Expect Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s Process to Stay Broken

Former nominating committee member cautions rockers that Wenner exit won’t cure much

Variation of a T-shirt worn by Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam highlighting all the acts who’ve yet to be inducted in the Rock Hall

What do Warren Zevon, Todd Rundgren, the New York Dolls, the Shangri-Las, Joe Cocker, Harry Nilsson, the MC5, the Monkees, Little Feat, Tom Jones, Judas Priest, Link Wray, Dionne Warwick, T. Rex, the Go-Go’s, George Michael, Ry Cooder, Grand Funk Railroad, Patti LaBelle, Motörhead, King Crimson, Suzi Quatro, Television, Thin Lizzy, Jethro Tull, Gram Parsons, Lionel Richie, Sonic Youth, Neil Sedaka, the Meters, Mary Wells, the Turtles, Johnny Winter, Bad Company, Peter Frampton, Mountain, Carly Simon, the Doobie Brothers, Billy Preston, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Mott the Hoople have in common?

The answer: Each of those artists, most during the so-called classic rock era of the ’60s-’80s, had some impact on the music called rock and roll.

And none of them have yet been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Not a one.

You might look at that list and think, well, that’s because [insert name of disliked artist here] doesn’t belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And you may be right. Yet for many thousands of fans whose taste in music varies wildly, some of those artists—and many others—are not only more worthy than your favorite artist but should have been inducted long ago. Lists of the shunned abound online, and arguing about the Hall’s annual induction ritual has become the parlor game that fans love—and hate—to play.

To be fair, the Rock Hall has inducted more than 300 groups and individuals thus far, beginning in 1986 with 10 indisputable pioneers including Elvis, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Ray Charles. Most of the artists inducted during the first decade or so were unquestionably laudable.

 

VIDEO: Chuck Berry jam session at the 1986 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony 

Then the debates began: Why is this one in and not that one? Who are the idiots who decide and what is wrong with them?

To recap, here’s how the process works: An artist must have made his/her/their first recording a minimum of 25 years ago to become eligible for nomination.

Basically, save for a few lesser considerations, that’s it. Beyond that, eligibility is at the discretion of a nominating committee that convenes annually in New York City to decide on that year’s contenders. It’s not about record sales figures or tour grosses, say the organizers; it’s about artists who have been important in shaping rock and roll music.

Whatever that is.

To some fans, that’s where the Hall’s biggest problem lies: How, they ask, can, say, Run-DMC and ABBA be inductees when Warren Zevon, Todd Rundgren and those other few hundred major snubbees are still out in the cold? The Rock Hall has undeniably inducted artists who fall more easily into categories ranging from country (Hank Williams) to jazz (Miles Davis) to hip-hop (Tupac Shakur), while more conventional rockers of considerable achievement continue to be ignored. What’s up with that?

In some cases, the argument comes down to the definition of the music itself, and that’s where it gets tricky. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has never attempted to describe what is and is not rock and roll. Its movers and shakers have always contended that rock is a sizable, welcoming umbrella that takes in artists and genres that fall outside of the traditional configuration of white guys (it’s still mostly white guys) playing electric guitars. The nomination/induction argument sometimes spills over into one encompassing racism and sexism: Is hip-hop rock or is it something else altogether? Would this female artist have been inducted by now if not for a lingering bias in favor of males?

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland, OH

It should be noted that the arguments center almost entirely on the particulars of the nomination and induction process, which is guided by a New York-based foundation. The actual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a museum in Cleveland, has its own board of directors and its own way of choosing who and what is exhibited within its walls. Any spillover between the two factions is more or less coincidental: Being exhibited in Cleveland does not guarantee induction, and being inducted by New York guarantees little more in Cleveland than acknowledgement of same.

Recently, staunch rock fans who’ve been grumbling about one snubbed artist or another got a momentary glimmer of hope when it was announced that the NYC faction’s longtime chairman, Jann Wenner, would step down from his post. The 73-year-old founder and editor of Rolling Stone, who had himself replaced the late Ahmet Ertegun at the helm, said that he had accomplished what he’d set out to do and was moving on. The Hall announced that his successor would be John Sykes, a veteran industry executive whose résumé includes being part of the original management team of MTV and VH1 and, more recently, a big shot at iHeartMedia. Fans have long blamed Wenner—sometimes correctly, sometimes not—for keeping their favorites out of the Hall. Now, they exulted with a sigh of relief, the new guy would make sure that those forgotten heroes and heroines would finally get the recognition they deserve.

 

VIDEO: Led Zeppelin perform “When The Levee Breaks” with Neil Young at the 1995 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony

 

Not so fast. In a late September interview with the Los Angeles Times, Sykes made it clear that he intends to look forward, not worry about perceived slights in the past. “Like any good institution,” Sykes said, “we must constantly reinvent, otherwise we’ll be left behind. We have to rebuild our board in a way that reflects and speaks to the artists that are now eligible for induction…The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is no longer about a single genre of music. It’s about all the music that aspires to connect with young people…It’s not about genre, it’s about the music that changed our culture. This year [rapper] Notorious B.I.G. is eligible and I think he has a good shot at getting in.”

Although he said he is aware of the ongoing debate, and considers it healthy, Sykes, vowing to include more women and people of color on the board, added, “It’s no longer the artists of the ’50s and ’60s, and we have to have a board with knowledge that speaks to that.”

In other words, sorry, fans, but it doesn’t appear that the intensity of your debates is going to subside any time soon.

 

VIDEO: All-Star jam on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from the 2012 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony 

Jeff Tamarkin

Tamarkin was the editor of Goldmine for 15 years. He was the founding editor of CMJ and an editor of Relix. He has written for Billboard, Pulse, Creem, BAM Magazine, Spirit, Mojo, and others and is the author of Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane. He formerly served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

2 thoughts on “Expect Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s Process to Stay Broken

  • October 6, 2019 at 3:41 pm
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    well its as f-up as always. why not induct 6, 7, or 8 to get this moving? 5 is absurd

    Reply
    • October 13, 2019 at 1:40 pm
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      Sometimes it is more than 5. It depends on the nominated artist getting some percentage of the vote.

      Reply

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