A beloved rock-critic colleague of mine once told me that as an editor, he has one abiding rule: Writers can style the term rock and roll however they want. Rock 'n' roll, rock & roll, rock-and-roll, Rock 'N' Roll, and so forth. The idea being that the genre itself is so broad, so vague, so malleable that there's no one right (or wrong) way to think about it. In 2015, rock & roll (I'm an ampersand man myself, though it be the smooth jazz of punctuation marks) can mean anything, which of course also means that it doesn't really mean anything, but this is Not My Problem. (I make up for the ampersand thing with a very rock & roll attitude.)
No, this is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum's problem. (They go with a plain old and, but with the N bolded in the logo, very clever. I go back and forth on the plus sign.) The Rock Hall exists in two spheres: There is the actual museum, which is delightful, and which if you're a local you've probably visited once or twice since it opened in 1995 and definitely seen hundreds of times as b-roll during televised Cleveland sporting events. And there is the abstract, metaphysical pantheon, which has welcomed a dozen or so inductees every year since 1986, via a weirdly formal ceremony, involving a lot of interminable speeches and 50-grizzled-dudes-strumming-acoustic-guitars-simultaneously all-star jams, that they deign to actually hold in Cleveland sometimes. Everybody loves or at least appreciates the physical place; everybody loves to hate, or at least loves to be grievously offended by, the metaphysical pantheon.
Look, it's a silly idea. Fun-silly, but still silly. For the obvious "Why would you create an establishment to celebrate ostensibly anti-establishment music?" reasons, sure, but also because all Halls of Fame are designed to start arguments about the "fame" part, about each inductee's worthiness; the Rock Hall is further hobbled by nobody agreeing on what constitutes "rock" either. Everyone agrees that Pete Rose was a baseball player, at least, but you most likely know a few folks on Facebook (or sitting at your Thanksgiving dinner table) with Real Strong Opinions on the Rock Hall validity of, say, Madonna, or Public Enemy, or ABBA — not because they suck, necessarily, but because they're not rock at all, man.
Get used to this. It's going to get weirder. Like any monolith, the Rock Hall has its biases and blind spots —snubs persist for the Replacements, the Smiths, Captain Beefheart, Janet Jackson, T. Rex, Yes, Kraftwerk, etc. etc. etc. — but excluding worthy entities and enraging fans is the whole point of doing something like this at all. There is a deeper, scarier, more fascinating problem.
Given that you're eligible 25 years after your debut album, we're working through the alt-rock/grunge era now, which is designed to make children of the '90s feel old (bleagh), but at least provides a steady supply of world-conquering guitar-slinging types — Nirvana last year, Green Day this year, Pearl Jam next year — that pretty much everyone can agree on. But once you get past, say, Radiohead (eligible in 2018, along with the Wu Tang Clan, which is going to be hilarious), that's pretty much the twilight of the era when Great Big Rock Bands were a thing at all.
Instead, from there, you get a few shoo-ins (White Stripes), some edge cases (Coldplay), a handful of cult favorites (Queens of the Stone Age, c'mon), and a coupla shrugs (the Strokes), but beyond that, it's all rappers (Jay Z!) and pop stars (Beyoncé!). Does any living human better embody the rock & roll ethos than Britney Spears? Are you gonna be the person to tell Taylor Swift she's not a part of this conversation? You have almost a decade and a half to prepare for Kanye West's acceptance speech — but is that enough time?
Does any of this matter? Of course not. From its inception, the Rock Hall has been polarizing by design, something to actively oppose or at least passive-aggressively subtweet. The famous bands whose personal brands revolve around being difficult about this sort of thing — the Sex Pistols, Guns N' Roses, Black Sabbath for awhile, KISS sort of — have not disappointed, and we civilians get to bitch about who's out (the Cure! Meat Loaf!) and who's in (the Red Hot Chili Peppers! Ringo Starr as a solo act!). But amid the semantic lunacy, there's still the potential for random, sublime, unifying moments where the whole thing makes, well, not sense exactly, but at least a semi-convincing case for its own existence.
A couple years back I found myself watching the 2013 induction ceremony on HBO with my parents, with whom, naturally, I do not always agree on musical matters. (My mother once wrote an angry letter to this very newspaper because I made fun of U2; this remains a point of contention to this day.) But suddenly, all three of us were held rapt by a post-induction performance by, of all people, Heart, blazing through "Crazy on You" with a fervor and exuberance that demolished the stuffy/incoherent/embalmed vibe haters insist the Rock Hall can't help but radiate. This was, presumably, the platonic ideal of this joint: Bring generations together, remind you of righteous and/or magnificently coiffed musicians you may have undervalued, put a great song or two in your head, and get those old air-guitar juices flowing again. There in my folks' living room, wilding out to "Barracuda," it was frankly a pretty awesome moment. You could even call it rock 'n' roll.
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