Rock music is constantly reinventing itself, such that even the style's initial promoter, Alan Freed, must eventually step aside to make room for Beyoncé.
The ashes of the Cleveland DJ who coined the term "rock 'n' roll" six decades ago went home with his son on Friday after a 12-year stay in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. The move coincides with the opening two weeks ago of fashion items from across Beyoncé's career, symbolically crystallizing long moldering questions about the Hall's mission drift.
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It could certainly be argued that the Rock Hall is better as a museum than a mausoleum, and that the pedestal of Freed's ashes set an odd tone amidst the flashy costumes, instruments and unusual memorabilia, like two of Elvis Presley's revolvers or his '75 Lincoln Continental. But however macabre Freed's earthly remains might be, there's no questioning his crucial role in the style's birth.
Freed loved African-American music and as a radio DJ was in a position to promote it, despite the establishment's distaste. He helped organize dances to promote this rock 'n' roll style he'd championed, beginning with the Moondog Coronation in 1952, the first ever rock concert. His role in the origination of rock was one of the justifications for putting the museum in Cleveland (along with the promise of $65 million in public monies for the iconic $93 million museum).
His trailblazing success allowed him to leave Cleveland for New York in 1954. Five years later his career was ruined by a payola scandal over DJs taking payments for record companies to push their records. He pleaded guilty in 1962 and died three years later of cirrhosis brought on by alcoholism.
Freed's ashes have resided in the Rock Hall since 2002 when they were moved from his resting place in Hartsdale, NY. At first the ashes were entombed in an undisclosed wall at the Hall. Later they were moved to a low-key but prominently placed display at the request of the family
Then-Rock Hall President and CEO, Terry Stewart noted the urn's oddness to the Cleveland Plain Dealer at the time, saying, "I'm sure some people will find it unusual and others might find it morbid. It's certainly appropriate in a rock 'n' roll sense to have his final resting place here."
Stewart stepped down in December 2012 and was replaced by Greg Harris, who is essentially a money guy. Prior to coming to the Rock Hall in 2008, he worked for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown where his notable accomplishment was building "a strong national network of donors and sponsors,” according to his Rock Hall bio. Once at the Rock Hall Harris' main role was philanthropy, though it's worth noting Harris co-owned a retail record store called the Record Exchange in Philadelphia during the 1980s.
The coverage the ashes removal has received is driven by the outrage of Freed's son Lance. He complained to the Plain Dealer on Saturday that the entire Freed exhibit is being moved (minus the urn) and made a part of the museum's chronological Pioneers of Rock exhibit, instead of enjoying it's own space.
"It's pushing him to the side,” Freed told the Plain Dealer. "It's making him part of the passing parade, rather than a place where people can say, 'Hey this is the guy who helped start it all.'"
For his part, Harris has said that Freed remains important to the museum and that the display which held his ashes will now hold a pair of his iconic microphones, a seemingly more representative choice. He says that in general museums are moving away from showcasing remains unless there is a medical context or it helps tell a story.
However the symbolism amplifies what seems like a growing chorus questioning the Hall's choices. Questions have reverberated since it's opening in 1995 about genre boundaries. Initially it was country artists. Then came nominations for disco acts such as Chic. The induction in 2008 of Madonna, dramatically illustrated their ever-widening definition. The recent inclusion of rap artists has stoked further consternation in some quarters.
But even beyond the nominees, which the museum has no control over, there have been some questions about the displays. The Women in Rock showcase was notable mostly for the costumes worn. There were very few instruments leading visitors to wonder whether the artists were important for their clothing or their music.
The Beyoncé exhibit begs the same questions. Is she in any way rock 'n' roll or is the museum's moniker a complete misnomer?
Aren't Beyoncé's 2013 Super Bowl outfit (leather & lace body suite, skirt and jacket), Givenchy black beaded and purple feather mermaid gown from her 2012 Met Gala, and the god metal body suit with gold pumps from her "Sweet Dreams” video better suited for a fashion hall of fame than a music one?
Meanwhile, the Freed family is looking for a Cleveland cemetery to host his remains and promises to announce a public service when they do.