On Rocks, Rolls and Halls of Fame, as well as associated isms

Guys! The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions are happening! I know I already wrote about their chances for accurately reflecting true Rock and Roll greatness, but it turns out I have some more to say!


You see, like all Halls of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame simultaneously exists in two states: the theoretical, where it represents a canonification, a beacon to future generations that this, the set of things in here, is what was Important, and the physical, where it represents a collection of artifacts – this is Sly Stone’s jumpsuit, these are Kurt Cobain’s guitars, this is James Brown’s microphone, these are Elvis Presley’s boots.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is pretty much an unqualified success in the latter sense: as a museum, it’s great. Videos, ample access to the songs themselves, rolling exhibits delving deeply into individual acts (the Rolling Stones the last time I was there, a rather impressive Pink Floyd1 exhibit the time prior). It’s basically what you’d expect, with the centerpiece (literally, as the showroom is in the center of the middle floor of the building) being an hour-plus video showing the names of every inductee, with clips of as many as the video designers tried to include2.

But the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s strength as a museum is precisely the divorce of the two things. The museum end – the part with all the stuff – doesn’t have to worry about the long-term canonization, and it doesn’t have to hold up a narrative. So the high points of the museum are free to be, say, an analog synth played by Milan Williams3 or the hand-written first-draft lyrics of “Here Comes a Regular”4, without the HOF itself having to worry about the long-term canonization prospects/narrative role of The Commodores or The Replacements in and of themselves.

I keep using the word “narrative,” and that’s not by accident. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a Hall of Fame exists to preserve the story that was largely invented by Rolling Stone, the magazine that underwrites much of the HOF’s existence. The story of Rolling Stone, due to its position as the most popular source of modern music criticism, is largely the story of modern music criticism. It’s also responsible for the currently-bubbling-back-under idea that there is “serious” music made for “serious” consideration and “not serious” music. In the case of Rolling Stone, the house organ for rock music, the “serious” music meant the album-length, non-radio-friendly material. This attitude, borne at the time out of truth (the album-oriented-rock stuff was better, really). The problem is that “the most worthy stuff at the time” became equated with “the most worthy stuff”, and the set of attributes that make rock music seem great were applied, unilaterally, to every song, with things that failed to meet the circumscribed qualifications that made, say, a good Led Zeppelin record, being deemed “unworthy.” This fostered a contempt for pop music (not to mention country music, dance music6, and, eventually, hip-hop, although more on all of these things in a second). Thus the circle of “things that it’s cool to write about critically, and therefore ensconce in the idea of ‘serious things’” went little further than “rock music.”

Over time, people (still Rock People, mind you) became new sets of younger Rock People, and they began to make allowances: country was still right out, but Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson weren’t. Rap was still hardly allowed to be considered music, except for Run DMC and Public Enemy. The Motown and Stax sounds, that had led so seamlessly into disco’s firmament, became lauded as the thing to which “black music” should aspire7. The thing that made all of this baffling in hindsight is that instead of allowing for, say, Johnny Cash (for it is Johnny who is something of the king of “reappropriation by people who have absolutely no idea about he tradition or even genre in which the great man worked”) to be an exception in and of himself, you got the argument that, indeed, he was somehow a rock musician (simply put if rock = good, then also anything that is good = rock, right?)

And this is how it was, until about ten years ago, when two things happened in tandem that fractured the hegemony. The first is more interesting, but less germane: by 2005 or so, there was an entire generation of kids who were getting into music for whom file-trading and the like wasn’t some novelty to be enjoyed, but a fact of existence. The biggest blow to the record industry was, in fact, file trading, just not in the way they thought: when every kid can be exposed to every record, and everything arrives via the same distribution channel, then everything gets evaluated not on how much money was spent, or how much credibility can be bought by the ownership of an artifact, but based on how much they liked it. The record-selling industry has still not figured out a way to re-mobilize to convince people that 1) there isn’t an entire world out there made of bands playing whatever type of music you could ever, conceivably, want to hear and 2) they should pay the artificially-inflated prices that came from the sale to a captive audience (see FN5) that could pretty easily be convinced that the music covered therein was all the music that mattered.

The second thing, more to our point here, is the coinage of the term, and surrounding debate around, “rockism.” To wit: all of those ideas a couple of paragraphs ago that are so counterintuitive and clearly exist only to prop up a wing of an industry that levered itself around for so long on its own press were called out as being reductive. “Of course” they said “a Destiny’s Child song isn’t going to be the same thing as a White Stripes album8, why should it?” What an excellent question! And, for a brief, shining time, it looked like things were going to be sane. And then there was a weird game of one-upsmanship to enjoy music of outre genres in an attempt to prove your poptimism. This led to things like people buying Ne-Yo records.

And so years this debate bubbled slowly – it’s still never come to any kind of real head – with people being branded with a scarlet R for not showing enough love to pop music or whatever. Some good was accomplished (a decrease in people that believe that any genre in particular is “only for those, lesser, people over there”, the rise in prominence of the inestimable Maura Johnston), and some bad continued (country music remains something of an untouchable caste, except insofar as it’s the genre where people continue to buy records, which seems like weird disconnect that I’m not going to say much about here).

It should surprise none of you to find where I may come down in the argument. My lists of the best songs and albums of every year are publicly available and you can use them to piece together a pretty good idea of where I stand. But the short version: rockists are silly people who deny themselves a great deal of pleasure by insisting on a very narrow definition of quality, even if rock music itself is capable of being some extremely exciting, extremely provactive music. I like these babies, I just don’t like that bathwater.

The most recent (and largets in some time) bubble was a week or so ago, when Saul Austerlitz wrote a long-ish piece about how music critics aren’t snobby enough. It’s a piece about which I am ambivalent: I’m all for snobby. If you don’t think there are things that are bad, if you don’t think that there are better ways to spend your time, if you don’t think that there are things that aren’t worthy of your consideration, and if you make those decisions in a reasoned9 fashion, then by gum, you are prepared to have a debate, and to debate an opinion is literally the best thing you can do with an opinion. On the other hand, S.A. does a lot of sniffing and looking down his nose at how much of what people listen to is “pop music,” and, well, that’s not actually a reason to be snobby. Anyway, Austerlitz’s piece was the second shot in a volley started by Ted Gioia, about which the less said, the better. Suffice it to say: if Ted Gioia’s stupid article leads to an examination of poptimisim as the New Critical Orthodoxy, then that will be exactly one worthwhile result of that article10. If this wing of the argument gains any momentum, it would seem to be affecting a change toward an appreciation of “brain” music, or even just “ears” music (as opossed to “adrenaline” or “ass” music), which probably will mean dusting off the old rockism trenches once more.

So what does all of this have to do with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a pretty pyramid-shaped building on Lake Erie?

Well, they’re the ones keeping the home fires burning for this whole thing. See, that narrative above, as confusing as even those paragraphs are in this context, are the shortest-possible version of the narrative (and the fallout of that narrative) that carries the rock and roll hall of fame with it. One of the things that has been increasingly amusing (and remains so now – all of the microdebates among squabbling critics and bloggers doesn’t change the fact that, fundamentally, most people will remain unaware of it) is that even as the magazine that pays to keep the spotlights shining on Rob Halfrod’s codpiece has, as per Mr. Gioia, become, essentially a lifestyle magazine11, the rock and roll hall of fame stands somewhat ahistorically.

And so it’s hard not to see the ideological component of the HOF (i.e. the propping up of the attitudes and language of rockism as though 1) the debate never happened and 2) people haven’t, by and large, stopped listening to new rock musc12) as necessary. If, in 2014, we’re still going to have to go out there and strap on our fightin’ boots and march against this nonsense, it’s nice to have what is, essentially, a willing strawman, representing a consensus opinion that no one could possibly hold about what is and is not “worthy” of being housed.

If we’re going to include a discussion of the trappings of a genre in our discussion of the genre itself (and why shouldn’t we? the way a performer presents him or herself is obviously important enough to be included as part of the package, so why wouldn’t it be important enough to consider in the analysis?), then we can say that the most “rock and roll” thing about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is that it is a big, ostentatious, instantly-identifiable, loud object that is very much about insisting on its own self-importance.

So the induction ceremony is going to happen, again, and there’ll be one next year, and the year after that, because the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is always going to be there. So go in and look and Nancy Wilson’s dresses, they’re pretty cool! But try not to take any of this very seriously, because the attitudes that it represents have been pretty reductive and harmful to a lot of artists and the subcultures they represent.

Oh, and I made it through this whole piece without mentioning punk rock, which almost needs its own set of consideration for the amount that it has been turned inside out in that building. Maybe next year.

1 nowhere is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s revisionist schizophrenia apparent than in their treatment of Pink Floyd – not inducted in their first year of eligibility, they were inducted and then immediately saturated the Hall of Fame enviornment. Prog rock’s treatment is pretty baffling in and of itself, but if Rush, Yes, et al get the same eventual reception that Pink Floyd received, there’s not going to be room for much else.
2 This video is the most interesting thing in the museum for several reasons. The one I’m going to mention here is that it’s an opportunity to get an idea for the overall musical shape of things. Another is that old performance footage shows just how divorced from the sound of the actual band things got in the seventies and, especially, the eighties. Oh, and performance footage of Flavor Flav from 1992 or so is just about the most depressing thing I’ve ever seen. 3 an instrument so beautiful I almost proposed to it.
4 it used to be even sadder, guys. The original lyrics are also more clearly about Bob Stinson, which does absolutely nothing to make it less miserable.
5 consider, if you will, the benefit to the record labels whose material Rolling Stone is covering: the critical notion that the music that is “worthy” is not only housed on the more-expensive album format, but unless you listen to the then-nascent FM radio band late at night to hear album-oriented rock music, you won’t even be able to hear it unless you purchase it yourself. There’s no way to make an industry profitable quite like a captive audience.
6 perhaps no one suffered from the “things that don’t rock aren’t any good” backlash quite as much as disco, a form that was, for a very long time, so knee-jerk reviled as disco. You can find any number of sources that will argue that the anti-disco backlash was homophobic in nature, and I wouldn’t disagree too strenuously (a lot of the early criticism certainly took on a lot of that tone), but I think the even more basic impulse is to deny the notion that the Rock People, who had, but the time disco came along, spent a lot of their effort setting themselves up as gatekeepers of Cool Stuff, could be circumvented and that disco music, which is easier to make, easier to play, and completely outside of the rock mien, represented a world outside of the purview of the Rock People. The backlash was so heavy that, unlike other genres that the HOF would eventually subsume, disco remains something of a pariah.
7 this particular idea would retain traction for decades – that whatever represented what the Rock People thought was black music at the time wasn’t as good as it had been twenty years ago. Eventually, the alternative rap thing caught up and Rock People could just shake their heads and mumble about The Roots.
8 this is the mid-oughts, remember.
9 NB: reasoned, not informed – you don’t have to know anything about Imagine Dragons to know that Imagine Dragons suck, provided that you know the reason that you think they suck.
10 should you be interested in a piece from that perspective, here’s a flavorwire article that also draws a connection between Gioia and Austerlitz.
11 albeit a lifestyle magazine that usually has a couple of ace writers on the staff and, until recently, included National Treasure Matt Taibbi, so it’s still not lost any stock as a worthwhile periodical.
12 this is actually a result of the Rock People’s attitudes: if you’re told, as a kid, that the best rock music happened thirty or forty years before you were born, and that nothing will ever be as good as it was when a generation or two before you were kids, how likely are you going to be go out and support someone who’s doing something new, or even to do that yourself? This more than anything – this enshrinement of and absolute insistence upon the old stuff – can speak to the enormous loss of market share of rock music.


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