“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.