The nominees for the 2013 class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have been announced, and I’m pleased to report that it’s an impressively diverse slate. Besides the artists like Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Heart, and Deep Purple with rawk-and-rowll bona fides, we’ve got in Chic and Donna Summer two dominant disco acts and in Kraftwerk an innovator in electronic music — the latter of which would be a first for the hall. And two rap acts, Public Enemy and N.W.A, that made the ballot in their first year of eligibility. Plus artists in a number of other underrepresented genres.
I’d love to see them all get in. And not just because these artists made so many great records. It’s because it’s time for the hall to move beyond its rock bias, even if doing so is contradictory to the name of the institution.
The secretive committee behind the nominating and selecting processes has long had a rather rockist bent. Beyond its general dismissal of disco and jazz as legitimate art forms, it has also demonstrated an antipop bias. I’ve spoken at length about why the Monkees deserve inclusion in the hall; along with them, commercially and oftentimes critically successful acts like Three Dog Night and Tommy James have been utterly ignored despite their dozens of hits. And Summer couldn’t get a second look before her passing away this year. Yet pop and its dance variants remains influential and omnipresent while rock ’n’ roll has withered to nostalgia. Just look at the fast fade of rock radio stations: the latest casualty is New York City station WRXP, which shifted recently from rock to news. If New York City can’t support rock radio, who can?
The Rock Hall’s reticence to induct too many nonrock acts suggests that rock ’n’ roll holds for them (and, implicitly, for U.S. society) an intrinsically superior position in the popular-music landscape. Privileging rock over hip-hop, dance and other genres is needlessly reductionist — and, some might argue, kinda racist. But try telling that to America’s coterie of neo–John Birchers who will doubtless call the induction of Public Enemy and N.W.A the Rock Hall’s first affirmative-action selections. Mark my words: it’ll happen.
Meantime, if you were brought up on the notion that “rock ’n’ and roll is here to stay,” you may have been sold a bill of goods. I realize that to suggest that rock is dead is tantamount to asking on the cover of a national magazine if God is dead. Well, it may be time to face it. Quick: When’s the last time you heard a guitar solo in the Top 10? What was the last electric-guitar riff to become a cultural touchstone — or even a meme? It’s an unfortunate but undeniable statement of our society that the most prominent place for an electric guitar today is as prop shtick on the walls of a Guy’s American Kitchen restaurant. Rock on with your frosted flake.
Further, in looking back at the past several hit songs with rock in the title, one cannot help but notice that they’re all outside the rock-’n’-roll genre: “Party Rock Anthem” from LMFAO. Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney’s “Feel like a Rock Star.” Kevin Rudolf’s “Let It Rock.” You might even still remember Shop Boyz’s “Party like a Rock Star.” The only exception to this that comes to mind is Nickelback’s “Rock Star” — which only helps make my point. (Seriously: now that Foo Fighters are on hiatus, only U2, the dinosaurs of Aerosmith and the denizens of E Street Band stand in the way of Nickelback holding last-band-standing status among unhyphenated rock acts. Let that thought simmer for a moment.)
It’s time we take on rockism to reflect the new reality. Here’s where we need to start: the name of the hall. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a very specific signifier. We’re long overdue in expanding that umbrella to include artists whose works in entirely different modes are similarly influential in popular music’s development. This can’t be done by establishing franchise Halls of Fame throughout the world — the Reggae Hall in Jamaica, the Hip-Hop Hall in the Bronx, competing House halls in Detroit and Berlin, Northern Soul halls in every U.K. city with an underground. Inclusiveness is the way to go.
And for now, given the reality that not everyone gets in upon nomination, we’re going to have to hold off on the most rockish of this year’s noms. Be still, my Heart. Deep Purple, you gave us wizardry on the guitar and keyboards — not quite as vital a contribution to present-day music as this year’s other noms. And Procol Harum: love ya, but your ruminations on light fandangos, ill-fitting homburgs and repenting Walpurgis will have to wait a bit longer for accolades. First we need to make room for the others. We also need to make room for softies like the Carpenters and sultries like Sade. Even if they didn’t rock, at their best they made us rock, and that must count for something, no?
Rebranding is difficult, I know. The Popular Music Hall of Fame appeals only to copy editors, and the Rock, Pop, Funk, Soul, Disco, Blues, Punk, Metal, Hip-Hop and Electronic Hall of Fame doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. I’m open to suggestions. Maybe Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is fine if we can agree that the likes of Chic and Kraftwerk and Brian Eno, indeed, rock. But whatever we decide, it’s time for a more inclusive hall. That’s a place I can have fahrn fahrn fahrn in.