In Part One of this series, I ran through my cursory thoughts on the ballot for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s class of 2015. There were fifteen artists on it, and a collection of rock music journalists, record executives, businessmen, and, of course, all living inductees, will soon receive their ballots. Some will post their choices on instagram. Most will keep their ballots secret. But collectively, they will have an opportunity to vote for the inductees who will be formally enshrined in the spring of the coming year. In this second and final segment, I will run down the 15 nominees, detailing my personal preferences (e.g. how much I like ’em), their worthiness of induction, and their likelihood of induction. These are just my own opinions- I hope they are informed opinions, but it is hard for any music fan to check his or her inclinations and preferences at the door. In doing it this way, I am borrowing quite a bit from Philip over at Rock Hall Monitors. I’m sure he will post his own rundown soon, so be sure to check it out.
Let me also say that in spite of any forthcoming snark, this isn’t a bad ballot, and I think all but Paul Butterfield, The Marvelettes, and Lou Reed deserve to be inducted sooner or later. If history is our guide, though, only five or six will, though, so let’s look at who is probably going to Cleveland this year. Going in alphabetical order, using last names when possible:
Paul Butterfield Blues Band: (Personal Rank: 9, Worthiness: 15, Likelihood: 15)
I don’t have any quarrel with the PBBB. Really, I don’t. But by now, they’ve become Exhibit A in Rock Hall cronyism. They would not enter into any serious consideration if an influential board member did not really like them- in this case, Jann Werner. Yes, they played Woodstock. Yes, they were at Monterrey. Sure, they are a competent and uniquely multi-racial blues combo. But if they didn’t really innovate and they didn’t really resonate with the wider public, I don’t think their musical proficiency is enough to carry them through. There is also no way they will be inducted this year; if a blues artist is getting in, its SRV. I rank them dead last in both worthiness and likelihood.
Chic: (Personal Rank: 8, Worthiness: 6, Likelihood: 8)
These disco mavens have now been nominated nine times. Only one artist- Solomon Burke- has been nominated more often. When I first started tentatively following the Rock Hall a few years ago, I dismissed Chic as a joke candidate, the Harold Stassen of rock and roll, if you’ll pardon a political reference. They wore me down. Disco created a vibrant, safe space for two historically disadvantaged communities, urban blacks and gay men, and the anti-disco crowd has always seemed to have a vague George Wallace air of menace to it. I now see Chic as legitimate, worthy candidates, masters of disco production, and one of the most sampled groups of all time. What I don’t see is how they can get in this year when they couldn’t last year. In October, 2013, I’ll remind you, Nile Rodgers-produced “Get Lucky” was riding high on the charts. One year later, Rodgers has a couple more Grammy awards, but other than that, their situation is unchanged. Maybe Chic will succeed with a less competitive slate of nominees this year, maybe voters will just say ‘to hell with it’, vote them in, and spare us another decade of Chic clogging valuable space on the ballot. On the other hand, public support for a Chic nomination is tanking: they are dead last in the Rock Hall’s fan poll, earning less than 1% of the vote. Public support, though, doesn’t necessarily correlate to the preferences of those who receive ballots. My spider-sense tells me they are right on the cusp. It could go either way.
Green Day (Personal Rank: 6, Worthiness: 3, Likelihood: 1)
It will be shocking in the extreme if Green Day doesn’t get in. Having been in middle-school in the 90s, I was there at exactly the right time to watch their impact. I don’t think it is an understatement to call them a generation-defining group, one that uniquely spoke to suburban angst, and, initially their pop-punk approach brilliantly turned punk’s revolutionary DIY ethos inward. In 2004, they came full circle and made an overtly political statement disguised as a rock opera, American Idiot, that lampooned the war effort when it was still borderline-dangerous for a mainstream artist to do so. (Let’s contrast this with Neil Young, a shockingly opportunistic artist who made plenty of money off of ‘Let’s Roll’ when America was hungry for Taliban blood, and then turned around in 2006 with ‘Living With War’, criticizing Bush and our engagement in the Middle East when the public had already decisively turned against him and it.) There are legitimate arguments for holding off a Green Day induction; some say 2015 seems way, way too early for a band with thrived in the late 90s and early 2000s. But nobody spoke to the disillusionment and cynicism of their times better than they.
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (Personal Rank: 11, Worthiness: 10, Likelihood: 7)
Joan Jett is quickly on her way to becoming a perennial candidate. She’s got her best chance yet this year, with only one other entirely-female artist, The Marvelettes, on the docket. Happily for Jett, the most recent mental image we have of her is of her deputizing for the late Kurt Cobain and singing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and playing its iconic guitar intro. Arguably, she might also be the most “rock and roll” candidate on this list, a vague characterization to be sure, but I don’t see how anybody can challenge it. She simply plays a brand of rock that cannot be hyphenated. Add her status as an icon of kick-ass, rock-and-roll feminism and godmother to the riot grlls, and Jett could take off this year. I’m still cleaving to an attitude toward the Blackhearts as “a bar band made good”, a lucky outfit that paid its dues, and I haven’t heard a convincing argument that Pat Benatar isn’t better. But the Hall could certainly do worse than Joan Jett. One of my students in Singapore was shocked when he heard that she wasn’t inducted yet- and who am I to argue?
Kraftwerk (Personal Rank: 7, Worthiness: 1, Likelihood: 12)
If you were asked ‘which body of music is under-represented in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’, you would probably say ‘prog’ or ‘metal’, right? Nope. It’s the massive, massive body of music by people who do not record in English. Enter our synthetic Germanic overlords, Kraftwerk. Ordinarily, you must understand, I can’t stand it when an artist is acclaimed to have “influence” but has no radio presence today on Oldies or Classic Rock radio, and no real hits to their name- if you didn’t resonate with the public at the time your music came out, how good can you be, really? I’m making an epochal exception for Kraftwerk. Their work with manipulating synthesizers to make all manners of sounds, create all manners of atmosphere, set the table for new wave, electronica, and, for that matter, any music that uses synthesizers today. The website Not in the Hall of Fame ranks them as the second most worthy artist who isn’t in yet (Deep Purple is #1.) They’ve been nominated before, and will probably be nominated again, because this likely won’t be their year- a quintessential love ’em or hate ’em artist, but a little weird and out there for some voters.
The Marvelettes (Personal Rank: 10, Worthiness: 14, Likelihood: 10)
Marvelettes fans will ask you: who was the first Motown act to have a #1 hit? That’s not a legacy. That’s the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question. They had one major hit, a handful of minor hits, and quickly got plowed over by a Diana Ross-driven steamroller, and were subsequently trampled by the high heels of Aretha, Dusty, Gladys, Ronnie Ronette, and Martha. It’s hard to make a case for them when commercially and artistically, every one of their latter-day rivals endured, thrived, and aged better than they. If they demonstrably influenced them to a greater degree, I’d be less of an ass about it, but every worthy Motown act has been in for years, with the possible exception of Mary Wells. I still think they have an outside chance of getting voted in, though. The lack of women this year helps. But- let’s say you are Smokey Robinson, heating one of the microwavable soul-food canisters bearing your name and image in your kitchen, and the titular postman slides this year’s Rock Hall ballot under your door. Who do you vote for? Easy- The Marvelettes and four other artists. I’d imagine, old rivalries aside, most of the surviving Motown and doo-wop artists will do the same. Now, imagine you are Paul McCartney, or the Dave Clark Five’s bassist, or The Hollies’ drummer or something, and you get the ballot. Chances are, you remember the 60s girl groups fondly, and in a fit of nostalgia, check the box next to their name. This adds up to a pretty sizable number of votes, right?
Nine Inch Nails (Personal Rank: 15, Worthiness: 5, Likelihood: 4)
We could end up in a scenario where a ‘band’ is inducted with only one member: multi-instrumentalist Trent Reznor. Reznor’s role in fostering the genre of industrial music makes him a pioneer in the field- it just happens to be a field I do not like very much, and would not listen to if other options were available. Anyway- inventive, experimental, and yet enjoying a sizable fan base– Nine Inch Nails is the sort of act that is high on influence and visibility within the music industry, but it didn’t necessarily resonate outside of its fan base. Still, Nine Inch Nails has two things going for it: they are at this time leading in the Rock Hall’s fan poll, and since they inaugurated the poll two years ago, its winner has heretofore always gotten in. The second factor is good television: Reznor is a Northeast Ohio boy, and given that the ceremonies are in Cleveland this year, the hometown crowd will be in his corner.
NWA (Personal Rank: 13, Worthiness: 2, Likelihood: 3)
For the third year in a row, NWA is nominated. I think this is finally their year, for a number of reasons. Questlove openly boasted something along the lines of “Next year it’ll be NWA on stage,” during last year’s induction ceremony. More substantively, the Nom Com cleared the deck of not only any other rap groups, but any hip-hop either, avoiding scenarios where they split votes with Public Enemy in 2013 and L.L. Cool J in 2014. For better or worse, though, the fate of rap groups is tied to the current news cycle. Last year, “The Accidental Racist” torpedoed Cool J’s chances (while also giving me a great example to draw from when I teach about false equivalences in my history seminars.) This year, the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri has given NWA new relevance, as this article at The Daily Beast aptly demonstrates. “F— The Police” will be a powerful sentiment after Michael Brown’s death, and one that I suspect Rock Hall voters who are not at all inclined to side with the police will follow.
Lou Reed (Personal Rank: 12, Worthiness: 13, Likelihood: 5)
Many of the less informed voices in the community lambasted the Nom Com for only nominating Lou Reed after he was dead. Dudes, they nominated him twice while he was alive- it you have a bone to pick, its with the body of Rock Hall voters! Reed is probably going to be the annual headache the Rock Hall gives me, where they induct an artist I loath (see KISS in 2014, and Rush in 2013). I find Reed’s music drugged up, wildly inconsistent, and credible only because of stores of adoration he hoarded by hanging out with Andy Warhol back in the 60s. He’s the quintessential ‘right-place, right-time’ guy, and his surly attitude and propensity for making enemies do not redound well on one of the luckiest men of the 1960s and 70s. He’ll probably get in, since death or severe illness often tips the balance, but I don’t have to like it.
The Smiths (Personal Rank: 14, Worthiness: 7, Likelihood: 11)
One recent take on the Rock Hall put it best: “The Smiths remain shorthand for ‘I was a teenage outcast’.” I gave them a good listen in preparation for writing this post, and I do not like them any more than I did before– too mopey for my tastes, although I appreciate their significance. My opinion, though, has no bearing on their likelihood: their name generated some buzz and some enthusiasm amid the lackluster 3rd and 4th nominations of most people on this list, and Morrissey’s skill as a lyricist for Generation X is formidable. While I think they should, and they will, be inducted eventually, I am bearish about their chances this year. Few artists with their profile have gotten in on their first try- other “lead-up to alternative music” choices like The Replacements and The Cure similarly fell short in recent years.
The Spinners (Personal Rank: 2, Worthiness: 11, Likelihood: 13)
Last year, Daryl Hall, in his induction speech, gave the camera a steely glance and dared the Rock Hall to nominate more Philly-born-and-bred artists. They didn’t this year. But instead, they selected a museum-grade specimen of Philly soul, an under-appreciated genre, although The Spinners, in fact, hail from Detroit. But with immaculate Thom Bell production and swooping strings complementing their native vocal talent and harmonies, it makes one hope they will join their almost-contemporaries The O’Jays in the hall. They are one of Tom Lane’s favorites, and you know what? I like ’em, too! They had a small armada of hits in the mid-70s, an era that chewed up soul groups like they were late 50s doo-wop groups- but on the crucial matter of influence and impact, they fall short. Who was trying to be The Spinners in the 1980s? The Commodores? I don’t think they’ll meet much success this year because, again, there’s too many other 70s R&B guys up against them, although each is in his own sub-genre.
Sting (Personal Rank: 4, Worthiness: 12, Likelihood: 9)
My lack of enthusiasm for this year’s ballot was reinforced when I realized that Sting was my 4th favorite artist nominated this year. I was surprised to see Sting get a nod this year. It seems way, way too soon. Another artist who broke off from a band and embarked on a lucrative career- Peter Gabriel- only got in last year. So how does Sting, who also dabbled in world music, but wasn’t nearly so innovative, creative, or visionary- and I think even most Sting fans would agree- follow so closely on his heels? It’s not like Sting’s career is a travesty or anything, but it looks like he got nominated because of his prolific visibility and connections in the industry- and he is, by far, the most famous person up for a vote this year. It isn’t impossible that Sting has had his photo taken with half of the people who will be voting on him, and those personal touches may put him over the top. One awkward moment at the induction ceremony could be NWA performing “F—the Police” with a former member of The Police on stage.
Stevie Ray Vaughan (Personal Rank: 3, Worthiness: 4, Likelihood: 2)
Even people who were ambivalent about the Rock Hall let out a tiny squeal when they saw that SRV was nominated, after being eligible for several years. As one of the last truly top-shelf guitar icons, he deserves it. He presided over a 1980s blues revival, and his untimely death and ethereal skill make him, by far, the coolest choice on this list. It’s hard to think of very many people who can’t find space on their ballot this year for Stevie Ray; certainly Cat Stevens (now a voter, having been inducted earlier this year), undoubtedly among many others, have voiced their support. He is currently second on the Rock Hall’s fan poll, and has probably benefited from significantly less ballot-stuffing than Nine Inch Nails.
War (Personal Rank: 5, Worthiness: 9, Likelihood: 14)
The Nom Com seems to like War- and you know what? I don’t blame them. They created a cool, vibrant sound that originally owed much to the drowned out psychedelia of their collaborator Eric Burdon, but soon found its own funk way that effortlessly alternated between fun (“Why Can’t We Be Friends”) and socially conscious (The entire The World is a Ghetto album). After NWA, they are probably the most urban artist on here. I wish them well, but I am pessimistic about their chances. What did the Nom Com think would happen when they put four different R&B influenced 70s artists on the ballot- they are going to cancel each other out! Neither as earnest as Bill Withers, as important to their genre as Chic, nor as commercially successful as The Spinners, War is probably the seventh or eighth favorite artist of most voters, and when you only get to vote for five, it is tough to see a way to Cleveland for them this year.
Bill Withers (Personal Rank: 1, Worthiness: 8, Likelihood: 6)
I made a longshot prediction that Bill Withers would be nominated this year, and I was delighted to see that it happened. There’s a case to be made against Bill- his career didn’t last very long and petered out during the late 70s. The case for him, though, is significantly stronger. If you write five or six songs that speak deeply to the human experience, have universal appeal, and aged better than almost any other piece of music from that era, I think that is a remarkable gift. When I listen to “Lean On Me”, I start believing in a universal subconscious; Withers tapped into something deep in all of us, and on intangibles like ‘how many people were encouraged by this song’ or ‘how many people had their sense of loss articulated perfectly by ‘Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone’? On the strength of “Lean On Me”, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Lovely Day”, “Just the Two of Us”, and “Grandma’s Hands”, and how well they convey the human experience, I say we need to induct Bill. And the odds are in his favor– the voters love putting singer-songwriters in (Cat, Laura Nyro, Neil Diamond, Tom Waits, Randy Newman), and Withers is the purest singer-songwriter among the nominees.
Let’s wrap this thing up. In terms of who I predict will be inducted, I’d bet the farm on Green Day and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and I’m pretty confident about Lou Reed, NWA and Nine Inch Nails. Assuming they pick six artists again, though, that sixth spot is wide open in my opinion. I can see it going 6 or 7 different ways. Nostalgia may work for the Marvelettes, raw fame and personal contacts for Sting, the Hall’s history of inducting singer-songwriters may pan out for Bill Withers, Jett’s rock and roll feminism may succeed in a ballot lacking in guitar heroes, capitulation and weariness may work for Chic, and The Smiths’ critical accolades and importance to Gen Xers make them a strong contender as well. As a historian, I have to use the past as a guide, and the way the inductees have fallen the last few years, it’s the singer-songwriter’s to lose, so the sixth spot on my prediction list is Bill Withers, although I also think Joan Jett is the next most likely contender after he.
If I had a ballot, I’d be required to vote for exactly five artists, so mixing their historical and musical merits with my own personal preferences, my votes would be for Green Day, NWA, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Kraftwerk, and Bill Withers. (If I could have a sixth vote, it would easily be the Spinners, with War seventh. And if I had a hammer, I’d smash patriarchy.)