Ever get the feeling that the open-minded voters for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are welcoming to every genre, subgenre and hybrid of popular and vernacular music — except rock?
Part of the fun of having a hall of fame, of course, is debating over who should get in, but the rock hall keeps making such incredibly bad choices that it has even sucked the joy out of arguing. Just look at the list of inductees for 2012, announced last week: Guns N’ Roses, the Beastie Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Laura Nyro, Donovan, and the Small Faces/Faces.
Only Donovan deserves it. The rest of the acts on that list merely show just how incredibly insular and irrelevant the induction process has become.
Let’s start with the Beastie Boys. They are unquestionably trailblazers. They just didn’t blaze any of them in rock. Sure, they played with punk guitars, but at heart, the Beasties are a rap act, joining previous inductees Grandmaster Flash and Run-D.M.C. And rap music is emphatically not a subgenre of rock — whatever the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame says.
The hall has claimed reggae, funk and disco in the name of rock. Its appropriation of rap is a serious escalation in this ongoing mission creep, expanding the museum’s definition of rock to include, basically, virtually every form of music that rose to popularity in the latter half of the 20th century. If the hall insists on inducting rap artists, shouldn’t they admit, say, Public Enemy and L.L. Cool J before bringing in white rappers from wealthy families? Given the racially exploitative history of American pop music, it’s the least they could do.
Of course, the real divide institutionalized in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame isn’t the line between black and white. It’s the one between red and blue. The great divide in Cleveland isn’t racial, but cultural, with artists that appeal to a red-state audience getting shoved aside time and time again in favor of more blue-state-friendly acts. While the hall has been making a display of its musical ecumenism by extending its reach to embrace ever more remote cousins of rock, it has simultaneously revealed an equally strong prejudice against the mainstream rock of the American heartland, pejoratively dubbed “arena rock” because its representative acts fill sports arenas rather than the pages of Rolling Stone and Spin.
The hall’s selective “open-mindedness” explains how ABBA, Neil Diamond, Madonna and Steely Dan can be rock hall members. But that big tent gets tiny when it comes to music that mainstream Red America loves — especially music that appeals to straight, white, working-class men. Journey isn’t in the hall. Neither is Jethro Tull, Boston, Bon Jovi, the Cars, ELO, the Steve Miller Band or Stevie Ray Vaughn. Nor is Kansas. Or Styx. Or Ted Nugent. Get the picture?
In their stead, the bookish, urbanite hall voters have filled the place with bookish, urbanite musicians. Especially weepy singer-songwriters. Leonard Cohen and Jackson Browne, for example, are members. As is James Taylor, enshrined back in 2000. The Hall of Fame nominating committee could be a Rolling Stone staff party. Only Kurt Loder is missing, having left several years back, apparently being cursed with integrity. Those left behind — including critics Dave Marsh, David Fricke, Jon Landau and Anthony DeCurtis — have evidenced precisely the same, incongruous mix of cooler-than-thou pomposity with social-climbing apologetics for bubble gum pop that has defined Jann Wenner’s once-great magazine. They and like-minded voters comprise the high court of rock snobs, a star chamber of blue state, bluenose elitism.
The elitism of hall voters is especially conspicuous in its bias against heavy metal. One reason that Guns N’ Roses doesn’t deserve induction yet is because the hall keeps excluding so many of the metal bands that came before and paved the way. Iron Maiden, Deep Purple, Judas Priest. Def Leppard, Motley Crue, and Motorhead — not one has been elected to the hall.
Rush, the band every critic loves to hate, was snubbed again this year — a streak that’s now nearing Ron Santo/Susan Lucci-like levels of absurdity. Nearly 40 years after the Canadian power trio released their first album, the classic rock radio staple is still recording new music, still touring — with all the original members — and still packing huge venues around the world. Rush has 14 platinum albums — 14!
Only three bands in rock history have more platinum albums than Rush: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Kiss. Obviously, the first two are in the hall. The third, brace yourselves, is not. Let that sink in. Kiss is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This is a band, keep in mind, that has sold 100 million records — and whose biggest single celebrates the phrase “rock and roll” in its title.
There is no more egregious example of hall voters’ arrogance and pedantry than this year’s selection of Laura Nyro. To choose this talented but obscure singer-songwriter is the very definition of cultural elitism, one thrown into sharper relief by the fact that Joan Jett and Heart were also on the ballot this year, but voters passed on both in favor of Nyro. Electing Nyro is a gesture of withering arrogance and disdain, one meant to instruct the rock audience on what music it “should” listen to, instead of the stuff people actually like.
As with most of their more inexplicable selections, the hall rationalized the Nyro choice by describing her as a huge influence on other artists. That would make great sense if the museum were called the Rock and Roll Hall of Most Influential People. Since, however, it’s a hall of fame, it seems like being at least marginally famous would be one prerequisite for getting in.
Come to think of it, maybe a name change is just the thing. The museum could rebrand the place, changing the name to something like the Pop Music Hall of Fame or the Museum of Youth Culture. Why not? There’s nothing wrong with blue-state snobs wanting to to enshrine the makers of folk, disco, reggae and now rap music. There’s nothing wrong with honoring Madonna’s dance pop or Neil Diamond’s Tin Pan Alley showmanship. Just please, please stop calling it rock ‘n’ roll.