John Covach’s December 29th column in The Plain Dealer, “Why no Yes in the Rock Hall?” offers a provocative view on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction process. Covach correctly pointed out that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has not yet inducted many prog rockers. Only Genesis and Pink Floyd have made the cut, while bands like Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer have not. But Covach uses this fact as evidence that the induction process is “rigged” and that the Rock Hall is “not primarily a historical institution.” Those charges are unfair.
Prog rock’s status in the Rock Hall is less about bias and corruption than it is a reflection of the changing history of the definition of rock and roll itself. From its inception, prog rock got a mixed reception. As Covach himself has shown in his book What’s That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and Its History, many critics originally saw the music as pretentious and some rock fans were turned off by prog’s lofty subject matter.
By drawing from classical elements, prog rock implied to some that rock itself wasn’t artistically interesting or important enough to contain its complex ideas. And for many critics prog strayed too far from rock’s African-American origins, reinforcing the stereotype that associated European music with the intellect and African music with the body.
For others critics and fans, prog just got out of hand. The elaborate art work, stage productions and concept albums became emblematic of rock’s 1970s excesses, and a perfect target for punk rock’s assault.
One could argue that these responses are, in fact, biases, but doing so shuts down an important discussion about artistic standards and objectivity. Standards for artistic merit cannot be objective, precisely because they are historically and culturally constructed.
The standard for artistic value in music, visual art, literature or any art form is fluid, shifting over time and fluctuating with cultural conditions and different audiences. At its birth, rock and roll itself was derided as primitive jungle music. Such a response was motivated by racism and the backlash of major record labels towards the economic threat of rising independent labels like Sun and Specialty.
If prog rockers considered Bo Diddley too simple, or punk rockers rejected ELP as pretentious, it’s not bias. It’s a debate over how to define the music and the parameters of that debate are always in flux. This is neither a problem nor a failure. While we need to be aware of how our own judgments about value are specific to our own time, interests and taste, we can never truly escape those things.
Prog rock’s position in the Rock Hall is similar to heavy metal and girl groups. The Hall of Fame did not induct artists who played these styles at the outset. The Shirelles and The Ronettes were both eligible at the time of the first induction class in 1986, but weren’t inducted until 1996 and 2007, respectively. Black Sabbath was eligible in 1995 but weren’t inducted until 2006.
Girl group music and heavy metal were not as highly-regarded in the 1980s as they are now. As times passes, our perspective on the past changes. That’s how history works.
Unfortunately, Covach did not make a case for Yes based on artistic merit—maybe his own Yes fandom got the best of him. We’re all fans, and it’s hard to put that aside and focus on the history we’re trying to get right.
He argues that Yes should be inducted because they are popular, citing their Top 10 albums, sold out concerts and continued success in the 1980s. This is all true, but in and of itself it does not make Yes worth honoring.
Most importantly, Yes’ absence in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is not evidence that the Museum isn’t a historical institution. Quite the contrary, it’s precisely because the Rock Hall is a historical institution that arguments for induction should be founded on musical innovation, influence, and body of work, and a strong case can be made for Yes on those grounds.
Covach accuses the Rock Hall’s processes of being rigged and fraught with industry self-interest without providing any evidence other than the fact that Yes isn’t inducted. The nomination process is coordinated by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation in New York. The selection of Performers is a two-step process. A Nominating Committee consisting of living inductees, journalists, historians, noted musicians, and industry executives put together a ballot. Nominees are publicly announced and sent to a Voting Committee of about 600 people. Those receiving the highest number of votes are inducted into the Hall. Usually, this means five to seven new performing members each year. The Rock Hall inducts many performers and non-performers alike who no longer sell records or who may not be remembered by millions of fans, but who are important to rock history.
For anyone to claim that the Rock Hall is not a historical institution after the inductions of songwriters Jesse Stone, Mort Shuman and Otis Blackwell last year or Art Rupe this year misrepresents the Rock Hall enterprise in the interest of arguing for the value of a single artist. And although groups like Yes and The Moody Blues are not inducted, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s education initiatives, exhibits and public programs all explore these artists’ music and teach people with programs like our interview last year with Yes’s Jon Anderson.
All this controversy and debate is what makes telling the story of rock and roll such an interesting project. Rock fans – including me – feel a powerful sense of ownership over the music and its history. From the start, rock audiences have been uncomfortable with the idea of expertise or specialized knowledge about rock and roll. Fans of Yes and Led Zeppelin flocked to shows and bought tickets despite what the critics said. This tension will likely never get resolved, nor should it. An institution like the Rock Hall – a Hall of Fame and a Museum – lives this every day. So keep the ideas and the criticism coming, but let’s not rely on false ideas about objectivity when we’re making artistic judgments.