The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is evolving — very, very slowly
When the pioneering Los Angeles rap group N.W.A was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April, Ice Cube took advantage of the occasion to offer some thoughts on what rock ’n’ roll means — and what it doesn’t.
“Rock ’n’ roll is not an instrument. Rock ’n’ roll is not even a style of music,” the rapper said. “Rock ’n’ roll is a spirit. Rock ’n’ roll is not conforming to the people who came before you but creating your own path in music and in life.”
Eight months later, Ice Cube’s words appear to have been persuasive. The Rock Hall announced early Tuesday that another West Coast rap king, Tupac Shakur, will be inducted in 2017 in his first year of eligibility.
No guitar? No problem.
But if Shakur’s admittance suggests this famously conservative body has widened its embrace, the rest of next year’s class of inductees shows the Rock Hall has hardly dismantled its old value system. Joan Baez, Journey, Yes, Pearl Jam and Electric Light Orchestra will be celebrated along with Shakur in an event to be held April 7 at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and broadcast later on HBO.
Taken together, the group upholds familiar thinking about craftsmanship and inspiration; it also reinforces the notion that rock ’n’ roll’s spirit is most readily embodied by white men. (Besides N.W.A, the Rock Hall’s 2016 inductees were Chicago, Deep Purple, Cheap Trick and Steve Miller.)
The inclusion of Baez represents a welcome disruption of that last idea. For while it’s certainly rooted in guitar, Baez’s delicate folk style is another sound, like Shakur’s, that falls outside the Rock Hall’s established aesthetic core.
In a way, though, even these outliers are hewing to custom. Shakur, for instance, was hailed in his lifetime — he was killed in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas in 1996 — for bringing to gangsta rap the kind of poet’s sensitivity the Rock Hall has recognized in figures from Leonard Cohen to Kurt Cobain.
He was also a big fan of sprawling concept albums, basically the Peter Gabriel of hip-hop.
Baez, meanwhile, is well known for her left-leaning politics — a clear Rock Hall tradition — and for her interpretations of music by the previously anointed, such as Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Paul Simon and Woody Guthrie. To some extent, a vote for Baez is a vote for the Rock Hall’s own wisdom in identifying music’s greatest change-makers.
Elsewhere among next year’s inductees, Yes and Electric Light Orchestra — two British outfits that saw infinite possibility in the recording studio — reflect the organization’s deep belief in the value of musical complexity.
Journey’s induction feels like an endorsement of singer Steve Perry’s superhuman pipes, as well as of the group’s huge commercial success (even in recent years, as its signature song “Don’t Stop Believin’” found a second life in movies and television).
And Pearl Jam? Well, this durable Seattle band was paying homage to its classic-rock predecessors even back in the early-’90s grunge days; it’s only more worshipful of the Who and Neil Young now.
Which isn’t to say that Pearl Jam, or any of these acts, should be denied entry to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Last year ELO released a new album, “Alone in the Universe,” much stronger and more inspired than many late-career efforts by those who’ve already been voted in. (Sorry, Aerosmith.)
But a look at who didn’t make the cut demonstrates how slowly the Rock Hall is evolving, notwithstanding a handful of promising additions.
This year, bands and artists on the long list of nominees included Chaka Khan, Chic, Depeche Mode, the Cars, Janet Jackson, Bad Brains and Kraftwerk. (An act is eligible for induction 25 years after the release of its first recording.)
Each ascended to stardom, or something like it, in a unique way. Yet common threads connect many of them, be it a reliance on electronics, a preference for rhythm over melody or — it’s silly to pretend not to notice — skin a different color than Paul McCartney’s.
How much longer can any of those traits be reasonably held against them?
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