The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame’s Branding Problem

January 9, 2017

abbaEvery year, the outrage begins the moment Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees are announced. There’s musical debate about which candidates are deserving among passionate music fans. But the controversy really has less to do with the musicians themselves and more to do with the definition of “Rock and Roll.”

How can the likes of ABBA, Donna Summer, Grandmaster Flash and NWA be included in the “Rock and Roll” Hall of Fame, people question. And this year is no different, as Tupac Shakur is set to be enshrined as the first solo rapper.

Do those artists deserve to be recognized among the greatest and/or most influential musicians of all time? Yes. Are they “rock and roll” artists? Not in the eyes of most.

That branding issue isn’t going away. It’s not like they are going to start calling themselves the Music Hall of Fame, which would necessitate the inclusion of country, jazz, classical and so much more. Even the Pop Music Hall of Fame wouldn’t fly, since that term carries connotations that directly conflict with rock and roll.

So what’s the answer? I believe things have been complicated by the fact that the Rock Hall has shunned many genres of rock music over the years — most notably arena rock, hard rock and heavy metal. So fans of those bands naturally resent artists being honored who fall outside the traditional rock music genre.

They’ve made some small strides over the years by adding a fan-voting component and finally inducting some wildly popular acts who were ignored for years, like Kiss and Rush. But others can’t even get on the ballot. Take the case of Def Leppard. Many think of them as a bit of a punchline these days — the band with the one-armed drummer that sings “Pour Some Sugar On Me.” But let’s not forget that they were on the front end of the British hard-rock invasion in the early ’80s and helped usher in a decade in which hard rock music frequently topped the Billboard charts. They’ve sold more than 65 million records and they’re one of only five rock bands with two original studio albums selling more than 10 million copies each in the US. The others are The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Van Halen. They also continue to play to sold-out arenas on tour.

That’s just one example of a band that’s deserving of making the ballot even if they don’t make the cut, but there are dozens more almost-“rock” bands I could cite. And what about the metal bands like Judas Priest or Iron Maiden? How about thrash bands like Slayer? What about punk rockers like Black Flag or alternative rockers like The Pixies?

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is doing itself no favors by failing to honor a wider array of rock musicians. If they make it right, they will make things much easier for themselves when they decide to induct Beyoncé in a few years.