Ignoring the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
At some point every year, the conversation in the world of popular music turns to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: who’s getting in, who isn’t getting in, who deserves to be in, and whether or not the whole thing matters. This year, the designated spearhead of the anti-HoF assault was Judas Priest, who after 36 years of existing wholly outside the Hall’s walls were finally inducted – not as performers, but as winners of the “Award for Musical Excellence,” whatever that means. In this honor they join such musical excellencies as Randy Rhoads, Ringo Starr, and LL Cool J, each of whom has released an album at least as good as Stained Class, if not better. We’ll leave that alone for now, except to say that much of the buzz about the biz this year surrounded Priest in particular, and that seemed like a good enough excuse for me to dust off the skeleton of this article, which I’d been kicking around for a while, and finally put some words into it. We also had a free slot in our publishing schedule and I was bored.
If you’re beginning to worry that this article is going to join the endless picket lines of clickbait-y content mills excoriating the Hall for its near-apostatic heresies, allow me to alleviate your concerns before I abuse my word count too much. While the decidedly irrational selections of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are not undeserving of the ire they incur with dependable regularity, the good news that I have come to spread in the name of rock and/or roll is that you do not have to care. That is my thesis, right here up front with no further introduction: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame does not matter. And I don’t even mean that it doesn’t matter in the same way that everything doesn’t matter; we still go to our little jobs and pursue our little dreams and cultivate our little relationships, don’t we, so clearly the mere circumstance of something not mattering on a cosmic level isn’t sufficient to deter us from entertaining it. I mean that it doesn’t matter in the same way that it doesn’t matter what Roger II of Sicily ate for breakfast on the morning of November 18, 1132 AD. What the Hall says does not determine the course of your life. It does not affect the way that you listen to and appreciate music. It does not prevent new music from being made or old music from being discovered. Anybody who seriously cares about music has better things to do than worry about whether Blue Cheer will get in this year so that they can finally be accorded the same honor as Donna Summer, Gene Vincent, and the Beastie Boys.
Personally, I understand the instinctive honor-bestowing urges that wrought the Rock Hall’s lamentable façade; I, too, get the impulse to put things in high places, commission state portraits, distribute titles, pin ribbons, have ceremonies, and all that. Making a fuss about things you like is fun. That’s half the reason I write for this website. On top of that, I listen to Manowar, so believe me, I know all about the importance of halls. I don’t hate the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I can’t even say I dislike it, aside from my weakest moments when I get stuck in an infinite loop trying to determine how N.W.A. are more of a rock band than Motörhead. I simply don’t care a farthing for this whole fantasy. Neither should you.
Going to the effort of writing and publishing a lengthy article explaining how little I care about something is pretty suspect, I do admit; it’s extraordinarily performative to a degree that undercuts my credibility, but in my long tenure writing for Metal Storm I have never claimed to have any particular credibility to begin with, so let’s just call the whole thing even. In any case, this article is not really meant to address the flaws of the Hall, which, we should recognize, are too substantial to be reversed at this point. We struck the iceberg, the compartments are flooded, and the ship is sinking. Too late. I’m not interested in fixing it. This article is more of a response to the responses. This is aimed at the other publications that always find something to whinge about every time someone like Ma Rainey makes it in and someone like The Replacements doesn’t. This is more for the benefit of the bystanders out there who can make the distinction between “rock” and “any other genre of music” and feel intellectually insulted by the Hall’s insistence that Tupac Shakur and Nirvana are the same thing. You see, while it’s very easy to get frustrated by a highly publicized corporate institution insisting that it knows the thing you like better than you do and then getting that thing entirely wrong (that’s just life under capitalism, amirite, fellas?), just as with the Grammys, just as with the Billboard Music Awards, just as with the Metal Storm Awards (if you have bad taste), the solution is to transcend earthly desires for correction. Music fans, you can save yourself an awful lot of headache and heartache by recognizing that the Rock Hall was never destined to get things right, for that is not its purpose.
What Is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is two things: a physical museum and an intangible concept, both headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, USA. The museum collects rock’n’roll memorabilia, documents the genre’s history, and pays tribute to some of its most notable recording artists and other influential figures through a variety of exhibits, some revolving; like many significant musea, it is publicly funded and was lobbied for heavily due to its potential as a major tourist attraction. It was eventually “awarded” to Cleveland because there is literally no other reason to visit Cleveland. Generally, I consider museums unobjectionable. They collect old stuff, they charge a few bucks for the upkeep of corporeal history, and they preserve material legacies for future generations to experience. Nothing wrong with that, especially if they happen to bring in the kind of jobs and revenue with which the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame supplies its locality. I’ve never been to the Rock Hall’s physical location, and I probably never will unless I find myself stranded in Cleveland with more than a few hours before my connecting flight, but if somebody out there wants to stash Prince’s guitar and Pink Floyd’s stage sets and archive thousands of pages of music journalism from the ’60s and ‘70s, hey, knock yourself out.
The building is not really the issue, though. You don’t see KISS, Dee Snider, and Anthrax’s Charlie Benante complaining about the architecture or the wallpaper or the fiscal impact on the community; what stokes people’s displeasure is, as we know, the arbitrary, haphazard, illogical, self-serving, and thoroughly zany method of selection that the shadow cult behind the Rock Hall’s induction committee employs year after year. The Rock Hall in its conceptual form has an extremely skewed perspective about what constitutes “rock music,” and it has folded into that label a wide variety of performers from the worlds of jazz, R&B, soul, bluegrass, country, blues, and hip-hop, probably among a few others; some inductees, like Robert Johnson and Bill Monroe, were allotted the title of “influence” to explain their presence as owing to some contribution of style or direction that helped to shape rock and roll. Certainly I agree that more people should appreciate pre-rock music in that vein, but letting in Hank Williams seems rather… off-topic, wouldn’t you say? Even if he IS better than Sonic Youth or Smashing Pumpkins, is he so crucial to rock music that we have to set up his shrine before we get around to recognizing Boston, The Smiths, and Slade? And although we can all understand the impact that somebody like Les Paul or Leo Fender had on rock, I fail to see where Eminem fits the bill. Eminem certainly deserves a place in some kind of hall of fame for introducing me to Dido. For that, he has my everlasting gratitude. But that should be some kind of Hip-Hop Hall of Fame, shouldn’t it? Has rock become such an imperialist venture that it must annex other genres and claim other domains for itself? Is being associated with rock music in some way the highest honor that any musician could be accorded? Should I start adding Run The Jewels, Merzbow, John Coltrane, and fhána to my “best of rock” playlist just in case they get inducted? I can do that, if the committee demands it, but isn’t that just weird? Moreover, we seem to be missing some very eminent personages from outside the Anglosphere: Cui Jian, Erkin Koray, Bức Tường, Akvarium, Raul Seixas, Arthur Meschian, Flower Travellin' Band, Musi-O-Tunya, and other progenitors or innovators of rock in other parts of the world are nowhere to be found. Hell, Johnny Hallyday isn’t even in there and he’s probably outsold 90% of the current roster, which is especially strange given how very obviously record sales factor into the selection process.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in reality more like the Famous Musicians of the 20th Century Who Performed in Any Genre and Had Commercial Success in the United States and Also a Few Producers and Lawyers Hall of Fame. It’s all cash, identity politics, fading memories of American Bandstand, a pathetic desperation to appear relevant, and a complete inability to comprehend what music has become in the years since 1983. But it’s just as well that they offer a bit of variety, considering that their membership tiers stack from a measly $25 “virtual member” to the $25,000 “icon” package; if you’re going to blow somebody’s entire annual salary on a membership to the building where Phish’s flying hot dog is stored, you’d want to be darn sure that you could stare at dresses worn by The Supremes and Taylor Swift while you’re on your way to visit Jimi Hendrix’s family’s couch.
There Is No Point in Complaining
Keep in mind that this institution was founded in the mid-‘80s by a small group of people that consisted of attorneys, record executives, and Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, all traditionally held to be the sort of people who understand music best. Most of these founders are now in the Hall of Fame themselves, coincidentally, as bringing about the existence of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is now held to be such a substantial contribution to the legacy of rock music that such an act in itself warrants being inducted. No one should be laboring under the assumption that the Hall is designed or has the capacity to provide the public with a comprehensive, unbiased, informative, and fair overview of the history, evolution, and musical innovations of rock music. It is ludicrous to think that any committee could ever curate an eternally definitive catalogue of the most important people and recordings ever to constitute or contribute to some important part of rock music. Those of us who have enjoyed music for more than five minutes in our lives have already learned from repeated, numbing experiences how incompetent institutions like the Grammys are when it comes to recognizing artistic achievements, and the Rock Hall goes one step further by announcing that its inductees are not only the best offerings of this year but are the best of all time and that the chronicling of music’s history is dictated by its whims. Creating such a catalogue is a lofty and ambitious goal, especially considering that the Rock Hall’s idea of achieving that goal is leaving Ronnie James Dio out of Black Sabbath’s induction. Yeah, forget Geoff Nicholls and Tony Martin – the Hall’s scope is even smaller than Dio was.
Music is art. It does not have a governing authority. It has no higher power that can categorically determine its most valuable works. Any group that claims to possess such power is merely deluded and untrustworthy. Why should we believe the insistence of an insular body of millionaires that they among all are qualified to bestow ranks of talent and notoriety? Why should we place any stock in its musical taste when it will never include Isis, Rotting Christ, or Anathema? Why would you ever want the approval of people who seem to believe that there are only five metal bands out there and none of them are all that important? I think that Michael Nesmith of The Monkees said it best: “I can see the HOF is a private enterprise. It seems to operate as a business, and the inductees are there by some action of the owners of the Enterprise. The inductees appear to be chosen at the owner’s pleasure. This seems proper to me. It is their business in any case. It does not seem to me that the HOF carries a public mandate, nor should it be compelled to conform to one.” The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is, in fact, a private fan club that serves the interest of its directors and, for whatever reason, feels compelled to impose its will on the general public; it does not actually dictate what is crucial and good in the world of rock music any more than the MTV Movie & TV Awards dictate what is crucial and good in the world of cinema or the New York Times Best Seller list dictates what is crucial and good in the world of literature.
I’m sure that everybody reading this is very familiar with the teachings of the Bible, but just in case you’re rusty, I’m going to remind you of the wisdom of Proverbs 29:9 (King James Version): “If a wise man contendeth with a foolish man, whether he rage or laugh, there is no rest.” That’s the ecclesiastical version of “you can’t win an argument with an idiot.” You cannot succeed by arguing with the Rock Hall’s logic, because they have none and they don’t want yours. They are not interested in creating a respectable record of rock music’s most venerable artists, supporters, and influences; why do you think they add people in small spurts once a year, instead of inducting the entire British Invasion at the first possible opportunity? Why do you think they host such high–profile gatherings for their annual induction ceremonies? It’s for continued publicity, not serious historical documentation or musical promotion, and don’t think that the controversy generated by their consistently baffling nominations doesn’t contribute to their endowment in one form or another. Directing your complaints at the Hall as if it cares whether or not it omits Martin Birch for yet another year only brings to mind the wisdom of Homer Simpson: “Why won’t those stupid idiots let me in their crappy club for jerks?”
Heavy Metal in the Hall
A lot of the controversy stirred up by the people and publications that I tend to come into contact with, writing as I do for a metal-focused webzine, concerns the wholesale lack of respect for heavy metal by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Of the 351 current inductees, perhaps a dozen have at any point in their careers played heavy metal, depending on your definition, and most of those require at least a couple of asterisks. As of this exact second, the Metal Archives lists 157,835 metal bands, and they don’t even count System Of A Down, because they hate fun. You can do the math on your own; there are more country singers than metal bands in the Hall, and probably as many rappers. To some people, this is a problem. Sure, it does seem odd not to involve Iron Maiden, Nightwish, or Dream Theater when Dolly Parton and Whitney Houston are in. But in a way, I’m totally fine with this.
Over the years, I’ve become increasingly incredulous of the continued assumption that heavy metal is just a subgenre of rock; obviously, rock is where metal has its origins, and the line is thin or nonexistent on a whole lot of fronts ranging from glam to prog to stoner to the good ol’ traditional stuff, but our dear Radu and Jo Quail were only just talking about how the idea of “heavy metal” being any kind of uniform classification is utterly ridiculous. Is it not enough that we place Bell Witch, Rings Of Saturn, Beast In Black, Voivod, Pensées Nocturnes, Eternal Tears Of Sorrow, Blood Stain Child, W.A.S.P., Ayreon, Master Boot Record, Therion, Thy Catafalque, Deathspell Omega, X Japan, Meshuggah, Darkspace, Dark Buddha Rising, Neurosis, Ereb Altor, Antigama, Neoandertals, and Sir Lord Baltimore all under the same broad category of “heavy metal” (and no, that was not too many examples)? Must we also insist that James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen, Steely Dan, and Chuck Berry play the same type of music as Ministry, Wuthering Heights, Bethlehem, and Gojira? Even if bands like Rainbow or Scorpions often cannot be distinguished from rock, surely we must realize by now that there is at least as much difference between Elvis Presley and Anaal Nathrakh as there is between the Backstreet Boys and Brahms? Is what separates Bolt Thrower from Link Wray any less substantial than what separates Throbbing Gristle from Lepa Brena? Do Vildhjarta and Patti Smith really have so much more in common than Ali Farka Touré and Jimmy Shand?
I view heavy metal as being a mainline genre distinct from rock. They once were one, but in retrospect, the evolutionary course that metal has taken has put it far outside the bounds of what rock can claim as its own. I think that the same is even arguable for punk, but we can leave that to Punk Storm or whatever the equivalent is; my point is that what happens in the rock world no longer has any bearing on what happens in the metal world, at least not inherently. As much crossover and common interest as there still is, we’re just speaking different languages. How can we begin to push for Celtic Frost, Agalloch, Dan Swanö, or Sepultura to be inducted into a hall of fame that does not even recognize the existence of Megadeth? There is no place for heavy metal in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and while that’s largely because the owners of the Hall still think that Van Halen is the heaviest band in the world, it’s also because metal just doesn’t belong there. It wouldn’t make any sense. The gulf between our two genres has grown too great, and grasping the significance of Emperor is beyond the capabilities of people who cannot even adequately determine whether or not Public Enemy is a rock band. What would we even be doing, trying to force Thergothon into a museum built for T. Rex?
Heavy metal does not need recognition by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It doesn’t need recognition by the Grammys or Eurovision or any other primetime farce. It has always existed without official approval, commercial success, critical acclaim, and mainstream credibility. Sometimes it achieves those things, but it doesn’t subsist on acceptance by institutions. The only relationship that truly matters in metal is that of the music itself to the people who create and appreciate it. Music is exalted by people connecting to it, not by gold plaques or lavish ceremonies or the chance to shake hands with a business magnate. It has no need of a hall of fame, because that hall of fame already exists in the collective feelings of the community.
When the Sex Pistols were to be inducted in 2006, Johnny Rotten faxed a handwritten note to the Hall of Fame referring to it as a “piss stain.” Leave it to a Pistol to put things a little more vituperatively than most of us would, but I see no valid defense being offered. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame referring to induction as “rock’s highest honor” is much like the confederated kingdoms of Central Europe still referring to themselves in 1800 as the “Holy Roman Empire.” The language of authority and dignity that the Hall couches itself in is much like the hollow echoes of a public figure telling you that they are “deeply saddened” by some “tragic event” that has occurred: you’d expect them to say that, but only because it would seem indicative of a lack of self-awareness if they didn’t, not because you actually believe their sentiments to be genuine. Nothing about the Hall is necessary or real or in line with any of the artistic values that it supposedly celebrates. It is not important and you have much better things to complain about, much better things to waste your time on, and much better things to fuel your disillusionment with life. If you need any more reason not to pay attention, Lou Reed and Metallica played together at the Hall of Fame’s 25th Anniversary Concert and it was this performance that gave them the idea to collaborate. I liked that album, but I know that most of us did not.
Now we know who is getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2022. Congratulations to Judas Priest, Dolly Parton, Eminem, and their friends. Come 2023, we’ll be seeing the same spate of articles from irate media publications asking where the hell X band is (come to think of it, where the hell are X and X Japan?) and why so-and-so is in the Hall of Fame when they aren’t even a rock artist and so on and so forth. It’ll be another subject of conversation and clickable blurbs and you may see some actual news coverage; you’ll certainly see a massive stream of furious comments online. I encourage you not to bother entertaining the fantasy that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will ever “get it right.” Don’t waste your time on those articles. Don’t engage with those comments. If Jann Wenner approaches you on the street and asks you how you feel about Van Morrison, don’t make eye contact with him. It’s not worth those precious fragments of your life and it’s not worth those small bursts of brainpower. Go about your day and listen to Dismember instead.
Just don’t do what I did. Writing 3,700 words for the purpose of ignoring something really takes it out of you.
||Written on 16.05.2022 by I'm the reviewer, and that means my opinion is correct.|
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