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? –Andy Hermann, LA Weekly
The title of this post is only half right. My first go-around with watching a RRHOF nomination/induction cycle began at three in the morning on October 8, 2015, with a Facebook message from a friend: “We did it!” “It” was the realization of a letter writing campaign I’d helped spearhead the year before, aimed at achieving a nomination for the Cars. That project was actually my first look at the strange animal that is the Hall—perfect for an opinionated process geek. I was in.
That first time through, it was all about all those votes and who was getting them. This time around, I found myself pondering the “why” behind the numbers and coming up with thoughts and questions I didn’t expect. The voting hack that year was a perfect into to the whole battle over just what “rock and roll” is, how many people are invested in it being defined solely as the guitar-driven output of a relatively short span of time, and how angry they get about it.
Geez, the anger. So much anger. “Passion” in Hall-speak. Yes, a good chunk of it’s because pet acts have been snubbed. But the hatred for hip hop and to a lesser extent, R&B, is just over the top, even to someone ignorant on the subject. There are people out there who think nothing of going onto Chaka Khan’s Facebook page, on which she does maintain a personal presence, to “explain” to her that she—a two-time nominee—doesn’t belong. It makes you remember that this is a genre that by its 20th year inspired a mindset that compelled fans to trash a stadium out of reactionary rage at the mere existence of another form of music, one that incidentally was the creation of Black, Latino and gay culture.
Not all the opposition to hip hop being included in the Hall can be blamed on racism. But when you see code like “PC” or “thugs,” it’s clear. (So funny when someone tries to invoke morality as a prerequisite for induction). Sometimes they don’t even bother with code: “You know they’ll have to put a black person in.” Seeing all the vitriol, I’ve started delving into just when and why and how “rock” became so white, and realizing just how inorganic the rock/R&B dichotomy really is. In terms of the Hall, I’ve become sort of a hip hop apologist, which is…hilarious.
Coincidentally and possibly in part as a result of the Hall controversy, there have been three or four years’ worth of punditry about the so-called death of rock, always met with a slew of “rawk forever” responses. It’s not an answerable or necessarily valid question, but there’s an argument to be made that rock as commonly understood is in the process of losing its cultural dominance to hip hop and EDM. Dylan’s Nobel aside, hip hop’s been taking the prizes for a while now; Oscars, Tonys, Pulitzers.
So is it a mindset explainable by the same idea advanced to partially explain the recent behavior of conservative voters in their willingness to support a candidate that in any other time would have been considered unelectable: white men (and women) unable to cope with change and attempting to enforce a return to cultural dominance? When you see David Crosby (himself not a proponent of rap in the Hall) called a “dirty hippie” by Rolling Stone readers and read comments about the leftward bias of the NomCom and/or the inducted artists, it seems a Venn diagram of the two groups would have a pretty substantial overlap.
It is a fact though that hip hop and R&B do tend to fare dismally in the fan poll in terms of absolute numbers. Why? It’s tempting to say apathy, but that doesn’t hold water: this past voting period, one post on 2Pac’s Facebook page netted 4000 votes overnight. After weeks of surprisingly anemic voting, Janet Jackson’s numbers more than doubled right after the mini-controversy around the vote dump. The momentum didn’t last or get either artist out of the bottom third in the standings, but the response was striking nonetheless. The Hall craves numbers for the poll and the museum; you have to wonder what would happen if they marketed the poll differently.
I have no answers to anything I’ve asked here yet. But I’ve seen that the Rock Hall process does more than honor music from a quarter century ago; it’s a way to think about where we as a society are now.