Tag Archives: diversity

The Rock Hall Class of 2021: 3 Steps Forward, 7 Steps Back

It sounds great. The Go-Go’s, Carole King and Tina Turner — my top three choices among the year’s nominees — all being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as performers, at long last. (Turner and King were inducted previously, but not for their solo performance work.) Half of the six acts being inducted into the performer category are female, and almost half (46.67%) of the individual musicians are women. (If, say, original drummer Elissa Bello were being inducted with the Go-Go’s, there would be total gender parity.) Given the hall’s horrible track record – a paltry 7.63% of total inductees prior to this year are female – this looks like progress. “Head over heels,” I tweeted when I awoke this morning to the news, referencing a Go-Go’s song (but you probably knew that).

But scroll down a little further. In addition to the six acts being inducted as performers (the men are Jay-Z, the Foo Fighters, and Todd Rundgren, if you care), the hall took the unusual step this year of inducting three acts under the Early Influence category, three under Musical Excellence, and one for the Ahmet Ertegun Award, for non-performers. Guess how many of those seven inductees are or have female members? Here’s a hint: It’s the same number of women who were in the 17 acts inducted into the hall during its first year, 1986.

That’s right: zero.

After years of criticism for their entrenched sexism and creeping racism, Cleveland’s music institution seems to be attempting to change course. Under the leadership of new chairman John Sykes, who has called for more diversity and inclusion at the clubhouse founded by the patriarchs of the record industry, the hall offered a diverse selection of nominees this year, yielding a fairly strong slate of inductees. (Though Foo Fighters over Fela Kuti? Todd Rundgren over Dionne Warwick? Really?!)

Three steps forward, seven steps back: the all-male slate of additional inductees skews the count back toward its stone age past, making the total percentage of female inductees 28 percent. Okay, that’s nine times better than the 3.45 percent of 2020’s winners (ie, Whitney Houston), but then that was a pathetically low bar. This year’s class rectifies the long-term trend of gender imbalance by a measly half a percentage point: Now, 8.17% of inductees to the hall over the past 35 years have two X chromosomes.

And most egregiously, still not a single business woman has ever been inducted into the Ahmet Ertegun non-performer category. (King, Ellie Greenwich, and Cynthia Weil have all been inducted as songwriters, along with their male partners.)

I applaud the Rock Hall’s efforts to honor artists who have been too long snubbed by voters, particularly Kraftwerk and LL Cool J. I have no issue with any of the seven deserving acts that have been added onto the main category; Gil Scott-Heron, Charley Patton, and Clarence Avant add diversity to a hall that started with impressive racial balance but has increasingly skewed white. But given that special committees handpicked by the Rock Hall selected these inductees, you might have thought they would have checked their gonads at the door. Why not honor Chaka Khan, Big Mama Thornton and Sylvia Rhone as well?

La plus ca change …

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Turbulence at the Rock Hall

Black History Month Spotlight: Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston is the only woman being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame in 2020.

In her 1998 piece Turbulent, Shirin Neshat juxtaposes two videos. In the first, a man in a white button-down shirt stands in front of an auditorium of other men. He turns to face the camera and sings a work by the Persian poet Rumi, accompanied by string instruments that are not filmed. It’s a powerfully emotive performance – a series of ululated exclamations — rewarded by a round of applause; the man takes his bows.

In the second, a woman in a black hijab stands in front of an empty theater and softly begins moaning. The camera rotates to her face slowly. She sings wordless scales, with the only accompaniment the amplified echo of her own voice, panting and bell-like and screeching – a one-woman emotive cacophony. When she finishes, there is no applause. There is no one there to clap.

Turbulence answers the old riddle: If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? The woman, Iranian vocalist and composer Sussan Deyhim, makes a mighty sound – as have the other women, across time and space, who have sung their songs in the privacy of their showers, their bedrooms, their walks, their woods because no one could, or would, hear them. Neshat was directly commenting on the fact that in her birth country of Iran, women were not allowed to sing in public after the Islamic revolution (they now can sing only in limited circumstances). But I see the bold, disturbing binary depicted in Turbulent as relevant across cultures.

How many little girls have been told they should be seen and not heard? How many aspiring musicians have auditioned for A&R men – and they are almost always men – only to be asked to trade their bodies for a contract? How many women have gotten past the casting couch only to be told they’re not skinny/pretty/pale/soft/sexy enough? How many were kept off the airwaves because only one woman was allowed on the playlist – because (as one country radio consultant infamously said) they were the tomatoes in the salad, not the lettuce? How many were allowed to be representatives of feminine beauty, but only for one song, one year, before they were deemed too old? How many were recognized for the innovations – the genius — that made them not necessarily popular, but pioneers? How many are saluted as legends? Are in the Songwriters Hall of Fame? Are in the Rock&Roll Hall of Fame?

We can answer the last two questions: 31 songwriters, or 7 percent of the total body, and  — as of today’s announcement of the class of 2020 – 140 artists, or 7.68 percent.

The halls’ omissions are striking. I do not think they accurately correlate to the successes of women in music, though that’s a hard thing to quantify. They certainly do not correlate to the efforts and effects of female musicians, to the percentage of women in the world, or to any known genetic link to musical talent. What they do represent are the gendered tastes of the mostly male nominating and voting bodies that make these decisions. They are today’s version of the Shriners or Masons: bro’ societies devoted to self-perpetuation. They are patriarchies.

Which makes it all the more offensive when they insist their decisions have nothing to do with gender or race, but only with quality (as both Rock Hall Foundation CEO Joel Peresman and former Rock Hall Board chair Jann Wenner have recently said). When they say that, they tell us that Chaka Khan, Big Mama Thornton, Cher, Labelle, the Go-Go’s, Bette Midler, Celia Cruz, Selena, Bjork, Dionne Warwick, Pat Benatar, etc., etc., are not actually good, but are just women. They add insult to injury.

The halls didn’t necessarily erect the obstacles that have historically kept sisters from achieving the fame and fortune of their brothers – though many of the industry insiders who created and run the halls certainly did work for companies infamous for sexual discrimination. But by repeatedly inducting only a puny, token number of acceptable ladies, they enshrine those gags – and then say they were earned.

Look outside the industry. In your home, in your schoolyard, in your gym, around your campfire: who makes the music? Who sings the songs?

And who is listening?

Turbulent is included in Shirin Neshat: I Will Greet the Sun Again, an exhibit currently at the Broad museum in Los Angeles, https://www.thebroad.org/shirinneshat.

You can read my previous writing about the Rock Hall here:

https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/8543758/rock-roll-hall-fame-gender-racial-diversity-guest-opinion-evelyn-mcdonnell

https://longreads.com/2019/03/29/the-manhandling-of-rock-n-roll-history/

https://www.salon.com/2011/12/11/the_rock_hall_of_fames_women_problem/

 

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Rock Hall Keeps Getting More Male and More White

NOTE: THIS POST HAS BEEN CORRECTED TO STATE THAT FOUR PEOPLE OF COLOR ARE IN THIS YEAR’S INDUCTEES.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced the 2020 inductees this morning. The good news is both Whitney Houston and the Notorious B.I.G. are included. The bad news is Houston is the only woman among the 23 people honored (including the non-performer honorees), and she and Biggie are two of the only four people of color. That means 4.34% of this year’s class is female, and 17.39% is POC. Cumulatively, that means the Rock Hall continues to get less diverse by race and gender: 7.68% of the total number of inductees is female, down from the already depressing 7.77% of 2019. For POC, that’s 32.4%, down from 32.77%.

These results should throw down the gauntlet for new Rock Hall Chair John Sykes, who has said that increasing the hall’s diversity is his top priority. He will have to take strong, decisive actions to reverse this steady decline.

Stylistically, the lineup is slightly more diverse than in some years, including T. Rex, the Doobie Brothers, Depeche Mode, and Nine Inch Nails. Chaka Khan was snubbed once again — a fact I consider an outrage. The only other woman nominated, Pat Benatar, was also passed over.

Thanks to LMU graduate student Marika Price for crunching the numers.

You can read my previous writing about the Rock Hall here:

https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/8543758/rock-roll-hall-fame-gender-racial-diversity-guest-opinion-evelyn-mcdonnell

https://longreads.com/2019/03/29/the-manhandling-of-rock-n-roll-history/

https://www.salon.com/2011/12/11/the_rock_hall_of_fames_women_problem/

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#RockandRollHallofShame

No women. Not one. There is not a single female in any of the five acts to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next year. The Cock Hall has a long history of exclusion, as I’ve written about before. But this year is the worst. MOR white-guy classic rockers Steve Miller, Deep Purple, Cheap Trick (okay, I confess, I voted for them), and Chicago over nominees Chic, Chaka Khan, and Janet Jackson. Not to mention all the deserving women who were once again passed over for nominations. When you break it down intersectionally, as this blogger did yesterday, the omission of women of color is even more egregious and depressing. Rock and Roll Hall of Shame.

The most disappointing aspect to this year’s winners is that the HoF tried. They recruited women and people of color, adding many new voters to the induction process. I know, because not only was I finally sent a ballot — 30 years after I became a professional music critic, need I point out — I was sent two! And I was asked by a board member to suggest other voters, at least one of whom received his first ballot after a similar amount of time as an extremely well-regarded Latino cultural journalist. (I should point out at this juncture that nominee Los Lobos were not inducted. Someone please crunch the numbers of Hispanic acts in the Hall of Shame. Only one act with predominantly people of color — famed misogynists N.W.A — made the cut this time.)

Someone with more time than I have needs to investigate this further. My sense is that having been launched by old white guys, the Hall is too big of a ship at this point to change direction. No amount of course correction can keep it from plunging off the edge into irrelevancy. It’s a true shame, because I was there the day the Hall opened, and I believe in honoring the important but complicated history of American popular music. But building a voting body around a sexist, racist industry is the wrong way to go about it.

I appreciate having been finally invited into the boys club. I’ll vote again, because enfranchisement is precious. But dammit, I’m ready to build my own club.

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