Rock Hall Expands Boundaries With Unexpected 2020 Induction Class

Whitney Houston
David Corio/Redferns

Whitney Houston performs at Wembley Arena on May 5, 1988.

The inductees were announced for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Class of 2020 on Wednesday morning (Jan. 15), with Depeche Mode, The Doobie Brothers, Whitney Houston, Nine Inch Nails, The Notorious B.I.G. and T. Rex revealed as the six acts to be honored at the Public Auditorium in Cleveland this May. And while collectively, the six new Rock and Roll Hall of Famers don't answer all the concerns critics have had with the institution in recent years, they do represent one of the most forward-looking and least genre-stringent classes we've seen acknowledged by the Rock Hall.

First, let's start with what's missing: namely, any acts from the 1960s. Technically, T. Rex started in the '60s (as Tyrannosaurus Rex), but both their name change and all their subsequent game-changing albums and hits came the decade after, and that's as close as it gets for this year's class. Not that this year's nominations were exactly overflowing with '60s options to choose from -- of the 16 artists eligible for voting, only proto-punks the MC5 could (arguably) be considered to have experienced their peak of relevance in that decade, and even then only at its very end. But this is still a notable development for the Rock Hall, who has long felt the pull of Baby Boomer-era rock acts too irresistible to break from, resulting in the past few years in inductions for acts like Joan Baez, the Moody Blues and the Zombies.

The Boomers are still represented via The Doobie Brothers, who formed in 1970, and spent the first half of that decade as FM rock hitmakers equally influenced by rootsy Americana and classic soul music -- though the group is equally well-remembered today for their work in the decade's second half, when eventual Yacht Rock kingpin Michael McDonald replaced an ailing Tom Johnston in the lineup, and their sound turned smoother and more pop-friendly. T. Rex also fits within the classic rock canon for radio staples like "Bang a Gong (Get It On)" and "20th Century Boy," but frontman Marc Bolan's lithe vocals, sexually charged lyrics and highly feminized image and stage presence represent a strain of the U.K.'s rock lineage that, along with Roxy Music's induction last year, sets a new precedent for glam rock and its many musical descendants within the Hall. Neither act represents a reinvention of the institution's standards, but both gently push at its edges.

More notable are the simultaneous inductions of Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails. While both acts have come to fit snugly within the arena-rock mold for the last few decades, they represent the two most obviously electronic-influenced rock acts that the Hall has yet voted in (with the arguable exception of predominantly disco-era acts like Donna Summer and the Bee Gees). Depeche Mode came to prominence as androgynous, leather-clad synth-poppers in the early '80s, about as far away as you could get from the trad rock image and sound of the time. Even as their sound evolved to include more standard rock instrumentation and less pop songwriting -- particularly following the departure of founding member Vince Clarke -- they remained at the electro-rock vanguard throughout the '80s and '90s, just as prominent in dance clubs as on alternative radio.

Nine Inch Nails were similarly boundary-pushing for rock music upon their emergence at the turn of the next decade. While the Trent Reznor-led group was more guitar-led (and macho in their lyrical aggression) from the beginning than Depeche Mode, they were similarly reliant on synths and dance beats for their hybrid hits, while Reznor was often dressed in fishnets and leather in their music videos. The group's influence outside of rock was writ large this past year, where pop hits from the likes of 5 Seconds of Summer, Billie Eilish and Miley Cyrus (as Ashley O) were either influenced by or directly lifted from NIN classics, along with a certain trap smash that became the longest-reigning Hot 100 hit ever. Taken together, the recognition of Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails represents a crack in the door for electronic music to make its grand Hall entrance -- perhaps one day even including Kraftwerk, the EDM progenitors denied induction once more upon their sixth nomination this year.

Then, of course, there are the two inductees who fall mostly outside the rock spectrum altogether. Rapper Notorious B.I.G. rose to prominence in an era when rappers didn't even have to respond to rock's supposed supremacy, as the stars of a decade earlier often did; with hip-hop firmly entrenched in pop culture and given its own space on radio, MTV and the Billboard charts, there was no obligation for Biggie to interact with rock at all. However, as with his one-time friend and eventual foe Tupac Shakur (a 2017 inductee himself), his outlaw persona, confessional artistry and live-fast-die-young career arc make him an easy fit into the framework of rock and roll mythology, and thus a relatively easy sell to Rock Hall voters who might otherwise feel alienated by a Gen X hip-hop star.

The Rock Hall's admittance of Whitney Houston is a much bigger deal. As a predominantly pop and R&B star, her music also falls well outside of rock's traditional purview -- but unlike the Notorious B.I.G., she doesn't fit any particularly convenient rock narratives, with even her premature death in 2012 coming well after she had drifted from the mainstream's center. She's hardly unprecedented as a pop veteran among Rock Hall honorees, with Michael Jackson, Madonna, Janet Jackson and the aforementioned Summer all having been previously inducted. But all of those artists had music that frequently intersected with conventional rock sonics and/or rock collaborators, and several of them also had largely defiant, line-pushing personas to endear them to voters who see edginess as a Rock Hall trademark. By contrast, Houston was never a particularly renegade personality or hitmaker at her peak, and while you wouldn't say her music had nothing to do with rock, you'd have to squint to see the rock DNA in most of her biggest hits.

So why is Whitney Houston now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Simply because she was one of the most singular and undeniable -- and successful -- musical talents of the last 50 years. She sold countless millions of records, influenced whole generations of singers, and still resounds today with one of the greatest voices ever heard in popular music. (She also has a powerful proponent in music industry legend Clive Davis, whose continuing advocacy undoubtedly played a part in her finally earning the votes needed for her posthumous induction.) If you're telling the story of popular music in the second half of the 20th century, there's simply no way to tell it without Whitney Houston.

And if her induction makes one thing clear, it's that this is the function the Rock Hall is likely going to play moving forward: rounding up the greats of the rock era, not necessarily just the greats of rock n' roll. Protest it if you want, cry that the museum should change its name if it's going to let Houston in -- and arguably, it should. But this is the precedent that has now been set, and it should be one that will come up again and again with discussions of other non-rock musical legends eligible for induction, like Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Dolly Parton, Chaka Khan (nominated six times between her solo career and work with Rufus, including this year, but still not inducted), and countless others.

Of course, you may notice something else those yet-to-be-inducted artists all have in common. While the Rock Hall made some progressive strides with their Class of 2020, a pressing issue remains the institution's gender imbalance: Houston is the only female represented among the six acts inducted this year -- a ratio that, sadly, is still better than that of the Rock Hall's overall membership, which had been less than 8% female. Opening it up to artists from other genres could be one way of encouraging a greater number of female inductees: While plenty of eligible women throughout rock history, from Kate Bush to Kim Gordon to Björk, are still highly deserving of the Hall, only a select few are household names on the level of Carey and Parton -- who, once on the ballot, would likely seem like no-brainer selections, particularly following Houston's induction.

Given the direction of popular music, it's hard to argue that expanding the definition of the Rock Hall isn't ultimately to its benefit regardless. While a handful of big conventional rock names remain in the pool -- passed-over nominees Soundgarden and Dave Matthews Band are two major '90s bands who would have made for largely credible inductees, but who will have to wait for at least one more year -- that number is going to start to dwindle considerably in the years to come, as the musical vanguard is increasingly defined by genres like pop, rap, dance and country. It'll lead to a whole lot of debates in the future, but if the Rock Hall is to continue to be a topic of discussion at all, it'd be well-advised to follow the example of this year's induction class, and keep expanding out its comfort zone into newer and wider-reaching musical territory.