Crisis? What Crisis? Random Thoughts on the Rock Hall Induction Season 2019

As the credits rolled on this year’s ceremony, the 2019 RRHOF induction season came to a close. As we wait for the first week of October to roll around, a few random thoughts: 

Yes, the system is broken.

When Future Rock Legends published this, everyone was caught up in the excitement of the newly announced class, and I don’t think it got the play it deserved. This class definitely deserved the buzz: with the long-snubbed names that mostly bucked the classic rock trend, it could finally open the doors to some exciting artists in the near future. But every point is still true, and not one of them is being addressed. 

The Hall has just put out an excellent ballot and inducted what’s considered to be one of the best classes in some time. But all that’s been overshadowed by the fact that it refuses to meaningfully address the gender imbalance among the inductees (actually, among the NomCom and voting rolls as well). It’s rightly drawn ire, and while there have been complaints over the past couple of years, this time it may stick. The Hall may be consistently inconsistent, but it’s also consistently complacent, and it’s hard to say how or if it will respond. 

To be honest, I’m not clamoring for an all-female ballot. It’s a statement, but there are so many things wrong that every year could be some kind of statement, and in what order? It won’t happen anyway. What I would like to see is something that pays off on an ongoing basis: more women to choose from on the ballot, which will translate to more on the induction stage, and among them some overdue recognition of women in hip hop. And that will come from more women making decisions on the NomCom and voting rolls. Let’s be honest and give up on the “election by their peers” presented as the governing principle of the vote; it’s long been, shall we say, a nebulous concept, and it’s been watered down anyway as they try to jockey the committee into a younger, more forward-looking outfit. 

Big Mama Thornton and Lesley Gore absolutely should be recognized, and hopefully that will happen soon. But as crass as it is to state it like this,  for the next two to three years at least, we need women who are, first of all, alive and ready to vote. The Go-Go’s would put several on the rolls in one swoop. Beyond them, there’s Cyndi Lauper, Pat Benatar, Bjork, Kate Bush, Diana Ross, Melissa Etheridge, Chaka Khan, Annie Lennox, Tina Turner, Carole King, Queen Latifah, Salt n Pepa, Carol Kaye (although she probably won’t care to vote). And sigh, yes, Sheryl Crow. Sooner rather than later, judging by the face time she got on HBO the other night, seated at the figurative right hand of Stevie Nicks. 

I also think the statement right now—not always but for the next couple of years—should be about relatively contemporary women specifically and clearly in rock and R&B, as opposed to “influence” artists like Joan Baez, for whom you have to draw a more convoluted line. When you keep stressing the role of something as an influence, it traps it in amber and takes it out of the continuing discussion, with precious little chance of clawing its way back in. Sort of like this:  

It may be – may be — that SVZ’s influence is on the wane: HBO cut the entire Singles category from this year’s broadcast. For anyone not familiar with this mess, the artists being “honored” aren’t invited or apparently given any notice, there’s no acknowledgement in the Museum itself and this year ‘s inclusion of the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout” gives the lie to the “not yet inducted” criterion Van Zandt gave last year. In addition, it’s a tune by none other than Bert Berns, whose 2016 induction isn’t undeserved but was championed by Van Zandt, who was a backer for the Broadway musical about…Bert Berns. I agree with Nick Bambach: all the time and effort could go into inducting a non-performer or early influence. Put it out of our misery. 

Mrs. Van Zandt, Maureen, is frequently put out about the Hall, and it’s adorable, but this took it up a notch; they seem to think this is an important honor to which only they can do justice. She suggested on Twitter that the ceremony implement a better run of show and set strict time limits—points worthy of discussion–but went on to suggest that maybe they should induct one less act. Sure, there’s no giant and growing backlog of meaningful snubs or anything. This vanity project will likely go quietly into that good night like the “Hall of Fame Locations” project of a few years ago, no matter what Joel Peresman says. One change I wholeheartedly support is for the Hall to rotate one-third of the NomCom every year, and here I rest my case. 

Populism…as Alexander Pope said, “The public is a fool.”  (Thank you, Alex Voltaire). Right now, its pull is even being felt at the Oscars: word is that CBS was keen on  a Best Pic nom for “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the strength of its box office performance. We’ve all known that the broadcast has an outsize influence on the makeup of the classes, and there’s been plenty of confirmation lately: Maureen Van Zandt essentially confirmed the Hall’s whole MO when she said that Zevon wasn’t a likely nominee because of the requirements of the HBO show. Add to this Greg Geller’s admission on the “Who Cares About the Rock Hall” podcast that HBO is looking for a “streamlined” broadcast. 

I don’t know if the solution is to divide the slate into the respective choices of the online vote, the kiosks, the voting bloc and the NomCom, but public opinion can’t drive the narrative. The classes shouldn’t be built on names that museum goers type in at the kiosks on a lark. The Hall’s caught between Scylla and Charybdis here, and they haven’t shown us they can sail very well. The Country Hall throws an invisibility cloak over everything, the RRHOF tries to be all things to all people…and no one’s happy. Eventually, you have to stand up for something. 

But there’s something that overshadows everything else, and unless something’s done, nothing else will matter. The sheer lack of professionalism continues to make a mockery of the honor of induction. Leak the results to an unknown non-music journalist in Georgia (the country, not the state, although the latter wouldn’t be any more appropriate). Add band members after the ballot’s published so they find out from their wives. Leave a band high and dry to induct itself. 

Just in the past few weeks, we’ve seen the Hall: 

  1. Delete John Gustafson of Roxy Music from the list of inducted members between last October and March; 
  2. Add Kenny Laguna to Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ plaque three years after their induction;  
  3. Remove Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys from the website and omit them from the new plaque–essentially uninduct them. Within three days, Museum CEO Greg Harris announced that this “oversight” would be rectified. But there’s been no apology or explanation of how eight names could just get lost.

Even if all this isn’t a case of rewriting history after the fact, it’s a level of sloppiness that blows the mind. It’s clear that the Hall just doesn’t give a shit. About transparency, accuracy, and certainly not the history it’s put itself out as a custodian of. This isn’t what’s going to start a tweet storm or make headlines. But quietly, stealthily, it’s eating at the whole foundation. Worse, it makes you wonder if it’s worth caring anymore. And what happens then?