Consider it a sign of the times, maybe: In the list of seven artists that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s select industry voters elected into the institution for the class of 2022, there is not a single rock band. That can be taken as a major signifier that the pendulum among the music intelligentsia really has swung all the way from what was coined some years back as “rockism” — the belief that rock ‘n’ roll is inherently superior to other forms of popular music — to the other side of the scale: poptimism.
The MC5? No go, again, this year, despite this being the band’s sixth nomination, the first having come back in 2003. Rage Against the Machine? Unsuccessful in the band’s fourth time in the ballot in just six years. The New York Dolls? Striking out in their third time officially at bat; the group’s first nomination came back in 2001. Devo, too, is now a three-time loser, as of this year’s voting. How about A Tribe Called Quest, a hip-hop group that is a great rock ‘n’ roll band in just about every way but the most literal one? Not them, either.
In on their very first appearance on the ballot, meanwhile? Lionel Richie and Carly Simon, to whom (and this is no value judgment upon them) never a single head has been banged.
That’s not to say there will be no rockers getting their gold when the induction ceremony happens in Los Angeles Nov. 5. Judas Priest will be entering the Rock Hall that night, but not because the band was voted in by the hall’s 1,000-plus industry voters. They’re coming in the side door; when the Hall’s overseers saw that Priest did not make the cut, apparently, they made a move to go around the voters and install them via a “musical excellence” category, the same thing they did when LL Cool J failed to prevail last year. Some may see this as sneaky, but it’s easier to view it as smart thinking. Metal fans have long felt the genre, or subgenre, was subject to bias among Hall voters, with only Metallica, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple having previously gotten in under that umbrella. Putting Priest in by any means necessary puts off the chances of any official or unofficial boycott of the museum in Cleveland by frustrated metalheads.
And there is one figure primarily associated with rock as a form of music who got properly voted in this year, Pat Benatar — a welcome sight for those who’ve long argued that the pioneering women of rock need to be individually as well as collectively given their due. But to find the last and only time that no actual rock band was ushered in by the Hall’s duly appointed general votership, you’d have to go back to 1999… a year that was not exactly underserved with rock, as Bruce Springsteen got in that year (sans the E Street Band) and so did Paul McCartney (after previously getting in with the Beatles, of course). You could press an argument that Duran Duran and Eurythmics count, but they’re really the progenitors of today’s rock-or-not? bands like Maroon 5, Imagine Dragons or OneRepublic, more than anything that’s going to ring the bell of those who want the Hall to at least partly acknowledge a classic-rock tradition.
So the fact that the Hall didn’t put in any bands through the front door this year — after going for the Go-Go’s and Foo Fighters last year, on top of favoring classic rock with Todd Rundgren, or voting in T. Rex, Nine Inch Nails and the Doobies the year before, etc. — raises a host of questions. Is the whole fealty that music fans used to feel for rock as a world-changing group sport outmoded? And is it not just the times that changed, but also the voting membership, with the Hall bringing in folks who are younger and/or more diverse, and thus less beholden to the idea of bands-uber-alles? Or have they just, you know, run out of bands?
Having raised these questions, I should note that I don’t have the knee-jerk response that many do to the gradual diminishment of identifiably “rock” bands in the Rock Hall that many do. I’m a rockist and a poptimist, if that’s possible — and trying and failing to coin a combination of the two that would rival the Beatles’ mod/rockers/mockers solution. I’m probably alone in my immediate friend circle in not having that much issue with very many who’ve been voted into the Hall of Fame so far, whether it’s ABBA or Jay-Z or Nina Simone or Madonna. The day that Taylor Swift gets in, in her first year of eligibility, I’ll be among the first to have teardrops of joy on my guitar. I think it’s freaking fantastic that Dolly Parton is going to go in this fall — agreeing, as I apparently do with the Hall’s keepers, that for these purposes we can see “rock and roll” as more of a spirit, or an era, than something that has to sound like Chuck Berry (which not many contemporary rock artists do, by the way). The more country or R&B or even top 40 fodder, the better, if we can recognize that spiritually it fits.
What feels more “rock and roll,” after all: blowing down definitions, or building a protective fortress? Your answer to that question probably informs a lot about whether you and I and Jack White are going to be friends.
Having said that I favor the rock-as-big-tent philosophy, though… I feel for the rock knee-jerks this year. I can even sense my own leg starting to twitch a little. But it’s not that I want to katy-bar the Cleveland doors against Lionel Richie. It’s just that I’d like to see Richie get in after Devo, or any of a couple dozen other bands I can think of that changed the course of rock ‘n’ roll in small or major ways. Even ones that aren’t to my particular taste but that I or anyone sensible can recognize was a major influence or game-changer. As much as I resist playing the annual game of “[artist A] is in but [artist Z] isn’t?,” it’s not hard to compile a personal list of artists that are in some way crucial to the turns the music has taken, who’ve never even gotten one nomination, let alone five or six failed ones — from Warren Zevon to to the Pixies to Phish to Captain Beefheart to the Monkees to the Runaways to Dick Dale to Sonic Youth to Sparks to X to Ozzy to Oasis to King Crimson to Wu-Tang Clan to Joy Division to Jethro Tull to the Bangles to De La Soul to the soon-retiring B-52s. (Or, to expand the field of the MIA, one-nomination-and-done outfits like Soundgarden, Dave Matthews Band, Bad Brains, Motorhead, the Replacements and Procol Harum.) Some of the aforementioned are bands, some are not; some are rock, some are not; but they all moved the needle in some way and/or made the needle skip a groove with a cutting edge we don’t see enough of in the ’22 lineup.
I admire the Hall’s nominating committee for its continuing doggedness in putting up artists like Rage, the Dolls and the MC5 — and for going the long way around to finally get in acts that they’ve done that with before that have been perpetually rejected, like LL Cool J, Kraftwerk and now Judas Priest. (They’re going to have to find a side door, obviously, for Fela Kuti, too, another frequent nominee that got left behind among this year’s contenders.)
But the general votership, as it now stands, is proving that it will favor the shiny new penny of a pop act that’s appearing on the ballot for a first time over the shaggy dog at the pound that’s already been rejected too many times. It’s not easy to know what the solution would be that would make it feel like “rock” has an equal seat at the Rock Hall’s table, other than maybe an actual resurgence in the present that gives voters a greater impulse to tick boxes for rock’s past.
In the meantime: Welcome, Dolly, our new rock and roll queen and overlord. It would have been swell to see you kick out a jam this November with the MC5 or Zack de la Rocha, or whip it good with Devo, but that’ll be happening in another part of the multiverse.