Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Lacks a Crucial Form of Diversity, Writes GOP Strategist (Guest Column)

BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images
Johnny Hallyday

The Hall's English-only focus underserves both artists and U.S. cultural diplomacy, says former RNC communications director Doug Heye, who honors tonight's "richly deserving" inductees as he makes a case for "the French Elvis."

Tonight’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction again will follow its now predictable format: some ’60s and ’70s artists, one that brought rock “back to the mainstream” in the ’90s and nods to hip-hop and R&B. Joan Baez, ELO, Journey, Pearl Jam, Tupac Shakur and Nile Rodgers are richly deserving. Their unique contributions shape music being created today.

But this group remains about as diverse as the Hall gets. It’s the kind of lack of diversity rocker Steve Miller noted during his induction last year; one that — minus Carlos Santana’s bilingual music — in effect means “English only.” Even Sweden’s ABBA was inducted for its success in English.

So, at a time when the world is apprehensive that America appears more focused on building walls to keep people out than on building bridges of cooperation, even with our allies, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame again sends the message that the non-English-speaking world need not apply. Meanwhile, artists who heard the clarion call of rock and roll and spread its gospel throughout their world and languages remain denied. None more so than Johnny Hallyday.

Hallyday’s story is similar to that of every rocker of his generation. A young kid in Paris, he heard Elvis Presley and life forever changed. The rest may be history for American and U.K. acts, but rock essentially did not exist in France until Hallyday grabbed the torch of an art form so quintessentially American.

Hallyday’s first hits in the early 1960s were not merely inspired by Elvis and others, but were covers of those hits. Chuck Berry’s "Johnny B. Goode," Eddie Cochrane’s "Summertime Blues," Ricky Nelson’s "Teenage Idol," Little Richard’s "Lucille," Big Joe Turner’s "Teenage Letter" and on and on. En Francais.

Hallyday appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. His session musicians have included Jimmy Page, Peter Frampton and The Small Faces. The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s first public concert came as Hallyday’s opening act — at Hallyday’s invitation. He remains a contemporary of Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney, while younger musicians including Lenny Kravitz and Bono, who in 2007 wrote the English “I Am the Blues” specifically for Hallyday, seek him out. He has sold more than 80 million records. 

Rock classics dominate Hallyday’s sets. Every night on last year’s Rester Vivant Tour, Hallyday performed — in English and French — songs of Cochrane, Carl Perkins, Presley and Gene Vincent. The rock music that first compelled him to grab a guitar and microphone remains the core of his concerts. Can any American or British act say that?

Hallyday is often called, or even casually dismissed as, "The French Elvis" — another sign of global cultural impact of American music — but as his recent work has grown more serious, a comparison to Bruce Springsteen may be more appropriate.

Hallyday’s latest album includes "Dans La Peau de Mike Brown," a protest of the killing of the Ferguson, Miss., resident, which serves as a second chapter to Springsteen's "American Skin (41 Shots),” taking on an issue white rock artists here in the U.S. largely have not. His "Un Dimanche de Janvier,” a response to the Charlie Hebdo attack later performed at a national remembrance for the November 2015 Paris attacks, is a direct descendant of “My City of Ruins,” Springsteen’s cri de coeur performed just days after the Sept. 11 attacks. In hours of need, America and France each turned to the artist singularly central to their respective country’s core identity.

Music partisans argue for their favorite band’s inclusion into the Hall, but this essentially boils down to "my favorite band is better than your favorite band" — granted, a time-honored debate, as anyone who has argued over whether The Rolling Stones or The Who is the better live band knows.

Johnny Hallyday represents something different; a recognition of what Springsteen calls “the ministry of rock-n-roll" — the ecumenical nature of which crosses borders and language barriers. Whether one sings "Fortunate Son" in Boston or "Fils du Personne” in Bordeaux, the power of the song and of rock and roll — especially as protest — is inescapable.

“Music is international for me, so it doesn't matter the language,...” Hallyday said in an English-language interview. In other words — as residents of Berlin, Moscow and Prague know — rock and roll does not have to be in English to have impact. It has no travel ban.

Some may argue that Johnny Hallyday’s induction would open the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to other foreign-speaking acts, whether underground bands of the Soviet 1980s or Japanese J-Rock. David Hasselhoff jokes would be inevitable. But isn’t that the point, and a tangible sign of rock’s enduring worldwide influence? And instead of artists protesting Donald Trump in their speeches, as we’ve seen throughout this year’s award season, wouldn’t recognizing how American art forms have traveled and influenced the world, confronted us with tough questions while bringing us closer together in the process — all at a time when many are apprehensive over how the world, including foreign artists, view Americans — send a stronger message than just another speech?

Meanwhile, why wouldn’t the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognize rock’s biggest evangelist.

Heye has held leading communications positions in the House of Representatives and United States Senate, the Republican National Committee, as well as serving in the George W. Bush administration.

comments powered by Disqus