At 8:00 on Tuesday morning, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced their Class of 2017, which will be formally inducted in a ceremony in Brooklyn in April. The ballot for this class was immensely competitive and stylistically diverse, ranging from punk, alternative, disco, and electronic. In the end, however, the class was:
- Pearl Jam
- Electric Light Orchestra
- Joan Baez
- Nile Rodgers (Musical Excellence Award)
What do I think? It’s a very good, but not quite great, class. It avoided being all-male–barely. And it avoided being all-white:–again, barely. There’s greater stylistic breadth than last time, and all six performer inductees are more than deserving. Pearl Jam and 2pac are both iconic 90s artists and profoundly influential in ways that reached beyond their genres. The other four artists were all easily in the top 50 of my 100 Greatest Rock Prospects project from earlier this year. Yes was highest at #10, then Journey at #14, Baez at #29, and ELO at #46. (Pearl Jam and 2pac weren’t eligible at the time I made my list, but if they were, they probably would have been somewhere in the top 15.) Yes scratches the Prog Rock itch, Journey and ELO are fun, populist guilty pleasures only a curmudgeon could object to, and Baez was a critical part of introducing social consciousness into midcentury popular music. The massive and financially lucrative classic rocker crowd will be pleased, while critics can delight in the sustained artistic excellence of the others.
But lots of great artists on the ballot didn’t make it. My four-year trend of having my favorite artist on the ballot inducted ended when The Zombies fell short. Kraftwerk and Janet Jackson are respectively my 2nd and 3rd greatest Rock Hall Prospects, and neither made it. And there was an absence of a truly surprising inductee, like Miller or Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Many Rock Hall watchers-myself included- got four or five of their predictions correct. (I got all five right, but flubbed my “if there’s six” pick, eschewing Yes for alternately Janet and Chic.) As usual, out-of-mainstream acts like MC5, Bad Brains, and even Jane’s Addiction were left out in the cold.
But by far the most controversial news bite was inducting Rodgers under Musical Excellence without the rest of Chic. Now, I’ve advocated for this in the past- so I’m hardly blameless- but now that it’s happened, it’s disappointing, especially now that I’ve come to better appreciate the band’s ensemble sound. It was clear by now, however, that the voters just weren’t going to bite, no matter how many times Chic was nominated. Rodgers, in an interview with Rolling Stone, is trying to be gracious, but I can’t imagine how hurt he must feel to see his bandmates- most of whom he’s outlived- passed over. I guess it’s better than having nobody from Chic in, but there’s no doubt that the 900+ members of the voting committee collectively screwed up. Again.
Which brings me to my larger gripe about what is, I reiterate, a pretty good class. By this, I mean the lack of R&B. Let’s put it this way: the last four classes had exactly one black R&B artist inducted: Bill Withers. And the last four classes had upwards of a dozen 70s/80s classic rockers, depending on the breadth of your definition of classic rock. Certainly Chicago, KISS, Deep Purple, Cheap Trick, Steve Miller, Peter Gabriel, Hall & Oates, Yes, Journey, and ELO, but maybe Cat, Joan Jett, Lou Reed, Linda Ronstadt, and Stevie Ray as well. And that’s fine- pound for pound, every one of those artists deserves to be enshrined. Yet, we’re exhausting the list of 70s classic rockers who really need to be there. After The Moodies, Dire Straits, The Cars, and a few others, we are close to exhausting that decade’s B-list and moving into the C-list.
But in those same four years, voters have passed over Chic, The Spinners, Joe Tex, Janet Jackson, Chaka Khan, War, The JBs, and The Meters. Worse, this contributes to what some have already identified as a self-perpetuating problem: baby boomers inclined toward the 60s and 70s inducting bands from that era who in turn become voting members, who in turn become inclined toward their fellow 60s and 70s acts. Only two black men- ‘Pac and Nile Rodgers- got in this year, and the former is in no condition to vote!
Even worse, we haven’t had a woman of color get in during the last three classes (Ronstadt- the last such person in ’13- is partly Hispanic), and no living black woman all the way since Claudette Rogers Robinson got in with the other Miracles in 2012. So- again- this is a good class; every inductee deserves to be there. But the Hall needs to find a way to get over its lack of stylistic diversity as of late. And not just R&B: we need more alternative, EDM, country-rock, punk, and other genres too. The Hall seems to have added many more critics to the voting rolls this year,- including the great Chris Molanphy- but it doesn’t seem to have affected the results all that much. Perhaps adding still more younger voters to a group whose average age rivals that of the College of Cardinals would be a good idea. (By the way, Cleveland- I’m 33, the third-best Rock Hall blogger out there, and a historian of the 1970s. Just sayin’.)
Okay! Having said that, let’s speculate on who will be chosen to induct these artists in April:
- Pearl Jam: Some early buzz circulates around Neil Young. I see the appeal- he was a hero to the grunge movement- but go replay his awful induction speech for McCartney in ’99. Pearl Jam deserves better. Others have suggested David Grohl, and I agree– it would be a fine way to put to rest the bizarre feud between Nirvana and Pearl Jam, a key component of Steven Hyden’s recent book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me.
- 2Pac: The instinct here is to get a rapper- either the obvious Dr. Dre or someone like Nas. One site has a great suggestion- Janet Jackson. It’s counterintuitive, but remember, Jackson starred in Poetic Justice together. It’s rare that a nominee who wasn’t inducted makes a speech for someone who was, but I think Janet is classy enough to do it. And if she does it well, she might grease the skids for her own induction next time around.
- Yes- I agree with the consensus- get Rush’s Geddy Lee to fill in for the late Chris Squire on bass.
- Journey- I have an unusual suggestion: Carlos Santana. He would be a great tribute to the more arty early days of Journey, particularly since a couple founding members such as Gregg Rollie were also inducted as part of Santana many years prior.
- ELO: Tom Petty is a good choice but too obvious. I propose a cross-generational induction: Duane Eddy, who has worked with Jeff Lynne before and connects ELO to rock’s pioneer generation, and Dhani Harrison, who will be returning the favor after Lynne inducted his father.
- Joan Baez: Everybody wants Bob Dylan to do it, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. If Dylan can’t be guaranteed to show up for his own Nobel Prize ceremony, and was AWOL from other major accolades of Baez’s career, he’s not going to go out of his way to participate in a corporate music awards show. He don’t work on Wenner’s farm no more. Instead, they might choose fellow Greenwich Village folkie Peter Yarrow, or even better, The Indigo Girls. They recently toured with Baez, and are her most obvious heirs in terms of merging folk-rock with political advocacy.
- Nile Rodgers: There’s no shortage of great artists that Rodgers has worked with over the years, but I suspect they’ll want at least one current hitmaker, so I’d predict Pharrell Williams.
I’m starting to like this. Imagine a jam with Santana, Nile Rodgers, Steve Howe, Eddy, and, um…Eddie trading guitar licks; Pharrell, Janet, Joan, and Steve Perry on vocals; Jeff Lynne and Rick Wakeman on keyboards; Geddy Lee on bass and Alan White on drums. They might do “Don’t Stop Believing,” followed by “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Little Red Corvette” in tribute to Prince, and closing with an a cappella “We Shall Overcome” led by Baez. Are you feeling chills?
And just for the hell of it, my first-take predictions for #RockHall2018, to be discarded later: Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Beck, Janet Jackson, LL Cool J, New York Dolls, Motorhead, The Spinners, Nine Inch Nails, War, The Cure, Kraftwerk, The Shangri-Las, Nina Simone, Moody Blues, Eurythmics, A Tribe Called Quest, Big Star, and J. Geils Band.