Jason Hartley, the creator of Advancement theory, on why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame isn’t as lame as you think.
Welcome to the first installment of This Week in Advancement, where I will be commenting on topics related to my book, Advanced Genius Theory. Advancement came about as a result of a conversation I had in 1992 with my friend Britt Bergman about Lou Reed’s mullet, his Honda scooter commercials, and the generally dreadful music he had been making for the last several years. We wondered how someone so great could have gotten so terrible, so quickly. Somehow, we arrived at the idea that if Reed was ahead of his time in the 1960s, then maybe he was still ahead of his time in the ’80s and ’90s.
From that conversation grew an entirely new way of looking at music and eventually everything, one that is essentially the opposite of the idea expressed by Sick Boy in the movie Trainspotting: “Well, at one time, you’ve got it, and then you lose it, and it’s gone forever. All walks of life: George Best, for example. Had it, lost it. Or David Bowie, or Lou Reed.” The Advanced Theory says that Sick Boy had it all wrong, that Bowie and Reed hadn’t mysteriously lost “it,” they just changed “it” to something that is harder to appreciate.
Since then I have learned to find the greatness in projects I would have otherwise rejected, with Bob Dylan’s Christmas album being a perfect example. (I can even almost like Sting.) What I hope is that with this weekly column I can help you achieve the Advanced State of Mind, where you can see the good in almost anything, no matter how irrelevant, self-indulgent, or out of touch it may appear to be. Which brings us to this week’s topic: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Every year when Hall of Fame nominees are announced, I hear the same two complaints: “so and so isn’t rock and roll” and “there shouldn’t even be a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” These reactions reveal something interesting about rock and roll: no one can say definitively what it sounds like. Though most would agree that Elvis Presley was one of the first rock and roll singers, his music was as diverse as that of this year’s nominees. Even in the early Sun sessions—rock’s nativity scene—Elvis did a version of “Blue Moon” that is less rock and roll than just about any Donna Summer song. Aerosmith, the Police, Joy Division, the Doors, Devo, they are all recognized as rock bands, and yet they have almost nothing in common.
Of course most of us recognize that rock and roll means different things to different people, and for the most part we’ve made our peace with it. So instead of trying to define the genre in terms of chords, time signatures, or lyrical content, we have decided that the one thing all rock and roll must have is a spirit of rebellion against the establishment, or The Man. Therefore many reject the premise of the Hall of Fame because putting rock and roll in a museum is an admission that it has been officially annexed by The Man. But this makes very little sense, and here’s why:
There are different kinds of rebellion.
Most of the early rockers were not trying to tear anything down, they were merely being true to themselves. Elvis liked music by African Americans, Hillbilly Americans, and Italian Italians, and his music reflected that. He wasn’t trying to stick it to The Man, he was just doing what he liked regardless of what people’s reactions might be. All people’s, not just The Man’s. This is a positive form of rebellion, and it resulted in a revolution in popular culture. Rejecting something for the sake of rejecting it is negative rebellion, and nothing comes of it. Unfortunately, many people believe that rock is a form of negative rebellion.
The establishment is made up of successful rebels.
When rebels are truly revolutionary, they persuade others to accept their worldview. Strangely, the more successful rebels are at changing minds, the less revolutionary they seem to be because everybody comes around to their way of thinking. The revolutionary artist has to decide whether to rebel against his own ideals because they are no longer provocative or dangerous. As soon as the artist does that, however, he or she becomes merely reactionary rather than revolutionary. While there are plenty of fine reactionary artists, the great ones (including the Advanced) don’t change to accommodate anyone else, even if it means they are no longer seen as a rebel.
The existence of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is its own form of rebellion.
If one makes the argument that rock and roll is fundamentally rebellious, then it is not possible for that same person to be logically consistent and also say that there “shouldn’t be” a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Obviously if something is defined by a spirit of rebellion, then the only way to maintain that spirit would be to defy others’ expectations. So not to have a hall of fame because people think it is not very rock and roll to have one is not very rock and roll.
Our relationship with rock and roll reminds me of the relationship we have with Advanced Geniuses. Just as we idealize the early, anarchic days of rock (it’s the Devil’s music!) and lament its corporate takeover, we love the Advanced when they are young, beautiful, and wild, then reject them when they grow older, uglier, and domesticated. It doesn’t matter that their music may have grown more sophisticated or diverse; we love them for what they were, not what they are. This happens, I think, because most of us don’t have the courage to be rebels ourselves. We need people like Bob Dylan to stick it to The Man for us, giving us a vicarious thrill that makes life a little more bearable. This is why we don’t want our boss to love Tom Waits; we don’t even want our boss to know he exists. So when your favorite artist stands up in a room full of industry insiders and thanks his lawyer, agent, and Jack Welch, it feels like a personal betrayal. It’s as if The Man has not embraced rock so much as strangled it. But that’s just one, unnecessarily negative, way of looking at it.
Here’s the Advanced take: There is nothing wrong with 60-year-old rockers putting on tuxedos, giving each other congratulatory speeches, and displaying their smashed guitars in a museum. Even all-star celebrity jams are okay, including those featuring Eric Clapton. Nothing that happens at the induction ceremony or is featured in the Hall itself lessens the music that got these people honored in the first place. It doesn’t take away your memories. And it doesn’t make your favorite songwriter a monster. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a museum, not a mausoleum. So put on your leather jacket, fly over to Cleveland, and check out Bruce Springsteen’s jewelry, Slash’s hat, and the “Hang on Sloopy: the Music of Ohio” exhibit. While you’re at it, you can pick me up an All You Need Is Love Backpack (now just $12.99).
See you next week.