Building a better mousetrap only gives the haters your home address. Seeing as how success and worthiness are, sports excepted, often mutually exclusive, it's no surprise that creative dominance engenders raspberries from the cognoscenti. There will always be bands more deserving of attention than those receiving it. The more reasonable complaint is that one artist's ubiquity crowds out others. But are The Eagles to blame for their unparalleled '70s dominance?
They certainly weren't the first to seize upon the burgeoning country-rock glyph. It thrived in California, where, inspired by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard's Bakersfield sound (as well as Bob Dylan), its influence grew behind Cali acts such as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Neil Young, The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers.
Sure, The Eagles were relative latecomers who'd played in related acts, coming together while backing Linda Ronstadt's rather poppy country-rock blend. But there was nothing about them—aside perhaps from manager David Geffen—that suggested the success they would see.
The biggest accolades generally don't greet the trailblazer so much as the acts a few steps behind, who seize innovations and present them in an even more inviting package. Call it a case of being the right band at the right time. They released their outlaw-themed second album, Desperado, several months before Waylon Jennings' Honky Tonk Heroes. They touched the zeitgeist.
Of course, they hardly limited themselves to country, a by-product of their many songwriters and a key to their success. Their hits range from the hippy-spirited folk of their debut (with "Take it Easy" and "Peaceful Easy Feeling") to slow, string-laden ballads ("Desperado," "Take It To the Limit")—with bluesy rockers like "Witchy Woman" and country-pop like "Lyin' Eyes" serving as mile markers. Each tune is well-played, with strong vocal harmonies, some relatively understated guitar work and generally non-embarrassing, inoffensive lyrics.
Were The Eagles' story limited to their first four albums, they might've escaped without becoming a bitter punch line. The 16 million copies they sold of Hotel California assured that wouldn't happen, though. A concept album dedicated to our debauched world, as exemplified by the Golden State, Hotel California touches on all their stylistic strengths, highlighted by four straight showstopping songs to open the album. (The second side admittedly drags.)
The band quickly became synonymous with what they were singing about—from drummer Don Henley's environmental handwringing to the "Life in the Fast Lane" they documented from experience. They certainly weren't seeking to be poster children for '70s rock excess, but by virtue of their success and behavior—as well as an album dedicated to these themes—they quickly became loathsome to anyone old enough to have endured their constant rotation on AOR radio.
Suggestions that the music isn't good—or at least well-executed—are infantile, better-than-thou posturing. This isn't a young stud leaning on the Matrix—these were talented players who, thanks to good timing and an eclectic approach, became stars. Were they self-involved, substance abusing egotists? Without a doubt, but that doesn't necessarily make the music bad. See the Rolling Stones. At least, to The Eagles' credit, they realized they'd reached the end of the creative rope, only releasing two more studio albums in the next 35 years.
Popular appeal is hardly the same as value—witness the five million owners of '70s phenomenon the Pet Rock. But the converse isn't true. Some popularity is deserved, and there's no telling who will survive the present age with their integrity intact. Perhaps, 30 years hence, we'll be lamenting how some lame hipster losing his edge heralded a wave of endlessly crappy electro-pop faux-hemians. Hipness checks out any time it likes.