Greetings, Northumbrians! It has been a good long while since I blogged about Rock Hall matters- in fact, I’ve been radio-silent on this topic since I finished up my Top 100 Rock Hall prospects series almost two months ago.
In that time, we’ve certainly seen some fascinating developments in the world of Rock Hall news, much of it around the Class of 2016. We had a possible Chicago reunion with Peter Cetera implode at the eleventh hour over an apparent disagreement over the key in which “25 Or 6 To 4” ought to be played. N.W.A. suddenly revealed that they weren’t going to perform at the ceremony within the last 72 hours. Deep Purple just couldn’t resolve decades-long feuds with multiple band members. And Steve Miller, belying his easygoing psychedelic blues rock, stopped being polite and started getting real, dismissing his handlers and “going rogue” about his bad experiences with the Rock Hall. In my judgment, this was justifiably so. The rest of his band wasn’t honored, he was inducted by The Black Keys who he hadn’t even met prior to the rehearsals for the show, and he felt slighted by being given only 2 tickets for the ceremony. If his kids wanted to attend, Miller would have to fork out hundreds of dollars to get them a spot at his stage-side table. Miller aired his grievances even further by decrying the lack of women in the Rock Hall. While he’s right, The Black Keys were quick to point out that Miller had 40 years to put a woman in his eponymous band and failed to do so. Cheap Trick was the only inductee that didn’t screw it up, both reuniting and performing ably to close out the show.
After a successful ceremony for 2014 (highlighted by Hervana) and 2015 (which pulled off a quasi-Beatles reunion), 2016 was the Franklin Pierce of Rock Hall induction ceremonies: a certifiable near-failure. In the end, the 2016 ceremony was a set of lost opportunities that exposed a number of cracks in the Rock Hall’s facade. It seemed everybody came out of the experience unhappy. Artists like Miller felt slighted. Critics- myself included- were shocked by the sausage-fest the ceremony became. Having an all-male class might be an accident, but having all-male presenters too was pure mismanagement. Classic rock purists, who should have been gratified by 4 artists tailor-made for their tastes, still complained about NWA’s induction. Even the induction of Bert Burns under the Musical Excellence banner seemed sketchy because Little Stevie was bankrolling a musical about his life. It’s a small wonder that even Jann Werner didn’t bother showing up. To get you up to speed, let me refer you to some people who have gotten the right idea: E-rockcracy nailed the issues at stake while Philip at Rock Hall Monitors diagnoses the problem and advocates some ideas to fix the Rock Hall.
The problem is that I don’t see a way to go forward. If the Rock Hall can be accused of elitism and aloofness, it’s not like the wider public is any better. To the contrary, their tastes are worse. This year’s vote showed, if nothing else, that if you put a 70s classic rocker on the ballot, they will get in, no matter how dubious their qualifications. (This, by the way, is why I generally oppose inducting backing groups and ancillary members in most circumstances. The last thing we need is more random Belmonts, Wings, Silver Bullets, or 80s touring members of Chicago or Deep Purple further compromising the quality control on the Voting Committee. They’ll just stack the deck even further in favor of Classic Rock.) Indeed, the classic rock-voting robots even manipulated the online vote this year.
Worse, I don’t really have any good solutions. We are stuck in an era of transition for rock and roll, between a popular medium and a high art. I’m reminded of a book I read for my doctoral exams: Highbrow/Lowbrow: the Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Originally, something like Shakespeare was written and originally performed as “low art”- culturally accessible and consumed by ordinary individuals. But over the course of time, it became a scholarly province, as reading Shakespeare became incorporated into middle-class ideals of “the good life,” and became classic literature. In the process, Shakespeare was immortalized, but forever lost some of its coarseness and crudeness from when shabby groundlings took over the cheap seats and heckled performers. It’s a bit like that: rock and roll was a popular medium, and it’s a common critique to say that a Hall of Fame belies its very purpose. But without anybody really intending it to, it became a fine art, one analyzed by cultural critics and academics, and one for whom the passage of time negates its original crudeness and earthy texture. Elvis and Little Richard are hardly risqué by today’s standards.
As a result, for all the criticism lobbed at the Rock Hall, I’m sympathetic to its plight, to a certain extent. Like it or not, rock and roll overachieved into a cultural force, and with that evolution comes the need for a canon, and a swarm of experts to determine what is or is not “classic” or “great” about it. It riles everyday fans who were present at the creation, who got stoned in their Chevy and then went to a Grand Funk Railroad concert in ’73, to see artists they love picked apart and sometimes dismissed. And it irks the critic and the scholar to see schlubs with terrible taste complain about Styx not being in the Hall when innovators and conscientious musicians like Chic and Kraftwerk and Nine Inch Nails are still on the outside looking in. The critic is horrified that this year had zero female inductees, and nobody from the soul or R&B family. The classic rocker insists that this is mere affirmative action, PC run amok. A truly revolutionary group- NWA- is honored and wants to perform a song called “F— Tha Police” but the ceremony is in a massive arena that probably requires a police security presence. We’re at an impasse between expert and everyman, insider and outsider, and this year’s ceremony revealed that tug of war better than most.
Where does the Rock Hall go from here, then? If I had to impose one suggestion on the chaos, it’s to resolve the problem of age. Frankly, the 1980s and 1990s are hard done by, and the quorum of 70+ year old white men on the Nom Com and the voting committee is partly to blame. Get younger voices. Get more minority voices. Get female voices. Get underground voices. Get Jessica Harper on the Nom Com. Or Steven Hyden. Or an academic like Princeton’s Daphne Brooks, who understands what’s at stake. Rock and roll is big, and beautiful, and broad– a tree with many roots and many branches. The group that puts the ballot together- and the people who vote on the ballot- should reflect this.
And I think, in the pit of Joel Peresman, Dave Marsh, and Jann Werner’s stomachs, they know this is true. For this reason, I think that for the Class of 2017, they will probably go in a very different direction, even if they don’t make any real changes on the nominating committee or the voting committee. In fact, I don’t think there will even be a single act that fits the narrowest definition of 70s classic rock, since they had their chance to shine this year. It’s going to look an awful lot like the ballot for the Class of 2015.
So, while I’m far from making my official predictions for the Oct. 2016 ballot for the Class of 2017, I think it might look something like this: Pearl Jam. Tupac. Nine Inch Nails. The Smiths. Chaka Khan. The Commodores. A Tribe Called Quest. Kraftwerk. Sting. Willie Nelson. Nina Simone. Eurythmics. Chic. Johnny Winter. The Shangri-Las. Two first-year eligibles, six returning nominees, and seven snubs. That’s a stretch. Few ballots have had as many new faces. But there’s never been a better time to untie some knots, open the windows to fresh air, and challenge insider and outsider alike to wonder: what is great rock and roll music?