So where are the true rebels, you may ask? Where are the mouthy ones, the daring ones, the hell-raising risk-loving leaders? Where are rock and roll’s authentic voices? It’s an ever-changing thing, hard to define, harder yet to hold and not snuff out. But when I think of the phrase “rock and roll,” I don’t automatically think sex and drugs; I think of daring, I think of risk, I think of being challenged and even a bit (/a lot) unsettled. I think of a band like Pussy Riot and Tinariwen. I think of PJ Harvey and Fela Kuti. I think of Pearl Jam and The Virgin Prunes, of Grinderman, of Run DMC, of Public Enemy (who did, by the way, also get inducted yesterday), of Massive Attack, Throbbing Gristle, The Cramps, of Patti Smith, David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Scott Walker. I think of Meshell Ndegeocello. I think of Jacques Brel and Leonard Cohen and Little Richard …and and and. Artists with something to say, something to prove, a unique way of saying it and an incredible propensity to create various levels of thought, reflection, insight, perspective -even discomfort in listeners/viewers. They’re artists with a visual side (or defiantly non-visual, as is the case with Pearl Jam, a statement in and of itself) as well as a brash, beautiful sonic side. They don’t need to prove their groundedness; they answer only to their respective muses. There’s an authenticity that stands firmly outside grooming too, even if some (hello Misters Cave, Bowie, Cohen) maintain(ed) an intoxicating air of smashing, scintillating physicality.
Inductees to the 2013 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were announced yesterday.
As Slate noted, bands like Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and Kraftwerk were passed over in favor of Rush. It’s strange to put two such different bands into the same huge, gooey melange that is the Hall of Fame nominations. Looking through reactions across social media, I’ve noted more than a few expressing disgust that so few perceived “greats” have been admitted, somehow looked over in favor of more popular, mainstream acts.
I have a whole-hearted indifference to the entire affair. Like the Grammys or the American Music Awards, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame represents little of the true state of popular music, much less its fandom or current culture. It’s a fond museum piece that’s made a formerly-dangerous artform respectable. Certainly more upscale than the AMAs but far less distinguished than the Kennedy Center Honors, the Hall of Fame seems like a quaint exercise in industry back-slappery designed to garner as much hate as adoration. Any reaction is a good reaction in the music industry of 2012.
But the position of rock and roll as dangerous, unsavory, ill-mannered, lecherous, and immoral has become as pre-packaged and pre-fabricated as the soon-to-be-extinct Twinkie. Was it ever thus? Perhaps. Artists have always known image is important -though maybe they felt it a little more in August 1981. It follows then, that while bands that have changed, so have listeners –our listening habits, of course, but beyond that, our expectations around what popular bands should be, how they should sound, and how they should present themselves to the world at large.
The past few decades, it feels as if the world of rock and roll has turned into a meticulously-micro-managed PR affair, complete with stylists, makeup artists, nutritionists, fitness consultants, an army of assistants, and a bucketful of “I’d-like-to-thank-God-and-our-fans”-style honors from supposedly respectable societies. All this grooming, primping, praise and applause, happens while maintaining an air of groundedness and connection -to roots, family, country, God, whatever it is we, as a society, are supposed to cherish in our own lives. This “just like us” corollary is, of course, laughably false: no one’s family is perfect, everyone has complicated relationships with their God, and very often we think of hometown roots as either desperately uncool or hipster-fied beyond all recognition (but that’s the point, isn’t it?). Yet the quest for conveying authenticity continues. It seems awfully important to an awful lot of rock and roll people.
This quest tends to express itself lately in unexpected collaborations. Should we be surprised hiphop and rock have blurred, the respective heroes from each striking poses that reflect and relay the supposed “rebellion” of the other? Nothing seals so-called “street cred” like skipping across (pre-approved) cultures -or generations, a fact I was reminded of in reading that none other than Sir Paul McCartney will be joining the surviving members of Nirvana for tonight’s Hurricane Sandy 12/12/12 benefit concert in New York. Purists may make faces, but there’s something simultaneously clever and nauseating about two generations of music icons purposely diluting their beloved respective brands -to what, create something new? Perhaps, though it seems there’s also a deliberate attempt to attain some kind of cool creative “cred” in the process. Authenticity through dilution? It seems like a way of holding on to the creative spark, however weak, dull, and muddy the spark itself may be to outsiders.
So while I applaud the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s far-overdue recognition of disco with its induction of Donna Summer (and she was so much more than that, by the way), and its symbolism in terms of an ever-expanding, all-encompassing genre of sound, the award means little, if anything, becoming more and more of a footnote in my perennially growing musical palate. I don’t love awarded artists any less, or any more, for the nods they do or don’t receive. I’m sure they’re well award rock and roll has changed -some for good, some for bad. It isn’t what it was. It won’t be. But so long as we all stay curious, educating ourselves about the past while adding our way through the thick fog of the future, perhaps we’ll find a place where rock and roll actually matters again. Maybe we’ll land at a spot where a perfect face matters far less than a messy, chaotic, imperfection-is-perfect sound. That would be a true rebellion indeed -and maybe just what we’ve been waiting for.