And just like that, it’s here: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2019 has been announced. (ICYMI: the Cure, Def Leppard, Janet Jackson, Stevie Nicks, Radiohead, Roxy Music, and the Zombies). And quite a class it is. As pointed out by Future Rock Legends, it’s the biggest since 2004, taking up almost half the total ballot. There are no FYEs (First Year Eligible acts- thanks to the “Who Cares About the Rock Hall” podcast for the handy terminology), there are three FYNs (First Year Nominated) in Def Leppard, Roxy and Nicks. Not only are Hall watchers excited, but the music and mainstream media have taken positive notice as well–something no doubt being noted with pleasure in both Cleveland and New York. I thought this would be a bellwether year, and now that we can look at the trends, they’re interesting –and for the most part exciting–indeed.
Notably, a few Rock Hall truisms bit the dust this year. Firstly, the Hall is starting to chip away in earnest at its long-held Americentric bias. We saw this really get started last year, when eight of the 19 nominees (Dire Straits, the Moody Blues, Eurythmics, Judas Priest, Kate Bush, Radiohead, the Zombies and Depeche Mode) were British. UK acts made up a slightly smaller percentage of the ballot this year (plus one German act in Kraftwerk), but whereas last year only saw two of those acts inducted (the Moodies and Dire Straits), this year every single UK act nominated will enter the Hall this March–five of the seven inductees, and all of the males and groups.
Secondly, two living women are being inducted outright in the Performer category. It’s pathetic up until now, comments that the Hall won’t induct more than one woman/female act per class has been essentially accepted wisdom–and it never should be again. Although Nicks won’t gain another vote, Janet will get one, and that’s profound.
Third, the Hall is basically admitting that yes, a larger class is possible. Rock Hall Monitors put forth a strong case for them a few years ago, and since then there have been pleas from all over. It’s common sense: going bigger is the only real way to address the backlog and achieve real diversity in classes, both in terms of historical era and subgenre, HBO demands be damned. Last year we had six, including the Early Influence with Sister Rosetta, and this year seven. It may not augur well for non-performers or the finale jam; we’ll have to see. This year’s jam could be delightfully weird if it happens. Worst case, it could push some potentially on-the-bubble acts (Dick Dale, Shangri Las, for example) to the Singles category. Do we have to have a trade-off?
Fourth, it’s clear that the NomCom is trying to steer the ship towards more diversity, and however it was achieved (more on that in a bit), this year marks that shift clearly. Donnie Durham described it perfectly in his blog, so with thanks I’ll borrow it here: “60’s British Invasion, early 70’s Art/Glam Rock, pure classic rock, 80’s hair/glam metal, 80’s alt/goth rock, R&B/Dance/New Jack Swing, and modern alternative/indie rock.” It would have been pretty much impossible to get a bad class from this ballot (the NomCom deserves credit for navigating the competing demands placed on it so well) but it could have gone slightly more classic rock (using the Steven Hyden definition) with Prine and Rundgren, and set the stage for “more of the same.” Now doors are being opened all over the place, and as more of these up-to-now underrepresented acts go in, we’ll be looking back at the class of 2019 as the tipping point. The question is, will the artists/styles still left out in the cold (metal comes to mind) get in on the largesse?
And fifth, for good or bad, the trend towards populism is in full effect and actually picking up steam. From the day the “Voice Your Choice” kiosks were installed at the Museum, the Hall dangled the carrot of them offering fans a direct impact on the ballot, and it’s clear that this was the case: the Hall proudly points out on its site that five of the top ten choices were included on the ballot. We have no way of knowing if this is coincidence or mandate. The Hall’s been assailed by both fans and artists (usually the ones who score higher on popular success than critical acclaim) about fan involvement, so it looks like they’re trying to appease everyone. If you’ve read this blog before, you know I’m a
n elitist snob believer in lasting influence over commercial impact and in expert opinion that takes the long view so obviously, I’m not so down with this.
A few thoughts on this year’s inductees:
The Cure: A big surprise for most of us-I know I gasped out loud right off the bat on seeing their name. Not only is their induction a nod to their legacy, but it’s also pivotal for other 80s New Wave/alternative acts and bands that followed, like the Smashing Pumpkins (whom the Hall can’t continue to ignore).
Def Leppard: Not one of my initial choices, but I hear the arguments for including them as part of a complete portrait of the 80s and as a pivotal act in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. They’re also good guys who’ve stood by their bandmates, paid homage to their forebears and dammit, they’re going to make that ceremony fun. I’m down with it, especially if Dr. May does the honors.
Janet Jackson: I predicted her, and there’s no arguing that she had momentum, but I still wasn’t completely convinced. In this case I’m happier for her fan base (Kristen Studard’s response was just a MOOD), especially those at Induct Janet, who always took the high road and persevered through disappointment. Congrats, guys: It’s an incredible feeling – enjoy every minute.
Stevie Nicks: Her solo career is marginal on paper, but this is a case when that’s beside the point. Simply, she’s a powerful symbol for women and for a whole new generation of female performers–there’ll be no shortage of A-listers ready to pay homage.
Radiohead: Well, finally the complaining can stop.
I was never on board with the idea that their not getting in last year was “punishment”: You can call the Hall a “piss stain” or beg to be excluded and it’ll still put you in. But if they didn’t make it purely on the basis of votes, the composition of the voting body didn’t change that much in the intervening year, and in fact tipped a little more towards classic rock. It’s plausible that the Hall, mindful of the uproar and its effect on credibility (something they’re usually studiously oblivious to), massaged the results. Not a comment on the band, but rather on the system, how problems are handled, and why we won’t see transparency here anytime soon.
Roxy Music: As Nick Bambach said, they’re the missing link for experimental art rock, and much like the Cure, it’s a huge moment for their artistic peers and heirs. T. Rex’s chances stand in a new glow, and Duran Duran is already being touted as a frontrunner for next year. And of course, Brian Eno finally enters the Hall – will he be another multiple inductee?
The Zombies: This one puts a smile on your face – how can anyone not be charmed? Good to think that fans will discover more of their output beyond the three big singles. What remains to be seen is if, as widely thought, this is the grand finale for the 60s, with acts like The Monkees, the Marvelettes and the Shangri-las relegated to the Singles category. Hopefully not.
So there you have it. Although some deserving names–Kraftwerk, LL Cool J– are still missing, it’s a great class – and my list of Hall of Famers seen live goes up by two with Def Leppard and the Cure. A few surprises will be in store between now and March 29 as we hear about the inductors and possibly the Singles category. There’s a lot to look forward to.