When you were founded back in 1983, there was no question who or what rock ‘n’ roll was — it meant the founding fathers (Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, B.B. King, Bill Haley, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Muddy Waters, etc.) and the generation of bands and artists they spawned (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, The Who, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, etc.).
But some 32 years after that first batch of inductees, with most, if not all, of the genre’s most influential practitioners voted in, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is facing its own midlife crisis. Just as rock originally was a hybrid of pop, blues, jazz, swing, country, R&B, gospel and folk, the music spawned a vast multitude of sub-categories in the half-century since its birth.
This year’s inductees were announced Wednesday (December 13), with Bon Jovi leading the way. I have been a voting member for almost two decades and spent two separate stints on the nomination committee, which holds sway every September over deli sandwiches in the New York offices of Rolling Stone. There, members make cases for their respective nominees in a fascinating combination of aesthetics and, sometimes, self-interest. After the Nominating Committee sets the ballot and it goes out to the 900-odd voters for the final election.
It takes a village — but as the definition of rock expanded over the years, it has become less easy to determine who fits into a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This year’s sprawling ballot is a perfect example of that dilemma: The list ranges from Judas Priest to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Bon Jovi to Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Radiohead to LL Cool J, Kate Bush to the Zombies. It’s not hard to see the inflection point: Rock ‘n’ roll means something completely different from one person to the next.
What’s more, the almost comical hodgepodge of inductees elected over the last few years — including Linda Ronstadt and Kiss (2014), Green Day and Bill Withers (2015), Deep Purple and N.W.A. (2016), Joan Baez and Tupac Shakur (2017) — has made for a patience-testing, all-over-the-place live show that satisfies no one.
There is a solution, though, one that is inclusionary — like all great rock ‘n’ roll — rather than exclusionary, which has been the end result of so many annual inductions in the past. After all, rock music has lasted more than half-a-century by inviting outliers in rather than shutting them out.
The idea is simple: Since so many of the obvious legends of rock and roll have already been inducted, why not honor a different sub-genre every year? For example: Brill Building-era pop, British Invasion, prog/art-rock, early hip-hop, heavy metal, punk, new wave, post-punk psychedelia, disco and dance music, ‘90s alternative, etc.? Each year a specific nominating committee of genre experts could be assembled, and although the corresponding live show would have a more targeted audience, that could be better than the diminishing returns we’ve seen from the ongoing attempts at populism that see, say, N.W.A and Chicago sharing a stage. This would reflect rock music’s increasing atomization over the years, freshen up the process and the show — and most importantly, make thousands of artists, executives and fans who currently feel ignored (or, worse, condescended to) engaged and invested in the show.
How many people who don’t currently tune in would do so for a hip-hop- or heavy-metal-themed year? And for those whose genre isn’t reflected in a given year, the show would also double as an educational overview — which, last time I looked, was a vital part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s mission statement.
One more suggestion: Give the winner of the annual poll conducted on the RRHOF website an automatic induction, allowing the non-elite audience a real stake in seeing their favorites elected. As it stands, the top five finalists in the online poll, no matter how many people participate, gets an artist the equivalent of one vote from the 900-odd members of the voting committee. This will make the wider rock audience feel invested in the show, and give a voice to artists — like the long-looked-down-upon Kiss, Rush and Journey — who for years were dismissed by the electing body.
All I ask in return is for you to consider Suicide — er, the band, not the act — next time you meet over pastrami sandwiches.