Every December, almost to the day, my ears perk up for the announcement of a new class of inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nerdy? You bet. But for music fans, it’s fun to watch new acts have their moment year in and year out. For each inductee, the path to the Hall is one at least 25 years in the making, and it’s one each inductee paved for themselves. No one follows the same road twice.
And as with anything else in music, who gets in and who gets shut out is subject to near endless debate. That’s natural, as we’re all fans and have our personal musical heroes who we champion and lobby for, but it seems that in recent years the conversation surrounding the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has grown increasingly negative. This year has been no different. Already in the immediate hours after Nirvana, KISS, Peter Gabriel, Linda Ronstadt, Cat Stevens, Hall and Oates, and the E Street Band were all announced as this year’s inductees, there’s been a lot of grumbling about who didn’t make the cut, and very few words of appreciation for the bands that did. Putting personal taste aside, there isn’t an artist on that list that hasn’t brought a shitload of goods to the table over the years, so why all the fuss?
A lot of the cynicism seems to stem from a feeling amongst some fans that the Hall at some point lost its way and began to stray from its roots. Why would anyone induct Madonna to the “Rock and Roll” Hall of Fame? Why the hell is Public Enemy being inducted alongside Rush and Randy Newman, or Run DMC alongside Metallica? Miles Davis? Please. The Beastie Boys? Aren’t those guys, like, white rappers? On face value, these are valid criticisms. If you want to take a black and white approach to the discussion, it’s all in the name. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should honor the most influential and commercially successful bands in rock history. Case closed. Now that that’s out of the way, it’s just as easy to argue that that sort of narrow view does a disservice to the Hall’s overall mission of honoring the best and brightest in all walks of musical genres.
First off, it’s best not to hang on to the title “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” too literally. The Hall’s inaugural class of inductees in 1986 included Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, and the Everly Brothers. Right out of the gate, the Hall set the precedent for welcoming a variety of different musical giants from different genres including soul, R&B, funk, and, yes, early American rock and roll. The words “rock and roll” in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, if nothing else, were used as a catch-all, a blanket term that could apply to most any act voters felt worthy of induction. Some fit the term snugly, while other times the fit was a bit looser. But they all have their place. Run DMC might not scream rock and roll the way Guns ‘N Roses do, but their collaboration on Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” influenced (for better or worse) the rap-metal phenomenon that canvassed the pop music landscape in the late 1990s. I had an argument once with a guy who couldn’t understand why the Beasties got the nod to be inducted, which I took to assume he hadn’t listened to anything they’d done over the past 20 years. Madonna is much more of a stretch, but even then her fearlessly controversial attitude was about as rock and roll as it gets, even if her music was just about anything but.
It can also be said that the flexibility and willingness to diversify has been necessary to helping the Hall of Fame maintain its credibility. Music has changed a lot since the Hall first opened its doors in 1986, and as music changed, so too has the Hall. It swims with the tides. If it didn’t, what would the Hall of Fame be today? Pretty irrelevant, especially with the emergence of hip-hop and dance music as major players in the pop music landscape over the past 25-plus years. It’s one thing to be known as a great rock band, but I guarantee you there’s hardly a band in the world that wouldn’t trade that honor in for the privilege of standing as one of the single greatest acts in all of popular music.
The bottom line is the Hall isn’t doing itself any favors by shutting people out, and while we might not always appreciate it, they’re smart to acknowledge that. It’s natural, and even fun, to gripe about bands that we feel get slighted or overlooked. But maybe we can also take a moment to stop and appreciate that fact that there’s an institution that cares enough to recognize our favorite bands at all.