Rock's whiter shade of pale

Times Staff Writer

The naming of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees always causes a flurry of outcries: the list is "not rock enough"; Kiss or Poco or Connie Francis should have been in there; the induction ceremony should be in Cleveland, not New York; and who cares what Rolling Stone honcho Jann Wenner and his cronies think anyway? All of that's been expressed in the commentary over Thursday's announcement of the hall's 2008 class.

But this year a serious complaint is bubbling under the usual crankiness (and delight, on my part anyway, that left-fielder Leonard Cohen made the cut).

The headline on Ken Barnes' blog for USA Today says it acerbically: "Rock Hall Takes a Walk on the White Side." For only the second time in the hall's history, not one African American counts among the main list of nominees. Harmonica master Little Walter gets props in the "sideman" category, as do Philly soul producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff in the non-performer category.

But by shutting out three black nominees in favor of a slate that supports the squarest definition of rock possible -- constituted by roots rocker John Mellencamp, Beatles-esque rockers the Dave Clark Five and instrumental rockers the Ventures, with Cohen in the maverick/Dylan position -- the Rock Hall has stepped back while trying mightily to move forward.

Maybe Madonna was the problem. Although she has nodded toward the rock star role lately by playing electric guitar onstage, to some true bloods Madge represents the ultimate destruction of rock's dominance.

Her ascent (on the glitter heels of Michael Jackson's) cemented electronic dance music as the foundation of pop and coincided with the emergence of hip-hop as a force that would eventually overshadow rock throughout the music world. She's so historically important and still so relevant that rejecting her was not a choice.

But the major shift that Madonna's induction represents -- begun last year with the hall's first hip-hop inductees, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five -- must have made some voters nervous. Why would three firmly rock-oriented also-rans have made it in the same year? Mellencamp, the Ventures and the Dave Clark Five deserve their spots. All have been slighted before. They'll share the dais because, however different their styles, all hail from the land of electric guitars and four-four beats.

Here's news: So does Nile Rodgers, who was on the short list for induction but didn't make the final cut. The Chic guitarist and mastermind smokes the fret board with the panache of his spiritual older brother Jimi Hendrix. In Chic, Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards connected jazz, soul and rock to electronic experimentalism; separately as producers, they worked similar alchemy for the likes of Tina Turner, Robert Palmer, David Bowie and a certain Material Girl.

Chic and fellow Rock Hall reject Donna Summer still get labeled "disco," a pigeonholing that seems unbelievably quaint considering how music has evolved since their heyday. Shall we recall that the first rap hit, Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," was based on the instrumental track from Chic's "Good Times"? Chic's eclectic approach is foundational for artists from Maroon 5 to Kanye West, just as Summer's cyber-soul set the mold for Beyonce and her rivals.

The Rock Hall nominating committee knows this, and its continued effort to widen the institution's borders is heartening. This year's whitewashing seems like a mortifying anomaly. The future will likely bring tickets split down the middle, between post-punk rock and hip-hop. It's notable that the only previous year with no African Americans in the main category was 2003, when three scions of punk and new wave (the Clash, Elvis Costello & the Attractions and the Police) made it in.

Punk and post-punk's connection to black music is different than classic rock's. In the 1980s, new walls came up between genres, although musicians kept scaling them. The classic Rock Hall induction ceremony climax of white rockers jamming on some rhythm and blues tune gives way arguably to more fraught scenes of border-guarding, isolation and reconnection. But that's for the Rock Hall to deal with later. For now, they'll have to figure out how to get Madonna to come to a party where the playlist is almost all rock.


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