DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Tomorrow, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is going to announce its 2020 inductees. And while this year's nominees do include three female-driven acts, critics have long chided the Rock Hall for the low percentage of women in its pantheon of performers. From member station WCPN ideastream, David C. Barnett explains.
DAVID C BARNETT, BYLINE: After warmly accepting her induction into the Rock Hall last spring, Janet Jackson threw down the gauntlet.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JANET JACKSON: And Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, please - 2020, induct more women. Thank you so much...
BARNETT: Her co-inductee Stevie Nicks also criticized the Rock Hall that night for its low female numbers. Rock Hall Foundation CEO Joel Peresman says he's heard that complaint before.
JOEL PERESMAN: We're trying to make this as gender neutral as possible and just look at as - the criteria of being inducted is quality of work. And if it's male or female, that's the criteria.
BARNETT: Former Rock Hall board chair Jann Wenner echoed that sentiment in a Billboard interview this past fall, adding racially neutral to the judging criteria.
EVELYN MCDONNELL: That's a very easy thing for a white man to say.
BARNETT: Evelyn McDonnell writes about music and teaches journalism at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Last year, she did an analysis of gender representation in the Hall of Fame and found a problem. For every female bandleader inducted, her male bandmates also go into the Hall of Fame. McDonnell discovered that over the course of 34 years, that process has yielded 69 women out of 888 inductees - less than 8%.
MCDONNELL: Since the dawn of the recording industry, there have been prominent women - sometimes women who were dominant. Big Mama Thornton sang the original and, to me, still the best version of "Hound Dog." And she's never been inducted.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUND DOG")
BIG MAMA THORNTON: (Singing) You ain't nothing but a hound dog, been snooping round my door. You ain't nothing but a hound dog, been snooping round my door. You can wag your tail, but I ain't gon' feed you no more.
BARNETT: The Rock Hall's Joel Peresman acknowledges that a glut of all-male bands has skewed the induction numbers.
PERESMAN: It's not an empirical process like chemistry. If the committee looks at Joan Jett & the Blackhearts and says, look at the people that were involved with her from the beginning and that made a significant contribution to the creative process, then how do you not induct them?
BARNETT: A nominating committee of about 30 artists, scholars and record industry insiders draws up the ballot each year. Craig Werner was on that committee for 18 years. An emeritus professor of Afro American studies at the University of Wisconsin, Werner is also a music writer. And he has no problem with the nomination process.
CRAIG WERNER: The issues are much more - what happens to that ballot once it goes to the larger electorate? Well, I'm just going to say it. I think that the electorate makes dumb decisions on a regular basis.
BARNETT: There are about a thousand people who get to vote on the ballot, although there's no accounting of exactly who they are. Joel Peresman says they include record company people, writers and performers. But the voting public also includes every living person who's ever been inducted, which is largely a population of white men.
WERNER: The nominating committee, I think, reflects a good sense - a contentious sense sometimes of what rock 'n' roll history is. The electorate, I think, does not. I think that it adheres to a very white-boys-with-guitars and hip-hop that fits into that mythology. It marginalizes women, it marginalizes artists whose core audience is in the African American community, and it almost entirely ignores Latins.
BARNETT: Yale scholar Daphne Brooks has written extensively on race and gender in relation to popular music. And while critical of the Rock Hall's past induction practices, she's encouraged by some recent changes.
DAPHNE BROOKS: For instance, a couple of years ago now, we have the induction, posthumously, of Nina Simone and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. That's the kind of work that should continue, I think, to be done.
(SOUNDBITE OF SISTER ROSETTA THARPE'S "THAT'S ALL")
BARNETT: Tharpe finally got her spot in the Hall of Fame 32 years after it started inducting performers, even though one of the first inductees, Chuck Berry, always cited Tharpe as a major influence.
(SOUNDBITE OF SISTER ROSETTA THARPE'S "THAT'S ALL")
BARNETT: Daphne Brooks sees the Rock Hall as a piece of the country's historic and cultural memory and says it needs to do better.
BROOKS: And if we can start from that point, then I think we can understand why the hall is important and also why we have to fight for it to be a place where we can all hear and see ourselves and see America in its bold, heterogeneous self.
BARNETT: Jann Wenner recently stepped down as chairman of the Rock Hall Foundation's board of directors. His replacement, John Sykes, has pledged to bring more diversity to the 26-person board, which up until now, has two women and no members of color.
For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett in Cleveland.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S A MAN'S MAN'S MAN'S WORLD")
JAMES BROWN: (Singing) This is a man's world...
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