THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME IS STILL ALIVE
The 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony—which was held last month, at the Barclays Center, in Brooklyn, but aired on HBO this past weekend—opened with the symphonic British rock band Electric Light Orchestra performing a tribute to Chuck Berry, who died in March, at the age of ninety. E.L.O. had a modest hit in 1973 with an extravagant, histrionic cover of Berry’s “Roll Over, Beethoven”—it became the band’s first charting single in the U.S.—and the song, rife with combative, adolescent energy (“Roll over, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news / I got the rocking pneumonia, I need a shot of rhythm and blues!”) felt like a germane entry point to an evening dedicated to one of America’s most belligerent and ornery traditions.
This year, Journey, Tupac Shakur, Joan Baez, Yes, and Pearl Jam were inducted into the Hall alongside E.L.O., while the producer, guitarist, and songwriter Nile Rodgers received an award for Musical Excellence. (I’ll happily admit that each of these honorees is in some way historically or musically significant, and begrudge none their honor, yet my personal ballot, which I cast in December—for Chic, Chaka Kahn, the Bad Brains, MC5, and Kraftwerk—went a hilarious zero for five.) The televised ceremony proceeded about as expected: gentlemen with exacting hairstyles wore sunglasses inside, hugged each other reluctantly, and squinted at a teleprompter. The two best speeches were, unsurprisingly, from David Letterman, who inducted Pearl Jam (“I can’t even begin to tell you what an honor and a privilege it is to be out of the house,” he began), and Snoop Dogg, whose poignant remembrance of Tupac Shakur included a story about parasailing with Shakur in South America while Suge Knight, the former C.E.O. of Death Row records, drove the boat (“And Suge’s ass kept dropping the lever and slamming us into the water, like, ‘Boom!’ I don’t know what was in there, there could’ve been sharks, or octopuses or whatever, and I’m, like, ‘Man, quit playing!’ ”).
The first group of Rock Hall inductees, in 1986, included Elvis Presley, James Brown, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Homage was also paid to Robert Johnson, Jimmie Rodgers, and Jimmy Yancey (as so-called Early Influencers) and the producers Alan Freed and Sam Phillips (as noteworthy Non-Performers), while a Lifetime Achievement Award went to the Columbia Records executive and talent scout John Hammond. Somehow, that inaugural class—sixteen artists in all—did not include a single woman. The Rock Hall has never seemed entirely certain of how to address the more odious foundational elements (egregious sexism; the manipulation and swindling of black artists) of the genre that it exists exclusively to immortalize, but still—this was a particularly preposterous start. Things never got much better, either. Of the three hundred and seventeen inductees, there are still only forty-three women (or women-fronted acts) among them.
Berry was the very first inductee in 1986 —“The founding father,” Jann Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone and the chairman of the Rock Hall, declared at the start of this year’s ceremony—and it would have been startling had the evening not included some tribute to his work. Berry is at least partially responsible for the particular rhythmic architecture of nearly every rock-and-roll song ever written, and watching him play the guitar is a little like seeing a flower bloom, or catching an especially kaleidoscopic sunset—a person gets the sense that there is more beauty in this world than we deserve.
Yet for anyone watching the ceremony with an eye toward systemic misogyny, it was difficult to not feel instantly defeated. Berry’s life story is rife with accusations of violence against women. In 1960, Berry was sentenced to three years in prison under the Mann Act, which forbids the transport of women across state lines for “immoral purposes.” Berry had been travelling with Janice Norine Escalanti, a fourteen-year-old Apache girl with an eighth-grade education. Escalanti, a runaway, had previously worked as both a waitress and a prostitute; Berry met her in Juarez, Mexico, and offered her a job as a hat-check girl at his club in St. Louis. He later said he was merely driving her there; she testified that they had sex on multiple occasions. Both the case and the law are complicated. In the nineteen-sixties, black men were often subject to wildly unfair trials, and the first ruling was overturned owing to racist comments made by the original judge. Still, Berry was found guilty again in a retrial, and spent close to two years in prison. There were other allegations of sexual assault and deviancy. In 1989, Berry was accused of secretly videotaping women using the bathroom of his restaurant, the Southern Air; in 1994, he settled a class-action suit filed by dozens of women who claimed they had been surreptitiously taped while on the toilet. Then, in 1990, federal authorities ransacked Berry’s estate in Wentzville, Missouri. They were looking for cocaine but instead found pornography that appeared to feature underage girls. (Berry was charged with three counts of child abuse; he cut a no-jail plea deal, and the charges were later dropped.)
Berry is hardly the first visionary rock musician to have behaved in unforgivable ways, and given the premise of the ceremony—it is, after all, a Hall of Fame—a wave of posthumous adulation was expected (and, depending on how you sift art from artist, deserved). But there’s a deeply tempting mythology at play here, too: rock and roll is contingent upon a certain degree of danger and recklessness, and thereby a little monstrousness is somehow expected, shrugged away, nudged offscreen. It’s hard to outrun this fantasy. My record collection is overflowing with degenerates, pederasts, convicted murderers, probable rapists, and hundreds if not thousands of profound assholes. I suspect anyone who has ever owned or operated a stereo has made a similar series of queasy compromises.
So whose job is it to correct for them? How do we rejigger the canon, or at least be more honest in our accounting of it? One way the Rock Hall could have forestalled at least some criticism about its choice of inductees would have been to be pious and particular about its definition of “rock”—distinguishing it, in some specific way, from pop music writ large. For a certain stretch of time, pervasive sexism in the industry meant that the commercial history of rock music—with a handful of notable exceptions—was largely male. Instead, the Rock Hall seems to operate far more expansively, routinely inducting pop, folk, R. & B., reggae, disco, country, and hip-hop artists into its ranks, making the relatively small amount of women inductees even more baffling. It’s too bad, because otherwise the Rock Hall’s boundlessness could have felt provocative, even poetic—it might have furthered a compelling argument about the way culture moves, about how different people from different places can learn from each other and weave disparate experiences into new kinds of art. Instead, its approach to genre is mostly confusing. In her acceptance speech, Joan Baez unequivocally distanced herself from rock and roll, while still acknowledging the slippery nature of influence. “Though one cannot say I am a rock-and-roll artist, one cannot overlook the folk music of the sixties, and the immense effect it had on popular music, including rock and roll,” she said.
I suspect that, for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the public reconciliation of certain paradoxes is impossible in part because it’s founded on one: the institutionalization of an inherently lawless and scrappy tradition. When I roamed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland, last summer, I was alternately made giddy by ephemera (Yo! Joe Strummer’s Telecaster!) and flummoxed by how incongruous the entire thing felt. It is plainly absurd to lionize and further the feral spirit of rock, and then to ensconce it behind archival Plexiglas. (Roll over, Beethoven—we’ve got our own museum now.)
In the end, many speakers at this year’s ceremony ended up addressing the binaries and contradictions in the air, if not quite apologizing for them. “To be human is to be many things at once,” Snoop Dogg said. “Strong and vulnerable. Hardheaded and intellectual. Courageous and afraid. Loving and vengeful. Revolutionary and—don’t get it fucked up—gangsta.” In a speech introducing Nile Rodgers, Pharrell Williams talked about the mystery of Rodgers’s particular musical alchemy: “It was a throwback to another era, but it was also right now,” Williams said.
And so goes rock and roll: it is ancient and it is timeless; it is unapologetic and it is staid. At the close of the ceremony, when Pearl Jam performed “Alive,” a ferocious early single, it felt like a kind of conciliatory offering. The singer Eddie Vedder led the crowd in what has to be one of the most elemental and self-affirming choruses ever committed to tape: “I’m still alive.” Here, the band seemed to suggest, is what rock music, as flawed as its history is, can offer to everyone, regardless of what a person has endured or been subject to: the rarified opportunity to be part of a sweaty, wild-eyed crowd, to bellow a truth in unison, to find one moment of freedom.