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What constitutes a ‘master?’ Don’t ask Jann Wenner | On the Record

“Rock ‘n’ roll” has always seemed to me like an ambiguous term. 

While traditionally characterized as a combination of other genres, rock ‘n’ roll is unique in the sense that it was born out of a movement, serving as a soundtrack for the counterculture revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. Rock’s transcendental quality is part of its appeal — it is defined less by sound and more by behavior, rebellion disguised as music.

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To me, the rock ‘n’ roll attitude is exemplified by artists like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Nina Simone — a diverse range of artists on the fringe of the cultural scene who cared more about making a statement than making a hit. 

To Jann Wenner, co-founder of Rolling Stone and creator of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, rock is apparently defined by a couple of white guys. 

Wenner’s new book, “The Masters,” which was released on Sept. 26, is slated as a “visit to the Mt. Olympus of rock,” according to Kirkus Reviews. This musical journey, however, only features one type of rock ‘n’ roll god — aging, white, male rock stars. 

All seven of the “masters” that Wenner interviewed — which does include undoubtable cultural icons like Bob Dylan and Peter Townshend — fall into the same zeitgeist of performers. But it seems that these similarities were not just an oversight on Wenner’s part — they were an intentional choice. 

In an interview with The New York Times’ David Marchese, Wenner addressed the introduction of his book which stated that performers of color were “not in [his] zeitgeist.” When confronted about these comments, Wenner doubled down, stating that women performers were simply not “articulate enough on this intellectual level.” 

What’s most interesting about Wenner’s comments — particularly those concerning Black performers — is the way they inherently discredit his reporting as a music journalist. Rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t just influenced by Black musicians — it was created by them.

“Rock” as we know it to be now started not as a byproduct of Mick Jagger or Jerry Garcia but as a combination of genres moshed together by Black performers — a messy, head-banging union of blues, rhythm and more. 

It was Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and other Black rock stars who were the first to legitimize what we now know as rock ‘n’ roll, long before any of their white counterparts rose to fame.

If we’re going off of the guidelines of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — whose board Wenner was recently removed from due to his comments — what constitutes a “rock” musician has never been limited solely to the genre they play. 

In fact, many of the Black performers who Wenner apparently deemed too inarticulate to be considered masters of the craft — such as James Brown and Sam Cooke — were among the first class to be inducted in 1986. 

As for women performers — Wenner explicitly mentions Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell in the interview — it seems that Wenner has overlooked the criteria of the magazine he helped create. In fact, in Rolling Stone’s “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” Mitchell’s “Blue” is ranked at 30 and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” at sixth — another Black artist whom Wenner deemed simply too inarticulate to be included as a master of the craft. 

It seems that Wenner has forgotten his place. It’s one thing to be a fan of rock ‘n’ roll — it’s another thing to be an artist who created it. 

I understand that there were other qualifications that limited the scope of who Wenner picked and why — he admitted that most of the inductees were personal friends of his, or, if not friends, musicians who he frequently profiled. 

I suppose one could consider his anthology a collection of his personal rock “masters,” the industry figures who he considers the most influential on his experience with rock — a history which has been unarguably lengthy and impressive.

But it seems that Wenner has lost sight of one of the core principles of rock. Rock ‘n’ roll as a genre has never been limited in its existence — it’s a rejection of social norms, one that transcends a single type of band or musician.  

While artists such as Jagger and Townshend may exemplify the form of rock music Wenner most closely identifies this rebellion with, a true collection of rock ‘n’ roll masters would span not only generations, but also race and gender. Only then could his book be considered an honest trip to the godly mountain of music. 

I’ll try to put it in a context Wenner may understand: limiting the “masters” of rock to seven white guys is parallel to diluting Bob Dylan’s discography down to “Blonde on Blonde.” You’re getting a decent chapter, but missing out on the rest of one of history’s finest stories.

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