Music culture never evolves in a straight line, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has hardly been an exception to that. While the past few years have seen an uptick in non-traditional nominees — in 2017, art-pop legends Kate Bush and the Eurythmics were both nominated for the first time, after over a decade of eligibility — with hip-hop greats like 2Pac and N.W.A have even making it past final cut, the actual list of inductees has continued to skew white, male and classic rock.
In the last few years, Steve Miller Band, Chicago and Electric Light Orchestra have all been enshrined, while Kraftwerk, Janet Jackson and Depeche Mode have failed to make it past the short list. Disco-funk paragons Chic got nominated and snubbed so many times (11) that eventually, the Rock Hall opted to let in co-founder Nile Rodgers (for “Musical Excellence”) on his own. Pop titans like Whitney Houston and George Michael have never been recognized, nor have more outré figures like Björk or Can — not to mention alt-rock favorites like The Cure, The Smiths and Nine Inch Nails, all of whom have been nominated but not inducted, despite seeming to fit Rock Hall billing in every category but their era.
This is all to say: If you were hoping that 2018 would be the year that the Rock Hall would make noted progress in one or more of these areas with their inductions, announced Wednesday morning (Dec. 13), you might wanna look away at this point. Instead, the Rock Hall voters have elected to further empty the bench of classic-rock hitmakers: The Moody Blues, Dire Straits, The Cars and Bon Jovi.
The lone outliers of the bunch go back even further than those groups: Nina Simone and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the latter a voting-separate induction as an “Early Influence.” Both inductions are certainly worthy — Simone’s especially feels thuddingly obvious, and well overdue; like Joan Baez last year, it was likely just a matter of the field recognizing her as “rock”-eligible, and then it was a no-brainer for the beyond-iconic performer to be voted in. But while their inclusion serves to expand the Rock Hall’s core definition (and goes a small fraction of the way to addressing the institution’s galling gender imbalance), it’s hard to give the committee too much credit for embracing the future by simply having corrected the oversights of two artists who have both long since passed away.
And besides them, this year’s class is a lot of FM rock acts who’ve been eligible for ages — Bon Jovi are the young guns of the bunch, having only been eligible for a decade already — seemingly only making it through this year for a lack of undeniable competition. (Not since 2011 has there been a class where every inductee has already been Hall-available for so long.) While all four acts have an argument for worthiness, none are exactly bulletproof cases: Dire Straits and Moody Blues in particular seem to have been largely left behind by rock history, though the latter does persist as a successful touring attraction for baby boomers, and the former has seen a minor return to relevance through echoes found in the critically acclaimed music of The War on Drugs.
The Cars and Bon Jovi seem timelier choices for their more enduring hits — The Cars have seen their sound matriculate into later generations of pop-minded rock acts, many through the production work of frontman Ric Ocasek, while Bon Jovi are obvious successors to 2017 inductees Journey as next year’s addition to the Rock Hall’s honorary Karaoke Wing. But if they’re the best the Rock Hall can do for contemporary relevance among living acts, that’s not particularly commendable, particularly as hip-hop’s original superstar LL Cool J is left in waiting for the fourth time.
And of course, the most conspicuous name of the 2018 class may be the one most inexplicably missing: Radiohead. In something of an odds-and-sods year of nominees, the art-rock veterans seemed to be by far the surest bet on the ballot; the most critically acclaimed band of the last 25 years, with pronounced commercial success, a continued touring presence and as much enduring influence as any of their peers. Their cerebral albums might not scan as traditionally classic rock as recent inductees Pearl Jam or Green Day, but their resume still seemed to speak for itself: Future Rock Legends, a site devoted to Rock Hall tracking, has the band at No. 32 in their all-time power rankings, ahead of such obvious first-ballot inductees as Neil Young, Prince and R.E.M.
So what happened? Well, politics may have played a part: It’s already been pointed out that Radiohead will be on tour in South America at the time of the Rock Hall’s 2018 induction ceremonies, and the band’s feelings about the Hall as an institution have historically been lukewarm at best. (Consequence of Sound has even reported a rep for the band confirming unequivocally: “They’re not attending.”) It’s possible a sort of you-don’t-want-us-we-don’t-want-you mentality influenced the voter base, and resulted in Radiohead getting passed over in their first year of eligibility.
Or maybe the Rock Hall is getting more reactive in its generational splits. Pearl Jam and Green Day have both expressed much greater willingness to play fealty to the Hall’s legacy than Radiohead, who’ve long frowned on such exercises in looking backwards. Why induct these snotty kids when there are still older acts with (arguably) worthy resumes still sitting on the sidelines? It’s not just Radiohead, either — rap/rock progenitors Rage Against the Machine were also eligible for the first time this year but denied induction, while other logical grunge-era selections like Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden have yet to be recognized at all. It seems like they’ll all have to take a number and wait behind whatever plausible boomer favorites remain. Maybe it’s not too late for The Zombies and MC5 after all.
There’s some advantage for the Rock Hall to this being the current default induction mode. In addition to pleasing the aging core that still likely makes up the majority of voters (and fans that really care about this sort of thing), keeping out obvious post-Nirvana choices in effect extends the museum’s lifespan among its active rock base: Why bother debating whether or not Coldplay and Muse should be considered Hall-worthy six years from now if Radiohead and Oasis aren’t even in yet? The deeper we get into the 2020s, when the biggest newly eligible traditional rock choices start to be either commercial favorites with no critical backing (Linkin Park, Nickelback) or cult favorites with marginal commercial success (The Strokes, Death Cab for Cutie), the Rock Hall will undoubtedly hope to have some sexier ’90s rock picks still to pad their lineups. No problem there: At this rate, they’ll barely be underway cleaning out the late ’80s by that point.
But of course, this comes with the risk of alienating anyone currently under the age of 30 who might actually have the Rock Hall mean something to them someday. It’s worth taking a look at that other long-in-the-tooth musical institution perpetually under fire for being out of touch — the Grammys — and noting that they’ve actually taken proactive steps to retool and revitalize their voting process, which paid off this year with the most timely crop of nominees the big categories have seen in ages. We’ll see what that does for the Grammys’ ratings in the short-term, but in the long term, they’re at least giving the show a chance of reaching the next generation. For the Rock Hall, it’s increasingly unclear what the plan is once they run out of Moody Blues fans to cater to.