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Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame 2016: The Only System We've Got

The British rock group Deep Purple in 1969. Eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since 1993, the group behind "Smoke On The Water" has been nominated for the third time. John Minihan/Getty Images hide caption

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John Minihan/Getty Images

The British rock group Deep Purple in 1969. Eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since 1993, the group behind "Smoke On The Water" has been nominated for the third time.

John Minihan/Getty Images

Every October, when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announces the nominees for next year's inductions, there's a phrase that seems to come up organically in discussions of the shortlist. Indeed, I've used it several times myself. The phrase is "out of committee." It's an acknowledgment of the central role played by the Rock Hall's semi-secret Nominating Committee in the selection process. Before the Hall's hundreds of voters, or its millions of fans, can vote on their favorites — this year's shortlist ranges from first-timers Chicago and Janet Jackson to perennials Deep Purple and Chic — an elite committee of a few dozen critics, musicians and Hall insiders determines who is worthy of the vote in the first place.

Of course, you know what other byzantine institution uses the phrase "out of committee" as part of its sausage-making rules? The U.S. Congress.

To anyone who has followed the maneuverings of either the Rock Hall or the Federal government, the analogy feels apt. Both systems began with the best of intentions, conceived by founding fathers who felt they knew best. Each system is prone to lobbying and driven by insider maneuvering and partisan bickering. The voting body's leaders have to contend with a restive, often reflexively conservative base of representatives and citizens. (Jon Landau, meet John Boehner.) The results each system produces are often frustrating, haphazard and maddeningly incomplete — living proof that supposedly democratic systems don't work right. And, as Winston Churchill never really said, both our democracy and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are the worst systems ... except for all the others. We obsessively follow these imperfect institutions because, all our protestations to the contrary, we care.

This year in particular, "out of committee" takes on an added relevance. The Rock Hall Nominating Committee always receives outsized attention for its inscrutability and biases — much as the Speaker of the House can prevent a bill from being voted on if he refuses to bring it to the floor, the Nominating Committee drives many rock fans crazy with its unwillingness to present certain acts to the voters. But this year especially, the spotlight is on the Committee's inner workings. The Hall made headlines over the summer by paring the Committee's rolls, reportedly by about one-third, dropping perhaps a dozen members including several veterans versed in early rock and blues. To the conspiracy-minded, the move was devised to appease ceremony-televiser HBO, which wants ratings and hence, younger and more populist inductees. To the rest of us perpetual Hall-watchers, it was probably inevitable — as Rob Tannenbaum's exhaustively researched Billboard investigation into the Hall process earlier this year put it, it is an acknowledgment that "[i]f the electorate doesn't continue to change, the Hall could turn into a high-tech Madame Tussauds."

We now have evidence of the new, leaner Nominating Committee, and it is not quite as pathbreaking as many might have feared, or hoped. The nominees for the Class of 2016 aren't the parade of '80s–'90s electro-pop whippersnappers some Hall-watchers preemptively moaned about. In fact, nearly half of the list will look familiar to anyone who's seen past years' nominee rolls. But make no mistake, the 2016 ballot is a deliberate challenge to the Hall's staunchest traditionalists. The Committee appears hell-bent on clearing the bench and inducting some long-overdues — many of them long, long overdue.

For the first time in five years, there are no first-year-eligible acts on the shortlist. The rules state that acts may be considered for the Hall 25 years after release of a first recording, which means artists who debuted in 1990 are now eligible. In the past few years, consensus rockers like Guns n' Roses, Nirvana and Green Day have been nominated in their first year of eligibility and voted into the Hall right away. (As were Madonna and Public Enemy.) That won't happen this year — the Committee decided to ignore all the new 1990 eligibles, from Alice in Chains to the Black Crowes to Primus. Sorry, Kid Rock fans — you'll have to wait another year.

There are eight first-time nominees on this year's list, all but one of whom have been eligible for more than a decade. The young'un in the bunch, Ms. Jackson, has been eligible just shy of a decade. These newly on-offer artists are joined by a roughly equal number of nominees that have been offered to voters in years past — seven in all, including the aforementioned Chic and Deep Purple. All in, these 15 acts have been eligible a remarkably high average of 15 years apiece — in other words, they released their first recordings an average of 40 years ago. So the subtext underlying this year's shortlist is all about the Nominating Committee trying to get the voters to push through acts that should have been in long before Barack Obama was president.

Which means the sub-subtext is the Committee's sometimes awkward relationship with the Hall's core, conformist constituencies: the roughly 800 ballot-holding voters — performers, sidemen, industry luminaries — who are a proxy for the Hall's rock-centric, dude-heavy audience. When the Nominating Committee repeats acts they've offered on the ballot in prior years, they are sending a hint to intransigent voters: No, seriously, we mean it — induct these people already. (Note: When I talk about "voters," I am talking about the famous people with ballots, not the general public. Since 2012, the Hall has conducted a highly publicized — and mostly meaningless — online "fan vote," the results of which are aggregated into one measly ballot.)

I offer all of the above context as a preamble to the fun part: speculating on who made it out of committee, why, and how likely they are to get past the voters. This is my perennial advice to Hall-watchers — stop paying attention to the fan vote (remember: millions of votes, one ballot), focus on the 800 famous voters, and think about why these acts are on the shortlist in the first place. Let's start with the seven acts making repeat ballot appearances, then consider the eight debutantes — also a greying bunch, but with some very interesting inclusions this year.


Repeat nominees

Chic
Eligible since 2002; 10th nomination

No perennial Hall bridesmaid stands as greater evidence of the voters' inability to take a Nominating Committee hint — or get past their antipathy to dance music — than Chic. (In my House of Representatives analogy, getting Chic past the Hall voters is like getting a gun-control bill past the Freedom Caucus.) This is the pioneering disco-era band's record 10th nomination. Nile Rodgers had better hope the Hall has a secret Sandwich Shop Loyalty Card for frequent patrons — if nominations were sandwiches, it'd be time to give his group a free sub. Two years ago, when they were on their eighth nod, I noted that Chic held the record for Hall frustration among currently uninducted acts. With this latest push by the admirably persistent Nominators, the creators of "Le Freak" and "Good Times" are now tied for the all-time record. Only soul legend Solomon Burke had to wait this long for induction — for Burke, the 10th nod (back in 2001) was the charm. Perhaps it will be the same for Rodgers, Norma Jean Wright, Alfa Anderson, Luci Martin and the late Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson. Perhaps Rodgers's recent announcement of a new Chic album, built around original-era demos, will convince some holdout Hall voters. But Chic were also nominated the year Rodgers performed on the culture-dominating, Chic-referencing "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk, and that did nothing to boost their chances. Given the voters' historic anti-disco bias, it's hard to see what would finally put Chic over the top. That is, unless the sub-shop card is real, and the Hall has a quiet Solomon Burke policy that 10 nominations equals automatic induction. (Kidding. Kinda.)

Deep Purple
Eligible since 1993; third nomination

Throughout the '90s and '00s, hard-rock fans held up British early-metal pioneers Deep Purple as an example of the Rock Hall's inability to give hard music its due. But the late-'00s development of a metal-and-progressive-rock subcommittee (thought I was kidding with that Congressional metaphor?) has helped turned the Ian Gillan–fronted band from an afterthought to a cause célèbre — Deep Purple have now been offered to the voters three times since 2013. The voters, however, have a habit of looking past any hard rock act on the ballot that's even slightly less famous than Van Halen or Guns n' Roses. For example, no less than Black Sabbath had to be put before the voters eight times before they were finally inducted. This year, a smaller selection of straight-up rock on the ballot might favor the band that introduced much of the world to guitar legend Ritchie Blackmore, the driving groove of "Hush" and the deathless crunch of "Smoke on the Water." So perhaps this is finally the year we'll hear that beginner-friendly four-note riff on induction night.

Nine Inch Nails
Eligible since 2014; second nomination

Trent Reznor has become such a respectable member of the arts community that it's easy to forget just how radical his industrial-rock project Nine Inch Nails sounded in 1989. And still sounds, to your average Hall voter, even all these years and rock-radio hits later — from "Sin" to "Hurt" to "Only." Last year, NIN was one of two acts on the ballot receiving nods in their very first year of eligibility and looked like shoo-ins. But the voters pulled the lever only for Green Day, the dad-and-teen-friendly punk band. With no fresher blood on the ballot this year, Reznor has the field of '90s rock lovers to himself. Mind you, there aren't very many people under 40 with Rock Hall ballots — but since every voter gets to choose five bands, there don't need to be that many younger voters if NIN receives ballot slots from the bulk of them.

N.W.A
Eligible since 2012; fourth nomination

After Chic, these West Coast gangsta-rap progenitors have this year's second-highest number of unfulfilled nods — the Nominating Committee has put them before the voters each of the last four years. They also have been nominated more than any rap act; Grandmaster Flash, Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy all got in with one to three nods apiece. With their radio-unfriendly lyrics and spotty discography, N.W.A's prospect for Hall induction is never a totally safe bet. But if ever there were a year for Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, DJ Yella, MC Ren and the late Eazy-E's widow to take the induction ceremony stage, this is absolutely it, thanks to the smash success of Straight Outta Compton, the movie (which even got a new generation to pick up Straight Outta Compton, the album and song). Most musicians receiving Hollywood biopic treatment are already perceived as Hall-worthy; Ray Charles and Johnny Cash were ensconced in Cleveland years before Ray and Walk the Line, respectively. What made Compton exceptional is it not only wildly exceeded typical music biopic box-office returns, it established a heroic, perhaps hagiographic rebel-pioneer image for N.W.A that likely sits well with rock classicists. The Hall voters have a mixed record with hip-hop — they have avoided LL Cool J three times despite strong Nominating Committee support — but the stars will probably never align better for a rap act making the Hall than for N.W.A this year.

The Smiths
Eligible since 2008; second nomination

The Rock Hall prefers it when inducted acts show up and, better yet, reunite for a performance at the annual ceremony. But it's secretly good for publicity when there's a frisson of will-they-or-won't-they controversy — over the last decade everyone from the Sex Pistols and Guns n' Roses to Genesis and Linda Ronstadt have made then-again-maybe-we-won't headlines. Morrissey, lead singer of '80s U.K. indie-rock legends The Smiths and eternal Pope of Mope, may not have much in common with Axl Rose (well ... each man has been known to make love to a mic stand), but he is the Hall's current Axl inasmuch as he prompts fevered blogosphere speculation each time his band winds up on the Hall shortlist. No one knows what, exactly, would happen if the long-feuding gang of Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce were finally inducted — Moz has sworn he'll never be within spitting distance of the latter two, and his relationship with guitar god Marr could best be described as benign détente. Frankly, this hullabaloo offers the Smiths their best chance to get the voters' attention. The band has zero American hits and few U.S. radio staples, and in a world where the Cure's and the Replacements' prior nominations went unfulfilled, it's hard to guess when or if the Smiths will pass through. Like N.W.A, these '80s veterans might need their own cinematic boost.

The Spinners
Eligible since 1986; third nomination

One of a handful of R&B groups as remarkable for its longevity as its discography, the Detroit-based Spinners are true survivors. They sit alongside the Isley Brothers and the Temptations among troupes that date to rock's beginnings and still contain original members — the still-active Henry Fambrough was singing at the group's 1954 inception. They have therefore been eligible for the Rock Hall since its 1986 launch, but unlike the more-heralded Isleys or Temptations — each inducted at their first Hall nomination — the Spinners only began being put forward by the Nominators in the 2010s. With their commercial peak in the '70s era of Philly soul ("Games People Play," "The Rubberband Man," the chart-topping "Then Came You" with Dionne Warwick), the feel-good Spinners appeal to a specific kind of vintage-R&B-loving voter, and like Chic, their leisure-suit-era associations make them a tough sell. Interestingly, however, they only began to be fully appreciated by the Hall as the Committee got younger — and they may actually become more appealing to older voters as the ballot starts to feature more post-1990 bands.

Yes
Eligible since 1994; second nomination

I will confess to calling this wrong. In 2013, when progressive-rock stalwarts Yes received their first nomination after two decades of eligibility, I was convinced they were like Rush — a critic-unfashionable band, finally out of committee, whose ticket would be immediately punched by centrist Hall voters. If it had been up to the public, they would have made it; in that year's final fan ballot, Yes was among the top four vote-getters. But the 800 famous voters parted ways with the millions of lay voters, and Yes missed out on induction, reminding us that prog-rock remains an acquired taste (also that it's a myth that the fan ballot has any serious effect on the final induction results). The Jon Anderson– Chris Squire–founded band has very few radio staples, and even among the cognoscenti their stature is a matter of some debate. So I'm not going to go out on a limb again confidently predicting a Yes induction. But as with the Spinners, every year the bands on the ballot get newer is a year these '70s groups look more appetizing to veteran voters.


Debut nominees

The Cars
Eligible since 2003

Some bands are easy to take for granted and are just forgotten for a while, then inexplicably come back on the Nominating Committee's radar. It's not an outrage, exactly, that The Cars haven't been nominated before, but it is fundamentally illogical: The new wave avatars have plenty of classic-rock cred, they've been longtime favorites at Rolling Stone, and their exuberant songs ("Just What I Needed!" "My Best Friend's Girl!" "Let's Go!" "You Might Think!") are playing on a radio near you right now. Plus, like Chic's Nile Rodgers, affection for frontman Ric Ocasek is strong given his production work for countless other rock acts (a few of which should be in the Hall themselves at this point but aren't yet: Bad Brains, Suicide, Jonathan Richman). As with the Nominating Committee, my suspicion is that The Cars will be a sleeper favorite with the voters, inspiring less of the passion of some other controversial nominees but provoking enough smiles to wind up as many voters' fourth or fifth ballot choice — which is all they would need to get inducted.

Cheap Trick
Eligible since 2002

Unlike The Cars, the lack of a nomination for the favorite sons of Rockford, Ill. has not gone unnoticed by rock fans. Cheap Trick might not rank at quite the level of a Rush or a KISS in terms of fulminating public indignation. But the core quartet of Robin Zander, Tom Petersson, Bun E. Carlos and iconoclastic guitar-meister Rick Nielsen is deeply beloved by generations of rock fans, and their brand of punchy, Budokan-worthy power-pop probably should have earned them a nod long ago. The truth is, Cheap Trick have always been underappreciated by the general public — the fact that it took them until the late '80s to top the charts, and with the songwriter-for-hire 1988 power ballad "The Flame," was discouraging to them — and it has taken other musicians singing their praises and citing their influence to give them their due. What about the voters? It's honestly a close call. But with this first nomination, we'll finally have outraged fans' long-held theory that Cheap Trick should be shoo-ins tested once and for all.

Chicago
Eligible since 1994

What was I saying about Illinois-founded bands and fan indignation? If Cheap Trick's lack of a nod prompted outrage, the full-throated anger over the Hall blowing off brass-inflected pop-rockers Chicago has reached nuclear levels. Chicago has had a different problem from the Tricksters, however, or any other debut act on this year's ballot: perpetual uncoolness. For once, angry fans were probably right to lay the blame at elites' feet. Some critics will go to bat for the band's early '70s work, when they were co-led by late guitarist Terry Kath. But even back then they were mostly pilloried by critics, and opinions never improved much, especially after Peter Cetera, the buttery vocalist behind most of their peak-era hits, left in the mid-'80s. One wonders what finally nudged the Nominating Committee to swallow its pride and nominate the group — appreciation by younger Committee members for some of Chicago's funkier jams must have helped — but now that they're finally on the ballot, it's hard to see how the more populist voters won't wave them in. There may be hell to pay if they don't: The fan ballot doesn't count for much in the final tally — and this year in particular, it has apparently been manipulated by rabid fans — but at this writing, Chicago leads the vote by at least 50% over their fellow nominees. Who knew Robert Lamm and Gene Simmons had so much in common?

Janet Jackson
Eligible since 2007

At 49, the youngest nominee on the Rock Hall ballot, Ms. Jackson (if you're nasty) has been eligible for eight years but, arguably, has been nominated at a nearly ideal moment. Partnered with Minneapolis production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Jackson was a pop innovator in the '80s and '90s, generating a string of hits that eventually began to eclipse her brother Michael's. She entered the 2000s still critically acclaimed and a potent hitmaker, but the 2004 Super Bowl halftime imbroglio — for which Jackson took an excess of blame — and a string of poorly received mid-'00s albums left her in the cultural wilderness. As surely as Dixie Chicks can win Grammys, however, everybody loves a comeback story, and in 2015 Jackson, Jam and Lewis have set up the perfect platform: A new album, Unbreakable, topped the charts the same week this year's Rock Hall shortlist was announced and has been widely received as her best disc in decades. Did the nominators know all this weeks ago, when they tapped her? Possibly not — but they, and Janet, couldn't have set up a better advertisement for her candidacy. Like N.W.A, this not-guaranteed inductee might finally have timing on her side.

The J.B.'s
Eligible since 1995

The second legendary band to back up Godfather of Soul James Brown, after the Famous Flames, the J.B.'s fall into one of the Rock Hall's bedeviling definitional gaps. The Hall has a hard enough time knowing what to do with inducted bands with shifting lineups (e.g., Fleetwood Mac — where's Bob Welch? Jefferson Airplane — no Signe Anderson?). But an equally thorny problem is what to do with established, well-defined backing bands to legendary, shoo-in inductees: Buddy Holly was first inducted without the Crickets, Smokey Robinson sans the Miracles and Bruce Springsteen without the E Street Band. The Hall began righting these wrongs a few years ago, belatedly inducting exceptional backing groups to previously-inducted frontmen, including the Famous Flames, the Comets and the Midnighters. (At 2012's ceremony, Robinson took to the podium to bring in not only his own Miracles but another five backing groups in one fell swoop. Last year, Springsteen inducted the E Streeters in a presentation that took up seemingly half the show.) The J.B.'s — Brown's '70s band, led by trombonist Fred Wesley and showcasing bassist Bootsy Collins — may well deserve induction even more than most backing groups, having issued around a dozen albums under their own name. But it almost doesn't matter whether voters decide to check off the J.B.'s box — the Hall's overseers generally make special allowances for these groups, letting them in under an expanded inductees list or, when necessary, naming them to the Hall by fiat under the "Musical Excellence" category. (Both E Street and, last year, Ringo Starr got in this way.) So, funnily enough, the J.B.'s are probably the biggest lock on this year's ballot.

Chaka Khan
Eligible since 2003 (since 1999 for her band Rufus)

The woman with a name so rhythmic other performers can't stop saying it, R&B goddess Chaka Khan is a little bit like the Cars' Ric Ocasek — she has enough friends among the already Hall-inducted that it's a wonder she didn't make the ballot sooner. And like Bruce Springsteen, she owes her success to an ace band, Rufus, who launched her career and backed her for roughly a decade. Her early '70s hits, including the immortal "Tell Me Something Good," were billed to Rufus, and even after she started dropping solo albums in 1978, as late as 1983's classic "Ain't Nobody" she was still issuing singles as "Rufus featuring Chaka Khan." Either way, she's been eligible a long time — but the Hall doesn't have much history inducting '70s and '80s soul singers, especially women (Donna Summer, at this point, is basically it; Gladys Knight is in with the Pips); so it's impressive enough that the Committee thought to nominate Khan. A first-year pass from the voters is probably too much to hope for, but now that's she's broken onto the ballot hopefully she'll be back if she doesn't make it. They'd be wise to vote Chaka in, though, just to see how she'd deploy that singular voice during the ceremony's all-star jam.

Los Lobos
Eligible since 2003

You think '70s–'80s R&B women are rare in the Rock Hall? How about Latin rock bands? Should Los Lobos get inducted, they would find themselves in a tiny Rock Hall category alongside Santana and would certainly be the only such act of their era. But of course, the East L.A. band — founded by David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano and Steve Berlin — are more than their heritage, and they are used to being a category of one: omnivorous, experimental and adaptable roots-rockers who broke their career on a punk label and scored an improbable Spanish-language No. 1 hit with a Ritchie Valens cover. (And Cheap Trick thought they had a weird late '80s.) Los Lobos have always been admired by the rock press, and so getting through the Rock Hall's elite Nominating Committee was, relatively speaking, the easy part. It's harder to see the voters inducting them right away, although the well-timed release of an acclaimed biography and some new music from the band itself can't hurt.

Steve Miller
Eligible since 1993

It's rare, in 2015, to find any major rock artists who started recording in the '60s, are beloved by Baby Boomers and album-oriented rock fans, and haven't even been nominated for the Rock Hall, let alone inducted. And yet, behold the Space Cowboy, the Gangster of Love, "Maurice" — Steve Miller: He founded his titular Steve Miller Band in San Francisco in the '60s, began charting hit psychedelic-rock albums by 1968, became an AOR staple in the '70s and '80s while generating a jet airliner's worth of Top 40 hits — and somehow this is his first nomination. Despite his truckloads of album sales, Miller has always seemed self-effacing, even invisible (he has told stories of strolling through the parking lot of his own sold-out shows and not being recognized), and slagging off the Rock Hall probably didn't help his case with the Nominating Committee, if he even cared. But his continued relevance to both white and black pop fans is remarkable: His 1982 No. 1 funk-pop hit "Abracadabra" was a crossover R&B hit, and his classic 1976 stoner jam "Fly Like an Eagle" has been sampled in hip-hop repeatedly and was even cited as an influence on "Can't Feel My Face," this year's No. 1 smash by The Weeknd. Of the '70s-rock debutantes on this year's ballot — Miller, the Cars, Cheap Trick, Chicago — it will be interesting to see who earns the voters' favor. It may be tough for all of them to get in the same year. (Fun chart trivia: Miller has knocked Chicago out of the No. 1 spot on the Hot 100 twice: "Rock'n Me" bumped "If You Leave Me Now" in 1976, and "Abracadabra" ejected "Hard to Say I'm Sorry" in 1982. If Miller gets inducted this year and Chicago doesn't, Chicago's fans with long memories may hold a grudge.)


The Final Tally

So what could a final induction list look like? Predictions are always dodgy, especially with this crop of first-timers and repeaters. If I were a betting man, I'd probably lay odds on the Cars, Chicago, Janet Jackson, the J.B.'s, Nine Inch Nails and N.W.A, with Steve Miller and Yes as close calls and Cheap Trick a dark horse (I am done betting on Chic — and for the record, if I were a voter, my ballot would look quite different). But I have been wrong before. And anything could happen, given the maddening quirks and divisive identity politics of the voters.

Those politics mean the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was probably doomed to frustrate no matter how it was structured. Indeed, it's hard to imagine an alternate system that would work much better.

The data we have about the process bears this out. A Hall that did away with the elitist Nominating Committee would still be governed by the tastes of the 800 balloted voters. And this voting body has its own biases — it's dominated by artists and industryites who don't always do their homework. Besides the still-waiting Chic, check out the Future Rock Legends list of the "eventually inducted" acts who waited through years of nominations before the balloted voters got a clue, from the Velvet Underground (five nods before induction) to Gladys Knight (also five) to Del Shannon (seven) to the Stooges (eight).

As for the public's dream of an all-fan-voted Hall, based on just three years of "fan vote" evidence, it's pretty clear they would induct mass-appeal dude-with-guitar bands every year, ignoring the likes of Linda Ronstadt or Public Enemy — inductees who scored with the balloted voters but missed the fan vote's top five and hence the "fan ballot."

Unlike our democracy, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doesn't need to exist. Given that it does, music fans should at least insist that the institution get it right. But expecting any system to represent both the breadth of Rock Era music and the predilections of millions of rock fans across the country — and not be messy and imperfect — is naïve. In the end, as with our government, we get the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame we deserve.