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Critics: Add More Women To Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame

Janet Jackson said at her 2019 induction: "Induct more women." [Solaiman Fazel / Rock and Roll Hall of Fame]

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is set to announce its 2020 inductees Wednesday.  And while this year’s nominees include three woman-driven acts, critics have long chided the Rock Hall for the low percentage of women in its pantheon of performers. 

After warmly accepting her induction into the Rock Hall last Spring, Janet Jackson threw down the gauntlet.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, please, 2020, induct more women,” she said.

Her co-inductee, Stevie Nicks, also criticized the Rock Hall that night for its low female representation. Rock Hall Foundation CEO Joel Peresman said he’s heard that complaint before.

We're trying to make this as gender-neutral as possible and just look at as the criteria of being inducted is quality of work,” he said. “And if it's male or female, that's the criteria.”

Joel Peresman is President and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Board of Directors [Rock and Roll Hall of Fame]

Former Rock Hall board chairman Jann Wenner echoed that sentiment in a Billboard interview this past fall, adding “racially-neutral” to the judging criteria.

That's a very easy thing for a white man to say,” said Evelyn McDonnell, director of journalism at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Last year, she did an analysis of gender representation in the hall of fame and found a problem. For every female bandleader inducted, her male band mates also go into the hall of fame. McDonnell discovered that, over the course of 34 years, the process yielded 69 women out of 888 inductees – less than eight percent.

Evelyn McDonnell, Director of Journalism, Loyola Marymount University [Tim Maxeiner]

Since the dawn of the recording industry, there have been prominent women, sometimes women who were dominant,” McDonnell said. “Big Mama Thornton sang the original, and to me, still the best version of “Hound Dog,” and she's never been inducted.”

Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton circa 1965 singing "Hound Dog," a song written for her, but made famous by Elvis Presley

The Rock Hall’s Peresman acknowledged that a glut of all-male bands has skewed the induction numbers.

“It's not an empirical process that's like chemistry,” he said. “If an act is Joan Jett and the Black Hearts and the committee looks at the people that were involved with her from the beginning - and that made a significant contribution to the creative process - how do you not induct them?”

A nominating committee of about 30 artists, scholars and record industry insiders draws up the ballot each year. Craig Werner was on that committee for 18 years. An emeritus professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Wisconsin, Werner is also a music writer and he has no problem with the nomination process.

The issues are much more what happens to that ballot once it goes to the larger electorate,” he said with a sigh. “Well, I'm just going to say it: I think that the electorate makes dumb decisions on a regular basis.”

Craig Werner, professor emeritus, Afro-American studies, University of Wisconsin [Craig Werner]

There are about 1,000 people who get to vote on the ballot, although there’s no accounting of exactly who they are. Peresman said they include record company people, writers and performers. But, the voting pool also includes every living person who’s ever been inducted, which is largely a population of white men.

The nominating committee, I think reflects a good sense, a contentious sense, sometimes of what rock and roll history is,” Werner said. “The electorate, I think, does not. I think that it adheres to a very, white-boys-with-guitars and hip-hop that fits into that mythology. It marginalizes women. It marginalizes artists whose core audience is in the African-American community. And it almost entirely ignores Latins.”

Yale scholar Daphne Brooks has written extensively on race and gender in relation to popular music, and, while critical of the Rock Hall’s past induction practices, she’s encouraged by some recent changes.

Daphne Brooks, professor of African American studies, Yale University [Daphne Brooks]

“So for instance, a couple of years ago now, we have the induction, posthumously, of Nina Simone and Sister Rosetta Tharpe,” she said. “That's a kind of work that should continue, I think, to be done.”

Rosetta Tharpe's solo in the middle of this 1960s TV appearance

Tharpe finally got her spot in the hall of fame 32 years after it started inducting performers, even though one of the first inductees, Chuck Berry, always cited Tharpe as a major influence. Brooks sees the Rock Hall as a piece of the country’s historic and cultural memory and said it needs to do better.

“If we can start from that point, then I think we can understand why the hall is important and also why we have to fight for it to be a place where we can all hear and see ourselves and see America in its bold, heterogeneous self,” Brooks said.

Wenner recently stepped down as chairman of the Rock Hall Foundation’s board of directors. His replacement, John Sykes, pledged to bring more diversity to the 26-person board, which has two women and no members of color.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.