From Whitney Houston to the Doobie Brothers, the Rock Hall of Fame Takes a Populist Turn

For better or worse, the nominating committee seems to be agreeing with rank-and-file rock fans that elitism is a dirty word.

Whitney Houston Pat Simmons Doobie Brothers

People’s hall, or elitists’ hall? It’s hard for any institution to be both, and with this year’s nominations, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is making a stand: Rock is a populist artform, not a medium for critics’ favorites alone. Because “elite” is as dirty a word with most rock fans as it is with most heartland conservatives, even if it’s a term that accurately conveys the crème de la crème that most halls of fame are founded to honor.

So now that nearly every eligible and unassailably obvious-to-all-camps has been inducted, the Rock Hall nominating committee has been facing some tougher choices. Do you move on to the best of the post-grunge era that’s now coming up for eligibility for the first time — which you could really describe, in some ways, as the best of the post-rock era? Or do you go back to a more distant time and clean up the leftovers, obscurities and eccentrics from the critical canon? Or do you look at the kinds of tourists a hall of fame is meant to attract and go, “Gee, would it be a sin if we let in some of the acts that these people remember most fondly from their youths that never made the top 50 in a Village Voice critics’ poll but happened to sell tens of millions of records?”

Now that Jann Wenner is no longer the spiritual captain helming this ship, it’s as if the Rock Hall looked beyond the canon of Rolling Stone-approved artists, had a eureka moment about some of the multi-platinum deplorables of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, and declared:

Let there be Doobies.

The Brothers D stand out as perhaps the previously most unthinkable contenders on this year’s shortlist, beloved of few critics and many summer amphitheater habitués of a certain age. Forty-five-year mustaches, like mullets, are no longer an offensive bar to entry, but something to enthusiastically and unironically embrace. Think of the makers of “Black Water” as being like Blackwater, a mercenary force slipping in as the once-watchful gatekeepers let down their guard.

Pat Benatar is also in this year’s crop, suggesting that the Hall is now even more friendly to AOR acts (to cite the bygone album-oriented FM rock format of the ‘70s and ‘80s) than AOTY (Grammy album of the year) artists. It’s always good to see the Hall recognizing pioneering rock women — but is it good to see them putting Benatar up for the honor before, say, an all-female group like the Go-Go’s, Bangles or Runaways? Maybe not, but if there is one thing that is going to be consistent about the Hall in both the Wenner and post-Wenner eras, it may turn out to be its eternal anti-west-coast bias. Belinda who? Exene what? But oh, you have a New York passport? You belong, indeed!

Whitney Houston, as a pick, runs the fine line between fan servicing and fan trolling — destined to get a “F—, yeah!” in spirit from the kind of pop fans who would never actually say “F—, yeah!” and an “Oh, hell no” from the rockists who have traditionally taken offense at the inductions of Donna Summer and ABBA. It is possible to have been in favor of those last two artists and make the argument that they embody the spirit, if not the sound, of rock, and then still think that Houston feels like a bridge too far away from what the R-word represents. But critics may be the first to step up and defend the nominating committee’s wisdom on this one. It will provide an opportunity for a certain kind of intelligentsia to side with the Top 40-loving masses against a muddled middle defending tired rock orthodoxy. It will be talked about — and is kind of a brilliant stroke, whether or not it makes sense. And while some of the same could be said for the nod to the Notorious B.I.G., fewer would dispute that he was a rock star in everything but genre.

Judas Priest, meet meat; Motorhead, meet potatoes. It’s hard to remember, at this late date, that there was a time when nominating a Def Leppard seemed like a risky sop to hard-rock commerciality. Now, “open up and Lemmy in” seems like the most natural thing in the world. If influence is truly a key factor, they probably should have been first-balloted a long time ago, however sullying they might seem to whatever remnants of the elite are still out there asking, “Where the eff is Nilsson?”

Soundgarden and the Dave Matthews Band? These are almost the last two of the genuine real rock stars to come along in this or any remaining lifetime, so… of course. Who’s left to fill in now that the eligibility period is about to creep into the 21st century, who counts as a superstar seat-filler? Coldplay? (That was a rhetorical question. Yes: Coldplay.) The ‘90s must have their due, letting Hall of Fame visitors think back fondly on the last days before indie was everything, or nothing, depending on your point of view.

Equally indisputable in this context are the three T’s: T. Rex, Thin Lizzy and Todd Rundgren. That doesn’t mean they’ll win, but as ‘70s heavyweights, they carry the “Well, of course” load, with contributions to rock history that are indisputable… whatever that counts for at a time when there is more of a need to rustle up controversy or address topicality to get those HBO eyes and sell airline tickets to Cleveland.

That leaves the if-at-first-you-don’t-succeeds, the ones the nominating committee is going to get in if it takes 50 tries, and it might. Or maybe the sixth attempt is the charm for a couple of acts? This is Chaka Khan’s sixth turn at being nominated, with or without Rufus (it’s unclear why some years she is put up to bat with that group and sometimes as a solo artist). It’s also Kraftwerk’s sixth run in just eight years. It’s the MC5’s fifth nomination, Nine Inch Nails’ and Depeche Mode’s third, and the second for Rundgren and Judas Priest.

But as much as someone is determined to get all these acts in, they may well end up bridesmaids again, because the Hall is dependent on the shock of the new — or the newly eligible — to get eyeballs. Certainly there is a decreasing desire to go back and mop up acts from the ‘50s and ‘60s who never got their shot, which leaves the MC5 as the sole real pre-‘70s nominee this time around (unless you’re counting something like Rundgren’s nascent time in the Nazz as a contributing factor to his solo nomination).

It’s less and less likely by the year, if ever there were a chance, that someone like Chubby Checker or the Monkees might get a nomination, however deserving. Too bad for them, because you could argue that by the populist standards seen in this year’s crop, they’d totally qualify. Acts of their generation and/or more pop-leaning inclination got grandfathered out just before coolness as an absolute qualifier did, too.