The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was founded in 1983 with the noble purpose of honoring artists who’d had “a significant impact on the evolution, development and perpetuation of rock and roll.” The criteria for eligibility were that 25 years must have passed since the artists released their first record and that they’d demonstrated “unquestionable music excellence.” That was it. There was nothing in the fine print about the artist having to have a penis. And yet year after year, the RRHOF has curiously seemed unable to find many – or some years any – penis-less artists and bands who qualify for induction. Yes, move over Oscars; rock & roll’s got a nice big diversity problem too.
The world is full of kind people trying to help out the “Rock & Roll Hall sans Dame”; a quick look online will turn up a number of articles from over the years suggesting excellent and highly influential women artists they don’t seem to have noted. But then another year passes and the mailman arrives with the little booklet containing this year’s ballot and blurbs, and once again on the list of nominees women are still mostly conspicuous by their absence.
Maybe it was always thus. Forty years ago when I decided to be a rock writer, my gender was considered a liability by some, but hey. I wasn’t around when rock & roll began but I can’t imagine it was easy for women artists – although it might not have been a whole lot worse than when the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame began. The early ’80 were all about glossy electro-pop boy bands and hair metal. The designated place at that time for a girl in rock was on her knees backstage or in a jacuzzi, in one of those identikit blondes-and-boobs MTV videos, sharing chlorinated water with dudes with double Xs in their names, not their chromosomes. Despite all this, there were women making “a significant impact on the evolution, development and perpetuation of rock and roll.” But in the RRHOF? Not so much.
I’m not the first person to call the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame “a boy’s club.” (Actually, the Sex Pistols called it “a piss stain,” far more colorful). Shock horror, hold the front page! A rock & roll institution run by an old boys’ network! But really you guys, three-and-a-bit decades after RRHOF’s inception and six-and-a-bit decades after rock & roll was born, it’s a bit shoddy. For my half of the population it’s a lot like seeing Trump and his posse of all-white old men blithely making decisions on the lives of people who aren’t old white men.
Full disclosure: I’m one of the 600-700 unpaid a “rock experts” who gets to vote on which of the nominees gets inducted. But what I don’t get to do is decide, or even join in the conversation, on who those nominees should be. The members of that particular star chamber group are anonymous. I read somewhere that there is one woman; maybe there are more I don’t know about. I also read that Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine is among their number. The only person we can all be sure of is Jann Wenner, the RRHOF’s co-founder and also the co-founder and publisher of Rolling Stone magazine. Various vagaries and vetoes on who did or didn’t get inducted have been laid at Wenner’s feet, but since I don’t know the man (I was always more of Creem person) and I’ve never sat in on an RRHOF nomination meeting, it could well be something less specific, more endemic.
I mean, look at the list of inductees on the Hall of Fame Wikipedia page. In the “Early Influences” section, for artists whose music pre-dated rock but was hugely influential, only six out of the 32 are female. There are women so obvious by their exclusion that there must be something more going on. To start with, the Carter Family. Jimmie Rodgers is an inductee, but the Carters are not. The Carters made their first records on the same day as Rodgers, their combined effect considered the Big Bang of country music, which is a vital precursor to rock. Or if they didn’t want the whole clan they could have settled on the highly influential guitar-playing Mother Maybelle Carter. Another omission so shameful you wonder who some of these music historians are, is the African-American singer and guitar player Sister Rosetta Tharpe, an enormous inspiration to Elvis and Chuck Berry, and considered by many to be the Godmother of rock & roll.
Moving on, there are no women at all in the “Sideman” category. I guess the title answers that question. And not a single gal to be found in the “Award for Musical Excellence.” Nor in the “Lifetime Achievement” category. There’s three – Hallelujah! – in the “Non-Performers” category, but wait, none of these women are named singly. They’re all paired with and after! their male songwriting partners, like some kind of rock & roll Saudi Arabia: Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich; Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil; and Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Carole King didn’t make the “Performers” category.
“Well,” some of you will say, “space is tight. They couldn’t put her in twice, and after all, she made her name first as a songwriter.” A good argument except that 22 men have been inducted twice or more, solo and part of band. None of those double-dippers are women. Stevie Nicks is stuck with Fleetwood Mac, Mavis Staples with the Staple Singers, Chrissie Hynde with the Pretenders, Debbie Harry with Blondie, and Tina Turner with the guy who beat her up. God only knows why Debbie Harry or Stevie Nicks didn’t get in under their own names. But then we’re talking about an institution that never thought to include Nina-fucking-Simone or Marianne Faithfull.
RRHOF let in a few ’60s girl groups but omitted the most influential of them all: the Shangri-Las. Like James Comey, that makes me a little bit nauseous. For crying out loud, if the RRHOF only inducted Chuck Berry, the Beatles, Hendrix and the Shangri-Las it would be enough to get my respect.
Maybe they’ll get around to the Shangs – or the Runaways or Girlschool or the Go-Gos. But that’s the other thing: women inductees have to wait a whole lot longer for induction than their male counterparts. Dusty Springfield; Patti Smith; Laura Nyro – the Ronettes, who were eligible for induction in 1988, weren’t recognized until 2007. Joan Baez, who was already famous when she brought the young, unknown Bob Dylan onstage and introduced him to her crowd, was eligible in 1985, but they only let her in last year, 32 years later.
Women Who Should Be in the RRHOF But Aren’t
The Runaways, Stevie Nicks, Go-Go’s, Patsy Cline, Janet Jackson, Cindy Lauper, Pat Benatar, Exene Cervenka, Nina Simone, Kate Bush, Kim Gordon, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Suzi Quatro, Mary Wells, Bjork, Whitney Houston, Dolly Parton, Courtney Loe, Sinead O’Connor, PJ Harvey, Mary Wells, The Shangri-Las, Cher, Carly Simon, The Carpenters, Marianne Faithful, Dionne Warwick, Nico, Queen Latifah, Leslie Gore, The Breeders, Suzanne Vega, Connie Francis, Petula Clark, Rickie Lee Jones
Even Joni Mitchell – one of the greatest artists of our time, whose influence and excellence is undeniable, who never compromised, always pushing rock into new directions, who invented multiple guitar tunings that her male peers would hover in the wings, staring at those big hands of hers, trying to figure out what in hell she was playing and how to do it themselves. Although she is an inductee, she wasn’t automatically inducted when she became eligible in 1993. What was the RRHOF thinking? Maybe it’s some kind of leftover from when Wenner’s Rolling Stone named her “Old Lady of the Year” (Old Lady meaning “girlfriend”) and printed a chart of her famous rock lovers in the early 70s equivalent of slut-shaming. That reminds me; some ten years later Rolling Stone put the Go-Gos on the cover with the tag line “Go-Gos Put Out.” I mean, what else are you meant to do with some girl trying to do a boy’s job?
Okay, I’m going to try to play Devil’s advocate. The RRHOF has inducted some very cool, some of them unexpected, artists over time. And rock back in the day was dominated by male artists. Women might be singers in a band but the musicians were more often men. Female artists tended to be slotted into other genres – folk, country, pop, R&B. The RRHOF has made some concession to these genres – mostly, when it comes to women, the last of the three. But to be fair, they’ve been conflicted about genres in general, trying to decide which are sufficiently rock & roll. I’ve heard that they get complaints all the time for stepping out of bounds. Punk is under-represented, as are Americana and indie artists. They seemed to have no qualms about metal and prog bands, but that might be because of their prominence and often big record sales. Noble intentions aside, record sales seems to have become as much a factor in the RRHOF induction process as in the Grammy Awards.
And there’s another reason for inducting the artists they do: familiarity. Name-recognition, I reckon, is one big reason why acts who have done a good enough job for a long enough time often get a Grammy for their least-good album. Voters faced with a box to check go for the one they’ve heard of in spite of their best intentions to check out the acts they don’t know. So they vote for the guy whose music they know. (I’m a Grammy voter too.) I guess until the RRHOF star chamber adds diversity (again I’m making assumptions since I don’t know who they are) it’s going to be this way for some time to come.
Well, I released my first album in 2014, Sylvie. It just took me a little longer to make the move from rock writer to musician than Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde. Doing the math, I’ll be eligible for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2039. Watch this space.