhaps the strongest testament to the song is that it receives airplay while many of the dances it commemorates (the Watusi, the Mashed Potato) do not.

189.  “Those Were the Days”– Mary Hopkins (1968):  The Beatles’ ill-advised creation of Apple Records, a cheap tax write-off they came up with after Brian Epstein died, had a number of catastrophic effects.  The bureaucratic headaches and corporate mismanagement created in its wake were far more responsible for the band’s breakup than Yoko Ono ever would be.  But because they were The Beatles, they were able to attract top-notch talent to even a chaotic, poorly run record company.  Maybe the best record from this first crop of Apple recordings was this track, both sweetly sad and eminently joyful, based off of a Russian tavern song.

188. “I’m A Believer”-The Monkees (1966): The Monkees’ most commercially successful song, it is easy to forget how ubiquitous the group was in 1966, decimating their competition, including The Beatles, who offered relatively weak singles like “Day Tripper” and “Paperback Writer” that year.  This track, written by Neil Diamond of all people, is a masterpiece of pop songwriting with zero artistic integrity at a time where it was considered, for the first time in the 20th century, an expectation of popular musicians.  Sure, the Monkees don’t play a single note on it- not even Davy Jones’ tambourine- and sure, it was handpicked for them by their svengali, Don Kirschner.  But I’ll be damned if it isn’t one of the sunniest and most memorable tracks to come out of the decade.

187.  “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)”– Darlene Love (1964):  Love labored long and hard in the shadows of the “Wall of Sound”.  Phil Specter, a mad experimenter who viewed singers and musicians as a means to his vision, became notorious for issuing records under the Crystals’ name that did not actually feature any known members of this girl-group.  “He’s A Rebel”?  That’s Love singing lead, languishing in obscurity.  Thankfully, every holiday season you can hear Love- under her own name- belting out this track from this Christmas album released by the artists in Specter’s stable.  It’s little more than Love riffing off of “Chriist-maaaaas” backing vocals, but it is no less magnificent to behold.

186.  “In the Court of the Crimson King”– King Crimson (1969):  Depending on how you feel about Procol Harum, this track is the lead-off song from perhaps the first progressive rock album ever made.  Greg Lake- later to feature in Emerson, Lake & Palmer- makes it work, with solid lead vocal work and impressive bass chops.  It sets the parameters for everything music aficionados love and hate about the genre- it is long, ponderous, mythological, features extended solos, betrays zero soul, and is entirely undanceable.

185.  “For Once in My Life”– Stevie Wonder (1968):  Child stars have a propensity to crash and burn.  Stevie Wonder, having achieved his first #1 hit in 1963 as a pre-teen kept getting stronger and better, in spite of all odds.  He had a small armada of hits by this time, and he was only 18.  But this is perhaps his first song that touches greatness, or was capable of becoming a standard.  I mean, Sinatra asked to record this song!  And it worked just as well crooned by Ol’ Blue Eyes as it did with a soulful harmonica solo in the middle when Stevie released the original.

184.  “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”– The Temptations (1966):  Having enjoyed a revival in the 1980s film The Big Chill, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” feels a bit more airy and less constrained and micromanaged than a lot of other Motown hits of this era.  The sense of space is particularly striking during the verses, with the soul equivalent of the monochromatic drone in Indian music.

183.  “Words”– The Bee Gees (1968):  The gold chains and white suits were still almost a full decade away.  Here, The Bee Gees were still young prodigies, writing tuneful songs with some of the best melodic twists of their time, and lush orchestration.

182.  “Love Is All Around”– The Troggs (1967):  What a remarkable turnaround!  The Troggs, a barely-literate garage band responsible for “Wild Thing,” managed to also pull off this love song, one of the very sweetest of the Oldies era.  It is a bit overwrought, with saccharine strings, and awkward syntax like “on my love you can depend,” but it has generated a great many covers over the years (perhaps, most memorably, in a Christmas-themed version in Love, Actually.)

181.  “Darling Be Home Soon”– Lovin’ Spoonful (1966):  The Spoonful, helmed by John Sebastian, were always ahead of the curve in the songwriting stakes.  While “Summer in the City” and “Do You Believe in Magic” are the most well-remembered today, this track- a minor hit from mid-decade- is one of their very best accomplishments.  The narrator, still a teenager, reflects on his growing sense of mortality and vulnerability.

When we talk about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there are lots of controversial artists who have made it in, but the Rock Hall is much more notorious for who is left out.  The word “snub” has been used with some regularity: both for bands who have never been nominated (“Snubbed by the nominating committee”) and bands who are routinely nominated but never seem to get in (Kraftwerk, NWA, War, and especially Chic, who are “Snubbed by the voters”).  The difficulty, though, is that rock and roll aficionados cannot agree on which artists are the most conspicuous snubs.  While we all agree lots of great musicians are on the outside of the great glass pyramid looking in, there’s little unanimity as to which artists those are.  It is a good example of why music is so subjective to taste: there’s a reason why earning a Grammy award does almost nothing for an artist’s credibility.

To show you what I mean, here are the top twenty snubs listed by five different outlets:

Consequence of Sound:

  1. Whitney Houston
  2. Joy Division
  3. The Smiths
  4. Kate Bush
  5. Nick Cave
  6. New Order
  7. Devo
  8. Bjork
  9. Sonic Youth
  10. Roxy Music
  11. Iron Maiden
  12. Depeche Mode
  13. Pixies
  14. Television
  15. Slayer
  16. Black Flag
  17. Motorhead
  18. Nick Drake
  19. Journey
  20. Phish

Not in the Hall of Fame:

  1. Deep Purple
  2. Kraftwerk
  3. Roxy Music
  4. Jethro Tull
  5. The Smiths
  6. MC5
  7. New Order
  8. Willie Nelson
  9. Gram Parsons
  10. Johnny Coltrane
  11. NWA
  12. Chicago
  13. Judas Priest
  14. The Cure
  15. Dick Dale
  16. Yes
  17. Big Star
  18. T. Rex
  19. Iron Maiden
  20. Pixies

Future Rock Legends: (they recently ranked hall-worthy artists, and I simply teased out the twenty highest placing artists who are eligible for the hall, but haven’t gotten in yet)

  1. Kraftwerk
  2. The Cure
  3. Deep Purple
  4. The Smiths
  5. Nine Inch Nails
  6. Joy Division
  7. The Moody Blues
  8. Iron Maiden
  9. Roxy Music
  10. Pixies
  11. Depeche Mode
  12. Janet Jackson
  13. NWA
  14. Judas Priest
  15. Yes
  16. King Crimson
  17. T. Rex
  18. Electric Light Orchestra
  19. Chicago
  20. Sonic Youth

Rolling Stone magazine:

  1. Joan Baez
  2. The Shangri-Las
  3. Harry Nilsson
  4. Dolly Parton
  5. Deep Purple
  6. Yes
  7. Warren Zevon
  8. Kraftwerk
  9. Afrika Bambaataa
  10. LL Cool J
  11. Joan Jett (voted in this year, after article was published)
  12. Kate Bush
  13. The Cure
  14. Iron Maiden
  15. Depeche Mode
  16. Slayer
  17. Bon Jovi
  18. The Smiths
  19. Whitney Houston
  20. NWA

And, finally, my list:

  1. Chicago
  2. Kraftwerk
  3. Janet Jackson
  4. Carole King
  5. The Cure
  6. Chic
  7. The Moody Blues
  8. Peter, Paul & Mary
  9. Deep Purple
  10. Judas Priest
  11. Kate Bush
  12. NWA (although I’m really troubled by their misogyny, which is through the roof, even for a gangsta rap group)
  13. Afrika Bambaataa
  14. The Zombies
  15. Dire Straits
  16. Pixies
  17. Weird Al Yankovic
  18. The Spinners
  19. Steve Miller Band
  20. Indigo Girls

See how difficult it is to come to a consensus?  Biases abound– Consequence of Sound has no rap or hip hop, Not in the Hall of Fame has zero female artists in their top 20, and my own difficulties tuning in to post-punk are just three examples.  There isn’t a single name that appears on all five lists.  But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t any popular artists who most of us recognized.  These were near-unanimous:

  • The Smiths (4…every one but me. It’s not my fault I’m the only one who recognizes how mopey they are)
  • NWA (4)
  • Iron Maiden (4)
  • Deep Purple (4)
  • Kraftwerk (4)
  • Judas Priest (4)
  • Pixies (4)
  • The Cure (4)
  • Chicago (3)
  • Kate Bush (3)
  • Depeche Mode (3)
  • Yes (3)
  • Roxy Music (3)
  • Joy Division/New Order (3) (I’ll be generous and lump them together)

So, there is something ~like~ consensus emerging; I think 8 acts appearing on four of our five lists is actually rather astonishingly high.  And the Nominating Committee seems to agree; five of those seven have been nominated at some point in the last three or four years.  Rock Hall Watchers just can’t agree on which acts should fill out our list of snubs.  35 acts appear on one and only one of our lists: Peter, Paul & Mary, Weird Al Yankovic, Indigo Girls, The Steve Miller Band, Chic, Dire Straits, The Zombies, The Spinners, Carole King, Nick Cave, Devo, Bjork, LL Cool J, Warren Zevon, Harry Nilsson, Bon Jovi, Dolly Parton, Gram Parsons, The Shangri-Las, Joan Baez, Jethro Tull, Electric Light Orchestra, Nine Inch Nails, Willie Nelson, Johnny Coltrane, Television,  Motorhead, Nick Drake, Black Flag, Journey, Phish, Big Star, King Crimson, MC5, and Dick Dale. And altogether, 56 different artists appear on our lists of 20: enough for about nine years’ worth of inductees.  If Rock Hall experts like Tom Lane or Philip from Rock Hall Monitors made their own master list of snubs (something I would love to see them to do), I guarantee they would have come up with some unique names themselves.

If that isn’t enough, consider the acts the Nom Com has nominated before and clearly thinks are worthy, but aren’t on any of our lists: Link Wray, the J. Geils Band, Sting, War, The Marvelettes, The Meters, and so on.  And then you have to keep in mind that we are also  ignoring other exceptional acts who will meet the eligibility requirement soon: Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Oasis, Beck, Mariah Carey, Rage Against the Machine, Tupac, and Biggie.  Each of them will almost certainly be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame within a decades’ time.  It’s enough to make one’s head spin.

So, what can we draw from all this?  It is probably very likely that there’s so much disagreement about the current “snubs” because most of the true no-brainers have long since been inducted.  If you read the comments section at a classic rock online forum of your choice, when the subject of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame comes up, people write things like “It is a TRAVESTY that Jethro Tull isn’t in,” or “It is a SHAM that they keep ignoring the Doobie Brothers.”  No.  A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without, say, Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix or Aerosmith would have been a travesty.  A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without King Crimson or Depeche Mode is merely an interesting debate.

The main point to take away, however, is that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is never, ever going to please everyone.  Tastes and opinion and critical judgment will diverge, even among ecumenical listeners of broad tastes and good will.  The Rock Hall has made plenty of mistakes (Laura Nyro, Percy Sledge, Gene Pitney, inducting only five artists for multiple years, etc.) that contributed to the backlog, and their entire process often seems shrouded in secrecy and cronyism.  But lots of rock and roll fans take the Hall at its worst without recognizing the enormity, and in some respects, the impossibility in their task of enshrining the most important acts in rock and roll’s family tree. Assuming seven artists as the upper limit for a modern, one-night, HBO-televised ceremony with speeches, performances, and awards for Early Influences, Non-Performers, etc., the Rock Hall has years and years before digging out of the logjam of important but snubbed artists.  Even if they do everything right from here on in.

Today, I’m continuing my countdown for the greatest Walt Disney World attractions.  We covered the twelve lowest placeholders last time, an essay in poor theming, lazy conceptualization, and unrealized ambition.  These ten choices aren’t quite that bad, but are palatably- and in some ways, fascinatingly- mediocre additions in the Disney World pantheon.

mickeybirthdayland70.  Mickey’s Birthdayland Stage Show (Magic Kingdom, 1988-1990):  To commemorate the 60th anniversary of Mickey Mouse’s animation debut, the powers that be opened up an entirely new land for the first, and only, time in the history of the Magic Kingdom.  With a festival theme brimming with colorful tents, Mickey’s Birthdayland was a vibrant, kid-friendly addition to the park.  One of the components to this celebration was “Minne’s Birthday Surprise”, a stage show wherein Minnie collaborates with Donald, Daisy, Goofy, Pluto, Chip, Dale, and a human who hosted the show to prepare a surprise party for the birthday mouse.  Watching the footage on Youtube, I am amazed at how such a no-frills show with entry-level choreography and canned dialogue became the anchor attraction for an entire new land.  In a way, it is refreshing; the show didn’t need to be anything extraordinary.  It simply had to set the pace and tone for the birthday festivities.  Disney imagineering aimed low, and for once, it was the smart decision.  This area of the park, designed as a one-time special event, became semi-permanent as Mickey’s Starland and finally Mickey’s Toontown Fair before it was all thankfully demolished to make room for the new, improved Fantasyland.

tomorrowland speedway69.  Tomorrowland Speedway (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present):  Remember how I said, in my first posting, that this ranking of the Disney World attractions was necessarily subjective and tied to my own experiences in the park?  Here’s where that starts to matter.     You see, the race cars in Tomorrowland were my little brother’s favorite ride when we were kids.  (To put this in perspective, Matt could identify the make and model of almost any car on the road by the time he was seven, owned every Matchbox ever made, and I’m pretty sure his first word was “car.”  Of course the Tomorrowland Speedway was his favorite)  Anyway, we rode on the stupid race cards multiple times every visit, without fail.  This might have been very pleasant, except that this ride has perhaps the most uncomfortable queue in Walt Disney World.  Back in my day, large portions of it were uncovered and cramped, subjecting poor vacationers to Florida’s merciless sun without the succor of air-con or even shade.  And once you were on the ride, you were similarly in the heat of the sun, riding down a track from which you could not deviate, and riding past scenery that, despite being in Disney’s flagship theme park, was nondescript and uninteresting.  Countless variations of this ride exist at nearly every low-rent theme park in the country, but that didn’t matter.  At no point, did you feel like you were on a race track or somewhere besides central Florida.  This ride has undergone quite a few name changes, vehicle redesigns, and shortenings over the years (the modern version has a full third less track than the original).  But it still stands and soldiers on as it did on the Magic Kingdom’s opening day, clogging up valuable Tomorrowland real estate, sucking in gullible motorhead children and their hapless older brothers.

skyway68.  Skyway (Magic Kingdom, 1971-1999): This ride might not have been the most original- the Great Escape theme park, an hour’s drive from where I grew up, had a ride just like it- but a trip on the Skyway is a hallmark of nearly every trip to the Magic Kingdom over the years.  On a busy day, it could be a nice way to get away from that crowded corridor between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, even though the colorful theme-park chic gondolas couldn’t have been more out of place with the sterile color scheme of first-generation Tomorrowland.  Naively trusting park guests to responsibly sit down for five full minutes while suspended sixty feet in the air, the ride was a wrongful death lawsuit waiting to happen.  And yet, it was the sad and wholly accidental death of a park custodian doing maintenance on the ride that probably triggered the closing of this nondescript fan favorite.

studio backlot tour67.   Backlot Studio Tour (Hollywood Studios, 1989-2014):  Conceptually, this attraction was the glue holding the MGM-Studios theme park together for its first decade.  It was chiefly through the Backlot Tour that you appreciated how you were very much in a working theme park, with television shows and movies underway.  The queue for this experience set the stage nicely, allowing guests to see how realistic effects like a storm at sea might be created with the right technology and some creative framing.  The tram ride itself gave us all a glimpse of what was taking place at the studios, and the bustle and intense activity mattered more than any specific imagery we were supposed to see.  It all culminated in Catastrophe Canyon, a simulated flood performed with Hollywood magic- although in hindsight, I think it must also have been a dreadful waste of water.  Very much like the Magic of Disney Animation (#71), Backlot Studio Tour did not age very gracefully, and was hit hard by the inexorable move away from the Disney-MGM Studios as a functioning production facility and into a more conventional theme park.  The last time I rode was in 2008, and it was a depressing experience.  We rode on, past non-functioning wardrobe facilities, empty soundstages, and barren backstage areas that once jumped with bustle and activity, all on a tram that was driven by the least enthusiastic cast member I’ve ever seen at any of the parks.  Much like the Tomorrowland Speedway, the ride space was cannibalized to make room for newer, more commercial enterprises like the Lights! Camera! Action! show and Toy Story Mania.  It’s a shame, really.  This ride was once an intensive, immersive experience that almost single-handedly turned MGM-Studios from a half-day park into a full-day park.

under the ea66.  Under the Sea (Magic Kingdom, 2013-present):  Walt Disney World does not do too many slow-moving dark rides these days.  So, I had high hopes that new technology, and a renewed emphasis on storytelling would make this ride, which dominates an entire section of the new Fantasyland, a resounding success.  It didn’t exactly live up to those expectations.  It told the story of Ariel well enough, but it missed a lot of what makes Fantasyland rides so distinctive: their lack of narrative, their ability to invoke feeling rather than making sense as a complete story, given that a short ride misses the intricacies of plot.  In other words, why recreate the movie you already own at home?  The ride needs to explore something different.  Snow White’s ride is supposed to be about fear and fright, Peter Pan’s is supposed to evoke the sensation of flying, Mr. Toad with mayhem.  Under the Sea didn’t have any of these qualities.  Despite a really cool (although unnecessary long) queue that established a grotto theme, and a ride that used the blessing of space really well, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that it was a color-by-numbers recreation of The Little Mermaid.

dumbo65.  Dumbo the Flying Elephant (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present):   It is only 90 seconds long, takes you perhaps only twelve feet in the air, and is quite possibly the slowest-loading, least efficient ride in any Disney theme park.  In fact, the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World calls its touring plan of the Magic Kingdom focused on getting little kids to as many rides as possible the “Dumbo-in-a-Day-or-Die” plan because of the sheer logistical nightmare once caused by visiting this ride. And yet, it is a big hit with small children over multiple generations, and is often remembered as their favorite ride during their trip back home.   So why has this attraction become so iconic?  One of its ride vehicles resides in the Smithsonian, for pity’s sake.  The writer over at the Progressland blog makes a compelling case for why Dumbo matters.  In the early 50s, Walt Disney received scores of letters from children asking if they could visit the place where Mickey Mouse and the movie characters lived.  Disneyland allowed that to happen for the first time.  It “has intrinsic meaning because it allows the park guest to fulfill a desire based on previous emotional context”, and Dumbo- a simple ride where elephants spin around an axis- allows entry into that world.  And so, it has soldiered on since opening day, despite its simplicity, or more probably because of it.  I need to add that Disney did the right thing by this ride with the Fantasyland expansion, creating in effect two Dumbo rides, with a carnival area where kids can play around before their beeper lets them know that it’s their time to ride, instead of waiting inexorably in line.  That’s a blessed, merciful improvement- with consistent theming no less- to this hearty warhorse in the Disney stable.

The-Many-Adventures-of-Winnie-the-Pooh64.  Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (Magic Kingdom, 1999-present):  I think this simple ride- the only other Fantasyland dark ride built since the 70s-  is actually better than Under the Sea by a whisker.  In fact, “Dark ride” hardly describes it at all, since the decision was made to present it in a bright, colorful palate, full of strong lighting.  It fits the Pooh mythology well, in the form of small vignettes and short scenes, rather than trying to attempt a unified story, which it surely couldn’t do.  Even the ride’s trackless system is a testament to this free-wheeling, and slightly anarchic, mission statement- and the hallucinatory “Heffelumps and Woozles” scene was nicely executed.  Many adventures indeed.

monster sound63.  Monster Sound Show (Hollywood Studios, 1989-1997): For almost a decade, this show, presented in a 270-person theatre, was a good example of what the MGM-Studios tried to do in its early years.  While on the one hand, the park was committed to entertaining, it was also meant to show how movies and television were produced, in a way, a much more hands-on, experiential, and frankly, Epcot-y mission.  In this case, the focus was on sound effects.  A short black-and-white film was shown, starring Chevy Chase and- in his second appearance on this list- Martin Short, with studio-made sound effects.  Then, the film’s audio was deconstructed, as four audience members were chosen to operate the sound effect equipment to produce sounds of rain, bangs, clangs, and creeks as Chase’s character traversed a booby-trapped haunted house.  What followed was often comical, with sound effects mistimed or accidentally left out.  With a great deal of audience interactivity, it wasn’t terribly thrilling but it did succeed in showing us that creating sound in film wasn’t as easy as it appeared.

tough to be a bug62.  It’s Tough to be a Bug (Animal Kingdom, 1998-present):  This is the first, and the lowest-ranked, of the five 3-D films that factor into this list.  I find it very interesting indeed that the characters from A Bug’s Life, which hadn’t even been released until the year Animal Kingdom opened, were used in the park’s keynote attraction.  MGM Studios is designed to draw you to the Chinese Theatre to visit the Great Movie Ride, a retrospective that is crucial for the park’s self-understanding of why movies matter.  Epcot’s design team put a twenty-story geodesic dome just beyond the entrance in the form of Spaceship Earth, setting the tone for the entire park; the ride inside conveys a sense of how far we’ve come in the past and a corporate-friendly tomorrow for Future World, and a sense of humanity becoming more connected that resonates with the World Showcase.  In contrast, Animal Kingdom made its Tree of Life, a tourist-magnet that is just as visually impressive, if not more so, as these other monuments and made the attraction inside…a 3-D movie about bugs?  Seriously?  Talk about not living up to expectations.  The film is inoffensive- short, silly, and a bit unfocused.  You’ll learn a bit about bugs, but not much, it is just an avenue for small-scale special effects.  The sundry bugs come and go so quickly that it can’t sustain even a simple narrative or story.  My reservations amount to this: the Tree of Life is, conceptually, the most valuable real estate in the Animal Kingdom park.  Disney could have decided against putting any attraction at all inside, to give the tree a kind of sanctity or dignity.  But if you do put something inside the tree, it better be something really special, something that immediately communicates to crowds that will surely make a ..um…beeline for it what the Animal Kingdom is about and why its message matters.

disneyworld railroad61.  Walt Disney World Railroad (1971-present):  This railroad ride very nearly rivals Dumbo the Flying Elephant as a Magic Kingdom icon.  It is usually the first attraction guests will see upon entering the Magic Kingdom, even if it is almost never the first one they will experience.  As a method of getting around the park, it is usually more efficient to simply walk to your destination.  But it is a lovingly made train ride, and a good way to relax when you are in the park or get toddlers to chill out for a little while.  If I’m going to nit-pick and overanalyze, here’s this: a Victorian-style train ride makes sense in Main Street USA, it makes sense to have it plow through Adventureland, and it makes sense to stop in a Wild West outpost like Frontierland.  After that, however, the train’s purpose becomes a bit muddled.  Why is there a railroad in heretofore-medieval-themed Fantasyland?  And more anachronistically, why is this in Tomorrowland which boasts better and more futuristic forms of transportation?  In all likelihood, though, I’m over-thinking this.  I appreciate the railroad’s ability to instill some calm into an often hectic park teeming with sometimes-violent stroller moms.  It even plays a role in the charming opening ceremony held when the Magic Kingdom opens each morning.

#3: George Washington

300px-Gilbert_Stuart_-_George_Washington_-_Google_Art_ProjectCategory: Super-Competent Administrators

Term in Office: 1st president, 1789-1797

Party: Non-Partisan on paper, Federalist in practice

Home State: Virginia

Presidents’ Day has come and gone in the U.S., and although I am too late to celebrate it with a new post in our almost-completed Ranking of the Presidents, I think I am close enough to George Washington’s birthday to have this count as a belated birthday gift.

Every subsequent generation has treated Washington as a god who briefly deigned to walk among mere mortals for a time.  We have put him on our coinage.  We made his birthday part of a national holiday.  We have named states, counties, and even our nation’s capital in his honor.  He is the man nobody can criticize, the man nobody wants to criticize (although this plucky account from Drunk History gives us insight into how dangerous Washington could be when he felt wronged or crossed, as one young, inebriated historian tells the tale of the lengths GW went to unsuccessfully recover a runaway slave.)

No doubt, Washington would be pleased with our general acquiesce to his legend.  His statuesque visage over America’s story is partly a mythology he spent his lifetime making.  The George Washington who appears in Gore Vidal’s historical novels starting with Burr is probably a shade closer to the truth: a man of considerable but limited skill, better at stonewalling rival politicians and Continental Army generals than defeating divisions of redcoats.  I am reminded of what my friend, former Bishop James Armstrong, once said of Billy Graham: a man who, while pretending to be above it all, uses his influence in the most partisan of ways.

More than anyone else I can think of from the founding generation, Washington spent his life posing and preening for posterity.  In particular, Washington was enamored of classical culture, the revival of Greek and Roman republicanism in the mid-1700s that established the parameters and the argot for the American Revolution.  He ordered the play Cato to be shown at Valley Forge, showing the embodiment of republican virtue and sacrifice necessary to preserve self-government and liberty at the expense of tyranny.  Rather like Reagan, Washington spent his public career acting a part out: if Reagan play-acted a competent and poised president, Washington play-acted the role of Cincinnatus in the drama of the American Revolution.

If you aren’t familiar with the legend of Cincinnatus, let me explain it to you.  One of the great stories that generations of Romans told their young ones is that of the semi-mythical figure of Cincinnatus who lived during the age of the Roman republic.  An old retired farmer who loved nothing more than to toil at his plow.  One day, he was met at his plow by a delegation from Rome.  With an impending invasion, the Senate had chosen to make Cincinnatus a dictator for six months to deal with the threat.  Cincinnatus dispatched the invading tribes in two weeks, then resigned his office, going back to his plow.  Believe me, the legend of Cincinnatus resonated in the Early Republic days of the United States.  The most prestigious organization a Revolutionary War vet could join was called the Order of the Cincinnati.  The famous Ohio city of Cincinnati was so named in the hopes that all of its citizens could emulate the virtue of this great Roman.  (Alas, even a short visit to Cincinnati is enough to disprove this aspiration.)

And so, Washington spent his life molding himself after this early antique Roman.  He feigned reluctance to lead the Continental Army, he played the dilettante when called to lead the Constitutional Convention, and he finally professed hesitance when elected unanimously to the presidency.  This was, again, partly to make himself look good in future history schoolbooks, but it was also because of a deep-seated belief that the wisest, and most counter-intuitive thing that a powerful person can do is to abdicate that power, to step down, to retire to one’s plow.

It was with that same sense of posterity-mindedness that Washington conducted his administration.  In fact, the very office of the presidency was designed in Philadelphia with the tacit understanding that Washington would be the first man to occupy it.  A group of republicans who held monarchy in the deepest contempt would scarcely have designed the presidency to be as powerful as it was unless they could be sure of Washington setting a good example with his time in office.

And so, George Washington had to establish a very delicate balance.  He had to avoid appearing overtly monarchial or despotic, but he couldn’t allow the country to fall into the rudderless gridlock that befell it under the unworkable Articles of Confederation.  And he certainly could not appear partisan (although he certainly favored what would eventually be called the Federalists.)

This often meant letting underlings handle the dirty work, preferring to levitate above much of the bickering that took place in the first Congresses.  He allowed Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison arrive at a grand bargain- exchanging the federal assumption of state debt for a plan to put the nation’s capital on the Potomac- far away from the corrupting financial centers of Philadelphia and New York.  He let John Jay tackle the thankless job of negotiating a treaty with Great Britain, allowing the former chief justice to draw the fire when the best he could do was get a treaty that didn’t really deal with impressment but averred war between the two powers.

If anything, Washington, again like Reagan, kept too much distance from the details.  Out of all the cabinet, he took Alexander Hamilton’s advice the most often- to the point where it sometimes looked like a parliamentary system does today, where you might have a president whose purpose is largely ceremonial, but also a prime minister with less prestige but more policymaking clout.  Hamilton was, in some ways, that kind of prime ministerial figure.

Hamilton was, to be sure, a financial genius who helped codify the nation’s precarious finances.  We take it for granted how good he was; we remember crisis-solvers, but rarely remember crisis-preventers quite so fondly.  Unfortunately, this came with some drawbacks.  Hamilton worked in ways that privileged lenders and financiers over the backwoods areas of the country.  He helped his banker friend Robert Morris engineer a scheme whereby financiers would buy Revolutionary War vets’ worthless IOU payments they received throughout the war, then turned around and made the IOU’s redeemable for hard currency.  Adding insult to injury, this scheme was funded by an excise tax of whiskey, which was disproportionately used by backwoods Appalachian Revolutionary War vets.  Some of the most financially precarious people in the U.S. were being taxed to pay for a policy that fleeced them.  So, I have very little good to say about Washington’s famous action to restore order in the Whiskey Rebellion, aside from Washington’s decision to prosecute almost no one for treasonable activities.  The angry rednecks of hill country had, for once, every right to be aggrieved; the Washington administration took them for a ride.  In this, Washington played only a small, symbolic role- riding into Pennsylvania on horseback to put down the rebellion; he left the details to Hamilton- a capable man, but in some ways, a dangerously Anglophile, slightly monarchial, and unabashedly partisan figure.  Still, it was a great good cop/bad cop routine while it lasted.

With Washington’s obsession with looking ahead, we need to spend a few moments looking at his approach to foreign policy.  We often remember his farewell address endorsing neutrality in foreign affairs- or at the very least, unilateralism, putting America’s interests first.  It has become a cliche to point out that this was a wise course of action, but in this case, the cliche is true.  The idea of neutrality did, I think, serve the country in good stead, allowing us to stay more or less out of Napoleonic geopolitics (with some important exceptions) and even allowed us to play major European powers against one another.  An overlooked aspect is often the Citizen Genet crisis, where a representative from Revolutionary France attempted to stir up American privateer support for the Directory, even to the point of strong-arming popular support against the Washington administration (shades of Netanyahu’s work in turning American foreign policy into a partisan exercise today?)  Washington put a kibosh on that (although he generously allowed Genet to stay in America when it was clear he would be executed if he returned to Jacobin France.)

I’ve picked Washington’s administration apart, but it is above question that he had a monumentally difficult task.  If we are going to continue using “Value Over Replacement Player” as a metric, Washington’s score is astronomically high; there isn’t a single American of his time- possibly any time- that could have done so well, and commanded so much respect at such a critical moment, and had the good sense to leave at the proper time.  Fundamentally, you needed consensus for this constitutional experiment to work, and he was the only man who could provide it.  Forrest MacDonald of the University of Alabama is partly correct when he says that Washington’s greatness was not so much what he did or the policies he pursued as much as the example that he left behind.  In that sense, he was great because he stepped down, MacDonald argues; he set the precedent of serving for only a short while, emulating Cincinnatus one last time.

It is easy to forget that the late 18th century was filled with petty princelings, would-be despots, and dangerous revolutionaries.  With only small and rather weak republics to use as models, Washington had to figure out how a large republic would work for the first time in the history of the modern world.  He succeeded beyond expectation by an apolitical veneer, appointing competent people based on merit, and using his symbolic authority as America’s leading citizen.  His latent biases toward financiers over small farmers, the British over the French, and central authority over states’ rights, are forgivable- and in some ways, deeply human- complications to an administration that got an awful lot right.  In virtually every respectable ranking of the presidents I have seen, he’s in the top three, and I see no reason to change that.

 

I have too many projects underway at this blog right now.  I’m ranking the presidents, I’m counting down the top 400 songs of the 1960s, and I’m closely following all developments involving the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  So, why not add one more?  I am going to attempt to rank the attractions found at Walt Disney World in Orlando.

As those who know me are fully aware, I am something of a Disney World nut, and many of the happiest days of my childhood and adolescence were spent there.    When a friend begins to plan a visit, I have been known to write 30-page memos detailing how they should tackle the parks, their lodging, and the dining options.  I love the thought that goes into each themed area in the park, the intricate planning that goes in to even mundane elements like lighting the parks or what the cast members wear on each ride.  I appreciate the parks’ place as cathedrals in American pop culture, where going on the most important rides takes on a purposefulness and sanctity that I can only compare to following the stations of the cross in a Catholic church.  You can’t really skip “Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus”, and neither can you quite forego Big Thunder Mountain Railroad without feeling like the Disney experience is incomplete.  I can claim, however, no special expertise.  There are plenty of people on the internet whose knowledge of Disney history, whose technical or engineering understanding, or whose  command of attraction design and theming far eclipses my own.  I’m just a historian who follows the story and development of Disney World as a hobby, and who has been to the park 9 times in his 31 years.  (1987, 1990, 1993, 1996, 1999, 2005, 2008, 2009, and 2014, if you care to know.)

On what grounds, though, am I ranking them?  Well, a theme park is there for enjoyment, so I suppose in some ways that this is a ranking of how well and how deeply I appreciated these attractions.  That can mean a number of things, of course: how well the attraction tells a story, its immersion and ability to convincingly create a new world or new environment, its ability to thrill or instill wonder, nostalgia, imagination, hope, or whatever feeling the ride is trying to evoke.  Naturally, this cannot be reviewed objectively, nor should one even try.  Theme parks are there to entertain and appreciate; to address them in a purely clinical fashion is to miss the point.  My ability to judge the rides cannot at all be separated from the warm memories surrounding them; indeed, they were made to be enjoyed with families and loved ones.

But some level of order is necessary, and I have to set some ground rules.  Firstly, this is a ranking of Disney World attractions past and present.  Long-shuttered favorites like Dreamflight, World of Motion, Body Wars, and the Backlot Studio Tour will all be resurrected (there I go with the blasphemy again) alongside attractions that are still open today.  This includes rides, park-specific films, and perennial theatre presentations, but not parades, park entertainment, exhibits, playgrounds, or seasonal fare.  Therefore, park elements like Illuminations, or Global Neighborhood, or the Penny Arcade or the Image Works are all disqualified.  By my count, this makes 82 attractions that I have to rank.

Secondly, I am only ranking attractions that I have experienced myself at some point.  Even in nine trips, there are still some things I’ve never quite gotten around to on account of limited time, lack of interest, rides closing before I was born, or opening after my most recent visit.  So, if you are a fan of Toy Story Mania, Food Rocks, Magic Journeys, Plaza Swan Boats, the Seven Dwarves Mine Train, or (shudder) Stitch Encounter, I’m so sorry, but I never got around to them.

Thirdly, I am only ranking one version of each attraction- the version I deem as the best, its highest form.  For example, there have been four distinct incarnations of Spaceship Earth since Epcot’s 1982 opening- the original, the Walter Cronkite version, the Jeremy Irons version, and the Dame Judi Dench version.  In the end, though, it is basically the same ride: a slow-moving journey through the history of communications.  It was a close race between Cronkite and Irons, but ultimately I will be judging it on Cronkite.  Thankfully, this means I don’t have to review some disastrous revisionings of classic rides, Journey Into Your Imagination and Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management.

Starting with the bottom of the barrel- the cautionary tales of how not to design a theme park attraction-  and moving ever forward into the sublime, I’ll tackle the bottom twelve in this post.

250px-DrewCareySD82.  Sounds Dangerous!  (Hollywood Studios, 1999-2012):  In 2005, my mom and I spent a grand total of three hours at MGM Studios during a three and a half day visit to Disney World.  The other three members of our party went on Star Tours and Tower of Terror, then left.  On a whim, the two of us decided to check out Sounds Dangerous, on the reasonable grounds that its host, Drew Carey, was funny enough on “Whose Line Is It Anyway.”  Set in the old Monster Sound Show studio, we were appalled by what followed.  Drew Carey plays an inept detective who carries along a tiny video camera to record his exploits.  Along the way, the video feed goes out, the room goes completely dark, and we are reliant on the audio to piece together the action.  It was a disaster: unfunny, and probably incredibly scary for children afraid of the dark. This show has so many of the hallmarks that make so many newer Disney attractions less compelling today: a bad script, an over-reliance on celebrities, a lazy concept, desperate comedy, no theme, and it is divorced from the Studios’ goal of simultaneously celebrating Hollywood while showing how it works behind the scenes.  Since I disqualified Journey Into Your Imagination, it is my choice for the worst attraction ever staged at Walt Disney World.

 

tarzan rocks81.  Tarzan Rocks! (Animal Kingdom, 1999-2006):  This show ran for seven excruciating years in a nicely designed theatre tucked away in the back corners of Animal Kingdom.  As I watched Tarzan Rocks! itself, it was clear that too many cooks had spoiled the broth in this stage show based on the eponymous Disney animated film.  Somebody on the design team clearly wanted this to be a  straightforward theatrical presentation of the film.  A second person insisted on turning this into a rock concert, fronted by a hairless Phil Collins clone introducing the film’s soundtrack with generalities like “we’d like to dedicate this song to all the families in the audience”, and the standby of all unsuccessful entertainers, “I can’t hear you,” imploring the audience to reluctantly clap louder than the show deserved.  And yet a third person envisioned the show as a circus, with gravity-defying trapeze work, and in-line skaters dressed like monkeys.  Any one of these elements on their own could have made for an entertaining experience.  Put together, it was loud, confusing, disjointed, and agonizing.  By the way, it can’t be a coincidence that the two worst attractions on my list both end in exclamation points.

80.  The Making of Me (Epcot, 1989-2007): Picture, if you will, the following scene unfolding as the Reagan years were winding down, and two Disney timeservers pitch their idea to the boss:

Imagineer 1:  So, we’ve got an idea for the new Wonders of Life pavilion.

Imagineer 2: It’s about health, and wellness, and life, right?

Imagineer 1: And where does life begin?

Both: Sex!

Michael Eisner: I’m listening…

Imagineer 1: So, naturally, a Disney World vacation is when most parents want to introduce their children to the sensitive subjects of puberty, conception, and birthing.

Eisner: Indeed.

Imagineer 2: So, we’d like a green light on a sex ed film we can show in Epcot.

Imagineer 1:  Starring Martin Short.

Michael Eisner: Sold!  Let the Disney Decade begin!

making of meTo be completely fair, this show was about as good as an Epcot sex ed film could realistically be.  There’s very little wrong with the execution; Short is surprisingly empathic and sweet, and as a film introducing impressionable children to some very adult topics, it does a lot of things right.  It emphasizes the need to love your partner, and the idea that having a child should be a deliberate choice rather than a careless default.   No, the problem is completely in the concept.  In the same way that Disney World is not the proper forum for a Howard Zinn style deconstruction of power and race in American history, it is also perhaps not the best venue for talking about the birds and the bees.

circleoflife79.  The Circle of Life: An Environmental Fable (Epcot, 1995-present):  There are lots of Disney World fans out there on the web, and one contentious issue that is never satisfactorily resolved is the appropriateness of saturating Disney rides, especially in Worlds Fair-like Epcot, with characters from the film canon.  In the last decade, we’ve seen the Caballeros move in to Mexico, Nemo & Co. commandeer The Living Seas, an animatronic Chef Remy in France, and a hostile takeover from the cast of Frozen in the Norway pavilion.  Sometimes, when done smartly, this cross-pollination works, but other times it reeks of shamelessness and laziness.  My problem with The Circle of Life is neither.  It’s simply that the attraction does not need to be there.  Conceived as a kid-friendly replacement for the well-regarded Symbiosis film at Epcot’s Land pavilion (which I never saw), there’s nothing about the film or the theatre it is shown in that couldn’t have been screened elsewhere.  Maybe it could have been distributed to middle school classrooms for Earth Day (love you, Gaylord Nelson!).  The environmental element is so very, very important, and we need to hear it.  And maybe the Lion King characters were the best way to communicate these values.  But the entire plot revolves around Timon and Pumbaa scheming to start a resort with a disastrous environmental impact, earning a reproach from grown-up Simba.  Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!  Um…the entire Disney World resort is four theme parks and nearly two dozen resort hotels or timeshares sitting on what used to be a swampland ecosystem.  The mixed messaging just kills the educative value of the film.  Preachiness is fine- sometimes we need to be preached at- but hypocrisy is another problem altogether.

beauty and the beast78.  Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage (Hollywood Studios, 1991-present):  It’s been in the MGM or Hollywood Studios for nearly a quarter century now, but I only saw this for the first time on my most recent trip in 2014.  It was underwhelming.  The best Disney theatre shows provide something special- a creative or unique way of telling a story you already know by heart.  Finding Nemo does that.  Festival of the Lion King does as well.  Beauty and the Beast’s show is simply a staged retelling of the movie, with some dancing.  Constrained to 25 minutes, it just can’t do its job: crucial plot elements are left out or are mentioned awkwardly in passing (“I KNOW the rose’s final petal is about to fall,” the Beast roars at one point).  And the costumes are a mess…just cumbersome full-body suits looking like fearsome, rotund versions of Cogsworth or Lumiere.  They might have been the best that 1991 conventions would have allowed, but when you compare them to how, say, the Nemo show allows the actors’ expressions to be seen and incorporated into the show fluidly, they look like a floundering “Left Shark” during Katy Perry’s Superbowl halftime show.  This needs an update or replacement- stat!

astro orbiter77.  Astro-Orbiter (Magic Kingdom, 1994-present): It’s iconic, in its way: the towering model of a self-contained solar system looming over the Tomorrowland silhouette.  Essentially, you spin in tight circles way high up.  Not bad as a concept, but it is more nausea-inducing than fun, and the ride lasts a pitiful 90 seconds.  Although, looking back to my most recent trip, its brevity may be a good thing.  My wife, who was looking moribund and pale after a Tonga Toast breakfast, credited the ride, paradoxically, with restoring her health by getting some much-needed breeze on her face.  I’d imagine many people who had the deep-fried concoction for breakfast could tell a different story after a trip on the Astro-Orbiter.  I do like, though, the concept of waiting on the ground floor to be taken up on a special elevator to the ride platform; it makes it feel much more like a space launch.

monsters inc76.  Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor (Magic Kingdom, 2007-present): In the mid-Naughts, Disney’s new buzzword became “interactivity.”  This meant interactive queues, interactive encounters with the characters, and harnessing new technology to allow a theatre presentation to interact with guests.  As I’ll discuss later, Turtle Talk with Crush nailed the concept.  Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor did not.  Stand-up comedy is tough to pull off in a theme park setting.  You have to avoid being too “blue” because, being Disney World, children are invariably in the audience, and yet you need to entertain mom and dad as well.  What follows is usually a semi-improvised litany of canned jokes, some dumb jokes audience members text to Roz, and some further jokes at the audience’s expense (one hapless guest is targeted as “that guy” so mercilessly that he gets a special sticker to wear in the park for the rest of the day.)  More often than not, whoever is using the computer-animated puppets in the show or supplying the voices can’t navigate between being funny, being PG, and being quick on your feet, making this attraction an unsuccessful essay on a promising development in theme park technology.

75.  American Journeys (Magic Kingdom, 1984-1994): While normally associated with Epcot Center, Tomorrowland housed a Circle-Vision 360 film for many years.  Originally, this was America the Beautiful, but in the 1980s, it was revamped and updated (including some badly needed emphasis on other races and cultures to counter the original’s uncomfortably lily-white feel.)  It wasn’t a disaster or anything, but the Circle-Vision format was perhaps best for fantastical or more unfamiliar settings, and focusing on one’s home country didn’t quite showcase the positives of this compelling and immersive film format.  I’d tell you more, but I last experienced this film when I was 9, and it’s not like I can revisit it online, Circle-Vision films translating very poorly to Youtube.  Maybe we need Circle-tube for this kind of thing.

leagues under the sea74.  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Magic Kingdom, 1971-1994): I last rode this one in 1990, so a lot of this is based on camcorder footage of the ride that I purchased on Ebay when I was 17 (I was an extremely nerdy kid, what can I say?)  It turned out the videos confirmed my vague memories of the ride as a six-year-old.  It was an immersive concept that was atmospheric, to be sure, but also deathly dull.  When you were on this ride, you couldn’t help but wish you had gone on the tea cups instead.  Still, it is hard to deny that it was innovative for its time, and had neat special effects, such as the strategically timed use of bubbles to suggest ascending, descending, or indeed rolling, in the deep.  But it was also weirdly out of character for Fantasyland; a ride based on a live-action film intruding on the space of animated classics.

73.  Mission to Mars (Magic Kingdom, 1975-1992):  Geez, vintage Tomorrowland is taking a beating in these rankings, isn’t it?  Don’t worry too much, because that particular part of the Magic Kingdom also harbors some of my all-time favorites.  A lot of rides from that era have a certain nostalgia value, because Disney never topped them or tried anything like them again.  Mission to Mars isn’t so lucky; over a decade after it closed, Epcot deployed Mission: Space a better, faster, more inspiring simulator visit to- you guessed it- Mars.  Mission: Space wasn’t perfect, as I will show in a later installment, but it did lay bare the flaws of Mission to Mars to any who had experienced both: it was dry as could be, too clinical and scientific yet failing to instill any wonder.  It perhaps inaugurated the “scientific exploration gone wrong” genre that Body Wars, and almost every 90s Epcot attraction later used, but failed to convey any sense of urgency or danger.  I can’t stress enough how difficult it is to make a trip to Mars uninteresting- what little kid hasn’t dreamed of being an astronaut- but Disney Imagineering found a way.

72.  Cinderella’s Golden Carousel (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present): I don’t quite know what to say here.  It’s a carousel.  It’s an especially lovely one, with a vintage design and a sound system playing calliope versions of classic Disney songs.  But that’s about it, guys.

disney animation71.  Magic of Disney Animation (Hollywood Studios, 1989-present):  I know I said I would only rank each ride based on its best incarnation, but something has to be said for the sad state this attraction is in.  Back in the early 90s, this had a charming movie demonstrating how animated films are made with two men who were both in Disney attractions before: Robin Williams and Walter Cronkite.  (It would be tear-jerking to see this today, between Cronkite’s death symbolizing the death of courageous journalism and Williams’ recent suicide.)  There was also a space where you could see Disney animators plying their craft.  No longer.  Disney animation pulled up its tent-poles from Orlando long ago, leaving what should, by all rights, be Hollywood Studios’ signature experience an empty husk.  You can still experience it today- apparently with a film staring Mulan’s Mushu- but it just isn’t the same.  And even the original- while good- still could have been better.  Again, you could see Disney films being made.  It should have been a can’t-miss part of a visit to the Studios, the same way Spaceship Earth needs to happen for any Epcot visitor, but it never was.  Like Mission to Mars it was a slam-dunk concept that Disney just couldn’t execute with the proper scope and vision for guests.

Tune in next time for #70-61.

We’ve made it to the halfway point!

220.  “Rescue Me”– Fontella Bass (1965): If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Aretha Franklin must have been tickled pink.  The entire record sounds like it was made in a laboratory trying to emulate the “Queen of Soul”.  From Bass’s gospel pedigree, to her command of the song’s call-and-response bridge, to her precociously early career, to the Stax-style production with punchy horns, it succeeds so well that the song is more memorable than much of Franklin’s own catalog.  While not a perfect specimen (Aretha would have never allowed her voice to be double-tracked to the extent we hear in “Rescue Me”), it is one of the most convincing marriages of song and performer that came out of the 1960s.

219.  “Walk Like A Man”– The Four Seasons (1963):  My friend Scott has a segment on his blog about the “secret weapons” of various bands– members whose contributions fall under the radar but were a crucial component of success.  He believes that Bob Gaudio, the band’s keyboardist and principal composer was the Four Seasons’ secret weapon, thriving in the background while Franki Valli fronted the band.  I think he’s right, but a case could also be made for Nick Massi, the band’s hardscrabble bass vocalist and vocal arranger.  This song showcases his talents in a big way, transforming what would otherwise be an ordinary song about a father telling his son to buck up after a breakup into one of the most memorable doo-wop songs of the early 60s.  Frank Valli’s falsetto could not soar so high if it wasn’t anchored by Massi’s low notes.

218.  “Ooo, Baby Baby”– Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (1965):  This song has been covered by many artists in the subsequent decades, but there is no denying the charm and atmosphere of the original.  It’s a sweet, hopeful song about love gone wrong, and must have set the tone for many a slow dance.  Smokey’s done better songs, but he was never this good at emotional communication.

217.  “People Got to Be Free”– The Rascals (1968):  Blue-eyed soul was a marvelous thing in the 1960s.  The Rascals were master practitioners in that art, with the Righteous Brothers as their only serious challengers.  What made the Rascals so great was that they never forgot who invented soul music, and they always went to great pains to make sure they shared a bill with artists of color.  Their empathy toward the civil rights moment shines through in this gem, a #1 hit with biblical allusions and a theme of brotherhood that cuts against the grain of that violent year.

216.  “Mississippi Goddamn”– Nina Simone (1964):  Simone made a second career out of herself by issuing pointed critiques of the black condition across the country, and down South in particular.  It’s very topical, and tough to duplicate.  She names names and points fingers, rather than relying on generalities, even taking some shots at Lurleen Wallace, running for governor of Alabama as her husband’s surrogate.   Folk songs that protest Jim Crow are a dime a dozen, but Simone’s cabaret stylings allow for layers of humor and drama and pathos to enter the song more easily.  Her line “I’ve even stopped believing in prayer” is especially poignant.  The song is a manifesto of the folly of “moving slow” in the civil rights movement.  “You don’t have to live next to me,” she intones, “you just have to give me equality.”

215.  “I Think We’re Alone Now”– Tommy James and the Shondells (1968):  I bloody well love this song.  To be sure, it ranks this low only because it is more of a guilty pleasure than an objective piece of greatness.  But from start to finish, it’s a damn great single.  The crickets chirping between the verses, the sense of urgency to make the most out of fleeting time alone.  This song captures the feel, the fear, the discovery of the sexual unknown, that comes with being young better than any song from this era not by the Beach Boys.

214.  “Cathy’s Clown”– The Everly Brothers (1960):  Perhaps the last great song that the two brothers wrote, it is more complex and melodic than their earlier work.  Essentially a polite way of acknowledge that one has become a cuckold, it has the neat trick of both Phil and Don’s lines serving as potential melodies; neither is quite dominant enough to be considered the harmony line.  John and Paul would later borrow this tactic in songs like “If I Fell.”

213.  “Wild Thing”– The Troggs (1965):  Ruthlessly and remorselessly stupid, “Wild Thing” is the beating heart of garage-rock that thrived in the 1960s and encouraged young, resourceful, and dubiously-talented musicians to attempt bands of their own.  With repetitive verses, an unforgiving guitar riff that was duplicated by hundreds of youngsters, and a bizarre flute solo in the middle of the song that presages psychedelia, the song lives in infamy.  Strangely, its author, Chip Taylor, also wrote “Angel of the Morning,” a manifesto of a woman’s sexual liberation.

212.  “Tuesday Afternoon”– The Moody Blues (1967):  While associated with progressive rock, The Moody Blues were actually much closer to the first-generation British Invasion bands than most people remember.  Part of the ambitious and orchestral Days of Future Passed project, the track is necessarily bouncier and more ponderous than its urgent and exquisite cousin, “Nights in White Satin.”

211.  “Spanish Caravan”– The Doors (1968):  One of the things that fascinates me is how innovative early single year of the 1960s was in retrospect.  In other words, more than any decade since, a record from, say, 1966, sounds substantively different from a record in 1968.  There was constantly new ground to furrow.  It’s fascinating to think that by 1968 nobody had thought to do a Spanish-style song in a serious way (that is, not counting novelty numbers like “Come a Little Bit Closer.”)  In fact, this song is based off of a guitar piece by turn-of-the-century Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz.  In this track, The Doors put Ray Manzarek’s organ in the far background in favor of Rob Krieger’s flamenco guitar.  The effect is mesmerizing and eclectic.  The Doors are, in my opinion, one of the most overrated bands of the 1960s, but when they delivered, they could produce some astonishing and unexpected results.

210.  “A Lover’s Concerto”– The Toys (1965):  By 1965, girl groups not named The Supremes were on the way out.  One of the last great efforts from this forgotten world is a one-off hit called “A Lover’s Concerto” by the Toys, a group that didn’t do much else.  Like #211, it is based on some classical motifs, in this case, the minuet in G major from one of Bach’s notebooks.  One critic, Dave Thompson, calls it “the apogee of the girl group sound,” and it is hard to disagree.

209.  “Seven O’Clock News/Silent Night”– Simon and Garfunkel (1966):  Sad and poignant, Simon and Garfunkel strike on the ingenious idea to juxtapose the soft Christmas hymn with the increasingly violent and unsettling evening news.

208.  “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”– The Beatles (1965):  This record is a historic occasion.  It not only signifies John Lennon’s evolution as a more interesting songwriter willing to explore some of the dark places of the human condition.  The girl in this song is the first truly unconventional and even dangerous character we meet in a Beatles song.  More than that, The Beatles, for the very first time, introduce the sitar to western music.  George Harrison’s songs for the next few years would explore these boundaries further, but this is the first track in rock and roll to conscientiously break down barriers between east and west.

207.  “Bus Stop”– The Hollies (1966):  It’s a cute little trifle of a song, a self-contained story about love blossoming unexpectedly at a bus queue.

206.  “Crossroads”– Cream (1968):  Since the days of Robert Johnson, the concept of the crossroads, the point of decision between right and wrong, Jesus and the devil, has been a leitmotif in the blues.  Perhaps the greatest psychedelic blues outfit of them all tackles the theme their own way in this seminal track.

205.  “Hush”– Deep Purple (1968):  One of the first hard rock bands, Deep Purple became a sort-of gateway drug for lots of musicians and listeners.  Although “Smoke on the Water” would go on to be more famous, “Hush” introduces the band’s prominent guitars with some very 60s trappings, from psychedelic organ, to British Invasion-y background vocals, and its famous melody line.

204.  “Classical Gas”– Mason Williams (1968):  Hmm..this is the third song with classical pretensions in this set.  Strange!  Williams seems like a troubadour from a bygone age- a comedian, writer, and musician as well, like one of the players we see arriving at Elsinore in Hamlet.  In a similar Renaissance vein, “Classical Gas” has some captivating classical guitar and stately horns- making it a marching band staple ever since.  I love that songs like this could be #1 hits in the 60s.

203.  “And When I Die”– Blood, Sweat & Tears (1969):  And yet a fourth song!  BS&T is borrowing liberally from Aaron Copland in this cover version of a soul number originally written by Laura Nyro.  An existential singer-songwriter track became, with Chicago’s James William Guercio producing,it is a piece of twee Americana with a soundscape that evokes the frontier and its live-fast-die-hard ethos.  And it’s also perhaps the finest vocal performance given by David Clayton-Thomas.

202.  “Soul Finger”– The Bar-Cays (1967):  Riffing off of James Brown and his contemporaries, funk music was in its vibrant early stages in the mid-to-late 1960s, setting the stage for its maturation in the 1970s via groups like Parliament-Funkadelic.  The Bar-Cays, ostensibly Otis Redding’s backing group, hit on a fantastic and danceable riff.  The Bar-Cays might have become funk legends, but we’ll never know if they could have pulled it off.  Most of them perished in the same plane crash that claimed Redding.

201.  “Dear Mr. Fantasy”– Traffic (1967):  Traffic was a group that could have done so much more if they had a little more time and a lot more focus.  But as a near-supergroup with egos to juggle like Steve Winwood, Dave Mason, and Jim Capaldi, it is no wonder that they self-imploded.  “Dear Mr. Fantasy” is a great glimpse of what could have been however, and it is one of the strongest psychedelic tracks from this most psychedelic of years- transcendent and trippy.

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