Musings on a Year as a Rock Hall Watcher

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.

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5 thoughts on “Musings on a Year as a Rock Hall Watcher

  1. You raise some excellent points, not all of which I may be able to address here, at least in just one comment. You say, “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.” In the process of losing? I’d say that ship has long since sailed. If you look at the most popular albums and songs of the past 50 years or so, you can see the gradual (then all-of-a-sudden) shift over to hip-hop and EDM. I don’t think rock has anywhere near the cultural pre-eminence it once had. Generational shift and all that.

    Second question – why is rock so “white?” I’ve often wondered that myself. I went to rock concerts for years and then turned around one day and said to myself,”The only black people here are on stage.” A veritable sea of white faces and I don’t entirely understand why. Rock n’ roll got off to a great start in that respect. It was all kinda mixed and there are no greater early rockers than Chuck Berry and Little Richard. But then, after that, where did all the black rockers go? There wasn’t even another all-black band (to my knowledge) till Living Colour came along in 1984. Darius Rucker in Hootie and the Blowfish used to get all kinds of stupid questions.

    So is the fact that there are very few black rock musicians and even fewer black audience members evidence of racial or cultural issues? Or both? Hendrix had a big problem with this. When he’d play (pre-fame) in Greenwich Village he’d be playing the songs we know to white audiences. But when he’d play in Harlem to black audiences, they’d guilt trip him about playing rock music.

    I am a big Springsteen fan and never even gave much thought of what it must be like to be a black man playing for white audiences til I read Clarence Clemons’ eye-opener book. In all the many concerts I’ve been to I can count on one hand the number of truly integrated audiences I’ve seen. Prince, BB King. Stevie Wonder. Ike and Tina Turner. That’s about it. Maybe that’s just reflective of my tastes, don’t know.

    Anyway, I’m rambling here, maybe even not getting to your point. But just some stuff I think about.

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    1. Just came across this quote from Clem Burke from the Washington Times:

      Q: What’s your take on the state of rock ‘n’ roll in late 2014?
      A: Rock ‘n’ roll is now beyond middle-aged. And there are lots of people who play rock ‘n’ roll that are now beyond middle-aged, i.e., The Rolling Stones or Chuck Berry. Rock ‘n’ roll itself as, if you want to call it an art form, to me is more akin to jazz these days. It’s not pop music. Rock ‘n’ roll isn’t popular. It’s a form of music that many people enjoy and like and people go to see, but it is not what’s pushing the culture forward. It’s not popular music. [It’s akin] to the way jazz musicians must have felt in the 1950s with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll. All of a sudden the big bands were gone and it was all about rock ‘n’ roll. There is always going to be an evolution of rock ‘n’ roll.

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      1. Yep, no argument there. Rock n’ roll ain’t dead but the old mare ain’t what she used to be. Took me a while to accept it and I still very much celebrate it on my blog. But it is what it is. The idea back in my creaky old day that one would pay good money to. e/g/. see a disc jockey was laughable. Happens all the time now. My generation had its innings for a long time. But the times, someone once said, they are a’changing.

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  2. Hi Jim –

    I’m not sure *I* got to my point in that post…felt like I was trying to juggle Jell-o writing it.

    Part of what segregated music that started out on the same radio stations with the same audience was, of course, racism: a concentrated effort on the part of white authority cultural and political authority figures who ginned up payola scandals to hobble the format, and disassociation by Black leaders who feared that the backlash against “race music” harmed efforts at achieving equality. There’s more to learn, but what’s so amazing is how quickly it happened; by the early 60s, less than 10 years after the term “rock and roll” was coined, it was lily white. And like you point out, the divide was maintained by everyone. But somehow along the way, it seems rock got imbued with a superiority complex.

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  3. There’s definitely a whole book to be written – if it hasn’t been already – about race and music. BTW, I’m not 100% convinced the payola scandals were just ginned up to hobble the format. I think they happened just as much – or more – due to good old fashioned greed.

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