How to Fix the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Op-Ed
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has problems -- and not just because it hasn't inducted your favorite group. The Hall should have more women, more artists of color, more acts in underrepresented genres like heavy metal. But after 32 years of inducting artists, the Hall's biggest bias has proved to be generational.
For way too many Hall voters, rock ended around the time the eight-track tape format stopped selling. There have been over 200 acts voted in as performers: 28 percent started their careers in the 1950s or before, a whopping 44 percent in the 1960s, and 21 percent in the 1970s -- just 7 percent in the 1980s or later. Basically, after they inducted the first tier of 1960s acts, the Hall went on to the second tier, and is now hard at work on the third tier. (Yeah, that means you, Moody Blues.)
The Nominating Committee has done admirable work in recent years to broaden the range of acts put up for a vote, bringing in Questlove and Tom Morello to be part of the conversation, and putting forward names like Bad Brains, Kate Bush, and (over and over) Chic. Reasonable people can disagree about the philosophy of the voters; hell, reasonable people can say that calling the voters' collective preferences a "philosophy" is mildly deranged. Part of the pleasure of the Hall, after all, is the way it provokes heated arguments about who's worthy of a plaque in Cleveland. But the Hall is falling down on what should be the easiest part of its job: inducting the most overqualified musicians.
Any act that tops the charts and sells out arenas and is critically well-regarded and lasts for at least a decade? That should be a no-brainer first-ballot all-access laminate. “So why are Radiohead still on the outside?” you might ask. Unless you were busy asking that question about Janet Jackson. Or Depeche Mode. Or Nine Inch Nails.
It's as if the Baseball Hall of Fame got fixated on the 1960 New York Yankees, and after honoring Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, worked their way through the whole lineup and continued on to the batboys. It's time to be debating the merits of Oasis versus Whitney Houston versus Rage Against the Machine.
The Hall's current efforts to move forward seem to revolve around recruiting younger and hipper voters, not yet eligible for Social Security. But it's running as fast as they can to stay in place, because every time it inducts a band, it gives the group's members a vote -- for example, the members of Chicago (class of 2016), six white dudes with an average age of 72 -- which perpetuates the vicious boomer cycle.
Fortunately, there’s a simple solution that doesn't involve knocking down that fancy I. M. Pei building and starting over. Acts currently become eligible for the Hall 25 years after their first commercial recording -- that's fine. But their window of availability should close 40 years after that first record. If you don’t get into the Hall in 15 years, the voters have already made their collective opinion clear -- you just don't belong.
This would not just force the Hall to move past acts who played Woodstock, it would give a greater degree of urgency to the annual vote. If the policy were enacted for 2019, only acts whose first recordings were made between 1979 and 1994 would be eligible. (Want to induct INXS, X, or the B-52's, Hall voters? Better do it fast.)
Voters would still choose five acts a year from a slate offered by the Nominating Committee -- let that be supplemented, as now, with occasional non-performers and sidemen. And a veterans’ committee would choose one additional act a year who was overlooked by the Hall's general electorate—retain the "Award for Musical Excellence" name, but let the committee pick a worthy artist from the swath of rock history before the era considered by the voters (up through 1979, or whatever the current cutoff is for the Nominating Committee). Give the Musical Excellence Committee a mandate to fill in some of the Hall's blank spaces with important acts whose influence outstripped their sales, like the New York Dolls and the Meters.
The institution would have been stronger if they had this policy from the beginning, but it could still hugely benefit from it -- assuming that the Hall monitors believe that rock and its offshoot genres still have life and influence and relevance. If, on the other hand, they believe rock is dead, they don’t need to change anything -- they can stay on their present course and have a slow-motion funeral.