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Jann Wenner's Rock Hall is crumbling — is it worth fixing?

With all of this condemnation swirling, it's worth wondering what about enduring monuments like the Rock Hall keeps stirring people up.
Duane Prokop
Getty Images
With all of this condemnation swirling, it's worth wondering what about enduring monuments like the Rock Hall keeps stirring people up.

In the Old World, two titans who sought to make themselves gods conspired to control history and their place in it. They anointed themselves arbiters of sound — one an impresario, the other a scribe, both shadow figures in search of permanence. They devised a hall that would house The Greats and took turns inducting those they deemed worthy: above all else, those around them. And they did so in secret, away from prying eyes and pointed questions. They thought themselves enlightened men, bringing art appreciation to the philistines, when really they longed to be kingmakers, therein casting their shadows across an unwitting realm. They erected their tabernacle in Ohio.

In 2004, one of those titans, Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, inducted the other, Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner, into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, another institution that they helped to co-found. Ertegun spoke of Wenner as the ultimate authority of popular music, uniquely attuned to the ways that it reflected American realities and uniquely qualified to be its judge. "More than anyone else, he first identified rock as a politically and socially evocative form of music that would change our world," he said. Mick Jagger, among the greatest beneficiaries of Wenner's particular judgment, added, "Jann almost single-handedly pioneered the idea of popular music and rock and roll in particular as a vibrant art form not just a collection of flash-in-the-pan mediocrities." Perhaps Wenner did change the world but it kept on spinning, and when the asteroid struck, every subsequent decision he made carbon-dated him.

Wenner, who, for decades, oversaw the publication that established the world we now know as classic rock, has made himself the subject of ire while promoting his upcoming book, The Masters, which features conversations between Wenner himself and a few hand-picked artists: Jagger, John Lennon, Bono, Jerry Garcia, Pete Townshend, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. If you're noticing a pattern, that's part of the problem. When pressed,in conversation with David Marchese for The New York Times, on the exclusion of Black and women geniuses, Wenner defended the decision by saying none of the women he encountered while at the magazine were "articulate enough"; ditto for Black artists like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. Wenner, who stepped down as chairman of the Rock Hall nominating committee in 2019, was removed from the Hall's board of directors shortly after the comments. His is a particular privilege: To still be in the Hall despite being complicit in denying so many artists far more deserving. He is, rightfully, being skewered from all angles, but Wenner is, and always has been, merely an avatar for a crumbling framework.

Wenner saying the quiet part out loud is a demonstration of how white male gatekeepers have stymied women artists and artists of color, up to the highest reaches of the most influential music magazine in American history, and within the inner circle of those who get to decide what music is enshrined. But this crude perspective had long been made baldly and painfully evident by his editorial decisions at the helm of said magazine and as the chairman of the Hall. Though warranted, they overlook several more important questions: Why is the Rock Hall the American public's most widely recognized canon for popular music? Are its practices even in the best interest of preserving art? Moreover, is such a canon even needed?

To understand the Rock Hall's vision, it is first important to understand its founding, and that it was built primarily by esteemed executives in a highly segregated music business, the kind of white men that 2015 inductee Bill Withers once referred to as "blaxperts" (self-proclaimed interpreters of Black culture socially removed from its community), with emphasis on competition and consecration. When Ertegun convened the key players — Seymour Stein of Sire Records, the entertainment attorney Allen Grubman and Wenner — he pitched them something akin to Cooperstown, the Baseball Hall of Fame. The initial ceremony, in 1986, was constructed around a lavish, exclusive black-tie dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria, $1000 a plate, according to famed critic Robert Hilburn.

With competition and elitism in mind, the selection process was cemented, and since then the system and its players have remained shrouded in secrecy. What we do know: Artists become eligible 25 years after their first recording. A nominating committee of 30 execs, lawyers and critics decide the yearly field of about 15 artists before another, larger committee chooses the final set of inductees. This kind of voting is common for award ceremonies. The Tony Awards have even smaller committees, but are much more transparent aboutwho is participating. Award shows like The Grammys have categories, which, theoretically, makes the criteria more straightforward. Though genre categories get murkier every year, there is at least some understanding of what kind of thing should be nominated for the best album in each genre, and the existence of multiple categories should allow for coverage of the sprawl. There are longstanding questions about not only what is "rock" enough for the Rock Hall but also about what, exactly, qualifies an artist for inclusion. And while the purpose of an award ceremony and its show is to reward individual excellence and entertain, the Rock Hall has loftier objectives — not simply to honor but to immortalize.

Despite frequent protests to the contrary, the kind of artists that the Hall chooses to immortalize come from within Wenner's narrow field of vision. Just as in rock itself, racism and sexism have been ugly blemishes on the rock press, and on Rolling Stone in particular, through its storied history. (It's interesting that he did not see the irony of granting the "masters" distinction to white practitioners of a Black-born art.) Inan oral history of the women who transformed the magazine into a professional operation, former editor Barbara Downey Landau noted that there was a sign over the desk of Wenner's secretary that said "Boys' Club," and a Black photographerdidn't shoot a cover until 2018. In Joe Hagan's Wenner biography, Sticky Fingers, former Rolling Stone publisher Claeys Bahrenburg summarized Wenner's ideals in the disco heyday of the late '70s: "Every day it was strictly rock-and-roll white bands. He would no more put a black person on the cover than a man on the moon." At the Rock Hall, these tendencies resurfaced. (Wenner once said Rolling Stone owned the Hall.) When he stepped down in 2019, he told theTimes, "People are inducted for their achievements. Musical achievements have got to be race-neutral and gender-neutral in terms of judging them."

Wenner's comments and his subsequent expulsion from the Rock Hall come in the wake of significant criticism of the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame Foundation's practices in recent years, and a public reevaluation of its canonizing. "If so few women are being inducted into the Rock Hall, then the nominating committee is broken," longtime Hall critic Courtney Love wrote in a March op-ed forThe Guardian. "If so few Black artists, so few women of colour, are being inducted, then the voting process needs to be overhauled. Music is a lifeforce that is constantly evolving — and they can't keep up."

The following month, one woman voting for Rock Hall inductees, Allyson McCabe (who contributes to NPR), echoed those sentiments in a very public resignation from the Foundation.Writing for Vulture, she called her invitation tokenism, adding that the process was opaque and the methodology seemed, at best, inconsistent and, at worst, biased and preferential. "I felt uneasy looking at the ballot each year, the way the genre's definition seemed to be applied differently in the bios depending on who was doing the rocking. Implicitly, the 'real' rockers were still white guys with 'real' rock instruments," she wrote.

With all of this condemnation swirling, it's worth wondering what about enduring monuments like the Rock Hall keeps stirring people up. It's easy to understand why artists care — if not for the sake of hagiography then for the approval — but what about us in the audience? If the thing is so broken, why do we continue to concern ourselves with the way it functions, or the results of its dysfunction? There is a very human impulse to not only have others endorse the music we enjoy but to have its impact dignified in a way that feels meaningful. That goes even more so for music we believe expresses something profound about the human condition. We see it year after year with the Grammys, in various cycles of outrage: a need to see institutions validate our taste and its effect on the way we see our world, and, by extension, an equally powerful need to satiate our desire to argue. There is no version of the Hall that can be unanimously agreed upon. And even though we know it's busted we don't really know how to fix it. That's because you can't build a Hall without diminishing the impact of music that someone, somewhere finds sacred.

To build a Hall with only superiority as the defining principle is to misrepresent what art is for. It is something that makes sense for sports, which are defined by quantifiable metrics like wins and statistics, but not for music, which is incalculable. Music is something you feel and we already have a system for attempting to measure the music that is most popular for posterity: the Billboard charts. Some of Rolling Stone's own attempts at canonizing have shifted with its public (I was among the musicians, industry insiders and critics that voted for the updated Rolling Stone 500), as have the Rock Hall's, demonstrating the slippery notion of any sort of definitive music valhalla.

There is a more attractive version of the Rock Hall that puts the museum before the haut monde, making itself out to be a curator of watershed moments from an important but specific period in rock history and not an authority on all of history. In that case, the Hall's definition of rock can be whatever its committees want it to be, and the doors open more broadly to artists with a subtler impact. Instead, the Hall and its cabal want to have it both ways — venerate only what suits them but define American music's legacy for everyone.

Somehow, despite the Hall's objections to certain kinds of music, it has become cultural orthodoxy as popular music's pantheon, a distinction it has leaned into consistently. In 2022, Dolly Partonasked to be removed from the ballot because she felt she wasn't a fit. In response to her request, the Hall shared a broader mission statement: "From its inception, rock and roll has had deep roots in rhythm & blues and country music. It is not defined by any one genre, rather a sound that moves youth culture. Dolly Parton's music impacted a generation of young fans and influenced countless artists that followed. Her nomination to be considered for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame followed the same process as all other artists who have been considered."

If its goal truly has been to canonize a genreless sound that moves youth culture, the Rock Hall has resoundingly failed. Its considerations of R&B, country, pop and hip-hop have always felt warped. What's more, beyond its marked inability to define rock's relationship to other genres, the Rock Hall has done very little to make them feel at home and not like outliers. Nevertheless, it positions itself as a holistic institution that should be regarded as sacred. In truth, it was built to do exactly what it does: omit and disallow.

The canon and the Hall of Fame are not American inventions (though they are distinctly western constructions) but over the last century, the latter in particular has become as American as, well, baseball. In a 1986 Washington Post story called "Keepers of the Fame," author Vance Packard told Michael Kernan, "Americans have a penchant for self-congratulation." The Hall that Kernan called the "ur-Hall of Fame," the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, established in 1901, was created entirely for functional reasons: to conceal an unsightly wall at New York University. Only after they discovered the need to fill space did they invent the use, modeled after religious sites in Europe. (Perhaps Bill Withers was onto something when he called Hall induction "a pre-obituary.")

It has also always been an opportunity for self-mythologizing. "Like all Americans, he admired the use made of Westminster Abbey, and the Pantheon in Paris," wrote NYU chancellor and Hall of Fame for Great Americans creator Henry Mitchell MacCracken of ... himself. "But the American claims liberty to adopt new and broad rules to govern him, even when following on the track of his Old-World ancestors. Hence it was agreed that admission to this Hall of Fame should be controlled by a national body of electors, who might, as nearly as possible, represent the wisdom of the American people."

This is the core myth at the center of the "Hall of Fame" — that its voting body can approximate public opinion. Since the advent of the sports Hall, that idea has shifted. The voting body, with its expertise, now supersedes public opinion. It's worth noting that the Hall of Fame for Great Americans never became an important American institution and it held its last election a decade before the Rock Hall started. People stopped showing up, and busts of its final inductees were never finished. It's a powerful reminder that these things are only as useful as their service to their public.

There were once smaller institutions that felt like correctives to the Rock Hall — alt-weeklies like The Village Voice, the pocket domains of indie music blogs and even TV and film that wasn't produced by the subjects. As they continue to disappear, there is an ever more urgent need to fight off the RRHoF's attempts to have the last word on what should matter, not simply for diversity's sake, but for the sake of open-mindedness and intrigue. As a counterculture has become paradigm, it's easy to see how the free-spirited ideals that govern classless ways of being can erode without accountability. The answer is not to create more Halls. After all, exclusion is at least half the point — not just being venerated but being separated from other artists by the velvet rope.

Instead, we should think of preserving music history as a collective responsibility. Critic Richard Brodyrecently wrote, "The archive of the future is decentralized, crowdsourced." He's right. I look at theDance Music Archive, moves made tocache rap mixtapes online, and other attempts to represent not only impact but sprawl and not only "masters" but those thanklessly in service to communities. The Jann Wenners of the world shouldn't ever dictate what gets deemed important again.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sheldon Pearce
[Copyright 2024 NPR]