What’s in a Name, Part 1

“The definition of rock ‘n’ roll is very broad. When you have something that means so many different things to so many people, you’re never going to be able, in everyone’s opinion, to fill every gap or connect every dot.” – Joel Peresman, President, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation

There’s no shortage of people who’ll tell you that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a travesty.  Even those who can’t be bothered with its irrelevance will be sure to tell you just how little they can be bothered with its irrelevance.  People argue about “Halls of Fame” all the time, but it’s usually about the how the mission gets carried out, not the sign over the door. The Rock Hall though—it manages to piss people off just with its name. So it seems fitting to start this blog with a look at that name and what it means (at least to me).

Of course, the reason most people will give you for the RRHOF (incorrect abbreviation form, but I like it) being irrelevant is because an act they feel strongly about isn’t in. Those who’ve paid some attention will tell you it’s because of nationalism, sexism and/or cronyism, and unfortunately there’s some truth in all of that.   And the dinner…let’s not get started on the dinner.  But for a very vocal and sizeable group, the unforgivable heresy is the inclusion of acts that “aren’t rock.”  They’ve called out acts like Madonna, James Taylor and the Staple Singers, but the real venom is reserved for rap and hip hop, something most of them won’t even accept as music.

What rock and roll is is apparently something like Justice Stewart’s definition of pornography: “You know it when you hear it.”  For those rockists upset about the Hall’s induction decisions, it’s essentially an expansion of Gene Simmons’ rant against the induction of N.W.A.: “music made by a person or persons (usually male) who play and sing(s) original material with a pronounced beat and prominent electric guitar.” Of course, there are always exceptions. Richard Abowitz  aside, few people begrudge the Motown inductions, most of which didn’t play on the records or write the songs.  Johnny Cash’s credentials are beyond question.   As I was mansplained to informed last year, “While it all comes from the blues,” N.W.A. is not rock, but Bob Marley is.

Style aside, the divide between black and white music is relatively recent, and it didn’t happen without help.   AARP The Magazine editor and former Rolling Stone editor Robert Love interviewed Bob Dylan last year and learned that “the death of rock” happened early on and was premeditated murder:  an orchestrated but craftily veiled strike against racial desegregation.

“…rock ‘n’ roll was already a racially integrated American invention being blasted in teenage bedrooms as early as 1955, but as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum going into 1960, the genre was being commercially segregated, on the sly, into white (British Invasion) and black (soul) music by the (WASPy) establishment.”

Said Dylan: “(It was) extremely threatening for the city fathers, I would think. When they finally recognized what it was, they had to dismantle it, which they did, starting with payola scandals. The black element was turned into soul music, and the white element was turned into English pop. They separated it […]’” (The article is a start point for a brilliant piece by Brent L. Smith).

This is a simplification: both Black and white leaders—and white pop stars—had their reasons for wanting to shut rock down.  And it’s NOT to say that rockism is inherently racist. But it shows that a lot of things we accept as naturally occurring facts are in fact constructs, and we don’t always know who did the constructing or why.

“Rock ‘n’ roll is an attitude; it’s not a musical form of a strict sort. It’s a way of doing things, of approaching things. Writing can be rock ‘n’ roll, or a movie can be rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a way of living your life.”  ― Lester Bangs

Sometimes—a lot of times—my gut and my head don’t agree on this. I’m not into hip hop. My admittedly mainstream pop heart reflexively balks at the idea of Mariah Carey being inducted ahead of Warren Zevon or the Replacements. But Lenny Kaye recalled that in the Hall’s early days, nominating committee members like Ahmet Ertegun were blues purists who didn’t believe the Beach Boys belonged. There are actually people who think saxophones have no place in rock and roll. There’s always going to be someone who thinks something doesn’t belong, and eventually that something is you.

I’m an editor and writer. I’m into the subtle shades of meaning and correct usage of words. OK, I’m a pedantic grammar freak. And for me, for all of the many things that are undoubtedly wrong with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, co-opting Lester Bangs’ definition of “rock and roll” is one of the things—maybe the most important thing—it got right.

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6 thoughts on “What’s in a Name, Part 1

  1. Interesting post. Curious about the comment, “There are actually people who think saxophones have no place in rock and roll.” – I recall Courtney Love complaining about Bruce Springsteen with that line. Does it go wider than that? I certainly saw it as ignorant hyperbole, given that at the foundation of Rock and Roll, wailing saxophones were very important to the music of foundational acts like Little Richard, Bill Haley, and Big Joe Turner.

    Most of these people who complain about the “non-rock” acts in the Hall Of Fame have really no historical roots to their definition of Rock and Roll. They like “Rock” music, and they base their opinions on what “rocks”.

    From its very start, the Rock and Roll label was used very widely. The Drifters were regularly called a “Rock and Roll act” throughout their decade of hit making – yet their sound was very much modeled on the sound of pre-rock vocal groups and many of their hits were covers of such pre-rock songs. James Brown was considered one of the greatest Rock entertainer through the mid-60s, but today these rock “purists” seem to think of him as some sort of borderline aritst; I believe mostly due to the fact that in order to acknowledge James Brown, you have to acknowledge that the natural progression from his music leads to Disco and Hip Hop rather than Judas Priest – but it also leads to Living Colour and Rage Against The Machine.

    Eddie Trunk is such a victim of his own fanboy focus, that he doesn’t even seem to hear *himself* talk about the history of Heavy Metal. Judas Priest helped to strip the influence of the Blues out of Metal music – that evolutionary step makes the Metal bands he champions for the Hall Of Fame equally or even more “Non-Rock” as and of the pop, disco or Hip Hop acts he objects to. They are all evolutionary branches, and if you are going to honor artists from one, you really need to honor them all.

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    1. Hi Shrek-

      Beautifully said-I hoped to learn more than I posted so I’m off to a good start with that. Thanks for reading and taking the time to respond. Agreed: honor them all.

      Sort of on the same lines as your observation on blues and metal: couldn’t find it to cite it correctly and so didn’t use it, but I’ve read a piece by a music historian claiming that in terms of beat, origin story, and attitude, hip hop/rap is light years closer to early rock and roll than art/prog rock.

      The saxophone example was from the Courtney Love comment, but I figured there’s likely no opinion in the world only held by one person, no matter how clearly loony it is–opinion and/or person.

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      1. I agree with the comment of rap vs at least a portion of Prog Rock. Progressive Rock tended to be an attempt to create a fusion of Rock music with more classical music elements and/or Jazz elements. Most Hip Hop is based on mostly sampled beats from previously recorded Rock music. The delivery of the lyrics is in a new style.

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  2. Hey Michelle, I’d say welcome to the gang, but you’re already on a plateau above the majority of us from the FRL site. I love your insights and look forward to a lot more from you. I’ve actually been collecting some thoughts about this topic, and hopefully after this next cycle, I’ll have some time to say something more about it. Meanwhile, don’t be shy either!

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    1. Hi Philip-Goodness, thanks. I would love to get up on that level; thanks for showing me the ropes and giving me something to shoot for. Looking forward to the fun about to start in a couple of weeks!

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  3. To me, it’s artistically progressive music that challenges the status quo. Most mainstream country, hip hop and the godawful rock you now hear on the radio does not fit that definition whatsoever because they merely rely on the standard tropes of their “genre”.

    But Jay Z is rock worthy of enshrinement. So is Daft Punk. So is Arcade Fire.

    Hell, on the rock question, I once was clicking around the On Demand programming from BET, found their current music videos and they had a section called Rock. What was inside? Only videos from Jay Z and Kanye West. Not coincidentally, around the same time, I had some young black girls at a college job I worked tell me that neither of those two performers made rap music and that they were artists.

    Once somebody tosses their preconceptions out the window and gets what this institution is trying to define as rock (and for that matter, is willing to listen to the best of all of these “genres” without really differentiating between them) it becomes pretty easy to figure out which names should and shouldn’t be in.

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