Doubling Down: Thoughts on the Rock Hall Class of 2020

Wednesday morning, three months to the day after announcing the ballot, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame revealed the inductees for its class of 2020: Depeche Mode, the Doobie Brothers, Whitney Houston, Nine Inch Nails, Notorious B.I.G., and T. Rex.

It’s been an odd year, with a ballot that somehow was so much less than the some of its parts. So it wasn’t to be expected that the class could improve on that. And it didn’t.

But it did pack a few, if not surprises, interesting points. First up, of course, the fan vote. We saw the omission of not just the Dave Matthews Band, who’ve now secured a place in rock history as the first winner to be shut out, but ALL BUT ONE of the top five. The top two didn’t make it. Take that, fans.

I was actually willing to double down on my prediction that DMB’s victory would get them over. A big part of that was forgetting what I learned from the Who Cares About the Rock Hall podcast about Depeche Mode’s ability to sell tickets.

Lord knows I’m not a fan of the swing to populism, but I’d accepted that induction for all the previous winners was the Hall’s way to dodge charges of elitism. Places 2-5 didn’t matter, but the winner was the token. It got bands in like Journey and Kiss who’d never gotten critical love. It was a bit of a deal with the devil, but when fans and performers alike complained that the public had no say, the Hall could point to that without ever stating outright that it was policy. Just ambiguous enough, and not dependent on votes. People kept saying DMB didn’t have the votes and I wondered why they thought that mattered. The Hall probably has more fiats than a Milanese car dealership.

The Hall wants eyeballs on its site to keep Klipsch happy, a sense of drama for the media outlets to pick up on (good or bad, doesn’t matter) and fan involvement, likely in that order, and it was a neat way to accomplish it all.

Even if the Hall doesn’t care much for good will, I didn’t think it would stomp all over what it got from the vote, what with turnstiles to keep turning at the Museum. Nope, they stomped. Stomped it real good. Clearly they’re doubling down on their core principle: they have the game ball, so we’ll all fall in line. All the DMB fans who are confused and angry now will be back next time. We’ll all forgive and forget, because we all want to root for something, to see our heroes honored and bask in the reflected glory. Don’t forget, three of the fan vote’s top seven made it.

So now the cat’s out of the proverbial bag. The winning act has racked up 1 million votes for nothing, and it’ll be fascinating to see what the vote totals look like next time around…if indeed there’s a fan vote as we know it.

In the biggest instance of doubling down, the ballot had all of three women, one of whom is deceased. This in spite of being taken to task in the media for the second straight season and called out from the stage earlier this year by their own inductee. I wish I could say it was a surprise. And of those three, only one makes it, and she can’t vote. You think back to 2018 and you just have to shake your head. Pat Benatar, who came in second place in the fan vote, led it for the first two weeks, and was thought to be a lock by most Hall watchers, didn’t make the cut. A huge and unpleasant surprise.

But is it really? There was noticeable apathy – and in some cases antipathy- to Benatar from the voters that Joe and Kristin spoke to on “Who Cares..,”, including Amy Linden and Edna Gunderson. I never saw ecstatic endorsements in the media leading up to the announcement, either. Whether we think it’s accurate or not (I don’t), maybe Steve Erlewine summed up how she’s perceived in the industry: “A workaday rocker who had a good moment.” Now, the Doobie Brothers, hey, they’re innovators who moved the needle on rock and pop as we know it today.

The Hall is trying to tell us that having three women — the same number as last year — is some kind of breakthrough. It wants us to believe that the process is based solely on merit, and the fact that women make up only 7.7% of the inductee rolls is an accurate representation of the quality of their contributions to modern popular music. Breathtaking.

This ish isn’t going to stop. It’s not going to because as things currently stand, there’s no incentive for it to. There’s no penalty, no consequence for it, and that’s what a meaningful change is going to take. Right now there’s nothing to impact the bottom line and grab the old boys by the…attention span.

The Hall knows this. Again, game ball. It calls the shots, and it knows we, the general public, have no real power. There isn’t a sponsor structure that we can lean on. We aren’t a cohesive unit who’ll get on board with any sort of boycott of either the ceremony or the museum. Steve Miller said something about it in 2016 but by that point he’d cemented his “crazy grandpa” status and helped make his own induction a sideshow. Other nominees (or potential ones) haven’t made it a talking point, including Benatar and Khan that I’m aware of.

Inductees can’t be expected to boycott their big night, but could they make a statement? Could a campaign convince them to? Not likely. Would it have any effect if artists refused to make appearances at the museum? To not do book signings, jam in The Garage or take the tours and do the grip-and-grins that the Hall loves to post on social media? Would an “open letter to the Board” statement from living inductees have an effect? Not much. What about the bands that play the Plaza for the summer concert series? Even if it meant anything, is it fair to ask them to forego a check and the exposure? No.

A neat and easy way for the Hall to make even symbolic amends would be to use its power to award one of its discretionary awards — the Ahmet Ertegun Award for Musical Excellence or the Early Influence or Musical Excellence categories to a deserving woman or women. Like the Performer Category, there’s no shortage. Instead, it doubles down and presents two old white men from its own board of directors (Jon Landau and Irving Azoff, manager of the aforementioned Doobie Brothers) with the Ertegun award. Again, just breathtaking.

Maybe this is the old boys’ last hurrah before the new guy comes in and makes them be all like, inclusive and stuff, but how many changes can we realistically expect, and how long will they take? And even though he’s a guy, how much pushback will he get?

(And off topic, but did y’all notice in the statement the Grammys made about the outster of CEO Deborah Dugan that she’d been put on leave because “a formal allegation of misconduct [was made against her] by a senior female [staff] member?” (Italics mine). Nope, we’re not saying anything because we’re dudes; see, we found a woman to do it. The Academy says she’s a bully; she says she found corporate misconduct. But wonder of wonders, she has gotten advertiser support).

And as predicted by just about everybody, the hard rock/heavy metal acts canceled each other out and come up empty again. It’s hard to disagree with Eric and Mary of the Hall Watchers podcast that this was on purpose. The Hall views the nomination as the award. Next year belongs to the Foos, and the Hall could very well go with Iron Maiden if they opt to try this again, so unfortunately Judas Priest may be on the shelf for a while. A crime, as are the omissions, again, of Kraftwerk and in my eyes, Todd Rundgren.

So now we await the announcement of who the presenters and tribute performers will be. And beyond that, the direction the Hall takes as the new era begins. The Hall promises changes to this year’s ceremony, and those may give us some clues to its priorities going forward. One thing’s for sure: Change is needed on a massive scale; the system is beyond broken. John Sykes has a big job ahead.

RRHOF Predictions 2020…Yay

Actual Rock Hall ballot response

Happy New Year, one and all! I was all ready to open with “So it’s been busy lately” and then saw that it’s been nearly three months since my last post. Meanwhile, people have been posting all kinds of insightful Rock Hall commentary, and Eric and Mary at the Hall Watchers podcast have posted brilliant episodes even as they travel to Europe and get ready to move. So yeah…I’m lame.

But since the fan vote is almost sort of about to start getting ready to think about winding down after what, six months now? it’s time to go on record with my predictions for the class of 2020.

It’s been noted how this year’s ballot was met with more or less a collective yawn despite containing some worthy names, and it doesn’t look like excitement has grown since then. However the class shakes out, what’ll be really interesting what the Hall throws out there to create a buzz-worthy induction ceremony.

It looks like this year is a placeholder before the Hall takes its first tentative steps into the Sykes era. In that vein, I’m not predicting any big surprises. Here goes:

  1. Pat Benatar: She’s deserved it for a long time, and it looks like the stars have aligned to make this her year. For the Hall, she represents a way to add a woman to the ranks, appeal to Boomers/Gen Xers and women and maintain a little rock cred at all the same time. It took a long time for her camp to acknowledge the nomination, so I’m not positive her attendance is a given, but she’ll probably be there, which is something this show is desperately going to need.
  2. The Doobie Brothers: Again, big appeal for the Boomer crowd and they tick the “rock” box for adventure-phobic voting committee members. And as noted, they’ve got Irving Azoff going to bat for them and they’re gearing up for a 50th-anniversary tour. As Future Rock Legends said, it’s hard not to feel a little cynicism about the neatness of all this as a marketing opportunity — for the band and the Hall both — but they do still sound good together and they’ll be fun at the ceremony. (If they played “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me)” I’d be chuffed, but it’s not likely).
  3. Dave Matthews Band: Listening to the “Who Cares About the Rock Hall” podcast actually made me a little more open to their induction, but Joe Kwaczala is right: this isn’t the time. By most people’s standards, but this is the Rock Hall. There’s conjecture that this is the year that the Fan Vote winner doesn’t go all the way, but I don’t see it happening. The Hall blithely ignores specific criticism, but they’re highly sensitive to factors that affect the bottom line. They won’t completely alienate such a big fan base, backward-ball-cap-wearing frat boys or not. (Like obnoxious fan bases have ever stopped them). They ignored the input from the kiosks this year, so the grab for ratings will be slightly less blatant, but this band made a significant charge to claim the top spot by a huge margin. There’s a noticeable percentage of deceased artists on the ballot and it’s likely more than one will be inducted. The powers that be might have privately thought that inducting Journey was “brutal” but they’ve kept going down the populist road, following them up with Bon Jovi and Def Leppard. The Hall’s more openly impressed with sales numbers now, and this is where it looks like they’re headed. I wouldn’t mind being wrong, but I think the ants will march on in.
  4. Notorious B.I.G.: It’s been a couple of years since a hip-hop act went in, and he’ll succeed where LL Cool J hasn’t yet been able to.
  5. Whitney Houston: Given a different ballot, she may not be a sure thing. But she’s undeniably an icon. Clive Davis is no doubt in her corner and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him do the honors for her on the big night.

Besides these Performer inductees, I’m going to take Perelsman up on his hint and say that they’ll redefine “Early Influence” on the fly and put Kraftwerk in under that banner. Is this the right way to do it? It’s the Hall, remember?

It’s less likely, but again because of the number of departed potential inductees, we just may get a Musical Excellence pick in Todd Rundgren. He’s signaled that he won’t bother to show, and that could help him here. Hopefully his fan base woiuld rally to convince him otherwise, but his 10th place showing in the fan poll points to them adopting his curmudgeonly attitude.

Eddie Trunk loved the ballot as predicted, but also as predicted, the hard rock acts will likely cancel each other out. If Judas Priest showed so badly just a couple of years ago, why would this try be different?

It’s not ideal, but we’re never going to get ideal. This year, we’re treading water — the real drama starts this summer.