This week’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony will renew what has become an annual tradition honoring the artists who have made rock and roll. They are punks, rebels, heretics, innovators—all of them geniuses on some level. The value of recognizing them cannot be overstated because the guts of any culture is its art. Art at times reaffirms the virtues of a culture by challenging what the culture has become. At times art reaffirms the virtues of a culture by embodying them artistically. Rock music is an art form that embodies honest expression through showmanship, virtuosity, charisma, sexual energy, poetry of varying styles, and, to use producer Jack Endino’s phrase, “a healthy respect for noise.”
Yet, rock music is born of a rebellious spirit, not always mainstream. Born out of the blues, which always exposed the underbelly of life, rock music has ricocheted between themes of romance, spirituality, fear, heartbreak, social injustice, teen angst, longing, frustration, and raising spirits. Though very different musically, punk rock would come to embody a new evolution in truth-telling. The touchstone for rock music has always been honesty. The artists themselves may go through all kinds of personal struggles and be far from perfect, but the art they share deals with the truth.
Decades ago Harlan Howard defined country music as being “three chords and the truth.” Starting there, rock music could easily be defined by “four chords, 12 bars, and the truth.” In rock, you have to add the relative minor chord because rock music, lyrically and musically, dances with the dark side. 12 bars is the history of rock. The straight and raw truth is what defines genre. While both country and rock have popular streams that have objectified the respective forms, the emerging edges continue to shine spotlights on the truth. Those edgier artists tell the stories that challenge the status quo. They highlight the tragedies brought on by too culture. At its best, rock music is a force for good in the world because it makes room for our truth.
This begs the question about whether or not institutionalizing rock music with its own hall of fame is some kind of sell out. Maybe it is. Rock music has always been about “sticking it to the man.” Record labels are most assuredly “the man.” So for Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records, to honor the history of rock by establishing the hall of fame, it might appear that “the man” is simply co-opting the rogue ethos of rock. Maybe that’s what happened. For an anti-establishment art form to be memorialized and honored so “officially” is at the least a bit dissonant. Many other art forms, powerful art forms, lack their own halls of fame, take literature for example—books probably don’t make as much money as records or sports.
Still, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a celebration of the rockers who’ve made the deepest impacts on rock music. Such an institution puts each generation’s artists in the context of the founders. This shows a tradition—in this case the tradition of blowing up traditions and reorienting them for the contemporary circumstances. But capturing and highlighting that traditions, iconoclastic as it is, still serves that deepest of purposes of reminding everyone that no one created themselves and that we all stand of the shoulders of those who came before.
The other question that endures is about who gets to choose who belongs in the Hall of Fame and who doesn’t. Writers and executives and even other artists are still no better equipped than anyone else at saying which works of art worked and which ones didn’t. The temptation might be to look at record sales, but we all know that that’s dangerous. In the end, the inductees into the Hall might never have the impact or even social importance of some who don’t. The power of art always resides in the eye of the beholder.
So, don’t let non-membership in the Hall of Fame keep you from listening to someone—that would be a pretentious mistake. Likewise, membership in the Hall doesn’t mean that an artist deserves your adoration. Ultimately, the Hall of Fame is just an arbitrary title highlights some of the bigger milestone. We like what we like and the songs mean to us what they mean to us. If the Hall of Fame broadens our horizons and gives us an excuse to listen to artists we might have ignored, then we should listen and listen well.