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The Great Reconciliation with Rock’s Racism and Sexism

by | Nov 9, 2023 | 0 comments


By Marci Cohen, Head of Research Services for Instruction and Consultation, Boston University

We have finally reached a tipping point in reconciling with rock and roll’s racist, sexist past. Symbolically, this happened with the recent ouster of Rolling Stone’s founding publisher Jann Wenner from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation’s board of directors. Wenner is a leading champion of the valorization of white men over everyone else in rock music. He has wielded so much power that he shaped the cultural conversation that erased and overlooked the accomplishments of women and black musicians of any gender. The roster of writers under Wenner’s lead was heavily slanted toward white men, and that is who they favored in their coverage. His role as a co-founder and former chairman of the Rock Hall allowed him to reinforce his narrow views on which artists are deemed important.

The specific controversy surrounding Wenner arose from an interview conducted by David Marchese for the New York Times (“Jann Wenner Defends His Legacy, and His Generation’s.” Sept. 15, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/09/15/arts/jann-wenner-the-masters-interview.html) promoting Wenner’s new book, The Masters (2023. Little, Brown and Company), a compilation of interviews Wenner had conducted over the years. Marchese challenged Wenner on why he exclusively chose interviews with white men, and Wenner revealed his biases, his dismissiveness of black and female musicians even when encouraged to explain. Fallout was swift. The day after the interview was published, he was ousted from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation’s board of directors. The speed suggested that others had long grown weary of his outmoded perspective and were relieved to finally wrest this power from him.

The primacy of white artists is woven throughout the dominant narrative of rock. Take the birth of punk, for instance. The standard line is that punk was a reaction against mainstream rock that had grown bloated and stodgy. Prog rock in particular, the likes of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Genesis, and Yes, was singled out as exemplary of the problem, that rock had lost its rebellious spirit, replaced by an emphasis on empty virtuosity played by those who had money for piano lessons during childhood and expensive synthesizers as adults. But that ignores the music of black musicians: look at what Stevie Wonder, Parliament, and Philadelphia soul producer/songwriters Gamble & Huff and Thom Bell were doing in the mid-1970s. They were treading new ground. It was lyrically pointed and musically expansive but rhythmically tight enough to make you want to dance. In writing, producing, arranging and playing many instruments himself, Stevie Wonder was single-handedly accomplishing what it took all four Beatles plus George Martin to achieve on albums in the previous decade. And yet the work of such artists is perceived as occurring in a vacuum, that soul and funk weren’t the heart of current music.

The particular reaction to Wenner was abrupt, but the tide has been turning for several years. A significant landmark was Maureen Mahon’s 2020 book Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll, which Duke University Press published in its “Refiguring American Music” series. Mahon recentered black women in rock music, championing the overlooked, such as Betty Davis, and also giving Tina Turner the full props she deserves firmly within the rock realm. Mahon’s book was well received, the winner of both the American Musicological Society’s Otto Kinkeldey Award and the Society for Ethnomusicology’s Alan Merriam Prize. Each award is for the most distinguished book in its field, and this is the only time the same title won both awards since the Merriam Prize was established in 1995. But it didn’t just make waves in scholarly circles. Both Pitchfork and No Depression put it on their lists of the best music books of the year.

Mahon is an academic, but even within the music industry establishment, the institutions that Wenner held sway over are changing. This can be seen in the pages of Rolling Stone. Their ranking of the greatest guitarists of all time is ripe for analysis. They have run such listles repeatedly, most recently on October 13, (https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-lists/best-guitarists-1234814010/). The last time they performed this exercise was 2011. (Morello, Tom, Eddie Van Halen, Joe Perry, Nils Lofgren, Mike Campbell, Billy Gibbons, Keith Richards, et al. 2011. “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. (Cover Story).” Rolling Stone, no. 1145 (December): 49–76.) The effort that goes into producing these lists suggests that this was in the works long before the recent Wenner debacle, but it provides a useful point of comparison for the magazine’s coverage before and after Wenner sold the magazine in 2019.

The 2023 list expands the count from 100 to 250, which allows for consideration of guitarists across all genres rather than implicitly focusing on rock and rock. The statistics reveal a seismic shift in perspective. In 2011, only two women, Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt, made the list, at positions 75 and 89, respectively. The 2023 list is nearly 20% female, with Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who has finally been acknowledged as a vital founder of rock and roll, at No. 6. Jimi Hendrix topped the list both times, but 2011 runner up Eric Clapton was demoted to 35th in 2023, replaced by Chuck Berry. But the broader numbers tell a more interesting story on race. The 2011 list included 21 non-white guitarists; in 2023, that percentage jumped to 31%. I also analyzed whether the guitarists’ recording careers began before 1970. I chose this year to explore the narrative that credits black musicians for creating the genre but excluded them as “rock and roll” evolved into “rock.” In 2011, only three of the non-white guitarists had post-1960s career starts. The recent list had 12% who meet that criterion. The newly-recognized include Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, reggae musician Cat Coore, and Niles Rodgers, the guitarist and producer who has worked with his own band Chic and everyone from Diana Ross to Duran Duran to Daft Punk. 

The shift in perspective is also apparent with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. With the selection of Kate Bush, Sheryl Crow, Chaka Khan, and Missy Elliott, this year’s batch of inductees is viewed as a corrective for underrepresentation by female artists over the course of many years. The sentiment was also woven throughout the ceremony. Inductee Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s lyricist, pointedly alluded to Wenner’s remarks in the Times interview without naming him. Taupin mirrored Wenner’s use of “articulate” in refuting Wenner’s opinions and advocating for the recognition and worthiness of female and black artists. It seemed a deliberate choice to start the “In Memorium” segment with an extended tribute to Tina Turner and honoring half a dozen women before any men. The segment closed with Sinead O’Connor, whose music provided the soundtrack for the last stretch of the montage. Elliott was the final artist to be recognized, the first female rapper to be inducted, and her closing the show was an emphatic celebration of the decline of the white patriarchy.


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