The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame can be relied upon to ignite two years of debate: one when the nominees are announced, and the other when the narrower roster is announced. The second debate started when we learned last week that Missy Elliott, Willie Nelson, Kate Bush, Sheryl Crow, George Michael, Rage Against the Machine and The Spinners were voted in. The first question on many rock fans’ minds is: Hey, why not Warren Zevon?
The answer lies in the dual nature of Rock Hall: It’s a tourist attraction and a source of TV content, as well as (ideally, at least) a representation of rock’s musical values. Sometimes these two goals overlap, sometimes they don’t. And when the latter happens, we get the kind of debate where music fans argue about who got into Rock Hall just because they were famous and who really changed the rock landscape.
The live wire underlying these debates is, of course, taste. We all like to think that the bands we love are good, meaningful, and worthy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The problem is that while many in Hall seemed important simply because they were successful, many who made real contributions to rock music were generally unpopular. Despite revealing EDM’s plan, including the seminal electronics group Kraftwerk received the Early Influences Award.
Perhaps the process would be less contentious if we understood Rock Hall as two different Halls: one physical, the other temporary.
In the early years of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, musical innovation and commercial success were celebrated simultaneously. The freshman class in 1986 was dominated by blues and R&B heroes from the 50s and 60s, including Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and James Brown. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Beach Boys followed two years later. When the Hall opened as a physical space in Cleveland, Ohio in 1995, voters still had a healthy menu of respected, crowd-pleasing, game-changing musicians to choose from, including Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, Neil Young, and The Allman Brothers Band.
However, by 2005, the candidate pool started to become shallow. The biggest and only rock bands launched that year were U2 and The Pretenders. The following year witnessed the participation of Black Sabbath, Blondie, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and The Sex Pistols, while 2007 gave us REM, Patti Smith, and Van Halen. The first signs of fragmentation in monoculture that we saw in the late ’70s were inducting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and it was getting harder to find bestsellers that made significant contributions to rock music. The show, with its nominee classes, R&B heroes, and significant contributions on the business side, all legal but not bringing tourists to Cleveland, selling tickets to the Barclays Center introductory ceremony in Brooklyn, or televising viewers on HBO.
In 2013, Rock Hall gave fans the opportunity to vote, in addition to music industry professionals and musicians who had voted for members so far. This gave voice to the people who invested money, identity and social capital in their favorite groups, and it gave voters an even stronger rooting interest in the results. At a time when novelty was actually on the musical margins with punk, new wave, and hip-hop, and Rush was the most fan-voted that year, its votes immediately returned to the classic rock sweet spot. Deep Purple and Heart. That was enough to put Rush and Heart into the Hall of Fame along with Public Enemy, which garnered sales, reputation and acclaim. In 2014, fan vote helped get Kiss, which had been unloved by critics for years, too.
This year, George Michael and Sheryl Crow received the most fan votes among the nominees, and with a legend like Willie Nelson in the classroom and a beloved actor like Rage Against the Machine, it’s easy to imagine that fans will help them win. Engagement with Hall and its affiliated products and productions—in other words, the kind of interaction Rock Hall wants and needs to be profitable.
Meanwhile, the version of Rock Hall that exists in our heads – the ephemeral – is filled with people who legally make a difference in how music is made or redefined. In this year’s beginner class, late guitar great Link Wray and hip-hop pioneer DJ Kool Herc fulfilled that purpose, but was not rated; instead, it took a selection committee to give them the Musical Impact Award, which felt like a consolation prize to many fans and didn’t carry much weight. This is embarrassing considering the great contributions of these two artists to music. Wray, for example, has made a career of exploring the distortion that influenced the next generation of guitarists to add weight, power, and emotional nuance to their playing. Meanwhile, Kool Herc has launched the innovative practice of doodling on turntables that is shaping the future of rap.
Fans of these artists wanted to see them voted, but failed to do so in the public vote. Neither can Chic or Kraftwerk, whose influence on the sound and direction of dance and electronic music is undeniable. Instead, they were skipped in favor of Bon Jovi and The Doobie Brothers—two examples of acts that made good, popular music that didn’t affect the flow of rock ‘n’ roll history. It’s frustrating because as fans, we want people to share our passions, be validated, and make that honor meaningful.
Thinking of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as two Halls in one is a way of saying who we are. all Right. It is both a statement of values and a commercial offer. And in that duality, it’s very much like rock ‘n’ roll itself.