April 23, 2021

Predictions: The Rock Hall Class of 2021

It never gets any easier. February brought 16 stellar Rock Hall nominees to the table, and close followers of the institution hope the voters check the right boxes. Picking a mere five artists from this ballot is just brutal.

So who gets in? One thing that must be taken into account is the Fan Vote, and whether or not the winner makes the final cut. To date, the Fan Vote winners are 7 for 8: Rush, KISS, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Chicago, Journey, Bon Jovi, and Def Leppard all earned induction, while last year's victor, Dave Matthews Band, got shut out. The current Fan Vote leader is Tina Turner, though Fela Kuti's engaged fan base has kept him at or near the top throughout the process.

Recent induction history can also provide additional clarity, in terms of the number of actual artists that get in. It's perplexing that the Hall has voters pick just five artists, because quite often, more than five get inducted. Recent induction numbers bear that out: 2020's class had six performers and two Ahmet Erteguns. In 2019, there were seven performers. 2017 saw six performers, plus Nile Rodgers getting the Musical Excellence Award. In 2015, they "super-sized" it all, with seven performers and an Early Influence honoree in the "5" Royales. (This made for a painfully long ceremony, admittedly, and the gala might still be going on... there's no way of knowing if Elvin Bishop is done talking or not.)

With the current ballot, it's impossible to vote for five acts and not make a painful omission. Here's a telling example of that: On April 16, Rock Hall VP of Education and Visitor Engagement Jason Hanley shared on Twitter that he picked Devo over Carole King. To quote Jason's tweet exactly, "Hard decision, so many amazing artists." This must be a widely shared sentiment among the votership. 

Given this remarkable ballot  along with the fact that there was no actual ceremony last year  it's reasonable to expect that the Rock Hall will throw a huge, inductee-heavy party at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse this October 30. The prognostication here is a seven-performer class and a Musical Excellence recipient. Even with a live HBO telecast that covers eight acts, they'll be able to bring this show in around two, two and a half hours if they do it right. (Minimizing the speeches and maximizing the performances, as the recent Grammys did, would be a welcome approach.)

The Predictions:

Tina Turner - Quite simply, Tina is overdue, and this honor is richly deserved. Turner is a shining example of having a second act in American life. Her recent documentary on HBO makes it even more pressing and evident that she merits her second induction, independent of her abuser. She's probably winning the Fan Vote, as well.

Carole King One just pictures every Rock Hall voter going, "What? She's not in yet?" and checking that box. The 1971 album Tapestry alone makes King worthy of being in as a performer, in addition to her previous Non-Performer induction with her songwriting partner Gerry Goffin. 

LL Cool J - Everyone is so convinced Jay-Z is the rapper getting in this year... maybe rethink that. It seems cruel they'd put LL Cool J on the ballot for a sixth time and snub him again. Sure, it could happen, but with this ballot, it seems the Hall is trying to right some wrongs and improve optics across the board. In 2017, the illustrious Kennedy Center made LL its first hip-hop honoree; the Rock Hall is truly behind the curve with this guy. Inducting this rap superstar would be the right call, and Rock Hall board member Lyor Cohen's recent open letter in Billboard urging LL's induction might finally put James Todd Smith over the top. (Further, Jay-Z doesn't seem to care, is last in the Fan Vote, and next year's induction is in Brooklyn, Jay's hometown... you do the math. And yes, Eminem is eligible next year, but as Cohen insightfully notes in his piece, rap is the top musical form on the planet, as well as "the new rock & roll," so it's possible they could both see induction in 2022.)

The Go-Go's - Hey Belinda Carlisle, time to book a flight from your home in Thailand to join your bandmates Jane Wiedlin, Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock, and Kathy Valentine in Cleveland. Belinda, whose onetime punk moniker was Dottie Danger, is on track to be honored on the same night as Pat Smear, yet another former member of the Germs, which brings us to...

Foo Fighters - In 1995, on the Foo Fighters' second single, Dave Grohl assured everyone, "I'll Stick Around," and that, ladies and gentlemen, he has. To borrow a line from the Go-Go's, when it comes to the Foos, it doesn't matter what they say  the ceremony requires a headliner, and they fit the bill. Further, the Hall has been dropping unsubtle hints (playing Foo Fighters music during press events, etc.), so this may be since the most predictable induction since Pearl Jam. And finally, it must be asked: What is left for David Eric Grohl now? One might go to the famous, often misattributed quote about Alexander the Great that Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber makes in "Die Hard" (with a key substitution): "And when David saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.

Iron Maiden - The Rock Hall is hopefully wise enough to not enrage metal fans any further, as they've nominated ostensible shoo-ins Judas Priest twice (in 2018 and 2020) and failed to put them in. Imagine them dissing Iron Maiden this year and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown-level hellfire that would ensue. Additionally, various voters displaying their ballots on social media suggest that the box for Iron Maiden is frequently getting checked. Anticipate a Radiohead-like reception from the band upon their induction news, as certain members have been quite dismissive of the Hall in the past. One could easily envision founder/bassist Steve Harris and guitarist Adrian Smith showing up, and no one else, while a band like Mastodon or Baroness is subbed in to play "Run to the Hills" or something. But here's hoping that a change of heart and a good managerial pep talk to the boys is afoot, and Bruce Dickinson flies Ed Force One into Cleveland Hopkins International Airport this October. Their ghoulish mascot Eddie striding across the induction stage would be a most spectacular and welcome sight. Run for your life!  

Devo - It's an important duty to honor eccentrics and outsiders with a clearly defined, resonating worldview and aesthetic (see: the Ramones). Fitting this bill in 2021 is twitchy New Wave/synth-pop act Devo, whose prescient, foundational concept of de-evolution has, sadly, proven timeless. The energy dome hat-wearing Ohio spudboys and their fans would find it ideal to have this induction occur in Cleveland. Presumably, Devo has former MTV executive and new Rock Hall chairman John Sykes in their corner. Sykes co-founded MTV, where these Akronites broke out visually and inspired an audience of fellow misfits to create their own subversive music, including They Might Be Giants, "Weird Al" Yankovic, Nirvana (a John Peel session found them covering "Turn Around"), Soundgarden (who covered "Girl U Want"), and even fellow 2021 nominees Rage Against the Machine, who did "Beautiful World" on their album Renegades. Devo has been eligible for 18 years, this is their second nomination, and it just feels like it may be their time. 

Musical Excellence: Fela Kuti - This Nigerian Afrobeat legend's impact is felt far beyond the borders of Nigeria, and his passionate fan base has kept him at or near the top of the Fan Vote. The call here is that the Hall finds a way to get him in (global attention for the Rock Hall could only be a net positive), and Musical Excellence is likely the path the institution takes. Fela's impact can be heard in artists from Bootsy Collins to Talking Heads to Nigerian-British pop star Burna Boy. The tribute performance potential for Fela is tantalizing, and hopefully could involve his musician sons Femi and Seun.