Jann Wenner made some arguably sexist and racist remarks in a New York Times interview. Then the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ejected him from its board of directors. The punishment doesn’t fit the crime.
What Jann Wenner said
Wenner has a new book called The Masters coming out, based on conversations with seven undeniable rock legends: Bono, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, and Pete Townshend. Here’s what he told the New York Times (gift link) about why they’re all white guys:
Interviewer: In the introduction, you acknowledge that performers of color and women performers are just not in your zeitgeist. Which to my mind is not plausible for Jann Wenner. Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, Stevie Wonder, the list keeps going — not in your zeitgeist? What do you think is the deeper explanation for why you interviewed the subjects you interviewed and not other subjects?
Wenner: When I was referring to the zeitgeist, I was referring to Black performers, not to the female performers, OK? Just to get that accurate. The selection was not a deliberate selection. It was kind of intuitive over the years; it just fell together that way. The people had to meet a couple criteria, but it was just kind of my personal interest and love of them. Insofar as the women, just none of them were as articulate enough on this intellectual level. . . .
It’s not that they’re not creative geniuses. It’s not that they’re inarticulate, although, go have a deep conversation with Grace Slick or Janis Joplin. Please, be my guest. You know, Joni was not a philosopher of rock ’n’ roll. She didn’t, in my mind, meet that test. Not by her work, not by other interviews she did. The people I interviewed were the kind of philosophers of rock.
Of Black artists — you know, Stevie Wonder, genius, right? I suppose when you use a word as broad as “masters,” the fault is using that word. Maybe Marvin Gaye, or Curtis Mayfield? I mean, they just didn’t articulate at that level.
After the Times published the interview, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame kicked Wenner off of its board with this simple statement: “Jann Wenner has been removed from the Board of Directors of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation.” The presumption is that Wenner’s interview and its perceived sexism and racism were the reason for his removal, although there may be other factors here that we’re not aware of.
Are Wenner’s words and actions sexist and racist?
Wenner has a right to include whatever people he wants to in his book. The seven people he included are certainly worthy as rock legends. I have a hard time saying that anyone else should determine which interviews he should include in his own book.
His justification to the New York Times was clumsy in the extreme. It seems clear to me from the Times interview that he’s developed deeper and more interesting relationships with white men than with Black performers and women. His description of the women as “not articulate” reads to me as “I couldn’t relate to them or get them to open up to me as I could with my friends like Mick Jagger.” (Of course his magazine, Rolling Stone, was full of features and interviews with rock stars of every race and gender.)
Were Wenner’s remarks sexist and racist? Sure. But they’re hardly on par with the offenses of the rest of the folks in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Wenner looks like a boy scout next to some of those rock stars
There are a whole lot of very questionable people in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, with offenses far beyond calling Joni Mitchell “not articulate.” Unlike, say, the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, the only criteria for admission to the Rock Hall relate to musical influence: “An artist’s musical impact and influence on other artists, length and depth of career and body of work as well as innovation and superiority in style and technique are taken into consideration.” Morals are, apparently, irrelevant. Here’s an incomplete list of the deeds of Hall of Fame inductees:
- Axl Rose of Guns ‘N Roses was accused of statutory rape and assault.
- Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Iggy Pop, Marvin Gaye, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Stephen Tyler of Aerosmith, and Bill Wyman and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones slept with underage girls.
- Bob Marley’s ex-wife accused him of rape.
- Ike Turner repeatedly assaulted his wife Tina.
- David Bowie said, “I believe very strongly in fascism.” (But he married a Black supermodel, so I guess it’s the non-racist version of fascism.)
- Eminem’s lyrics are sexist and homophobic.
- Eric Clapton told an audience he wanted to “Keep Britain White.”
- Jay Z stabbed a guy.
- Michael Jackson was an alleged pedophile.
- Phil Spector is a convicted murderer.
- Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols stabbed a woman who later died.
So the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has no problem with members who have done unspeakable things. But apparently its board can’t include a man who thinks Black people and women rockers aren’t easy to relate to.
Wenner is actually an inductee into the Hall of Fame for his journalism. Are they going to retract his membership, too? No word on that.
It must be pretty weird to be super-sensitive to board members’ statements about a book of interviews and completely insensitive to the awful things your members are doing.
Is this how the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation makes itself feel better? Somebody explain it to me.