Steve Morse

Rock? Mamma mia

By Steve Morse
March 14, 2010

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IF YOU care about music, you have to wonder what’s been going on with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Last year, Madonna, a skilled pop act but hardly a rock singer, was inducted on the first ballot, an honor usually reserved for the likes of Bruce Springsteen and U2.

That courted controversy, but it is worse this year with the nod to ABBA, a sugary Swedish pop group to be inducted tomorrow along with the more acceptable choices of English progressive-rockers Genesis, the Hollies, reggae-rocker Jimmy Cliff, and punk avatars the Stooges.

The induction of ABBA suggests that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has lost its compass. It should be renamed the Pop Hall of Fame or just the Music Hall of Fame, because the rock in the title has become meaningless. If rock originally suggested a revolutionary spirit, that spirt is growing dimmer.

Even ABBA member Benny Andersson said recently of his group’s induction, “I didn’t think this would happen because we were a pop band, not a rock band.’’

More upsetting is that the Rock Hall nominating committee approved ABBA without hesitation. “There was not one minute of debate,’’ said a voting member. (Full disclosure: I once served a seven-year term on the committee.)

The big push for ABBA seemed to stem from the Broadway success of the musical, “Mamma Mia,’’ featuring their songs.The Madonna/ABBA fiasco, which has become a hot topic in the blogosphere, takes on added impact when one realizes how many more authentic rock acts are not in the Hall of Fame (to be eligible, one has to have released a record at least 25 years ago). Here are some of the rejects: the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Deep Purple, Yes, Peter Gabriel, Rush, Dire Straits, Jethro Tull, Steve Miller, Roxy Music, Devo, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Boston’s own J. Geils Band and Boston.

Regardless of what you think of these acts individually, they out-rock ABBA in a heartbeat. And what about the indifference so far to the ’80s British Invasion of the Smiths, Depeche Mode, the Cure, Psychedelic Furs, New Order and Joy Division? That’s unjust, too.

The nominating committee consists of 50 people spanning record company executives, music critics and artists such as Little Steven (from Springsteen’s E Street Band), Lenny Kaye from the Patti Smith Group, and David Letterman music director Paul Shaffer. Many are well-intentioned people, but they’ve caved in to a too-generous view of rock ’n’ roll.

Some attribute it to Rolling Stone magazine, which started as a rock journal but now regularly features the pop likes of Madonna and Justin Timberlake on its covers. And some voters like it that way. One told me, “The definition of rock ’n’ roll is all-encompassing now. I’d rather have it inclusive than exclusive.’’

That’s also the rationale for inducting hip-hop acts in recent years, including Grandmaster Flash and Run-DMC. At least they’re easier to defend, because great hip-hop carries on rock’s original spirt and is not watered-down, commercial pop.

Sting once said the most important thing in his career was learning what to say no to. The Rock Hall of Fame should have said no to ABBA and Madonna. Their credibility is at stake and they blew it. As for the induction ceremonies at the Waldorf Astoria Ballroom in New York tomorrow night, it’s a black-tie, $2,500-a-plate affair. That’s not rock ’n’ roll, either.

Steve Morse is a former music critic for the Globe.

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