Dolly Parton made waves a couple of weeks ago when she removed her name for consideration for a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RRHOF). She requested that her nomination be rescinded so that someone more deserving could be inducted.
It turns out that she can’t actually do that, so we music fans have been served two harsh realities at once. First, Dolly can’t wave her hand and make something happen. And second, she can actually be wrong about stuff.
On the first point, it’s pretty cut and dried. The ballots are final, they’ve been mailed, and many had likely already been completed when Dolly had her say. Of course, it becomes a different question if she is voted in, whether the RRHOF will honor her request and invalidate the induction.
On the second point, matters are more subjective. The argument has raged for years about who should be recognized for induction, and Dolly appears to have landed on what I think is the wrong side of the argument.
On one end of the spectrum, there’s so-called “purists.” And as far as I’m concerned, that’s just as fascist as it sounds. Rock and roll, in this purist retelling, is a musical style defined by its use of guitar, drums, and pounding, propulsive rhythms.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is the super-inclusive definition, which maintains that rock and roll is based in musical stylistic choices, but subsequently expanded by the evolution of sound over the seven decades since its inception, the influence of its attitude on subsequent musical forms and artists, and the continued relevance of the musical genres that melded to form rock music in the first place. I agree with this definition, in case you hadn’t picked up on that.
The reason I agree with the more inclusive definition? Well, part of it is because I’m one of those snowflake liberals who can’t bear to see people excluded because of subjective, systemic biases. The other part is because the RRHOF has made their bed and now they have to rock in it.
Yes, Virginia, the history of music is in fact a microcosm of the biased, racist, sexist culture that begat it. As much as *some folks* want to pretend that music, along with all other aspects of culture, exist in a vacuum where everyone is fair, the truth is a lot messier than that.
Racism is a big reason rock and roll exists in the first place. If white kids could’ve just listened to “race records” to start with, the record executives would not have needed to cultivate a largely segregated, modified version of the rhythmic music that Black artists were already creating in the 1950s, then slap a new label on it.
Then, as soon as they enabled the creation of this musical compromise of rock and roll, the execs tried to dilute the music back down into the inoffensive pop music that preceded it. Ricky Nelson, Pat Boone, Paul Anka, and a hokey Hollywood incarnation of Elvis Presley followed swiftly on the heels of Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and the original Elvis. It took the British Invasion of the 1960s (and a handful of pre-head-banging Americans) to bring back the hard-edged spirit of the original wave. Subsequent versions of rock have washed across the world and have rewritten the instrumental rules several times. No one would argue that U2, Devo, Metallica, or Green Day aren’t rock bands, but their musical choices have taken them down very different roads.
Meantime, the other genres that were smashed together to create rock continued to evolve and interact with rock. Black music continued to evolve into modern-day R&B, funk, reggae, dancehall, and, hip-hop. Country music tried on several hats that weren’t always wide-brimmed, creating bands like Alabama that were hard to parse from “rock” bands like .38 Special. Dance music and electronica arose from this stew of popular music, as well.
So with all this diversity of instrumentation and cross-pollination among genres, who’s really to say what’s rock music? The say, all too often, was given to white guys, who can label the folksy stylings of Bob Dylan as rock and roll and induct him on the third-ever ballot in 1988, but who can equally scream bloody murder when the subversive pop swagger of Madonna got her inducted 20 years later, after all the greats from the 1950s and 1960s had had multiple opportunities to be voted in.
And this brings us to 2022, where Dolly Parton finds herself in the running to be inducted and demurs. And I think she’s dead wrong to do so. The background above should make it obvious, but let me count the ways.
• Dolly is not going to reset the trajectory of the RRHOF by declining the honor. They’ve already set a course to be inclusive in their nominations. So much so, their inclusiveness has even strained my open, welcoming attitude.
As a prime example, Whitney Houston’s 2020 induction was a head-scratcher for me, although I’m not going to burn down social media trying to dispute it. Whitney is a legend and an icon, and I’m a fan of her music. I religiously purchased each of her records between the mid 80s and the late 90s. From repeated listens to her catalog, I can assure you that she is not a rock artist, in form, style, or attitude. “Queen of the Night” and “So Emotional,” probably her two most rocked-out jams, are nothing more than well-executed reminders that a rock arrangement does not a rock song make. Whitney’s play-acting rock vocals on the former do an especially effective job of showcasing her inherent lack of rock grit.
However, Whitney was awash in a sea of mold-breaking female megastars during the height of her career, and it’s inevitable that she craved a chance to do something edgy. It just wasn’t her wheelhouse. (When you have the voice of a generation, something has to give.) The fact that she was part of that conversation, in my opinion, made her RRHOF material by association, and that’s how I justify her making it in.
• Dolly rocks the hell out. Dolly may not see it, but songs like “Jolene” and “9 to 5” bristle with a frenetic rockabilly energy that is inseparable from the rock music conversation. People think of “9 to 5” as a pop song, but what has come to be known as pop since the 1950s has been infused with the propulsive (that word again–it’s very important) energy that rock added to the pop music stew. And the addictive thing about “9 to 5,” why it was such a big hit, was that propulsive energy. Big pop-country moments like that are why we have Taylor Swift and why we have Beyonce doing songs like “Daddy Lessons” on groundbreaking albums like Lemonade. (Make no mistake–Beyonce will be in the RRHOF soon after she’s eligible.)
• Dolly has been excluded for so long, it’s time for her to accept inclusion. Dolly has spent much of her career as an outsider. Even when she had a ridiculous run of country hits in the 1970s and 1980s, her legitimacy was questioned and whispered about among country purists who didn’t like that she spoke her mind and wore form-fitting outfits and made Hollywood movies with Sylvester Stallone and Jane Fonda. She only experienced a brief run of pop success in the early 1980s, but it was enough to place her in a musical no-woman’s-land between pop, traditional country, and contemporary country.
It’s mainly been the subsequent years, with Whitney’s take on her classic “I Will Always Love You,” the numbing quantity of earnest takes on “Jolene,” and the gushing compliments from new artists as they speak on their inspirations, that have bolstered Dolly’s legacy to where it stands today. She’s earned it, and she should bask in it.
Dolly being Dolly, I’m sure she will have none of it. But I’ve said my piece.