The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Has A Heavy Metal Problem
Popular music seems to change at lightning speed, but there’s one thing that you can count on, year after year: when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announces its next induction class, there’s gonna be outrage (and, to be fair, some jubilation). The rage often boils down to this: “An artist that I don’t like got in, but the one that I love didn’t get in! Screw the Rock Hall!” There are more colorful variations of this complaint, just check social media.
That’s natural: music fans, and particularly rock music fans, are incredibly passionate about the bands and artists that have shaped their life. A shared love for an artist can create friendships and communities. And as we progress down rock’s timeline, there are more and more offshoots and subgenres of rock and roll. In recent years, the Rock Hall arguments veer from “my favorite band is better/more important than your favorite band” to “my favorite artist is rock and roll and that one isn’t: why are they being inducted?”
Before getting all red-faced about it, it might be helpful to look at the very first two induction classes: in 1986, the inductees were: Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley. In 1987, the honors went to the Coasters, Eddie Cochran, Bo Diddley, Aretha Franklin (the Hall’s first female inductee!), Marvin Gaye, Bill Haley, B.B. King, Clyde McPhatter, Ricky Nelson, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Smokey Robinson, Big Joe Turner, Muddy Waters, and Jackie Wilson. As artists, they set the template for all the popular music that followed. And as inductees, they set the template for who be included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (including, unfortunately, the male-to-female ratio: how were Ruth Brown and Sister Rosetta Tharpe not included? How is Big Mama Thornton not in by now?). There were guitar gods and piano bashers, screamers and crooners. There was blues, country, R&B and yes, even pop. Would you argue that inducting, say, Roy Orbison or Smokey Robinson or Ricky Nelson was “wrong?”
Well, you’re entitled to your opinion, of course: but you might find yourself debating members of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who and Led Zeppelin. And John Fogerty. You don’t want to make him mad. And ask his former bandmates: the man can hold a grudge! Seriously, though: rock and roll has always been about combining lots of different styles. It’s always been a gumbo.
In its early years, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame subscribed to Rolling Stone magazine’s canon of rock history, which made sense: Jann Wenner is a co-founder of both. And Rolling Stone was never a friend to heavy metal, or even hard rock: they infamously trashed Black Sabbath’s debut; for many, that album is considered heavy metal’s “ground zero.” They also slammed debuts from hard rock behemoths AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and even the Jimi Hendrix Experience. (Funny enough, the guy who wrote the Hendrix review, Jon Landau, is being inducted into the Rock Hall this year in the non-performer category.)
But, eventually, the voting body of the Rock Hall changed: for one thing, every inducted artist becomes a voter, and artists don’t have necessarily have the same hangups and preferences as writers and editors. For another, younger music journalists aren’t biased against metal, and many were even brought up on it. (Full disclosure: I am a voter, and a lifelong metal fan). In 2006, after over a decade of eligibility, Black Sabbath was finally inducted. At the time, it felt like it might be an induction akin to those of reggae legend Bob Marley or country icon Johnny Cash: a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who would be the single representative of a genre that the Hall doesn’t really understand.
Then, in 2009, Metallica got in, in their second year of eligibility. But saying that metal is covered because Metallica is in the Hall of Fame would be like saying that alternative music is covered because U2 has been inducted. They’re so big they transcend the genre. Also, there are a good number of critically-panned hard rock bands in the Hall of Fame, including Aerosmith, AC/DC, Van Halen, Alice Cooper, Guns N Roses, Deep Purple, and even KISS — whom Wenner allegedly said would only be inducted “over my dead body.” The voting body developed beyond Wenner’s ability to control it. If Wenner had his way, it’s likely that no metal bands would be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Rock music isn’t at the center of the cultural zeitgeist the way it was in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, but it’s much healthier than you’d think, based on mainstream reporting. Hard rock and heavy metal are particularly healthy; the concert promotions company Danny Wimmer Presents have made a solid business out of multi-day “destination festivals” filled with metal and heavy rock bands who are ignored by mainstream events like Bonnaroo and Coachella. They’ve helped to launch the careers of arena and theater headliners including Slipknot, Avenged Sevenfold and Halestorm, as well as younger acts like Fever 333, Beartooth, Dorothy and Ghost.
As Tom Morello famously said in his legendary speech at KISS’s Rock Hall induction in 2014, “I think the criteria [for induction] are actually quite simple: impact, influence and awesomeness.” “Awesomeness,” of course, is a matter of taste, but impact and influence are somewhat more trackable. Judas Priest and Motorhead’s DNA is surely somewhere in the aforementioned bands; they’ve probably influenced 90% of the other artists playing Wimmer’s Sonic Temple, Aftershock and other festivals. Sure, all of the rock bands to be inducted in the past few years are great, but can you point to the influence of all of them?
That’s why the Hall’s failure to vote in Judas Priest, Motorhead and Thin Lizzy seems like such a slap in the face. It’s not just that they aren’t inducting legendary bands; it feels like they’re disrespecting an entire culture, one that is healthy and relevant in 2020. With all due respect, are there festivals or cruises based around the disciples of the Dire Straits in 2020? (I don’t mind calling them out: if Mark Knopfler was so unimpressed with the Hall of Fame that he declined to participate in his band’s induction, I feel justified in sharing his disinterest).
The nominating committee has been pretty strategic when it comes to hip-hop nominations. There is usually just one artist on the ballot, so that they don’t split the hip-hop vote. Notorious B.I.G. was nominated this year. Jay-Z will be eligible next year, and odds are, he’ll be the only rap artist on the ballot. They should consider doing the same with metal; although they don’t make the ballots public, odds are, Judas Priest, Motorhead and Thin Lizzy (and maybe even Soundgarden) split the metal vote. And now none of them are getting in.
Former VH1 President John Sykes has taken over as Rock and Roll Hall of Fame chairman from Jann Wenner, and last year, Mr. Sykes told Rolling Stone that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame “is no longer about a single genre of music. It’s about a spirit that connects with young people… It will continue to evolve. Because if it doesn’t, it will become irrelevant.” The same might be true of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as well, if they continue to ignore one of rock’s most passionate audiences and one of the few that continues to include young people.