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The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a closed shop with a hopeless task

MC Ren, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and DJ Yella of NWA pose for a picture onstage at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. Eduardo Munoz

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a closed shop with a hopeless task

The annual induction of new members into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sometimes throws up some strange spectacles.

This year we were confronted with the induction of Chicago, the creators of Hard To Say I’m Sorry – a mopey ballad of regret and restoration – and NWA, the creators of Fuck Tha Police, a groundbreaking and violent protest song.

Both were incorporated under the umbrella of “rock ‘n’ roll”.

In the deeply insufficient debate that has followed, the speech of one of the highly-honored members of NWA has become the standard bearer of tolerance and inclusion.

In his acceptance speech, Ice Cube argued that,

Rock & roll is not an instrument, rock & roll is not even a style of music. Rock & roll is a spirit … Rock & roll is not conforming to the people who came before you, but creating your own path in music and in life. That is rock & roll, and that is us.

You might be tempted to conclude that in this iteration at least, The Hall of Fame is a seriously broad church. Except it isn’t and that’s the point.

The Hall has long been a closed shop that has only very recently begun the process of diversifying its selection committee. Women have been virtually excluded from its pantheon and committee members have been impressively tone deaf in responding to criticism.

This week’s Twitter beef between Ice Cube and Gene Simmons over the very definition of the term “rock ‘n’ roll” has overshadowed almost everything else about the event and the Hall itself.

But the underlying debate about its legitimacy is yet another retread of complaints that have shadowed the institution from the very beginning. The Hall was established in 1983 by a small group of very powerful music industry figures, including Atlantic Records founder and chairman Ahmet Ertegun; Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner; entertainment lawyers Allen Grubman and Suzan Evans; producer and manager Jon Landau and record executives Seymour Stein and Bob Krasnow.

It’s currently funded by a huge range of mostly private donors, and each year’s nominees and new members are chosen and voted on by a committee of about 40 music industry insiders.

Gene Simmons performing with KISS. Carlo Allegri

The secrecy with which this exclusive committee carries out its tasks has produced a backlash defined by one very particular and persistent criticism: rock ‘n’ roll belongs to the people, not the industry.

Consider just two versions of this argument, one from 2014, the other from 1992.

In the former, Tim Sommer claimed in a two-part rant on Salon that rock ‘n’ roll is:

The sound of America’s disenfranchised and dispossessed cultures, celebrated, mainstreamed and displayed as art. It’s the angry but ecstatic dynamite of the MC5 and the apocalyptic beauty of Tim Buckley; it’s the dirt-yard hallelujahs of Sid Hemphill and the whorehouse hosannas of ZZ Top.

Sommer exhorted the Hall to dig deeper and work harder to show us the real rock ‘n’ roll that we all know is out there, in our heads and in our hearts.

Twenty two years earlier, Jeff Tamarkin, the editor of a record and CD collectors’ magazine, wrote an editorial in Billboard making almost exactly the same argument.

The Hall of Fame, which at this time really only consisted of an annual awards show, didn’t have popular legitimacy amongst the people, he claimed. He argued that,

Rock fans are perhaps the most passionate and dedicated supporters of an entertainment form in the world […] they often live and breathe their favourite artists, spend their rent money on their records, follow them from town to town, build shrines to them.

Chicago performing at this year’s Hall of Fame ceremony. Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

This is what the legitimacy of popular music is built on, he claimed, calling the Hall’s nominating committee merely a “politburo.”

He argued that “rock ‘n’ roll music has always been populist, not elitist.”

It’s remarkable that we find precisely the same populist vision dominating so much writing on popular music across more than two decades of commentary, especially when so much else has changed so completely.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame continually acts as if its job is to transform the ephemera of popular culture into the eternal form of great art.

Regardless of how you might view it, and my view is certainly very jaundiced, it is clearly a cultural resource that possesses powerful symbolic resonances for a lot of people.

But the Hall is only such a powerful thing because there remains a persistent expectation that it can and should act in a transparent, open and representative manner.

This is where debates like the one that erupted this week have consistently missed the point. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is not a civic forum for assessing the value of music. Nor is it some kind of public service contributing to the meaning, history, and experience of rock ‘n’ roll, however broadly or narrowly we may conceive of it.

Like the Grammy Awards, it’s primarily a powerful forum for imprinting a small range of preferred or dominant meanings on a vast world of popular music.

That it should be so doggedly persistent in its pursuit of this hopeless task is the real problem here. No matter how expertly curated this Hall might be, it won’t be able to represent what it calls rock and roll without a great deal more acceptance of the sharp edges and ethical complexity that inhabits most popular music.

For another year at least, the official history of “rock ‘n’ roll” will remain caught between elusive populist mythologies and the industrial behemoths trying to codify them.