Well, it finally happened. After nearly 20 years of complaining that Chicago was not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a habit that has dated back to high school, they were voted in as one of the five members of the Class of 2016. The other four inductees are N.W.A., Cheap Trick, Deep Purple, and Steve Miller. As of this writing, we do not know who, if anyone, will be chosen for categories aside from artists; there were no non-performers or Musical Excellence choices as of yet.
My first impression is that each of the five inductees is more than deserving on their own merits. But when taken together, you have a weirdly monochrome class, with 4 classic rock mainstays who peaked in the 70s, and an almost comically incongruous N.W.A. R&B was shamefully given the shaft this year by the voters. Voters had a feast to choose from: The JBs, Chic, Chaka Khan, Janet, and the Spinners. And nobody got enough. And it’s not like they “took votes away from one another” because clearly, the four classic rock acts didn’t “take votes away from one another” either. No women in this year’s class either. Hrmmph.
This brings us to a bigger problem the Rock Hall will need to address: it’s lack of diversity as of late. Let’s look at the last three classes of artists, as an example- just artists, not Musical Excellence or Early Influence or anything like that. That’s a total of 17 musicians: Nirvana, KISS, Peter Gabriel, Cat Stevens, Linda Ronstadt, Hall & Oates, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Lou Reed, Bill Withers, Green Day, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, Chicago, Cheap Trick, Steve Miller, N.W.A., and Deep Purple. Out of these last three classes, we’ve had only two female artists (Ronstadt and Jett), 2.5 black artists (Withers, N.W.A. and multi-racial PBBB), and only three non-Americans (all Brits- Gabriel, Stevens, and Deep Purple.) So- a sizable number of these acts are white, male, and American: 9.5 out of 17, in fact (the .5 is the other half of PBBB). This is especially a problem because it is probably a reflection of the voting committee’s makeup to some extent or another: privilege conferring privilege. When great female artists like Whitney, Janet, Mariah, Nina, Carole, and Dionne; great black artists like The Spinners, Chic, and Big Mama Thornton; and great non-Americans like Yes, Peter Tosh, The Cure, and the Kraftwerk are on the outside looking in, it may be necessary to reboot the system.
To that extent, the acts that do get in seem to be heavily focused on nostalgia rather than historical importance. That is, if you meant something to late Baby Boomers/early Gen X’ers, you have an abnormally high chance of induction. Think of people who were moved by “Lean On Me”, which helped Withers, the affection for Cat Stevens’ troubadour-ish 70s records, and the deep catalogs of Chicago and Steve Miller, which work equally well in classic rock or soft rock radio formats to remain embedded in the public mindset. This tends to penalize 80s and 90s acts (The Smiths should have gotten more love this year), and experimental acts that don’t resonate on a deep level with the wider public. That may be one reason why acts like Nine Inch Nails, Kraftwerk, and Yes keep getting passed over- they only really and truly move a small number of fans. Even if you understand the case for their induction on an intellectual level, the personal ties aren’t always there to check off the box if you have to limit your ballot to five picks.
In the end, I correctly predicted four out of the five: Cheap Trick, Chicago, Steve Miller, and N.W.A. My only mistake was Janet instead of Deep Purple. This brings me to my next point: how could Janet not get in? She was one of the most impactful and successful artists on the ballot, and it seems like biases against R&B and unfounded questions of her artistic merit got in the way. That’s terrible. I hope she’s nominated again next year. (And I suspect next year’s ballot will pull away from Classic Rock, after the genre got its veritable wish list in this year.)
Last year’s ceremony was blissfully free from drama of the “will they show up or won’t they” variety. Two inductees were dead, another (Paul Butterfield Blues Band) had several key members pass away, Green Day’s lineup has always been stable, and the Blackhearts were an afterthought to Joan Jett. This time, there are more complex questions of who to induct, particularly with Deep Purple (with an amorphous lineup and lots of bad blood between the members) and Chicago. As a longtime fan, I am eager for a reunion with Peter Cetera and Danny Seraphine- and the induction ceremony is likely the only chance for this. On the other hand, I feel bad for Bill Champlin and Jason Scheff, who were each in the band for 25+ years and sang lead on multiple top 10 hits. Scheff will probably perform with the band (since Cetera hasn’t touched a bass guitar in ages) but Champlin probably won’t even be invited. That’s a shame. But I also realize that the Hall has to cap things somewhere: the last few ceremonies were marred by random Blackhearts and E-Street Band members hogging the podium. Also, Cheap Trick has issues with its estranged drummer, Bun E. Carlos. N.W.A., of all people, should be the least problematic, though someone may deputize for the late Eazy-E. And Steve Miller was inducted by his lonesome, without his eponymous band- again, ostensibly to cut down the ceremony’s running time.
I also want to make a major announcement here: my next big project on the Northumbrian Countdown is my analysis of the 100 greatest prospects/snubs for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I hope that my readers, especially those from Future Rock Legends, will take interest. In the next week or so, I’ll start the countdown, which will include any artists eligible up to the class of 2016. I wanted to see who would get in this year’s class before I began.
So- lots of good acts got in this year, but the genres were unbalanced and unrepresentative. R&B is an essential part of rock’s family tree, and acts from this branch are neglected only at great peril to the Rock Hall’s historical credibility. As a longtime Chicago fan, though, this is a great day that has been a very long time coming.
To conclude, here are my ideas for who gets to give the induction speech for each artist:
N.W.A.: Questlove. He did a great job for Hall and Oates, and his calm temperament and deep historical knowledge makes him perfectly positioned to explain why N.W.A. mattered at the time and revolutionized late 20th century music to win over skeptics and haters.
Steve Miller: Chrissie Hynde. Essentially, the two are cut from the same cynical, ball-busting cloth, and Hynde recently covered “The Joker” with Jason Mraz.
Deep Purple: Alice Cooper. Classy, gregarious, and a sharp contemporary to Deep Purple’s groundbreaking work in hard rock.
Cheap Trick: Billy Corgan. Corgan is a major fan, and it would send us Rock Hall watchers into a “wait, does this mean Smashing Pumpkins will be nominated next year” tizzy.
Chicago: Philip Bailey and Verdine White. This is just too sensible to ignore. Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire like and respect each other enough to have toured together several times. They can curtail Chicago’s achilles’ heel (its white bread reputation) and putting the two of them on stage can counteract the disturbing lack of R&B at this year’s ceremony.