On Tuesday (Dec. 20), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame revealed the list of artists to be included in its 32nd class of inductees — and in doing so, will likely set off another round of debates about the true definition of “rock and roll,” and whether or not the Hall should consider extending theirs.
Of the six artists to be inducted, only two of them fall outside the genre’s traditional meaning: Joan Baez, the folk singer-songwriter who feels a part of the rock world due to her early connection to Bob Dylan and prominent covers of artists like The Band and The Beatles, and Tupac Shakur, the rapper whose incendiary antics, premature death and lasting cultural iconicity arguably made him hip-hop’s greatest rock star.
Otherwise, it’s a diverse list of rock artists that nonetheless mostly fall into conventional groupings for the Rock Hall: The alternative hitmakers that stuck around long enough to become classic rock (Pearl Jam), the progressive noodlers whose artiness managed to not completely overwhelm their commercial appeal (Yes), the visionary musical maestros who translated a singular sound into both AM and FM gold (Electric Light Orchestra) and the populist arena-rockers whose songs will live on at bars and karaoke nights forever (Journey). Last year, you could’ve fit honorees Cheap Trick, Deep Purple, Chicago and Steve Miller Band into those four respective categories with a minimum of wiggling, and of course saved Tupac’s spot for final inductee N.W.A.
If any of those 2017 names are surprising or indicative of evolving trends at the Rock Hall, it’s probably the last one: Journey was absolute anathema to tastemakers and rock snobs for the entirety of their commercial peak, dismissed as overblown cheese-rock indicative of the genre’s bloated stagnation. But their songs have outlived their critical reputation, and their repertoire of lighter-wavers is understood by the next generation to be without equal among their peers: 1981 hit “Don’t Stop Believin'” in particular has soundtracked countless movies, TV shows and sporting events since its 21st-century resuscitation, and actually has the most Spotify streams of any track from the 20th century. Clearly in this era — where fan vote even helps determine the final list of honorees — the combination of traditional rock musical signifiers plus extended cultural endurance holds more sway for an act’s chances than their contemporary reviews.
But as is often the case, the list of inductees this year isn’t as telling as the list of those left out. With more acts from the late ’70s and early ’80s nominated every year, we’re forever threatening to reach a tipping point on the Rock Hall where the list of dance- and electronic-based artists becomes too powerful to be denied. It won’t come in 2017, however: Electronic pioneers Kraftwerk were again snubbed, as were synth-pop standard-bearers Depeche Mode and even dance-pop megastar Janet Jackson. All three acts undoubtedly have the catalogs and modern-day influence to merit inclusion, but their “Rock and Roll” qualifications require a little squinting to make out, and so they’ll likely have to wait until the Steve Perrys and Jeff Lynnes of the world have all gotten past the velvet rope before they get to enter themselves.
And speaking of waiting your turn: After a jaw-dropping 11th year (including the last 10 years in a row) of Chic being nominated and not inducted, the Rock Hall seems to finally be taking pity on bandleader Nile Rodgers. Though Chic was once again turned away at the door, the singular funk and disco trailblazer — who also served as a massively influential writer and producer through his work with Hall of Famers like Diana Ross, David Bowie and Madonna, right up to current dance powerhouses Daft Punk and Avicii — is slated to receive the Award for Musical Excellence, given to artists who “have spent their careers out of the spotlight working with major artists on various parts of their recording and live careers.” Though it’ll undoubtedly be a mixed blessing for Rodgers to be honored without the rest of his epochal group, it at least seems to show the Hall recognizing the deserved outcry surrounding Chic’s repeated exclusion, and a sort of implied plea for continued patience until they can catch up to changing trends within their own voting.
It’s a nice gesture, but it might not be enough. In a year where the music industry’s other most infamously lagging-behind-the-times institution managed to finally drag itself into modern times with its list of nominees, it’s not the best look for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to still be clinging to its traditional standards quite so tightly. As contemporary music continues to shift its center away from guitars and as the list of newly eligible rock legends shrinks with every passing year, the Rock Hall will need to give strong consideration to finding ways to loosen its parameters, lest it lose all sense of vitality and become a museum in the realest sense. Until then, they’ll just have to hope that rock true-believers continue to hold on to that feeling for one more year.