Does the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Really Matter?

On the 9th of October 2014 the 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees were officially announced. This also happened to be the day that I finally decided to stop caring so much about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

I’m just going to come out and say it: there’s a metric tonne of artists I think should be in the Hall that aren’t, and a similarly large amount of artists that are in there which I think shouldn’t be. It’s a clichéd statement to make at this point that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame isn’t really all that rock and roll anymore, if it ever was. Too many arguments have been started over what constitutes “rock and roll” and I’d wager not one of them has come to a conclusive answer on the matter (there’s a similar kerfuffle that ignites every time the MOBOs swing round over what exactly can be called “black” music).

So let’s sidestep that for today and ask: does the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame matter at all? How does an artist even get in? What are the criteria to be nominated? There is a committee that votes on this, but how do they decide? Well, Def Leppard are one of only six artists to have two albums sell ten million copies each in the US and they aren’t in, so it can’t be anything to do with sales figures. Deep Purple, Iron Maiden and Mötley Crüe can all be considered some of the most influential rock bands of the last few decades and none of them are in, so it can’t be anything to do with prestige or significance within what is typically defined as the “rock music” scene. My guess is the “fame” part of the title is more key here than we think, and by “fame” we’re talking about a deep-set and ongoing cultural presence among critics and the wider mainstream audience rather than fans and aficionados of rock itself. There’s a reason, after all, that Madonna is in the Hall before Thin Lizzy and The Cult. It’s a dumb reason, but a reason nonetheless.

So who’s in there? By the looks of it, a few token artists from each style of popular music to give it some sort of credibility without going into the depth that would make it a truly respectable institution or authority on rock and roll music, or music in general. The surface of each genre will be scraped and no further: Pink Floyd are the prog representative even though, personally speaking, bands like Jethro Tull and Yes made far more exciting, eclectic and worthwhile music than Floyd’s languid keyboard noodling; Black Sabbath were inducted in 2006 but it might as well have been Ozzy the then-TV star on his own for all Joe Public cares about Tony Iommi and co., or most other heavy metal bands for that matter (the New Wave of British Heavy Metal is still totally unrepresented, by the way); Chic’s potential induction won’t open the floodgates for other pioneering funk and disco acts to be recognised, just as Metallica’s induction didn’t leave the door open for Megadeth and Slayer to stroll on in; and for all the guff about the Hall “enshrining” grunge with Nirvana’s induction earlier this year I don’t see any nominations for Soundgarden or Mudhoney cropping up any time soon. Expect maybe Pearl Jam to get in for 2016 and the Hall to subsequently forget the Seattle scene ever happened.

Is it really worth worrying about who gets in, though? Well, let’s think about the acts that are in for a change. Years after their induction, does anybody care that AC/DC are in the Hall, or Aerosmith or ZZ Top? Has their induction had any effect whatsoever on their music, their influence or anything about them? How many people are even aware they’re in? If you ask a random person on the street to define Led Zeppelin, exactly how many of them would answer “a 1995 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee”? From what I gather inclusion in the Hall amounts to three things for artists: a brief spike in album sales (though I’ve yet to see any concrete data to support that); a party on the night; and something to stick at the top of the press release when they announce a new record or tour. All good for them, I guess, but why should we care about that?

So what is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, when it all comes down to it? Answer: a building in Cleveland, Ohio. That’s it. You can go there and visit it if you like. Being nowhere near Cleveland I’ve no intention of trekking over myself, at least not for the foreseeable future, but apparently it’s a pretty nice place to go see if you’ve got an afternoon to kill. As for the nominations and the ceremony, the media goes nuts about it because it’s something to talk about, but even they lose interest in it once the plates are cleared and the tables have been folded away, only for that same interest to pick up again when the latest batch of nominations rolls in fresh from the oven that autumn, lather rinse repeat. That’s what it boils down to, really: a museum and a media circus. Why do we get sucked in by it every year? Because that’s what media circuses do: get you all riled up so you go clicking all over their articles and earn them all that nice ad money (of course, I don’t make money from this blog so it’s, er, completely different in my case. Ahem).

Now, thinking about artists who aren’t in the Hall, I could put my energy into a campaign to have, say, Judas Priest nominated, but even if it was a success what purpose would I ultimately be serving? So people will recognise their importance? People already do: it’s why they’re one of the most popular heavy metal bands of all time. So more people will start listening to their music? Perhaps, but not enough to make any sort of impact – Taylor Swift fans aren’t suddenly going to go out and pick up British Steel because CNN mentioned the band in a headline. I never listen to Green Day’s music on my own account and their nomination for next year certainly isn’t going to change that.

So what would it be? In my opinion it’s all down to the unspoken assertion that induction into the Hall somehow validates or legitimises our musical tastes and opinions. If an artist is in there that you like, that means you win at music, right? It could also be the inverse, of course: the kneejerk negative reaction to a group of faceless, anonymous strangers claiming to have an authority on what is and isn’t “Hall-worthy” music is a tempting one, for all that it’s worth. Additionally, there is an argument to be made that inclusion into the Hall is a way of affirming an artist’s position in music history and ensuring that they won’t be forgotten in a century’s time, but isn’t that what the music itself is supposed to do?

Look, I’m someone who could easily be criticised for using his musical tastes as a stick to beat others with, usually because my tastes were (and often still are) tied to my self-worth. It’s not a mentality I’m proud of by any means and it’s one I’ve done a lot of work (and to some extent am still working on) to get out of. Despite what I go on about in my pop and rock song reviews there really isn’t any such thing as good or bad music (assuming of course that it is at least music, which I’m not sure something like this is). It’s all subjective: my opinions on music are no more or less valid than yours and, by extension, those of whatever committee decides goes into this thing. The Hall wants to nominate NWA and The Smiths? Fine, let them. The Hall thinks one artist is more important than another? Sure, go ahead. In ten years time nobody will care, so why bother ourselves about it now? The media circus might be annoying, but it’s all over quickly. Enjoy the music you like and leave it at that.

If you’re somebody who gets worked up about this every year, though, here’s a simple trick for getting over it: imagine, for a moment, a day somewhere sometime in the far-flung future, where every popular artist is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. All your favourite bands, singers and musicians have been recognised for their prestige, talent and influence, and at the same time none of them have, because when everybody has the same level of prestige the concept itself becomes meaningless. Would the inclusion of Motörhead, Cheap Trick, Kate Bush and Kraftwerk make the Hall a more respectable venue? Nope, because there’s always going to be an artist left out that somebody somewhere thinks should be in there. At the same time, though, they can’t all be in there because the honour that supposedly comes with being inducted into the Hall would lose value exponentially. When you think of it that way, the idea of a Hall of Fame for rock and roll becomes irrelevant and a lot sillier.

Admittedly, though, I could get behind a Rock and Roll Hall of Artists Who Aren’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Actually, can we get someone working on that?

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