“I don’t care. Maybe it’s a cultural thing that I don’t understand.”
That was Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood speaking to Rolling Stone in 2017, when asked his thoughts on the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame that nominated his band that year, but took another 12 months to give them the official nod.
“I don’t care” seems to be a catchy form of influenza, for even as the Rock Hall announces its 2019 class of inductees today – Radiohead, the Cure, Janet Jackson, Stevie Nicks, Roxy Music, Def Leppard and the Zombies will all be enshrined during a ceremony at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on March 29 – it’s tough to drum up much in the way of an emotional reaction.
The whole affair has become, to borrow from Greenwood’s parlance, “a cultural thing” that not too many of us understand, precisely because we know implicitly that rock music is not meant to be hung like a memorial plaque in a retirement community for the rich and famous.
In that same interview, Greenwood dug a little deeper, and pretty much grabbed the whole issue firmly by the throat: “I mean, from the outside it looks like … it’s quite a self-regarding profession anyway. And anything that heightens that just makes me feel even more uncomfortable.”
Yep. It really is all about a bunch of fabulous people gathering to celebrate their fabulous-ness with a group of their peers boasting varying degrees of the same fab gene. Like all award ceremonies, this one tends to reek of self-importance and the further glorification of egos already stuffed to the gills with laudatory plaudits. It’s a feast for the well-fed, which might explain why rock music anti-stars like the members of Radiohead find the whole thing odd and tiresome.
Ah, but what about the fans? If we ignore the self-congratulatory nature of a music business tooting its own horn – admittedly, the Grammys are far worse, in this regard – and focus on what this all means to the punters responsible for making (most of) these people rich and famous in the first place, perhaps we can get an inside track on the culture of the Rock Hall.
A case in point: Despite my mildly snobby insistence that nothing about all of this truly matters much, when Rush was inducted into the Rock Hall in 2013, I felt an incredible amount of vindication. This was, after all, my band – the one I’d looked to for guidance and inspiration as a young kid, the one I’d been mercilessly mocked for loving by my “hipper” friends, the one that Rolling Stone publisher and Chairman of the Rock Hall Board of Directors Jan Wenner made clear that he thought was unworthy of induction. When Rush was inducted, the place was packed with Rush fans, and they went absolutely nuts. Watching the broadcast, I felt something that, dare I say it, was pretty deep. Wenner was being forced to acknowledge something a whole subculture of us had known all along. It felt good.
If we look at this year’s class through the lens of fandom, it all becomes much more exciting.
Take the Cure, for instance. Talk about a band of outsiders, a group of intellectual miserabilists given to wearing lipstick and dressing like vampires while playing lengthy, dense and deeply Romantic odes to existential angst. Being a Cure fan – and I am a serious one and have been since high school – is akin to belonging to an outsider’s club, a safe place for misfits to gather. Who knows if the band will show or not – my guess is that leader and songwriter Robert Smith is probably secretly thrilled about the induction – but for Cure fans, seeing a band you have loved for a long time get their due is a tantalizing experience. (I’m guessing Wenner doesn’t think too highly of the Cure either, what with his uber-conservative views of “authenticity” and all, but I might be wrong.)
Similarly, fans of Roxy Music and Brian Eno have long been a devout subculture. Loving that band has always felt like sticking an art-rock badge of honor on your lapel. People either got it, or they didn’t, and yeah, let’s admit, those of us who got it felt a tad bit superior, didn’t we? To see a band that has spent as long making amazing music to the left of the mainstream being honored – well, it feels good, doesn’t it?
This is one of the few times in the 34 years of the Rock Hall’s existence where I’ve felt good about the majority of the artists getting the nod. Radiohead, the Cure, Janet Jackson, Roxy and the Zombies all deserve to be inducted, in my view. I’m not wild about Def Leppard going in, primarily because I don’t think the band has made relevant music since the '80s, but Joe Elliott and crew won the fan vote this year by a significant margin, and surely, their fans are feeling vindicated by this. Stevie Nicks deserves to be in the Rock Hall as a member of Fleetwood Mac, and she already is. But as a solo artist? No. That’s gratuitous. Her solo work has not been that tremendous.
That aside – well, not too shabby, Rock Hall.
Maybe all this pomp and circumstance is both tone-deaf and silly, considering the fact a whole generation of new artists is now reduced to selling their music for pennies to streaming companies. The people being honored this year might not have even been able to make a living if they’d come up in the current climate, so there’s a slight feeling of the induction ceremony being akin to an elegant dance on the deck of the Titanic.
But if you’re making some lifelong fans of iconic artists happy, you can’t be all bad.