What's Still Wrong with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

What's Still Wrong with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
02 Feb
Not in Hall of Fame

Is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame still relevant? Was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ever relevant? Does anyone still care about the Rock Hall except as a punching bag because his or her favorite artist has yet to be inducted? And just what kind of honorific is it to be labeled as a "Hall of Fame artist," anyway? Does it make their music more legitimate? Less legitimate?

Make no mistake: The notion of memorializing the music of the "Rock and Roll Era," popular music dating primarily from the mid-1950s and made almost exclusively in Western, English-speaking countries, is a worthwhile and even noble one. There is no disputing the enormous impact popular music has made in the last several decades, not just on popular culture but on the society that bred it, and establishing an institution, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (located in Cleveland, Ohio), to showcase its legacy would seem both logical and inevitable.


Although I have expended much time and effort writing about the Rock Hall, I must admit that when I learned of its existence in the mid-1990s, my first thought was, "that sounds pretty cheesy." After all, halls of fame, such as the ones for various sports, were part of "the Establishment," and rock and roll was supposed to be anti-establishment. Wasn't it?

Well, I've grown up a little since then, if not a jaded cynic then at least a confirmed skeptic, but while I do still believe that memorializing the Rock and Roll Era is important, by now it is obvious that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as it exists and currently operates is incapable of performing that task.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 01 Rock Hall

An impressive monument to futility? The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as it currently operates now is incapable of performing its task.

The problem is that the Rock Hall does not seem to realize the enormity of the task it has undertaken, and the method it uses is completely inadequate to that task. I wrote about this in 2017, in an overlong and excruciatingly detailed article, but here I will encapsulate why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sucks and will continue to suck unless it changes how it operates.

Fundamental Issues with the Rock Hall

Critical commentary about the Rock Hall has focused on surface issues such as the Rock Hall's Baby Boomer bias, the lack of diversity among the nominating committee members and the voting bloc, and the aura of secrecy surrounding the administration and logistics of the Rock Hall's operations that naturally lends itself to conspiracy theory. These are genuine concerns, and addressing them goes a long way to improving the nominating and election processes.

But what has been missing, which I've pointed out previously, is a root-cause analysis that demonstrates that these processes are fundamentally doomed simply by what the Rock Hall expects to accomplish and how it goes about doing that. These are the three fundamental issues:

  1. There is no standard definition of "rock and roll."
  2. There are no objective evaluation criteria that can be universally applied to the candidates.
  3. The Rock Hall employs a "small hall" mindset and methodology, adapted from the sports halls of fame, that is completely inadequate to its task.

To put it bluntly, the Rock Hall did not think through what it wanted to do and how to do it. And after nearly 40 years of inducting a handful of performers per year (the Hall's inaugural class of ten artists was elected in 1986), it has created a tremendous backlog that grows greater every year. Its approach is like trying to empty an overflowing bathtub by using only a teaspoon—you get out some of the water but you'll never empty it at that rate.

To understand why these three issues add up to a recipe for failure for the Rock Hall, we need to examine them further.

Issue One: No Standard Definition of Rock and Roll

Ask a hundred people what "rock and roll" is, and you'll probably receive a hundred different answers; moreover, it's equally likely that they won't be actual definitions but instead examples of artists that, for them, represent what rock and roll is to them, or perhaps examples of genres (such as punk rock or heavy metal) that fall under the general classification of "rock and roll." That might be more comprehensive but, since descriptions of those genres require a definition of rock and roll to explain why they are considered a type of rock and roll, that ultimately comes up short as well.

Dictionary definitions don't help much. For instance, Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defines rock and roll as "popular music usually played on electronically amplified instruments and characterized by a persistent heavily accented beat, repetition of simple phrases, and often country, folk, and blues elements." That definition could also describe the country, folk, and blues music it cites along with jazz. It is so broad and abstract as to be meaningless although it underscores the monumental task the Rock Hall has set for itself.

Beyond the narrow, technical dictionary definition of the music itself, "rock and roll" is a term that describes a delineation in the history of the development of popular music; it is also a marketing label. To paraphrase the canny observation by Ruth Brown, the rhythm and blues singer who became an early-rock legend, rhythm and blues of the 1940s became "rock and roll" in the 1950s once enough white teenagers began to listen to it. Indeed, tracing the development and emergence of rock and roll by the mid-1950s reveals not a sudden invention of a new musical form but rather a persistent and organic process that had reached a tipping point by the middle of that decade.

Personifying this was the emergence of Elvis Presley, a young white man whose embrace and mastery of black musical styles and attitudes, whether he was covering Junior Parker's "Mystery Train" or Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog" (with the latter actually written by two white men, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who worked closely with the black vocal ensemble the Coasters), almost single-handedly quelled the furious backlash against the popularization of "race records," as musical releases by black artists were called at the time, by an America gripped in the clutches of racial segregation. Presley's tremendous popularity in spite of this backlash was the single most critical factor in keeping rock and roll from being dismissed as just a passing fad, enabling it to expand and perpetuate until one day an institution, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, arose to memorialize it.

Elvis Presley Rock Hall

Elvis Presley's tremendous talent and overwhelming popularity kept rock and roll alive and let it thrive, eventually giving rise to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Moreover, Presley epitomized an attitude—hip, sexy, passionate, defiant—that in turn came to epitomize the very rock and roll he popularized. This is the aspect the Rock Hall seems intent on memorializing, but trying to define "rock and roll attitude" only compounds the problem since there is no standard definition of "rock and roll" to begin with. Thus, we are back at square one.

By contrast, the sports halls of fame—namely, the "Big Four" professional team sports of (primarily) English-speaking North America: baseball, basketball, football, and hockey—the Rock Hall has tried to emulate are clearly, and in some cases rigidly, defined, both by their sport and by the parameters of their respective Halls of Fame.

While the rules of any sport may be complex, the sport itself that they govern is relatively simple in concept and execution. Basketball, football, hockey, and soccer all share the same martial mindset: penetrate your opponent's home territory to strike symbolic blows against them, be they baskets, touchdowns, or goals, and prevent them from doing the same. Baseball modifies the concept by having two opponents take turns on shared territory to advance and strike symbolic blows called runs while the other team tries to prevent that.

In turn, the sports' respective Halls of Fame have their corresponding narrow definitions. While the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (located in Springfield, Massachusetts) is not limited to the National Basketball Association as it contains both international and amateur inductees, and the Hockey Hall of Fame (located in Toronto, Ontario) is not limited to the National Hockey League, both the National Baseball Hall of Fame (located in Cooperstown, New York) and the Pro Football Hall of Fame (located in Canton, Ohio) are limited exclusively to Major League Baseball and the National Football League, respectively. (Both do include other, earlier leagues that have ultimately been subsumed into their current league organization.)

But since the Rock Hall cannot even define what "rock and roll" is, there are no limitations to which artists can be considered for induction beyond the single eligibility criterion of needing to have released a record at least 25 years previously.

Thus, the Rock Hall has inducted artists not generally considered to be "rock and roll" including Johnny Cash, Miles Davis, and Bob Marley under the "Performers" category, which roughly corresponds to the players, as opposed to non-players, inducted into the sports halls of fame. (The Rock Hall's other categories of inductees include Early Influences, whose inductees are almost entirely pre-Rock and Roll Era, the Ahmet Ertegun Award, known as Non-Performers prior to 2008, and the Award for Musical Excellence, known as Sidemen prior to 2010.)

The bottom line is that there is no standard definition of "rock and roll" because "rock and roll" keeps evolving. It evolved from an amalgam of musical forms including blues, rhythm and blues, and country and western and has never stopped hybridizing. Thus, even the very name "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame" is inadequate except as a catchall for what more accurately could be called the "Overwhelmingly Western, Exclusively English-Language Popular Music Made Since the 1950s Hall of Fame" even if that doesn't fit neatly onto the T-shirts, coffee mugs, and all the other souvenirs for sale in the museum gift shop.

In stark contrast to the sports Halls of Fame it emulates, which are restrictive and exclusive, the Rock Hall is expansive and inclusive. But if defining rock and roll is problematic, how about evaluating rock and roll candidates for induction into the Rock Hall?

Issue Two: No Objective, Universal Evaluation Criteria

Apart from the single eligibility criterion that an artist's first recording must have been released at least 25 years previously, the Rock Hall has no other criteria for determining an artist's qualifications for induction beyond vague generalities.

In my previous article from July 2017 on the Rock Hall, the Rock Hall's website had stated: "Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll." As of January 2023, this has been reduced to a blurb on the Performers page that states: "Honoring bands and solo artists who, in their careers, have created music whose originality, impact, and influence has changed the course of rock & roll."

In other words, the previous broad generality has become even more vague. In truth, it doesn't matter what the Rock Hall could say that would qualify an artist as a Hall of Famer because there are no objective criteria that can be universally applied to each and every candidate.

There are some criteria that can be selectively applied, such as singles and album chart histories, sales of recordings ("Gold" and "Platinum" records), streaming and downloading statistics, concert receipts, and other similar measures of popularity and profitability. However, that tells us nothing about an artist having "a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll" or even having "created music whose originality, impact, and influence has changed the course of rock & roll."

A keynote example is the Velvet Underground. Active for a few short years in the late 1960s to the early 1970s, this New York band, initially associated with artist Andy Warhol, sang about heroin, sadomasochism, and femme fatales when the pop-music zeitgeist extolled psychedelics, free love, and groovy hippie chicks—hardly ideal fare for even the burgeoning FM-radio explosion, let alone Top 40 radio. Indeed, the Velvets never had a hit single, and only two of their albums ever made even the lowest reaches of Billboard's Top 200 Albums chart. No wonder the band, led by Lou Reed, sank without a trace.

Yet in the years following its unheralded demise, the Velvet Underground's influence became pervasive, to the point that it truly did "change the course of rock & roll"; as Brian Eno once put it so aptly (and wryly), the group didn't sell many records, but everyone who bought one started a band, particularly after the advent of punk rock in the mid- to late 1970s.

The impact and influence of the Velvet Underground is literally incalculable. To calculate something, you need metrics. Numbers. The band had no commercial success during its lifetime, so its popularity and commercial viability is negligible, and there are no metrics that can measure innovation, impact, and influence, which is what made the Velvet Underground significant to rock and roll.

Velvet Underground Rock Hall

The unpopular, unheralded Velvet Underground nevertheless exerted a profound and lasting influence on rock and roll that cannot be measured.

This puts this fundamental issue in bold relief: Even if there were a standard definition of "rock and roll," which might at least put all prospective candidates on a more or less even footing, objective analyses remain impossible to formulate because any analysis is subjective opinion. While you can build a convincing case for an artist, even one that includes measurements of popularity and profitability as noted above, it remains a subjective case.

By contrast, and although their analyses are not wholly objective, evaluations of candidates for the Big Four sports Halls of Fame can employ a wealth of metrics to build candidates' cases for either inclusion or exclusion. Those metrics, generated in baseball, basketball, football, and hockey, are objective and universal, whether qualitative (rate statistics) or quantitative (volume statistics). Metrics alone do not make the Hall of Fame case, but they strengthen it while providing a baseline for comparative purposes.

Not only do the sports Halls of Fame enjoy a standard definition of what each sport is along with objective, universal evaluation criteria, all of them operate within a relatively small, tightly controlled performance environment whose candidates essentially have been preselected for potential evaluation just by the very nature of competition.

What debilitates the Rock Hall is not just the lack of a standard definition and objective, universal criteria but, more seriously, also the lack of a relatively small, tightly controlled performance environment. However, what dooms the Rock Hall is its insistence on basing its nomination and selection methodology on that of the sports halls, to which we now turn.

Issue Three: An Inadequate Mindset and Methodology

Every year, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame distributes a ballot of names, chosen by a nominating committee, for voters to consider as candidates worthy of induction in the Performers category, and candidates who receive at least 50 percent of the vote are then inducted into the Rock Hall.

In only three years—1986, 1987, and 2012—has an induction class reached double digits, and the only reason the 2012 class reached double digits was because a separate nominating committee, not the voters, selected a half-dozen backing bands for previously-inducted performers such as James Brown and Buddy Holly to be inducted as Performers.

This "small hall" approach is ideal for the team sports halls of fame the Rock Hall is emulating, but it is an utter disaster for the Rock Hall. Why? Because the pool of potential candidates in rock and roll—compounded of course by the lack of a definition of rock and roll—is so many orders of magnitude greater that those of the team sports that it truly is like trying to empty an overflowing bathtub with a teaspoon.

To understand why the Rock Hall's mindset and methodology of the "small hall" is wholly inadequate to its purpose, let's examine why it does work for the Big Four team sports Halls of Fame.

First, the Big Four are limited by the size of their operations. The Halls of Fame for hockey and especially basketball are not restricted by their top-tier professional league, the NHL and the NBA, respectively, but baseball and football are. With the size of all four of those leagues around 30 teams each, their pool of potential candidates is restricted. Second, the pools of the Big Four, especially baseball and football, are further restricted by tiered competition that weeds out the large, if not the overwhelming, majority of candidates before they even ascend to the top tier.

Add to that the Big Four's standard definitions and objective, universal evaluation criteria, and ballots for the Big Four Halls of Fame are presented to voters already culled and curated so that only elite candidates are considered. In that environment, a small slate of candidates and a much smaller number of inductees chosen from that slate should be expected because so much of the competition has already been eliminated from consideration before voters receive their ballots.

That is not the case for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Along with no standard definition and no objective, universal evaluation criteria, rock and roll is not limited to a predefined "league" to limit the number of participants, nor is there a competition structure to weed out participants; the barriers to entry are extremely low compared to competitive team sports.

Yes, rock artists "compete" for audiences and market share, but the range of viability for survival is remarkably wide. Cult artists and stadium-fillers alike can thrive and exhibit influence and innovation that can "change the course of rock & roll," and any artist need remain in the industry for just a brief time while making an impact that can also change the course of the music. N.W.A. and the Sex Pistols each had a short existence but each made a lasting impact, as did the aforementioned Velvet Underground, whose splash, unlike that of these two artists, wasn't even felt until well after the band ceased to exist.

The far bigger problem, which does not impact the Big Four team sports, is that rock and roll, gestated and birthed as part of the evolution of popular music, continues to evolve. "Rock and roll" as played by Metallica is all but unrecognizable compared to the "rock and roll" as played by Chuck Berry even if you can trace a path, however tenuous and fragmentary, from Berry (whom I simply refer to as "the Architect of Rock and Roll") to Metallica.

By contrast, the baseball in which Aaron Judge hit 62 home runs in 2022 is fundamentally the same baseball in which Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961 and in which Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 1927—and notice how those home run totals remain remarkably constant across nearly a century. The rules may change, sometimes drastically, in the Big Four team sports, but their essential structures remain unchanged.

Not so with rock and roll. Its structure not only evolves but, because there is no "league restriction," the number of participants grows exponentially thanks to the continual lowering of the barriers to entry (a musician can record music in his or her home studio and upload it to the web so the entire world can access it), to the continual evolution of the music that constantly opens new channels to explore, and to the dramatic increase in the number of potential participants (during the 1964 "British Invasion" of the United States, the global population was about 3.5 billion; today, there are 8 billion humans on Earth), many of whom enjoy greater and easier access to the industry and its consumers and arbiters than did previous generations.

This entire situation has, not surprisingly, created a bottleneck in the throughput of artists to be inducted into the Rock Hall, which in turn has elicited numerous cries of "snub," real or alleged, regarding the hordes of candidates awaiting the call to the Hall, howls of "Hall of Lame" or "Hall of Shame," typically by those whose favorite artists have yet to be inducted, often at the expense of non-favorite artists who have gone in their place, and mutterings of dark conspiracies about who is running the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and what their agenda might be.

All of these complaints have merits, but before we explore them, keep in mind that, regardless of evil intent, the first two fundamental issues regarding definition and criteria are inherent in the endeavor upon which the Rock Hall has embarked, with only the third fundamental issue, its inadequate mindset and methodology, truly within its control.

"Take a Number. We'll Get to You. Eventually. Maybe."

If you're an artist with a possibility of induction, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is like the department of motor vehicles. You go there and join the end of a long line outside the building. As you're waiting, the line continues to grow even longer behind you. Then you get to a point near the building where they issue you a number; this corresponds to the Rock Hall's 25-year eligibility requirement.

Once in a while, they call out numbers lower than yours, selecting a few of the people in front of you. You notice that the numbers they're calling are not sequential. Then you realize that they are also calling out numbers higher than yours, selecting a few of the people behind you. Finally, you get inside the building and discover that there are just two clerks whose windows are open for processing. Neither one seems to be in a hurry to do any processing—and there is still no guarantee that your number will ever be called.

With an operating model completely inadequate for its task, the Rock Hall's bureaucratic inefficiency cannot help but produce so many "snubs," rock artists who have been eligible for many years but have yet to be voted in despite having been nominated at least once, such as the Spinners, eligible since the Rock Hall began inducting artists in 1986 (the Spinners' first single was released in 1961) and nominated four times, or artists who have been eligible for many years but have yet to be nominated even once, such as Jethro Tull, eligible since 1993.

This is why Jethro Tull, or the Spinners, or numerous other rock acts, including your favorite, have yet to be inducted into the Rock Hall. It's not that the Rock Hall is snubbing them; it just hasn't got around to it yet.

Or is that really it?

The Great Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Conspiracy

Conspiracies have been a part of human endeavor for so long that you could probably find a claim of conspiracy that Cain was framed as the patsy for the murder of his brother Abel. This is why political scientist Richard Hofstadter's famous essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," dating from 1963, still reads as if it were written as yesterday's editorial.

The seemingly haphazard, almost chaotic approach of the Rock Hall, issuing annual ballots that seem to have been compiled by throwing darts at a gallery of pictures tacked to the wall and announcing results without providing any polling data, just to pick two examples, does seem arbitrary rather than random.

Combine that with the lack of transparency into the Rock Hall's operations—as former nomination committee chairman Jon Landau (himself an Ahmet Ertegun Award inductee in 2020) notoriously stated in 2011, "We've done a good job of keeping the proceedings nontransparent. It all dies in the room"—and you have the ingredients for a juicy conspiracy theory about how the Rock Hall has been gaming its entire process to achieve the results it desires all along.

And in fact, it has. Established in 1983 by Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation is a private enterprise dedicated to preserving and promoting the legacy of the Rock and Roll Era. The team Ertegun assembled to lead this venture included Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, so it is no surprise that the Rock Hall reflects the tastes of Wenner and his Rolling Stone confederates such as rock critic Dave Marsh. (Full disclosure: Dave Marsh is my favorite rock critic. Do I agree with everything he says and does? Hardly.)

The Rock Hall has no public mandate, let alone any statutory requirement, to operate in a certain manner. It can do whatever the hell it wants. As fans, we can choose to accept or reject whatever the hell it does. The Rock Hall does make the pretense of democracy through the voting process for the Performers category, which since 2012 has included an online fan vote that, collectively, adds up to one ballot casting one vote for one artist. The actual electorate comprises "industry professionals" that includes all living members of the Rock Hall; in other words, there is a clubbiness, even an elitism, built into the process.

Back Doors into the Rock Hall

The induction processes for the other current categories mentioned previously—Early Influences, the Ahmet Ertegun Award (known as Non-Performers prior to 2008), and the Award for Musical Excellence (known as Sidemen prior to 2010)—are not open to the voting body but instead are the purview of internal Rock Hall committees. In a sense, they correspond to the veterans committee associated with the Baseball Hall of Fame.

These categories have served as catchalls for performers not inducted in the Performers category, with even Ahmet Ertegun Award inductees who are also actual performers (such as Carole King and Johnny Otis) recognized for their non-performing accomplishments.

Moreover, the Early Influences category, initially intended for performers whose careers were established before the Rock and Roll Era—thus illustrating the influences that led to the development of rock and roll—has now inducted Freddie King, Kraftwerk, and Gil Scott-Heron, all of whom established their careers during the Rock and Roll Era. Presumably, their inclusion signifies that they're "early influences" on later artists in the still-continuing Rock and Roll Era.

More egregiously, the Award for Musical Excellence, once shorn of its "sidemen" restriction (broadly speaking, these are the musicians who have backed performers, either in a working band or in studio sessions), has now begun to induct performers such as Judas Priest and LL Cool J, whom you might expect to find in the Performers category, as this category now seems to be a back door for inducting performers who might not get elected as Performers.

For example, until 2015, Ringo Starr had been the only ex-Beatle not inducted in the Performers category as a solo performer. (I'll leave aside that George Harrison's induction as a solo artist was a gratuitous one.) Although Starr never appeared on a Performers ballot, the Beatles' drummer was inducted under the Award for Musical Excellence label. (Need we note by now that "musical excellence" is not defined by the Rock Hall, nor can it be quantified as an objective criterion?) Two years later, Nile Rodgers was inducted under the same banner, hardly a controversy as the guitarist also distinguished himself as a composer and producer.

However, Rodgers's band Chic had been on the Performers ballot a record eleven times, nearly twice as many appearances as the MC5, who with six appearances has the next-highest number of fruitless attempts. Rodgers's induction does appear to have been an insiders' sop had Chic failed to have been elected in the Performers category in what has turned out to be its last appearance on the ballot in 2017. (For the record, I have always endorsed Chic for the Hall of Fame.)

Nile Rodgers and Chic Rock Hall

Chic couldn't enter the Rock Hall through the front door, but Chic leader Nile Rodgers (center) got in through one of the Hall's back doors.

Such actions underline the operational politicking and backroom intrigues that have tarnished the Rock Hall's reputation and reinforce the conspiracy theory that it is rigging the selection of candidates. Well, yes, it is. But, again, the Rock Hall is not required to conduct an election to determine who the inductees are. It could simply announce the performers and non-performers it will induct, and we can clap and cheer or bitch and moan as we please.

Surface Issues Plaguing the Rock Hall

Adding to the conspiratorial whispers are the surface issues mentioned at the beginning of this article, one of which is the Boomer bias. As I noted in my previous article, Rob Tannenbaum, a rock critic who at the time was a voting member of the Rock Hall, lambasted his fellow voters for perpetuating that bias with the blast "BOOMERS REVERE BOOMERS" (his all-caps) while calling for many more younger voters. Millennial writer Jillian Mapes seconded Tannenbaum's criticism and suggestion, noting that the Rock Hall, for which she has some affection, has tried to establish a rock and roll canon that excludes newer acts and has called on the Rock Hall to "adapt or die."

Addressing the Rock Hall's gender bias and outright sexism was Courtney E. Smith, author of Record Collecting for Girls, who, while enthusiastic about the "huge number of important female artists" from the 1990s who are, or will be, eligible, also warns about the Rock Hall's "woman problem," noting that, as of 2016, there were only 37 women inducted, all of them performers, meaning no executives, managers, or producers. Echoing Smith, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd decries the Rock Hall's gender tokenism with respect to inductees while noting that, like the Boomer bias, that tokenism stems from the composition of both the nominating committee and the voting bloc.

Smith also called out the Rock Hall's race bias (as of 2016), citing the voting bloc's high proportion of current Hall of Fame inductees, "who are largely straight white dudes," and who are averse to voting for a band such as Chic, which "created music that was first embraced by women, homosexual men, and minorities; by many Rock Hall voters it's considered to be feminine music and not pure rock."

All of these concerns are not only valid ones, they are serious ones that reinforce the claim that the Rock Hall, whether by inattention, lack of foresight, conscious conspiracy, any other shortcoming, or a mix of any or all of these, is defining a canon of the Rock and Roll Era that reflects its own biases, prejudices, and limitations.

But while the criticisms raised by the commentators cited above can and should be addressed and remedied, they still don't address the three fundamental issues that can and will doom any attempt to memorialize the music and legacy of the Rock and Roll Era.

Reflection and Correction

To be honest, I had given up on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by the time I had written my 2017 article on what I thought was wrong with it. In fact, that article had begun as my ballot assessment for 2017, which was an annual exercise I had been doing since 2013 once the Rock Hall released its slate of current candidates for voter consideration (not that I am a voter).

However, after writing a preamble that was my first draft of the three fundamental issues I've outlined here, I got about halfway through evaluations of the current candidates before deciding that there was no point in doing it.

Why? Because once I had elaborated on how the "small hall" mindset and methodology the Rock Hall employed was completely inadequate to its task, I realized that I had been immersed in that very mindset and methodology myself. And I finally understood how glaringly wrong I was to do so.

The height of my folly was the six-part series of "audits" I had done (the link is for Part 6, which contains links to the previous five parts) that evaluated the artists the Rock Hall had inducted in the Performers category from 1986 to 2013, a total of 186 artists (with "artist" referring to either a solo performer or a band or group). Not only did I ultimately agree with three of every four of the Rock Hall's choices, but thanks to my "small hall" obsession, I made myself ridiculous with some truly spectacular hair-splitting. Two examples in particular illustrate my point.

The first involves LaVern Baker and Ruth Brown. Small-hall reasoning told me, "One African-American female performer who began as an R&B singer, then transitioned to rock and roll, but not both." I agonized over this, mulling it over in the shower or while driving to my day job, which of the two should be in the Rock Hall. In the end, I went with Baker because I thought she was the better singer. This was despite the fact that I knew that Brown, who had recorded for Atlantic Records during the label's early years of financial difficulties, was so popular and commercially successful that Atlantic became known as "the house that Ruth built" (a play on Babe Ruth's fame that led to Yankee Stadium being known by the same slogan) because her career kept the iconic label alive.

The second example involves Brenda Lee and Dusty Springfield. Small-hall reasoning whispered in my ear, "One white female pioneering rock and roll singer, but not both." Similar agonizing. I went with Lee because her career began in the 1950s while Springfield's began in the early 1960s. This was despite the fact that, as stated in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, the very first book on rock and roll I ever read, "she was the best female rock singer Britain ever produced." Although that book is now outdated, Dusty probably still holds the title.

Ruth Brown Rock Hall

The perils of "small hall" thinking: Hell, yes, Ruth Brown belongs in the Rock Hall. And so do a galaxy of other deserving artists.

It was then that I realized how futile it was to try to cherry-pick artists "deserving" of Rock Hall legacy. Of course Ruth Brown and Dusty Springfield belong there, as do LaVern Baker and Brenda Lee. So do a galaxy of artists that have made their mark in the seven decades since "rock and roll" appeared in the popular consciousness.

Is There a Solution to the Rock Hall's Problem?

Now I maintain that the problem is throughput—how do you get enough of the artists who deserve to be recognized and honored for their legacy into the Rock Hall? But before we start devising solutions to address that, let's understand that the end result may very well turn out to be a Rock Hall that is so enormous as to defy comprehension and be almost meaningless.

I say almost because I still believe that there is merit in memorializing the legacy of the music of the "Rock and Roll Era"; however, any comprehensive, systematic attempt to do that requires a thorough understanding of the enormity of that scope.

"Rock and roll" truly is universal, and that's not just because Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" is on the Golden Record media platter carried by the two Voyager space probes, launched in 1977, that are now both traversing interstellar space. Like most aspects of Western pop culture, rock and roll spread around the world quickly and became assimilated both as an exotic import and, more significantly, into local and regional musical idioms. You haven't lived until you've heard Tuvan throat singer Albert Kuvezin and the band Yat-Kha's winking cover of the Iron Butterfly chestnut "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"—with Kuvezin and band clearly aware of how cheesy this rock "epic" was the first time out.

In 2021 and again in 2022, Nigerian superstar Fela Kuti appeared on the Performers ballot. This is both encouraging and problematic. It is encouraging because it shows that the Rock Hall is recognizing artists from outside North America and Europe, but it is problematic because—look, if the Rock Hall has fallen this far behind with its current candidate pool, how futile is it going to look with the rest of the world to process?

Given the level of effort and resources the Rock Hall has expended thus far—notwithstanding the I.M. Pei-designed edifice thrusting into Lake Erie from Cleveland's shore—the best we can expect with respect to non-Western rock and roll is a token effort, one that recognizes the likes of Kuti along with Youssou N'Dour, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and similar artists who are familiar to Western audiences from having worked with Western pop artists, or artists such as Shonen Knife, which recycles Western pop and punk with a distinctive Japanese flavor that found favor with American alternative rockers including Nirvana and Sonic Youth, or, in the Early Influences category, Ravi Shankar, the sitarist whose Indian textures certainly influenced two-time inductee George Harrison among many other Western musicians.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 02 Rock Hall

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame needs to extend much further into Lake Erie to house all the artists who should be in it, now and in the future.

What tars the Rock Hall's expansion into truly international territory with the potential to be an utter and absolute failure is not its recognition of those artists, which is admirable and necessary, but, should it continue with its "small hall" approach, its completely inadequate nomination and voting methodology compounded by a candidate pool many orders of magnitude greater than its current pool. If the Rock Hall is struggling to cope with candidates from primarily Europe and North America, imagine its struggle when having to deal with the entire world.

Evaluating and memorializing popular music of the Rock and Roll Era the world over is a Herculean task that, to do it justice, is far beyond the capabilities of the Rock Hall as it exists and operates now. In my previous article, I proposed several solutions, both large and small, that could improve the Rock Hall. One of those solutions, which addresses the potentially huge pool of inductees and is of particular relevance should the Rock Hall expand the pool internationally, is a hall of fame modeled on the Smithsonian Institution.

The Smithsonian Institution is not a single entity but rather comprises a collection of museums, galleries, research centers, and other facilities that memorializes primarily the history and culture of the United States although its overall function is as a repository of general knowledge and education. Most of the Smithsonian's facilities are located in Washington, D.C., including the National Museum of American History, the Smithsonian American Art Gallery, and the National Air and Space Museum.

Although it isn't likely to be as large a complex as the Smithsonian, any physical manifestation of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that is conceived, developed, and implemented along the comprehensive and systematic lines I am suggesting would be an enormous undertaking that could easily prove to be simply not feasible at least on a financial level.

However, that model, which would be a campus of halls of fame whether organized by category (for example, the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame or the Heavy Metal Hall of Fame) or chronological era (whether by decades or by labels such as "classic rock," based on arbitrary definition), is what will result from the comprehensive, systematic approach that is necessary to fully identify and evaluate the multitudes of potential candidates. Moreover, that approach would also require expertise from outside the music industry, most notably musicologists and historians who study the subject from an academic, detached perspective, particularly if the Rock Hall does go global to recognize non-Western, non-English-speaking candidates.

Admittedly, this is an optimistic scenario that is unlikely to ever reach this full-flowering, but it does underscore the enormity of the task the Rock Hall has set for itself while unveiling that task to be the proverbial two-ton elephant in the Hall. And while the answer to "how do you eat that two-ton elephant" may be "one bite at a time," it will take a very long time to finish it off—which, thanks to its "small hall" mindset and methodology, is exactly what the Rock Hall has been doing since it began inducting candidates in 1986.

This is why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has lost its relevance to me. For the past few years, I've quickly noted in passing the latest inductees with as much interest as watching whom the bouncers unclip the red cordon for as they admit them into this exclusive club; meanwhile, the line going around the block keeps growing longer. And longer.

Despite my indifference, I do still believe that memorializing the popular music of the Rock and Roll Era—which, as a mere listener and fan, has made an enormous impact on my life—is a worthwhile endeavor. But as noted above, a comprehensive and systematic approach to that endeavor requires capabilities that the Rock Hall will not or cannot provide. Perhaps no organization can provide them, or perhaps the cost of doing so is prohibitive. Perhaps the goal is ultimately unattainable—there is simply too much music to include, or the sheer enormity of it all renders cogent comprehension impossible.

In any case, it is still instructive to identify and understand the three fundamental issues plaguing the Rock Hall: There is no standard definition of rock and roll, and there are no objective evaluation criteria that can be universally applied to all candidates; despite this, the Rock Hall employs a "small hall" mindset and methodology, adapted from the sports halls of fame, that is completely inadequate to the task it has set for itself.

Understanding these three fundamental issues explains why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has lost its relevance, if it ever had any relevance to begin with. Inducting artists piecemeal ensures that there are more fans who dismiss the Rock Hall because it hasn't yet inducted their favorite artists, and the arbitrary nominating and voting processes cast doubts about the legitimacy of many artists who have been inducted already—and about the legitimacy of the Rock Hall itself.

A comprehensive and systematic approach seems the best way to memorialize the legacy of the music of the Rock and Roll Era, but because it would surely require effort and resources beyond the capabilities of the current Rock Hall, it is unlikely to be pursued, leaving the many artists who should be in the Rock Hall listening to its tired refrain: "Take a number. We'll get to you. Eventually. Maybe."

Last modified on Thursday, 02 February 2023 23:20

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