It’s quite fashionable to criticize the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s annual inductees, and I’m nothing if not fashionable. Common criticism falls mostly into one of two camps: 1) I’m old, and I don’t know or like these groups; or 2) What the hell does that artist have to do with rock and roll? People who are a little closer to the music industry might add their concerns that the Hall of Fame is a combination of Rolling Stone founder Jan Wenner’s whims and acts that are likely to draw higher ratings when the inevitable annual HBO special airs.
All of the above are valid criticisms, particularly the branding of the institution. By naming the joint “the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Wenner and his co-founders entered into a sort of unwritten agreement with the public: Behind these doors you will find the innovators and legends of rock and roll. To enter that hall and see anything else is confusing in exactly the same way that visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown only to find a Muhammad Ali exhibit would be confusing. Ali was The Greatest. An Ali fight was a worldwide event; heck, an Ali anything was a worldwide event, but he wasn’t a baseball player.
These are roughly the expectations that visitors of any hall of fame have: I will learn about the innovators, record holders, and legends of this museum’s area of interest. Give them anything else and they’re bound to be a little disappointed, maybe even a lot. So let’s keep those benchmarks in mind as we walk through the list of this year’s list of inductees:
1) The Zombies
The Zombies were a cool band with a unique sound, and as an original British Invasion band they were contemporaries of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and The Kinks. That being said, the Zombies only scored three top 40 hits, all of which broke into the top 10. They might not be as influential as their British Invasion peers, but they are certainly a part of that story, just like Hall of Fame pitcher Herb Pennock is part of the 1927 Yankees’ story. Overall, not a bad call by the Hall.
2) Roxy Music
Without Roxy Music I don’t know what the New Wave/Post-Punk/New Romantic/Art Rock genres might look and sound like, or if they would even exist. They brought a style and a coolness to FM radio that their glam rock peers lacked. On the other hand, much of Roxy’s music was simply too sophisticated for the label “rock and roll.” Roxy Music in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a bit like putting Michael Jordan in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Sure, he played some baseball, but is that really where Jordan made his mark?
As a fan, I’m glad to see the band get a little recognition and they certainly pass the “innovators” test, but my reaction is mixed on this one.
3) Stevie Nicks
Love it or hate it, Stevie Nicks’s voice is one of the most distinctive of the rock and roll era. Along with partner Lindsey Buckingham, the singer saved Fleetwood Mac from obscurity after the Bob Welch years. There is no ’70s rock radio without Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors.
But this isn’t about Fleetwood Mac, but rather Stevie Nicks the solo artist. The singer racked up ten top 40 singles during the ’80s, including collaborations with Tom Petty, Don Henley, and Prince. And while none of Nicks’s solo work pushed the rock and roll football farther down the field, I suspect that her mere presence exerted tremendous influence upon a generation of female performers. As Nicks’s ’80s wound down, the Lilith Fair and Riot Grrrl ’90s revved up–that’s no coincidence.
Would the gypsy gold dust woman have worked the same magic on those young women without the solo career? We’ll never know, but I suspect that her one induction with Fleetwood Mac is probably enough.
4) Def Leppard
And hey, speaking of the ’80s what would they be without Union Jack muscle tees? For two albums, Def Leppard was huge in a way that bands will never be again. The band and their superstar producer, Mutt Lange, contrived to make Hysteria a sort of rock and roll Thriller–an album of hit singles, no filler. It was slick and perfect and, well, the last straw for fans who came on board when the band was just a bunch of New Wave of British Heavy Metal upstarts.
I can think of no good reason to honor Def Leppard with a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame other than that they were ubiquitous during the MTV era and old farts will watch the HBO special to see them perform. Maybe that’s enough, I don’t know.
5) Janet Jackson
Much like Roxy Music, Janet Jackson presents the “name of the institution” problem. No other 2019 inductee comes close to Jackson’s commercial success, nor are they as much a part of the pop culture zeitgeist. “Wardrobe malfunction,” “Miss Jackson if you’re nasty,” even her turn as Penny on Good Times is sort of a part of the pop culture lexicon. Jackson deserves to be recognized, but by no definition is her music rock and roll.
It will never happen because the brand name is too valuable, but the solution is simple: Change the name of the institution to The Music Hall of Fame, or the Popular Music Hall of Fame. It’s what it is anyway, so why confuse consumers?
6) The Cure
If the Hall needs to pick a poster band to represent post-punk and goth the Cure is probably their safest bet. The band was unquestionably influential not just on young musicians but on a couple of generations of mopey kids wearing too much eyeliner. While all of the other kids were sporting their Def Leppard painter caps and muscle tees, I was hiding in my bedroom and spinning The Cure’s The Top.
Much like Stevie Nicks, regardless of whether you like Robert Smith’s voice there’s no arguing that it’s distinctive. And much like Roxy Music, one can argue whether the noise that the Cure makes constitutes rock and roll. I’m biased, but their inclusion in the Hall seems fair to me.
Their fans are loyal and their artistic vision uncompromising. If Radiohead weren’t the first band to try the “pay what you want” model, they were the first well known band to do so. It all adds up to “this is a good call by the Hall,” but honestly it feels premature. Such accolades belong toward the ends of careers for a couple of reasons: we don’t have enough critical distance yet to assess the band’s body of work, and that body of work is hardly complete. While I don’t object to Radiohead’s induction, it feels too early to me.
There they are, the seven final inductees. Overall it’s a mediocre bunch that will look great on television, but consider some of the solid nominees that didn’t make the cut. Devo brought post-punk to the American masses. The MC5 are arguably the first metal band or the first punk band, take your pick. Nobody ever did rap-rock with a social agenda better than Rage Against the Machine–those guys were pretty much a genre unto themselves. Todd Rundgren? If rock and roll has an unsung employee of the month, it’s Todd Rundgren. That man has contributed more to rock and roll as performer, producer, and songwriter than anyone mentioned above. I can’t even wrap my brain around what popular music today would sound like without Kraftwerk’s accessible Krautrock.
With exception maybe to Rage Against the Machine, those artists aren’t going to draw ratings like Def Leppard, Janet, Stevie, and Radiohead will. That’s what it’s all about, I guess, so congratulations to this year’s inductees. I look forward to visiting your displays at the Boxing Hall of Fame.