WASHINGTON - Walk through the Baseball Hall of Fame, and you'll see only one kind of athlete: baseball players. Not hockey players, not soccer players, not lacrosse players. Walk through the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and you'll see a motley collection of blues shouters, folk strummers, soul testifiers, country rockers and latter-day beat poets. And next year, on its 10th anniversary, the Cleveland-based organization will induct Joni Mitchell into the halls of its museum.
To some people, this is a triumph; female rock-and-rollers are a distinct minority. To others, it's a travesty, because Joni Mitchell was never, even when she wrote the hippie anthem "Woodstock," comfortable with rock. She is a 1960's singer-songwriter. Isn't putting her in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a bit like celebrating the batting average of Arthur Ashe?
It all depends on your definition of rock-and-roll. In the contemporary sense, it means any form of music that is uncompromisingly ear-splitting and aggressive, expressing emotions ranging from lust to defiance to rage. It is also hypermasculine; the women who survive in this environment are like the black performers who survive in country music: ultra-conformist.
But rock-and-roll used to have a different meaning. Before 1952, it was African-American slang for dancing, lovemaking or (in time-honored fashion) both. Then Alan Freed, the Cleveland disc jockey, began using it as a term for various musical styles -- regional in flavor and recorded by tiny independent labels -- that were hot sellers in the brand-new teen-age market.
As a market term, rock-and-roll was everything from the boogie-woogie of Jerry Lee Lewis to the rhythm and blues of Etta James, the rockabilly of Chuck Berry and the gospel harmonizing of the Drifters. (The most famous rock-and-roller, Elvis Presley, dipped in and out of several styles.)
Rock-and-roll remained eclectic in the mid-1960's: the stars of Motown and Southern soul and the Beatles were too busy making music to police its borders.
But this changed, first with the Rolling Stones and continuing with Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and other "guitar heroes." This new style borrowed the structure of the blues but, in keeping with the spirit of generational rebellion, was louder, faster and harder than the blues. It was also louder, faster and harder than rock-and-roll. So a new term was coined: rock.
When Joni Mitchell began recording in 1968, no one mistook her for a rocker. She belonged to a new musical category: the singer-songwriter. Along with her fellow Canadian Neil Young, as well as James Taylor, Carly Simon and Carole King, Joni Mitchell made music that drove many rock fans up the wall.
In 1971, Lester Bangs wrote an essay ("James Taylor Marked for Death") in which he drubbed all musical styles that weren't a "total assault." Then came the genres that emerged from this 1960's rock: heavy metal, punk, hard-core and grunge.
To the MTV generation, total assault is rock-and-roll, the old eclectic meaning all but forgotten. And even though the different genres are converging in the 1990's, the borders are more tightly policed than ever. Volume, speed and aggression are the watchwords.
Joni Mitchell's true medium (made painfully evident by her foray into jazz) is the art song. Her best tunes combine complex melodies, eloquent lyrics and strong passions tempered by intelligence.
Her mistakes have been honest, the result of exploring musical territory inhospitable to her talents. But that is exactly what makes her a rock-and-roller in the classic, not the contemporary, sense. As she once said, during an interview with Musician magazine: "It seems to me a crime against the artistic impulse to persecute a person for being broad-minded." Martha Bayles, the literary editor of The Wilson Quarterly, is the author of "Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music."
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Added to Library on January 12, 2016. (2029)
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