Three months ago (!?) in this space I said that as great a list as the 2023 slate of Rock Hall nominees was, it lacked a sense of surprise — a “jump back” name.
Wednesday, the Hall said “Hold my beer.”
With such a stacked ballot, it would’ve been pretty much impossible to make a bad class, and 2023 is set to go down as a strong year in Hall history and certainly one of the most genre-diverse. Almost every name here deserves their place and the induction ceremony should be one to remember. Major kudos are in order for the Hall not listening to the show runners and cutting the class size for a tidy broadcast.
(To recap: Performers: Kate Bush, Sheryl Crow, Missy Elliott, George Michael, Willie Nelson, Rage Against the Machine, the Spinners; Musical Excellence: Chaka Khan, Al Kooper, Bernie Taupin; Musical Influence (formerly Early Influence): DJ Kool Herc, Link Wray; Ahmet Ertegun Award: Don Cornelius.)
The surprises: Trying to extrapolate from the published ballots to the voting body at large is normally a fool’s game, but the love for the Spinners carried over and carried them onto the nominee list. And a thing of beauty it is. And with the Hall signaling that it was done with the 60s if not the 70s, almost no one foresaw Link Wray. Justice came slowly, but it came.
The biggest surprise for me was that Warren Zevon didn’t get a nod; I thought with the big names that are in his corner and his being the link to classic-era non-R&B rock he’d go right in, but this wasn’t the ballot for him. Disappointing, but I think the Nom Com is behind him the way it was for Todd Rundgren and they’ll keep working on it. That’s true for any of the names that didn’t make it: it’s not over, it’s just another year to wait. This is an institution that didn’t welcome Queen, Bowie, or Radiohead on their first ballots either.
A mild surprise was seeing Rage in the Machine get the nod, but something turned in their favor this year and voters didn’t rely on the Musical Excellence category to get it done. And a precious ballot slot is freed for next year.
Another disappointment, but less of a surprise was Cyndi Lauper. It felt like people see her as a one-album wonder, but she will be back. Her documentary, “Let the Canary Sing,” directed by Alison Ellwood, who directed the Go Gos documentary, premieres at the Tribeca film fest next month. Kate Bush’s “Stranger Things” success came at about this time last year, and the Hall does love a documentary. She’ll be back as well. (And how wonderful to see Kate’s vision and artistry rewarded on her fourth try.)
Likewise for the expected miss by Iron Maiden. The refusal to honor hard rock or metal is as baffling as it is stupid.
It was a consensus opinion that this was likely Bush’s last chance at a Performer induction, but this year was a “must” for Chaka Khan in any capacity as well – while Mary J. Blige did make the ballot two years ago, it felt like this needed to happen in order to move forward with artists like Sade, Patti Labelle, and Mariah Carey.
And not so much a surprise, although not everyone thought she was a lock: in Missy Elliot we have the first female hip hop artist nominated AND inducted. She’s beyond deserving, and the Hall included DJ Kool Herc as a Musical Influence inductee, going beyond the household names and into the genre’s history.
And to cap off all this goodness, no lawyers, managers, or lawyer-managers.
But a couple of less positive things have to be mentioned. Among this year’s many surprises was that the longstanding media partnerships with Sirius XM and HBO seem to be finished. Those who wanted to listen to the Hall’s announcement were scrambling to find out where to tune in. Once they found it on Apple Music, they got a rushed LL Cool J reading from a card in what seemed to be random order. One of the biggest days on the Hall calendar…. After Allyson McCabe’s revelations in Vulture about the procedure of her recruitment as a voter, the less professional side of the Hall has been on display for sure this week.
And any Rock Hall class announcement means you have to check in on how women have fared. Again, it’s a mixed bag. Female artists make up three of seven Performers — almost 41 percent — and in a little stroke of luck for the PR department, the all three names fall together alphabetically at the top of the ballot for maximum impact. But of course, the lone band inducted is all male, and men make up the categories except for Chaka.
And in inducting Don Cornelius — completely deserved from a strictly music history standpoint — they’ve inducted a domestic abuser, in a category named for an abuser.
There’s never going to be a satisfactory answer to how to honor achievement on the part of problematic individuals, but just continuing on the same damn path is not it. We need to see women exclusively in a renamed non-performer category for a few consecutive years after this. You have the power, Rock Hall; the ball’s in your court.
But that’s no note to end on. This class is another in a line of strong ones and you can tell that in some areas the Hall is doing some thinking. There’s lots to celebrate. Looking forward to seeing how the ceremony shapes up.