How to Fix the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
According to legend, last fall, some 30 members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's nominating committee secretly convened deep in the woods with hooded robes and torches, sealing their love for the Rolling Stones with a blood oath. Or, OK, maybe they just got together around a conference table, each touted three artists for HOF induction, argued vehemently, narrowed that list down to a dozen luminaries, and prepared the final ballot for 500 general voters. No robes, no torches, no blood. Too bad.
The resulting 2010 list of inductees is a quaintly bizarre mix: blithe bestselling pop stars (Abba), art-rockers gone pop (Genesis), a roots-reggae giant gone pop (Jimmy Cliff), second-wave Brit-invaders gone pop (Hollies), and proto-punk propagators gone decidedly not pop (the Stooges), plus some great Brill Building songwriters honored as "non-performers." The March 15 induction ceremony (held at the Waldorf Astoria, and televised live on the Fuse network) won't have the glitz of, say, the Grammy's—and, aside from the Stooges' set, most of the sparks won't fly at the jam sessions, but during the uncomfortable reunions necessitated by those induction speeches (especially with Abba and Genesis, even with Peter Gabriel as a no-show).
Furthermore, with performers only qualifying 25 years after their debut, the class of '10 looks like a catch-up game, with each act first eligible 10 to 20 years ago (i.e., Cliff in '92, the Hollies in '88). Ideally, along with LL Cool J (nominated but denied in the final vote), the HOF should've instead pondered 1984 debuts like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Flaming Lips, and Spinal Tap. But even when HOF voting first began in 1985, they were already years behind, even with no-brainer selections like Elvis Presley. With an average of five to seven acts making each year's cut, these time lags are here to stay. So relax, Flea: You've got a few years to polish your speech.
As for future inductees, shoo-ins include Green Day and Phish (both acts are inducting others this time out), plus Guns N' Roses, assorted grunge gods, Beck, and Radiohead. 2011 will likely be another catch-up year, with Brit-centric fare like the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays eligible, but likely not HOF material just yet. (For some perspective, 2009 newcomers like the xx, Girls, and Fever Ray will have to wait until 2034—at least—for judgment; amateur handicappers should check out FutureRockLegends.com.)
Of course, the standard complaint about the Rock Hall isn't who's in, but who's out. Everyone has their own list of grievances: Several committee members I talked to champion Gram Parsons, for instance. Some, like writer/editors Alan Light and Joe Levy, prefer that the committee focus on aesthetics as induction criteria, rather than mere popularity; indeed, aside from sales and hits, there are no hard statistics to consider here, as opposed to the Baseball Hall of Fame (which has a very different approach to drug use). Realistically, it's impossible to please everyone, though some glaring omissions remain: Why deny the Spinners, Captain Beefheart, Sonny Boy Williamson, Roxy Music, Alice Cooper, Kraftwerk, Black Flag, New York Dolls, or the Marvelettes? There are also deeper, genre-based flaws: Disco is pretty much absent, '70s soul is under-represented, metal and prog have been honored only recently, and there's been a general baby-boomer (and American) bias from the onset, when the Rock Hall Foundation was first launched in 1983 by Rolling Stone boss Jann Wenner, Ahmet Ertegun, Seymour Stein, and Jon Landau, among others.
The most interesting new wrinkle, in fact, might be the influx of hip-hop acts now eligible, now that Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (inducted in 2007) have broken the seal and further expanded the notion of what "rock" means for the Rock Hall. Run-D.M.C. made it in 2009, but who's next? When will LL Cool J, Eric B. & Rakim, Kurtis Blow, or Afrika Bambaataa make the grade? Will N.W.A., Public Enemy, and, further down the line, Eminem be penalized for their less-than-exemplary behavior? Or is less-than-exemplary behavior what this place is all about?
Then there's the issue of what Forbes recently declared "America's most miserable city": Cleveland, the Rock Hall's home, happy to cough up the bucks for an obvious tourist magnet even though Gotham was the initial, obvious choice. Unfortunately, outside of SummerStage and a few others, NYC has a long, disgraceful history of non-support for music that's not old-school classical or Wynton-approved jazz. Of course, Manhattan remains the HOF's unofficial home: The inductee committee meets at Rolling Stone's midtown office, the ceremony mostly takes place at the Waldorf Astoria (though there are plans to let Cleveland host every three years), and the star-saturated Rock Hall 25th-anniversary concerts were held in November at Madison Square Garden, even though Cleveland boasts an arena of comparable size. (One recent botch was the museum's NY Annex, which opened in Soho in 2008 and lasted just one year.)
Detractors point to a wider problem, though: Maybe the Rock Hall shouldn't exist, period. Influential critic (and former voter) Jim DeRogatis calls it "a really shitty endeavor and poorly executed idea," while fellow Chicago scribe (and current voter) Greg Kot, while more sympathetic, doesn't see how the museum's mounds of priceless memorabilia serve any purpose: "You have no sense of why the stuff was powerful, moving, and disruptive." Visiting the museum years ago, I was excited by all the eye-popping stage outfits and hand-written lyrics, but also sensed that same empty feeling, that lack of context.
Part of the HOF's image problem may be the seeming insistence on its version of rock history as the version. Committee member Lenny Kaye takes a long-term, more inclusive view of the inductee list: "It's a touchtone for future generations curious about the music," not a definitive canon. And despite the criticism, the idea is favored enough by labels, artists, and managers (sure looks good on the CV) that it's not going anywhere. So why not improve the process? Start by crafting a bigger nominee and inductee list to catch up with history quicker. And while they're at it, expand the voter pool itself: As other committee members admitted privately, their group needs new blood to plead for eventually eligible '80s and '90s acts like Sonic Youth, Sleater-Kinney, Fugazi, and the Wu-Tang Clan. To quiet some conspiracy theories, the voting process should also be more transparent—even many committee members don't know the identities of the general voters deciding the final inductees.
Most importantly, the HOF needs to do more meaningful things outside their usual realm, to compliment the long-overdue library and expanded archives opening in Cleveland later this year. Let's see them support up-and-coming bands and smaller shows; expanding music-education programs would also be nice. And how about supporting health care and retirement initiatives for musicians slightly less well off than your Springsteens or McCartneys? As writer Brett Milano suggests, the Rock Hall needs dynamic goals to salvage what's left of the music biz: "Put music back on the radio, keep TV stars out of music magazines, challenge the corporate takeover of the concert business." And maybe destroy the RIAA while you're at it.
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