- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2007

This year’s slate of nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is unusually thin — and detractors of the institution, who already dismiss it as either an insidery, petition-ignoring club or the plaything of Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner, are crying foul play.

The hall’s nominating committee (a panel of rock ‘n’ roll historians, I’m told by www.rockhall.com) typically puts forward up to 15 artists for consideration. From these, a voting body of 500 industry experts selects five or six new inductees.

But this year they have only nine to choose from, prompting suspicion that the hall is trying to strong-arm voters into lining up behind predetermined favorites. (We’ll find out the results Monday.)

There is, perhaps, a more innocent explanation: The pool of truly great artists is shrinking, and we’re getting closer and closer to the dregs.

When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted its first class, in 1986, it had a sizeable backlog of towering performers and founding fathers to recognize — giants such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and the late Ray Charles and James Brown.

The next few years’ worth of inductees was astonishingly illustrious — all the great ‘60s warhorse bands such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and the Byrds, plus monumental solo artists like Bo Diddley, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan.

These were the easy, obligatory choices. After that initial clearing of the decks, though, each new class of inductees has gotten increasingly spotty and subject to dispute. Last year’s selection of jazz legend Miles Davis was supposed to be a bold move into cross-genre territory, but in the context of classmates like Blondie and the long-snubbed Lynyrd Skynyrd, it reeked of schizoid desperation.

This year looks to be the worst yet.

Don’t get me wrong, and feel free to skip over my blah-blah caveats. R.E.M. was a first-class band once, and very much responsible for establishing the indie aesthetic that dominates alternative-rock today. Chic, the innovative jazz-funk collective fronted by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, too, was great for about five minutes. Iggy Pop’s Stooges prefigured a brand-new genre, punk — that deserves an accolade of some sort. And the jive-talky vocal delivery of soul singer Joe Tex may, oddly enough, have helped create a genre, too — rap, the barrier to which 2007 nominee Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five may inexplicably break this year.

As for the rest of the bunch …

Van Halen: I love ‘em, and yet in my bones I know that if they make it into the hall, Def Leppard can’t be far behind.

Patti Smith: She’s a bad singer, an overrated poet and never would’ve had a hit were it not for Bruce Springsteen co-penning “Because the Night.”

The Ronettes: They sound great on any Martin Scorsese soundtrack, and are even somewhat hip now, thanks to the emergence of girl-group revivalists the Pipettes. But what would they have amounted to without the sonic architecture of producer Phil Spector (the 1989 non-performer inductee)?

The Dave Clark Five, finally, was a minor British Invasion sensation. Doesn’t it speak volumes that the band has been passed over by hall voters for 17 consecutive years? By all means, bring on Gerry and Pacemakers.

Speaking of eligibility rules, let me say that the rock hall’s cooling period — an artist becomes eligible 25 years after releasing his or her first single or album — is wise policy. In fact, it’s this very window of historical retrospection that makes each year’s crop look so negligible in comparison to the earliest inductees.

The job of an athletic hall of fame is to honor a great career, not one or two great seasons. In the rock world, it seems that, at some point — let’s say 1980 — it became increasingly difficult to sustain long-term greatness. U2 has done it; the Irish group’s 2005 induction felt like a breeze of departed great ghosts. (Mr. Springsteen, who inducted U2, aptly said it was “the last band of whom I would be able to name all of its members.”) And, when its time comes, the grunge generation (Nirvana, Pearl Jam) will quickly receive its due.

Beyond a handful of such exceptions, however, the last 25 years of rock history has been a muddle of MTV-age visual titillation, mainstream mediocrity and greatness hidden in the trenches, there because of anti-establishment spikiness or a general failure of mass discovery.

And yet every year, at least another five acts are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the economy, when too much money chases too few goods, the currency is inflated. In Cleveland, too many honors are chasing too few greats. The result: Hall of Fame membership ain’t worth what it used to be.

Why not restrict entry to match a shrinking pool of worthy entrants? That’s what the Baseball of Hall of Fame does. Cooperstown hasn’t inducted more than two new members in a year since 2001. Three times since 1987 it’s had freshmen classes of one.

Perhaps it’s not just a lack of greatness, but a mismatch of cultural and popular consensus that marks the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s declining relevance. While Van Halen and R.E.M. are poised for entry, recently-eligible bands like X go unmentioned. And if one of the criteria of membership is the “perpetuation of rock and roll,” why no Replacements, a band I consider to be the rock equivalent of Dark Age monks safeguarding classical texts?

In part, the hall’s shark-jumping is a story of segmentation: We’re soon going to reach the stage where hall voters will be choosing between Duran Duran and the Flaming Lips, between Matchbox 20 and Pavement. Anyone care to guess how those contests will turn out?

I say: Moratorium. Now.

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