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How the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame Is All Wrong, Even When It Gets It Right

Devo is a glaring omission, but is there a glaring need for the “honor” at all?

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Applauding the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame for getting something right to me is like praising Mr. Trump for doing something “presidential.”

Sure, sometimes the president can read a teleprompter without an inappropriate adlib or sit through a public ceremony in a relatively dignified manner. And likewise, the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame occasionally inducts a band you actually like or respect.

But for the most part, the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame dishonors the Music of Our Life. It tells only a tiny part of a gigantic tale. It is like viewing a clear and moonless night sky through a tiny slit, and then proclaiming that the four stars and one planet you see through that slit are the entire solar system. It disregards the reality of the endless spray of the magical, mysterious galaxy that stretches from horizon to horizon.

(Note: When I refer to the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in this piece, I am talking only about their list of inductees. I acknowledge that the organization as a whole does some very good work, and that the museum in Cleveland is fascinating and diverse).

There is true meaning to the story of rock’n’roll. A macro tale that chronicles our nation, because rock and pop is the story of America’s disenfranchised — its poor, its slaves, its immigrants — made electric. Our country found its soundtrack through the roar and rumble of the songs made by those left out of the mainstream American dream. It is also a micro tale: How your life was changed by a song, a face on a t-shirt, a night spent in a sagging, sticky, shadowy old theatre in a low and crumbling part of town. You found your tribe when a band invited you to join them in the Kingdom of Outsiders.

But the account of the music told by the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame is a very narrow and biased fraction of that story. It is just a tiny sample of the international language of whispers and shouts that means so very, very much to the roving nation of music lovers throughout the world. The incomplete, biased story the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame consistently promotes is so misleading, so disrespectful of the art form that we love, that it is all simply not worth our time.

As much fun as it is to mumble, converse, post, tweet, and debate about it, the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame just does not deserve that kind of attention.

But I am compelled, both as a vaguely legendary journalist and as someone who uses the keyboard as a mirror, to do just that — to comment on the recently announced inductees to the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame class of 2019.

These new inductees are: The Cure; Def Leppard; Janet Jackson; Stevie Nicks; Radiohead; Roxy Music; and the Zombies.

Stevie Nicks is the fifth or sixth best singer Fleetwood Mac ever had, but very likely the most famous (and, admittedly, the second or third most charismatic). And that’s why she is in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame has always over-promoted famous members of famous bands, even if their work outside their bands did not necessarily merit the honor.

A fantastic example of this is Ringo Starr’s induction (in 2015) under the bizarre “Musical Excellence” category. Let’s repeat that, for those who were too busy picking their detached jaw off of the floor on the bus they’re riding to work: In 2015, Ringo Starr was inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in the “Musical Excellence” category. Now, the following drummers are not in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in the Musical F*cking Excellence category: Keith Moon, Neil Peart, Kenny Aronoff, Hal Goddamn Blaine, Bobby Graham, Tony Williams, Max Roach, Gene Krupa, Stuart Copeland, Art Blakely. In fact, our dear Ringo is the only drummer to have been honored in the Musical Excellence category. Either the Hall thinks Ringo is a better drummer than all those other names or they just like giving really famous people from really famous bands awards for being really famous.

Ringo Starr performs with his All Starr Band at his North American tour launch at Casino Rama in Orillia, Ontario (Photo by Michael Hurcomb/Corbis via Getty Images)

And that’s what they’ve done with Stevie Bloody Nicks (who I like, by the way). It is likely that you can sneeze and think of more deserving solo female artists (try this one: Her name begins with a “K” and rhymes with “Kate Bush”).

In five seconds – no Googling! – name three Stevie Nicks solo songs.

Now, in the same five seconds, name five Devo songs. See…

Gotcha!

Next: A lot of people seem angry that Def Leppard are being inducted. I am not one of those people. They are a high-quality, well-meaning, very popular rock band that mainstreamed the crunch-chord pop of Mott the Hoople and Thin Lizzy for the MTV era. Also, in an odd way, their heavily processed cathedral-rock sound was a big influence on modern mainstream country (modern country is Def Leppard + Hootie & the Blowfish + songs about drinkin’…and that, my friends, is the smartest goddamn thing I have written in a long, long time, if I say so myself).

Vivian Campbell of Def Leppard performs at The O2 Arena on December 06, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Jo Hale/Redferns)
The Zombies were a lock this year: They were the only legacy British band on the entire nominee list. Do they belong in the Hall? Absolutely, yes.
Janet Jackson was a lock, because most Hall of Fame voters idiotically and automatically check off the most famous names on their ballots. Does she belong in? Probably not. I mean, if she’s going in, why not Paula Abdul? She recorded catchy songs, too! And if Paula Abdul gets in, can that freaking Cash Me Outside atrocity be far behind? You say nev-aaaaah!, but it’s a slippery slope, my friends, a slippery slope.

There is also a cynicism attached to those names: the Hall needs these instant-recognition names for their HBO induction show, so it is very unlikely this problem can ever be remedied. I refuse to concede that visibility and a few well-recorded pop songs should be the prime criteria for entry into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. Then again, Hall & Oates are in the Hall of Fame, so the word “criteria” obviously has a very different meaning to the Hall than it does to me.

Radiohead, Roxy Music, and the Cure most definitely deserve to be in the Hall, but the induction of all three this year surprised me, a lot. There were so many much-loved alternative acts on the nominee list this year that I had presumed that vote splitting would prevent virtually all of them from getting in.

Towards that end, the biggest surprise of the entire 2019 induction class was Devo not making the cut. Devo are virtually the archetypal act of the new wave/MTV era, they had a pile of hits, and they are very well known (far) outside the alternative community. Pretty much every other legacy artist who falls into that category of high-visibility alternative artists who had a lot of hits and who were liked by people who hated everything else about alternative music is in the Hall: The Police, Talking Heads, Blondie.

So why not Devo?

It is certainly possible that the vote splitting amongst the alternative acts deeply impacted Devo. I also cannot rule out some kind of behind-the-scenes politicking or gerrymandering; the Hall has reportedly had a long history of altering the final results, regardless of vote, to promote an agenda or settle a score. It is certainly possible that kind of thing happened with Devo, though I absolutely could not tell you why. In the past, the alleged reasons for such mishegas has been fairly transparent: someone had pissed off Jann Wenner or another HOF poobah, or room had to be made for an act that the Hall wanted in right now, for reasons of optics, induction show ratings, or personal preference.

Listen, as I said earlier, I am not going to be one of those people who goes, well, some good guys got in, so yay! It’s all bullsh*t, it really is. The whole thing is a goddamn insult to the music and art of your life. Aside from the analysis above, I am not going act as if we should adjudicate this crap or take this nonsense remotely seriously.

That’s why I am not going to address in any detail the revolting omissions to the membership roll of the Hall of Fame, a list that begins with the Kingston Trio and Kraftwerk, in case you were keeping score at home.

You know who changed your life. You know what bands you could not stop thinking of during the whole last period in the spring of 11th grade, and who caused you to rush home so you could put that song on the stereo. You know what song you heard coming through the door of a dorm room down the hall (and you instantly knew you were going to be that person’s friend, and you’re still their friend). You know what song, even after all these years, always makes you think of the person who is going to be walking through that door in 18 minutes.

That is your goddamn Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. And it’s the only one that matters.