In Defense of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
Last week, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame announced the nominees for its class of 2017 — and as usual, music critics and commentators responded with a flurry of think pieces and op-eds about how much the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame sucks.
The litany of critiques is seemingly endless. They haven't inducted enough women. They've either inducted too much hip-hop, or not enough. They clearly hate electronic music. It's a "self-congratulatory industry fest." It's an elaborate annual PR stunt for the museum in Cleveland. It's way too full of white dudes — but how dare they snub Bon Jovi?
I don't necessarily disagree with some of these criticisms, but I can't be the only one who's sick of hearing them. Can't we all just leave the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame alone? What is it about the absurd exercise of gradually enshrining the purveyors of our most rebellious art form in a sterile glass pyramid that works everyone into such a lather of outrage? No one gets this angry over the Kennedy Center Honors, or the Grammys (well, except the year Macklemore won). Why does the R&RHOF breed such contempt?
Taken purely on their own merits, absent any outside controversy, I would argue that most Rock Hall induction classes are pretty great. Take 2006, for example: Black Sabbath, Blondie, Miles Davis, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Sex Pistols. In just five acts, the induction committee managed to represent men and women (well, OK, one woman), black and white (well, OK, one black guy), British and American, punk, metal, new wave, jazz and Southern rock. That's a pretty decent cross-section of rock & roll influencers, in my book (and if you don't think Miles Davis influenced rock & roll, stop reading now and go back to griping about that Bon Jovi snub).
Of course, what really tends to enrage the R&RHOF's critics is not who gets let in but who gets left out. Anything short of an immediate induction as soon as an artist qualifies (25 years after the release of their first record) is viewed as a contemptible snub. By the time some bands do get in, they and their fans are unable to let go of those years of accumulated bitterness. They accept the honor while still taking pot shots at the institution behind it. "Here we are tonight," said Paul Stanley at KISS's induction in 2014, "basically inducted for the same things that we were kept out for."
To some degree, through its confusing and opaque nominating process, the Hall brings such criticisms on itself. If they just announced the inductees, had their circle-jerk ceremony and called it a year, fans and the media would shit-talk the whole thing for a week at most before moving on. Instead, they get people's hopes up with a fall slate of a dozen or more "nominees" before whittling it down to that year's final list. Some bands get in the first year they're nominated; most wait until their second or third try; an unlucky few remain perpetual bridesmaids — such as Chic, who are nominated for the 10th time this year. Many bands, like The Smiths and Nine Inch Nails, are nominated once and then, inexplicably, snubbed the following year — a fate likely to befall several of this year's more unexpected first-time nominees, such as Depeche Mode and Bad Brains.
I admit that there's something undeniably satisfying in railing against all this. Like most people, I have my own pet list of artists that, every year, I'm shocked all over again to find are still not in the Hall, and I enjoy getting my knickers in a twist over it as much as the next person. (No Smiths? No Billy Idol? No Carla Thomas? Screw you, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame!) Fandom is defined in large part by one's opposition to the haters and nonfans, and no institution has seemingly proven its hatred for bands outside its own self-defined canon more doggedly than the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
But complaining that the Hall still hasn't inducted Janet Jackson or The Replacements or Joy Division or whichever other worthy acts you decide to cram into your listicle willfully ignores the reality that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame can't induct everyone all at once. The whole point of any hall of fame is that it's a highly exclusive club. Getting inducted has to be a rare honor, not a participation trophy. If there were no snubs, no one would care.
It also ignores the fact that, at the end of the day, the Hall is a mainstream institution, with its own agenda and worldview to uphold. Complaining that the Hall has yet to induct, say, The Slits or Eric B & Rakim is akin to complaining that the L.A. Philharmonic season doesn't contain enough death metal. It's just not what they do, at least not on any sort of consistent basis. They cherry-pick the more "underground" or left-of-center artists to make sure the whole thing doesn't devolve into a popularity contest, but they rarely do so outside of long-established narratives about rock's origins and watersheds.
I don't mean to diminish some of the R&RHOF's very real problems with inadequate representation of women and people of color, and their continued reluctance to admit some rock-adjacent genres (electronic music, disco, hip-hop) while fully embracing others (folk, soul). If this year's class were to include Chaka Khan, Bad Brains, 2Pac and Kraftwerk, it would be a welcome signal that the Hall is finally waking up to the fact that rock & roll, however you care to define it, is not wholly or even primarily the purview of white men with guitars. But I also recognize that anything with "Rock & Roll" right there in the title has some obligation to eventually acknowledge the Journeys and Steppenwolfs of the world.
The Hall has set itself up for an impossible task: pleasing its core audience of aging mainstream rock fans, the ones who lobbied for the belated inductions of popular but critically dismissed bands like Chicago and KISS, while also positioning itself as a culturally relevant institution that celebrates artistry over commercial success (inducting the likes of Tom Waits and Laura Nyro) and expands the definition of "rock & roll" to include all late–20th century forms of popular music. That's a pretty ambitious agenda and, inevitably, in most years they fall short of fully achieving it.
But unlike most of my fellow music pundits, I remain a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame optimist. I fully believe that eventually, the vast majority of the most deserving artists will get in — especially now that the selection process has been at least partially opened up to fan input. That's how the Hall works. No one thought Rush or N.W.A or The Stooges would ever be inducted, until they were. Even Chic will get inducted someday.
So stop bitching, critics. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is doing exactly what it's supposed to be doing — acknowledging rock's rich history, one lucky handful of artists at a time. Your favorite band's turn will come. Even if your favorite band is Bon Jovi.
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