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THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME

The name's a shame

The Rock and Roll tag increasingly fails to reflect the artistry of many of its members.

March 11, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

TEARDROPS will fall Monday night at New York's Waldorf-Astoria, as the countercultural power players who run the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame mourn their great elder, Ahmet Ertegun, who died in December.

The loss of Ertegun, a founder of the Rock Hall as well as the Atlantic label and an open-minded record man whose broad taste helped define the term "rock and roll," signals a shift for the controversial institution. With only Ertegun's colleague Jerry Wexler remaining in the emeritus chair, the baby boomers who run the joint will soon have to take on that role and make way for the next generation to determine how its legacy is preserved.

In the aftermath of Ertegun, this year's inductions, topped by the first hip-hop crew to be included -- Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five -- should mark a new era for popular music's history-making machine. But before that can happen, something basic may need to change: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's inadequate name.

"Rock 'n' roll" was an ill-conceived term from the start, lifted out of the church and the bawdy house and onto the airwaves to name a postwar dance-music trend. But its original double meaning -- to "rock and roll" means to feel God's rapture and/or to get your sexy on -- imbued the phrase with a certain flexibility. Though critics started arguing about its usefulness years ago, rock 'n' roll endured as an official umbrella term, used in beer commercials and college course titles, growing more amorphous as popular music's innovations piled up beneath it.

For many people, however, "rock 'n' roll" means one thing -- guitar-centered, blues-based, heroic noise made by rough-hewn auteurs. As time went on, the term stood in opposition to new pop styles. The anti-disco movement of the late 1970s mobilized rockers against the perceived corruption of the genre by impure hedonists (read: women, people of color, gays). Punk emerged as a purifying force, returning rock to its primal state, though others saw it as a strike against the virtuosity that had elevated 1960s rock.

Meanwhile, hip-hop grew into its own -- the first American musical movement in 50 years to assert a different paradigm than the one embodied by Chuck Berry, Elvis and the Beatles. Preservers of the term "rock 'n' roll," either as an umbrella term or as a touchstone of "real" music amid the onslaught of bogus space invaders, had to deal with the fact that, for a new generation, it was becoming irrelevant. (In the 1990s, longtime Rock Hall insider Dave Marsh changed the name of his influential newsletter from "Rock & Roll Confidential" to "Rock and Rap Confidential.") The space invaders either bent the phrase to their needs (Run-DMC declaring themselves the "Kings of Rock") or condemned it (Chuck D of Public Enemy denouncing Elvis in "Fight the Power").

This year, the Rock Hall is finally acknowledging hip-hop by inducting pioneering Bronx rap group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Instead of occasioning self-congratulation, this event should mark the start of a deconstruction. It's time to find a new metaphor as flexible as "rock 'n' roll" once was.

In their own ways, each of this year's inductees challenges classic-rock values. The annual popular debate over who's included usually focuses on one or two "unworthies"; this year, every inductee raised hackles. Patti Smith, say some, is too cultish and obscure; the Ronettes didn't write or produce their own material; Van Halen, despite Eddie's inarguable genius, remains entrapped within the joke of hair metal. Even R.E.M., the most conventional of the bunch, has inspired criticism for being inducted too early, the same year it became eligible.

R.E.M.'s quick leap actually reinforces the need for the Hall to lose the "rock 'n' roll" stone around its neck. If it's this easy for a rock band to get in now, the pickings must be getting leaner. As the likes of Madonna, N.W.A and George Michael become eligible, fewer inductees will be primarily defined as "rock." Weighed down by that mantle, the hall will feel more and more like an antiquarian society letting the cool kids in, in hopes of rejuvenating its relevance.

It's time to shake things up. Today's most compelling stars -- Shakira, Timbaland, the Dixie Chicks, the ever-evolving Kelly Clarkson -- are natural cross-pollinators who rock without necessarily being "rock." The underground is alive with mongrels and mutations, because its denizens grew up with samplers and guitars. "Rock 'n' roll" is dead; long live whatever's next. And let's hope our Hall of Fame finds a way to name it.

ann.powers@latimes.com

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Powers is The Times' pop music critic.

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