“Artists—a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians—become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first record. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll.” –rockhall.com
Now for the just slightly less difficult second part of the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” You’d think “fame” would be pretty straightforward, but hey, this is the RRHOF.
Obviously, most people consider “Halls of Fame” to be shrines of the, well, famous. Reasonable enough. But if you read the mission statements of just about any of them, they almost invariably mention preservation of history and tradition and the recognition of achievement within that tradition (the Country Music HOF, interestingly, only mentions preservation of history).
Heaven knows the relatively objective sports halls aren’t immune to controversy and feature their own roster of bizarre snubs, but they at least start with measurable data—fans and sportswriters can look at a player’s record and get some feel for the likelihood of a nomination. This dovetails neatly with the common concept of fame: players with 1951 RBIs, 12K rushing yards or 300 goals is generally going to be well known, most likely popular, and their induction makes fans and associated museums happy. It’s harder for a subjective HOF, and harder yet if there’s a museum to consider. Triple points if there’s an HBO special of the induction ceremony.
Fans cheerlead for their favorites—it’s in the job description. For most, the criteria for greatness is sales, chart positions, and as a bonus, length of career. A smaller subset sees the bigger picture, their favorites’ place in it and are able to appreciate performers whose work they may not care for. (For the record, I only partly put myself in that category. I’m moderately good with fairly mainstream 70s/80s material and that’s about it).
This will sound elitist, but I don’t think ANY HOF should be fan-driven. They shouldn’t exist to rubber stamp popular opinion, and in the case of music HOFs, simply validate the criteria mentioned above. These things do have a place in the discussion (and the bios and induction speeches), but by those measures alone, Barry Manilow and the Little River Band would have been in long ago. (No offense to either).
If a HOF is fulfilling its mission, there will be times that a successful act doesn’t meet the standards. There will be also be instances in which it considers performer(s) of merit who lack commercial success or whose heyday is far enough removed that they’re less familiar. If it’s doing its job, it actually confers a measure of fame by enshrining them. It’s a delicate balance between the mission and commercial considerations. Fans want to see star memorabilia, and if they don’t think they’ll be seeing it, gate receipts suffer.
The RRHOF does have a fan vote, although it’s actually more of a marketing tool designed to generate click-throughs and provide eyeballs for Klipsch, and last year it made the news for the wrong reasons when it was hijacked in SPECTACULAR fashion by some unknown entity with clearly rockist leanings (why Cheap Trick wasn’t a beneficiary as opposed to Yes or even the Cars I couldn’t figure, but that’s another topic). The system is nearly identical to those used for the Heisman and NASCAR HOF with the entire fan vote weighted as one ballot, so it hasn’t satisfied the belief of many fans that they deserve more say.
It would be nice to be able to get potentially valuable fan input, because it’s out there. Other HOFs involve fans to some degree: Major League Baseball has a fan vote to nominate broadcasters for the Ford C. Frick Award, and the Pro Football HOF invites fan nominations in addition to voting, although the system is convoluted and doubtlessly requires funds and manpower beyond the scope of the RRHOF. It’s hard to imagine a workable scenario, and the Hall has controversy aplenty—and some dramatic fumbles (pun intended) already. Maybe that’s why the Country Music HOF, a much more transparent organization in a highly fan-friendly genre, doesn’t involve fans at all. And there’s always the self-selection factor—the most valuable voices may have decided it’s not worth caring about.
Is it elitist and un-rock and roll to put the judgment of “unquestionable musical excellence” in the hands of critics and industry insiders? Well, yes. There’s no doubt that they and the official voters have their blind spots: The, ahem, disapproval of some NomCom members for certain acts has been a hilariously badly kept secret for years. But as a cultural force, rock entered the realm of the intellectual long ago. How committee members are selected (and dismissed) is a separate issue that needs serious scrutiny, but the premise is valid that those who’ve made a living in the business, especially those who act as its historians, are in the best position to lead the discussion.