The recent Led Zeppelin reunion concert in London did more than drag a horde of graying devotees out from their cobwebbed musical cocoons, it also served as sort of a living exhibit of just what constitutes rock and roll.
“Rock ’n’ roll” is defined in my dictionary as “a style of popular music that derives in part from blues and folk music and is marked by a heavily accented beat and a simple, repetitive phrase structure.”
If you take Madonna’s music and apply this definition, an attorney who is adept at interpreting a phrase or sentence to fit his own needs might be able to make a case that her discography indeed fits the category of rock ’n’ roll, and therefore because of the magnitude of her star in the business she deserves induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But most music fans aren’t shrewd barristers. They’re more pragmatic, more intuitive, and on the passionate topic of rock, more dogmatic. A real fan of rock ’n’ roll, the kind who either schlepped to London on a Zeppelin pilgrimage or sat at home lamenting his or her inability to do so, understands that Madonna qualifies by only the loosest of standards, and therefore considers the Material Girl’s induction — which was announced Thursday — to be yet another expansion of an ever-widening credibility gap for that esteemed institution.
And I like Madonna. I’m more an admirer of the icon rather than the artist, but I consider most of her songs to be well-crafted and adventurous while still being stylistically consistent, and fun to dance to. She is a terrific performer and has managed to remain relevant at age 49 in a business that uses and then discards acts as if they were Styrofoam containers.
Pop does not equal rock
But Madonna is not a rock ’n’ roller. She’s a pop star. Some of her music may contain trace elements of rock ’n’ roll — especially the sexual undercurrent, which is not so “under” in most cases — but the essence of her music is an amalgam of pop beats, pop melodies and pop lyrics. It is, for the most part, breezy bubble-gum dance music intended for saturation airplay. It is not rock ’n’ roll in the way that Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones understand it.
The roots of Madonna’s music are not in blues, from which rock sprang. She probably wouldn’t know Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf if they toured with her as dancers. Although she has had a glorious career, she is not part of that tradition.
That’s not to say every rocker in the Hall sat home as a teenager trying to reproduce guitar licks from blues masters. It isn’t always that direct a connection. But the spirit is there, the inspiration is there. The primary purpose of blues and folk music was designed to communicate a message about the plight of the downtrodden, and as rock evolved, it carried that noble torch.
Madonna’s pop music, with some exceptions, is lightweight fare. A hundred years from now cultural anthropologists will not be examining the messages in her songs. They’ll be too busy dancing to them.
Her inclusion in the Hall points up the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s emerging credibility problem. This is not new, of course. Critics have been noticing disturbing drifts in the Hall’s induction policies for some time.
In 2006, the Hall inducted Miles Davis. He doesn’t belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s a jazz master, one of the greats. Jazz music is a beloved art form and Davis was a true genius. He’s just not a rock ’n’ roller. Some wealthy jazz aficionados should create a Jazz Hall of Fame and make Davis its first inductee.
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Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five went in with the 2007 class. They don’t belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They certainly belong in a Hip Hop Hall of Fame. They are acclaimed for their ability to operate a turntable and for various technical innovations as well as their skill in rapping. But rap and hip hop are only tangentially connected to rock ’n’ roll. And when it comes to comparing notes on melody, the two forms have almost nothing to say to each other.
Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings By including Madonna, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Miles Davis, among others, it appears clear the Hall is clamoring for attention rather than paying homage to a rich and specific musical heritage. It’s as if the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Michael Jordan because he played a few games in the minor leagues, and Ben Affleck because he’s been to Fenway Park a lot.
Perhaps if Madonna had followed a career trajectory similar to the Beatles, this wouldn’t be an issue. John, Paul, Ringo and George began their careers as teenagers mimicking early rock stars like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, Carl Perkins and the like. They were steeped in that type of music. But they quickly segued into radio-friendly pop with three-minutes-and-under songs like “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “Please Please Me,” which delighted throngs of young women but turned off the rock culture they worshipped.
Yet over the years they grew musically and produced some of the most wicked rock ever recorded. Certainly much of their music still qualifies as pop, but all of their work was rooted in pure, unadulterated rock and roll.
Since 1986, lots of people in and around rock have been inducted into the Hall, from Presley, Berry and Buddy Holly to non-performers like Alan Freed and Ahmet Ertegun to early influences like Lead Belly and Les Paul. So there is latitude.
But Madonna? She’s getting in less for latitude than a new attitude by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that will only tarnish its reputation if it persists.
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