Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How is Phish not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame yet? — Adam from Plainview, N.Y.
This is a timely question, given that Phish began its summer tour this week. It also speaks to how narrow these types of “why isn’t [ARTIST X] in the Rock Hall?” questions tend to be.
There will always be a niche of people for whom a particular artist or band’s theoretical inclusion in the Rock Hall — which signifies external, institutional recognition that somehow validates artistic worth, no matter how dubious that institution might be — is self-evident. For Phish’s sizable fanbase, it’s simply logical that this band would be enshrined with the giants of music history. They have endured as a top concert attraction for nearly 30 years, they’ve built up a discography that influenced a certain cadre of bands, and there’s nobody quite like them in rock history.
The last point, to me, is most important. Phish is genuinely unique for being an arena-rock band that has had virtually no impact on the pop world. Even the Grateful Dead had hit songs — there is no equivalent in Phish’s catalogue to a Top 40 smash like “Touch of Grey,” or even the Dead’s FM radio warhorses like “Truckin'” and “Casey Jones.” Phish has exactly zero songs that anyone who doesn’t listen to them obsessively knows. They’ve existed entirely outside of the mainstream for decades, and yet they can play multiple nights at Madison Square Garden. Of course they belong in the Rock Hall … if you happen to love Phish.
However, if you step back and look at it from a general interest point of view, all of the things that make this band special and worthy of recognition paradoxically undermine their chances of inclusion. As it currently stands, the Rock Hall is biased against bands about whom at least one of the following is true.
1) Bands with minimal pop success
2) Bands that originated in the ’80s and ’90s
Let’s just say that if Phish was a platinum-selling singer-songwriter who did coke with Rolling Stone writers in 1975, I would feel better about their immediate chances of induction. However, I suspect that Phish phans might have to wait a while, and only after they’re able to vote the band in themselves, similar to how bands like Rush and Yes ultimately made the Rock Hall.