Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Donna Summer performs in October 2011. Summer, who died in May, is nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year for the fifth time.
Donna Summer performs in October 2011. Summer, who died in May, is nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year for the fifth time. Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Let's be fair: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is never going to satisfy everybody.
When it comes to the annual griping over the list of acts it enshrines — actually, two rounds of griping, the short list of nominees in the fall and the final list of inductees in the winter — some grievances are fairer than others.
Complaining about the Hall's overemphasis on a certain strain of blues-based, Boomer-friendly guitar act? Legit. Bitching that Madonna or Grandmaster Flash don't belong, because hey, it's not called the Dance Hall of Fame or the Rap Hall of Fame? That attitude is even lamer than the Rock Hall at its lamest. (And those who claim rock 'n' roll shouldn't be in a hall of any kind? You have my sympathies, but come on — that ship's sailed. Let's at least make them get it right.)
Still, most of the Rock Hall's perception problems are of its own making. Acts become eligible 25 years after their first record release — a reasonable cutoff, but then certain acts coast in during their first year of eligibility while other, greater acts are left cooling their heels. Die-hard fans of a band keep close tabs on when they become Hall-eligible (heads up, fellow Pixies lovers: Come On Pilgrim just turned 25 last month), and every year past that date adds to the mounting fan resentment.
Moreover, by creating a voting system whereby only six to eight acts get in annually, the Hall has generated a huge backlog of snubbed artists they'll never catch up with. You can understand why they don't want to start inducting 15 to 20 acts a year; it would make the award less special, and the televised induction ceremony would be eight hours long. But it also means KISS fans are going to be waiting a long time before the Rock Hall has worked its way through enough overlooked acts to let Gene Simmons strut across the ceremony stage.
All this leaps to mind when perusing this week's announcement of the 2013 nominees, 15 acts in total. It's one of the better lists of recent years, with no outright howlers like the Red Hot Chili Peppers last year. (Inducted on their first ballot — and The Replacements remain un-nominated? Insanity.)
But that doesn't mean the list isn't littered with grievances. In fact, the tally of 2013 nominees mostly reads as an effort to right past Hall wrongs. Fewer than half of the nominees are first-timers; there's a lot of long-overdues here. And even some of the first-timers are long, long overdue — including one Canadian trio that has arguably been the biggest subject of fan derision against the Hall in its history. More on them in a minute.
Let's break these artists down into categories, themed around Hall predilections and biases. In most of these categories, only one or two acts will make the final list of inductees next January; I'll offer my modest predictions.
Leftover '60s Acts, or We're Running Out of Past: Albert King, the Marvelettes, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Procol Harum
Number likely to be inducted: Two
Every major rock or pop act that peaked in the 1960s is already in the Hall — even low-selling legends like The Velvet Underground — so the nominating committee is casting an ever-wider net for nominees that will appeal to the electorate's Boomer skew. Given that well-known bias, figure on at least two, perhaps even three of these acts getting in. All are certainly worthy, but the Marvelettes (of "Please Mr. Postman" fame) aren't exactly The Supremes or The Ronettes. Only the late Butterfield has been nominated before, and his band suffers from a bit of also-ran status: no radio hits or top-selling albums, living in the shadow of better-known electric-blues acts like The Yardbirds — but they're good and they're due, and they backed Dylan at Newport. The late King is one of the last of the stately blues guitarists (he peaked in the '60s but predates rock) not to get inducted, and again, he lives in the shadow of his inducted peers, B.B. King and Buddy Guy. The best bet? Oddly, it's probably Procol Harum, a near-one-hit-wonder — but Holy Church Organ, what a hit: "A Whiter Shade of Pale" is already enshrined in the Hall's greatest-songs list. Figure on them, Butterfield and possibly King getting the nod.
Wait, They're Not in Yet?: Deep Purple, Heart, the Meters, Randy Newman
Number likely to be inducted: One
Three of these four '70s-vintage acts are on their second nomination (Deep Purple is the debutante). While it's not entirely shocking that none has been inducted, compared with their already-inducted peers it's a little insulting — Heart are at least as skilled as Aerosmith, The Meters are every bit as influential on the New Orleans scene as Dr. John and Randy Newman in his Sail Away period was twice the songwriter Jackson Browne was. Deep Purple, Heart and Newman are likely suffering from perceived latter-day sins: the two bands' reinventions in the '80s as leather-studded MTV acts; and Newman's '90s–'00s success as Pixar's hacky soundtracker. The Meters are more like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band: undeniably amazing, too far under the radar. Of the four, I see Newman as likeliest to get the nod, assuming enough left-leaning Hall voters recall what a sardonic firebrand he used to be. But Heart is the dark horse thanks to Ann and Nancy Wilson's just-released and well-timed memoir, which chronicles how they survived the horribly sexist rock world.
Okay, Okay, We Accept That This Dance Stuff Isn't Going Away: Chic, Kraftwerk, Donna Summer
Number likely to be inducted: One shoo-in
The Hall has fundamental problems with certain subgenres, including metal and progressive rock — but one receiving particularly shoddy treatment is dance and electronic music, especially disco. Sure, Madonna got in on her first ballot, because she postdates disco, and because she's Madonna; and the Bee Gees made it in after several years of eligibility. You start to wonder whether some of these Hall voters are hiding secret pasts among the rioters at Comiskey Park in the summer of '79, when you consider that Chic, the single greatest band in dance music history, has been nominated seven times without induction. (Props to the nominating committee: they keep putting Chic forward, and the voters keep blowing them off.) I wouldn't bet the farm on Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers getting their due this year, either. Teutonic electro-rock godfathers Kraftwerk stand a somewhat better chance in 2013, thanks to last April's rabidly praised series of comeback shows at the Museum of Modern Art. But the absolute shoo-in this year also ranks as one of the Hall's all-time embarrassments: Donna Summer, who shuffled off this mortal coil last spring after four unfulfilled Hall nominations (this year's is her fifth). In the wake of Summer's death, inductee Elton John called the ongoing snub "a disgrace" and Rock Hall nominating committee chairman Jon Landau told Billboard magazine, "Our voting group has failed," and all but guaranteed a correction this year. It will be belated justice — but giving the symbolic Queen of Disco her due will, in the end, be less about her and more about the Hall. Having finally exorcised their disco demon, hopefully they'll see their way to inducting Chic's Rodgers before he follows Summer and his late partner Edwards to that velvet rope in the sky.
Entering Rap's Golden Age: N.W.A, Public Enemy
Number likely to be inducted: One
The Hall's history with rap is a somewhat more respectable, if mixed, record. Inductees Grandmaster Flash and Run-D.M.C. were no-brainers; the Beastie Boys, inducted earlier this year, likely got in as much for their rock versatility as their skills on the mic. Other than Eric B. and Rakim (nominated once before) and LL Cool J (twice), the Hall hasn't overlooked anybody undeniable yet — then again, old-school rappers just started crossing the Hall's 25-year recording eligibility line. With that line now at 1987, the Hall enters the widely agreed-upon Golden Age of Rap (roughly 1987–93), with two titanic crews leading the way. Given that only one rap act a year has ever been inducted, you can expect either Public Enemy or N.W.A to get in this year, but not both. N.W.A boasts two living hip-hop legends in Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, but their recorded legacy is a mixed bag. PE is the more obvious first-round pick: several great albums in their catalog, one legendary single ("Fight the Power") and two irrepressible frontmen that voters will want to hear from at the induction ceremony — Chuck D will give a stately speech, and Flavor Flav will drop lines that make the next day's press.
The Elephant in the Room: Rush
Number likely to be inducted: One, if the voters know what's good for them
The difference between fans of other Hall-snubbed bands and Rush fans is that in the former category most think the Hall is basically a joke. Rush fans, by contrast, are seriously insulted that rock's ultimate power trio of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart remain excluded, a decade and a half after they became eligible. (Check out this Rush fan site's long Rock Hall page on the history of slights.) Rush's brand of muscular, expansive progressive rock has long been unfashionable with rock critics and insiders, which explains why, until this year, they weren't even nominated. But you don't have to be a fan of the band (I'm not) to see it's high time they were inducted, already. However lugubrious Rush's music often is, it's more economical than that of the Grateful Dead and less self-pitying than that of Pink Floyd — longtime inductees, both. Still, Rush die-hards are likely steeling themselves to see their heroes snubbed again. In a way, Rush have the opposite problem as a disco act: they had to get past the prejudices of the nominating committee, not the voters. Having made it out of committee, I suspect the more populist voting body will wave Rush into the Hall, the "Spirit of the Radio" spurring them on.
Addendum: That covers 14 of the nominations. Give Joan Jett credit — she doesn't fit into any of the above categories: a straight-up '80s rocker with little Rock Hall baggage. That might mean Jett and the Blackhearts get lucky on this, their second nomination, and score the Hall's last open inductee slot. I'll be rooting for Jett, but something tells me she might be waiting another year.