Does the last great musical gatekeeper have any place in the industry today?
With everything that’s going on in our lives today – you’d be forgiven for seeing the announcement of 2021’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees pass you by. In fact, you’d be forgiven for letting any year’s nominees and inductees pass you by, such is the nature of the nominating, voting, and induction processes.
The Foundation was established in 1983 by the President of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun, and in 1986, the first class of musicians were inducted despite the physical museum only opening in 1995 on the shores of Lake Erie in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, chosen in part to the coining of the name "rock and roll" by a local radio host. This year’s sixteen nominees present a wide array of musical excellence, spanning the genres of punk rock, hip-hop, soul, disco, heavy metal, R&B, Afrobeat, pop rock, and folk. They are, undoubtedly, the most diverse yet; possibly an effort to claw back some institutional legitimacy after years of criticism.
This year’s nominees are: Rage Against the Machine, Mary J. Blige, The Go-Go’s, New York Dolls, Tina Turner, Foo Fighters, Todd Rundgren, Kate Bush, Iron Maiden, Carole King, Jay-Z, Devo, Chaka Khan, Dionne Warwick, LL Cool J, and Fela Kuti. Of the sixteen, nine are all-male musicians or groups and seven are female. Eight are all-White, seven are Black musicians and the four members of Rage Against the Machine, all have mixed ethnicities. As nominees have to have released their first recording at least 25 years before being considered, the 16 nominees span a musical period beginning in the 1960s to those who began their musical careers in the mid-90s.
Over its near-40-year life span, the Hall of Fame has inducted 338 individuals and groups who have demonstrated “musical excellence and influence”, according to its current President and CEO Joel Peresman. The vast majority of these inductees are the 233 "performers" awarded for “musical excellence” including but not limited to, “influence on other performers and genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior techniques and skills”. Others are inducted because of their influence pre-dating the birth of rock’n’roll, and some for having “changed the course of music history”. This all sounds pretty good, right? Wouldn’t you love to take a trip to Cleveland to walk through a museum dedicated to the great and good of music history? I certainly would. So, that begs the question: why is the Hall of Fame a focus of such sustained criticism?
Well, I’d say the criticisms primarily revolve around an age-old dilemma in the arts: is "excellence" a matter of objectivity or subjectivity? For example, I cannot stand Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) who were inducted in the class of 2017. I know people who absolutely adore ELO. Who is right? Are there grand high laws of music that pertain within them the objective key to "musical excellence"? Or does appreciating talent lay in the eyes of the beholder? This is a question that has plagued the Hall for decades, and alongside issues of exclusivity, racism, sexism, and totally misunderstanding "rock-n-roll" altogether – the Hall could quickly lose any ounce of respect it may have once had.
For me, I think the foundational idea of the Hall of Fame is a good one. Honouring the pioneers of music in this way – from Robert Johnson to Public Enemy, from Nina Simone to Radiohead – it's a form of gratitude, respect, and commendation for all of the enjoyment and inspiration they have given to the world. Yet, the Hall was always going to meet its reckoning with reality, just as the film and television industries have had to in the wake of the long-overdue #MeToo and Times-Up movements.
The Hall is too white, too male, too old, and the processes by which it chooses its inductees is too exclusive, even after the introduction of fan voting in 2012. Looking at the 2021 nominees, all of them have demonstrated "musical excellence" and "innovation", all have inspired others in performance and production. They should all be inducted, but they won’t be. Of 2021’s 16, only five will.
There is a bigger issue here though. What is that thing people say again? The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about? Scrolling through the list of inductees it becomes quite clear that there are notable names missing and notable genres underrepresented.
Take hip-hop for example. A genre which took great inspiration from the giants of rock’n’roll and continues to influence generations of musicians. Only six hip-hop artists are in the Hall – Run-DMC, Public Enemy, N.W.A, Tupac Shakur, the Notorious B.I.G., and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. No sign of DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa; two of hip-hops legendary early pioneers.
Another example is Britpop. No Blur, Oasis, Pulp, Suede, or others who defined the Cool Britannia era. All have equally contributed to the development of "musical excellence" and influenced future artists in the process.
I would go as far as saying that I could name 338 artists who are not on the list who "fit the mould" and yes, many of them wouldn’t be White, wouldn’t be male and wouldn’t be old.
Is the Hall of Fame outdated? Most definitely. Does that mean it can’t evolve into something more inclusive, more all-rounded, more nuanced? Certainly not. This year’s nominees are certainly a step in the right direction. But I sure hope it doesn’t take another forty years to set it right.
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