Saturday, April 14, 2012

Hall Of Fame Hate, Groupthink and Skapegoating Rockists

Everybody knows the rap against the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The nominating process is screwy, the 25-year eligibility requirement is arbitrary, the selection process is about as transparent as a lead box full of tinted windows, and the list of influential bands who have not been nominated to the Hall is longer than the past two decades' worth of inductees. Nevertheless, the Hall of Fame has perpetuated its brand for a quarter century now, and its I.M. Pei-designed waterfront museum remains one of Cleveland's most popular tourist destinations. Tonight, the Hall of Fame will induct the 2012 class, which includes Laura Nyro, Guns 'n Roses, the Beastie Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and (in an attempt to split the ticket Parliament/Funkadelic style) the Small Faces/Faces. The ceremony will be held in Cleveland rather than its normal home base Madison Square Garden, and HBO is set to televise the ceremony in early May.

Though overall the Hall of Fame occupies a very small niche in everyday musical discourse, rock critics around this time of year will suddenly, unilaterally take great umbrage at the list of nominees. The subjective formulation of "how can they choose to honor X, when Y isn't nominated?" is basically the skeleton of this approach; Other think pieces will also characterize the Hall's lack of black artists as emblematic of their secret racism, the lack of disco artists as demonstrative of secret racism and homophobia, etc., basically whatever scores the easiest political points against an already unfashionable institution. What do all these pieces have in common with the Rock Hall nomination process itself? A curious lack of self-consciousness when it comes to asserting the primacy of a particular set of politico-critical standards against another. In other words, fairly boilerplate hypocritical taste-bashing disguised as insightful political commentary.

I have surveyed a number of Hall of Fame articles, all variations on the "Why X and not Y" school, taking note of all the unexplained and incredible assumptions made by and about purported rock fans. It is perhaps not surprising that those who most strongly assert the Hall of Fame's irrelevance are also the ones most inordinately offended when certain artists don't make it into the nominating process. On the other hand, it does surprise me me that more people don't acknowledge that, with only a half-dozen inductees or so per year, of course there are still vast areas of musical history that have been ignored. Even if, for the past 25 years, they did somehow choose artists that all happened to be your favorite bands, and were all properly "diverse" and respective of every single popular music genre ever, there would still be many, many great musicians, many more than one can name, that deserve to be nominated but never will. If Rush, Chic, the Cars etc. were inducted tomorrow, a dozen more bands would take their place. This is a good thing. Where did this idea come from that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame must be comprehensive survey of everything? I will attempt to explore some of these assumptions below.

Craig Marks, "The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Is Out of Touch," The Wrap

In order to demonstrate that the HOF continually ignores the wishes of the common man, Craig Marks reaches for the oldest trick in the anti-rockist playbook: snobbery, masquerading as reverse-snobbery. Marks is an editor of Popdust, which this year began its own tradition, the "Popdust Hall of Fame," voted on by Robyn, ?uestlove and Sasha-Frere Jones among others. Their list of nominees range from the obvious (Kraftwerk) to the curious ("Weird Al" Yankovic) to the inexcusably terrible (Journey). But it's not a bad list, and I hope Popdust keeps it up, if only so that 25 years from now I can complain about Rush's inevitable exclusion. Turnabout, fair play, etc.

Unfortunately, Marks couldn't stop himself from armchair-diagnosing the pathologies of Jann Wenner and his ilk. I yield to no one in my dislike of Jann Wenner and the Rolling Stone cultural aesthetic, but dumb, ignorant assumptions are dumb, ignorant assumptions. For Marks, the likes of Hall and Oates, Bon Jovi, Whitney Houston, etc. represent "genres that are or were considered disreputable: hip-hop, disco, pop, hair-metal, whatever it is that 'Weird Al' does." Yes, this is a common criticism of the HOF: it doesn't properly acknowledge music outside the narrowly-defined "rock" aegis (never heard anyone complain about the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame honoring only rap artists), except, of course, when it does. Notice the recursive rhetorical play here? Rock 'n Roll fails to acknowledge the diversity in its midst, but when it does, it is no longer rock music, because rock music is only beloved by cranky white boomers obsessed with arbitrary notions of instrumental authenticity. Says Marks:
They often don't write their own songs or play guitars (or any instrument at all, in the case of DJs). They're nakedly commercial acts, or performed by audiences typically held in low esteem by the rock cognoscenti (women, gays, people of color, whoever it is who goes to "Weird Al" shows). They dress funny. They're "fake" or "for girls," or, worst all, "sellouts."
Hey, there's my other favorite rhetorical standby, the implication that the straw men with whom you disagree with are also secret racists and homophobes. Conversation won! Too bad their motives for listening to music can never be pure, unlike populist Craig Marks. He continues:
But for the dogmatic baby boomers who dominate the Rock Hall nomination process, rock has been on a steady decline since the Beatles broke up. (And they still blame Yoko). Punk, rap, synth-pop, poodle rock: all junk food, bad influences, false idols. Pop music flourished in the 80s, but as MTV made image transcendent and hip-hop rendered the guitar unnecessary, a divide opened between the old critical guard and the new that has never been fully bridged.
Jesus. "Hip-hop rendered the guitar unnecessary"? My blood pressure goes through the roof when I read things like this, which are demonstrably untrue. Everyone at the Rock Hall hates Yoko? I wonder if they mentioned that to her when she accepted John Lennon's nomination in 1994. It is also rich that Marks writes so warmly of MTV, an institution that was explicitly and provably racist, even if that history has today been whitewashed by the same people who chide rockists for their lack of fidelity to the pop charts.

These are all niggling points, though. The main problem here is that Marks fails to see the irony in casting Rock Hall voters as narrow-minded purveyors of arbitrary taste. "Hip-hop rendered the guitar unnecessary"? Does one have the right to judge anyone's genre preference after a statement as totally, ineluctably asinine as that one? It continues to surprise me that rock fans get this rap as being fanatically intolerant, when the most consistently small-minded, dismissive commentary I see on the Internet often comes from critics who exult the superiority of Beyonce over "indie" artists that collectively have a fraction of her wealth and influence. It doesn't strike them as possible that I would dislike Bon Jovi because I genuinely find his music revolting: I must be jealous of his success, insufficiently deferential toward popular radio, unreceptive to the "transcendent images" on MTV, or whatever. This is what I mean by snobbery masquerading as reverse-snobbery. "Rock fans are so pretentious and judgmental"--anyone who utters words to this effect must realize that they are immediately guilty of the same crimes as their straw men. Poptimist, deflate thyself.

Jesse Jarnow, "10 No-Brainer Rock Legends Never Nominated For The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," The Village Voice

Tom Breihan, "The 11 Biggest Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Snubs," Stereogum

Most of these anti-Rock Hall articles take the form of lists, which makes for convenient reading, even if the outrage against each particular omission is, as ever, selective. Breihan's list is the more conventional, featuring perennial non-inductees Chic, Rush and KISS. The problem with Breihan's writing is that he chides the Hall of Fame for ignoring artists he otherwise never pays attention to. Or maybe Google is broken and I've missed Stereogum's breathless coverage of Rush's upcoming nineteenth album Clockwork Angels, out in June. Even Breihan seems unconvinced about his own argument for Rush's inclusion:
This Canadian trio's virtuosic showiness has inspired decades of musicians to absolutely master their instruments before committing anything to tape, and there's always something to be said for that.
"...And there's always something to be said for that." Powerful words. Of course, you could also say the exact same thing about Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, the Moody Blues, Steely Dan--the point is a lot of different bands inspired a lot of different proficient instrumentalists. Meanwhile, here's his argument for KISS:
This band's gonzo all-out version of theatrical spectacle has resonated through the years; artists from Gaga to GWAR have taken something out of it. Look, nobody wants to see Gene Simmons act all creepy at the podium, but the band's place in history cannot be denied.
Can't it, though? Just because the band was a famous and successful example of stadium rock, does that mean I must acknowledge them as any good? For Breihan, this seems like an irrelevant consideration. Again, KISS, Devo, and Nick Drake only serve a purpose insofar as they demonstrate the number of major acts the RHOF has not yet inducted. The message is "look at the kind of music we like, that the Rock Hall of Fame is clearly ignorant of," not, "these are worthy bands deserving of inclusion." On the other hand, at least Breihan acknowledges that some of this music (such as Roxy Music) "holds up well," and he spares the reader any immediate judgments about rock fans and their hateful taste in music.

Jesse Jarnow's Village Voice piece is much better in this regard. Jarnow limits his list to artists that have never been nominated, which saves him the trouble of going through Chic and Rush for the millionth time. All he says about the RHOF induction process is that it has "symbolic importance for all that is hilarious about itself," which is a great way of putting it. Unlike Breihan and Marks, Jarnow's article is meant to be more thoughtful and suggestive than corrective, and even if I disagree with his reasoning for, say, G.G. Allin, it doesn't appear that he is asserting a superior standard of musical taste. It is possible to acknowledge the silliness of the RHOF without demonizing a set of people who overall are more guilty of obsequiously catering to mass opinion than ignoring it, contra what Marks alleges.

Jamie Reno, "The Rock Hall of Fame Sucks!," The Daily Beast.

Easily the most entertaining Anti-RHOF piece was this one, written by a self-described "singer-songwriter-guitarist who's recorded five albums and will never be considered for entry." The screwiness of this article is apparent early and doesn't let up. Check out this early attack on rock critics:
And, yes, I’ve always had a problem with music critics who can’t sing or play a note but who pass judgment on others who can. These are the same dweebs who got picked last for the teams in gym class and simultaneously discovered an ability to write a clever, mean phrase about the music their classmates liked. And now they’re grown up and trying to prove who’s boss by denying rock deities like Peter Frampton, Hall & Oates, and Yes their due. But I digress.
Yeah judgmental people are the worst, huh? Especially nerds! Of course, there is also the matter of calling Frampton, Hall & Oates and Yes "rock deities," which, IMO, is an insult to deities, but we will get to that later.

You'll notice that Reno's piece is just as spiteful as Marks', only it takes a defiantly anti-poptimist position. Whereas for Marks the Hall of Fame had too narrow a definition of rock, which excluded genres like hip-hop and pop, Reno feels that the RHOF goes too far the other way: "The way I see it, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame voting committee is a cabal that too often honors performers who are edgy, brainy, pretentious or sometimes not even 'rock' at all." Reno, another guy who clearly fancies himself a populist, is perhaps the closest thing to Marks' mythical rock snob, and yet he criticizes the Hall of Fame for roughly the same reasons as Marks: the voting committee is clannish, insular, and unconcerned with what is broadly "popular." Just substitute Whitney Houston for the Eagles and you get roughly the same article. These authors are always convinced that their tastes are reflected by broad popular support, whether it's MTV pablum on the one hand or 70s stadium rock on the other. There is no possible way that the Rock Hall of Fame can satisfy both these parameters. How can they not be considered out of touch, even if Wenner's bunch were the hippest cats in selection committee history?

Reno's article is also deeply, deeply hilarious in its contempt for "edgy" music like hip-hop and punk and in its charmingly unfashionable defense of bland 70s FM staples like John Denver and Three Dog Night. Here, word for word, is the most hilarious paragraph of all:
Arguably the most glaring omission of them all is Chicago, which besides the Beach Boys is the most popular and enduring American rock band of all time. Chicago, which is celebrating its 45th year and still selling records and concert tickets worldwide, was once considered progressive, innovative and musically subversive. In the beginning, they couldn’t even get AM airplay, only FM album stations would touch them. But the band, whose early integration of horns into rock music was certainly influential, is evidently being punished by the RRHOF overlords because the hard-driving R&B and jazz-rock of its early days was replaced to a large degree by a more polished, middle-of-the-road (some would say middle-aged) sound. They still knock your socks off in concert, by the way.
I started laughing uncontrollably reading that: the most glaring omission, of them all, in all of recorded human history, is Chicago. And apparently the rebellious, unpredictable firebrands that make up the RHOF voting committee can't stand the idea of such "middle-of-the-road" sounds making their way into the induction ceremony. I wish. It certainly is a unique perspective. So is his opinion on the Beastie Boys, which seems lifted straight out of 1986:
Meanwhile, while Chicago is left out, the Beastie Boys, a “band” comprised of three knuckleheads who started in hip-hop then dabbled in hardcore punk and funk, is in. Entertaining if in small doses, the Beasties have given us such obnoxious paeans to stupidity as “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party).” OK, I partied to that song in college in the 80s, too. But are these guys really music Hall of Famers? Not in my book.
There is, of course, a legitimate point to be made about the RHOF's lack of respect for jazz rock (although I would go for Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, Return To Forever, or dozens of other fusion groups before settling on, snicker, Chicago). There is also a legitimate point to be made about the lack of hardcore punk bands, the lack of psychedelic 60s bands, the lack of experimental math rock, the lack of country, ad infinitum. But asserting this does not a salient, complete argument make. It makes you another purveyor of conventional wisdom on the Internet, selectively outraged about something, conveniently ignoring arguments to the contrary, just like everyone else.

Do I agree that Frampton and Yes are rock deities? No. But I have plenty of favorite bands that are not only never nominated, but will probably remain so indefinitely. For instance, I dig Leslie West and Mountain, and they seem to me very much of the Rolling Stone-Wenner-RHOF aesthetic, but it's doubtful they will ever be inducted, no matter their Woodstock cred. But on the other hand, why would I choose to care in that particular instance? If you have very little use for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in general, it makes sense to ignore the ceremony whether you approve of the nominees are otherwise.

Overall, I dislike the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and its narrow, parochial view of rock history, and I spent almost a day in the museum proper. Why then, devote all this space to defending such an unworthy organization? Because, in today's world of auto-Twittered groupthink, where the hype cycle, its attendant backlash and the resultant anti-backlash make the idea of earnest, thoughtful opinion almost irrelevant, it is more worthwhile to find faults in those statements you agree with than those you can easily pick apart. In Craig Marks and Jamie Reno, you have two writers who are diametrically opposed in many ways, but they both choose to let their tastes dictate their argument, rather than the other way around. This is where uncritical groupthink takes root.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sucks, yes. This has been stated infinity times over. Apparently, once an opinion is disseminated and popularized enough on the Internet, one need not bother explaining why anymore (call it the "Star Wars prequel rule"--I hated it, so everybody hated it, so everyone must hate it). There are good and bad reasons for criticizing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and just because everyone on the hate train is giving you the "OK" signal doesn't mean you are suddenly licensed to make things up.


  1. Here's another one (should be self-evident)

  2. The RHOF is above all a brand and being upset that a brand does not cater specifically to you is somewhat ludicrous.