With all this condemnation, it’s worth asking what it is about long-lasting monuments like the Rock Hall that continue to rouse people.
Duane Prokop/Getty Images
Duane Prokop/Getty Images
Duane Prokop/Getty Images
In the Old World, two Titans conspired to make themselves gods in order to control history and their place in it. They appointed themselves arbiters of sound – one an impresario, the other a scribe, both shadowy figures in search of stability. They designed a hall to accommodate the greats and took turns introducing those they considered worthy: especially the people around them. And they did so in secret, away from prying eyes and pointed questions. They thought they were enlightened men bringing art appreciation to the Philistines, when in reality they longed to become kingmakers, casting their shadows over an unsuspecting empire. They built their tabernacle in Ohio.
In 2004, one of those titans, Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, inducted the other, Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner, into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, another institution they helped found. Ertegun spoke of Wenner as pop music’s ultimate authority, who had a unique sense of the way it reflected American realities and the unique qualifications to be its judge. “More than anyone else, he initially identified rock as a politically and socially evocative musical form that would transform our world,” he said. Mick Jagger, one of the biggest beneficiaries of Wenner’s special judgment, added: “Jann almost single-handedly advanced the idea of pop music, and especially rock and roll, as a living art form and not just a collection of drab mediocrities.” Maybe Wenner did the world changed, but it kept spinning, and when the asteroid hit, every subsequent decision it made carbon-dated it.
Wenner, who for decades ran the publication that founded the world we now know as classic rock, has made himself the subject of ire as he promotes his upcoming book “The Masters,” which features conversations between Wenner himself and a few hand-picked Artists include: Jagger, John Lennon, Bono, Jerry Garcia, Pete Townshend, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. If you notice a pattern, that’s part of the problem. When pressed about the exclusion of black and female geniuses in a conversation with David Marchese for The New York Times, Wenner defended the decision by saying that none of the women he met at the magazine were “eloquent enough”; The same goes for black artists like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. Wenner, who stepped down as chairman of the Rock Hall’s nominating committee in 2019, was removed from the Rock Hall’s board shortly after the comments. It is a special privilege for him to still be in the hall, despite having participated in the rejection of so many artists who deserved far more. He is rightly criticized from all sides, but Wenner is and has always been just an avatar for a crumbling framework.
Wenner says the quiet part out loud is a demonstration of how white male gatekeepers have hindered female artists and artists of color, right up to the highest levels of the most influential music magazine in American history and within the inner circle of those who get to decide what music gets enshrined. But this broad perspective had long been made bluntly and painfully clear by his editorial decisions at the helm of said magazine and as chairman of the Hall. Although justified, they miss several more important questions: Why is the Rock Hall the most widely accepted canon of popular music among the American public? Are his practices even in the best interest of art preservation? And is such a canon even needed?
To understand the Rock Hall’s vision, it is first important to understand its founding and that it was built primarily by respected executives in a highly segregated music business, the kind of white men that 2015 inductee Bill Withers once considered “Blaxperts” (self-proclaimed interpreters of black culture who are socially distant from their community), with an emphasis on competition and dedication. When Ertegun gathered the key players—Seymour Stein of Sire Records, entertainment lawyer Allen Grubman and Wenner—he presented them with something akin to Cooperstown, the Baseball Hall of Fame. The first ceremony in 1986, according to famed critic Robert Hilburn, centered on a lavish, exclusive black-tie dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria, for $1,000 a plate.
With competition and elitism in mind, the selection process was cemented, and since then the system and its actors have been shrouded in secrecy. What we know: Artists become eligible 25 years after their first recording. A nominating committee of 30 executives, lawyers and critics decides on the annual selection of about 15 artists before another, larger committee selects the final group of inductees. This type of voting is common at awards shows. The Tony Awards still have smaller committees, but it’s much more transparent about who participates. Awards shows like the Grammys have categories, which theoretically makes the criteria simpler. Although genre categories become less clear each year, there is at least some understanding of what should be nominated for best album in each genre, and the existence of multiple categories should allow for coverage to spread. There have long been questions about not only what is “rock” enough for the Rock Hall, but also about what exactly qualifies an artist for induction. And while the purpose of an awards show and its show is to recognize and entertain individual excellence, the Rock Hall has higher goals – not just to honor, but to immortalize.
Despite frequent protests to the contrary, the kinds of artists the hall seeks to immortalize come from Wenner’s narrow field of vision. Just like in rock itself, racism and sexism have been an ugly blemish in the rock press and especially Rolling Stone throughout its turbulent history. (It’s interesting that he didn’t see the irony in giving such an award to white practitioners of a black-born art.) In an oral history of the women who turned the magazine into a professional enterprise, former editor Barbara Downey noted Landau This there Above Wenner’s secretary’s desk hung a sign that read “Boys’ Club,” and a black photographer snapped a cover as recently as 2018. In Joe Hagan’s Wenner biography, Sticky Fingers, former Rolling Stone publisher Claeys Bahrenburg summed up Wenner’s ideals of the disco heyday of the late ’70s: “Every day there were exclusively white rock and roll bands. He would no more put a black man on the cover than he would put a man on the moon.” At the Rock Hall, these tendencies came to the fore again. ( Wenner once said that the hall belonged to Rolling Stone.) When he resigned in 2019, he told the Times: “People are admitted for their achievements. Musical performances must be race and gender neutral when assessed.”
Wenner’s comments and his subsequent expulsion from the Rock Hall come amid significant criticism of the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame Foundation’s practices in recent years and a public reassessment of its canonization. “If so few women are inducted into the Rock Hall, then the nominating committee is broken,” wrote longtime Hall critic Courtney Love in an editorial for The Guardian in March. “When so few black artists, so few women of color, are inducted, the voting process needs to be overhauled. Music is a life force that is constantly evolving – and they can’t keep up.”
The following month, a woman who voted for Rock Hall members, Allyson McCabe (an NPR contributor), echoed that sentiment and very publicly resigned from the foundation. Writing for Vulture, she called her invitation tokenism, adding that the process was opaque and the methodology seemed inconsistent at best and biased and biased at worst. “I felt uncomfortable looking at the ballot every year because the definition of genre seemed to be applied differently in the biographies depending on who was rocking. “Implicitly, the ‘real’ rockers were still white people with ‘real’ rock instruments.” she wrote.
With all this condemnation, it’s worth asking what it is about long-lasting monuments like the Rock Hall that continue to rouse people. It’s easy to understand why artists care – if not for the sake of hagiography, then for the recognition – but what about us in the audience? If the thing is so broken, why do we continue to care about the way it works or the consequences of its malfunction? There is also a very human impulse to not only have others support the music we enjoy, but also to honor its impact in a way that feels meaningful. This is even more true of music, which we believe expresses something profound about the human condition. We see it year after year at the Grammys in various cycles of outrage: a need to see institutions that validate our tastes and their impact on the way we see our world, and, more broadly, an equally strong need to satisfy our desire to argue. There is no version of the hall that can be unanimously agreed upon. And even though we know it’s broken, we don’t really know how to fix it. That’s because you can’t build a hall without diminishing the impact of music that someone, somewhere, considers sacred.
To build a hall whose sole principle is superiority is to misrepresent the meaning of art. This makes sense for sports, which are defined by quantifiable metrics like wins and statistics, but not for music, which is incalculable. Music is something you feel, and we already have a system in place to try to measure the music that is most popular for posterity: the Billboard charts. Some of Rolling Stone’s own attempts at canonization have changed with the public (I was among the musicians, industry insiders, and critics who voted for the updated Rolling Stone 500), as have the Rock Hall’s, changing the slippery notion of any kind of definitive Music illustrates Valhalla.
There is a more attractive version of the Rock Hall that elevates the museum above the Haut Monde and presents itself as a curator of turning points from an important but specific period of rock history rather than an authority on all of history. In this case, the Hall’s definition of rock can be whatever their committees want it to be, and the doors open wider to artists with a more subtle impact. Instead, the Hall and its cabal want to have it both ways — worship only what suits them, but define the legacy of American music for all.
Somehow, despite the Hall’s objections to certain types of music, it has become cultural orthodoxy as the pantheon of popular music, a distinction it consistently adheres to. In 2022, Dolly Parton requested to be removed from the ballot because she felt like she didn’t fit in. In response to their request, the Hall shared a broader mission statement: “Since its inception, rock and roll has had deep roots in rhythm and blues and country music. It is not defined by a specific genre, but is a sound that moves youth culture.” . Dolly Parton’s music influenced a generation of young fans and influenced countless artists who followed. Their nomination for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame followed the same process as all other artists considered.
If their goal was truly to canonize a genreless sound that resonated with youth culture, the Rock Hall failed miserably. His reflections on R&B, country, pop and hip-hop have always seemed distorted. Furthermore, aside from its apparent inability to define rock’s relationship to other genres, the Rock Hall has done very little to make them feel at home and not like outliers. Nevertheless, it positions itself as a holistic institution that should be viewed as sacred. In truth, it was built to do exactly what it does: omit and ban.
The canon and the Hall of Fame are not American inventions (although they are clearly Western constructs), but over the last century the latter in particular has become as American as baseball. In a 1986 Washington Post article entitled “Keepers of the Fame,” author Vance Packard told Michael Kernan, “Americans have a penchant for self-congratulation.” The hall, which Kernan called the “ur-Hall of Fame,” The Hall of Fame for Great Americans, founded in 1901, was created solely for functional reasons: to hide an unsightly wall at New York University. Only after recognizing the need to fill the space did they invent the use modeled on religious sites in Europe. (Perhaps Bill Withers was on to something when he called reverb induction “a pre-obituary.”)
It was always an opportunity for self-mythologizing. “Like all Americans, he admired the use of Westminster Abbey and the Pantheon in Paris,” wrote Henry Mitchell MacCracken, chancellor of NYU and creator of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, about … himself. “But the American claims the freedom, to introduce new and comprehensive rules for his rule, even as he follows in the footsteps of his Old World ancestors. It was therefore agreed that induction into this Hall of Fame should be controlled by a national electorate. who could represent as best as possible the wisdom of the American people.”
This is the core myth at the heart of the Hall of Fame – that its electoral body can approximate public opinion. Since the advent of the gym, this idea has changed. The voting body with its expertise is now displacing public opinion. It is worth noting that the Hall of Fame for Great Americans never became a major American institution, and its last election occurred a decade before the Rock Hall was founded. People stopped showing up and the busts of the last recruits were never finished. It’s a stark reminder that these things are only as useful as their service to the public.
There used to be smaller institutions that acted as corrections to the Rock Hall—alternative weeklies like The Village Voice, the pocket domains of indie music blogs, and even television and films not produced by its subjects. As they continue to disappear, there is an ever-increasing need to fend off the RRHoF’s attempts to have the final say on what matters, not just for the sake of diversity, but also for the sake of open-mindedness and intrigue. As a counterculture has become the paradigm, it is easy to see how the free-spirited ideals that govern classless ways of life can erode without accountability. The answer is not to create more halls. After all, exclusion is at least half the battle – not just the adoration, but also the separation from other artists by the velvet rope.
Instead, we should view the preservation of music history as a collective responsibility. Critic Richard Brody recently wrote: “The archive of the future is decentralized, crowdsourced.” He’s right. I look at the Dance Music Archive, the steps taken to store rap mixtapes online, and other attempts to represent not just the impact but also the spread and not just “masters” but also those who to serve the community ungratefully. The Jann Wenners of this world should never again dictate what is considered important.