(October 19, 2019). It’s that time of year again. Queue the dog whistles and let’s play the annual game of how so-and-so doesn’t belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
You’ve heard the yelps before…
“She’s not rock enough – or at all.”
“He’s a rapper. Rap isn’t rock and roll.”
“It isn’t even music. All they do is sample other people’s stuff.”
“It’s called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for a reason…take your jungle music and go find your own Hall of Fame to populate.”
Well, with this year’s set of nominees, the naysayers were likely handed their best case example yet – or so they believe – of how the Hall of Fame nominating committee once again got it all wrong.
Enter the late Whitney Houston, the superstar pop songstress and, at one time, America’s sweetheart who brought us some of pop music’s biggest hits of a generation.
Eligible since 2009 or 2010 – depending upon whether you count her 1984 duet with Teddy Pendergrass (“Hold Me”) as her professional start, or if it’s her full-length, self-titled debut album from the following year that marked the beginning (yes, there was a debate about that 35 years ago which likely cost her a Best New Artist Grammy) – Houston is certainly an industry icon. She was a vocal tour de force who, at least from a singer’s standpoint, had no equal during her hit-making heyday.
So after a decade of wondering will they or won’t they, we learned this week that the RRHOF nominating committee finally decided that now is her time. Or at least it may be, depending upon what the final voters have to say on the matter when the handful of 2020 inductees are announced in December.
But to many people, a pop singer like Whitney is hardly synonymous with “rock and roll,” even by the wildest stretches of its definitions. (Musically speaking, The Bodyguard’s “Queen of the Night” may be the closest she ever came).
By the most archaic and parochial of definitions, rock musicians – or at least those eligible for the Hall – should strum or pluck acoustic or amplified electric guitars (preferably with distortion), or they should be wizards on the keyboards. For the most part, when it comes to singing, their vocals should be closer to growls than they are to that of an angelic songbird.
And I understand – rock’s truest icons are masters of innovation and creativity, either in their songwriting or in the studio (or on stage). Their music catalogs are generally loved by fans and critics who spend more time analyzing the songs for their complexities and their technical construct than the simple question of whether they’re good or not.
And yes, rock’s best timekeepers often use a backbeat, but they are just as likely to incorporate a marathon drum solo simply because, well…they can.
Hence, a drum god like the late Ginger Baker? He’s a no-brainer for the Hall.
Rock guitar heroes like Clapton, Hendryx, or Page? Name any one of these guys or the dozens of others who look or sound like them and the discussion shifts to why aren’t they in the RRHOF (if they weren’t inducted already).
But Whitney? A singer who never wrote a tune or played an instrument in her career?
An artist who – given the same song repertoire in an earlier era – would likely have been labeled as more of a torch singer than even an R&B or soul one?
A pretty songstress whose first professional gig was as a cover model for a teen magazine and whose only musical instrument was her voice?
How would she even qualify for this Hall?
Well, it’s simple. And it really boils down to that one instrument…
In her prime, Whitney’s instrument was incomparable to anyone else’s. There was no one who matched her and no one who’d dare try.
Even when she was paired with other powerhouse vocalists on record (like the late George Michael or the late Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin), Whitney would have to tone down her instrument so as not to upstage the others.
Her songs were Number One hits not because of their outstanding musical arrangements or any transcendent lyrics they used, but because of that undeniable vocal instrument she had that took every one of those songs to a higher stratosphere than we had ever heard.
Oh there are other factors that make Whitney a perfect fit for the Rock Hall. And if you’ve ever actually been to the RRHOF Museum in Cleveland, you’ll completely get it.
The Hall is a celebration of musical accomplishment – not just rock music, but all music. In its promotional brochures, for the “Performers” category, the Hall of Fame foundation states that “these inductees are the artists who have changed the world of rock with their mastery and artistic vision. As a whole, their music cuts across generations, genres (emphasis added) and continents.”
One walk through its many storied exhibits and corridors and the institution’s perennial critics would quickly understand that cross-genre part.
People forget, for instance, that the Supremes – Motown’s most successful singing group and the biggest charting American pop group of the entire 1960s decade – were inducted more than thirty years ago and are as much at home in the Rock Hall as, say, fellow inductees like rockers Nirvana or Bon Jovi.
And the Supremes aren’t the only popular group or solo act who primarily sang their way into the Rock Hall of Fame.
The first solo women to be inducted in the “performers” category – the one for which Whitney Houston is posthumously competing – were all soul singers: Aretha Franklin, LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown, Etta James.
And if – along with the Supremes – you include Tina Turner, who was inducted with her late ex-husband Ike in 1991, then the first six female acts to enter the Rock Hall were all singers.
And, like Whitney, they all happened to be African-American women who recorded both R&B/soul and pop hits.
Yet, today, when a pop/R&B artist is nominated – even one whose life was as tragic and rock-and-roll-like as Whitney Houston’s – it’s almost immediately followed by the Twitter equivalent of rotten tomatoes being thrown onstage. And an artist with a spotlight as prominent as Houston’s – and whose earliest hits were unabashedly pop (with only tinges of soul and gospel thrown in) – gets skewered even more.
They’re easy targets for people without the enlightenment of what the Rock Hall truly represents in its celebration of the world of rock and roll and all its inhabitants.
But some of the resistance to Whitney may be related to her timing, specifically, that she rose to fame in the 1980s and not the much more respected ‘60s decade – like so many of her predecessors.
For instance, there’s no denying that The Supremes were a groundbreaking act who broke down barriers and inspired countless other female soloists and groups to mimic them.
But I offer that their mere association with the 1960s – a time that most believe from a musical perspective was the most exciting, most important and most countercultural in rock history – likely helped give The Supremes somewhat of a pass in the rock credibility department when it came to Hall voters in the ‘80s, even though the Motown group’s songs could hardly be considered “rock” by the most critical of standards.
As such, their Hall induction was met with very little resistance when they were admitted in 1988. After all, whether they were rock-and-roll or not, the Supremes were part of a historic movement – Motown – and they broke down racial barriers – both ingredients that combined to make a great rock-and-roll story.
Through no fault of her own, Houston on the other hand thrived during a decade – the 1980s, and to a lesser extent the ‘90s – that rock critics typically consider one of their genre’s worst in terms of generating Hall of Fame-caliber artists.
For her part, until grunge came around, Whitney shared the top of the pop charts with lightweight synth-pop groups and over-the-top hair-metal bands that were a dime a dozen, many of which have been Hall-eligible for more than a decade without so much as a nod from the voting committee.
Indeed, the often-derided 1980s nearly doomed sure-fire Hall of Fame bands like Chicago, ELO and the Moody Blues, groups whose earliest song catalogs alone would have solidified their entry, but whose “evolution” in the ‘80s nearly kept them out.
In a guilt-by-association world where everything belonging to a certain era gets lumped together, were the songs that Whitney Houston recorded in her heyday any more or less schmaltzy than the hits by the ‘80s version of Chicago (who, btw, got into the Hall in 2016). Except for the power guitar chords used in Chicago’s “Look Away” or “Will You Still Love Me?,” were those songs really any different from “Didn’t We Almost Have It All?” or “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?”
It wasn’t until the 1990s when Whitney moved more towards R&B and, at times, gospel that we got to see more depth from an artist whose versatility was finally beginning to shine through. We finally got to see the full range of her singing talents when the industry allowed her to take us places musically we hadn’t been with her before – like “Exhale (Shoop, Shoop),” “I Believe In You and Me,” “I Love The Lord,” “Heartbreak Hotel” (not Elvis’s or the Jacksons’), “My Love Is Your Love,” “It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay,” “I’m Every Woman,” and the list goes on.
Of course, as we all know now, the rock-and-roll lifestyle that Whitney led was beginning to take its toll and the talent that once was would be no more. That lifestyle would ultimately take her life by 2012.
But it was that immense singing talent – especially during her prime – that stands above all others and is the biggest reason she belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Rock purists will tell you that their legends are artists who pushed boundaries, either musically or culturally, with their music and their attitudes. They shifted whole musical landscapes and inspired others to follow in their paths.
From a historical perspective, there are few other women – or singers period – who’ve had as much impact on the world of rock and roll as Whitney Houston.
Whitney was indeed an inspiration to countless others in her field who were inspired by her style, her attitude, and her incredible success.
Just for comparison’s sake, since there are so few women who’ve been inducted (that’s a different issue and one the Hall may be trying to address now), here are the other women – many of whom, like Whitney, were singers of pop tunes – who have been inducted in the RRHOF’s “Performers” category (listed chronologically by their induction years):
- Aretha Franklin (1987)
- Diana Ross & the Supremes (‘88)
- LaVern Baker (‘91)
- Tina Turner (with Ike) (‘91)
- Ruth Brown (‘93)
- Etta James (‘93)
- Rose Stone and Cynthia Robinson (via Sly & the Family Stone) (‘93)
- Janis Joplin (‘95)
- Martha & the Vandellas (‘95)
- Grace Slick (via Jefferson Airplane) (‘96)
- Gladys Knight (with the Pips) (‘96)
- The Shirelles (‘96)
- Joni Mitchell (‘97)
- Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks (via Fleetwood Mac) (‘98)
- Michelle Phillips and Mama “Cass” Elliott (via The Mamas and the Papas) (‘98)
- Dusty Springfield (‘99)
- Mavis, Cleotha and Yvonne Staples (via The Staple Singers) (‘99)
- Bonnie Raitt (2000)
- Brenda Lee (‘02)
- Chrissie Hynde (via The Pretenders) (‘05)
- Debbie Harry (via Blondie) (‘06)
- The Ronettes (‘07)
- Patti Smith (‘07)
- Madonna (‘08)
- Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-frid Lyngstad (via Abba) (‘10)
- Darlene Love (‘11)
- Laura Nyro (‘12)
- Ann and Nancy Wilson (via Heart) (‘13)
- Donna Summer (‘13)
- Linda Ronstadt (‘14)
- Joan Jett (with the Blackhearts) (‘15)
- Joan Baez (‘17)
- Nina Simone (‘18)
- Janet Jackson (‘19)
- Stevie Nicks (solo) (‘19)
So yeah, I’d say Whitney deserves to be in there. And voters, while you’re at it, put fellow 2020 inductees Pat Benatar and (for the umpteenth time) Chaka Khan in as well.
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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