Music

Who exactly is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame even for?

Damned if they do, damned if they don't, but should we curb our cynicism around the rock institution?

Liam Gallagher. Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

We all know Liam Gallagher isn’t shy about speaking his mind. Still, his reaction to the news that Oasis are among this year’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominees (“I’ve done more for rock ’n’ roll than half of them clowns on that board, so it’s all a load of bollocks”) has scandalised American news outlets.

It’d be easy to put Gallagher’s attitude down to a very British mistrust of all things self-congratulatory, but fellow nominee Cher shares his sentiments. Despite being eligible since 1991, the pop powerhouse has somehow only been nominated this year, even though she said back in December that, “I wouldn’t be in it now if they gave me a million dollars… They can just go you-know-what themselves”. 

Meanwhile, Paul McCartney has thrown his weight behind the campaign for Foreigner to be inducted this year with a short and sweary video (“Foreigner, not in the Hall of Fame, what the fuck?”). But fruity language aside, electioneering for a band famed for windswept power ballads doesn’t really feel very rock ’n’ roll. So what exactly is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, who is inducted and how, and why is it
so divisive? 

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The institution was set up in 1983 by Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun and began inducting performers three years later. Artists are eligible 25 years after their first release and the idea is to honour those who have made an indelible mark on music history and, where possible, get them on stage for a flabby, all-star jam at a swanky ceremony with eye-watering ticket prices (honourable exceptions include Al Green and Willie Nelson joining forces in ’95 and Prince channelling Hendrix before making his guitar disappear in 2004).  

In 1995, the concept found a physical home with the opening of a seven-floor museum in Cleveland, Ohio, which was chosen ahead of New York, Detroit and Chicago thanks to the claim that local DJ Alan Freed coined the phrase “rock ’n’ roll” (the $65m that local civic leaders pledged couldn’t have
hurt either). 

Each year, a list of nominations is chosen by a committee and a committee of roughly 1,000 voters choose a varying number, usually seven to nine, of new inductees. There’s also a public vote, which apparently carries equal weight. Of the 15 acts put forward this year, Ozzy Osbourne is out in front with the public at the time of writing, closely followed by Foreigner and Peter Frampton. The bottom three acts are Mary J Blige, A Tribe Called Quest and Eric B & Rakim, all pioneers but clearly unloved by those who are moved to vote for such things. 

Unsurprisingly, for an organisation that, until last year, was headed up by former Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, the Hall has attracted controversy. Wenner told The New York Times in 2023 that he didn’t include interviews with women in his book The Masters because “none of them were articulate enough on this intellectual level”. As for black artists, “they just didn’t articulate at that level”. Despite an apology, Wenner was voted off the panel and removed from the Hall. 

For years, the Hall was seen as a closed shop, shrouded in secrecy and favouring white male rockers. Back in the ’40s, Sister Rosetta Tharpe added guitar distortion and muscular groove to gospel, laying the foundations for rock ’n’ roll. She was only inducted in 2017 – being Black, bisexual and a woman may have had something to do with that. Nina Simone was inducted the same year.  Of the 253 inductees in the ‘performers’ category to date, 88 are black or groups that feature black artists and just 45 feature women.  

There are also accusations that the Hall ignores certain genres, with heavy metal lovers particularly vocal. In 2018, Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson fumed, “an utter and complete load of bollocks… run by a bunch of sanctimonious bloody Americans who wouldn’t know rock ’n’ roll if it hit them in
the face.” 

That’s not to say the ceremony hasn’t been responsible for some entertaining moments. Take 1988, when Beach Boys frontman Mike Love took his band’s induction as an opportunity to unleash a spectacular torrent of bad vibrations against his peers. During Bob Dylan’s acceptance speech later that evening he deadpanned “I’d like to thank Mike Love for not mentioning me.”  

Kool & The Gang, 2024 nominees. Image: Courtesy Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Recent years have shown an attempt to redress the balance. Last year’s inductees included Kate Bush, Sheryl Crow, Missy Elliott, the Spinners and Chaka Khan. Yet these measures have been seen as betraying the Hall’s purpose by closed-minded rock fans and too little too late by protesters.  

Perhaps we could benefit – as with so many things in life – by taking a leaf out of the celebratory book of Kool & The Gang. In a recent Big Issue interview, Robert ‘Kool’ Bell spoke of his delight in finally being nominated. There’s a sense that, despite enormous sales, his band haven’t been taken seriously enough and a belated show of respect would mean the world. Who would begrudge him that? And besides, if it means there’s the tiniest chance of an all-star jam with Liam Gallagher barking out Jungle Boogie, that’s something we should all get behind. 

Jamie Atkins is a freelance journalist.

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