After decades of snubbing female artists and increasingly ignoring artists of color, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame made an impressive course correction yesterday. Of 16 nominated acts announced, seven (43.75 percent) are solo female artists or all-female acts. If you count the number of individual performers nominated – ie, the five members of the Go-Go’s plus Mary J. Blige, Kate Bush, Chaka Khan, Dionne Warwick, Tina Turner and Carole King – women account for almost a quarter (24.44%) of all nominees. Admittedly, that’s still not parity, but it’s a great deal better than the 7.63% of total individuals inducted since the hall was founded in 1986, or the 3.45% of the class of 2020 that was female: Her name was Whitney Houston. Turner and King, if inducted, would become the second and third women to be inducted into the hall twice (they were previously inducted with their former male romantic and artistic partners). It’s about time.
The hall has also reversed its slide away from being an institution that began with almost half non-white artists to one that, in the class of 2020, had less than 15 percent people of color. Almost a third (31.11%) of this year’s individuals nominated are non-white; if you count by act rather than individual, more than two-thirds (68.75%) of the acts include POC.
Even if it’s not the all-female ballot I suggested in 2019, this is still probably the highest percentage of female acts ever nominated to the hall. There were a few years when the hall inducted a slate that was around a quarter female: 28.57% in 1999, 25.93% in 1996, 24% in 1995. Interestingly, the ‘90s were a time of high visibility and activism for female musicians; possibly the hall’s choices reflected that feminist consciousness. And that era’s sheroes – Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill, TLC, Bikini Kill, PJ Harvey, Alanis Morissette, Hole, L7 –are becoming eligible for nomination themselves. Queen Latifah is past due. There are no female rappers in the Rock Hall.
Numbers tell an important story, and the extremity of the figures that I have been crunching for the last decade, in articles for Salon, Goodreads, and Billboard, got people’s attention. Even the hosts of The View were spouting my statistics last nomination round, and an amazing army of podcasters, bloggers, and social media activists took the fight to a level of erudition and specificity that left me in the dust.
But this year’s nominees are not just a relief quantitatively; qualitatively, it’s a pretty damn good list. The diversity of styles – hip-hop, punk, metal, pop, new wave, hard rock, soft rock, medium rock – show that the committee has taken to heart Ice Cube’s induction speech of 2016, in which he said rock’n’roll is not a style, “it’s a spirit.” Beyond the stellar female choices, the committee finally acknowledged rock’s global role by nominating the late Nigerian Afrobeat artivist Fela Kuti. (Though sadly, they left Kraftwerk – arguably the hall’s biggest repeated snub – out this year.) After years of controversy over whether hip-hop acts should be included, they nominated Jay-Z, LL Cool J, Rage Against the Machine, and Blige. (Kiss this, Gene Simmons.) And they played to us old punks with the New York Dolls, thank you. Yes, there are still too many dudes-with-guitar acts – five. Those groups’ multiple members throw off the individual nominee count, skewing it white and male. But I understand they appeal to their own demographics, so let the metal fans have their Iron Maiden. Or their Rage. But not both.
After all, what’s good about this ballot is its expansive embrace of popular musical culture. To me, that’s what rock’n’roll was, at its best. I know the music – like most American culture — harbors a hideous history of racial and gender appropriation. Elvis was King but Big Mama Thornton has still never been nominated to the rock hall. But I also know there was an integration that happened at the Moondog dance parties, at studios such as Stax, on regional radio and even on the charts that offered an aural vision of a different kind of united states. One we need more than ever today. In Eric Lott’s words, there is love and theft. So for once, the nomination announcement made me not want to give up on rock and its Cleveland institution. Now let’s finish the job: As Janet Jackson said in 2019, “Induct more women.”
The complete list of 2021 nominees:
- Mary J. Blige
- Kate Bush
- Foo Fighters
- The Go-Go’s
- Iron Maiden
- Chaka Khan
- Carole King
- Fela Kuti
- LL Cool J
- New York Dolls
- Rage Against the Machine
- Todd Rundgren
- Tina Turner
- Dionne Warwick
Research assistance provided by Schuyler Vanderveen and Yemayá Williams.