A couple months ago, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame announced their yearly list of nominees for enshrinement. The nominees ranged in era and genre, and all had valid cases for the induction: A Tribe Called Quest, Kate Bush, Sheryl Crow, Missy Elliott, Iron Maiden, Joy Division/New Order, Cyndi Lauper, George Michael, Willie Nelson, Rage Against the Machine, Soundgarden, The Spinners, The White Stripes, and Warren Zevon. Indeed, the 14 names – 15 depending on how you count Joy Division and New Order’s nomination – felt like acts that should have already been in; Or in the case of The White Stripes and Missy Elliott, both in their first year of eligibility, should be in right away.
Many of the names on that list have been nominated before and had never made it – surprising for, say, Kate Bush or Iron Maiden. Doubly surprising were the artists who had been eligible for years but were only making their ballot debut now: Big stars like George Michael and Cyndi Lauper among them. Even though all these acts are worthy in some way or another, not all of them will be part of the class of 2023 – by design, as is the case with many halls of fame for sports. After the ballots are tabulated, the Hall tends to induct between five and seven acts in their main category, plus some of those nominees might end up inducted in other categories. The small number of inductees each year, and growing pool of artists for whom an argument can be made for their induction, has resulted in a backlog where there are many acts who are still on the inside looking out. Even when an artist gets on the ballot, and even when they get into the Hall, some of them have to wait years or decades to finally get in: This happened to Whitney Houston, Rush, Hall & Oates, Black Sabbath, and so many others. There are also many genres, and even countries, that have never been properly represented by the Hall, or at all.
One of the main issues a lot of people have with the Rock Hall has to do with this backlog of hundreds of artists that are not in. Just ask someone about the Hall and they’ll inevitably bring up a list of acts who are not in but should be, and oftentimes they are right about every one. Sometimes this list is brought into a discussion of the current inductees, even though “Why is X not on the ballot, but Y is” isn’t an especially deep argument since artists on that ballot should be judged on their own merits and not others – it’s not their fault they’re here and someone isn’t after all. There’s also a lot of discussion on who should and should not be nominated or inducted, particularly if the artist is in genres like hip hop or country that do not scan as rock ‘n’ roll. I’ll direct those arguments, and a few that are similar to them, to this excellent 2014 NPR piece by Chris Molanphy.
Recently, Courtney Love published an editorial in which she took the Hall to task for the paucity of female and Black performers in the Hall, citing Chaka Khan, Kate Bush, and Big Mama Thornton as examples of especially egregious snubs. These sentiments were echoed in another editorial by the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Malcolm X. Abram. Love and Abram are correct: There is a dearth of representation in the Hall, and it’s something that has needed fixing for decades. There’s a lot more where that came from too: I wrote a whole article last year about 20 women and female fronted bands that belong in the Hall that have never been as much as nominated in the past. Of that list, only Lauper made it on this year, despite this ballot featuring the most female nominees ever; No Mariah Carey or Sade or The Pointer Sisters. The Go-Go’s got in last year, but surely the Bangles should be on the docket eventually? Alanis Morissette walked out of the ceremony last year, and the Hall should do right by her by inducting her someday – if she even wants it, and considering the details, she might not.
There are a few ways the Hall can remedy their backlog of snubs in all areas and aspects. While I don’t think they’ll actually do any of these, they’re worth bringing up as potential solutions:
1. Just induct a whole bunch of artists every year
You know who no one really gets mad about when it comes to snubs? The National Film Registry. The Library of Congress program has selected up to 25 films a year to be preserved for all time and they’ve included not just classic features, but also shorts, documentary, silent films, experimental pieces, cartoons and more. The large number of selections every year makes for a thoughtful list that often represents every aspect and era of the history of film.
Maybe it’s time for the Hall to do something similar. They certainly have a pool as deep to choose from even though film’s been around for about 50 years longer than rock ‘n’ roll and its offshoots. If the Hall inducted 15 artists, around double what they do now, every year for the next decade, they’d still have hundreds of worthy artists to consider – moreso by the year as new artists become eligible.
It would be nice if the Hall got so caught up in inductions that the list of nominees every year would be mostly first or second year eligible artists. It would be great to see more niche nominations like John Prine, Bad Brains and Los Lobos who were pleasant surprises on the ballot the years they made it on even if they didn’t actually get inducted. It would also mean there would be more room for women.
2. Create an international category
There’s also been a dearth of artists who hail from countries other than the United States, United Kingdom and Canada (and even they get the short shrift – no one’s in the Hall that’s a provincial Canadian act, like the Tragically Hip.) There’s a couple Australians and Jamaicans, ABBA from Sweden, Kraftwerk from Germany, a handful of individual band members (Mexican-born Carlos Santana, Barbadian-born Grandmaster Flash, Hungarian native Tommy Ramone, etc.,) and that’s about it for the rest of the world.
What about the music of the other ~190 or so countries, especially those with vibrant, influential pop music scenes like Japan, South Korea, Argentina, Brazil, Nigeria, Zambia, Cambodia, France, Spain, Italy, and New Zealand?
Legendary Nigerian afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti has been on two recent ballots, but despite much publicity in West Africa, he didn’t make it either time. There’s many reasons why he didn’t make it: Tough competition, lack of name recognition, the fact he has no major American hits; but he’s unquestionably worthy, a titan of 20th century popular music.
To give another example, consider the Japanese blues rock duo B’z. Virtually unknown in the United States apart from appearances on video game soundtracks, B’z are one of the best selling artists in the history of recorded music, with 100 million records sold worldwide. And yet, they’ll probably never make it on the ballot because they have almost no name recognition with the predominantly American and British Hall voters. Even Japanese acts that are better known in the west, like X Japan or Shonen Knife, are going to struggle.
How about the Argentine alternative band Soda Stereo, who are enormous in Latin America with an influence and popularity akin to The Cure or INXS. They even have a strong contingent encouraging their nomination into a Hall that has hardly touched South American music at all. Os Mutantes, the highly important Brazilian Tropicalia group, and its former singer Rita Lee haven’t been anywhere near a ballot, and neither has Argentine iconoclast Charly García. There’s a whole host of star female international artists that the Hall has never considered, like Faye Wong, Angélique Kidjo, Miriam Makeba, Mylène Farmer, and Shakira.
If international artists like Kuti, B’z, Soda Stereo, and Shakira have no chance on the ballot even though they are easily worthy of enshrinement and are another part of that nominee backlog, the way to get them in might be the introduction of another side category.
The Hall has several of these, that award categories outside of the main performer wing, but are inductees as much as they are. The categories recognize non-performers – songwriters, producers, and the like – early influences, and a nebulous category called “Award for Musical Excellence” formed out of the bones of what used to be a category for sidemen and session musicians.
Maybe there could be another category honoring these international acts, and who qualifies for it should be carefully considered. It can’t be non-English language performers: Fela performed in English after all. It could be used to induct cult Canadian and British acts who have no chance at a mainline induction despite their worthiness, although it shouldn’t wind up being just used for that. It would probably be best to induct a ton of artists right away to both catch up on decades of missing acts and set the idea of what the category should look like, and Fela should be part of that class.
3. A veterans committee
During the pandemic, I participated in a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame game run by Nick Bambach of the blog Audio Visual Repository. You can get the rundown here, but basically it was a reimagining of the Rock Hall classes over the years using the Baseball Hall of Fame’s induction rules and with a much bigger pool of nominations. Who we inducted can be found here. One Baseball HOF aspect that was included was a veterans committee to recognize artists that either failed to be inducted when they were on the main ballot, or never appeared on it at all. The Hall has such a category: Early Influences, the way musical pioneers whose work inspired the first wave of rock – Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the like – were inducted into the Hall. Over the last few years it’s been used to induct acts who were influential on the growth of rock and its subgenres; This is how Gil Scott-Heron and Kraftwerk got in. Since they’re interested in moving beyond the ‘40s and ‘50s with this category, it could perhaps be converted into a veterans committee style category while still honoring artists that fit the original definition but are not in, like Big Mama Thornton.
Future Rock Legends wrote a rule that was seemingly in place in 1994 where artists that were on seven ballots but did not get were automatically inducted in what would have been their eighth year on the ballot. It seems like this is how Duane Eddy and Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers were inducted. It was no longer in place by 2001, when Solomon Burke waited until his ninth appearance to get in, and Chic was never inducted after 11 times on the ballot. Perhaps it’s time to bring this rule back in some way. To me, seven appearances on the ballot means the nomination committee thinks that artist belongs in the Hall, and that should be a good argument towards an automatic induction, and a perfect place to re-introduce this award is with a veterans category. Khan, between her nominations solo and with her band Rufus, is at seven nominations now. Khan’s waited a long time for her deserved induction for her influential and hit-packed career, and fans like Courtney Love are rightfully annoyed that she’s been on so many ballots and been passed up for enshrinement multiple times. If there’s any artist among the nominated snubs that could be that first veteran’s committee pick, it’s Khan.
4. Make the fan vote actually count
For the past decade, the Rock Hall has offered a fan vote option on their website. While heavily promoted and very popular, the fan vote actually has very little impact on the actual inductions. What fans are voting for what artists will be selected on one ballot among hundreds. For a couple years, the artists who topped the fan vote regularly got inducted, like Rush, but this was a coincidence rather than any impact from the poll. Dave Matthews Band, which topped the 2020 fan vote, for instance, did not get inducted. Fela Kuti’s fans were heavily engaged in the poll in 2021, and were disappointed when he didn’t get in.
If the Hall wishes to keep the fan vote and give it prominence while the ballots are out, it should actually mean something. Automatically inducting the highest vote getter would be an option, and one with limited impact from manipulation, any act that could get in this way had already been selected by the nomination committee as worthy of induction. Or, once again, the Hall could increase the nominee pool by creating a list of artists separate from the main nominees for fans to choose from. There are several artists that such a vote could be very beneficial to: Pop acts, jam bands like Phish and Widespread Panic, significant genre and cult artists that never quite crossed over into the mainstream, and so on.
I realize many of my arguments for the Hall boil down to “Induct as many people as possible a year and make the ceremony five hours long” but if that’s what has to be done to clear the backlog and recognize worthy artists, so be it.
5. Retroactively induct snubbed band members and side groups
One of the more low impact ways to fix the Hall would result in much fewer new inductees than some of my other suggestions, but those nominations are still significant ones that would fix some oddities in pre-existing inductions.
The Hall is inconsistent in which members of bands are inducted. Sometimes it’s easy: The Beatles are inducted as Paul, John, George and Ringo, sorry Pete and Stu. In the cases of The Cure, Grateful Dead, and Parliament Funkadelic, tons of members got in with those bands: Fans would be able to identify their importance of all of those musicians, but they might seem like marginal figures to non-fans. That’s what makes some of the Hall’s membership snubs so frustrating. Bob Welch wasn’t inducted with Fleetwood Mac even though he was an important figure in their history and his “Sentimental Lady” and “Hypnotized” were some of their earliest American radio hits. Eric Carr drummed with Kiss for a decade, but didn’t make it. Chad Channing played drums on one of three Nirvana albums, and he didn’t make it. Ronnie James Dio had the unenviable position of replacing Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath, but solidified his credentials as a metal icon with his performance on Heaven and Hell, and yet he didn’t didn’t get inducted with the band. Gram Parsons was in the Byrds for less than a year, but he recorded the seminal Sweetheart of the Rodeo with them in that time. The string musicians from the Electric Light Orchestra that gave that band its unique sound were forgotten when only four members of ELO were included with their 2017 induction. Surely these are the types of members that shouldn’t be forgotten?
The Hall has only gone back and retroactively inducted members one time, in 2012, when six backing groups for early Hall inductees were finally enshrined. These included The Miracles, not a backing band the way Bill Haley’s Comets were, but an independent act who were nonetheless snubbed when leader Smokey Robinson was inducted alone in 1987 even though he wasn’t even eligible as a solo performer yet. The Miracles helped put Motown on the map, and they had scores of hits credited simply as the Miracles, including a few big ones like “Love Machine” after Smokey left the band. Leaving them out in favor of just inducting Smokey in 1987 was a blight on the Hall until it was corrected in 2012, but still felt like a long time to leave out such an important act in the history of 20th century popular music. The Hall has subsequently only inducted one more of these backing bands, when Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band got in through the Musical Excellence category in 2014.
But their work isn’t done: The Wailers weren’t inducted with Bob Marley even though the reggae legend was never credited without them (even “Redemption Song”, effectively a Marley solo recording, was credited to Bob Marley & The Wailers). That means reggae musicians as important as Peter Tosh aren’t in the Hall. Likewise, the Mothers of Invention aren’t in with Frank Zappa, The Belmonts didn’t go in with Dion, The Revolution didn’t get an induction separate from Prince, and Wings aren’t going to show up to give Paul McCartney three inductions. Although the Steve Miller Band regularly changed personnel from album to album, there at least should have been an effort to induct members other than Miller, who awkwardly went in as a solo act even though what he was being recognized for was the work of his band. Perhaps these backing backs could get in like the E Street Band but altogether like the 2012 batch, either way, it’s due time for the Hall to resume inducting these bands. There should also be a way in for forgotten band members like Carr or Welch.
What the Hall could do this year
As stated earlier, this year’s ballot is so stacked that one could make a good induction class out any permutation of the nominees. Multiple women are likely to be inducted, which has thankfully been the case for the last couple of ceremonies but has historically been rare for the Hall. There’s also several big stars, like Michael and Lauper that have never been as much as nominated before and deserve to get right in (And it’s not the only Hall of Fame where Lauper is long overdue for induction: The ball’s in your court, WWE). Kate Bush had the kind of year in 2022 that catalog artists only dream about, when her 1985 masterpiece “Running Up That Hill”. The White Stripes and Missy Elliott are the kind of first-year eligible that Rock Hall bloggers have been thinking about for years. Nominating Joy Division and New Order together like they did for the Small Faces and the Faces actually makes that induction argument way stronger for both bands.
Aside from the main inductees, and whoever they try to sneak in through the side categories, there’s some inductions that the Hall can make straight away this year to both correct overdue snubs and honor more women. Chief among them is inducting legendary session bassist Carol Kaye, who played on dozens of hits for the better part of 20 years. Many of her fellow Wrecking Crew alum were in when the Award for Musical Excellence was still called Sidemen, and that category has still been used to induct side and session musicians like metal guitar hero Randy Rhoads. Kaye should have been in years ago, and while her snub is as shocking as leaving the Miracles out for decades, the Hall can fix it now and honor her while she’s still around to accept that induction.
The idea of the Rock Hall is an intriguing one, and one that has served for music discussion for decades, and particularly recently with all the Hall watcher blogs, the veritable Rock Hall encyclopedia Future Rock Legends, and the eminently listenable Who Cares About the Rock Hall? podcast. These outlets have made discussion of the Hall, its positives and negatives, an active discussion on the internet, and have helped make the Hall’s nomination and induction methods easier to understand. Still, the Hall as an inducting body is nowhere close to perfect and its omissions feel even more glaring than something like the Baseball Hall of Fame. There’s a lot of work to be done, and maybe the Hall can take one of these offbeat suggestions and maybe add more names for enshrinement each year than just a couple for a field as big as popular music.
Featured photo courtesy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Press Room.