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Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or Shame?

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recently announced its 15 nominees for its 2012 induction class. Once again, that means the blogosphere is abuzz with complaints about the Hall's irrelevancy. Are they legitimate?

In September, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced its 15 nominees for the 2012 class. They are the Beastie Boys, The Cure, Donovan, Eric B. & Rakim, Guns N’ Roses, Heart, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Freddie King, Laura Nyro, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rufus/Chaka Khan, The Small Faces/The Faces, The Spinners, Donna Summer, and War. An act is eligible 25 years after the release of its first album or single. The nominating committee is comprised of more than 30 critics and music experts. Then ballots are sent to 500+ music industry types (primarily past inductees). Generally the top five vote-getters are selected for induction. Those will be announced in November.

With the new slate of Hall of Fame hopefuls comes another tradition dating to the inaugural class of 1986 – the annual grousing about who didn’t make the cut. Just check out the Hall’s Facebook page. Regardless of the nature of the post, the follow-up comments are often littered with fan complaints about their favorites being overlooked.

I’m not claiming to be above such pettiness. I scrawled two blog entries on the subject – one entitled And This Year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominees Are… and the other was called And This Year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominees Should Be….

However, it's worth asking how often a complaint must be voiced before it becomes a legitimate concern and not just mass whining. Is there any actual evidence that the complaints lodged at the Hall have any merit? Let’s break down a few of the most common accusations.

The Hall is too focused on non-rock acts. The Hall’s website declares that an act up for consideration should have “demonstrated unquestionable musical excellence” and that factors including “an artist’s musical influence on other artists, length and depth of career and the body of work, innovation and superiority in style and technique, but musical excellence shall be the essential qualification of induction” (Rockhall.com, Induction Process/Eligibility).

Reread those requirements all you want, but the words “rock 'n' roll” don’t make an appearance in the eligibility requirements. Call me silly, but having something to do with rock 'n' roll ought to be pretty integral. Certainly many genres have been hugely influential in shaping rock music. In its first three years, the Hall enshrined significant acts from R&B (James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Louis Jordan), the blues (Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Muddy Waters), country (Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams), and folk (Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly). Excluding any of these performers would be laughable.

However, at Chicagoland Radio and Media.com, blogger Larz lists more than 40 inductees who, while potentially deserving of induction in Halls of fame for soul, R&B, gospel, doo-wop, rap/hip-hop, and jazz, don’t fit under the banner of rock music (23 November 2010). Recent years have seen the induction of Abba (disco), Little Anthony & the Imperials (R&B), Jimmy Cliff (reggae), and Run-D.M.C. (rap). While arguments can be made about all of those acts’ importance, how does the Hall justify inducting them before rock icons like KISS, Deep Purple, Rush, and Yes?

The Hall has a beef with KISS. No band’s omission has sparked more public outcry. Gene Simmons, the band’s co-founder, has joked about being snubbed. “There are disco bands, rap bands, Yiddish folk song bands in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but not KISS.” Danny Goldberg, a former publicist for the group, says “It’s hard for me to understand what definition of rock and roll…would exclude KISS.” (cityscoopsny.com, Why the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Misses the Point About Rock & Roll, by Larry Getlen, 2009).

Still, there isn’t an actual conspiracy, is there? Well, consider this comment from Dave Marsh, a critic, co-founder of Creem magazine, and writer for Rolling Stone, who is also on the Hall’s nominating committee (see complete list at FutureRockLegends.com, The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Nominating Committee (2011 edition)). Getlen’s article quoted him saying, “Kiss will never be a great band, and I have done my share to keep them off the ballot.”

The Hall is anti-prog rock. Goldmine magazine asserts that of roughly 260 Hall inductees, only Pink Floyd, Genesis, and Traffic could be considered progressive rock – about on percent of inductees (Phil Marder, Goldmine Rock Hall of Fame Stop Saying ‘No’ to Yes, 2011). In its ranking of acts most deserving of induction, Notinhalloffame.com includes five proggy faves in its top 50: Rush (#1), Jethro Tull (11), Yes (28), The Moody Blues (34), and King Crimson (37). If a band has ever done a thematic album, written a song longer than eight minutes, or dared to merge classical with rock music, it’s a safe bet they won’t have to prepare any induction speeches.

Scot McFayden, who co-directed Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, says of his documentary subject, “They’ve never been a critics’ band… Rush has never been cool enough for [the Hall].” (Simon Vozick-Levinson, cityscoopsny.com, Rush documentary director on their latest Rock and Roll Hall of Fame snub: ‘It’s unfortunate’, 2010).

The Hall is just a bunch of snobs who vote in who they like. Marsh’s snobbish anti-KISS stance doesn’t help the assumption that music critics have disdain for anything commercially successful. Don Kirshner, a music industry vet and creator of The Monkees, called the Hall a “millionaire’s coffee club” (Getlen). That same article asserts that politics are definitely at play with some artists selected because of affiliations with the committee while others are shot down because they’ve crossed someone.

This also brings up the frequent attacks on Jann Wenner, the Rolling Stone magazine publisher who was one of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame founders. The aforementioned “Rock and Roll Hall of Shame” article accuses Wenner of ignoring and snubbing many deserving artists – including The Monkees and Chicago specifically – and genres such as ‘70s progressive rock and arena rock. Meanwhile, he lobbies for the music he personally favors which includes ‘50s New York doo-wop, ‘50s female vocalists, ‘60s soul, Motown, and old-school hip-hop. Take a gander at the list of inductees. It's loaded with Wenner’s faves, but very little of his dislikes.

So how could these problems be fixed? The Hall needs to stop trying to create rock history in its myopic image. Acknowledge that rock 'n' roll has, first and foremost, been an art form that grew out of a rebellious spirit which gained mass appeal, but was rarely praised as a legitimate art form.

As for active changes, in his Village Voice article, "How to Fix the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame" (3/9/2010), Jason Gross advocates an expansion of the nominee and inductee list, a wider voter pool, and complete disclosure about the identities of who is voting.

I suggest the Hall open up one slot of its 15 nominees to the public. Let everyday music fans decide on at least one entrant on the ballot. Then we’ll see if the voting body of 500+ music experts backs up those biases or not.

Assuming that the Hall isn’t waiting with bated breath for my suggested fixes, let’s also adopt another attitude. For those bent on rechristening the institution the “Rock and Roll Hall of Shame”, lighten up. Over the years, plenty of worthy bands initially overlooked eventually got in.

Also recognize that personal favorites are just that. Look, I’ll begrudgingly confess to Styx being my favorite band as a kid. It doesn’t mean they deserve induction just because I liked them.

As for bands like KISS who have a huge push for induction, consider this: they have gained more publicity by not getting in. Sure, it will look awfully silly if Rufus gets inducted this year while Rush sit at home. KISS fans may deck themselves out in makeup and protest in front of the museum in Cleveland.

However, rock 'n' roll isn’t about attending a fancy dinner, putting on a tux, giving an acceptance speech, and hoisting a trophy in the air. Save that for the Oscars. I want my rockers wardrobed in over-the-top stage outfits or dirty jeans and T-shirts. I want them to scream out songs about sex, drugs, cars, and bizarre sci-fi fantasies. I want drummers who brutalize their kits and guitarists who wail on their axes.

After all, regardless of what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame says, which of these would you call rock 'n' roll? Neil Diamond playing “Sweet Caroline” at his induction last year or KISS performing “Rock and Roll All Night”?

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