Before indulging in that ever-popular blood sport of listing all the reasons why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sucks, let's list all the reasons why it doesn't:
Speaking of sucking, that's a low blow—there are a couple of reasons why the Hall is not so bad. One is that after six decades of musical and cultural primacy, rock and roll as a human endeavor deserves an institution to preserve its history and celebrate its legacy. Another is that the sheer weight and heat of the criticism that has been leveled against the Hall speaks to the passion people have for the music, and the fact that so many are so critical indicates the importance it has in so many lives.
All right, that latter reason was delivered with the back of the hand. The cold, hard reality is that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is fundamentally flawed. Moreover, there may not be any way to repair those flaws. The Hall may continue to suck in perpetuity.
If that sounds like pessimism taken to the depths of despair, there have been remedies suggested to improve the Hall: removing (or at least mitigating) the Baby Boomer bias; introducing greater transparency in the nominating and voting processes; and addressing the Hall's gender bias, if not outright sexism. However, those remedies do not address the fundamental issues facing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Make no mistake—those are worthy remedies, but they are ultimately Band-Aid fixes. To wax literary for a moment, think of the novel Catch-22, Joseph Heller's rapier satire set during World War Two as an American bomber group carries out missions against German forces in Italy. A profound influence on Yossarian, Heller's antihero, is the bombardier's experience with Snowden, a wounded gunner in their B-25 Mitchell medium bomber returning to base after being hit by anti-aircraft fire.
Yossarian bandages Snowden's leg wound, but then he notices blood coming from Snowden's armpit. Yossarian unzips Snowden's flight jacket—and Snowden's innards spill out from his abdomen. The piece of shrapnel from the anti-aircraft shell hit the B-25 and caused Snowden's leg wound, which was manageable to bandage—however, the shrapnel also sliced Snowden's belly wide open, a mortal wound that not even a team of surgeons, let alone a bombardier with no medical experience, could repair.
That is the problem the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame faces. At best, suggested fixes address the leg wound while ignoring the much more critical abdominal wound.
A target of derision even from those it has inducted, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame faces fundamental issues that could make it suck in perpetuity.
The Three Fundamental Issues Facing the HallSo, what is the mortal belly wound plaguing the Hall? It comprises three issues:
- There is no standard definition of rock and roll.
- There are no objective evaluation criteria that can be universally applied to candidates.
- Unlike the sports Halls of Fame for baseball, basketball, football, and hockey, which tend to be restrictive and exclusive, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is expansive and inclusive.
Regarding that last issue, let's be clear that I am using that as contrasting example and am not making a direct comparison. We are not comparing rock music to team sports. Each is an entirely different endeavor with entirely different goals and purposes apart from providing entertainment. You don't go to a rock concert to see who wins or loses. And while you can be swept up in a sporting moment, it rarely has the lasting intimacy and emotionalism as does a relationship with music or the artists creating the music.
However, each uses a similar mechanism to preserve its history and celebrate its legacy through enshrinement of those considered to be significant to the endeavor: a Hall of Fame. And although there can be (and is) criticism of each of the Halls of Fame for the sports I'm using for illustrative purposes, which are the four major American professional team sports of baseball, basketball, football, and hockey—often termed collectively as the "Big Four"—those Halls are all relatively more successful than is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and that is inherent in both the definition of the sport and in the selection of its inductees. For that reason, it is instructive to contrast those halls and how they function with respect to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
As we examine each of these problems in turn, it should become evident that not only are they interrelated, but the first two essentially engender the third issue—if you don't have a standard definition and objective, universal criteria, you can't help but have an expansive, inclusive Hall of Fame.
Issue One: No Standard Definition of Rock and RollAsk a hundred people what "rock and roll" means, and you may get a hundred different answers—and those hundred different answers may very well consist entirely of examples of artists whom the person considers to be "rock and roll" without describing the musical form itself.
Consider the dictionary.com definition of rock and roll, taken from the Random House Dictionary, which defines "rock-and-roll" as "a style of popular music that derives in part from blues and folk music and is marked by a heavily accented beat and a simple, repetitive phrase structure." The Collins English Dictionary contains this definition: "a type of pop music originating in the 1950s as a blend of rhythm and blues and country and western. It is generally based upon the twelve-bar blues, the first and third beats in each bar being heavily accented."
Bet you never heard either one of those definitions being whipped out during an argument. Both definitions, and other similar dictionary definitions, describe the roots of the music and some of its technical characteristics, but both are broad enough to encompass many kinds of music and are so general as to be meaningless.
'Twas ever thus. First published in 1970, Charlie Gillett's The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock 'n' Roll is a scrupulous examination of the roots of what cohered as rock music in the mid-1950s as well as its growth through the late 1960s. Nevertheless, he begins his indispensable book with a delightful hair-splitter that, consciously or not, heralds the very issue we face:
"In tracing the history of rock and roll, it is useful to distinguish rock 'n' roll—the particular kind of music to which the term was first applied—both from rock and roll—the music that has been classified as such since rock 'n' roll petered out around 1958—and from rock, which describes post-1964 derivations of rock 'n' roll" [italics in original].
Got it now? Neither do I—and poor old Charlie had only the first decade and a half to deal with. Considering that "rock and roll" and the stylized "rock 'n' roll" have been used so interchangeably for decades, Gillett's distinction is meaningless. (Fortunately, that does not apply to his book overall.)
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame itself introduced this confusion over definition right out of the gate. Of the ten artists inducted into its very first class in 1986, seven of them—Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Everly Brothers—are considered to be "rock" artists with very little dissent or controversy.
However, the other three artists from that Class of 1986—Ray Charles, James Brown, and Sam Cooke—are considered to be "soul" artists. Indeed—is James Brown not "the Godfather of Soul"? Did Ray Charles's protean work for Atlantic Records in the 1950s not get anthologized in a 1991 boxed set entitled The Birth of Soul?
Soul music sprang from many of the same roots as did rock music; they experienced coterminous development and in fact have intertwined at various levels and stages, from the hybrid experiments of Sly and the Family Stone in the late 1960s to the fusion of hip-hop and heavy metal in the 1980s and beyond.
It may have been the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's intent to incorporate contemporaneous musical forms such as soul under the overarching umbrella of "rock and roll" as an indicator of how expansive the music had been and continues to be. It may also have been, consciously or not, a proprietary gesture—perhaps even a patronizing one—to indicate the primacy of rock and roll, a term that has in many cases implied "white" music or artists as soul has implied "black" music or artists. It could also be that the Hall simply never considered the ramifications of using the term.
In any case, the Hall of Fame did set the precedent by inducting three soul artists in that inaugural class. That precedent then informed subsequent inductions that continue to this day. At the very least, the Hall should have been called the Rock and Soul Hall of Fame to acknowledge these twin legacies. However, in looking at the artists who have been inducted into the Hall from 1986 onwards, the more accurate name would be the Exclusively Western Popular Music Made Since the Mid-1950s Hall of Fame as that describes the kind of musical artists who have been inducted (at least in the Performers category—I'm not counting Early Influences or any other pre-Rock and Soul era acknowledgements). Unfortunately, that does not fit easily onto a coffee mug or a bumper sticker.
And if we cannot even define what "rock and roll" is, we certainly cannot evaluate it, either.
Issue Two: No Objective Evaluation Criteria That Can Be Applied UniversallyThe Rock and Roll Hall of Fame lists as its criteria for induction the following: "Artists—a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians—become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first record. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll" [emphasis added].
The Hall goes on to elaborate: "Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills." That is close to what I been using for the last few years, which are what I call the Defining Factors of evaluation:
— Innovation. The artist has invented or refined one or more aspects of the music.
— Influence. The artist has made a demonstrable impact on the music of either contemporaries or succeeding artists.
— Popularity. The artist has achieved an appreciable measure of commercial or critical success.
— Crossover appeal. The artist is recognized and appreciated outside the artist's primary arena.
— Legacy. The artist's accomplishments have lasting impact and appeal.
However, "musical excellence" and Defining Factors are ultimately subjective judgments that reflect the evaluator's biases and limitations. Despite my using the terms "demonstrable impact" and "appreciable measure," there are no definitive objective measurements that can be used to evaluate a musical artist's qualifications for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. How do you quantify a "demonstrable impact" or an "appreciable measure"? You can't, and even creating an index or ratings scale still bases the rating on subjective judgment.
Contrast this with the major American professional team sports. The Big Four all generate statistics that measure individual and collective performance, and those statistics provide an objective measurement of a candidate's strengths and weaknesses relative to other candidates and inductees already in that particular Hall of Fame.
Statistics do not tell the entire story; they are not necessarily the only criteria for consideration. And we should emphasize that for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we are focusing on the Performers category of inductees and not the other five categories of inductees, with the analog for the sports Halls of Fame being the players from each sport. Both performers and players form the direct connection that we spectators have to the endeavor, either rock and roll or sports, and each generates the interest and passion we have in any of the respective Halls of Fame more so than do the non-performers.
So, for the Big Four players, statistics serve a vital purpose in the evaluation of legacy. Moreover, and broadly speaking, they are universally applied to all the players in that particular sport, and, furthermore, that sport has a universal definition and parameters that (pardon the expression) level the playing field. True, rules and procedures can change over time, and there can be differences in the quality of play across different eras, which can make arguments for claims such as "the greatest player of all time" a challenge. But whether you argue that Gordie Howe or Wayne Gretzky was the greatest hockey player of all time, there is no dispute that they played the same sport and generated the same set of statistics, which are based on the conduct of play for that sport.
Not so with rock and roll. First, as we have seen, there is no standard definition of rock and roll, so there is indeed great dispute over who is considered to be a "rock and roll" performer. Next, there are no objective evaluation criteria that can be universally applied.
To be sure, there are some objective evaluation criteria that can be selectively applied. Commercial success can be measured in a number of ways. The success of an individual song or an album of songs can be charted—how it compares to other songs and albums during a given period of time. This can also be an indication of financial success, which can be measured by the number of units sold, resulting in "gold" records or "platinum" records for individual songs or albums. Similarly, performance criteria can yield objective measurements in terms of concert receipts, the number of concerts performed, average size of the audience per concert, and so on.
But all these criteria describe primarily the financial success of an artist—and even these are not universal. One artist can sell out a huge sports stadium while another can sell out a civic arena; all that tells us is something about the relative popularity of each artist, which can be a factor in evaluating the artist's worthiness for the Hall. However, it is not the only factor, and it may not be the critical factor.
Well, why not? After all, isn't that the "fame" portion of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? It is, and this is a valid point. As "rock and roll" reached its tipping point in the mid-1950s, burgeoning into the popular consciousness and simultaneously triggering a growing backlash, it could have been dismissed as simply a passing fad, and it may have simply "petered out," as Charlie Gillett put it in the quoted passage above.
However, Elvis Presley and his talent, charisma, and impact cemented the music into place and kept it from becoming just a fad, even when "rock 'n' roll" did begin to "peter out" by 1958 and hit a seemingly fallow period for several years. Yet within that "fallow period" the Beatles took shape, and by 1964 they had made as big an impact on the popular consciousness as had Presley a decade previously, and from then on "rock and roll" has never looked back.
Indeed, in the final episode of his landmark documentary series Jazz, filmmaker Ken Burns notes that the resurgence of rock music spearheaded by the Beatles tolled the death knell for jazz, which, having been at the forefront of popular music with its "hot jazz" of the 1920s and especially its big band and swing era of the 1930s and 1940s, has slipped to the far margins of pop music.
But popularity by itself is immediate, transitory, and may be reflective of, or dependent upon, other factors. Presley's contemporary Chuck Berry enjoyed a measure of chart success in the 1950s with five Top Ten singles on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart from 1955 to 1960 including the Number Two single "Sweet Little Sixteen" in 1958. In that same period, Presley notched 22 Top Ten hits including 15 chart-toppers.
Significantly, perhaps, Berry landed 12 Top Ten hits on the Billboard R&B singles chart during this time including four Number One songs as recordings by African-American artists such as Berry were still considered to be "race records" and "colored music" in a pre-integration United States—although Presley also had great success on the R&B chart with 19 Top Ten hits including six Number One singles. (Curiously, Berry's only Number One hit came in 1972, when he was already a nostalgia act, with a live version of "My Ding-a-Ling," a snickering novelty song tailor-made for The Dr. Demento Show that had been in his act for years.)
Yet Berry had an impact and influence on rock and roll that goes far beyond his chart performance. Elvis may indeed be the King of Rock and Roll, but Chuck is its eminence grise, its architect: Chuck Berry codified the form by synthesizing disparate musical elements into an instantly recognizable sound, by articulating classic teenage frustrations and desires in his witty, perceptive, and appealing self-penned songs, and by establishing the electric guitar as the dominant mode of instrumental expression. It was a framework that proved to be endlessly influential, epitomized by the influence he exerted on four of the biggest rock artists of the 1960s: Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and especially the Rolling Stones, the last of whom are inconceivable without Berry's influence.
That impact cannot be conveyed simply through popularity as expressed by chart hits, but neither can it be quantified into a simple if meaningful statistic denoting "influence." Moreover, popularity may be subordinate to innovation and influence—even if that influence is delayed.
During its short existence from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, the Velvet Underground cast almost no influence on its contemporaries—and made no impact on the pop charts. The band floated a handful of singles starting in 1966, but each one of them sank without a trace, not even cracking the Billboard Hot 100. Of the Velvets' five albums released between 1967 and 1973 (by which time leading lights John Cale and Lou Reed had long since departed), only the debut, The Velvet Underground and Nico (Verve, 1967), and White Light/White Heat (Verve, 1968) entered the Billboard 200 Albums, with the latter just making it at Number 199 while the former managed Number 171.
The Velvet Underground seemed destined to become a curious footnote in rock history, a Sixties band that experimented with dissonance, cacophony, and other aural avant-garde techniques and sang about heroin, amphetamine, femmes fatale, and sadomasochism at a time when the countercultural zeitgeist extolled marijuana, LSD, groovy hippie chicks, and free love. But as the 1970s punk explosion triggered 1980s New Wave, post-punk, and underground rock, the influence cited by increasing numbers of those artists was the Velvet Underground, to the point that the band can be considered the Presence of Modern Rock. Or to borrow Brian Eno's canny paraphrase, the Velvets didn't sell many records, but everyone who bought one started a band.
The vagaries of fame and influence: The Velvet Underground didn't sell many records, but everyone who bought one started a band.
The experiences of Chuck Berry and the Velvet Underground underscore the fundamental nature of rock music: It is an aesthetic endeavor prone to serendipity, and its leaders and innovators do not ascend to prominence in the same manner as do athletes gaining promotion through the ranks until they arrive at the top tier of their sport. True, countless top-tier rock artists began at the bottom and worked their way up from grubby local gigs and rough-hewn demonstration recordings until they began to attract notice. And there is some measure of evaluation throughout those levels as gatekeepers—record executives, concert promoters, critics, and particularly audiences, among others—admit some artists while refusing admittance to others.
But the tools for evaluation remain subjective—gatekeepers have a "hunch," a "feeling," that an artist might have "it," that ineffable "something" that distinguishes the artist from others. Thus the search for objective evaluation criteria becomes not only problematic but perhaps even irrelevant—because the very nature of the endeavor defies objectivity. How can you quantify a feeling?
Moreover, and this stands in stark contrast to the team sports, rock music evolved from its origins and continues to evolve, and this ongoing evolution expands the definition of rock and roll because the previous variants of "rock and roll" do not necessarily become extinct; they remain to be reworked, revisited, or at the very least remembered as part of the music's history.
In short, rock and roll music has continued to change and expand since its inception, with the ramifications being an endeavor whose definition is fluid and whose evaluation criteria are not only subjective but variable in their application.
Contrast this with any of the four major American team sports, whose fundamental definitions have remained constant for decades—these sports do not evolve. Now, their rules can change, and have, and their playing strategies can evolve, but the game itself, its structure and its conduct, remains stable. And because these sports are competitive, their outcomes decided by the quality of performance by each team, those performances can be measured by statistics that record specific actions by individual players; these statistics provide objective measurements that enable comparisons between different players performing the same actions.
Again, we are not comparing rock and roll and sports because each is an entirely different endeavor from the other. But both endeavors have chosen the same mechanism, a Hall of Fame, to preserve its history and, more importantly, to celebrate its legacy by enshrining those individuals with the greatest significance in the endeavor's history.
The Big Four Halls of Fame are relatively successful because each sport has a clear definition, objective evaluation criteria that can be universally applied, and as we will soon see, restrictions and exclusions that further refine the process of enshrining legacy.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the diametric opposite—rock and roll has no clear definition nor no objective, universally applicable evaluation criteria, and as we will soon see, it is expansive and inclusive, which makes the process of enshrining legacy the equivalent of trying to empty a bathtub that is filling continually by using a fork instead of a teaspoon.
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