• Courtney E. Smith

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Woman Problem - Writer's Cut

Writer’s Note: This is the extra-long version of a piece I wrote for Lenny Letter in 2016. The version I wrote for them was half the length and, how that the site is defunct, I am republishing it here in all its glory.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is on the cusp of being able to have a very woman-friendly group of inductees, because over the next decade a huge number important women artists from the ’90s will become eligible for recognition. In order to actually have a woman-friendly decade, however, the Hall of Fame has to acknowledge that it has a woman problem.

A primer for the uninitiated, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s mission is “to collect, preserve and interpret the impact rock has made on our world,” which they do through exhibits, a library, and live performances. Each year since 1983, a group of musicians and industry professionals have gathered to induct new members to the Rock Hall with the aim of “recogniz[ing] the contributions of those who have had a significant impact on the evolution, development and perpetuation of rock and roll.”

The requirements for eligibility are that the artist have released a record 25 years prior to their induction and “have demonstrated unquestionable musical excellence.” It also considers the artist’s influence, length and depth of catalog, and innovation, but overall excellence is the main thing it's looking for in inductees. Women make up 13 percent of the inductees to the Rock Hall as of 2016. Zero of the executives, managers and producers inducted are women. Only one woman, Carole King, has been inducted for her songwriting, along with her husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin (she has not yet been inducted on her own as a performing artist, although every member of the Beatles have).

Before we dive into why that number is so low, we should examine the Rock Hall’s induction class of 2016, which is 100 percent male artists and bands. Out of 15 possible nominations, the committee put forth two women, Chaka Khan and Janet Jackson, who are both first-time nominees. But the honor of induction ultimately went to Chicago, Deep Purple, NWA, Cheap Trick and Steve Miller. The male nominees who also didn’t make the cut in 2016 were the Cars, the JB’s, Los Lobos, Nine Inch Nails, the Smiths, the Spinners, Yes, and Chic.

Chic are, at present, the most snubbed band by the Rock Hall with 10 nominations, not consecutive. For comparison’s sake across gender lines, the most-snubbed women are Grammy-nominated Motown singer Mary Wells, who is credited with being one of the key artists to integrate radio in the 1960s; Grammy-nominated R&B singer Esther Phillips, who had the Grammy trophy she lost in 1972 given to her by winner Aretha Franklin who said she deserved the win more; and the Marvelettes, who were the first successful girl group launched by Motown Records starting with the single “Please Mr. Postman.” They are all tied with two Rock Hall nominations each.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame does not make public a list of voters and did not respond to a request for a demographic breakdown by age and gender, but they specify on their website that the largest group of Rock Hall voters is made up of inductees. It’s perfectly logical to offer every inductee a vote, but one logical step they could take, to help address the lack of female inductees, would be to even out the voting pool with younger voters from all aspects of the music industry, especially with an eye towards likely under represented parties: people under 45, women, and minorities.

A widening of the voting pool for the Rock Hall would not be unheard of. In fact, it happened before the voting body got their 2016 ballots. An outreach to the metal community happened and among them was writer Katherine Turman, co-author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal. “I got an email from a fellow female music writer with a subject line reading, ‘Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Looking For Metal Journalists For Ballots,’” Turman recounts. “Of course I said yes, and then I got my invite from the President & CEO Joel Peresman. It has an invitation and says, ‘We constantly look to reassess our needs and goals for the long term future to meet the objectives of the continued success of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We decided to expand our voting roster to include additional key members of the music business community that we feel would be beneficial to our mission.’”

The email doesn’t clarify what those “needs and goals” are, but someone, who Turman hypothesizes was recent nomination committee addition Tom Morello, clearly pointed out to the Rock Hall that they had a metal problem. It was taken seriously, with steps take to address it by inviting experts in that field into the conversation.

Metal, a subgenre of rock music, identifies as strongly male: it’s all about guitar solos and aggressive sounds. It was ignored for a long time by the Rock Hall, as the dumber, more commercial little brother/offshoot of mainstream rock. That this particular music is being given special attention plays into the male-dominated narrative the Rock Hall is writing.

One of the great (and only) all-female hard rock bands, the Runaways, never receiving a nomination feels like an important oversight to Turman. “They gave a lot of women hope,” she says of the time period in the late ’70s when women in rock bands were few and far between. It is worth noting that Runaways member Joan Jett was inducted, along with her all-male band the Blackharts, in 2015.

Turman, who is an expert in classic rock as well as metal, notes that some women from the rock cannon are still missing from the Rock Hall along with many key players from the country legacy world, including Patsy Cline, June Carter Cash, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Tanya Tucker, Kitty Wells, and Emmylou Harris. Being country didn’t stop the Rock Hall from inducting Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, and Carl Perkins.

The ’80s promises to be a lean era for the rock hall. The Hall of Fame has already inducted most of the absolutely undeniable artists from era: Madonna and Michael Jackson from the pop superstar cannon, R.E.M. and the Red Hot Chili Peppers from the alternative world, and Metallica and Guns ‘N Roses from the hard rock music world.

Overall, the ’80s were rampant with things that Rock Hall voters do not like: synthesizers, aging rock stars who tried to adapt to the new MTV reality with jumps into pop music, new wave, one-hit wonders, British bands, hair metal, and pop stars. It is understandably difficult: the types of, structure of, and distribution methods around popular music changed completely during the MTV era, and not necessarily in ways that ’60s and ’70s rock stars were comfortable with. As such, few artists from this era have been inducted, The Go-Go’s, Janet Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, The Bangles, Whitney Houston, X, Pat Benatar, The B-52’s, Eurythmics, Sonic Youth, Anita Baker, Sade, Salt ’N Pepa, Gloria Estefan, Natalie Cole, Lucinda Williams, and Rickie Lee Jones are still waiting for their chance. Not that the men have fared any better, only standardbearers like U2 and the truly outstanding Prince have been inducted. There’s not a single new wave act on the induction list yet.

After the Rock Hall inducts every relevant ’90s rock group or artist, they’re going to enter another desert wasteland equivalent to the ’80s. The ’90s were the last golden age of rock music. The genre has taken a nose dive in cultural currency since, merging stylistically with pop and electronic so thoroughly that some of the biggest bands classified by critics and the radio as rock today, like Imagine Dragons and Bastille, don’t even identify themselves as rock. Obviously the voting body will have changed significantly by the time bands from the 2000s are eligible for induction (2025 at the earliest), shifting from mostly Boomers to largely Gen X and Millennials who are less concerned with genre distinctions. In the meantime, Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston, who are legends in the fields of pop music, will have to languish as less than serious musicians.

That is where evening out the voting body now with younger voters, rather than a majority formed by past inductees, would be the second thing the Rock Hall could do to make sure women are fairly represented.

There may not be a female rock equivalent to Radiohead, who are expected to earn an induction the first year they are eligible (2017), coming up from the ’90s but there are a ton of influential female artists who shaped the sound and perception of womanhood for Gen X and Millennials who deserve recognition, from Liz Phair to Fiona Apple. With the shape of the Rock Hall as it is, they are entirely unprepared to deal with them. “I’m not super hopeful that PJ Harvey, for example, will get in because the Smiths aren’t in yet,” Jillian Mapes, Senior Editor for Vulture says. “When you look at where women are and where they were allowed to be in rock and roll, especially going into the 90s, it’s very underground.”

Chic are a case worth considering to help us understand the mind of the Rock Hall voter.

“It seems like the idea of what rock is [to the voting body] is very outdated and coded to mean straight white male. It’s meant to encompass people who espouse ideals of masculinity,” Maura Johnston, a freelance writer who contributes to Time and Rolling Stone, says.

Chic, a disco act, do not ooze masculinity. Like most disco artists, and the pop artists who would follow in disco’s musical footsteps in the ’80s and ’90s, they created music that was first embraced by women, homosexual men and minorities. What makes them undeserving might be the audience or style of music for voters who still see disco as pitted against and not as authentic as rock from the era. What made the Smiths undeserving might be their fey lyrics and a presence that was perceived as lesser in the U.S. at the time, despite the long shadow of influence they’ve cast. What made the Cars undeserving may be that they used synthesizers, which read as more feminine and less authentic than simply inserting a guitar solo. Who knows exactly what goes through the mind of each Rock Hall voter, but given who got in and who didn’t — and that none of inductees were female — seems to indicate that the majority of the voting body have not moved past thinking about music in coded ways that place an importance on the masculine over the feminine.

That’s a pretty funny disparity between the voters taste and the taste of the public when you consider this: Among Rock Hall inductees, everyone can agree that Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys are the most fundamental artists who shaped rock and roll in its formative days. Everyone inducted after these core artists are simply a matter of taste. They also all have one thing in common, early in their careers they benefited from the embrace of a key tastemaker demographic: teenage girls.

The nominating committee, who dictate what the voting body will choose from, has notably welcomed Morello and Questlove as their most vocal and almost only fully confirmed, publicly known members. Given the landscape of eligible artists coming up, they could look at adding the voices of noted music enthusiasts who are female to the nominating committee as well for an alternative view of music history.

There are a number of women who could serve the nominating committee well by bringing their experience, vision and taste into the debates. Judy McGrath, the former President of MTV who was with the network from their launch, might help the entire body navigate a time period that many voters who are inductees are clearly grappling with accepting. Megan Jasper, the Vice President of Sub Pop Records, Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney, and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth have all had a front-row seats to the grunge and indie rock explosions of the last two decades and could lend a hand in helping to elevate underground artists whose role in the Rock Hall will only grow over the next decade. William Morris Endeavor’s Sara Newkirk Simon, Epic Records President Sylvia Rhone, Atlantic Records Co-President Julie Greenwald and former artist managers Sharon Osborne and Mona Scott-Young have all presided over the careers of artists spanning every genre in recent music history; their insights into musical excellence for a new generation would be invaluable. Former publicist to Hall of Famer Madonna, Liz Rosenberg is a legend in her own right and could certainly tell us something about her contemporaries who are worth acknowledging. Songwriters Linda Perry, Cathy Dennis, Diane Warren and Wendy & Lisa wrote for and with many prominent pop artists of the era and would offer a unique perspective on their talents. A handful of female music journalists and critics are rumored to be part of the nominating committee, but it would be worth adding NPR’s Ann Powers, whose voice is one of the loudest and most respected among writers today. And Annie Clark, known to music fans as St. Vincent, would be an excellent choice for the voice of the younger music fanatic, much as Questlove stands in for younger men. Achieving 50/50 gender parity on the nominating committee with any new female members would be a huge step towards taking the voices and taste of women more seriously. This list of examples is only to demonstrate that it is easily possible to find enough women who are knowledgable about and interested in the history of music.

Here are few more examples of legendary female artists who have not only not been inducted but haven’t even been nominated: Ella Fitzgerald, Cher (as a solo artist, she has been considered with ex-husband Sonny), Joan Baez (writer’s note: inducted in 2017), Diana Ross (as a solo artist), Dionne Warwick, Stevie Nicks (as a solo artist), Nina Simone (writer’s note: inducted in 2018), Carly Simon, Bette Midler, Grace Jones, The Shangri-Las and Tina Turner (as a solo artist, she was inducted with her abusive ex-husband Ike Turner).

Defining the cannon is genuinely important. We already look back on past inductees as the most important people in the history of music, from Madonna to James Brown to Bob Dylan. Making a point to induct more of the distinguished and deserving women in the history of music and give serious consideration to the multitudes of deserving women in rock who are about to become eligible for induction would be a huge step in the direction of equal representation in this venerable institution.

Put in the words of the great Janis Joplin, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, “Try, try, try just a little bit harder.”

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