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The Right Way To Complain About The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame

Future Hall Of Famers? Green Day's Tre Cool (from left), Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt in New York City in 1994. Ken Schles/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Ken Schles/Getty Images

Future Hall Of Famers? Green Day's Tre Cool (from left), Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt in New York City in 1994.

Ken Schles/Getty Images

As a music geek, I often find myself in conversations, either online or over cocktails, about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Indeed, I've been nerding out about the Hall since last Thursday, when the institution announced its shortlist for induction into the Hall Class of 2015. And when I find myself in polite but argumentative company debating the Rock Hall, I have an approach I use. It comes in handy when my fellow nerd has been griping about the definition of "rock and roll," and why this mysterious institution — inductor of Donna Summer, Madonna and Grandmaster Flash; persistent nominator of Chic and N.W.A — has got it all wrong.

I call my approach the Supremes Argument. Here's how it works.

I start by asking my agitated compadre if he has a problem with the Supremes being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Diana Ross–showcasing Motown group has been in the Hall for a long time — since 1988, just a couple of years after inductions began — so they're pretty uncontroversial. Everybody knows them.

Almost always, my friend has no problem with the Supremes' induction. They're from the '60s, after all, closer to the birth of rock and roll than we are now. And they're Motown, which makes them by definition "classic." (The fact that they are women of color is useful as a baseline; if my friend expresses contempt for Diana & Co. or Motown, I usually change the subject to the weather, because he likely has issues that go beyond popular-music canonization.)

Anyway, usually I get a, "No, the Supremes are fine." That established, I reply, "OK — but why are you fine with them being in?

"You just got done telling me that letting these '70s and '80s pop, disco and rap acts into the Hall is B.S. And why? Because these people don't play traditional instruments, they based their music on other material, they relied on producers, and they don't, y'know, 'rock.' Well, the Supremes were 'only' singers; all their material was written by other people; they were svengali'd into being by Berry Gordy and whatever we call their music, it's more R&B and pop than 'rock' by a strict Beatles–Stones definition.

"If you're so offended that Madonna or Run-DMC are in the Hall, I don't see why the Supremes get a pass from you."

I can't claim this pseudo-Socratic method has ever ended an argument — hard-core music fans, I'm sure you'll agree, are pretty hard-wired in their opinions of What Rock Is — but I at least get a reluctant concession. Usually. Honestly, I'm not aiming to trick anybody. I'm mostly trying to remind people of how slippery the definition of "rock 'n' roll" has always been.

And I actually love debating the Hall of Fame. This year's shortlist for the Class of 2015 has given my friends and me plenty to chew over: the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Chic, Green Day, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Kraftwerk, the Marvelettes, Nine Inch Nails, N.W.A, Lou Reed, The Smiths, The Spinners, Sting, Stevie Ray Vaughan, War and Bill Withers. When considering the Hall-worthiness of these 15 acts (who will be narrowed down to, probably, six inductees), I would rather people train their ire on something worth getting ticked off about.

And there is plenty about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that rankles — but not always the issues that punters focus on. Below, I offer a small collection of Rock Hall gripes, and whether they're worth the agita.


Gripe: Newer artists get inducted before older artists

Two numbers are worth keeping in mind when considering who does and doesn't get nominated for the Hall. The first is 25: the number of years between when an act's first record came out (a single or EP will do) and their Hall eligibility. This year's eligibility line is 1989, which is why Green Day (with their 1989 EP 1,000 Hours) and Nine Inch Nails (1989 album Pretty Hate Machine) are now making their first shortlist appearances. But the other number to keep in mind is 1,700-plus. That's the (totally unofficial, unscientific) number of artists already eligible for induction, according to the informative, Rock Hall–unaffiliated fan site FutureRockLegends.com. Even if we assume roughly 80 to 90 percent of the site's listed acts can be thrown out as snowball-in-hell options — I doubt Zakk Wylde and Samantha Fox fans are seriously exercised about those artists' chances — that still leaves a couple of hundred acts conceivably eligible.

This gives the Hall of Fame a fundamentally insurmountable numbers problem: More potential nomination-worthy acts than can ever fit through the Hall's window of five to seven inductees per year. And thanks to the 25-year rule, the number of eligibles, and the potential snubs, is only growing every year. (Here are 20 straightaway.) It's why bitching about Green Day jumping the line before, say, their punk forbears the Buzzcocks is basically pointless. Unless the Hall's Nominating Committee adopts a strict policy of, "Nope, we're not done with 1973 yet" before moving on to 1974, some younger acts are inevitably going to get in faster, especially as the 25-year line crosses into the 1990s. So sure, go ahead and argue that Green Day deserve it less than the Buzzcocks. Just don't argue that it's not Green Day's "turn." There are no turns.

Verdict: Not worth complaining about


Gripe: Shortlist slots are taken by acts that don't need the boost

Whether you feel Green Day are richly deserving of Hall induction or shouldn't even be considered, we can all agree that putting them on the shortlist based on that very first EP is a little absurd. They're likely to get in easily, no matter when they're nominated — the pool of Hall voters, currently numbering about 700 artists, industryites and critics, has a hive-mind tendency to pull the lever for household names. So wouldn't it make a little more sense — not as a rule, just a guideline — to induct Green Day closer to when 1994's Dookie is 25 years old? The Nominating Committee, the 30- to 40-person cabal that creates the shortlist, is the target of much rock-fan ire. But if it's doing its job, it is meant to act as a filter — couldn't it have waited on Green Day? If the Nominators are serious about finally getting Nile Rodgers into the Hall — his band Chic is now on its ninth unfulfilled nomination, nearly a record — giving a slot to Green Day right away seems counterproductive.

Speaking of unnecessary shortlisters, it's hard to see why any precious slot is occupied by a solo artist already inducted for a prior group. This year, the shortlist includes Lou Reed, previously inducted with the Velvet Underground, and Sting, already in with the Police. With all due respect to the recently deceased Reed, this is one prize he can't take with him. In my dreams, the Hall would go back in time and set a rule that all individual performers can only be inducted once. Since that's impossible, they could stand to be more sparing. (Clapton may be God, but three inductions — Yardbirds, Cream and solo — was gilding the lily.) Obviously some inducted soloists with truly distinct careers deserve to be in: Neil Young's decades-long solo oeuvre is a far cry from the Buffalo Springfield, and Peter Gabriel's solo work is distinct from Genesis. But shortlisting Sting when, say, The Meters have three unfulfilled nominations and Roxy Music has never been nominated is wasting a precious resource. And like Green Day, Mr. Sumner's name alone will probably get him in, stat.

Verdict: Worth complaining about


Gripe: Conspiracy theories about Jann Wenner

Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann Wenner was a co-founder of the Rock Hall and, as such, is a fixture on its Nominating Committee. But the focus on his influence each year has long seemed — like the deathless "Rolling Stone hated Led Zeppelin" meme — overblown to me. (Disclosure: I have been an occasional online contributor to Rolling Stone but have no inside knowledge of how the Rock Hall process works. What follows is one man's opinion, based on widely public information.)

The knock on Wenner is that his personal biases, focused on a set of Boomer-friendly acts of the '60s and '70s, dominate the agenda for the Nominating Committee. There are also accusations of slippery vote-counting, which even if true don't seem to have inflicted long-term harm on the Hall (in 2007, putting Grandmaster Flash in the Hall before the Dave Clark Five on a deadline technicality was a little shady — but nominating the Hall's first hip-hop act was compelling, and anyway Clark got in the next year). Certainly, many of the committee members share Wenner's perspective on the history of rock and roll; if you think Wenner has definitive ideas about what qualifies as great music, consider the musings of "Little" Steven Van Zandt, a beloved committee member of long standing. Anyway, for all Wenner's obvious influence, the evidence just doesn't suggest he is a one-man nominating force. Acts he has personally championed remain uninducted and even unnominated. And younger committee members have talked openly about how they compelled members of Wenner's generation to take another look at the likes of Kiss — a band with whom there is no love lost with Wenner. Looking just at this year's shortlisters, it's hard to imagine Wenner personally anointing or advocating the likes of master technician Stevie Ray Vaughan, disco-era soul group The Spinners, and especially Gen-X gods The Smiths. The Nominating Committee is a gatekeeper, yes. The members have their biases, yes. Jann Wenner's aren't the only ones.

Verdict: Not worth complaining about


Gripe: The Nominating Committee has longstanding genre biases

If you're going to gripe about the nominating cabal, focus on their actual, obvious blind spots. Like metal: You don't have to be an impassioned metalhead to see the lack of nods for Iron Maiden, Slayer and Mötorhead and the belated shortlisting of Deep Purple as suspect. Or alternative rock of the '80s: After immediately inducting R.E.M. and U2 on first ballots, the committee appeared for a while to have decided the Gen-X box had been checked. More recently The Cure and, finally this year, The Smiths have been shortlisted. But Kate Bush, Pixies, Joy Division/New Order, Depeche Mode, XTC and Sonic Youth remain conspicuous in their lack of nods.

Given widespread rock-fan ire about even including hip-hop in the Hall, the Nominating Committee has actually been principled in getting rap acts inducted (Grandmaster Flash, Run-DMC, Public Enemy). But the trickle of one rap nominee every year or two is starting to seem paltry and tokenistic. Good for the committee for trying again with N.W.A this year, but Eric B. and Rakim deserve another look. And now that we've crossed the 1989 eligibility line, De La Soul, whose 1989 debut is in the Library of Congress, is available and should have been first-year gimmes.

Verdict: Worth complaining about


Gripe: The system is rigged — thank goodness for the "fan vote"

Let's end this myth now: The fan vote, introduced in 2012 as a new wrinkle in the voting process, did not get Gene Simmons or Geddy Lee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The public balloting the Rock Hall now conducts every fall, after the shortlist is announced, is basically a fun stunt: It's tallied and aggregated to form one vote. According to the Rock Hall rules, that single collective vote is then thrown into the mix with the 700 or so other voters. In other words, go ahead and vote right now at RockHall.com if it's cathartic for you, but your vote counts approximately one-one-millionth as much as Clive Davis's or Steven Tyler's.

The induction over the last two years of two populist, critic-unfriendly bands, Rush and KISS, has led to a popular misperception that average fans got these bands into the Hall. This year, there's a sense that Stevie Ray Vaughan, a long-snubbed first-time nominee, needs fan votes to get past those wicked insiders. But that's essentially impossible, unless the final vote for the sixth slot on the nominees list comes down to a one-vote margin. The truth is, the fan vote hasn't been needed; the famous voters with ballots often do the fans' job for them. Over the years, when the Nominating Committee sees fit to shortlist a name-brand, populist act it's been avoiding, the ballot-having voters tend to wave in the act immediately. Take ZZ Top: eligible as far back as 1996, nominated in 2004, and the voters inducted them on that first try; the fan vote didn't exist then at all. Nor did it in 2011 when Neil Diamond, eligible since 1989, finally made it out of committee and got inducted straight away. To be sure, now that the fan vote exists, acts that get strong tallies and don't wind up inducted will likely be remembered by the Nominating Committee in subsequent years. But honestly, if you and thousands of your fellow snubbed-band fans really want to move the needle, you're better off creating a fan petition Facebook page — it's more numerically trackable and probably just as effective.

Verdict: Not worth complaining about


Gripe: The voters pick the wrong acts on the ballot

What mystifies me most about the annual Hall griping is how much of it is directed at Wenner and his Nominating Committee colleagues, and how little is directed at the actual voters (again, the hundreds of official voters, not the thousands of fans and their single ballot). The guys who actually get ballots mailed to them — hey producers, performers, sidemen, I'm looking at you — they're the ones who manage to screw this thing up year after year.

These were the people who had to be offered the chance to vote for The Stooges eight times and Solomon Burke 10 times (still a record) before they finally deigned to induct them. They're the ones who've been hit upside the head with a Chic nomination for the ninth time this year and Paul Butterfield for a fourth and might well blow it again — guys, take the hint already. They're the ones you can thank next spring if Sting gets in (again) and Kraftwerk doesn't (again), the ones who maybe don't know who The Smiths are. They're the ones Krist Novoselic was talking to, live from the stage, when he implored the Hall to induct Joan Jett at Nirvana's own induction last spring; she's been nominated three times. They're the ones who waited until Donna Summer was dead to induct the Queen of Disco on her fifth nomination, and who went zero for four inducting living African-Americans last year. Honestly, fellow rock nerds, you want the Hall to have more room for your favorite band to get a shot? Yell at the voters, not the nominating cabal — tell anyone with a ballot to clear out Butterfield, Chic, Kraftwerk, Jett, N.W.A and The Spinners already so the committee doesn't have to keep using slots for them. Nine Inch Nails is a great band, but Trent Reznor has an Oscar — he can wait a year or two.

Verdict: Definitely worth complaining about


Gripe: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has the wrong name

Sure, they could have named it the Late Twentieth Century Popular Music Hall of Fame. But that wouldn't have been pithy. Must we endure the two billionth joke that it's not called the Disco Hall of Fame or the Rap Hall of Fame? And by the way, that other quip, "Hey, I have no problem if LL Cool J gets into the Rap Hall of Fame, just don't put him in the Rock Hall," isn't any more egalitarian; it's arguably worse. Separate-but-equal is a bad look.

The very first induction class to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1986, included the so-called Godfather of Soul (among many R&B-based acts), as well as a duo equally well known for its country songs. Rock and roll has never had clear boundaries — not at the start, not at your imagined peak, not now. Get over it.

Verdict: Not worth complaining about


Gripe: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame shouldn't even exist at all

This is the one argument that makes my Supremes Argument moot. If you believe the Hall shouldn't exist for real, awesome — canonization is indeed suspect in a medium like rock, and I admire your unwavering rock-and-roll attitude.

But then, why are you still debating the Hall with me? Because that, friend, is the pop-culture junkie's great lie: "Okay, this is my last complaint about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and then I'm done talking about it!"

Verdict: Worth complaining about

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