Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Jann Wenner's Museum: Such a Strange Preoccupation

This is Wallace. Wallace loves cheese.

Let's say that one day Wallace decides he loves cheese so much that he opens up a museum dedicated to his favorite varieties of coagulated milk curds. He decides to call his museum the Cheese Hall of Fame, and his inaugural inductees include the big names you'd expect in such a place: Cheddar, Brie, Swiss, Gouda, Feta, that kind of thing. Names that few would take issue with. These are the standard-bearers of cheeses.

Every year, Wallace names a new group of cheeses to his hall of fame. Eventually, all of the well-known names have been inducted, and that's when the complaints start rolling in. Cheese fans the world over begin to wonder why their favorite but perhaps less popular varieties haven't been added yet. Still others take issue with some of the varieties that have already been inducted. The firestorm begins.

"Taleggio deserves to be in!"

"This hall of fame is a joke! How can you induct Colby Jack before Monterey Jack? There would be no Co-Jack without Monterey."

"You lost all credibility when you inducted American cheese."

"I'm starting a petition to induct Roquefort. It's a disgrace that you haven't added it yet."

"Chevre? Seriously? What's next, yak cheese?"

"Why do you hate Mizithra? You've inducted every other Greek cheese but this one!"

"Velveeta? Are you kidding me? That's not even a cheese!"

In all their emotional agitation, these outraged turophileshave lost sight of something very important: They're getting all worked up overone person's museum, which that one person just decided to call a hall of fame. Getting their preferred slabs of dairy "inducted" does not imbue them with some sort of magical greatness, just as not getting "inducted" does not constitute a condemnation. All it means is that Wallace likes some cheeses and not others.

You see where I'm going with this, right?

Every year around this time, I see music fans getting similarly riled up over the nominees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Either they think some of the nominees have no business being in the Hall of Fame, or they can't believe their favorite artist has been snubbed once again. And so the petitions begin, while others comfort themselves by saying the Rock Hall long ago lost its credibility when it began inducting artists from some unworthy rock sub-genre, or when it inducted some band ahead of an earlier band without whose influence the inductee would never have existed. The hand-wringing all gets a bit silly. Fans start to sound like the girl who got snubbed by the cute guy and rationalizes it by saying she didn't really want to go to the dance anyway.

This year, my favorite band for the past 30 years, Yes, is a nominee. And I'm supposed to care about this. In fact, I'm supposed to be full of rage that Jann Wenner and his anti-prog cronies continue to carry out their hateful crusade against progressive rock! I'm supposed to stuff the ballot box and ensure that Yes earns its rightful place in the Hall of Fame! I must help right this injustice! It's about time Yes has gotten a nomination, because this has gone on for too long!


There are three things that I think music fans -- and not just Yes fans -- need to keep in mind here.
  • It's not a hall of fame; it's a museum reflecting the tastes of the people who run it.
    Just because Wenner and a few other people opened a building and slapped the name "hall of fame" on it doesn't make it so. Yes, I know, the R&RHOF began taking fan votes in the past few years, but by and large, the artists that have been inducted have continued to come down to the decisions of a small number of board members. The whole thing is little more than an ego trip that buttresses the directors' self-nominated positions as cultural tastemakers. And they're tastemakers only because people let them be so. In other words, the R&RHOF has legitimacy only because people give it legitimacy. Getting so wound up because your favorite band hasn't been inducted just feeds into it.
  • A hall of fame for a subjective artistic pursuit like music is ridiculous.
    Sports halls of fame at least make sense. Sure, there are intangibles in sports -- things like leadership, and a lasting influence on the game. But there are also hard stats, like winning percentages, broken records, playoff appearances, and championships. What kind of stats are you going to use for musicians? Record sales? If that's your barometer, then sure, the Beatles and Elvis would qualify for a music hall of fame, but then so would Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and the Spice Girls.

    Music isn't a popularity contest. It's much more personal than that. One person's "best song ever" is another person's "turn that junk off!" Letting a group of museum directors decree the greatness of one artist, album, or song over another is as silly and pointless as having a committee determine objective rankings for the Mona Lisa, The Birth of Venus, and Starry Night. Or maybe you like that painting of the dogs playing poker better than the Mona Lisa. The point is, it all comes down to personal opinion. And a "hall of fame" built solely on personal opinion is illegitimate on its face. That's not a knock on Wenner et al. as much as it as is the simple reality that trying to place objective rankings on art is a fool's errand.
  • You don't need your musical tastes validated.
    If it bothers you that your favorite artists haven't yet been "inducted," that means that on some level you're worried about the public perception of the music you listen to. The only thing that should matter is whether you like it -- even if no one else in the world does. If I worried about getting other people's validation of the music I like, I wouldn't own two-thirds of my music collection. Getting the R&RHOF's stamp of approval on your music doesn't make it better -- it just means the people who run the R&RHOF deemed it worthy of their consideration. And I don't know about you, but I care about Jann Wenner's opinion of my music about as much as I care about my mechanic's opinion of my music.    
This is not sour grapes. Three of my favorite bands have already been "inducted" in Cleveland -- Pink Floyd, Genesis, and Rush. The thing is, I don't think any more highly of those bands for having been "inducted," and I don't think any less of the artists I like that haven't been "inducted." It simply makes no difference. And I'll never understand why "induction," or lack thereof, is always such a big deal to so many people.

The only music hall of fame that matters is your record collection. The only judge that matters is you. Throw on your favorite album and lose yourself in the music. Because that's what it's all about. Not the awards, not the recognition, not the validation -- but where the music takes you. It can take you on a transcendent journey through space and time … or it can take you to Cleveland.

I don't know about you, but I know which journey I'd pick.

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