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Expanding Rock Hall Could Cause Some Dilemmas

By Kevin O'Hare

NEW YORK — As induction ceremonies go, it'd be tough to top the one put on by The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Class of 1999.

And that may very well turn out to be both a blessing and a curse for the Hall in the years to come.

With a cast of inductees headed by superstars Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, and Billy Joel, the March ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria had a little bit of everything — poignancy, poetry, and exceptional performances. It also featured one of the most memorable end-of-the night jams since these star-studded extravaganzas began in 1986.

After all, where else could one find McCartney, Springsteen, Joel, Eric Clapton, Bono, Robbie Robertson, Bonnie Raitt, Lauryn Hill, Bette Midler, Melissa Etheridge, Wilson Pickett, and dozens more all sharing a stage by evening's end?

There, rising to the occasion, was Bono, steering the singers into a glorious gospel chorus of “Hallelujahs” during a show-stopping version of inductee Curtis Mayfield's “People Get Ready.” There was Joel delivering a soulful first verse of “Let It Be,” until an emotional McCartney was coaxed back on stage to join him in song. There was Springsteen, just grinning through it all, the blue-collar kid from the Jersey Shore, idolized by millions but still seemingly starstruck.

The night had it all.

Great speeches, especially Bono's long but gloriously eloquent induction of Springsteen.

“He got rich and famous and he never embarrassed himself with that success,” Bono said. “You always knew he wasn't going to die stupid. He didn't buy the mythology.”

Great quips, including several from Elton John, who inducted the late Dusty Springfield, while noting that she was “enough to turn a gay boy straight . . . but not quite enough.”

And great performances, like Springsteen's reunited E Street Band roaring through “The Promised Land,” “Backstreets,” and “10th Avenue Freeze Out,” before teaming with Wilson Pickett for a soul-drenched “In The Midnight Hour. ”

But with that much firepower already spent, there's certainly a risk of future induction ceremonies being anticlimactic. And what's even more troublesome is the prospect of future Hall classes further watering down a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that already has too many members.

After all, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has inducted indisputable stars such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and Jimi Hendrix. But there are a whole lot of lesser lights who've also slipped in through the years — for a variety of reasons. And the question of who gets in and who's left out is likely to generate even more controversy in the years ahead.

It's a favorite topic of debate among rock writers, and there was plenty of jousting again among those covering this year's event. Consider This: Along with the aforementioned mega-stars inducted in the Class of '99, others like Springfield, Mayfield, The Staple Singers, and Del Shannon were also enshrined. The late Shannon, who was always well respected by his peers and critics, was nevertheless a highly questionable selection. His influence was limited, and he had but a handful of hits in his career - only one of which, “Runaway” — is widely remembered today by all but his most fervent admirers.

He's not the only questionable recent inductee. Indeed, a combination of politics, commercialism, and good old-fashioned guilt has led to the increasing expansion of what once was envisioned as an honor bestowed upon only the very most influential figures in the history of the art form. So while no one can quibble with Stevie Wonder, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, or The Doors' inclusion, does Bobby Darin, a 1990 inductee, really belong in the rock pantheon? The Shirelles? Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers? They're all in, and the list is likely to get a lot longer and a lot thinner in the years ahead.

Hall rules dictate that performers can't be inducted until at least 25 years after their first recording, but the Hall's small and exclusive Nominating Committee has been making it a point to ring in at least seven new members every year. So future inductees will include those who rose to fame in the late 1970s and early '80s. The likes of Tom Petty, The Clash, U2, and Elvis Costello may seem like obvious choices. But do The Cars deserve Fame? What about Blondie? Heck, what in the world will they do about Devo?

After all, the Nominating Committee has held to a very thin notion of whatever it is that supposedly constitutes real rock and roll. Entire sub-genres, like progressive rock, have been completely shut out thus far, leaving the likes of Genesis, Yes, and Jethro Tull out in the cold. Will disco get the same cold shoulder? It's quite probable (and, likely with good reason), but the most interesting debate should start in a few years when it comes time to decide whether or not to induct one of the biggest celebrities of this era. Her star-power alone should draw countless visitors to the Hall in Cleveland, and that's got to be a major factor to consider. She's definitely got a rock-and-roll attitude, though her roots are in disco. Ponder this: Does Madonna deserve a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?


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