Rolling Stone magazine’s co-founder Jann Wenner has been severely criticized for erasing the contribution of women and Black artists to rock and roll. During the promotion of his latest book, The Masters, a collection of interviews with seven rock giants, from Dylan to Springsteen, he talked to David Marchese, a former employee of his who now works for The New York Times, asserting that Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin and Grace Slick might be creative powerhouses but lacked the eloquence to be interviewed in depth. He felt the same way about Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield.
During the interview, Wenner also defended the kid-glove treatment of famous chums like Mick Jagger, exemplified by the review of his fourth solo album, Goddess in the Doorway, to which he gave a five-star rating in 2001. “An unsurpassed album that, in time, may prove to be a classic,” he wrote at the time.
The reaction to Wenner’s remarks on Black and women artists was immediate and unanimous. Rolling Stone stressed that Wenner had not collaborated with the magazine since 2019. The Masters’ publisher canceled his promotional schedule. And, more dramatic still, he was expelled from the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which he co-founded and was chairman of until 2020; his only champion during the vote to oust him was Jon Landau, Springsteen’s manager and longtime Rolling Stone collaborator, who qualified his support by saying, “My vote was intended as a gesture in acknowledgment of all that he had done to create the Hall in the first place.”
It may seem banal, but Wenner’s role in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame gave him extraordinary power. The American passion for the Hall of Fame concept is clear from its presence in hundreds of sectors as a means of recognizing popularity and contributions, from the predictable Baseball Hall of Fame to the surprising Military Intelligence Hall of Fame. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is not just a matter of ego: people fight to get inducted, because a lot of candidates are still active in the industry and need the acknowledgment to boos their careers.
Before the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame became an actual bricks and mortar institution in the shape of a stunning museum in Cleveland, Ohio, its goals were modest. At the invitation of Ahmet Ertegun, the real driving force behind the idea, I participated in the voting; each year we received a small envelope with a list of the candidates plus a sample of their music on cassette, until, that is, they decided the vote was too important to delegate. In reality, the whole selection process was dubious: minority artists could be left out in favor of established names, connected to major labels and capable of arousing media curiosity.
Nor was I sorry to stop contributing to a procedure that seemed destined to solidify the pantheon of baby boomers, as defined by Rolling Stone in its first decades. And Jann didn’t have a particularly broad taste in musical genres: aside from his issues with women and Black musicians – not to mention Latino artists, he ignored progressive rock, heavy metal, jazz-rock, punk, techno pop and reggae, giving them only a token nod to plug the glaring omission. I talked about it with Wenner when I was able to interview him and, basically, he said that he did not care about critics’ opinions. He was wrong: they warned him about his bias. Now that bias has plunged him into ignominy.
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