The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 25-Year Rule Embodies Music’s Widening Generation Gap


Another year, another lot of middling Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominations. It seems kinda pointless to complain yet again about the lack of female nominees — precisely none of the women we suggested last year got the nod this time around, with the token XX chromosome nomination going instead to well-known rock ‘n’ roller Linda Ronstadt — or about the increasing muddiness of the institution’s purpose, given that the definition of rock ‘n’ roll has long since expanded to include rappers and pop stars along with the obligatory boomer obscurities.

The more interesting question, I think, is quite what’s going to become of the whole idea of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It started life with a pretty clear remit, one that’s set out on its website: “to recognize the contributions of those who have had a significant impact on the evolution, development and perpetuation of rock and roll.” It was founded in 1983, and its induction criterion — acts become eligible 25 years after the release of their first record — meant it was born just in time to catch 1968 1958, the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and the dawn of the ’60s, which was the golden era that the Hall was founded to celebrate.

But the interesting thing about this 25-years-after criterion means the Hall of Fame is quite literally the embodiment of a generation gap. It exists 25 years behind reality. For the first few years of its existence, then, life was easy — throughout the early 1970s, rock ‘n’ roll was the biggest game in town as far as popular music goes. Sure, there were variations on its formula: the birth of what we’d come to call heavy metal, the rise of funk and disco, the DIY aggression of punk. But ultimately, it was all variations on the rock ‘n’ roll formula — guitar, bass, drums, the occasional keyboard. Everything made sense.

Outside the walls of the Hall’s silver tower, though, the world was changing. Synthpop was starting to dominate the charts. Michael Jackson was selling bazillions of copies of Thriller. And, on a semi-related note, the Hall’s foundation also coincided neatly with the rise of the music that would supplant rock ‘n’ roll as America’s preeminent cultural export: hip hop. By 1983, “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” was two years old; “Planet Rock” had already taken the strange electronic sounds of Kraftwerk into the charts. Culture was beginning a process of fragmentation that would continue apace throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

As such, it’s no surprise that the Hall’s current identity crisis coincides with its lifespan extending over a generation. This year, its newly eligible nominees are from 1988, which means that the Hall’s alternate reality has extended five years beyond the actuality of its foundation. And that means it’s now well into the process of confronting the fact that rock ‘n’ roll is no longer pop culture’s only musical art form — it’s not even the preeminent one. It’s one of a multiplicity of options.

The result is the curiously mixed bags of nominees we’ve had in recent years. The Hall’s voters are clearly trying to remain true to their roots in the heady days of the 1960s, when boomers were young and life was simple — hence the presence this year of Yes, Cat Stevens, The Zombies, and Deep Purple — and also scrambling to reflect changing musical tastes, with nominations for Nirvana, LL Cool J and NWA. But even these don’t really reflect how much music had changed by the late 1980s.

For a start, 1988 was the year of the acid-house Summer of Love in England, and also a year by which Chicago house had been well established and Detroit techno was coming to prominence. Will the Hall’s remit also extend to dance music in due course? And if not, why not? If rock ‘n’ roll now already means “rock ‘n’ roll and hip hop and synthpop and various other stuff that’s become popular,” it might as well include electronic music, too.

In the end, the remit becomes so broad as to become almost meaningless. What we’re really talking about is a Popular Music Hall of Fame. After all, have a think about who from our current generation might eventually be inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. The obvious answer is people who aren’t rock ‘n’ rollers at all: Jay-Z. Beyoncé. Eminem (yes, hi Eminem fans, you strange, angry people!). Kanye West. Lady Gaga, in all likelihood.

As far as actual rock ‘n’ roll bands go… who? The White Stripes will probably make it in. Radiohead are a sure bet, but they’ve been around since the early ’90s. As far as more contemporary bands… Coldplay? Arcade Fire? Kings of Leon?! Or the sort of critically reviled but popular bands that have dominated the charts in recent years: Nickelback, et al. Will Green Day’s latter-day invention as a sort of sub-U2 trio of latter-day political chest-beaters be enough to get them in? Will anyone care?

Whatever the case, the answers aren’t obvious. If you’d asked me back in the early 1990s what bands of the time would eventually have made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I probably could have given you a pretty sensible answer: Nirvana, U2, R.E.M., Guns N’ Roses. Pearl Jam, most likely. Red Hot Chili Peppers. Metallica. Depeche Mode, maybe. I might have tipped bands like Smashing Pumpkins or Soundgarden, who were huge at the time but imploded soon after (and yet still seem to be making music in 2013). But really, the answers were still fairly obvious: white dudes with guitars. If you told me the question extended to hip hop, I might have struggled (as a 13-year-old I may or may not have owned C&C Music Factory’s album on cassette, god help me), but someone better informed would have been quick to nominate Run-DMC, Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, and perhaps less commercially successful but highly respected artists like Eric B & Rakim and KRS-One.

These days, the answers are far less clear — which makes sense, because the answers are less clear everywhere than they used to be. Thirty years from its founding, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s ever-intensifying identity crisis is a neat reflection of the way culture began to fragment in the 1980s and has continued to do so ever since. We live in a world where there’s really very little in the way of a single cultural narrative; there are, instead, a multiplicity of small ones, and the Internet makes it easier than it’s ever been to find like-minded souls. That’s why the world we live in is so exciting: there really is something for everyone. God only knows what Jann Wenner and co. will make of 2013, if their baby makes it as far as 2038.