2013’s Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony was the greatest broadcast presentation I’d seen in years. There wasn’t any nominee, let alone inductee, that I absolutely loved (though I am a fan of Albert King and Public Enemy), but the live performances did give me cause to pause and reconsider my opinion about some of them too. It was an exhilarating broadcast overall
The only part that made me sad was Chuck D, at least twice, justifying rap’s place in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Public Enemy is the fourth rap act in. At this point, there’s really no need to justify it. Also, rock and roll isn’t defined by how artistic it is. Rap isn’t truer to rock’s roots because it’s more artistic. In fact, in some ways it’s almost the complete reverse. Both rap and rock ‘n’ roll’s histories have been fraught with the onus of being considered the least artistic, the basest form of music known at the time. But neither of those reasons are the part that saddens me. What does is the constant focus on its blues roots. Yes, rock and roll IS rooted in the blues, and we inducted Albert King this year to celebrate that. And Freddie King the year before, and many other blues players in the past.
But that’s not really even half the story about the rise of rock ‘n’ roll music. For starters, it neglects the roles of country, folk, gospel, and even various forms of jazz. More to the point of this entry, though, it also ignores a great section of the lore of rock ‘n’ roll, and even how the widely accepted as first #1 rock ‘n’ roll song came to be a #1 hit. It ignores how Elvis became the King Of Rock And Roll, how Bob Dylan became so prominent, how R E.M. found their audience, and even to a more cynical extent, why NomCom members select the acts they do for the ballot every year. It’s the role of youth culture, and it’s almost inseparable from the story of rock ‘n’ roll.
Much like rock ‘n’ roll music, it’s hard to say where or when youth culture really began. To be certain, hints of it have been around almost as long as recorded history (the history of toys and games), even possibly including certain passages of Scripture, depending upon your interpretation. But its rise as an almost self-actualized entity, particularly in North America, is a little sketchy. The industrialization of the United States and the subsequent urbanization (and later, the subsequent sub-urbanization) may be the hugest factor. In the 1907 song “In The Evening By The Moonlight, Dear Louise”, there’s a line about how after clearing the kitchen was “the only time we had to spare to have a little fun.” Certainly, the rise of cities drawing away from farm life freed up more time for some youth to have fun and find things to do that adults didn’t have time to do; and the continued rise of automation, where machines replaced jobs that young boys might have otherwise held (because women generally didn’t work back then, and certainly not young girls), coupled with child labor laws, definitely helped till the soil that would be the bed for youth culture to spout. The seeds themselves though may have been planted when Franklin Roosevelt signed the Selective Training And Service Act in 1940. which allowed conscription even during peacetime, and suddenly the young folks, men especially, were continuously worried about being drafted. Of course, unlike some of the wars that followed afterwards, there was virtual unanimity about the validity of going to war during the 1940’s, especially after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, so there wasn’t much division of thought between the generations at that point. Following WWII, however, the necessity of the draft became more questionable. Pop culture even took note of this at the time. For example, towards the end of the 1947 movie, The Bachelor And The Bobbysoxer, starring Cary Grant, the young boy Jerry alerts the girl he loves, Susan, that he’s been drafted, to which she replies along the lines of, “Drafted? But the war is over!” And of course, the less popular Korean and Vietnam Wars that followed also helped the youth find their unity, their strength, and their voice as they fought against the draft that haunted them.
But during the time of U.S. involvement in Korea is also the time when rock ‘n’ roll began to coalesce. Early heroes of R&B who’d be known as founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll, such as Fats Domino, Ruth Brown, and Ray Charles were making waves, but not much crossover to the pop market. Despite the anomalous popularity of “Sixty-Minute Man” by the Dominoes in the 1950’s, rock ‘n’ roll hadn’t really latched onto the fabric of society and incorporated itself into it. One of the first people to really understand what was missing was Bill Haley.
Haley, of course, had been a country singer, known as the Silver Yodeler, and his band was first known as the Saddlemen. But even before that, Haley had absorbed some of the music of Black culture in his vocations prior to singing country. But when he and his band started fusing that sound with their established sound, it wasn’t instant magic. The story goes that the nightclub audiences were rather unreceptive to it, and that was when the band realized that the people who wanted to hear this sound weren’t in the nightclubs, they were in the high schools. After taking the chance by testing their sound by playing free shows at high schools, they noticed the style was a hit with the teenagers, and that eventually altered the course of their career, and music in general. Haley even penned, “Crazy, Man, Crazy”, using the teens’ usage of the word “crazy” at the time, similar to how “radical” was used in the ‘80s, as a way of giving back to those teens. And that was in 1953 (they had also made waves with their rendition of “Rock The Joint” the previous year, but that didn’t chart). Haley continued with “Fractured,” “Live It Up,” his cover of “Shake, Rattle, And Roll”, the underrated “Dim, Dim The Lights (I Want Some Atmosphere)”, the double sided hits “Birth Of The Boogie” and “Mambo Rock”, then of course landed the first #1 rock ‘n’ roll hit in 1955 with “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock”, which had flopped the year before but gained popularity after its inclusion in the movie The Blackboard Jungle, the title of course, referring to school, where the youth were.
Now what caused what is of course hard to say, since 1954 also saw pop chart entries from R&B groups like the Crows, the Spaniels, and the Drifters, but soon the youth and rock ‘n’ roll bonded together in a way that still exists. Chuck Berry was soon tailoring his lyrics to the teenagers, Little Richard was electrifying youngsters with his wild vinyl performances, and let’s not forget the sheer sexual energy of Elvis Presley that influenced boys and mesmerized girls…all speaking to a youth culture. In a telephone conference call with a forum at Michigan State University back in the early 2000’s, the never-to-be-inducted Pat Boone talked about the role that rock ‘n’ roll played in racial unification, and when asked, he concurred with the notion that rock ‘n’ roll bridged the racial gap at the risk of expanding the generation gap, noting that prior to rock ‘n’ roll, kids and adults listened to the same artists, for the most part. Rock and roll is the first musical style that is uniquely of the young generation. It’s this youth culture that saw the rise of the teen idols, popularized the dance records of the early ‘60s, absorbed the Beach Boys’ message of fun times and young philosophy, embraced the raucous British Invasion acts, latched onto the messages of Bob Dylan when their turn to be drafted loomed nigh, aurally devoured the bubblegum music of the late 60s and danced to disco through the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It’s the slightly older but still very much a part of youth culture nature of the college scene where acts like R.E.M. and U2 found their audiences, and where music snobs still say is the place to find the music that we should be listening to and will be the acts worth inducting into the RnRHoF in the future. It’s the youth culture of the block parties where hip-hop found its origins in the ‘70s, and it was the youth culture of the early 90’s where grunge’s discontent resonated, thus also befuddling yuppie suburban parents. And whether they admit it or not, it’s the place where the memories are stored for NomCom members, thus impelling them to nominate the acts associated with those memories (see Little Steven’s induction speech for the Rascals, and to a lesser extent the Hollies).
And it’s not like the two worlds of rhythm and blues music and youth culture are mutually exclusive either. If one was to choose one record label that was the quintessential “rock ‘n’ roll record label”, chances are that choice would either be Atlantic or Motown, both of whom were powerhouses of R&B, and both of whom regularly released music with wide appeal to the younger crowds. Instead, it seems the powers-that-be would have us believe that Chess would be the end-all-be-all label. Nothing against Chess Records, they did indeed put out some phenomenal music, and Leonard Chess was absolutely deserving of his induction, but outside of Chuck Berry, their artists didn’t pay much attention to the teenage scene, and no surprise, Chuck Berry was the runaway biggest artist from that label. To forget about the youth culture would be to forget about the fun music from labels like the Cameo-Parkway empire, and fellow monitors know my belief that founder Bernie Lowe is one of the biggest snubs for the Non-Performer category/Ahmet Ertegun Award, and that the Hall has yet to recognize any of the artists that were key to that legacy. And not just Cameo-Parkway, but also labels like Swan, Vee-Jay, and even a share of the artists on Imperial.
So why does the Hall Of Fame downplay the importance of youth culture in its rhetoric and nomination choices? Well, to be fair, they don’t outright ignore it. There’s some acknowledgment of it whenever a newly eligible artist is nominated much to the chagrin of people who think they shouldn’t be inducting ‘80s acts until they’ve inducted every act they deem worthy from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s (and again, we’re all guilty of that one at some point or another). There’s acknowledgment of it when they nominate and induct acts like ABBA, Madonna, and the Dave Clark Five, who were at some point pop chart powerhouses, the pop charts decided most heavily by the youth culture. They do it when they finally lift the stigmas and nominate bands like Rush and Deep Purple, who still influence young guitarists to this day. And they even acknowledged it with the very induction of Dick Clark, nicknamed “The World’s Oldest Teenager”, who hosted a show about the music that teens were listening and dancing to, and who often referred to rock ‘n’ roll as the music that keeps us young. And even Seymour Stein, when inducted, sang a song that he supposedly sang at his bar mitzvah, asking why shouldn’t he sing, since it keeps him feeling young. So the Rock Hall does acknowledge the importance of the younger generations’ contributions to the ongoing evolution of rock ‘n’ roll, but they do it rather subtly.
But why downplay it at all? One possibility may simply be the same reason we have the 25-year rule in the first place: the test of time. Youth culture, for all the power it holds, is not renowned for being discerning, and unquestionable musical excellence is still the overarching criterion for induction into the Hall Of Fame. The 25 years it takes for an artist to become eligible is designed to acknowledge overall excellence as opposed to recognizing music we’re now ashamed of, or heralding some meaningless Guinness-type world record whose existence is little more than a curio for a cabinet. It’s designed to ensure Nirvana and Green Day’s inductions and keep Milli Vanilli and the New Kids On The Block out. Consequently, they latently define blues music and music of the youth as being antonymous to each other, which is simply not true.
Similarly, it may even be as innocuous as defining a genre of music by its musical structure, instead of by its target demographic. “Youth” isn’t a genre of music, but “blues”. “country”, “folk”, “gospel”, and “jazz” all most definitely are. If the Foundation is about saluting the music, then they should talk about it in the language of musicology.
Another possible explanation for the downplay that we see is because of who is in charge of the Foundation. I don’t necessarily mean Jann S. Wenner, or Terry Stewart or any one person. But the various members of the powers-that-be do for the most part come from the same generation. And that generation is not the current one or even a fairly recent brood of spring chickens. They might prove to eventually stop being receptive of the up and coming generations’ message and means of conveying that message. So they don’t want to be like Patti Smith and salute the up and coming generations, and so as not to stir up the claims of hypocrisy, they downplay the important role of the youth culture from their own generation as well.
Lastly, as with so many other conspiracy theories regarding the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, there’s the claim that it’s political. Politically correct in this case. In addition to being from the same generation, most of the members of the powers-that-be are from the same race, and that race isn’t the one that they claim rock ‘n’ roll’s music is most heavily rooted in. So, out of political correctness, they heavily emphasize the bluesy beginnings, and ignore what made it thrive, made it lucrative.
Whatever the reasons, the rise of youth culture as a catalyst for rock ‘n’ roll, both in terms of popularity and in terms of artistic creativity, mustn’t be stifled or ignored. And when Chuck D boasts about hip-hop being “true to what rock ‘n’ roll is really all about”, not only does it sound cliché, but it also lengthens the wait of many deserving artists for induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, from Teen Queen Lesley Gore to college-rock standouts Sonic Youth, simply because they also stayed true to what rock ‘n roll has been about for almost 60 years now: letting the youth express themselves.