“You know Her Life Was Saved by Rock & Roll”: Myth-making and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame

by Mindy Clegg

R’n’R building, attribution: By MusikAnimal – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame recently announced this year’s inductees; the Doobie Brothers, T. Rex, Nine Inch Nails, the Notorious B.I.G, Depeche Mode, and Whitney Houston, with the Ahmet Ertegun Award (for members of the industry who are not the talent) going to Jon Landau and Irving Azoff. Not too long after, the usual recriminations emerged; for example Judas Priest was on the list of bands for inclusion that did not make the cut this year. Richie Faulkner, guitarist for the classic metal band expressed his contempt for the institution on hearing the news. Some grumbled about Houston’s induction, as she was not a “rock” musician.1

Each year when new inductees are announced a fresh round of anti-Hall of Fame rhetoric bursts forth on blogs and in comment sections. There are some good reasons to criticize the process—plenty of foundational artists have been ignored, the fringes that have given rock its longevity are often glossed over, plus there has been a clear preference for white male artists over others. These rarely make up the bulk of the complaints though. I would argue that critics have missed the point of the institution (with the exception of John Lydon, perhaps). Rather than existing to promote an accurate history of popular music in the age of its mechanical reproduction and to celebrate one critical genre of music, the organization exists for one primary purpose: to promote the industry narrative of popular recorded music. This fact shapes all aspects of the induction process and the spectacle of each ceremony.

Understanding the roots of the Hall of Fame might help contextualize this yearly corporate ritual. Founded in 1983 by the late head of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun, the Hall of Fame began life as a foundation with the aim to memorialize and document the rise of the rock era, in which Atlantic records played a pivotal role. After several years without a home, the organization settled in Cleveland, OH after the promise of $65 million from the city. The IM Pei-designed building was opened in September 1995. By then, the institution had been inducting people for nearly a decade. The origins are of note in part because of the role of Atlantic in the first postwar wave of independent record labels that brought the world rock music. The rock-era independents differ from the later 70s and 80s wave of independent labels, as they were primarily set up by music fans looking to get into the business and make money. The later punk era wave of independents, in contrast, were more interested in securing artist autonomy (although profit-making mattered here, too). Ertegun arrived in Washington DC as a child with his family, the son of a prominent Turkish diplomat. In his youth, he fell in love with jazz, thanks in part to his older brother, frequenting local clubs and record shops that specialized in African-American music. After his father’s death, he and his brother stayed in the states. By 1947, he and his friend Herb Abramson (who was studying dentistry while working as an A&R (artist and repertoire) man on the side) began a new record label specializing in jazz, R&B, and gospel music. Music journalist Jerry Wexler (known in part for popularizing the term “R&B” instead of the “race music” industry standard at the time) came on board in the 1950s as a partner, and both men served not only as owners of the label, but as producers and songwriters in their own right. Beginning with their first major hit by Stick McGhee the label became a powerhouse in the industry, helping to cement rock music as a key genre in the post-war musical landscape.

Artists from Big Joe Turner and Ray Charles, to soul legends like the late Aretha Franklin all brought the label unparalleled success over the years. They even got in on the British Invasion (after the Beatles) by signing a licensing deal with Polydor, giving them access to artists such as Cream, Led Zepplin, and Yes. That led to a deal with the major label Warner Brothers, but they retained control over their division, which shifted to focusing more on rock music, which had captivated Ertegun during that time. Most consider Atlantic to be critical in bringing rock music to the world, shaping the mainstream recording industry accordingly.2

The Hall of Fame began as a means of preserving Ertegun’s and Atlantics’ papers and legacy, while also celebrating his role in shaping postwar tastes in popular music. But since then, it’s become a stand-in for the mainstream recording industry as a whole and its mythologizing of the industry as a set of heroic institutions that grind against the mainstream of society, such as the central role of the white “record man” championing black artists to a white, youthful audience (glossing over the very real exploitation inherent in that relationship). Certain industry-centric myths are central to this. First, the primary (assumed) consumer went from a middle aged adult to teenagers and young adults who had more disposable cash in the 1950s. These are mostly imagined to be young middle class white men fed up with square society, illustrated in the extreme by Norman Mailer’s “white hipster” who embraced bebop and hung out in the black community as a countercultural pose.3 What began as a subgenre of R&B produced primarily by black artists became a white, male-dominated genre by the 1960s, sometimes despite the best efforts of the artists themselves, who often highlighted the black roots of their preferred artform. Likewise, the maleness of rock fans has been assumed, despite many of the early rock acts drawing a large number of young women and teen girls (the Beatles chief among them). Rock grew apart conceptually from its roots in black musical forms to heroically colonize young white imaginations, all for the benefit of a society struggling with integration. Glossed over was the reality of “gentrifying” rock music. The rock genre became a powerhouse that dominated and caused a new round of centralization in the industry, which might help explain the white-washing of the genre and its incorporation into the mainstream. Figures like Ertegun or the Chess brothers were hailed as pioneers, who popularized a new genre and in doing so, saved the world in some fundamental way. Of course, rock eventually turned enough of a profit and dominated sales that the traditional majors came calling with their wallets out.4

For many, rock represents rebellion against the norms of society, specifically carried out by young people (primarily young, white men), rather than just a set of products for sale in the interest of large corporations. The music industry itself works to propagate this narrative via the institution of the Hall of Fame. The messier aspects of the industry have their edges shaved off and a more simplified narrative of how rock came to dominate popular music prevails. It’s almost always the underdog upending the norms and expectations of society in favor of the novel and unexpected. A good example is how punk is understood in the narrative of popular music. Punk is imagined to have percolated underground, ignored until the Sex Pistols burst onto the scene, only to implode scant months later, plunging a dagger into the genre, killing it dead. Yet, this ignores the role of music critics in the development of the genre or the fact that the Sex Pistols from the start were intentionally created by Malcolm McLaren and actively courted by the major labels in the UK prior to the controversy they caused.5 The earliest use of the term “punk” to describe a musical genre came from rock critics attempting to pin a label on particular artists, such as the garage rock scene out of Southern California, the heavier artists out of Detroit, and the art school experimentation happening in CBGBs in New York. But the garage rock wave got mainstream airplay, the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges were signed to major labels, and one of the last traditional indies scooped up many of the NYC acts like the Ramones and Talking Heads (Sire Records) renaming them “New Wave” as punk came to mean something different in the early 1980s (hardcore punk). The narrative of underground to mass success killing the genre simply ignores the more complicated emergence of punk as a force in the music industry. Likewise, the choice of which punks have been inducted into the Hall of Fame speaks volumes of the desire to continue on with this myth of the pure underground. Iggy Pop, the Ramones, the Clash, and the Sex Pistols all made it in (with notably the Sex Pistols refusing to participate). Not so for the 1980s wave of punk bands, many of whom carved out an independent space in the music industry. It’s hard to imagine bands like Bad Brains, Black Flag, or Minor Threat ever getting serious consideration for induction, despite their real world influence on grunge in the early 90s. These not only influenced artists like Nirvana, but came to represent the idea of punk for many as an underground, anti-establishment form of music built on community and authenticity. The refusal of many punks to support the corporate industry means that the influence of hardcore will never be recognized by an institution like the Hall of Fame, despite the very critical role that punk helped open with regards to artist-centric independent music production.

The supposed firewall between rock and other genres also goes against the expected grain for some rock fans. Their expectation is that there is some pure expression of rock and that should be the only genre represented in the Hall of Fame. It is, after all, right there in the name, goes the argument. Eyes are always rolled and feet are often stamped when soul, R&B, or rap artists get the nod. Yet these were never mutually exclusive genres of music. Rock itself emerged out of the 1940s and 50s genres of music popular among African American listeners (gospel, R&B, with some blues thrown in) that started to get cross over attention by white audiences during this period. Once white DJs began to play the new genre emerging out of the south, it took off among young white listeners. Soon enough an industry concerned with the racial propriety of the day had white acts cover songs written and performed by black artists to skirt the racial segregation that was thought to exist in popular music consumption.6  Nor is the supposed division between rock and hip hop or modern R&B all that real. Far too many histories of the development of both punk and hip hop in New York take on one, while ignoring the other.7 This doesn’t even touch on the various crossovers that do exist and what they represent, such as Blondie’s Rapture (with a video including Fab Five Freddy), or one of Talking Head’s earliest videos, “Crosseyed and Painless” which highlighted LA break dancers. While some consider the latter two to be mere evidence of white artists yet again appropriating black culture (which has been a major problem right through the history of the industry), there is plenty of evidence to suggest shared and mutually beneficial connections on a more grassroots level in the case of the New York scenes. More modern artists themselves across genres regularly discuss the diversity of their own influences; for example Big Boi from Outkast regularly extols the influence on his work of British artist Kate Bush.

But the real world influence isn’t the point for the corporate ceremony, the myth-making spectacle of the inductions are. The inductions have become high profile affairs, debated and discussed around the world, and aired on HBO each year. It gives artists an opportunity to extol the virtues of people who influenced them. Last year’s presenter inducting the Cure was the post-industrial musician Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails (an inductee this year), who noted their influence on him and a variety of artists from the late 80s and into the 90s. Reznor both railed against the Hall of Fame as an institution, but could not resist honoring a band that had so much impact on him as an individual and an artist. Hence a direct connection was cemented between the post-punk British wave and the rise of artist-centric independent music in the late 80s and early 90s (in both the US and UK). In doing so, it goes to promote the industry view of both independent music as giving the mainstream industry a shot in the arm, while still centralizing the industry and its proponents. But Reznor also sought to reveal that dichotomy in his speech. I look forward to his remarks on his own induction this year.

That does not mean that the artists who do get inducted aren’t important, talented, or influential in our musical landscape today. Many would agree that the artists who have made it in are indeed important in and influential in shaping popular music today. Nor should we reject celebrating artists just because they’ve been part of the mythologizing of the corporate music industry. Instead, we should be aware of what the Hall of Fame represents and how their narrative of popular music misses so much of the historical reality. Those who write about and study popular music should be prepared to promote and discuss our counternarratives with the public. Our love of the great art represented by popular music of the 20th century should not cloud our historical understanding of a corporate institution like the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.


1 for inductees see “2020 Inductees,” Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, 2020 Inductees (accessed January 19, 2020), and for Faulkner’s criticism, see “Judas Priest’s Richie Faulkner Slams Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Over Latest Snub: ‘To Not be Included is a Total Joke,” Blabbermouth.net, January 15, 2020, Faulkner Slams Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (accessed January 19, 2020), for criticism on including Whitney Houston, see Tom Wrobleski, “Sorry, Hall of Fame: Whitney Houston Isn’t Rock and Roll,” SILive.com, October 17, 2019, Houston not rock (accessed January 19, 2020)]. In some cases, criticism comes directly from the inductees themselves, such as when the Sex Pistols famously refused to attend their induction in 2006 [FN: See David Sprauge, “Sex Pistols Flip Off Hall of Fame,” Rolling Stone, February 24, 2006, Sex Pistols (accessed January 19, 2020), and to see the note the band sent to the institution, see “Johnny Rotten’s Cordial Letter to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Next to the Sex Pistols, You’re a Piss Stain,” Open Culture, July 10, 2015, Lydon Letter (accessed January 19, 2020). The band was not the only artists to snub the institution, including metal legend Ozzy Osbourne and lead singer of Guns ‘N’ Roses Axl Rose, Velina, “Artists who Refused to Be Inducted into the Rock & Rol Hall of Fame,” My Rock Mixtapes, August 30, 2016, Artists reject the Hall of Fame (accessed January 19, 2020).

2 here are a number of works on Atlantic and Ertegun, one excellent work that manages to rise above admiring hagiography is Robert Greenfield, The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012).

3 You can read Mailer’s controversial essay online, “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” Dissent, Fall 1957, Mailer’s infamous essay, (accessed February 8, 2020).

4 Over its history, the recording industry saw waves of fragmentation and consolidation, with rock being an era of growth and consolidation. See works like Gareth Murphy, Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry, (New York: Thomas Dunn books, 2014), or David Suisman, Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009); on the shift to a youth centric industry, see Jon Savage, Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture, 1875-1945, (New York: Penguin, 2007). For the concept of gentrifying as applied to ideas and mindsets instead of an urban space, see Sarah Schulman, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

5 See Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming, Revised Edition: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond, (London: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002).

6 See the very interesting counternarrative provided by Elijah Wald, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

7 One of the few exceptions to this that hints at the cross over between NYC scenes a bit is Alex Ogg and David Upshal, The Hip Hop Years: A History of Rap, (London: Fromm Intl, 2001).

8 This article explores more of the cross over between the two genres, illustrating these divisions are industry imposed and artificial, Davey D, “The Connection Between Hip Hop, New Wave, and Punk,” Hip Hop and Politics, Feb. 6, 2013, Connections between Hip Hop, New Wave, and Punk (accessed Feb. 8, 2020).