Talking Points

The bizarre and depressing spectacle of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Is there anything less rock 'n' roll than a Hall of Fame that displays guitars, setlists, and other detritus as if they were sacred relics? If so, it has to be the induction ceremonies, where senior citizens wearing bizarre outfits shuffle through awkward speeches and pallid versions of long ago hits. Stranger still are the video montages of the dead that often feature in the ceremonies. Supposed to be celebrations of artistic achievement and the vitality of the genre, they're more like time capsules from a distant epoch

This incongruity of matter and form has been clear since Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductions began in 1986 (the physical museum in Cleveland opened in 1995). But the latest cohort is evidence of continuing decline in standards and drift in purpose. The first generation included true giants, whose names and songs will be remembered as long as there is an audience for American (or American-influenced) popular music. Although they surely have their admirers, the likes of Pat Benatar and Duran Duran are simply not in that league.

That's not to say that all the names are unsuitable. Media coverage this year revolved around Dolly Parton, who initially declined induction before changing her mind. There's little dispute that Parton's musical and charitable careers are worthy of honor. Even applying a broad definition, though, it's hard to make the case that she's primarily a contributor to rock 'n' roll. The same is true of Harry Belafonte, another member of this year's class.

Even if they're repelled by the grandiosity and nostalgia of the official Hall of Fame, though, rock fans love making and debating lists. They might find a counterpoint in a new book by Greil Marcus, who has made a speciality of describing how music infuses what he calls "everyday culture and found objects" — and vice versa. Rather than ranking the greatest or best, the "Real Life Rock Top Ten" columns the volume compiles identify moments where the freedom and creativity that rock 'n' roll symbolizes (though doesn't always achieve) bursts through the constraints of ordinary existence. Sometimes that's a song or performance. Sometimes it's an advertisement for dry cleaning, bearing the nonsensical yet somehow ominous motto "the bird is the word" proclaimed by the magnificently named The Trashmen in 1963. 

In an essay published around the same time The Trashmen were teaching young Americans to speak in tongues (a rock 'n' roll habit at least since Little Richard), the art critic Manny Farber distinguished between two tendencies in American art: "White elephant" art sought fully realized masterpieces on European models, while "termite" art thrived in dark and neglected corners, including particular elements or moments in aesthetic tension with a larger and less effective work.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, housed in an enormous glass pyramid that resembles a Las Vegas casino more than the basements, dives, and high school gymnasiums where the music was born, is a temple of white elephant art. I hope the termites get it one day.