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Should We Give a Damn About the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? A Conversation

Rock and Roll HOF

Yesterday, eight new inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were announced: Rush, Donna Summer, Heart, Randy Newman, Public Enemy, and Albert King, as well as two Ahmet Ertegun Award for Lifetime Achievement inductees in producer/promoter Lou Adler and arranger/producer Quincy Jones. What does this mean? Effectively, not much. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum has been around since 1983, inducting artists and industry shakers since 1986, and it’s been an actual building you can visit in Cleveland, Ohio, since 1993. It’s a fine place, designed by I.M. Pei and everything, but it’s not much more than a shrine to particular artists deemed worthy by a shadow group responsible for the voting. Every year, there’s mild consternation over that year’s nominees — all of whom become eligible exactly 25 years since first becoming active — but this is nothing like the Baseball Hall of Fame. There is no Internet community driven mad by a Tim Raines–style fascination with, say, Jethro Tull. Wonderful as it might be, there is no Rock VORP in play … though Tull’s Flute-Solo-Per-Song (FSPS) average is Gehrig-esque. To honor and examine this moment, Grantland’s resident music critic Steven Hyden and editor Sean Fennessey, a Rock Hall voter, discussed this year’s lineup, some methodology, and asked: Why do we need this thing?

Hyden: Hey Sean, you’re the only other person I know under the age of 40 who cares at all about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so I was hoping you’d want to chat up the 2013 class. The choices this year are uniquely calibrated to simultaneously please and displease fans of every genre, as is the Rock Hall’s specialty. Beleaguered hard rock and prog fans can finally rejoice at Rush and Heart getting the nod, but Deep Purple — who, along with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, belong in the first chapter of any credible heavy-metal history book — got the shaft. Public Enemy’s status as perhaps the greatest hip-hop group of all time made its first-ballot entry into the hall a no-brainer, but the similarly epochal N.W.A. didn’t get the same respect. The late Donna Summer represented for disco, but another, possibly more pivotal player in the genre, Chic, was shut out. I own several records by Randy Newman and Albert King, but I’m sad that they were honored at the exclusion of fellow greats like Kraftwerk, The Meters, and the severely underrated Paul Butterfield Blues Band. (Side two of East-West invented jam rock! And I mean that as a compliment!)

Now, it doesn’t really matter who gets inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rock is not about museums, man. To quote Daniel DeSario: “Rock and roll don’t come from your brain; it comes from your crotch.” But for the sake of conversation — and because I know you voted this year, so you have some say in the issue — I want to pose a question that’s asked way too much and yet almost never pondered with any seriousness: Why do non-rock artists get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

Before you answer that, let me answer for it you: Because the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is commonly understood to actually be the Popular Music Hall of Fame. And that’s because when the Rock Hall was established in the ’80s, “rock” truly was synonymous with “popular.” And, if I may hijack a recent Louis C.K. bit for a moment, of course it’s a good idea to not be provincial about genre distinctions. Of course rock came out of blues, R&B, country, gospel, and folk music, and has since been influenced by jazz, bluegrass, classical, hip-hop, and EDM, which makes “rock” hard to define. Of course this evolution has kept rock vital for more than 50 years, and by extension keeps the Rock Hall vital by keeping the field open to the most innovative artists of every era. Of course people are going to continue voting for artists not normally associated with rock music into the Rock Hall, because that’s been the practice for years.

But maybe … this no longer makes any sense? But maybe … it’s been two decades (at least) since “rock” was synonymous with “popular” and considered to be the “center” of popular music? But maybe … it’s weird to turn hip-hop and disco into subplots in the greater narrative of rock history, rather than allowing for those genres to tell their own stories? But maybe … it’s wrong for an institution with “rock and roll” in its name not to include many of the most popular and influential rock bands, while artists only tangentially related to rock music get bumped to the head of the line?

If I may register several moldy yet valid complaints: The two most beloved metal bands ever, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, have never been seriously considered for the hall. Neither have three out of the Big Four of American thrash: Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax. The Replacements and Hüsker Dü aren’t in. Neither is Black Flag, nor Sonic Youth. The list goes on shamefully long after that: It would be hard to write a rock history book without Kiss, Cheap Trick, Thin Lizzy, Def Leppard, T. Rex, or The Cure, to name just six snubbed bands, but none of them appear close to attaining immortality.

All of this has been rehashed elsewhere, I know. But looking ahead to the next decade, the Rock Hall is poised to be much less rock-like. The number of legendary hip-hop artists up for induction will be on the rise: Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Snoop Dogg, the Wu-Tang Clan, 2Pac, Biggie, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Jay-Z, and Eminem obviously deserve to be inducted, and many on the first ballot. Diddy is like David Geffen and The Eagles rolled into one, so he will probably make it, too. I would not be shocked if the Fugees got the Guns N’ Roses/Sex Pistols shooting-star vote. And legacy artists like LL Cool J and Ice-T will (and should) get in eventually.

Meanwhile, we’re running out of rock bands with the kind of acclaim, long careers, and record sales that would justify inclusion: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, and Green Day are the only locks. I already predicted No Doubt will make it, if you want to call them a rock band. Pavement is a “maybe,” as is Wilco, but I wouldn’t put serious money on either of them. Other than that, it’s hard to make an unbeatable case for any band. And it gets even worse for ’00s bands. (Arcade Fire seems like the only true contender at this point.) Rock just doesn’t command a “hall of fame”-sized audience anymore.

My point is … well, I’m not sure what my point is. But it seems like calling this museum a “rock and roll hall of fame” will seem either inaccurate or antiquated very soon. What say you, Sean? Does any of this sound legit to you? Or am I simply over-analyzing what’s otherwise a fun but irrelevant tourist trap?

Fennessey: I’m fortunate enough to be a voter — truly a nice privilege, though it might be a stretch to say that I particularly “care” about it. That would imply a level of emotional investment that isn’t really there. But I do care about something, and that is tearing down the hegemony of white-male rock infrastructure. It’s arguably the biggest bummer in American culture, the way 60-year-olds insist on telling you what’s legacy-bound and what isn’t. The Rock Hall is a relatively harmless institution and they do some good promoting the Ma Raineys, Nesuhi Erteguns, and Big Joe Turners of the world, pioneers of hugely important and foundational sounds. (Though, in fairness, just a scant two of the hall’s first 48 inductees were women or female groups.)

We’re discussing this because a few months back, I took a photo of my ballot and put it on the Internet and you thought this might be a useful entry point into discussing the Hall. And it is, mostly because I view the chance to vote as an opportunity to promote my own personal interests and use the honor as a political spear. So this year, I voted for Public Enemy, N.W.A. (unelected), Kraftwerk (unelected), The Meters (unelected), and Randy Newman. The first two, of course, are rap legends, full-stop. They both deserve it, and the idea of a bust of Eazy-E clutching a pistol-grip pump beside John Fogerty’s oats-eatin’ grin warms my heart. Kraftwerk and The Meters are icons in their respective fields, electronic and funk, but I was switched onto them for rap reasons, too. They sit inside of and beyond their genres. They don’t just sound good, so to speak; they matter. And Randy Newman? He doesn’t rap, but he might be the best lyricist of his generation, and he came up alongside Dylan, Carole King, Tom Waits, and Paul Simon. (Also underrated: He’s funny. Like, actually funny.) Your cases for Rush, Chic, Donna Summer, Deep Purple, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band are acknowledged. My own mother had a beef with these choices. “No Procol Harum?” she responded to my Instagram photo. No, Mom.

But I think my motivations for voting essentially answer your big questions. I couldn’t give a damn that the phrase “rock and roll” appears in the title of this particular museum. That’s immaterial; rock’s been swallowed whole by the myriad sounds it glommed from and was subsequently drained by. Should the name of this institution change to satisfy that truth? Maybe. I think rock, in and of itself, has suffered enough these past 15 years. We’re in a place where, if the genre produces a new, exciting artist with even a whiff of a chance at legacy, it feels like miracle. Not three weeks ago, some Grantland staffers were discussing The Killers. Remember them? Solid band, strong debut, ambitious front man, big songs, but fusty enough in pursuit of greatness to fit the bill. Ten years ago, they seemed like a real candidate. Now? I mean, they’re marginal.

I think you’re right that the next 10 years or so of potential inductees will look daunting for the geriatric set, clutching their Allman Brothers vinyl, weeping at the thought of casting a vote for Snoop Dogg. What does that mean exactly? Maybe it means that those bands you mentioned on the periphery will get a sort of Veterans Committee crack at things. The Cure and Thin Lizzy and so on may have their shot. P.E. and N.W.A. are about as iconic as you can get, but this institution couldn’t find a slot for both. (Not to split guitar strings, but is Heart really more important/interesting/seismic than N.W.A.? *End rant.*) My question to you is this: Does it make sense to start another hall? And who for? As you mentioned, young people simply do not care about these matters. They want their Maroon 5, and they want it now. (Adam Levine’s not getting in this hall or the next, by the way.) And one more question: As these, for lack of a better word, edgier acts are inducted, who will hold their nose and do the inducting? Earlier this year, Chris Rock inducted the Red Hot Chili Peppers because … well, yeah, I guess no one else would. Who the hell is going to wax nostalgic about Ice-T for nine minutes?

Hyden: I dunno, Richard Belzer? Otherwise Chris Noth might be persuaded to discuss how millions of little kids like me used to huddle around boomboxes in the late ’80s and early ’90s and enjoy hours of prurient entertainment via songs like the immortal “Girls L.G.B.N.A.F.” As to whether it makes sense to start another freakin’ music hall of fame — I can’t believe I’m saying this — but, yes, I think it does. Most genres already have some sort of museum already, so why not hip-hop? Even if we agree that the Rock Hall will become a lot more rap-heavy in the years ahead, there will probably never be an equal representation when it comes to second- or even third-tier artists. (Who’s the rap equivalent of Heart? Roxanne Shante? MC Lyte?) It’s great that P.E. and the Beastie Boys got in, but what hope do Big Daddy Kane and Cypress Hill have? Wouldn’t it be cool to see them get enshrined somewhere? (I’d also be curious to see if a theoretical Rap Hall would induct non-rap artists, like Led Zeppelin for its many majestic drum samples.)

As much as we say that the Rock Hall doesn’t matter, it actually sort of does. This is one of the ways that music history is written. I don’t think you’re alone in using your vote as a “political spear” to promote your personal interests. For many people, the fact that Donna Summer, Rush, and Public Enemy will have their photos plastered inside a building in Cleveland is a symbolic victory over those who have long refused to give those artists and artists like them the respect they deserve. And, if the Rock Hall is still standing in 100 years, those will likely be the only artists with any hope of being remembered.

I also support the deconstruction of the traditional white-male rock infrastructure, but it should be acknowledged that this hegemony has also hurt white dudes who play heavy metal. The graying ponytail crowd has basically ignored this genre from the start, even as metal continues to evolve in all sorts of new and crazy ways while also respecting the hallowed traditions of classic bands (many of whom are not in the Rock Hall). At the risk of slipping into a full-on Eddie Trunk impression, Maiden and Priest are essentially the Public Enemy and N.W.A. of metal, and it’s a travesty that two bands whose influence extends to practically every shredder currently on the planet is still on the outside looking in. (And don’t get me started on Slayer.)

Maybe we need a Metal Hall of Fame, too? God, somebody stop me already.

Fennessey: I’m in favor of the motion to have Slayer raining blood all over Don Henley’s silver-tipped cowboy boots at a future ceremony. But ultimately I think the ghettoization of Maiden and Cypress Hill — which would then necessitate the Bass Drop HOF for Daft Punk and the Shit-Eating Grin Club for Taylor Swift, among others — isn’t the best choice. Incidentally, spending this much time thinking about a building in Cleveland that I will not visit may also be a poor decision. What you’re really hitting on, and rightly, is this desire to open the doors. To “legitimize” art that started on the fringes, scared old people, and put a battery in the back of excited young freaks everywhere. That was sort of true for rock and roll, too, but not in the way that Iron Maiden or N.W.A. did it. Jefferson Airplane were once considered drug-gobbling, devil-worshipping hippie weirdos. Now they’re that old band that loves Alice in Wonderland. Did that happen because they’ve been legitimized, or because they were always harmless and our parents grew up and starting putting their songs on bad movie soundtracks? I’m not sure. But I know that I don’t need the things I loved as a kid canonized in the same way my parents did. I enjoy pressing my thumb on the historical scales (sorry again Rush, it all worked out), but I have no interest in recording the weight of others. So here’s my plan: I’ll just keep an eye on the Hall of Fame that really matters, and by that I mean the thousands of organized MP3s on my laptop. People can come and visit from miles around.