There Are Not Enough Women in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

On why sexism and representation matter in defining the American music canon.

Most Popular
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is on the cusp of a very female-friendly group of inductees. Over the next decade a huge number of important female artists from the '90s will become eligible for recognition: Hole, Missy Elliott, Björk, Mary J. Blige, Sheryl Crow, Lauryn Hill, P.J. Harvey, Annie Lennox (as a solo artist), Melissa Etheridge, Queen Latifah, Bikini Kill, Alanis Morissette, Mariah Carey, Liz Phair, Tori Amos, Toni Braxton, Cat Power, Garbage, Sleater-Kinney, and Fiona Apple, among others.  

Most Popular

In order to actually have a female-friendly decade, however, the Hall of Fame has to acknowledge that it has a woman problem. It certainly didn't seem to acknowledge this with its 2016 inductees, who are all male artists and bands. Out of 15 possible nominations, the committee put forth only two women, Chaka Khan and Janet Jackson, both first-time nominees. But the honors were ultimately awarded to Chicago, Deep Purple, NWA, Cheap Trick, and Steve Miller. The male nominees who didn't make the cut in 2016 were the Cars, the J.B.'s, Los Lobos, Nine Inch Nails, the Smiths, the Spinners, Yes, and Chic.

A primer for the uninitiated: each year since 1983, a group of musicians and industry professionals have gathered to induct new members into the Hall of Fame with the aim of "recogniz[ing] the contributions of those who have had a significant impact on the evolution, development and perpetuation of rock and roll." The requirements for eligibility are that the artist must have released a record 25 years prior to their induction and "have demonstrated unquestionable musical excellence." They explain that they also consider the artist's influence and length and depth of catalog and innovation, but that overall excellence is the main thing they're looking for. Apparently only 37 female performers and bands with women meet those criteria. Zero of the executives, managers, and producers inducted have been women. Only one woman, Carole King, has been inducted for her songwriting, along with her ex-husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin (she has not yet been inducted on her own as a performing artist, which is a travesty since every member of the Beatles has).

Apparently only 37 female performers and bands with women meet those criteria. Zero of the executives, managers, and producers inducted have been women.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame does not make public a list of voters and did not respond to a request for a demographic breakdown by age and gender, but it specifies on its website that the largest group of Rock Hall voters is made up of inductees — who are largely straight white dudes. Which might explain why the voting body's "idea of what rock is very outdated and coded to mean straight white male. It's meant to encompass people who espouse ideals of masculinity," says Maura Johnston, a freelance music critic who contributes to Time and Rolling Stone. Chic, a disco act featuring the legendary Nile Rodgers and responsible for the singles "Good Times" and "Le Freak," do not ooze masculinity, and that may be why they were nominated but not inducted for the tenth time this year (making them the most-snubbed act in Rock Hall history). What makes them undeserving might be the audience or style of music for voters who still see disco as pitted against and not as authentic as rock from the era. Like most disco artists, and the pop artists who would follow in disco's musical footsteps in the '80s and '90s, they created music that was first embraced by women, homosexual men, and minorities; by many Rock Hall voters it's considered to be feminine music and not pure rock.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

So how does the Hall of Fame begin to address its paucity of female honorees? It's perfectly logical to offer every inductee a vote, but one step it could take would be to even out the voting pool with younger voters from all aspects of the music industry, especially with an eye toward likely-underrepresented parties: people under 45, women, and minorities. 

A widening of the voting pool for the Rock Hall would not be unheard of. In fact, it happened before the voting body got their 2016 ballots. An outreach to the metal community happened, and among those contacted was writer Katherine Turman, co-author of Louder than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal. "I got an email from a fellow female music writer with a subject line reading, 'Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Looking for Metal Journalists for Ballots,'" Turman recounts. "Of course I said yes, and then I got my invite from the president and CEO, Joel Peresman. It has an invitation and says:

Most Popular

'We constantly look to reassess our needs and goals for the long term future to meet the objectives of the continued success of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We decided to expand our voting roster to include additional key members of the music business community that we feel would be beneficial to our mission.' 

The email doesn't clarify what those "needs and goals" are, but someone (Turman hypothesizes perhaps  Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, who recently joined the nominating committee) clearly pointed out to the Rock Hall that it had a metal problem, and it was taken seriously, with steps taken to address it by inviting experts in that field into the conversation. Metal, a subgenre of rock music, identifies as strongly male: it's all about guitar solos and aggressive sounds. It was ignored for a long time by the Rock Hall, thought of as the dumber, more commercial little brother/offshoot of mainstream rock. That this particular music is being given special attention plays into the male-dominated narrative the Rock Hall is writing.

So which women would be able to do the same thing for women that Morello may have done for metal — convincing the Rock Hall that previously overlooked but female-heavy genres like mainstream pop, much synth-based music from the '80s, and singer-songwriters are worth revering? Judy McGrath, the former president of MTV, who was with the network from its launch, might help the entire body navigate the 1980s in a progressive way. Megan Jasper, the vice president of Sub Pop Records; Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney; and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth have all had front-row seats to the grunge and indie-rock explosions of the last two decades and could lend a hand in helping to elevate underground artists whose role in the Rock Hall will only grow over the next decade. William Morris Endeavor's Sara Newkirk Simon, Epic Records president Sylvia Rhone, Atlantic Records co-president Julie Greenwald, and former artist managers Sharon Osbourne and Mona Scott-Young have all presided over the careers of artists spanning every genre in recent music history; their insights into musical excellence for a new generation would be invaluable. Songwriters Linda Perry (Christina Aguilera "Beautiful," Gwen Stefani "What You Waiting For?"), Cathy Dennis (Britney Spears "Toxic," Kylie Minogue "Can't Get You Out of My Head"), Diane Warren (Aerosmith "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," Celine Dion "Because You Loved Me"), and Ester "The Song Machine" Dean (Nicki Minaj "Super Bass," Katy Perry "Firework") wrote for and with many prominent pop artists of the era and would offer a unique perspective on their talents. A handful of female music journalists and critics are rumored to be part of the nominating committee, but it would be worth adding NPR's Ann Powers, whose voice is one of the loudest and most respected among writers today. And Annie Clark, known to music fans as St. Vincent, would be an excellent choice for the voice of the younger music fanatic, much as Questlove stands in for younger men. 

Achieving 50-50 gender parity on the nominating committee with any new female members would be a huge step toward taking the voices and tastes of women more seriously. This list of examples is only to demonstrate that it is easily possible to find enough women who are knowledgeable about and interested in the history of music.

This list of examples is only to demonstrate that it is easily possible to find enough women who are knowledgeable about and interested in the history of music.

The reason this representation matters is that defining the canon is genuinely important. We already look back on past inductees as the most important people in the history of music, from Madonna to James Brown to Bob Dylan. Women like Joan Baez, Nina Simone, and Loretta Lynn, who have all shaped music history, haven't as much as been nominated to join the Rock Hall. Making a point to induct more of the distinguished and deserving women in the history of music, and to give serious consideration to the multitudes of deserving women in rock who are about to become eligible for induction (and who make up much more than 11 percent of the possibilities), would be a huge step in the direction of equal representation in this venerable institution. In the words of the great Patti Smith, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, "The people have the power to redeem the work of fools."

Courtney E. Smith is the author of Record Collecting for Girls and a freelance writer. 

Read Next: