September 24, 2023

No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn: Ahead of its Ceremony 11/3, the Rock Hall Has Serious Work to Do

In light of the Jann Wenner controversy this past week, it must be said: As Rolling Stone magazine has done already, the Rock Hall — as an institution, and the second-most conspicuous monument to Wenner's ambition and "vision" — needs to issue a statement to clarify its current position, distance itself, and re-establish some semblance of trust with its employees, donors, members, and ceremony ticket buyers. It's time for the Hall to meet the moment, especially with the looming inductions at Brooklyn's Barclays Center this November.  

To quote George Costanza, it may be time for the Rock Hall to reject its first impulses, and "do the opposite." Apologies and humility, as with Hall co-founder Wenner, seem as scarce as the women and people of color in its inductee ranks. The arrogance displayed by Wenner when his ignorance was exposed by writer David Marchese in last week's New York Times interview was stunning. Arrogance is a trait that's palpable, too, in the Hall's public relations approach, which seems to toggle between diversion and denial. The "ignore it and it will go away" gambit works sometimes, but neither the Hall, nor Wenner can wish this one away. It's the equivalent of a cash deposit bag exploding a dye pack on a fleeing bank robber. 

On September 16, amid a reported atmosphere of "urgency and rage," a vote was held by the Rock Hall foundation, and a statement was released saying that Wenner had been ejected from its board. (Also that day, the New York Times reported that president and CEO of the foundation, Joel Peresman, contacted by phone, "declined to comment further.") In an e-mail from foundation member Troy Carter to Wenner that leaked, words were not minced: 

"It's mind-blowing to hear you imply that women and Black artists lack the intellectual articulation to be philosophers of rock, considering the significant contributions they have made, not only in terms of creative output but also in articulating the cultural, political and social aspects of their work. Artists like Nina Simone and Billie Holiday used their music to tackle pressing issues of civil rights and social injustice. They spoke eloquently about the purpose behind their music. Robert JohnsonLittle Richard and Chuck Berry laid much of the groundwork for what rock and roll would become, both musically and conceptually... 

... You have every right to your opinion, whether or not I agree. But as a member of one of the most important music institutions in the world, your opinion is hurtful to all of the women and Black artists who hold the RRHF in high regard. While you have a storied history in the music industry, that story also includes a long history of racial bias and bigotry... 

... Nina and Joni would run circles around you on their worst day. It’s always difficult when a board removes a founder, but in this case, it’s easy. Kick rocks, buddy."

One gets the sense that Wenner was probably relieved that catapults are no longer in popular usage. 

Carter's e-mail represents a close-up perspective, but if one zooms out and takes a holistic view of the Hall, an unavoidable question emerges: Why does it seem that it's only when there's a four-alarm fire — when the Hall's hand is absolutely forced by bad optics and/or external pressure — that it is spurred into action? Yes, the Hall is a complicated, committee-laden bureaucracy. Yes, this thing's ideological concrete was set on a slant. Yes, the rotten tomatoes lobbed at the Hall on social media in one week could sustain Heinz production for a year. But is this a fire department, or a globally-recognized cultural institution? 

The concept of being proactive, instead of constantly reactive, would seem to be a common-sense strategy for any public entity of this scale, particularly one that involves the preservation of culture and aspires to pantheon-building. Preventative maintenance and crisis management are two areas the Hall ought to explore with fresh vigor, especially after this past week. Specific phrases from Ice Cube's 2016 induction speech ("Rock & roll is not an instrument, rock & roll is not even a style of music. Rock & roll is a spirit.") are repeatedly parroted by Hall officials, but something else Cube once said should also be taken to heart by the institution: "Check yo' self before you wreck yo' self."

The Rock Hall foundation's leadership presides over a world where women comprise only 8.63% of inducted members; where an insulted Alanis Morrissette unexpectedly leaves a ceremony rehearsal, blaming sexism and incivility; where hip-hop legends such as Eric B. & Rakim and A Tribe Called Quest languish with nominations but no inductions; where a host of funk, soul, R&B, and disco acts are still on the outside (the Meters, Patti LaBelle, Luther Vandross, Kool & the Gang, Pointer Sisters, 11-time nominees Chic); where punk, prog, hard rock, and metal lodestars struggle for recognition (no Bad Brains, no Jethro Tull, no Thin Lizzy, no Iron Maiden); where scenery-chewing weirdos sit on the bench (Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Grace Jones, the Cramps); where superstars of reggae and Afrobeat are missing (Peter Tosh, Fela Kuti); where Los Lobos gets a single nomination (2016), and never returns to the ballot; where iconic bassist Carol Kaye (88 years old) has never been honored; where god-tier pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe isn't honored until 2018; where Cleveland-born Tracy Chapman has zero nominations; where Chaka Khan has to endure 7 fruitless nominations across 11 years (with and without Rufus) before finally being honored in 2023. To put it lightly, this is a world in need of radical change. As Chapman once sang, "Talking about a revolution."

The Rock Hall, now estranged from Wenner, yet associated with him forever, is in rough waters. At a time when they'd rather be touting their upcoming, $135 million museum expansion, as well as the the Brooklyn inductions six weeks from now, they're forced to navigate a spiraling public relations crisis. Past controversies have dogged the Hall, of course (everyone should know the name Dorothy Carvello), but the Wenner expulsion arrives on the heels of yet another embarrassing situation: Just last year, they had to suspend Craig Inciardi, a long-tenured museum curator and director of acquisitions, after he was criminally charged, with others, for trying to sell handwritten notes and lyrics Don Henley claims were stolen from him. The trial is reportedly slated for this fall. 

Rock Hall drama and malfeasance is nothing new — for years now, the noble, fact-based work of essential watchdogs such as the website Future Rock Legends and author/educator Evelyn McDonnell have provided a checks-and-balances system and conscience that the Rock Hall, with its unsavory associations and perplexing actions, often seems to lack. Along the same lines, Hole singer Courtney Love entered the conversation earlier this year with a series of impassioned Twitter posts, as well as a guest piece in The Guardian, perceptively calling out the same sins of exclusion at the Rock Hall that Wenner just inadvertently exposed in himself. 

The 2023 induction ceremony is coming up fast, and the entire vibe and success of this annual gala truly depend on which key actions the Hall takes next. If Hall leadership wants to win back hearts and minds, it should trade stonewalling for pragmatism. It should release a public statement of contrition and renewed purpose to communicate its priorities and propel itself beyond the Wenner narrative. Further, several rounds of hat-in-hand diplomacy with 2023's inductees will be required to convince them to a) still believe in this thing, and b) show up. Mission-critical artist negotiations occur in advance of every ceremony, but Wenner has certainly made that task a lot tougher this time around.

Indisputably, Wenner co-founded this institution and has had an outsized influence on shaping what it is today. Suggesting that new leadership in recent years, as encouraging as it is, somehow erases Jann's fingerprints from the Hall is short-sighted and not in line with the facts. It's hard work to change, but change, the Rock Hall must. Another part of Carter's e-mail says it all: 

"We can't change what was said, but we can learn from it and take steps to ensure that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is an institution that truly honors the breadth and depth of contributions to music." 

It's time to take those steps. Ultimately, "Rock's Highest Honor" (the Hall rebranded it as "Music's Highest Honor" this month) cannot be administered from the low gutter of ignorance and exclusion.