Whose history? Re-evaluating the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s annual December announcement of new inductees inevitably stirs strong reactions ranging from “It’s about time!” to “Huh?” The 2017 class includes Joan Baez, Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), Journey, Pearl Jam, Tupac Shakur and Yes. Commenting on this list is almost pointless since it represents a pattern: The Hall of Fame is a long standing source of confusion. For example, despite the “Rock and Roll” genre distinction pop singers (e.g. Madonna) and rappers (e.g. Run DMC) have been inducted as performers. Given this loose approach to genre it’s surprising that more performers who straddle genres, like Willie Nelson, are not inducted. 




Since 1986 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has inducted new classes of performers, as well as non-performers, whose innovations and influences shaped in rock and roll, a genre that has existed since 1955. At least this is what people think this mission represents the Hall’s aspiration. If you actually review the Hall of Fame’s stated criteria you learn that innovation is not necessarily its center.

 Here’s how the Hall works: Each year a nominating committee (whose composition and criteria are murky) selects the nominees and circulates ballots to 900 + historians, music industry personnel, and musicians, including all previous Hall inductees. In 2012 this process was opened up to the general public whose ballot is reported weighed equally with the expert/insider ballot. The top five vote getters are inducted from these ballots and history is made.


 In addition to having 25 years of recording history, inductees must demonstrate, “unquestionable musical excellence and talent” and have significantly impacted the “development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll.” These are four very different criteria that may explain the diffuse, inconsistent and strangely ahistorical nature of the Hall. Excellence and talent are broad and highly subjective concepts, though they imply remarkable musical technique and skill. Development and evolution speak to performances and/or recordings that have shifted the direction of rock and roll, and subgenres, significantly, which is an interesting challenge for a 60-year-old genre. Among these criteria preservation is the most concerning and conservative since it essentially rewards performers who replicate the rock and roll familiar.

 Delving into the Hall’s stated criteria negates the notion that the Hall is primarily interested in recognizing innovative musicians.  Apparently musicians who are simply “excellent” and “talented” are eligible, and perhaps weighted equally with those who have helped the genre “evolve/develop” and/or those who are fastidious students (imitators?) of rock, thus preserving its essence.

 The criteria above are relatively easy to apply to some of the Hall’s earliest inductees such as Chuck Berry, James Brown, the Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley. Post 1950s popular music really would sound quite different without the influence of these pioneers. Still many of the Hall’s choices continually raise questions about how far the criteria can be stretched. To return to my earlier note, how much innovation has actually occurred in 60s years, as opposed to imitation and repetition?

 Perhaps performers’ inductions should be labelled by the development, evolution and/or preservation criteria? For example, the British punk group the Sex Pistols were inducted in 2006.  The Pistols were created by Malcolm McLaren to make more of a social statement than a musical statement evidenced by their lack of technical proficiency. Though the group caused an uproar in Britain, and excited U.S. music critics, they had little commercial impact in the U.S. and self-destructed quickly after two albums. Few would argue that they were musically excellent. They were musically and socially disruptive. And unquestionably influential to future punk bands in terms of attitude, style and tone. Since they turned punk inside out (briefly) and shaped other groups the development and evolution criteria apply. (In true punk fashion, lead singer Johnny Rotten wrote to the Hall rejecting the induction and the ceremony referring to the genre and the hall as a “piss stain” compared to the band.


 Punk-rock band Green Day was inducted in 2015. Are they pioneers or  better thought of as preservationists of a tradition? (Photo source: www.rollingstone.com. Photo credit: Mike Coppola/Getty).

Punk-rock band Green Day was inducted in 2015. Are they pioneers or  better thought of as preservationists of a tradition? (Photo source: www.rollingstone.com. Photo credit: Mike Coppola/Getty).

Comparatively, in 2015 Green Day, who were influenced by inductees like the Clash (2002), the Ramones (2003), and the Sex Pistols (2006), were inducted. Green Day is very enjoyable (to my ears), is probably the most commercially successful punk-oriented band ever, and has influenced younger groups like Sum 41. But calling them innovative is a stretch. They’re a preservation group; they mirror the essential style of their punk and rock predecessors with more finesse and pop savvy.

 Reading further, the Hall’s website unpacks musical excellence noting that, “Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills.” Though slightly more detailed, it, too, juxtaposes elements that can easily contradict each other.

For example, the first rock oriented band to integrate a substantial horn section was Blood, Sweat, & Tears. Yet they are not in the Hall of Fame, but Chicago, who replicated B, S &T’s horn driven sound, was inducted in 2015. Chicago has a longer discography, and managed to have more hits—their top 40 radio reign spans from 1970-91 compared to 1969-71 for B, S, & T. But, if influence and innovation were most salient B, S &T would have been inducted before Chicago. In this instance Chicago’s record sales and endurance were deemed more important than their originality.

The history issue is a particular inconsistency for the Hall. To its credit the Hall does induct performers listed as Early Influences including jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong, honky tonk legend Hank Williams, and “Queen of the Blues” Dinah Washington. But some of rock and roll’s most direct musical influences, such as jump blues singer Ella Mae Morse and white 50s R&B singer Johnnie Ray, are strangely absent. Wanda Jackson, who debuted in the 1950s is the “Queen of Rockabilly,” is particularly odd omissions. She was inducted in 2009 as an Early Influence, rather than as a performer, and decades after the male peers of her generation. 

Sexism also remains a sticky point for the Hall. Rock and Roll has long been viewed as a bastion of male privilege in lyrics, attitude and access. Female musicians have routinely shared horrific experiences of being demeaned, underestimated, and denied as artistic equals (and superiors!) to male musicians in the industry. Sadly, the Hall tends to replicate these patterns.

·         Among the 31 classes of inductees there have been 10 years without any female inductees, including 1986 and, most recently, 2016.

·         Among the 34 female inclusive inductions 15 were for solo performers, 15 were awarded to groups with male and female members, and four were awarded to all-female singing groups. Comparatively, 84 solo male performers and 104 all male groups were inducted. Thus 15% of solo artists in the Hall are female and 85% are male. Among single sex groups 4% are all-female and 96% are all-male. These huge disparities reflect the inherent gender bias of what several people, including musician Peter Wylie and writer Kelefah Sanneh, have termed as “rockism”: the presumption that rock music, understood narrowly, is automatically deemed superior to pop which typically includes genres with more female performers (e.g. disco, girl groups).


 Women are vastly underrepresented among the Hall of Fame's inductees. (Image source:  http://ultimateclassicrock.com/women-who-should-be-in-rock-hall/)

Women are vastly underrepresented among the Hall of Fame's inductees. (Image source:  http://ultimateclassicrock.com/women-who-should-be-in-rock-hall/)

Anecdotally speaking some of the oversights are surprising. Despite their impact on 1980s rock Pat Benatar and Tina Turner (solo) are strangely absent from the Hall, yet their relative male equivalent of the era, John Mellencamp is in. Male singer-songwriters like Billy Joel, Elton John, Cat Stevens, and James Taylor have been inducted, but Jackie DeShannon and Carly Simon are missing. Other names that come to mind include Joan Armatrading, Kate Bush, The Carpenters, Rosanne Cash, Whitney Houston, Rickie Lee Jones, Bette Midler, Maria Muldaur, Nina Simone, Phoebe Snow and Dionne Warwick. Some names for future Early Influences might include Odetta, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, as well as Morse.

 I applaud the Hall for recognizing the ways many of the pioneering musicians who emerged in the mid-1950s created distinct new genres and sub-genres, and expanded on them. The gradual mainstreaming of R&B and country elements into the pop mainstream, the rise of youth cultures, and the ways post-1950s music has periodically articulated the sensibilities of members of the social and cultural underclass are important cultural achievements. Ones that have transcended the United States.

 But, in trying to take this music “seriously” the Hall has made regrettable procedural choices that continually taint its efforts including failing to define genre boundaries clearly, relying on ambiguous criteria, and operating from a teleological perspective that rock ‘n’ roll is something that inevitably evolves. The yardstick of time seems inadequate. How far does rock ‘n’ roll stretch? Beyond post-punk/modern rock and hip-hop rock hybrid groups like Linkin Park what does rock innovation look like over the last 25 years? Hip-hop inspired New Jack Swing, Hip-Hop Soul, and the retro-futurist Neo-Soul genre, but, again, what other musical influences will enable R&B to grow into something fresh? Hip-Hop began as urban dance music but broadened its scope to include novelty songs, crossover pop-rap, rap-rock, political rap, gangsta rap, etc. How many Public Enemies or Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliots are on the horizon?

 In its current form the Hall is more accurately understood as a Popular Music Hall of Fame that honors performers in a variety of popular genres who have achieved commercial success and a modicum of critical respect.  This inevitably reflects the interests of the record labels and music industry executives who fund the Hall, as well as popular commercial tastes, rather than something as intangible as innovation.  In other words, it’s a predictable entity that has recognized some great musicians, but rarely challenges conventional wisdom about who matters in pop music or offers alternate ways of thinking about music history.

 The Hall would be more impactful if it organized musicians more strategically. Based on the Hall’s current logic Buddy Holly, Darlene Love, Fleetwood Mac, The Clash, Madonna, and Yes are essentially equals who shaped and influenced Rock and Roll in some amorphous way. Compare this to a system that identified and group performers more categorically. In the context of post-1955 music there are discernible pioneers (e.g.  Berry, Holly, Wanda Jackson, Little Richard, Presley) who established genres and sub-genres; musicians who expanded its formal vocabulary (e.g. Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Laura Nyro); and performers (e.g. Pat Benatar, Bruce Springsteen, Green Day) who reliably and competently extended established styles.  

 These three areas theoretically prevent one from drawing false equivalencies because there’s an inherent connectedness and historicity to each. This proposed approach also allows us to distinguish the depth of contributions among musicians. The pioneer category would always be a smaller category since few musicians have established actual genres, and the vocabulary category would only be slightly larger. The genre extension category is in some ways the most diffuse because it’s more about competence and endurance than innovation, but still has potential to recognize artists of substance.


The Hall of Fame, and Museum, are well-intentioned but not quite realized endeavors. There are plenty of alternative spaces like the Experience Music Project, The Rock & Soul Museum, and The Stax Museum, as well as other Halls of Fame including the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame and NEA Jazz Masters ceremony.  But, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Museum, are the most prominent sites of rock history. They remain subjects of criticism because people who love rock and roll want its best elements elevated. The “official” nature of the Hall cements what many fans consider to be the elevation of the blandest and most commercially palatable aspects of rock. Further, the bureaucratic nature of both entities belies the rebellious spirit historically associated with rock and roll. Beyond this element, they represent an intriguing paradox: how do you publicly celebrate and historicize an artistic form that began diffusely as a rebellious secret?