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.
Issue Three: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Is Expansive and InclusiveNow we get to the heart of why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seems to suck for so many people and why its suckage may never be remedied.
Because there is no standard definition of rock and roll, the Hall is expansive, meaning that an ever-increasing range of styles and genres keep getting added to the musical form labeled "rock and roll." And because there are no universally objective criteria for evaluating legacy, the Hall is inclusive, meaning that evaluating a candidate for the Hall becomes a subjective judgment with no threshold or parameters.
Recall poor Charlie Gillett's attempt to define "rock and roll"—and he had only to do so for about a decade-and-a-half's worth of music. Yet in that time, rock (and soul) had already begun to evolve from its roots in blues, rhythm and blues, folk, and country and western into ever more eclectic styles, not only returning to those wellsprings to make them more pronounced and explicit (folk-rock, blues-rock, country-rock), but it had begun to incorporate other sources to produce art-rock or progressive-rock, jazz-rock, the Motown sound, Southern soul, psychedelic rock, and so on.
And those innovations in turn spawned even more styles, with funk, heavy metal, disco, and punk-rock being among the best-known sounds from the 1970s. And those styles spawned or combined (or even re-combined) to produce even more variants, each ranging even further afield from the "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," to borrow from one of our previous dictionary definitions of rock.
Correspondingly, these ever-multiplying styles and genres (and sub-genres) found audiences that varied greatly in size, interest, and sponsorship so that a "cult" artist could sustain a career, and even prove to be influential on contemporary and subsequent artists, without needing to have hit singles, huge sales, or large-scale concerts. And as technology evolved and barriers to entry into the rock and roll industry were removed, even greater numbers of artists were able to reach and establish audiences.
Up until the 1980s, artists largely had to attract a major recording label that could produce and distribute their music, and then try to impress broadcasters, primarily radio stations, if they wanted to build an audience and sustain a career. As technology and alternative business models progressed, more artists found it easier to enter the field.
And this was a two-way street: Audiences became more sophisticated and more discerning, willing to support "underground" or "alternative" artists because they offered music that appealed to them more so than "commercial" music, which still had its audiences, but as the market of listeners expanded, so did the number of artists, now at many levels of popularity, to meet the growing demand.
By the 1980s, smaller labels began to act as "farm teams" for artists who could (and did) attract interest from major labels and thus also attract larger audiences (a classic example being R.E.M., which began as college favorites on I.R.S. before moving to Warner Bros. and mainstream success). And by the time the Internet Age began, the music business that had already undergone so many changes since the inception of rock music in the 1950s experienced another profound jolt: An artist creating professional-quality music in his or her own home could market it directly to the world on the internet through a number of online channels.
All of which suggests how increasingly difficult it is to establish, first, any objective evaluation criteria, but, second, how to apply it universally to an ever-increasing range of music grouped under the "rock" umbrella that operates on so many viable levels, from the superstar pop acts of today to the niche artist with a small yet loyal following, with artists at every point of this spectrum having the potential to influence the course of "rock" as it continues to progress. The music is truly inclusive.
So how can you hope to have a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that can capture these ever-changing dynamics without becoming a haphazard mess subject to various biases, prejudices, and limitations?
To put this into perspective, let's contrast this with the nature of the Halls of Fame for the Big Four major American team sports. Once again, we are not contrasting, let alone comparing, the endeavors themselves—rock and roll music and each of the team sports—as they have so little in common beyond providing entertainment to spectators. But each uses the common mechanism of a Hall of Fame to preserve it history and to celebrate its legacy, and examining why the sports Halls of Fame are generally successful can help to illustrate why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is not.
Contrasts with the Sports Halls of Fame
In truth, there is variance among the sports Halls of Fame. The Basketball Hall of Fame, more properly the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (named for basketball's inventor, Dr. James Naismith), is easily the most expansive of the four as it inducts both amateur and professional candidates not just from the United States but from around the world. So, while the National Basketball Association, the top-tier professional basketball league in the United States (with one Canadian team extant, the Toronto Raptors), is prominently represented, it is not the exclusive representative.
Similarly, the Hockey Hall of Fame is not exclusively dedicated to the National Hockey League, the top-tier professional hockey league in the United States and Canada, as it includes selected individuals with no NHL connections, although a common criticism of the Hockey Hall of Fame is that it is focused on the NHL to the general exclusion of other hockey leagues in North America and around the world.
However, both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Baseball Hall of Fame concentrate exclusively on their top-tier professional leagues—the National Football League and Major League Baseball (comprising the American League and the National League), respectively—barring any historical leagues that relate directly to the current structures.
In fact, consider how exclusive and restrictive is the Baseball Hall of Fame. First of all, when you walk into the Baseball Hall of Fame, you know what you're getting: baseball. That might sound obvious or even silly, but it means that you're not getting a sport that is similar to or derived from or that influenced or inspired baseball—cricket, softball, or rounders, for instance. Recall that at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there is no standard definition of rock and roll.
And it is not just any baseball—it is Major League Baseball, the top-tier of American professional baseball. That means no youth or amateur leagues, no minor leagues, no independent leagues, and no international leagues. True, players in or to be considered for the Hall may have had experience with those other leagues, but those experiences have no impact on consideration of a candidate for the Hall except as part of the candidate's narrative.
This will prove to be more than simply theoretical when outfielder Ichiro Suzuki becomes eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame in a few years' time. (I've written about Ichiro and the Hall twice, once in 2011, and again in 2016.) Suzuki was a superstar in Japan for nine years, with the Orix Blue Wave in the Nippon Professional Baseball League, before coming to the United States to play for the Seattle Mariners.
Last year, he reached the 3000-hit plateau in Major League Baseball, which, barring two certain examples, is practically a lock for the Hall of Fame. En route to 3000 Major League hits, Ichiro notched a safety that put him at 4257 hits when his hit totals from both NPB and MLB are combined, which led some to dub him the "all-time hit king of professional baseball." Not surprisingly, this provoked immediate backlash, not least from Pete Rose, who with 4256 hits is the all-time hit king in MLB history, and who noted that the caliber of play in the NPB is not the same as it is in the MLB and thus it is not a valid assertion.
While I agree with Rose and other like-minded persons, for our purposes here, look at what that suggests—a redefinition of "baseball" as it relates to the Hall of Fame, which is the problem that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame always faces. The issue isn't whether the Baseball Hall of Fame should expand, which is a valid discussion, but rather that the reason why the Baseball Hall of Fame is so successful is because its parameters are so narrowly defined. Suzuki's hits accrued in NPB fall outside those narrowly defined parameters.
And restricting those parameters even further, not only does a candidate had to have played in the MLB, he had to have played for at least 10 years; furthermore, he doesn't become eligible for the ballot until five years have elapsed since his retirement year.
But playing for at least 10 years does not automatically put a player on the Hall of Fame ballot—the player had to have had a notable enough career to be included on the ballot, which is the ballot that is voted on by the eligible members of the Baseball Writers' Association of American (BBWAA).
Once on the ballot, the player-candidate must receive at least 75 percent of the vote in order to be elected to the Hall of Fame—and he must receive at least five percent of the vote to remain on the ballot. Finally, and barring election or receipt of less than five percent of the vote, the player-candidate may remain on the BBWAA ballot for only 10 years—an even further restriction as that maximum length of time had been reduced from 15 years in 2014. If a player has not been elected to the Hall after 10 years, he is no longer eligible for the Hall unless he is nominated by a veterans committee that may vote him into the Hall with at least 75 percent of its vote.
Talk about restrictive and exclusive: A player who has been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame first had to ascend through multiple levels of competitive play, possibly starting way back in Little League and other youth leagues before playing on high school or college teams, then generally entering the professional minor leagues with their own ascending levels before getting an opportunity to play in the Major Leagues. By that time, only an elite few have managed to make it that far. Then the player must perform well enough to stay in the Majors for at least ten years and earn a spot on a BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot, where he must still satisfy voting criteria just to stay on a ballot, yet still earn enough votes to be elected to the Hall of Fame before ten years have elapsed, at which time, if he is not elected, he might get a second chance on a future veterans committee ballot, which is far from guaranteed.
And to illustrate how exclusive are baseball and football, and to lesser extents hockey and basketball, keep in mind that there are limited opportunities for a player (a "performer") to play in that respective sport. There are 30 teams in MLB, 32 teams in the NFL, 30 teams in the NHL (expanding to 31 for the 2017-18 season), and 30 teams in the NBA. With each sport experiencing widening talent pools, competition for those limited number of roster spots becomes tougher, making it harder to keep a spot and thus establishing a Hall of Fame case.
Contrasting the Sports Halls of Fame with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
If you think that we've wandered far afield from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, remember that our point here is to contrast that Hall with the sports Halls of Fame, not to conflate rock and roll with sports but to illustrate the fundamental differences between how their respective Halls operate. I may have loaded the argument by using the Baseball Hall of Fame, which has the most rigorous (yet transparent) requirements for induction; yet the baseball Hall is considered to be the most prestigious of the sports Halls of Fame not simply because it is the oldest, serving the oldest of the four major team sports, but because it is the most stringent of the Halls.
But all of the sports Halls of Fame share, albeit to different degrees, a crucial fact: By the time each of the Halls prepares to determine inductees, all of them have been pre-screened and selected to be among the elite through the very nature of the endeavor: Within a universal and easily understood definition of the sport, using to a significant extent objective evaluation criteria that can be universally applied, the candidates are drawn from only the top ranks of the sport, and for baseball and football and to a large extent hockey those top ranks are even more narrowly defined.
To put this in the context of the issues facing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, imagine that the Baseball Hall of Fame included candidates from not only baseball at all levels but from sports similar to baseball as they are now all grouped under the catch-all term "baseball." That is what it means not to have a standard definition of baseball. Then imagine that although all the various manifestations of "baseball" generate their own statistics, they cannot be compared to each other equally owing to the varying quality of play. That is what it means not to have objective evaluation criteria that can be applied universally.
In other words, can you imagine a Baseball Hall of Fame in which Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth stand equally with Mike Hessman, the all-time home run leader (433 home runs) in the American minor leagues, and with Buzz Arlett, whose former record Hessman broke by one home run? And although both Hessman and Arlett played some games in the Major Leagues, that isn't a fair comparison. Or is it?
Again we encounter the inherent nature of each endeavor, either sports or rock and roll music, which of course makes it useless to try to compare, or even contrast, them directly as they are so dissimilar. But each uses a Hall of Fame as its mechanism to preserve its history and celebrate its legacy, and to celebrate its legacy, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame uses the same process as do the sports Halls of Fame: Round up a collection of candidates every year, present that ballot of candidates to a panel of voters for their evaluations and decisions, count up the votes, and enshrine those candidates that pass the threshold for induction.
Nominating and Voting Processes for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Let's take a moment to outline how that process works—or doesn't—for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Determining which artists appear on an annual ballot falls to a nominating committee. Not only does the size of this committee vary from year to year, but who the members of the committee are is often an exercise in sleuthing although the team at the Future Rock Legends website does a yeoman service in identifying those members—and it should be no surprise that the nominating committee is weighted heavily with individuals with past or current affiliations with Rolling Stone magazine and thus with Jann Wenner, the driving force behind both that magazine and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, the organization that administrates the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Each member of the nominating committee gets to nominate two or three artists for a preliminary ballot (depending on the source cited), which the committee then winnows down to a manageable ballot of between 15 to 20 candidates, more or less—and you should be getting the idea that not only is the process not clearly defined but that it is not even transparent.
Nevertheless, that ballot is then sent out to the voters, who are industry professionals including "every living Rock Hall inductee," with a potential pool that numbers in the hundreds, again depending on the year and the source. That voting pool in turn casts its ballots, and the candidates with the highest vote totals become the latest Hall inductees, with the class usually numbering five. Or six. Or occasionally seven. Or—guess what? Is this clearly defined too? And do we even get to know what the voting totals for all of the candidates were in a given year?
At least candidates do get elected, but as we have seen, whether those candidates meet anyone's definition of "rock and roll" or anyone's criteria for a "Hall-worthy" candidate is a wide-open question.
By contrast for the sports Halls of Fame, the baseball and football Halls especially, their candidates have already undergone years of rigorous pre-screening before they even join the pool of potential candidates in the top tier of their sport. That is inherent in the endeavor itself, which is premised on competition so that the best keep rising until they reach the top tier. Furthermore, the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame at least keep their charter narrowly focused on that top tier.
Not so with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as rock music, like any musical form, is an aesthetic endeavor that affects the culture that spawns it in ways that cannot be measured—or even predicted. True, hot prospects enter the top tiers of the Big Four team sports every year, and some may succeed while others fail. But even when "phenoms" enter the top tier—Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth—they do not fundamentally change the nature of their sport. Even Babe Ruth, who did revolutionize offensive strategy in baseball by establishing the primacy of the home run, still played a game defined by almost all of the same rules, protocols, and dimensions as when he started, while his innovation, which coincided with the advent of the Live Ball Era of baseball, is nearly a century old now.
The Changing, Variable Nature of "Rock and Roll Music"
On the other hand, rock and roll music is constantly evolving and expanding, pushing into directions that often defy prediction, but when they occur, they execute another quantum leap from the origins of the music, "a type of pop music originating in the 1950s as a blend of rhythm and blues and country and western," as we've seen it defined.
Moreover, an artist does not have to have "played," or have been on the rock-music scene, for very long, or to have even been a "top-tier player," in order to have made an impact significant enough to have altered the course of the music.
Bill Haley and His Comets put rock and roll on the map in the mid-1950s with four Top Ten hits including the immortal "Rock around the Clock," which eventually became a chart-topping single after its use in the 1955 Glenn Ford film Blackboard Jungle, and the song has long been considered a milestone not only in rock and roll history but in pop culture overall. Haley was soon supplanted by Elvis Presley, who supplied the raw sexuality that the cherubic Haley could not, but Haley and his Comets brought rock and roll into the popular consciousness, thus paving the way for Presley. (Haley and various permutations of his band continued to perform as a nostalgia act for many years after their brief heyday, and in fact had begun as a Western swing band in the early 1950s, typifying the "country and western" influence we've seen in definitions of rock music.) Haley was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and in one of those Band-Aid fixes the Hall has tried during its existence, several of his Comets were inducted a quarter-century later, in 2012.
The Sex Pistols were not the first punk band, nor were they even the best, but during their brief mid-1970s existence they managed to crystallize the burgeoning punk revolution with their attitude, behavior, and, not least, with a few signature songs that defined this brash, inchoate rebellion. And in true, albeit predictable, fashion, this Johnny Rotten-led outfit rejected its induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, calling the institution and indeed rock and roll a "piss stain" next to the Sex Pistols. Maybe they were right?
Although it wasn't the first gangsta-rap act, N.W.A. established itself as the definitive one, and in the process it changed the course of hip-hop and by extension "rock and roll" as by the 1988 release of N.W.A.'s album Straight Outta Compton (Ruthless/Priority), hip-hop was indisputably a significant component of popular music. The group, scratching for success prior to the album's release, was soon defunct as its various members, most notably Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, split for solo careers, but during its short span it helped to shape the course of popular music; N.W.A. was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016.
While Bill Haley and His Comets had a long career that predated the "birth" of rock and roll by the mid-1950s, their window of influence was small, coinciding with the phenomenon's initial burst of popularity—which of course they helped to establish—but, as with events in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang, the music began to experience quantum jumps in development very quickly, and their style of rock and roll (or perhaps "rock 'n' roll" as Charlie Gillette would have it) was soon superseded although they continued to play it for years afterward as a popular nostalgia act. On the other hand, the Sex Pistols seemed engineered for quick self-destruction, and N.W.A. also sundered relatively quickly although a couple of its individual members proceeded to have significant (and lengthy) solo careers.
Furthermore, just using these three examples illustrates how much "rock and roll" had evolved in less than four decades, to the point that it is difficult to find any similarities in Bill Haley, the Sex Pistols, or N.W.A. The Sex Pistols, like many punk bands, may have returned to a simpler musical approach—that "heavily accented beat and a simple, repetitive phrase structure" of one of our dictionary definitions above—but they had an abrasiveness, both musical and lyrical, scarcely conceivable in Haley's day. Likewise, N.W.A. had journeyed very far afield from the "soul" and "R&B" of pioneers Ray Charles and even James Brown, whose own musical approach underwent several transformations including early hip-hop.
Bill Haley and His Comets getting wild 'n' woolly in the 1950s as a seminal influence on rock and roll. But how much relation do they have . . .
. . . To N.W.A., a seminal influence on hip-hop nearly four decades later? Do these two acts really belong in the same Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
The point is that although these artists, composed as they were at the time of their critical influence, existed for only a relatively brief time (figuratively speaking for Haley and His Comets), but in that time they effected a change in the course of the music that has lived much longer than the artists did themselves.
Another factor to consider is that unlike the team sports, performing within an endeavor predicated on competition that drives ever-increasing excellence resulting in "performers" who, by the time they ascend to the top tier of their sport, are similarly top-tier players, rock and roll artists do not have to be the "best" in their craft to make a significant impact.
Certainly some level of technical competence is necessary in the overall presentation, although that doesn't mean it has to be the performers—remember Milli Vanilli? Conversely, technically adept performers are not guaranteed to be successful, which only underscores the serendipitous nature of rock and roll—what becomes popular or influential can be a sound, a feeling, a turn of phrase, even an attitude, that cannot be measured or quantified, and that does not have to be among the "best" of its kind, with "best" again being a relative and subjective judgment.
All of which speaks not only to the expansive nature of rock and roll, but also to its emotional and aesthetic essence. At the risk of belaboring this point, we have spent considerable time elaborating differences between the nature of evaluating team sports and the nature of evaluating rock and roll; this is not to contrast, let alone compare, the two endeavors but to illustrate that because each endeavor uses the same mechanism to preserve its history and to celebrate its legacy, a Hall of Fame, the sports Halls of Fame tend to be much more successful at determining legacy because they are restrictive and exclusive (albeit to varying degrees) while the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is expansive and inclusive.
Simply put, the sports Halls of Fame, which, again, have a distinct definition and objective evaluation criteria that can be universally applied, additionally have a much smaller pool of potential candidates from which to draw.
This is not true of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There is no standard definition of "rock and roll." There are no objective evaluation criteria that can be universally applied to its candidates. As the music evolves, the already-expansive definition of "rock and roll" continues to expand, and because the significance of an artist's impact does not necessarily correspond to even broad definitions of technical or artistic "excellence"—recall that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame lists "unquestionable musical excellence" as a mandatory condition but its descriptors are broad and subjective—the range and scope of the candidates under consideration for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are enormous.
Is it any wonder that no one is satisfied with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
And while it is too easy to criticize the Hall for its selections or its non-selections, as people bitch equally about who has been inducted as about who has not been inducted, we should also realize that (with apologies to Shakespeare) the fault lies not in our rock stars but in ourselves.
Biases, Prejudices, and LimitationsAs we noted above, ask 100 persons for a definition of "rock and roll" and you'll get 100 different answers, and those are likely to be examples of artists or even genres that the person considers to be "rock and roll" and not an overall description of "rock and roll" itself. And in fairness, we have explored in detail how expansive and elusive that definition can be.
But that expansiveness pinpoints a fundamental shortcoming: We cannot know all that "rock and roll" entails unless we learn it—and that is no small task. Rock and roll has existed under that label for six decades, and it has evolved, and continues to evolve, all during that time. Unless you are an industry professional, or an amateur whose interest in rock and roll borders on the obsessive, you cannot hope to develop a comprehensive understanding of all that gets grouped under the umbrella of "rock and roll." And if you don't have that understanding, how can you expect to be able to evaluate the current inductees in, or prospective candidates for, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
The short answer is that you can't—which does not stop people from trying. Two common judgments leveled against the Hall are:
- The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sucks because it has inducted Artist A.
- The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sucks because it has not inducted Artist A.
- The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sucks because it has inducted Artist A but not Artist B.
- The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sucks because it has inducted Artist B but not Artist A.
This is an important point because music, perhaps more so than any other art form, engenders a personal, even intimate, relationship with it that arouses great feeling in us. Music touches us deeply.
Some years ago I hosted a "desert island" exercise in my workplace as a fun distraction from the usual grind, asking my colleagues to send me their top ten picks that I collated and distributed back to the department. People were enthusiastic and responsive when it came to favorite movies and television programs, but I noticed that the response for music wasn't as robust.
However, it wasn't because the prospective respondents were not as excited about music—rather, as a few of them admitted to me, music was such a deeply personal subject to them that it was hard for them to compile a list that was meaningful to them or, more typically, they felt reluctant about sharing with others a list that was very meaningful to them. Of course, there were those who couldn't wait to wax rhapsodic about their favorite music, and they did so in grand style. (I was one of those in the latter camp, and I even posted my top ten albums and top ten playlists on this site.)
In either case, though, that depth of feeling individuals have for their music is profound. Not surprisingly, then, that depth of feeling, that passion, gets translated into opinions about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, often in the forms of argument just outlined above.
But look at how daunting it can be to try to formulate opinions about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Rock and roll has no standard definition, and in fact the music keeps evolving and growing, making any definition ever more expansive. There are no objective evaluation criteria that can be applied universally. And because the music has grown so enormously over the last six decades, and seems likely to continue to grow, it is a Herculean task to try to assimilate it all, or at least to develop a strong enough understanding that enables an informed opinion. Yet that doesn't stop individuals from doing so because of the deep emotional bond they have with the music.
Are we doomed? Or, questioning my previous point, is this really our fault? On the latter point, it is not our "fault" in the sense that we have very little direct control over the nominating and voting phases of evaluating candidates for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame beyond having "voted" for them during their careers (or at least the segment of their careers that holds the most significance) by buying the records, going to the concerts, requesting that their songs be played on the radio, and so on.
True, in the last few years, the website for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has held a fan vote for each of the candidates on a given year's ballot. Visitors to the site can vote for up to five candidates, and that is not simply a popularity poll because the candidate who polls the most votes then has a ballot cast for him/her/them in the election. So, fans do have the barest modicum of influence on the election of candidates.
Now, does that influence make an actual difference? On the surface, the answer seems to be no, as it is one vote in a vote that can number in the hundreds. However, we do not know whether that popular vote echoes any consensus among the voting pool, or whether it exerts any influence on the voting pool.
Regarding the former point, whether we are "doomed" because the task of evaluation seems so daunting, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to remedy that—but it is possible to mitigate it.
A few years ago, the Hall's website used to have educational materials designed for teachers' instruction about rock music and the Hall of Fame to students that included material about music appreciation. That material is no longer available, which is unfortunate because it included a glossary of terms that contains some worthwhile definitions.
Among those definitions are those for aesthetic reflection and aesthetic judgment, which provide insight into the evaluation process—and that can prove to be valuable:
Aesthetic reflection: The act of becoming aware of one's own process of understanding and responding to the arts, and of examining how others respond to artistic expression.
Aesthetic judgment: The ability to form and articulate a critical argument based on aesthetic criteria.
Everyone who expresses an opinion on whether an artist belongs in the Hall of Fame follows those two concepts to arrive at that opinion. How well we formulate that opinion is a function of individual bias, prejudice, and limitations, with the correspondingly wide variance both in the range and in the quality of that opinion.
In essence, though, this is a two-stage operation. First, with aesthetic reflection, we sort out why it is that we respond favorably or unfavorably toward a certain form, style, or genre of music, and toward individual artists within those forms, styles, and genres, and even toward individual songs by that artist. Developing a conscious understanding of why we like or dislike different types of music, different artists, and different songs helps toward the next step of then being able to evaluate those types of music and those artists.
However, that is a big next step because that requires us to not only recognize why we like or dislike a musical type or musical artist, but to recognize why someone else may like or dislike a musical type or musical artist—and, more importantly, why that musical type or artist may be significant regardless of how we feel about it. Music appreciation is an intensely emotional experience, and it is overwhelmingly subjective, but it is possible to put our individual judgments into perspective, into a picture of the overall body of rock and roll music, to try to determine the significance of a musical type and a musical artist within that overall picture as the basis for evaluation.
This is the kind of thinking that can help us to evaluate more comprehensively, more thoughtfully, the choices the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has made and is considering making with each year's ballot; this is the kind of thinking that can help us overcome our biases, our prejudices, and our limitations.
However, that still requires us to accept the reality that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is expansive and inclusive, that it encompasses a diverse, even diffuse, body of music that, for better or for worse, has been grouped under an ever-growing umbrella called "rock and roll," and that even if we may have our preconceptions of what we consider to be "rock and roll," it may not match someone else's definition.
That is a tall order, and given the general dissatisfaction with the Hall, it does not promise to be one that is to be overcome any time soon. If anything, as the definition of rock and roll continues to grow, and as more, increasingly diverse artists become eligible for the Hall of Fame, the Hall can only become more expansive and more inclusive.
Does this spell the end of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Can the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Be Fixed?To be sure, many observers, both industry insiders and outsiders, have been aware of the shortcomings afflicting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for many years, and in addition to pinpointing the specific issues touched upon briefly at the top of this article, they have also suggested a number of solutions.
But although these issues and their suggested fixes are valid points, they are ultimately the equivalent of Yossarian—remember him from our earlier analogy?—bandaging Snowden's relatively superficial leg wound while not addressing the more serious—even fatal—abdominal wound concealed by Snowden's flight jacket.
Make no mistake—these observers have made excellent points and, like the bandage to Snowden's leg wound, their solutions can only help. But will they help enough to save the Hall?
Bandaging the Leg Wound
Even though he is a voting member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, music critic Rob Tannenbaum has been very critical of the Hall. In a 2015 article for Billboard, he noted that the Hall's nominating committee "has often been justly criticized for being homogenous," quoting an anonymous former committee member who described it as "too old, too male, too white, too rich" although, ironically, several committee members were dumped in 2006, with one stating that, "I was fired for being too old. That's what I was told."
Tannenbaum returned at the end of 2016 calling the spade an explicit spade: "BOOMERS REVERE BOOMERS" (his all-caps, not mine), although Tannenbaum directs this not at the nominating committee but at the voting body—himself included—noting that "many of these voters are older than the Atlantic Ocean . . . [a]nd by comprising a majority, they control the vote." Going even further in the wake of the 2016 inductions of Chicago, Deep Purple, and Steve Miller, he emailed a member of the nominating committee (of which Tannenbaum is not a member), "Better groups won't get in until you take away voting rights from older, conservative voters," to which the committee member replied, "You nailed it."
Rock writer Rob Tannenbaum has been a vocal critic of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame--and he's one the Rock Hall's many voters!
To redress the problem, Tannenbaum offers two suggestions: One is "to add hundreds of younger voters who don't think music of the '80s and '90s is crass and distasteful," although he cautions that:
"[D]oing so would probably contradict the Boomer music canon Rolling Stone created and perpetuates. If Chic is as good as Deep Purple, then the magazine's long dislike of disco (and, broadly, Top 40 pop) might seem, in retrospect, dubious. What if all the great music wasn't made in the '60s? What if Sgt. Pepper isn't the greatest rock album ever made?"
Echoing Tannenbaum's point is Jillian Mapes, whose "adapt or die" Millennial perspective sees "Baby-boomer favorites historically [receiving] the rock and roll glory, and young music lovers were left to feel like all the great, big changes in rock and roll had come and gone by the time they showed up."
Mapes, a Northeast Ohio native with some affection for the Cleveland-based Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, thinks that the Hall will become relevant to post-Boomer generations as their artists become eligible—she quotes a Generation X colleague's offhand observation upon Nirvana's induction into the Hall: "Oh, I guess I have to care now"—but in order to achieve that, the Hall must recognize "the divergent path taken by popular music in response to the rise of Internet culture. The nomination committee needs to accept two things throughout next two decades: genre terms ain't nothing but marketing tools, and that influential-but-not-popular bands did—and will continue to—change popular music." (This point is echoed above in our observation about the Velvet Underground.)
Tannenbaum's second suggestion is to eliminate the voting pool altogether and leave that to the nominating committee, which even Jann Wenner conceded "is a more educated, elite and sophisticated group of people. The broader voters are more like me—I loved a certain period of music, but I'm not deeply committed to knowing everything that's going on."
Recall how we noted that as rock and roll continues to evolve, it requires a greater effort to keep up? That, unless you are an industry professional or an obsessive amateur, your understanding—your aesthetic reflection and aesthetic judgment—will be defined by your biases, prejudices, and limitations? That appears to afflict the very voting body of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Another item to recall with respect to the voting body is that many of that body are current members of the Hall of Fame. Given the 25-year eligibility period before a candidate can be put onto a ballot, that usually puts the candidate into middle age by the time he or she becomes an inductee, thus aligning with the "older, more conservative voters" mentioned by Tannenbaum—and thus perpetuating the age bias he alleges is causing issues with the Hall.
In addition, having inducted members of the Hall as voters may reinforce an insularity that other Halls of Fame try to mitigate. For example, the Baseball Hall of Fame maintains two separate voting pools: The first pool comprises the voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA), often referred to simply as the "writers," who vote exclusively on recently retired players. The second pool, for what I'll call generically the veterans committee, closely resembles the voting pool for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—current Hall of Famers and baseball industry insiders including media figures, historians, and executives.
The baseball veterans committee evaluates all non-players (including owners and executives, umpires, and "baseball pioneers") as well as players who typically have been on the writers' ballot without gaining election to the Hall. While there have been historical instances of veterans committees electing players whose credentials have been substandard compared to players elected by the writers (and, overall, the writers' selections have been more judicious and discerning than have the veterans committees'), recent veterans committees have demonstrated a marked parsimony with respect to players.
By contrast, the voting pool of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seems to be an amalgam of the "writers," the "industry insiders," and the "current Hall of Famers," and because of the lack of transparency into the voting process—an issue we will turn to shortly—it is difficult if not impossible to determine how each voting bloc is influencing the outcomes. But in addition to pinning the blame on Baby Boomers (I'll forego the all-caps here), Tannenbaum's suggested fix of having a nominating committee-like body perform the voting seems analogous to baseball's veterans committee.
But along with a Boomer bias, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's nominating committee also has a gender bias. For example, the 2015 committee, comprising 41 members, had only six women members (as well as only seven persons of color). That in turn has influenced which artists get listed on a Hall of Fame ballot put before the voters.
So, while Courtney E. Smith, author of Record Collecting for Girls, is enthusiastic about the next decade delivering "a huge number of important female artists from the '90s [who] will become eligible for recognition," citing Hole, Björk, Mary J. Blige, Sheryl Crow, Queen Latifah, Bikini Kill, Alanis Morissette, Mariah Carey, and Liz Phair, among others, she warns that "[i]n order to actually have a female-friendly decade, however, the Hall of Fame has to acknowledge that it has a woman problem," noting that as of the 2016 vote "[a]pparently only 37 female performers and bands with women meet those criteria [the Hall of Fame has listed as critical to induction]," adding that "[z]ero of the executives, managers, and producers inducted have been women. Only one woman, Carole King, has been inducted for her songwriting," and King, who was inducted in 1990 as a non-performer, was inducted along with her songwriting partner, former husband Gerry Goffin. (Smith's article cited here was published before Joan Baez was inducted into the Hall in 2017, raising the number of female inductees to 38.)
Smith's contention is seconded by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, who perhaps more stridently calls out the Hall's inherent sexism, noting that "though the museum’s nominating committee generally includes at least a handful of women for voters to choose from, a look at how few women are ever chosen reeks of a kind of tokenism." And why this tokenism exists stems from the composition of both the nominating committee and the voting body, as Tannenbaum outlined with respect to Baby Boomer bias.
But Smith goes further, not just calling out the gender and age bias but also the race bias. She cites the Hall of Fame's own website as stating that the voting body contains a high proportion of Hall of Fame inductees "who are largely straight white dudes." Their conception of rock, Smith goes on by quoting freelance music critic Maura Johnston, is "coded to mean straight white male. It's meant to encompass people who espouse ideals of masculinity." Then to buttress her point, Smith uses the case of disco pioneers Chic, having been nominated an unprecedented 11 times without election, as an exemplar of this straight white male bias: "Like most disco artists, and the pop artists who would follow in disco's musical footsteps in the '80s and '90s, [Chic] 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."
Like Tannenbaum, Smith recommends changes to the voting pool, widening it to include voters under age 45, women, and minorities. She notes that this is already underway, citing the addition in 2013 of guitarist Tom Morello, a veteran of hard rock/heavy metal outfits Audioslave and Rage Against the Machine, to the nominating committee, which may have spurred the subsequent invitations to hard rock/heavy metal journalists such as Katherine Turman to become Hall voters.
However, Smith cautions that even if someone such as Morello, who as an African-American also increases the nominating committee's diversity, had helped to widen the Hall's scope—Tannenbaum notes that one of Morello's first acts was a "rant" in favor of Kiss, which was then voted to the Hall of Fame in 2014—heavy metal, characterized by Smith as "the dumber, more commercial little brother/offshoot of mainstream rock," nevertheless still "plays into the male-dominated narrative the Rock Hall is writing."
To redress the imbalance, Smith offers a variety of music-industry professionals who could help the nominating committee evaluate and promote "previously overlooked but female-heavy genres like mainstream pop, much synth-based music from the '80s, and singer-songwriters." She suggests media executives such as former MTV president Judy McGrath and label executives Megan Jasper (Sub Pop Records), Sylvia Rhone (Epic Records), and Julie Greenwald (Atlantic Records); former artist managers Sharon Osbourne and Mona Scott-Young; musicians Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney), Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth), and St. Vincent; and songwriters Linda Perry, Cathy Dennis, Diane Warren, and Esther Dean, among others, as worthy additions to the nominating committee—"demonstrat[ing] that it is easily possible to find enough women who are knowledgeable about and interested in the history of music."
Author Courtney E. Smith calls for the Rock Hall to redress its gender bias.
And rather than indulge in the fashionable disdain for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Smith concludes with a trenchant rationale for its purpose:
"The reason this representation matters is that defining the canon is genuinely important. We already look back on past inductees as the most important people in the history of music, from Madonna to James Brown to Bob Dylan. . . . Making a point to induct more of the distinguished and deserving women in the history of music, and to give serious consideration to the multitudes of deserving women in rock who are about to become eligible for induction (and who make up much more than 11 percent of the possibilities), would be a huge step in the direction of equal representation in this venerable institution."
You almost have to admire Courtney Smith for describing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a "venerable institution" considering that even Hall of Fame inductees such as Steve Miller and Gene Simmons of Kiss have castigated the very "venerable institution" that lauded them, following in the footsteps of the Sex Pistols and their infamous description of the Hall as a "piss stain."
Yet even Miller's notorious rant:
"[I]f the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame wants to be taken seriously, they need to put their books out in the public. They need to fucking become transparent. They need to stop lying. They need to stop all the bullshit and they need to clean it up and they need to expand it. They need to include a lot more people. And the most important thing is the fucking board of this organization really needs to enlarge their gene pool" [emphasis added].
contains a cogent point regarding transparency: There is none.
We glean that the nominating committee gets to advance three candidates for the ballot, one of which may make the final ballot. We may glean who is on the committee. And we know which candidates on the ballot are elected to the Hall of Fame—however, we do not know what the total votes cast were for those inductees, let alone how many votes were cast for the candidates who were not elected. Another aspect I have been unable to determine is whether a voter is limited in the number of candidates he or she can vote for. As even Jon Landau, the nominating committee chair, admitted in 2011, "We’ve done a good job of keeping the proceedings nontransparent. It all dies in the room."
Contrast this with the Baseball Hall of Fame, which releases the vote totals for all candidates on any given Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA) ballot, and has not only begun to release the names of all those who voted, but will begin to release how each voter voted starting with the 2018 BBWAA ballot. While that last requirement may indicate too much transparency—witness the brief but spirited witch hunt to find the three BBWAA voters who did not vote for Ken Griffey, Jr., on the 2016 ballot, thus denying him a first-ever unanimous vote—it does help to make the Baseball Hall of Fame a more "venerable institution." (There is also a high degree of transparency in the veterans committee voting process: The voting members of any committee are disclosed, as are the number of votes each candidate received.) Furthermore, the BBWAA ballot is clearly defined: A voter can cast only one vote each for a maximum of ten candidates.
Many of the Baseball Hall of Fame's policies and processes could--and should--be applied to address the Rock Hall's fundamental issues.
Making the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination and voting processes more transparent is a necessary step to demonstrate the integrity of the institution, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, that has appointed itself the arbiter of the legacy of music from the Rock and Soul Era. Furthermore, a simple release of the percent of votes cast for each candidate is basic protocol for any election whether for a candidate for the Baseball Hall of Fame or for President of the United States—why does the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame consider this classified information? As the man once sang, "It's only rock 'n' roll, but I like it." The fundamental interest fans have in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is to see the artists they like inducted—why not show how close those artists are coming to that goal?
Yes, transparency is a good idea. So is enlarging the "gene pool" of both the nominating committee and the voting body to mitigate the biases of age, class, race, and gender. But they are still fixes to the "leg wound," to the secondary issues afflicting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and they do not fix the "abdominal wound" that are the primary issues that the Hall faces. They do not address those fundamental issues, which are that there is no standard definition of "rock and roll," there are no objective evaluation criteria that can be universally applied, and because of that, the Hall is expansive and inclusive in contrast to the Big Four sports Halls of Fame, which tend to be restrictive and exclusive; thus, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in essence a patchwork bucket that largely reflects the current Baby Boomer, white-male-dominant bias.
Can the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame repair those issues? Not with the fixes that have been proposed thus far. Again, they are all worthy proposals, and implementing them will help to ameliorate the current situation, but they cannot fix the fundamental issues.
So, can those fundamental issues be fixed?
Fixing the Fundamental IssuesLet's face it: Fixing the fundamental issues afflicting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame requires some radical solutions. Increasing transparency and widening participation to include more women, persons of color, and younger men and women bandage the leg wound but they don't address the gaping abdominal wound that will ultimately kill the Hall. We need to think big.
Changes to current voting protocols would entail much more than simply disclosing vote totals, who the voters were, and even how they voted. The following two proposals address voters.
A People's Ballot. Currently, the Hall allows the public one collective vote based on online polling to determine which candidate would receive that vote, so why not allow the general public to cast individual ballots containing all the candidates? As Rob Tannenbaum, a rock journalist and voting member of the Hall, revealed, the Hall's voting body is subject to the same biases, prejudices, and limitations as everyone else, so the average fan would seem to be as qualified as any "industry professional." Additionally, direct voting could suppress the universal complaining about the Hall's choices now that fans have an influence on who gets elected—they cannot blame it on others.
Fan voting already plays a significant role in all-star game selections for the Big Four team sports. Granted, that input is for an exhibition game during a single season and not Hall of Fame enshrinement for a career's accomplishment, a critical distinction although, as we have been stressing throughout, with no standard definition and universally applicable objective evaluation criteria, your idea of "unquestionable musical excellence" is as good as anyone else's.
Weighting the public vote can be variable if used in conjunction with the current process, or the Hall can get radical and use it to replace the current process.
A Blue-Ribbon Ballot. At the other end of the spectrum, and as suggested by Tannenbaum, voting may best be done by a body that is qualified to vote on the candidates. A blue-ribbon panel comprising industry experts decides who gets into the Hall of Fame, whether through the two-stage process currently in place, in which case the panel votes on a ballot assembled by a nominating committee, or simply by assembling that ballot itself and then either voting to elect or subset of candidates or adopting it whole. (This idea is echoed in the Eliminate Voting section below.)
Amidst the cries of elitism, note that Tannenbaum did state, writing in December 2016, "Let the 'educated, elite, and sophisticated' nominating committee make the final decisions. . . . Elites make better voting choices than the general public, as we’ve already seen this year, in a far less harmless election."
Ballot and Process Revisions
Apart from the 25-year eligibility period, and that the nominating committee selects a new slate of candidates every year, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to which candidates get on a ballot. Some artists who have been eligible for years, even decades, have yet to appear on a ballot while others appear in their first year of eligibility.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame could take a few pointers from the Baseball Hall of Fame. Some of these suggestions are inspired, wholly or in part, from that Hall.
Rolling Ballot. Deal with what is in front of you and don't re-invent the wheel every year. A rolling ballot, one on which artists remain on the ballot year after year until they are voted in, voted off, or reach a maximum time limit for consideration, can help to control the flow of candidates for consideration. This option, and all the components of this option listed below, can be reinterpreted and reconfigured, so the following is just one scenario.
— Determine ballot candidates. This can be the function of the nominating committee. This can also be automated in the sense that all artists who reach the 25-year eligibility criterion are automatically put onto the ballot. (This is also referenced in the Eliminate Voting Section below.)
Given the huge number of artists technically eligible based on that criterion, a number that will only increase every year, some pre-screening is essential. The nominating committee can do this, or if the volume is simply too great, then a pre-screening committee can begin the process, which then further winnows the candidates at each level, first the nominating committee, then the voting body. Pre-screening adds another layer of bureaucracy, and of bias, but the current process, at least to the outsider, appear chaotic, arbitrary, and biased already—so what have we got to lose?
Other alternatives are possible, but the point here is to introduce a system of order based on the only quantifiable criterion the Hall has, the 25-year eligibility rule, in an attempt to establish a process that gives candidates an equitable chance for consideration.
— Determine ballot criteria. As is done with the BBWAA ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame, establish the criteria for the minimum percentage of votes a candidate must receive to be inducted into the Hall and the minimum necessary to remain on a ballot, and the maximum number of years a candidate can remain on the ballot.
Keep in mind that almost any remedy is going to encounter the 200-ton elephant in the room, which is the immense logjam of candidates to be evaluated; as we have stressed all along, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is expansive and inclusive. But, again, some sense of logic and order to facilitate that evaluation is vital to giving the candidates a fair hearing.
Furthermore, it gives the voting body, whatever that might look like, a semblance of order—and of being better able to make those evaluations. As it stands now, voters get a different ballot every year, with artists appearing and re-appearing with little notice—and little time to make evaluations. A rolling ballot that at least has some candidates whom voters know will appear gives voters time to "build the case" for an artist, whether yea or nay, while at least knowing which artists have reached their 25-year eligibility and could appear on the next ballot allows for some focused preparation.
Additionally, knowing which candidates are not going to be on an upcoming ballot, whether they fell below the minimum threshold of votes or reached the maximum time allotted on the ballot, also helps to focus evaluations. Artists who do fall off the ballot do not have to lose their opportunity to enter the Hall of Fame forever. As with the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame can establish a body similar to the veterans committee to re-evaluate artists once they have had their chance on the initial ballot; this is discussed below.
— Determine ballot categories. Another method to divide and conquer could be to simply do that: Instead of lumping all candidates onto one ballot, that ballot can be divided into separate musical categories. The purpose here could be as simple as organizing the ballot more coherently for the voter, or as complex as mandating voting restrictions and requirements for artists who appear under a particular category.
Don't worry, the word "quota" popped into my head too, and I acknowledge that this could be a controversial approach, one that suggests preferential treatment or else presages the "Balkanization" described below. Furthermore, given how hybrid and polyglot "rock" music has become, can you assign some artists to just one category? And aren't we returning to the fundamental issue of trying to define "rock and roll"?
One radical solution is to eliminate voting altogether: When an artist reaches the end of the 25-year waiting period, that artist is automatically inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Wait a minute. Just how quickly will the Hall grow so large as to be meaningless?
That's my point: The Hall of Fame as it stands now may be a fool's errand, and those who try to make a case for why an artist should or should not be in the Hall are fools—myself very much included. Let's repeat the mantra: No standard definition, no universally applicable objective evaluation criteria, and a constantly-evolving music means an ever-more expansive and inclusive Hall.
So why not just automatically induct an artist after 25-years? That will shut up all those tiresome complaints about how the Hall of Fame sucks because Artist A, the one I hate, is in the Hall but Artist B, the one I love, is not. Just wait—Artist B will get in.
Oh, but we must have some standards, shouldn't we? After all, countless artists managed to release at least one recording, no matter how obscure—am I saying that simply doing that makes them a Hall of Fame-caliber artist?
Well, perhaps not, but my seeming facetiousness again underscores how difficult it is to determine that threshold of legacy for the teeming multitudes of artists who do not land at either end of the long spectrum between a certain yes and a certain no. It is tough to argue that the Who doesn't belong in the Hall or that Keith Moon, solely on the basis of his solo output, does. But what about Pete Townshend as a solo artist? Or even Roger Daltrey?
So, in all seriousness, pre-screening is still essential to narrow the field, not just for the sake of manageability but to establish some standard that reflects "unquestionable musical excellence." And whether that pre-screening yields a ballot based on an elite or popular consensus, let that be the incoming class for that particular year. Don't bother voting on that ballot—that's like trying to select the raindrops you want to dodge during a deluge. Instead of a handful of artists, it will yield an armload, which may more accurately reflect the reality of "rock and roll," to which we turn now.
Break Up the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
No, I don't mean eliminating the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—although that is one method to remedy all the fundamental issues permanently. But given how the music evolves and grows ever-more expansive, the Hall must acknowledge that its forms and genres have developed lives of their own, lives that have outgrown the initial conception of both the music initially termed "rock and roll" and the Hall of Fame created to preserve that legacy; they have become too large to be contained under its original umbrella.
This option suggests "Balkanization," or the fragmenting of an entity into its components that may no longer have any relation to each other. The term derives from the many states and regions in the Balkan Peninsula of Europe that have at various times have been banded together or broken apart, often with great resentment and hostility—the most recent example being the tragic break-up of Yugoslavia following the demise of the Cold War, which resulted in intense hatred, bitter fighting, and war crimes that culminated with genocide.
Rock and roll hasn't reached that point yet—although the vehemence with which some insist that hip-hop has nothing to do with rock and roll, and thus has no place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, may suggest otherwise. However, that does indicate how broad the music has become, and how our biases, prejudices, and limitations can hamper our understanding of the music's expansiveness.
What I'm suggesting is not the divisiveness of Balkanization but rather the expansiveness and inclusiveness of the Smithsonian Institution, which comprises 19 separate museums and galleries, and which in turn reflect the many facets of American history and culture. No one museum can possibly hope to accomplish that—it takes a series of them, from the National Air and Space Museum to the National Museum of Natural History to the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, to do that justice.
The Smithsonian Institution's many museums and galleries offer a
solution to the Rock Hall's ever-growing expansiveness.
Similarly, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame can have its component Halls of Fame, not just based on forms and genres—the Heavy Metal Hall of Fame, the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame, the Electronica Hall of Fame, and so on—but it may be time to begin breaking up the Rock and Soul Era by periods. Rock and roll has existed under that name for six decades now, and the evolution of the music has been staggering. Recall how we cited Bill Haley and His Comets, the Sex Pistols, and N.W.A. above—can they really be grouped under an umbrella term of "rock and roll" that is truly meaningful other than to demonstrate how much the initial conception has evolved? The music has a history that deserves to be celebrated, but to grasp it and make its evolution understandable requires some historical divisions—not to separate them but to give them their proper emphasis.
All the component Halls can undertake similar voting processes that the original Hall used. Again, the purpose is to give them their proper emphasis while not forgetting that they have all occurred under the overarching, continually-expanding term of rock and roll.
"Rock and Roll, Parts 1 and 2"
On the other hand, Balkanization may be just what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame needs. By that I mean acknowledging that the music has evolved to the point that the earliest rock and soul seems nearly unrecognizable to contemporary ears. The Hall is currently dealing with now-eligible artists whose careers began in the 1990s, during a time that many critics and observers are now considering to be "post-rock," a time when the original perceptions of rock and roll (or rock and soul) lost their relevance because the music has evolved so completely from its initial conception.
In other words, it is time to break from the distant past and start anew for the future.
So, for all the Baby Boomers whom Tannenbaum calls "older than the Atlantic Ocean," they can have their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the one that corresponds to Time-Life infomercials on late-night cable and reunion shows by artists from decades past organized by your local PBS station when it needs to raise money. And then Gen Xers and Millennials, who Jillian Mapes noted now "have to care" because Nirvana was inducted into the Hall, can have their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in which "Buddy Holly" is just a song of winking nostalgia by Weezer, who had better be elected when they become eligible in 2019—unless another of those damned Boomer dinosaurs such as Styx or Kansas gets in first.
Addressing the questions of history and legacy, and borrowing yet again from the Baseball Hall of Fame, a "veterans committee" can be established to re-evaluate artists, particularly ones whose 25-year eligibility threshold has long since been crossed, who have either struck out on previous ballots or have yet to appear on a ballot.
This gives artists a second chance, while we note that a "veterans committee" option would be best suited to the rolling-ballot option described above, in which candidates enter and exit an initial ballot in some kind of sequential or chronological order, thus justifying this "second look" once they've had that initial chance on the rolling ballot.
As with the Baseball Hall, a Rock Hall "veterans committee" would best compose a small group of experts, which simply means anyone with the knowledge and perspective suited to the task of considered evaluation. How do you define that? You tell me—the current Hall cannot even comprehensively define "unquestionable musical excellence."
"Under New Management"
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation is a private enterprise, a self-appointed arbiter of the legacy of the Rock and Soul Era, and perception of its control under Jann Wenner and those who, past and present, have served in his Rolling Stone empire has reached the levels of conspiracy theorizing associated with the Trilateral Commission, the Illuminati, MJ-12, the Sovereign Order of the Knights of Malta, the Elders of Zion, and just about any nefarious plot advanced by the likes of Alex Jones.
In fact, there is some truth to that, as there is in the allegation that the annual vote is really just a pretense to the actual induction ceremony, at which attendees pay a handsome price to eat rubber chicken as they watch the inductees perform. Moreover, there is little argument, even from Hall voters themselves (e.g., Rob Tannenbaum), that the tastes and influences—read: biases, prejudices, and limitations—of Foundation keystones such as former director Suzan Evans, nominating committee chair Jon Landau, and rock critic Dave Marsh have shaped what has become a canon. And as Courtney E. Smith has noted, "defining the canon is genuinely important. We already look back on past inductees as the most important people in the history of music, from Madonna to James Brown to Bob Dylan."
It may very well be time to put the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame under new management, to remove the Boomer bias shaped by Rolling Stone. But will it be a case of "meet the new boss, same as the old boss"?
And could that sea change address the fundamental issues of no standard definition of rock and roll, no objective evaluation criteria that can be universally applied, and, because of the very evolutionary nature of the music, a candidate pool that grows ever-more expansive and inclusive?
Most if not all of these fundamental fixes would entail significant expenditures of time, money, and effort to implement. There are no Band-Aid fixes except to try to improve the existing process, which is fundamentally flawed and will not be repaired no matter how many Band-Aids you put on the wound—this is after all the "leg wound," which might eventually kill the Hall, and not the abdominal wound, which will surely kill the Hall sooner rather than later.
Perhaps "kill" is too strong a word, implying that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame might simply cease to exist. It is likely that the Hall will continue to function, and continue to elect performers annually, for some time to come.
But it is equally likely that it will do so with greater irrelevance to industry insiders, including the very performers it inducts (viz. Steve Miller and Kiss's Gene Simmons), music professionals, and, most importantly, music fans, who will continue to bitch about whom the Hall does or does not elect, slagging the institution as an insider fix, a sham, labeling it a "Hall of Shame," a "Hall of Lame," as they continue to see [fill in the blank with your favorite artist not yet inducted] "snubbed," a word that shoots from the tongue with a sneer worthy of Johnny Rotten.
Is There Hope?Yes, there is hope: I think the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame can be saved, but it will take a combination of the fundamental fixes and "Band Aid" fixes outlined above:
"Smithsonian Institution." Whether it is a physical or virtual restructuring, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame must expand to encompass the tremendous growth and development of popular music since the mid-1950s, what I refer to rather inadequately as the Rock and Soul Era. Musical forms and genres such as hip-hop and heavy metal have spawned their own domains under the blanket term of "rock and roll," domains that have become too expansive to be managed by the Hall in its current state. A series of federated Halls of Fame similar to the many museums and galleries administered by the Smithsonian Institution can accommodate the current musical explosion that will only continue to grow in the years and decades to come.
Ballot Structure and Protocol. To adequately process the enormous number of potential candidates, more of whom are added every year, the Hall must institute a formal ballot structure and protocol to standardize the voting process. This would entail:
— Ballot criteria: Minimum voting percentage required to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, minimum voting percentage required to remain on a ballot, and the maximum number of years a candidate can remain on a ballot.
— Eligibility efficiency: Once candidates have met the 25-year eligibility period, they are put on the ballot. Given the tremendous volume, this will need to be staggered, or else refined through either a pre-screening or runoff process, but the haphazard, arbitrary method currently in place is chaotic and inefficient. Fans and voters—not to mention most especially the performers themselves—need to know that there is a standardized, ordered process in place instead of the current arbitrary, haphazard crapshoot.
— "Veterans committee" re-evaluation: A candidate who fails to gain election on the initial ballot process can be re-evaluated for induction at a future time. Given the tremendous throughput of an expansive, inclusive Hall of Fame, it is inevitable that the "ballot logjam" will eliminate candidates who may be otherwise worthy. Performance on that ballot can be used to select candidates for a re-evaluation committee, which could comprise the "educated, elite and sophisticated group of people" Jann Wenner and Rob Tannenbaum concede are better qualified to do this evaluation—although, noting the recommendations of Tannenbaum, Courtney E. Smith, and others, this must include a diverse membership and not just the white guys who are "older than the Atlantic Ocean."
— Nominating and voting transparency: Jon Landau's acknowledgement that the Hall does a good job of keeping the proceedings nontransparent and that "it all dies in the room" itself has to die. This is not national security. This is determining legacy for music of the Rock and Soul Era, a component of pop culture—and the acknowledgement of non-transparency is a tacit admission that the Hall is gaming the selections to reflect its conception of the legacy, the canon that is defining who is historically important. Making the balloting statistics public must be a standard practice. It is certainly a common-sense one—unless you're hiding something.
New Stewardship of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation as it stands now must go. If the Hall does expand to a "Smithsonian Institution" model, those administrative requirements will exceed the current capacity, and with the popular perception that the Foundation is running a rigged game, it is standard public relations strategy to make those top-down changes to restore confidence in the system.
Does It Matter?But even if the fundamental fixes outlined above, or some other in-scope alternative, are implemented, does it even matter? When even those inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bite the hand that feeds them by castigating the very institution that has enshrined them (which in any event may be a very rock and roll attitude), does the Hall hold any relevance? Particularly as the Hall begins to mirror how diffuse, diverse, expansive, and inclusive popular music has become.
That is the issue I have been wrestling with for some time. When I first learned in the early 1990s that there was such an institution as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, quite frankly, my first impression was: That seems pretty cheesy. Familiar with the Halls of Fame for the Big Four American sports, I thought of them as being "establishment," and like millions of people, I had the impression that rock and roll was anti-establishment, and wasn't a Hall of Fame for rock music an admission that it was now just part of the "establishment"?
Perceptions change as we grow older, runs the conventional wisdom, and mine certainly have. Part of that involved my continuing interest not just in music but, as someone with a corresponding interest in history and the social sciences, how that music reflects society overall.
For this website, I had written a series of "audits" of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, evaluations of the performers inducted from 1986 to 2013:
— Part 1 covers inductions from 1986 to 1990
— Part 2 covers inductions from 1991 to 1995
— Part 3 covers inductions from 1996 to 2000
— Part 4 covers inductions from 2001 to 2005
— Part 5 covers inductions from 2006 to 2010
— Part 6 covers inductions from 2011 to 2013
Overall, it was an enlightening experience, if only to challenge my biases, prejudices, and limitations. I began with an initial sorting of the inductees into three "buckets": Yes, Borderline Yes, and No. (A "Borderline Yes" simply indicates that there may be contention concerning inclusion and thus a case should be made to support that inclusion.)
As I began to investigate each case, I found myself moving specific inductees from one bucket to another—generally from a "No" to either of the "Yeses." Two examples are Leonard Cohen and Brenda Lee, whose bodies of work I was admittedly unfamiliar with—a clear case of "limitations"—until I actually began to listen to their output and research their careers. In the case of Guns 'N Roses, whom I'd not considered Hall-worthy because of a short career and limited output ("bias"), I realized that its impact and influence outweighed its relatively brief career. Meanwhile, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whom with the exception of bassist Flea I'd never considered musically or technically proficient ("prejudice"), nevertheless had an impact and influence that exceeded their perceived shortcomings—and as we have been stressing all along, with no objective evaluation criteria that can be universally measured, what is the yardstick to measure that? There is none.
Nevertheless, my overall approach still entailed an expansive view of the music. To me, it seems perfectly logical to include Madonna, Bob Marley, and Miles Davis in the Hall even though none of them resemble the old white guy's conception of "rock and roll."
And yet I also held the perception of the "small hall," of needing to establish a baseline, or threshold, of "unquestionable musical excellence" that neither the Hall could define nor myself even in the five Defining Factors I have cited above. Thus, I found myself genuinely agonizing over whether I would include either LaVern Baker or Ruth Brown in the Hall—but because of my "small-hall" perception, I could not have both. In the end, I gave the thumbs-up to Baker, reasoning that she had the technically and aesthetically "better" voice, even though Baker was always reluctant to sing "rock and roll"—and even knowing that Atlantic Records, the supremely influential label for whom Brown recorded, was known as "the house that Ruth built."
Similarly, I gave the thumbs-up to Brenda Lee but not to Dusty Springfield, largely because she wasn't as popular in the United States as she had been in Britain, and because her critical and commercial success had waned by the 1970s—and, again, doing so even though I knew that in their Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden of New Musical Express claimed that Springfield "was the best female rock singer Britain ever produced." Granted, my edition of their book was published in 1977, so the "ever" part could be challenged now, but she had already established a legacy—and don't think I don't feel the daggers of foolishness and regret every time I hear Dusty unleash "Brand New Me" or "Mama's Little Girl."
The final irony is that, when I tabulated all the audits, I concluded that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame got it right about 75 percent of the time. That's a passing grade, a solid "C," perhaps not a gold star—but hardly terrible enough to label it a "Hall of Shame" or a "Hall of Lame." And as I've just suggested, that "grade" could go up as I would now include Ruth Brown, Dusty Springfield, and others such as Buddy Guy as being "valid" inductees.
Of course, that's just my perception of the Hall's inductees (at least up to 2013). Your mileage may vary. Everybody's mileage may vary because we are all shaped by our biases, prejudices, and limitations, and to repeat the mantra yet again: There is no standard definition of "rock and roll," there are no objective evaluation criteria that can be universally applied, and a constantly-evolving music means an ever-more expansive and inclusive Hall. And as I reflect on that exercise now, I believe that not only was the attempt to cast a wide net but yet maintain a "small hall" attitude a fool's errand, but it was as arbitrary as the efforts of the Hall itself.
But even if those fundamental issues are addressed in a fundamental manner as outlined above, we are likely to have a Hall of Fame that is so sprawling as to be meaningless. A "Smithsonian Institution" approach can mitigate some of that. Using the existing Smithsonian as an example, if all you care about is airplanes and space exploration, you go to the National Air and Space Museum and don't bother with the National Museum of Natural History, or any of the other affiliated institutions. Similarly, if you are a metal fan, you care about what happens at the Heavy Metal Hall of Fame and ignore others, such as the Singer-Songwriters Hall of Fame or Hip-Hop Hall of Fame. (All currently hypothetical Halls, of course.)
But can you accept that those other Halls of Fame are all part of the larger Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? If you can, then we have a Smithsonian Institution model in which we have an overarching concept of popular music since the 1950s, one in which you might not be interested in other forms and genres but you accept that they are all part of this larger, ever-expanding body.
If you cannot, then we have Balkanization, in which that popular music has splintered into component factions that are at best indifferent and at worst antithetical to each other. (And I will note only in passing another huge bias heretofore unmentioned: I have been speaking only about the "rock and roll" associated with the West, meaning Europe, English-speaking North America, and Australia and New Zealand. What to do about "rock and roll" in Africa, Asia, and Latin America? That would require a United Nations model!)
In either case, does it matter?
Since 2013, I have been posting my ballot assessment for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I did not post one for the 2017 ballot, partly because of outside issues, but largely because I found it harder to expend time and effort on what I was coming to realize was a meaningless exercise.
Not meaningless in the sense that I no longer considered whether any given artist should or should not be in the Hall; indeed, I had started the assessment, but then decided that it was meaningless because of the fundamental issues with the Hall that form the core of this article. In fact, I had written about that as the preamble to the ballot assessment, and I wound up scrapping the ballot assessment—which, as the ramifications of the fundamental issues became more salient to me, seemed like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic—and expanding the preamble into this article instead.
The question remains: Does it matter?
In the largest sense, yes, it does. As Courtney E. Smith noted, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for better or for worse, has begun to establish a canon for the era around which it was founded. This canon, exemplified by the inductees in the Hall, shapes our perceptions of the music of the era and leads to the reactions of fans exemplified by innumerable examples of "the Hall of Fame sucks because Artist A [the artist I hate] is in but the Artist B [the artist I love] is not."
And with each succeeding year that makes new artists eligible for the Hall, fans indifferent to older acts start to become engaged—witness Jillian Mapes's Gen X colleague who now seemingly "has to care" because Nirvana was inducted—thus adding to that canon, no matter how skewed or slanted that canon may appear.
Music is an intensely emotional and intimate experience, one that stays with us throughout our lives, especially the music that moved us in our formative years of childhood through young adulthood. This is the wellspring for the depth of feeling people have when it comes to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the artists it inducts, or does not induct.
So, in that sense it matters as well: The Hall is an embodiment of that individual and collective experience, no matter how fundamentally flawed is that embodiment. We have examined why the Hall is fundamentally flawed, and what fundamental fixes could try to remedy those flaws. "Try" is the operative word as there may not be a fix for an entity, "rock and roll," that (one last time) has no standard definition, no objective evaluation criteria that can be universally applied, and that continues to evolve, making "rock and roll" ever more expansive and inclusive.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has its biases, prejudices, and limitations. So do we. And while we can suggest, even demand, fixes both major and minor to the Hall, we also need to make those fixes to ourselves.
Can you overcome your biases, prejudices, and limitations to accept that your definition of "rock and roll" in all likelihood does not match anyone else's? Can you use aesthetic reflection and aesthetic judgment to accept that artists you do not like, or that you think are not "rock and roll," may in fact be worthy enough to be added to the canon? Above all, can you accept that even if you can accept the last two conditions, that ultimately the endeavor of trying to define a canon through the Hall of Fame process, even with fundamental fixes applied, may indeed be a fool's errand because the scope is too broad and expansive?
If your answers are "yes," then we may have a "Smithsonian Institution" outcome, which is not a perfect solution but at least it recognizes the daunting gamut of the endeavor and tries to accommodate its enormous scope. But if your answers are "no," then we have "Balkanization," and what had been initially labeled "rock and roll" has splintered into the various factions that were created and developed following the Big Bang of Rock and Roll in the mid-1950s and exist separately with little to no connection to each other.
In the latter case, Snowden dies from the abdominal wound, to use our Catch-22 analogy, because no matter how well you bandage the less-serious leg wound, it won't address the more-serious wound left unattended; put more simply, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has run its course.
Yossarian bandages Snowden's leg wound--but it's the belly wound that will kill him. Similarly, the Rock Hall requires fundamental fixing--
Band-Aid solutions offered previously do not address the fundamental issues that can doom the Rock Hall to perpetual suckage.
But along with the fundamental fixes to address the fundamental issues of what is wrong with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame needs to come fundamental changes to ourselves, recognizing that the dizzying growth and scope of popular music in the last six decades has been enormous and will continue to be so, and thus the Hall of Fame has long outgrown what had been called "rock and roll" at its outset, recognizing that there is no definitive method to determine how an artist is a Hall of Fame-caliber artist, and recognizing that even with fundamental fixes, the Hall of Fame will continue to be very imperfect—and that your Hall may not be the same as mine.
A daunting task? Yes. But we can try, dammit, and maybe do so to these words of wisdom from Pink Floyd's "Have a Cigar":
"It's a helluva start, it could be made into a monster
If we all pull together as a team"