February 23, 2017

Induct Them Already: Considering the Rock Hall's Award for Musical Excellence

The voters don't always get it right. There's a hopeful expectation of essential knowledge, and informed voting, but that is a presumption of an ideal that too often fails to materialize.

In the face of this condition, how does an institution course correct? What recourse does an experiment in democracy have when the constituents' choices don't completely mesh with an aspirational vision of ... well, if not utopia, then a functioning entity that respects history and supports a more perfect union?

In Rock Hall terms, voters get a lot right, but also a lot wrong. Apparently, the remedy for a worthy act repeatedly not getting enough votes to achieve induction is the Award for Musical Excellence. As defined on the Rock Hall's official website:

"This award honors performers, songwriters and producers who have changed the course of music history. These artists have dedicated their lives to creating influential, important music infused with originality, and have achieved a level of timeless distinction."

That definition lends itself to a broad, every-individual-knows-best argument akin to the Rock Hall's parallel "Performer" induction process, which is the true, knock-down-drag-out main event, and one annually rife with cries of injustice, predictable fan votes and the perennial, exhausting "rap ain't ROCK" tirades on far too many online comment boards.

Nile Rodgers
Bestowing the Award for Musical Excellence is unilateral and problematic, despite its function of sometimes tying loose ends that probably needed to be tied (E Street Band in 2014, Leon Russell in 2011). It can signal elitist string-pulling (Ringo Starr's induction in 2015 was put in motion when Paul McCartney realized Starr had not yet been put in for his solo career), or in the case of this year's recipient Nile Rodgers, a bungled decision that omits Rodgers' 11-times-nominated funk/disco band Chic. What is one to do when a hot club you've been trying to get into finally lets you in, but your friends have to stay outside? In light of his newfound inductee status, Rodgers, in an interview with Rolling Stone last December, expressed confusion:

"It's sort of bittersweet. I'm a little perplexed because even though I'm quite flattered that they believed that I was worthy, my band Chic didn't win. They plucked me out of the band and said, 'You're better than Chic.' That's wacky to me."

Rodgers' situation is the inverse of the E Street's Band Musical Excellence recognition, and an outlier in Rock Hall history: Here's the mastermind of Chic, nominated a record 11 times with that band, yet never inducted. How do you solve that problem? Well, the Rock Hall simply grants Rodgers the Musical Excellence honor, ostensibly to give a music industry genius, pioneer, performer and producer his due. Despite all this, Chic could still technically be nominated in the Performer category again (!), however unlikely that may be at this juncture.

Leaving Chic out of it for a second, maybe there are some commonalities between Rodgers and previous Musical Excellence Award winners. In 2012, the Musical Excellence Award was granted to producers Tom Dowd, Glyn Johns, and Cosimo Matassa. Like Rodgers, they are legendary record producers, and deserving of the honor. Rodgers easily belongs in the Rock Hall for his production work alone (David Bowie, Madonna, Duran Duran, Daft Punk, etc.).

Still, it's impossible to ignore Chic, the elephant in the room. As Starr and Russell are both musicians that potentially could have entered the Hall as "Performers" through the established voting process, yet were ushered in through the Musical Excellence side door, it's not a stretch to think the committee could have just granted all of Chic the Musical Excellence distinction; it would have cleared them from the nomination pipeline, and furthermore, made Rodgers and his fans even happier. Why the Rock Hall brass decided to isolate Rodgers is confounding.

There are flaws in the Rock Hall inductee selection process, but at the same time there are options outside "Performer"—for instance, the "Early Influences" induction category that has granted a "Hall pass" to the "5" Royales, Pete Seeger, and Robert Johnson, among others. And as imperfect as it is, Musical Excellence will be used by the Rock Hall, for better or worse. If used appropriately, the category could really work in many artists' favor. As long as it's on the table to get overdue artists in, why not deploy the Musical Excellence honor for the greater good? There are many other snubbed acts of Chic's ilk that never seem to generate enough votes to get into that pyramid in Cleveland. The Rock Hall brass could use it to offset the more stagnant votership that repeatedly snubs deserving artists. Oftentimes, these artists appear on the ballot, disappear, and then appear yet again, to no avail. And with every passing year, their chances of being voted in as performers just seems to dwindle. Here is just a smattering of "multiple nominee, never inductee" acts that might fit this Musical Excellence approach:

  • Chuck Willis (6 nominations)
  • Joe Tex (5 nominations)
  • Kraftwerk (4 nominations)
  • War (3 nominations)
  • The Meters (3 nominations)
  • The Spinners (3 nominations)
  • Gram Parsons (3 nominations)
  • Johnny Ace (2 nominations)
  • Mary Wells (2 nominations)

There are many ways to slice and dice this argument, and other solid ideas, from establishing a veterans committee to increasing the number of annual inductees, have been broached. Any Rock Hall follower will tell you their own wish list, while others might point out some never-nominated artists that are especially egregious snubs: Johnny Burnette and the Rock 'n Roll Trio, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton, Connie Francis, Captain Beefheart, Harry Nilsson, the Monkees, Roxy Music... the sad song never ends, while the museum in Cleveland has become something of a glass-paneled wailing wall, quite contrary to architect I.M. Pei's original intentions.

If used wisely, the Musical Excellence award might be one progressive solution to gradually clear some of the snubbed artist backlog and right some overdue wrongs. Is the Rock Hall up to the task?