The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum began as an idea, became a building, and is now an argument.
There was only the idea, and it seemed a good one, when the first Rock Hall class was inducted in 1986. Requiring 25 years to have passed since their first recording, the debut class was the Pantheon itself: Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and the Everly Brothers. The bluesman Robert Johnson, primordial country star Jimmie Rodgers, and boogie-woogie pianist Jimmy Yancey were enshrined as early influencers. Three non-performers: music executives and producers John Hammond and Sam Phillips, and disc jockey Alan Freed, often credited with popularizing the term “rock and roll,” were recipients of the Ahmet Ertegun Award, named for the longtime Atlantic Records founder, and Rock Hall co-founder who wielded tremendous influence on the selections until his death in 2006 at age 84.
I attended that first ceremony, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. (And committed the fashion faux pas of wearing cowboy boots with a rented tux.) While other living artists and VIPs were buffeted by entourages, I saw Chuck Berry sitting alone, taking things in, at the periphery of the room during the pre-show cocktail hour. I approached him cautiously, notebook in hand, and said, “Mr. Berry, when you were writing and recording “Johnny B. Goode” and “Rock and Roll Music” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” did you ever imagine that one day you and those songs would be honored in something called ‘The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’”?
Berry stared at me, squinted his eyes, and said: “I have no imagination.” Ever since, I have wondered what he meant by that.
Once Cleveland was selected as the host city for the hall, thanks to its affiliation with DJ Alan Freed and generous offers from the government and business community, the building itself was first class. The architect I.M. Pei, renowned designer of the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, the Bank of China Building in Hong Kong and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., created another pyramid, with a singular modern look for the Rock Hall that juts out onto Lake Erie.
Whether or not you like Pei’s distinctive architectural vision, there is no questioning the enormity of the economic impact the Rock Hall has had on the economy of Cleveland and the rest of Northeast Ohio. Local entities invested $92 million, according a study written about by the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Cleveland.com website. Annual revenue for the city and region is $199 million.
Beyond the spectacular return on investment, the Rock Hall itself is the anchor for a tourist economy that might not exist without it. The streets around the downtown shoreline were jammed with traffic and pedestrians, parking lots overflowing, the plaza outside the hall mobbed on the Sunday I visited with my wife in July 2019. (A Tall Ships Festival on the downtown lakefront was happening the same day.) We were in Ohio because my daughter was going to be marrying a young man from Cleveland. We met a lot of people that weekend, from clergy to her fiancé’s many relatives, and every person asked: “Have you been to the Rock Hall yet?” Of course, in my line of work, that would be an obvious question, but the pride and enthusiasm were so infectious that it would have been doubly perverse to not go.
It was an enjoyable afternoon. Despite the crowds, the hall is vast, so one could always retreat from the exhibition area. Some complain that rock and roll’s rebellious energy could and perhaps should never be captured in a vitrine redolent of high culture, but really: That game has been over for a long time. The Velvet Underground Experience had a successful three-month in 2018 as a kind of pop-up museum in Greenwich Village; Seattle’s Experience Music Project has morphed into the Museum of Popular Culture (MoPop) and presents exhibitions on Nirvana and Pearl Jam; a special exhibition on the Ramones in 2016 drew record crowds to the Queens Museum of Art, the emblematic punk band’s native New York borough.
The Rock Hall has some nice things to look at: John Lennon’s 1965 Epiphone guitar; Prince’s ruffle-rich concert outfits, and some of his handwritten lyrics to a song called “Purple Haze/Jesus Saves.” I found fascinating documents such as the standard AFTRA performance contract between Jefferson Airplane and Dick Clark Productions, and a concert poster from 1951 featuring Jackie Brenston of “Rocket 88” fame performing with Ike Turner’s Band at a July 4 show at the American Legion Hall in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The main difficulty in the exhibition area is audio. I’m not as remotely choosy about sound reproduction as many readers of this probably are. But on a crowded weekend day and the close proximity of exhibits representing different artists, there are pockets of aural chaos, in which so many different kinds of music bleed into one another that it’s difficult to know what you are listening to. Prolonged exposure can be irritating and tiring. Better directionality and more space between the exhibits would help. But the gift shop is quite nice, and features a CD store so rich in musical rarities that the collector could easily patch numerous holes in ones collection at fair retail prices. I couldn’t think of anything particular that I needed. My wife bought a T-shirt; I bought a lined spiral notebook made with all recycled ingredients.
But nearly 35 years later, the Rock Hall as an idea has become a repository for argument and controversy. Just consider the numbers: By one count, the Rock Hall has 719 inductees. By contrast, the stringent Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., which opened in 1939, has 333 members. The Rock Hall adds members like a hungry pothead on a Twinkies binge adds weight. Cooperstown has its own controversies, but no one can accuse it of promiscuously padding its roster.
Every year brings its own share of sense and nonsense to the Rock Hall. One is that the definition of rock has become so as to be meaningless. And I’m not talking about rap or hip-hop, at its beginnings and at best fueled by an energy not unlike that of rock’s early days. I am in favor of Run-DMC and Public Enemy being in the rock hall for that reason, and for similar reasons see no reason to keep out more recent rebel poets such as Tupac Shakur and this year’s entrant, The Notorious B.I.G.
I’m speaking more to the genre blur that occurs because the Rock Hall has a terrible optics problem due to its dearth of women.
It’s hard to argue that women aren’t underrepresented. The scholar and critic Evelyn McDonnell, a professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, did some math and in an op-ed in Billboard in November 2019.
McDonnell determined that 7.7 per cent of individuals in the Rock Hall are women. She has written and lobbied hard for the Rock Hall to be more inclusive, and the TV show The View took up the topic. McDonnell quotes from that show:
“What’s the definition of rock and roll?” asked Sunny Hostin. “There could be a lot more women if we expand the definition.” “There’s a whole slew of people who are not considered rock and roll,” Whoopi Goldberg said, urging everyone to start writing letters to the Hall.
Well, yeah. That does appear to be a problem. It seems that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has already expanded the eternal of “what is rock and roll?” beyond the breaking point. Example: This year’s induction of Whitney Houston. The gifted singer was many things: the dominant pop and R&B singer of her era, one of the most gifted vocalists of any era, and one of the best-selling artists of all time. But when she was alive, if you asked had Whitney Houston if she was a rock and roll singer, she probably would have said no. I would have loved to hear her sing more upbeat songs; had she lived and repaired the damage she suffered to her magnificent instrument in her final years, I would have loved to hear her do an album, or albums, of gospel, blues and R&B that would have reflected her versatility. Is her monumental version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” in any way a rock performance? Can you, and would you want to, stretch the definition that far?
McDonnell, a longtime friend of mine, thinks that Dolly Parton deserves inclusion in the Rock Hall, and in that, I agree with her. I also agree that it’s absurd that singer-songwriter Carole King is in the hall as a songwriter, with her Brill Building partner and ex-husband Gerry Goffin, but not as a performer. Tapestry may be soft rock, but it reflected its time and style as both a popular and critical success.
Earlier this month, NPR music critic Ann Powers, McDonnell’s co-editor on the anthology Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap, named 41 women who would help redress the Rock Hall’s gender balance. Some make sense to me: Connie Francis, Lucinda Williams, Cyndi Lauper, Pat Benatar, Kate Bush, Sleater-Kinney Band, Emmylou Harris. I’d even go for Fanny, the first all woman band signed to a major label, even though Powers’ rationalization seems absurd: “Fanny captured the attention of important men like the Beatles and David Bowie, but its influence on these titans is rarely acknowledged.” Fanny influenced the Beatles and Bowie? Powers makes similar leaps of implausibility with Roberta Flack: “Her work in the 1970s and 1980s is as adventurous as Joni Mitchell’s and arguably as influential as Stevie Wonder’s.” Arguably not, I’d say. And how about saying of Carly Simon, “as witty a social commentator as Randy Newman.”
Powers’ list also includes the cocktail cool of Julie London, African artist Miriam Makeba, bossa nova’s Astrud Gilberto, folk singer Buffy Saint Marie, Karen Carpenter, and Barbra Streisand. The problem is that if you are going to stretch the definition of rock that far to accommodate women, you’re also going to have to include Harry Belafonte (who has helped induct both Public Enemy and Pete Seeger), Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Sergio Mendes, Stan Getz, João Gilberto, maybe Chet Baker…where do you stop?
In 2018 Nina Simone was inducted into the Rock Hall, which may have bewildered this most passionate and versatile pianist, singer, and composer. I adore Nina Simone, but I don’t think she would identify in any way with the Rock Hall. Some people I know on social media disagreed, citing the Simone “stance” as a rock and roll stance. Nina Simone didn’t have a stance. She wasn’t acting onstage with that hard-edged sense of rebellion that some people idealize as unique to rock music. Nina Simone’s rage wasn’t an act: she was enraged and embittered by segregation, racism, unequal treatment, and all of the other sins of America since its founding. Her genius was in the way that rage permeated her music, which was sometimes jazz, sometimes blues, but always remained distinctly in a category of its own.
McDonnell’s Billboard essay ended with a plea that the board and management structure of the Rock Hall “represent the demographics of the human race, not of the music industry.” But rock and roll is not about the whole human race; it represents a microscopic splinter of human accomplishment, and one that some of us have spent our lives taking seriously. But if you take any museum too seriously, it is easy to forget about what pleasure and value the art itself offers.