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Wednesday, December 07, 2005


The Letter Hack Is Back

The recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions have, as always, generated many lists of ignored worthies. Yesterday at Eric Alterman's MSNBC blog, I responded (scroll down a little to the Correspondence Corner) to a letter writer who asserted that the apparent dearth of important 80s acts will cause the Hall to revisit passed-over 70s musicians.

In a nutshell, I offered my unsung 70s heroes then went on to defend the 1980s as the decade of Sonic Youth, X, and other bands that created essential, innovative music--albeit from the college rock margins. But as I think about it, those bands are going to pose a real dilemma for the Hall, in that they're sorely (if unjustly, but sometimes understandably) lacking in the "Fame" component the Hall strongly prefers.

The next few years are going to show whether the Hall implicitly embraces the commonly held idea that rock "died" by the 1980s. By a number of measures, it did expire. Guitar-based rock ceased to be much of a force on sales or radio charts--aside from the epitaph which was the classic rock format. That conception of rock simply became far less significant to the contemporary mass culture, which itself was in the process of fragmentation along social, economic, regional and political lines.

Of course, the white-guys-with-guitars strain of rock continued to thrive creatively on the college circuit even as it was commercially marginalized. But rock also continued to rule the pop charts as another strain of it mutated into rap and hip hop. It might be difficult for the Hall to embrace the idea that N.W.A. is indeed rock and roll--or at least their kind of rock and roll. I'm not suggesting any racism on their part. Far from it. In their first year they inducted James Brown, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, Little Richard and a quartet of white guys (Elvis, Buddy, Jerry Lee and the Everlys) deeply influenced by black music. But rap on its surface (arrangements, focus on rhythym over melody and harmony) seems to many people somehow different in kind from "rock". Can the same Hall that followed the conventional line from Chuck Berry to the Beatles to Parliament to U2 see through all the recent cultural splintering that the line also connects to Dr. Dre and De La Soul? (Not to mention the Replacements and Pixies?) If the Hall can't wrap its head around those forks in the road, sooner or later there will be almost no one left to induct between, say, John Cougar Mellencamp and Nirvana.

As I've said before, the Hall itself is irrelevant--except in how it acts as a mirror and a lens; for reflecting the ways in which we think about and categorize music, and for focusing endlessly debatable attention on which avenues of rock deserve attention. It does both quite imperfectly, but at least it opens up the conversation.

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