The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the sound of nails scratching on the Blackboard Jungle. The body ostensibly honored Kiss, Cat Stevens, Nirvana, and Peter Gabriel, among others, by inducting them into their club last night at a party at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. But the real honor goes to all those bands—Def Leppard, The Cure, Cheap Trick, etc.—snubbed from the guest list. “Yeah, yeah, yeah” and “Be-Bop-A-Lula” and “Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom” don’t belong cooped up behind a glass case in a museum.
The Sex Pistols understood this when they refused attendance at their induction a few years back. “Next to the SEX PISTOLS rock and roll and that hall of fame is a piss stain,” the punk rockers announced in 2006. “Were not your monkey and so what?” They redundantly added: “Were not coming.” The Sex Pistols may never have nailed the music. But here, as in so much, they grasped the attitude—even in their intentional grammatical faux pas.
The primary controversy surrounding the Hall of Fame involves those bands that have been unfairly kept out. Until recently, rock snobs have annoyed rock fans by mistreating the likes of Kiss and Rush — bands that regular people enjoy but critics don’t. The real question is whether such an intrinsically contradictory body known as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should even exist.
The pretentiousness inherent in a Hall of Fame represents why rock has become passé. The institution further ensures that a style of music synonymous with teenage rebellion becomes synonymous with babyboomer nostalgia. Its very existence signals the death of rock, a form of popular music partial to innovation and not curation.
The evolution from Little Richard to Radiohead is the evolution from participatory to passive. Try listening to “Rip It Up” or “Keep a Knockin” while seated. It’s impossible. Little Richard’s energy was contagious, and once he infected his audience they cathartically sang and danced and screamed. Pop musicians imagining themselves as artists command audiences to sit, shut up, and listen. Is it any wonder rock doesn’t retain much of an audience?
Kurt Cobain killed the rock star shortly before he killed himself twenty years ago. The Nirvana leader made it cool for rock stars to become rock candles. A form of music ceases to be pop music when its players eschew popularity. Pearl Jam stopped making videos. Metallica cut their hair. Wilco stared at their shoes onstage. Robert Plant’s lion’s mane and David Lee Roth’s vibrant costumes directed every eye in the arena to their proper place. It’s a bit underwhelming when a concertgoer can’t tell the fans from the frontman.
A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, much to the detriment of rock music, has existed on the airwaves for all of my life. It’s called classic-rock radio. Contrary to the spirit of the music it plays, classic-rock radio broadcasts sclerosis. It’s part of the reason why back catalog outsells current on iTunes and why a Beatles greatest hits repackaging moved more albums than any other release during the decade just past. Rock stations playing it safe by sticking to the same market-tested two hundred songs made it unsafe for new rock on the airwaves, and ultimately—because they bored listeners on old rock—made it unsafe for any kind of rock on the dial. Thank your classic hits station—they don’t like it when you call them “oldies”—for the FM band becoming a wasteland of rap, commercialized country, the niche that passes for pop, and, strangely enough, sports talk.
One welcome byproduct of the decline of rock music is that it necessarily facilitates the decline of its Hall of Fame. As annual induction ceremonies travel further from rock’s heyday, chronology forces the body to honor decidedly non-rock performers (Madonna, Public Enemy) and marginal acts (Heart, The Stooges) to stay relevant. I would ask, “When do they enshrine Hall & Oates?”—but then I notice that they did that last night.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seeks to preserve the dominant popular music of the last half of the twentieth century. It does so in formaldehyde. Its very existence advertises the reality of rock and roll: decay. A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is about as rock n roll as Up with People covering Air Supply.