Why Dolly Parton’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Withdrawal Matters to the Genre

A month ago, Dolly Parton asked for her name to be withdrawn from consideration for nomination to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But last week she reversed herself, and said she’d “accept gracefully” if inducted.

What changed Parton’s mind? In part, it sounds like she decided she hadn’t understood what “rock” meant. That’s an understandable confusion—and one that’s had a major effect on mainstream understandings of pop music history. In fact, the ambiguity about the meaning of “rock” has often kept people like Parton out of rock canons. Hopefully, her reversal means it won’t this time.

Parton initially said she didn’t feel that she’d “earned the right” to be in the hall of fame because she wasn’t really a rock musician. Parton is generally classified as a country singer/songwriter, with roots in bluegrass, honky tonk, and acoustic mountain music. She’s also crossed over to pop, most notably with Whitney Houston’s mega number 1 hit 1992 cover of her song “I Will Always Love You.” Parton hasn’t often performed in the uptempo, big beat, guitar-heavy style that’s stereotypically considered “rock.”

The thing is, that heavy guitar band style is only a small subset of what actually gets binned in rock sections of record stores, or shows up on rock playlists. The Beatles most popular songs include shmaltz ballads like “Yesterday” and “Michelle” which are less aggressive than Parton tracks like “Jolene”. “9 to 5”, on which Parton’s voice takes on a blues edge as she sings about scrabbling for a living, has a lot more rock energy than the catalogs of the National and Coldplay combined.

Rock’s muddiness as a genre is a function of its history. Rock and roll started out as an offshoot of jump blues; Black performers like Ruth Brown, Etta James and Little Richard sang uptempo, blues-based songs and ballads, generally backed by horns and piano. Black stars like Chuck Berry shifted the focus to guitars and men, and rockabilly performers like Elvis put white people at the center of the genre. By the 60s, rock and whiteness were so synonymous that white rock critics regularly claimed Jimi Hendrix was betraying his Blackness and even targeted him with racist slurs for daring to play the music Black people had invented. Similarly, rock and maleness were so intertwined that the Beatles’ girl group roots were largely erased; the Shirelles were soul or pop, but somehow not rock.

As it became more white and male, rock also became more central, and more totalizing. Smooth easy listening jazz bands like Steely Dan were rock. So were the piano Broadway show-tunes of Billy Joel. So was the electropop of A-Ha. Anything it seemed could be rock. But especially if it was by a white man playing guitar.

When everything is rock and also very specific demographics and sounds are rock, the result is that very specific demographics and songs become the iconic markers of quality—the real music that everything else is trying and failing to be.

You can see this in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame itself. The hall includes performers in a wide range of styles: pop stars like Madonna; reggae giants like Bob Marley; girl groups like Martha and the Vandellas; soul shouters like Sam and Dave; rap artists like Public Enemy. But the default inductee, the meat and potatoes of the hall, is the white male guitar hero, from Zep to Stones to Zappa to Young to Bowie to Floyd. The hall even has third and fourth-rate acts in that mode, like Electric Light Orchestra, and Journey. Meanwhile, seminal performers that don’t fit the formula—the Chantels, Fela Kuti, Eric B. and Rakim, Betty Davis, Patsy Cline—still waiting to get in.

The hall has been moving slowly to rectify some of the most egregious of these oversights—Sister Rosetta Tharpe was inducted in 2018 and Janet Jackson in 2019. Fela Kuti is nominated this year, as is Kate Bush, Dionne Warwick and Tribe Called Quest—all artists who should have been nominated long before Chicago or Steve Miller, to name just a couple of recent inductees.

The process is slow, though, not least because a racist, sexist history means that when people think “rock star” they think of someone who looks like Steve Miller, rather than someone who looks like Fela Kuti, Kate Bush, Dionne Warwick, ESG. Or Dolly Parton.

Dolly Parton obviously doesn’t need to be a rock star, or in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to be a legend. But “rock” remains a term that is both a claim of quality and a term defined by race and gender. As long as that’s the case, it’s worth challenging assumptions about who belongs in and who doesn’t. Parton doesn’t have an obligation to do that challenging—she does plenty of good work as it is! But I’m glad she decided to, anyway.

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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.