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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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Talking ‘Bout Women and Music

Britney Spears. The Grammys. Lady Gaga. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Women and music has been a hot topic lately, and I’ve been talking about it. Agence France-Presse interviewed me about the Grammy nominations. The Guardian asked me about Gaga. And Newspoint 360 talked to me about a bunch of stuff, see video below.

 

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The Rock Hall course corrects

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.

Tina Turner

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.

It took 15 years of being eligible for the Go-Go’s to be nominated to the Rock Hall. The Foo Fighters were nominated the first year they were eligible.

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
  • Devo
  • Foo Fighters
  • The Go-Go’s
  • Iron Maiden
  • JAY-Z
  • 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.

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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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Who Cares About the Cock Rock Hall?

My Longreads piece on the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame and other perpetrators of gender inequity, “The Manhandling of Rock’n’Roll History,” seems to have hit a chord (so to speak). Future Rock Legends, THE watchdog site for the Rock Hall, published an article about it. And I did a really fun interview with Who Cares About the Rock Hall?, a podcast by comedians Joe Kwaczala and Kristen Studard.

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A Festival Where the Future Is Fem

Festivals have a bad reputation for not showing a lot of r-e-s-p-e-c-t to women. (See what I did there?) Numerous articles over the last several years have pointed out how few female artists are booked at some of the major music gatherings, and how low they are often kicked down the billing. Drunken bacchanals can be mine fields for audience goers as well, who at best have to push aside guys who insist on dancing close, and at worst, are gang raped; see, Woodstock 1999.

Hopefully the triumph of Beychella proves once and for all that women can very successfully headline music festivals that aren’t named after biblical heroines or take place in the woods of Michigyn. It’s an idea that the Music Tastes Good festival has been testing for a few years, and last weekend, the two-day gathering in Long Beach demonstrated loudly and joyously, as Ann Magnuson would say, the power of pussy.

Both days of the sun-blessed soiree featured a variety of female-led acts. Saturday’s lineup included the psych-punk ¾-female Silver Lake band Feels, one of my favorite local groups, although I missed their MTG set. I did get there just in time to catch Quintron and Miss Pussycat, the adorably kitschy New Orleans duo who blend punk, polka and puppets. They played the classic alcoholic anthem “In Heaven There Is No Beer” as the lazy-susan stage rotated them out and away from the crowd, the perfect fadeout.

I was there for the ladies so when the four lads from shame (they lowercase their name; bell hooks appropriation?) came on, I went to check out the food-tasting tent. As its name indicates, MTG pairs food from all over the left coast with sounds from, well, all over. So you can enjoy some super-foodie treats instead of the turkey legs or butter-soaked corn cobs of your usual outdoor concert. The tastiest tasting I tried was the pork-belly rice bowl by Wesley Young of Pidgin restaurant in Vancouver.

I finished noshing just in time for Cherry Glazerr, another fave LA band, led by the young Clementine Creevy. Creevy has a great, brittle throb of a voice and suicide-blonde looks, but what impressed me most was the way she pulled off sneering guitar licks while singing completely contrapuntal melodies – all with the support of just two bandmates. Lead singers who are also the lead, and only, guitarist are few and far between; Creevy’s the shit.

She rotated off, and on came a four-piece guitar band with three dudes and one player whose sex I wasn’t sure of, until Adrianne Lenker opened her mouth and this alto vibrato flew out. I didn’t know anything about Big Thief, but I was converted. Their take on Flying Burrito Bros. country-rock is so studious it’s almost pretentious, but Lenker’s words are poetic and felt.

Princess Nokia’s political rap-rock made for a bit of a jarring transition – it’s great that the rotating stage makes the segue between acts timeless and seamless, but sometimes you need a few minutes to, er, digest. Still, she and her DJ won me over immediately with her rap about brujas, Arawaks, and Black-a-Ricans. She pulled a classic riot grrrl move, asking for not just girls to the front, but people of color, queers, nonbinaries, etc. Then she sang about her little titties and big stomach, a tomboy retort to the typical festie cry of “show us your titties!”(I also saw a girl with a bag that said, “Show us your kitties!”)

Then, it was Santigold. Oh my goddess. Her show was so smart, so creative, so thoughtfully put together and so unlike any other concert I have seen (and you know, I’ve seen thousands, and I’ve seen Santi before), that it is hard to describe. She wore a scarlet cape with plastic water bottles, dollar bills, and green pompoms sewn on it, and was flanked by two dancers: black women clad in white tennis outfits whose bodies moved impeccably throughout the show and who never betrayed any emotion. They pulled off a James Brown routine: pretend fainting, then getting revived. Rock rubs against reggae, funk, new wave and hip-hop in Santibrown’s songs, shooting off sparks, getting hot. As DJ Lynnee Denise writes in Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, “Santigold is one of those artists who is vulnerable to the belief that hers is not black music, but from my gatekeeping position, my work here is to place her where she belongs,  squarely  between the tradition and the future of black music.”

Some bands named “Broken Social Scene” and “New Order” played afterwards. I saw the latter about 35 years ago, when they actually sort of mattered (and I personally played “Temptation” live every day), and they were the worst live band ever – they were so bad, they made fans in Boston riot. Why would I go see them now, with Santigold’s “Disparate Youth” ringing in my ears?

Hollie Cook started my Sunday off on a beatific reggae groove. She’s punk-rock legacy, daughter of a Sex Pistol, member of the Slits version 2, friend/collaborator of my friend/collaborator Vivien Goldman. In her vivid pant suit basking in the Southland sun, she was a bit of a flower child, bless her.

Next, I made my way over to the Gold Stage for Lizzo, a dance diva with a big, beautiful voice and body, both of which she flaunts unashamedly. She and her dancers, the Big Grrrls, and DJ dressed in black pleather dominatrix corsets and sang about body positivity. Lizzo was the poster child for Music Tastes good: After asking the audience if they had eaten as well as she had, she stated, “I’m sexy when I’m bloaty.” She urged people to dance to burn off all the calories they had just consumed. She had a practical message for this week’s stupidity/evil in Washington: “I deleted every fuck boy in my social media.”

It was time for the main event. Janelle Monae has for years been weaving a sci-fi song cycle as intricate as the Earthsea trilogy or the Matrix movies, as funky as a Prince groove, and as crazy sexy cool as a TLC hit. She stepped outside the narrative on Dirty Computer to get personal. Rewind: She stepped outside the narrative on Dirty Computer to get political. Because these days, as ever, the personal is political.

“Woman must write her self,” Helene Cixous wrote more than 40 years ago in Laugh of the Medusa. I think of Dirty Computer, particularly the track “Pynk,” with its accompanying bootylicious video, as embodying Cixous’s call for ecriture feminine, women’s writing. It’s a glorious celebration of pussy power, with a spelling that harks directly to 1970s womyn’s culture. Monae kicked off the album’s release by coming out as “pansexual,” which may seem a bit ambiguous, but “Pynk” leaves little to the imagination. With her Fem the Future organization and her speeches at the Women’s March and the Grammys, Monae has been at the forefront of the current liberation movement, black and pynk and proud. Plus, she kicks out the jams. Dirty Computer is my album of the year.

As the crowd made its way back to the Franklin stage, Lizzo’s admonishments to be their own inspirations echoing in their heads, I had that special feeling that I was part of a movement, that in the female, nonbinary, multihued bodies around me, I had found my tribe. We waited with bated breath for our screen siren to appear in flesh before us. And then, there she was, dressed like an Afrofuturistic queen with an elaborate stage setup.

Monae certainly tapped into the mood of this moment; on the double-entendre track “Screwed,” she put special emphasis on the lyric “wanna get screwed at a festival.” And yet, the show was tightly scripted, the moves highly choreographed, her body, from head to toe, firmly encased in costumes. On album and in interviews, she may be revealing her self, but on stage, she doesn’t seem to have fully made the transition from android to human. Tellingly, the song that seemed most real was the sweet confessional “I Like That,” from Computer, in which she celebrates her idiosyncrasy, claiming not badassness but being “the minor note you hear in major songs.” Monae is my major note, but that’s a lot to ask anyone to live up to, android or not.

Some Blake bloke followed Monae, but again, he was an afterthought that I didn’t think. I wish Music Tastes Good had put a woman in one of the weekend’s two top slots, but Janelle was billed as a headliner. Overall, the festival almost alternated male and female-led acts of an impressive range, from punk to funk to reggae to rap to rock. Plus, they worked with the #HereForTheMusic anti-harassment campaign of Calling All Crows, who trained staff and security in how to make Marina Green Park a safe space for everyone. An anti-assault statement was printed prominently on the back cover of the program. Last time I felt like I had a tribe like this at shows, in the mid-‘90s, we had to carve out our own territory in mosh pits. Here’s to a future of getting screwed at festivals, in a good way.

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