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What Is Rock And Roll? Answers courtesy Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex NYC

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The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex NYC opened six months ago, in November 2008, with the purpose of spreading beyond Cleveland and, it seems, spreading beyond rock and roll.

The first thing you see after giving your ticket to the t-shirted tattooed ticket-taker are four walls full of signatures of every musician selected for the Hall of Fame since it began in 1986, all etched into silver-colored metal bricks. Some of these are slam dunks. The first year, 1986, the inductees included Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, James Brown and Jerry Lee Lewis. The latest inductees, in 2009, included Jeff Beck, and Little Anthony & The Imperials and Metallica. Was there anybody more destined to be a rock legend than somebody named Joe Strummer, from The Clash?  (Fans, that wasn’t the name on his birth certificate, was it?)

But Leonard Cohen and Pete Seeger, Grandmaster Flash, Herb Alpert, Chet Atkins, Billie Holiday? Granted, some of these are in categories like “Early Influence” but not all of them.

So what is rock and roll? It is a noun, first of all, as the first wall label in the museum explains, and it began as African-American slang for sexual intercourse. “Today it refers to a wide variety of popular music — frequently music with an an edge and attitude, music with a good beat and — often — loud guitars.”

After the signature room, the visitor to the Annex is led into a movie room that looks like a music bar and that shows short snippets of concert footage (never more than several seconds) accompanied by quotes from musicians attempting to define rock and roll. “The words are just as important as the music; without the words, there is no music,” Bob Dylan is quoted as saying, a few minutes before Keith Richards’ words appear on the screen: “Rock and roll is music for the neck downwards.”

So there’s some disagreement.

What rock and roll is, most agree that it makes sense for there to be a rock and roll museum in New York. “Throughout the 20th century, New York was the center of the international music business,” reads one wall label. “Yet some of the most gifted perormers and songwriters in pop music history developed beneath the city’s commercial radar years before they achieved stardom.”