So earlier in October, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced its nominees for the Class of 2017; nineteen acts, all of whom meet the only objective eligibility criteria: having released their first recording at least 25 years prior to being nominated.
However, only eleven of them truly qualify as rock musicians. The following are the eleven rock bands that are among the 19 total acts nominated, listed alphabetically:
- Bad Brains
- J. Geils Band
- Jane’s Addiction – alt-rock
- Pearl Jam
- The Cars
- The Zombies
The other eight nominees are of the non-rock variety. They are:
- Chaka Khan
- Depeche Mode
- Janet Jackson
- Joan Baez
- Joe Tex
- Tupac Shakur
I, for one, thought this to be a respectable list and a good mix of candidates – both rock and non-rock, famous and infamous.
However, upon seeing these names, many rock music critics and historians have renewed their perennial verbal assault on the hallowed Hall, with some labeling this year’s list a “disgrace” and calling the RRHOF “lame.” One writer – a blogger by the name of Scott Timberg for salon.com went as far as to say that the “Hall may have hit a new low” with this year’s announcement.
The biggest targets of Timberg’s ire? Ironically, it’s not the typical punching bags, soul-leaning or hip-hop artists like Chaka Khan or Tupac Shakur – or the German electronic music innovators Kraftwerk, but two rock/pop bands I thought would have been considered shoo-ins during their first years of eligibility, or at least many years before now: Journey and Yes.
I figured the 1970s group Yes, with its pioneering, progressive-rock legacy – including stellar classic rock tracks like “Roundabout” and “Your Move (I’ve Seen All Good People)” – and the band’s one big turn at commercial success with 1983’s comeback pop smash “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” and the far superior follow-up, “Leave It,” would be viewed favorably by the Hall’s critics.
Or that Journey – despite being the corporate-rock poster boys that they were during their heyday – would have just enough rock cred to make purists happy with their nomination. Steve Perry, Neil Schon and the crew certainly sold enough records and had big enough hits during a time (the late 1970s and early ’80s) when corporate rock was about as good as it got for the genre, save for a few metal bands and even fewer successful groups of the new wave or punk-rock variety.
But Timberg (and other critics) have found those two bands unworthy enough – even in a sea of nominees bearing the names Chaka, Chic, Tupac and Janet – to list Journey and Yes as the main reasons this year’s class sucks so badly. To hear Timberg tell it, Journey’s Steve Perry is the “most annoying lead singer” and “Don’t Stop Believin'” is that “musical cockroach we’ll never kill.”
Harsh criticisms, yes (and, for the record, I agree with him about “Don’t Stop Believin'” – a much more overplayed song now than it was even during its original release 35 years ago). But these critiques are a definite departure from the normal barbs the Rock Hall has had to endure since its inception: allegations like “too many R&B and doo-wop acts, not enough rock acts.” Or “this soul group doesn’t belong or that rock one should’ve been in years ago.”
Don’t get me wrong, the traditional complaints have rolled in this year as well. One critic – a music writer by the name of Tim Sommer in an article that ran in the observer.com and other outlets – argued that this year’s list of nominees is a “disgrace to music.” He went on to say that the Hall is “so deeply flawed that it risks not only having a lack of credibility, but also a lack of validity,” adding that “it doesn’t just make mistakes, but the mistakes seem to be endemic, built into the fabric of the organization.”
Assuming one buys into that assessment, any entity would be at the lowest of lows when mistakes are so much a part of its DNA that they become its core identity. And among this year’s RRHOF mistakes, according to Sommer? R&B/pop superstar Janet Jackson, who he says “doesn’t belong,” despite her iconic trendsetting status in pop and R&B (which Sommer begrudgingly acknowledges) and that she helped define what the female pop star would become post-1986.
Yet it’s criticisms like Sommer’s which ignore the RRHOF’s own premise and history. The Hall’s original inductees – themselves trend setters in the pop and R&B music of their day – were considered respectable enough and, as I recall, are usually not the target of this type of criticism.
After all, the RRHOF began by first honoring the history of its namesake genre; initially recognizing its legendary founders and pioneers from rock’s earliest days. Many of those were black R&B acts whose music was adapted by white musicians into the form that’s evolved into we know as rock today. Among the Hall’s first class of inductees in the “Performers” category 30 years ago: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, James Brown, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke – all African-American rock and R&B pioneers – to go alongside Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley.
In fact, of the first 25 acts inducted into the RRHOF in the “Performers” category from 1986-87, sixteen of them were African-American and many of those – if not all – were as identifiable to R&B fans as they were to rock ones, sometimes even more so.
In the three decades since, many deserving (and some admittedly not so deserving) rock and soul acts have been inducted as they became eligible, including – among those I consider to be deserving – the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Metallica, along with Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, the Temptations, Supremes, Four Tops, and Isley Brothers.
And it’s that mixture of artists and the demographics they represent which should tell you something about the Hall’s true identity: it’s not now nor has it ever been just a “rock” music hall of fame, it has always embraced soul, R&B and increasingly hip-hop (yes, I think Tupac Shakur will get in this year), which brings me to the RRHOF’s real problem.
That would be its name.
It’s too misleading and it’s too limiting. The name is misleading in the sense that “rock” music – as the RRHOF’s inventors likely envisioned it – does not only include the guitar and beat-driven variety that made artists like Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones and Zeppelin famous.
It’s too limiting in the fact that it excludes potential worthy contenders from other genres (even rock sub-genres) who are just as worthy of recognition in America’s premier music museum as their rock music counterparts.
And when you really think about it, there simply aren’t enough really good rock music counterparts to go around anymore. At least not Hall of Fame caliber ones.
The Hall was likely founded on the premise that traditional rock music – as it was defined by the genre’s earliest followers – would continue existing in its earliest state of excitement and relevance. The theory was – and I’m speculating here – that rock music in its purist form would continue to churn out talent the magnitude of which would rival those icons of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, and to a lesser, but still significant degree, the ’80s.
As such, the RRHOF – which opened its doors in 1986 – planned to follow the inaugural induction ceremony with the annual tradition of bringing in more and more worthy rock artists who’d proven their mettle in music over the ensuing years.
And for a while, that model seemed solid enough considering the wealth of accomplished and universally accepted musicians from which the Hall had to choose (especially from rock’s early years).
But rock’s current impact as a major player in music is either running on fumes or is on prolonged life support, and fewer “worthy” true rock acts exist with each passing year. As a result, the Hall’s nominating committee has to go to the B-list and pick up the ever-criticized corporate rock or pop-leaning artists like ELO, Journey or the Cars, or go even farther back in the archives and dig up old acts like MC5, Steppenwolf and the Zombies, all of whom have been passed over in previous decades, but are once again nominated.
As a case in point, consider MC5 – a late 1960s hard rock band who had one Hot 100 hit during its career (“Kick Out The Jams,” #82 in 1969). The group recorded three studio albums and then disbanded before reforming and essentially becoming a touring band afterwards. That this band is even being nominated for the first time since 2003 (their only other time) is very telling. What makes them any more worthy of being in the Hall in 2017 than they were in ’03 – or even in the early 1990s when they were first eligible?
By the way, in 2003, they competed with AC/DC, the Clash, the Police, the Righteous Brothers and Elvis Costello. MC5 didn’t stand a chance then, but they do now in a much lighter field of rock musicians. I guess their importance is somehow now elevated in the annals of rock and roll history.
Fellow 2017 nominee Steppenwolf is primarily known for two 1968 hits, both iconic songs: “Born To Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride.” But this hard-rock band has been eligible since 1993. This is their first nomination. If they’re truly RRHOF-caliber, why only now are they being seriously considered?
The Zombies – also a ’60s band – are being considered for the second time (2014) and are known mainly for three hits: “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No” and “Time of the Season.” Memorable songs, yes. But like Steppenwolf and MC5, there’s probably a good reason they haven’t really been RRHOF contenders in previous years: there were too many better rock bands during their era for them to amount to anything more than proverbial background noise. Now that the really great bands are all in, the RRHOF, as dictated by its very name, is forced to go back in time and fill its rock ledger with the B-listers.
Or simply shame itself.
Think about it. How much do you think it pained voters to put the brassy, jazz-rock – and later soft, power-pop band, Chicago, in the 2016 class after 22 years of eligibility? By the way, it was the soft, power-pop part that made people cringe, with schmaltzy songs like “If You Leave Me Now,” “Hard To Say I’m Sorry,” “You’re The Inspiration,” “I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love” and “Look Away” surely detracting from the legacy of early jazz-rock-oriented classics like “Beginnings,” “25 or 6 to 4,” “Make Me Smile” and “Saturday In The Park.”
And if it’s not digging up old rock music bones, the Hall is forced to go to B-list R&B acts. Voters inducted a dark-horse pick in Bill Withers in 2015 (he had been eligible since the 1990s). The far superior singer Chaka Khan is on this year’s ballot for the third time (although I hardly consider her a B-lister; she’s more like an A-list singer whose only fault is that she didn’t write her own stuff). Regardless, I’d bet that many rock fans don’t want her in.
And don’t even get me started about the disco/R&B/funk ensemble Chic, who’ve been nominated eleven times now – more than any other act ever. They’re likely still considered B-listers only because of the genre in which they were stigmatized (disco) and whose anti-rock shadow they could never escape. Their entry would almost certainly cause a rock uprising, not unlike the infamous “disco sucks” rioting that essentially was the beginning of the end to Chic’s and other disco acts’ chart-topping careers 37 year’s ago.
But Chic’s induction in the Rock Hall would be poetic justice for those folks’ whose (bigoted) protests fueled their demise in the first place.
Chic belongs in this Hall of Fame.
As do Chaka Khan, Janet Jackson, Journey, the Cars, ELO, Kraftwerk and many more of the acts who populate this year’s ballot and who’ve made significant contributions to music over the years in their own rights.
The Hall simply needs a name change – maybe to a less discriminating but still regal one like The Music Hall of Fame.
With such a name change, maybe the Hall wouldn’t snub entire music forms like punk and new wave – both sub-genres of rock – a practice that makes 2017 nominee, the punk music innovators Bad Brains, seem more like a token nomination than one representing a form of music the Hall has always embraced.
A smart name change would also prepare the Hall for that inevitable day when it runs out of traditional rock (and to an equal extent R&B/soul) musicians to recognize. The music world is doomed for that rock and soul apocalypse because we’re already on the fast track there. On today’s musical spectrum, rock’s relevance – both commercially and creatively – has taken a backseat to many other types of music, including hip-hop and its various offshoots, electronic dance music (EDM) and all the dance-pop hybrids that it includes, and the always resilient mainstream pop.
It’s only a matter of time when the Hall will have to give serious consideration to the likes of Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Kanye West, Taylor Swift and others from today’s musical landscape. And, once again, the RRHOF would be the target of more of the same criticism its had to endure for years: “not enough rock, too much other stuff.”
But a smart name change to the Music Hall of Fame would eliminate all of that and make the inclusion of those artists and many others actually make sense. It would also make several of this year’s nominees, as well as other overlooked non-entries, like Karen Carpenter, Judas Priest, Lionel Richie, Carole King, Sting, the Cure, the Spinners and Bon Jovi, to name a few, instantly worthy of recognition for all that they’ve done for music in their respective genres and overall.