The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Gets It Right, Sort Of


If this guy makes it, maybe Egyptian Lover will have a shot in a couple of years

Something totally unexpected happened this morning: I found myself getting sort of guardedly amped when I saw this year’s list of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees. I’m not any more happy than I ever was about the basic concept of the Hall itself: a semi-official canonization process whose music ideally should fuck up the whole idea of canonization in the first place. And I especially hate the idea that artists aren’t eligible until nomination until twenty-five years after recording their first records, a sure way to make sure nothing remotely vital or current will ever find its way in there. But the twenty-five year rule also has some weird ripple-effects, especially now that we’re getting deep into the string of 80s-era nominees. The 80s were maybe the first decade in pop to actively resist the boomer-defined ideas of authenticity and rebellion upon which the hall itself was founded, where boomers ceased to be the music’s chief target-demographic. The 80s certainly had their transcendent old-school world-changing rock figures, and most of those are already in the Hall: Springsteen, U2, R.E.M. But the decade also had a whole mess of stars who don’t fit so easily into preestablished big-rock narratives. And this year’s list of inductees is just an absurdly mixed group, especially when you look at the first-time nominees: one enormously popular all-surface pop icon (Madonna), one enormously popular all-surface robo-disco godess (Donna Summer), one folk-hero electro pioneer (Afrika Bambaataa), one instrumental surf-pop group (the Ventures), one culty folk-poet type (Leonard Cohen), and one snotty hardcore band who became snotty joke-rappers and took a long-ass time to absorb boomer-approved ideas of maturity and responsibility (the Beastie Boys). Not all of them have only just become eligible for nomination, but the Hall, for whatever reason, has waited up until this moment to pick Summer and Cohen and the Ventures, and all of them form into a really interesting group. Improbably enough, everyone on that list of new nominees is sort of great in one way or another; if we have to have a canon, we could do worse. And looking at that list, it’s a whole lot of fun to imagine what might happen if you locked all of them in a room together and forced them to interact. The list also includes past nominees John Mellencamp, Dave Clark Five, and Chic, and the only two real no-brainers are Madonna and the Beasties, which will mean the induction ceremony will give Madonna and MCA another chance to make out backstage like they did during the 1985 Like a Virgin tour. I have no idea how the voters will possibly choose between the remaining nominees, but for once it’ll be interesting to watch who they pick.

Here’s something else: the Hall has always been really big on iconic guitarists, which is probably the main reason Van Halen made it in last year. But of this year’s nine nominees, only five are really famous for guitars, and only two of them (Mellencamp and the DC5) really pull trad-rock guitar-moves with any frequency. Chic’s Nile Rogers had no use for rock-hero moves; instead, he used his guitar more for rhythm than for melody, slashing and stabbing and touretically stuttering. Cohen played guitar, but he used it more for atmospheric shading than anything else; his voice was always the focal point. And the Ventures basically used guitars as stand-ins for singers; their guitars played the melodies that the vocals would’ve handled if their songs had vocals. Madonna and Summer, meanwhile, tended to make robotic dance-music where the individual instruments were all sublimated to the beat; the same could be said of Chic if Rogers’ playing wasn’t so distictive. Bambaataa, for all I know, has never touched a guitar in his life. And the Beastie Boys only really started fucking around with guitars once they got old; even then, the guitar wasn’t particularly important to the music they were making. For probably the first time in its history, the Hall has recognized a group of musicians for whom the guitar wasn’t really an especially big deal, and that, I think, says a lot about the Hall’s perception of itself. One of the big ongoing controversies in the selection process is that the Hall never picks prog bands; Genesis partisans are going to be spitting mad once they see this list. Another stems from last year’s inductions; according to Fox journalist Roger Friedman, the Dave Clark Five got more votes than Grandmaster Flash last year, but Jann Wenner, who supposedly exerts dictatorial control over this whole process, decided that they needed a rap group in there instead. As arbitrary and pointless as the whole induction process might be, I can’t really argue with a governing body who ignores prog and who favors a group of rap pioneers over a fifth-string British Invasion band. If nothing else, Wenner has managed to insure that this year’s induction ceremony will be a pretty entertaining affair.

The most interesting nominee on this year’s list is, I think, the Beastie Boys. For one thing, just about everyone seems to agree that their work up until Check Your Head is way superior to their more recent stuff, but it’s tough to imagine them being such a mortal lock for induction if they’d broken up in 1993. Seems to me they get patted on the back more for getting old than they ever did for being young in the first place, if that makes sense. Also, the only stuff the band was putting out in 1982 was particularly shitty hardcore. If it’s wrong that the second rap group to find its way into the Hall might be a snotty group of white kids, it seems even worse that the Beasties would be the first hardcore band. You could probably argue that Black Flag or Minor Threat would make at least as much sense on that list as Bambaataa, but the Hall sure hasn’t rushed to recognize them. Maybe next year.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting the Village Voice and our advertisers.