I haven't been inside the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame since the day it opened in 1995, amid what I described as "a pageant of boosterism and babbittry," with a canned recording (!) of Jimi Hendrix's squeal-and-squawk version of "The Star Spangled Banner" and a flyover by a few Marine Corps Harrier jets.
That was the day Jann Wenner, the Rolling Stone publisher who was one of the driving forces behind the hall, told an estimated crowd of 10,000 that while the hall was built to remind us of the "power of innocence, rebellion and youth," it also stood as a symbol of "maturity, growth and perspective."
Then there was a parade featuring 16-foot papier-mache puppets of Elvis and Madonna. The Hall of Fame ribbon-cutting wasn't much different from the unveiling of any other civic project. There were congratulatory speeches from politicians and a lot of bouquets handed out to corporate sponsors.
Just for the record, I think it's a silly, preening institution with a limited constituency that doesn't necessarily encompass either practitioners or deep fans of the craft. Rock 'n' roll is antithetical to the inherent elitism of a hall of fame. It's oxymoronic to create an insiders' group for professional outsiders.
Still, the inductees pretty much go along with it, because rock 'n' roll has from the beginning been a rather transparent swindle, like pro wrestling. The first man in, Chuck Berry, applied his genius in calculated ways to capture the discretionary dollars of teenagers, a newly minted demographic group created in the post-World War II boom because we as a nation could afford for a generation to defer adulthood. It isn't until we get to Bob Dylan that teen idols began to court a certain shambolic mysticism image and become rock stars more interested in making art than providing entertainment. (And even here we should hear the testimony of David Geffen that no one was more interested in money than Dylan.)
Part of what makes rock 'n' roll fun is its pro wrasslin' duality; we all know it's fake though we are pretend it isn't. It's a business pretending to art that occasionally produces transcendent stuff. Rock 'n' roll can connect with its audience as forcefully as any other form, and it has the additional benefit of being a highly democratic form. Some of the best rock 'n' roll has always been created by spirited amateurs with only a rudimentary grasp of how music is supposed to work. Almost anyone, with a little help from their friends, can make a credible rock 'n' roll record, and sometimes lucky accidents become touchstones for generations.
We were all supposed to die before we got old, remember? Not to become middle-aged people sitting on boards with comb-overs and sensible flat shoes. (We weren't going to be the ones yelling at the kids to turn down the Earl Sweatshirt, which isn't music anyway.)
Yet here we are. Business people enshrining professionals, courting tourist dollars. (Making a game show out of it, convincing the kids that it's all about virtuosity and abusive melisma.) I get it. We all have to eat. I don't hate the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I don't. I don't.
I just don't think it has anything to do with the cultural practice it pretends to honor.
So I'm not going to be drawn into any discussions about whether the Moody Blues or Dire Straits should have been inducted years ago, or about how Radiohead and Judas Priest were snubbed. I'm glad it recognized Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but I wonder what she would make of her induction. Same thing with Nina Simone--she wasn't a rock singer, and it's not called the Pop Music Hall of Fame. But whatever.
It's possible to hold contradictory opinions in one's head. A lot of my favorite music could be derisively classified as "dad rock," and when I pick up a guitar--which some people believe is becoming an archaic instrument--my hands go to the same old familiar chord shapes and phrases. It's all muscle memory and nostalgia, though I probably listen to as much new music as anyone. While I could give you any number of possible expiration dates for the ideal of rock 'n' roll, it's still very much alive for me.
It's an elusive thing, with no universally acknowledged conventions for the genre. Calling a piece of music rock 'n' roll may distinguish it from other forms such as country, jazz or classical (and again, it may not, because the borders are not decided), but it doesn't tell us much about the music itself. Does rock 'n' roll require electric guitars and heavy drums? Shouted lyrics and 4/4 time?
No. Even the most casual fan of the music might know that Elvis Presley recorded "That's All Right" without a drummer, that there are rock bands that eschew electric instruments, that guitars are not essential to the bringing of the noise. I might argue that an inarticulate heart-strung longing--what Van Morrison called the yarrggh, what most people mean when they speak of "soul"--is inherent in the music, but even as I write that I think of counter-examples. (Kraftwerk. The Sex Pistols. Some cool Bowie.)
Rock is the currency of the age, our shared vocabulary. We live in a time when rock 'n' roll is the dominant cultural practice--no arena of American life has escaped the impact of its rise. And the rise of rock 'n' roll is more than the rise of a brand of popular music that combines elements of black rhythm and blues with white folk and country music traditions. It's the rise of the unregenerate pose, the slouching posture of bored stupid youth, the cult of the good-looking corpse.
When Scott Fitzgerald declared the '20s to be the Jazz Age, he had more in mind than music. Fitzgerald understood jazz as a cultural practice that conflated music, fashion and a certain libertine attitude.
Of course it's been commodified--it was a Hollywood conceit to begin with, James Dean in a red windbreaker, Marlon Brandon rebelling against whatever you've got. Johnny Rotten famously asked, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"
Yup. You get used to it.
Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.
Editorial on 12/19/2017
Print Headline: A peculiar institution