It's Time For the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to Address Its Gender and Racial Imbalances (Guest Op-Ed)

Market Rock Hall

For 34 years, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has, in the words of 1986 inductee James Brown, been a man's world. Since the Hall started inducting artists in 1986, when zero of the 16 inaugural inductees were women, until the Oct. 15 announcement of the 2020 nominees (72 individuals, three of whom are female), women have been egregiously underrepresented. My research assistants and I have been crunching the numbers and the results are alarming: Only 7.7 percent of all individuals inducted into the Hall have been female, and 4.17% of this year's nominees are women.

Not only has the Rock Hall perpetually been an unapologetic boys club, it has also become increasingly white. The percentage of total people of color in the hall has declined every year from an impressive high of 55.8% in 1989 to the current low of 32.7%. Only 13 nominees, or 18.6%, of this year's nominees are black, Latinx, Native American or Asian.

While institutions such as the Recording Academy and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have been forced, in the face of protest, to diversify their memberships and productions, the Rock Hall has at best offered lip service and tokenism to calls for improved gender and racial representation -- and at worst, they've denied the problem and gaslit the media. It is time for the industry, the press, the public, tourists to Cleveland and HBO -- which broadcasts the awards ceremony -- to demand the Hall offer substantive change to its nominating and voting procedures, or be permanently confined to the dinosaur age in which it seems to be permanently stuck.

The low number of women among the 2020 nominees is a result of the Hall repeatedly honoring rock bands featuring multiple male members and solo female artists. The class features only one all-female act (Whitney Houston) and 13 all-male acts (from Kraftwerk to Thin Lizzy).

The number of individuals inducted is ultimately more important than the number of acts, because every inductee gets to vote in future years. That means the voting body -- which also includes industry members and musical experts, chosen by the Hall's board -- is somewhere close to 90% male as well. The Hall does not report the names of the additional voters, but if its demographic is anything like that of the nominating committee, or the Hall's board, it's not good. In 2019, four of the 29 nominating committee members were women (13.8%); reportedly one more, Linda Perry, has been added. Only two of the 26 members of the Rock Hall Foundation's board are women.

People have lambasted the hall for this chauvinism for years. When Steve Miller was inducted in 2016, he called the Hall a "private boys club." When Nirvana was inducted in 2014, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic pointedly chose four women to sing Kurt Cobain's parts during their performance. Last year, Janet Jackson, one of only two women out of seven acts inducted, said "Induct more women" as she accepted her honor. The phrase instantly became a hashtag. 

Even the newly-elected chairman of the Hall, John Skyes, has said in multiple interviews that diversifying the hall is his number-one priority. That's a good sign. But Sykes was handpicked as a successor by Jann Wenner, one of the clique of rock-biz patriarchs who founded the Hall, and he is an executive at iHeart Media, the company formerly known as Clear Channel, which has long had almost monopolistic sway over the country's gender-divided airwaves. Besides, we need action, not words.

I first broke down the gender stats in a 2011 Salon article, and did it again last March, for a Longreads story that quickly went viral. Many Twitter users took up my charge that the Hall try to correct course with a symbolic and substantive move of nominating only women this year, particularly all-female bands. Instead, we got Whitney, Chaka Khan alongside the eight men of Rufus, and Pat Benatar, who is nominated with her male guitarist (to whom she is married). There are also 12 all-male -- and almost entirely all-white -- rock/metal/alternative bands and one rapper (The Notorious B.I.G.).

My research assistant Marika Price and I ran a best-case scenario analysis for the inductees. If six acts are inducted, including the three featuring women (although, in 34 years, they have never inducted more than two at a time), and the acts with the fewest number of male artists are inducted, the total percentage of female inductees in the hall over 34 years would indeed rise: from 7.77% to a whopping 7.96%. That's best case.

In an incredible act of gaslighting, the Hall leadership tried to pass off this tokenism as diversity, and many media outlets fell for it. Rock Hall Museum president Greg Harris told one interviewer that nominating three women was a new step for them; in fact, they nominated five women in 2018 and 2019 and have nominated three or more women in previous years. He told the Cleveland Free Press that the percentages were improving and would continue to improve, because, "As we look at more recent years, there were more women involved in bands." Granted, given that the Hall started with zero women -- and, in 2016, again inducted no women -- the numbers had nowhere to go but up. But we made a chart documenting the overall percentage of women in the Hall since its inception and it shows an almost flat line hovering around 8%. 

The fact is, women were there for the birth of rock'n'roll and at every stage since; the Hall has just ignored them. Why weren't Aretha Franklin, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Big Mama Thornton in that inaugural class? Why did it take 32 years for Tharpe to be inducted? Why has Thornton -- singer of the original "Hound Dog" -- still not even been nominated? While the Hall has started inducting mediocre white male rock bands from the 1980s and 1990s (I'm looking at you, Def Leppard and Bon Jovi), here are some great artists of the 1960s and 1970s it still has not saluted: Labelle, Cher, the Marvelettes, Bette Midler, Dolly Parton, Celia Cruz.

Even worse has been the response from Wenner. When asked about the Hall's lack of diversity, the Rolling Stone founder told the New York Times, "Musical achievements have got to be race-neutral and gender-neutral in terms of judging them." In other words, Wenner is saying that the Dave Matthews Band has been nominated before the Go-Go's, despite the latter's all-female game-changers having been eligible for 12 more years than the jam band, because of DMB's gender-neutral musical achievements -- not because the mostly white, male nominating committee sees themselves in this group of guys.

The Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame has been built and run by the very men who have controlled the music industry since its founding, and as Janet Jackson knows so well, it's all about control. Female artists have been historically kept off the airwaves, magazine covers (looking at you, Jann), festival stages, awards shows, docuseries and charts in numbers disproportionate to their talents and efforts since Elvis Presley sang "Hound Dog" without acknowledging Thornton's previous, superior version. It is the duty of a nonprofit institution like the Hall to honor ability and innovation especially when it has been under-recognized, not to re-inscribe industrial barriers and social biases. I call the Hall's gendered version of history "manhandling," an erasure that increasingly runs hand in hand with whitewashing.

It's in part a definition problem, as the four women of The View understood on their segment on the Rock Hall's class of 2020. Quoting my Longreads research, Chelsea Clinton and the View crew took the Rock Hall to task. "What's the definition of rock'n'roll?" asked Sunny Hostin. "There could be a lot more women if we expand the definition." "There's a whole slew of people who are not considered rock'n'roll," Whoopi Goldberg said, urging everyone to start writing letters to the Hall.

Indeed, a limited vision of what kind of music belongs in the Hall is making it not just predominantly male, but increasingly white. The hall has historically been happy to anoint older and often dead black men, on whose backs popular music has been built. But it has been less eager to embrace living black artists, showing a particular bias against hip-hop. Last year, Jackson was the only non-white artist inducted, a record-breaking low of 2.7%.

On some days, I honestly think, forget the Rock Hall. If social media couldn't shame the boys' club to open up its doors this summer, I'm not sure even letters from The View's 2.859 million fans will do it. It has dug its own hole that IM Pei's pyramid will soon topple over into. Let's start a new Hall of Fame, as NPR Music has begun with their Turning the Tables, and Turn It Up!, an organization I'm involved in, has begun on their website.

As the new chair, Sykes has an opportunity, but he must take sweeping action, not make incremental change. Don't just add a woman here, a rapper there: Entirely reconstitute the Hall's executive board and nominating committee and make the new bodies represent the demographics of the human race, not of the music industry. Either change the rules so that inductees only get one vote per act -- not one vote per member -- or hand out free ballots to every single person who attends a Highwomen or Lizzo show. Listen to Janet: Induct more women!

Evelyn McDonnell has written and edited seven books, including Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyonce. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl. She directs the journalism program at Loyola Marymount University.

Research assistance provided by Marika Price and Flor Amezquita.