It took just 48 hours for an interview in the New York Times with the American media entrepreneur Jann Wenner to result in his removal from the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, the prestigious award ceremony and museum that he co-founded. The reckoning, though, was half a century in the making.
Promoting his book The Masters: Conversations with Dylan, Lennon, Jagger, Townshend, Garcia, Bono and Springsteen, Wenner, 77, was asked why he had not interviewed any women or black musicians. He responded by entirely dismissing their contribution to the history of popular music. “It’s not that they’re inarticulate, although, go have a deep conversation with Grace Slick or Janis Joplin,” said Wenner, adding that Joni Mitchell was “not a philosopher of rock’n’roll” and that Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield “just didn’t articulate at that level”. On 18 September, Wenner apologised for the comments through his publisher, which he conceded had “diminished the contributions, genius and impact” of these artists.
But Wenner’s comments contradict little about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was simply explicitly stating the ideology that established the institution: its very premise is built on the prejudices he expressed. It’s time to scrap this self-congratulatory country club that can only ever entrench rather than resolve problems of recognition.
The late 20th century idea of the rock star was nurtured in the culture that Jann Wenner helped to create. Rolling Stone magazine, which Wenner co-founded in San Francisco in 1967, moulded the rock star identity through closely tendered personal relationships – never revealed to readers – with those same figures. Mick Jagger was both business partner and sailing buddy. Bruce Springsteen was a reliable ally (Jon Landau, Springsteen’s manager, was reportedly the only dissenting vote during this week’s emergency Hall of Fame board meeting). Wenner made his reputation with an explosive 1970 interview with John Lennon (republished as part of The Masters) that was later revealed to have been subject to extensive copy approval and editing by the Beatle himself.
When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was created in 1983 – the brainchild of Ahmet Ertegun, chairman of Atlantic Records, who in 2017 was posthumously accused of sexual assault by a former employee – Wenner was brought in as co-founder. It became, Wenner would boast, his “baby”. It was during the 1990s that the Rock Hall began to accrue the prestige it carries today, with the opening of its 150,000 square foot museum site in Cleveland, Ohio, from which induction ceremonies would be broadcast on HBO in a climate where rock fans were suddenly holding highest office in the UK and US.
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Rock Hall inductees were – and still are – decided on behind closed doors in a shadowy two-stage process. An elite panel of 30 music critics, entertainment lawyers and label executives select a list of 15 names, which is narrowed down to five by a larger body of 500 people, heavy with former winners. Artists qualify for the Rock Hall 25 years after their first recording.
This has resulted in a process that fails to recognise rock’s roots. Instead, artists who are overwhelmingly more likely to have suffered abuse, exploitation and structural disadvantage in the early phases of their career are made to compete against huge stars for recognition, in a late career extension of those disadvantages. This continuity can often be punishingly literal: Ronnie Spector was kept from recognition by her abusive former husband Phil Spector, who in the 1990s lobbied the nominating committee against inducting the Ronettes. It worked, and only after the producer was charged with the murder in 2003 of Lana Clarkson did the board see fit to recognise the renowned girl group.
Well-known female artists have accused the Rock Hall institution of sexism and racism. “Why are women so marginalised by the Rock Hall?” asked Courtney Love this year in the Guardian. But for all of Love’s critiques of the institution – that just 8.48 per cent of the inductees are women, that only nine of the 31 board members are women, that Wenner himself had been inducted long ago while Kate Bush only made it in this year, on her fourth nomination – she still argued in favour of the Rock Hall, which she described as “a king-making force in the global music industry” and providing “a bulwark against erasure”. But in acting as king-maker, the Rock Hall sets up a rigged system.
As the Rock Hall attempts to create a canon, the actual canon changes. One artist who has become an important part of the canon now is Arthur Russell – the American cellist and songwriter who died of Aids-related illness in 1992. Though lesser known in his lifetime, Russell exerts an outsized influence on today’s rock, pop and indie performers, thanks to an array of unpredictable contemporary factors: easier home recording, independent reissue labels, more visibly queer artists in pop, increasingly porous borders between the club and the concert hall. These are the kind of things which shape canons. Though we might like to think we can dictate how history will remember us, we cannot. Books fall into backlists, buildings come down and there are no guards against irrelevancy.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the tragic expression of a desire for immortality that befalls all empires at their height – and in the early 1980s, conservative rock was an empire at its height. Its promise of permanent veneration to its inductees is a hollow one. Its futility is evident in how it plays catch-up with decades-old innovations – begrudgingly acknowledging metal with the 2009 induction of Metallica, or giving the towering influence of Kraftwerk the thumbs-up only two years ago.
What might take its place? The British writer Andrew Hickey’s A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs podcast, which has been celebrated by the New Yorker as “a landmark in the story of popular music but also of podcasting” points to how a new generation is discussing, engaging with, and reinventing the canon. Unlike the 1990s obsession with ranking and lionisation, Hickey advocates a complicated history that pronounces very few “firsts” and certainly no “bests”.
If the Rock Hall had as much creativity and ingenuity as it applauds itself for, it would transform its mission and use its ample resources and vast archives to commemorate a 20th century art form with the thoroughness it deserves. As it stands, it only limits our understanding of rock. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tried to sculpt history; instead, it should be consigned to it.
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