Whitney Houston, the Notorious B.I.G., Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, T. Rex, and the Doobie Brothers will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at a ceremony set to take place May 2, 2020, at Public Auditorium in Cleveland. While fans of these veteran acts will view the news of the hall’s 35th annual round of inductees as a long time coming, taken as a whole, they show just how far the institution has to go in terms of honoring diversity.
“Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, please in 2020 induct more women,” 2019 inductee Janet Jackson said during her acceptance speech at last year’s ceremony. She was one of two women inducted in 2019; Stevie Nicks was the other. The “Hall of Fame,” as it was addressed by Jackson (a group of more than 1,000 artists, experts, and industry employees voted on this year’s ballot; full disclosure: I was among them) did not listen. In 2020, the Hall of Fame, in fact, inducted fewer women.
Two more were on this year’s ballot—Pat Benatar and Chaka Khan (alongside her former band Rufus). They, along with fellow nominees Kraftwerk, Dave Matthews Band, Todd Rundgren, Soundgarden, Judas Priest, MC5, Motörhead, and Thin Lizzy, did not garner enough votes for induction this year. They’re all eligible to be inducted in later years.
Earlier this week, NPR ran a story about the hall’s lack of diversity. Writer/professor Evelyn McDonnell found, prior to the announcement of this year’s inductees, that 69 out of the 888 inductees into the hall were women. That’s less than eight percent.
Like virtually all awards-giving institutions in this country, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has traditionally honored white men and continues to do so. Baked into the honor is, of course, “rock and roll,” and the question of what constitutes it, though by now enough pop and hip-hop artists have made their way in to suggest this is a hall of fame for popular music. In an analysis of this year’s inductees, Billboard points out that they “represent one of the most forward-looking and least genre-stringent classes we’ve seen acknowledged by the Rock Hall,” given the inclusion of snyth pop, industrial, pop-soul, blue-eyed soul, and hip-hop. While not wholly satisfying critics’ or Janet Jackson’s concerns with the institution, that’s some kind of progress.
As for what Whitney Houston would make of her induction, I’m going to make like someone in charge of a hologram and project: I bet she would care more about the fact that she hadn’t been inducted until now than the induction itself. Not being allowed in somewhere can stir up a lot more emotions than a formal invitation.