A bunch of old white dudes and Darlene Love got trophies yesterday at a fancy hotel in New York. We're referring, of course, to the inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an institution that exists to reaffirm our canonical certainties. This year's class: Love, Tom Waits, Alice Cooper, Dr. John and Leon Russell. That's great for them, but there is nothing rock-and-roll about a Hall and even less about a museum.
Tom Waits, who has never exactly embraced the establishment, gave as refreshing a speech as it is possible to give while accepting an award: He described songs as "just very interesting things to be doing with the air." Which, you have to admit, is true.
Alice Cooper, meanwhile, showed up in a bloodstained blouse with a big yellow snake, and the look was discordant. It's one thing to do that on stage while you're singing songs like this, but there's something strange about doing it at a fancy dog-and-pony show.
At issue here is what value the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame actually adds to the discussion of music. After all, it has never been known to dig for unsung heroes and visionaries who played out their careers in obscurity while paving the way for future generations of music. No, this is largely a safe institution, where consensus meets contrivance. (I mean, nothing against Leon Russell, but do you think last year's joint album with Sir Elton John may have had something to do with this?)
On the other hand, if it means one more casual observer goes out and buys a Tom Waits album, we suppose there's no arguing with that.
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