Jim McGuinn reflects on 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees

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Joan Baez performs
Joan Baez is among the 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees. (Brian Ach/Getty Images for ASCAP)

Congrats to Pearl Jam, Tupac Shakur, ELO, Journey, Yes, and Joan Baez, who were named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this morning.

In addition to the six named, Nile Rodgers of Chic was given the Award for Musical Excellence, despite his band being passed over for the 11th time by the hall's voters. Rodgers told Rolling Stone, "I'm happy, but perplexed. I feel like somebody put me in the lifeboat and told my family they can't get in."

The Hall of Fame has faced criticism over the years about including more women, hip hop, dance, and electronic music (I'll add new wave, metal, and indie rock, too). Tupac and Joan Baez did make it this year, while Chic, Janet Jackson, Kraftwerk, and Depeche Mode did not.n

With 19 artists on the ballot, one could make an argument for any of them, pro or con. I'll give you both for each:

•   Journey sold millions, but were derided by critics as "corporate" rock.

•   Were ELO innovative with their string of string-fueled hits in the '70s and '80s, or just the next generation's poor-man's Beatles?

•   Yes were probably the biggest prog-rock band of the '70s, breaking new ground by adding elements of classical-music complexity, but they were labelled pretentious by some (which may have inadvertently led to the birth of punk), and did they veer too far off the path of rock as teen angst?

•   Joan Baez came up during an even more male-dominated time in music and should be acknowledged as a strong woman who stood up for what she believed in, an inspiration to the Lilith Fair generation and on every person that strums a guitar and sings a song to this day. She was a leading voice and conscience of the folk movement that inspired rock to start its move away from that teen angst to embrace social issues in the '60s, but she told Rolling Stone today, "I never considered myself to be a rock 'n' roll artist."

•   Tupac is the first solo hip-hop artist who will enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He had a massive impact on the trajectory of the genre in the '90s and beyond (even from the grave), and one could argue he was more a rock-star-as-rebel than most actual rock stars of his era, but compared to other hip hop artists who have made it to the Hall (Run-DMC, Public Enemy, N.W.A.) he has less in common musically with rock 'n' roll, as generationally he was the first to come of age with hip hop as an established musical force.

•   And Pearl Jam … I'll get to them later.

The opportunity for debate is part of what makes this entire question of the Hall of Fame so fun. Unlike sports, where you can measure things like home runs and dunks, rock 'n' roll is an art form. Metrics fail to quantify the exhilaration of a transcendent Hendrix solo, the visceral front-person charisma of a Jagger or a Joplin, the mind-bending power of a classic Dylan lyric, or the melodic magic of a McCartney bassline.

I see rock 'n' roll as a huge tree. Some of the branches have led to massive growth and flowering in new directions, while others have stunted or withered. Although they enjoyed huge success in their time, if you look at what Yes, ELO, and Journey have influenced since their heydays, those aren't branches I want to climb often. Tupac and Joan strengthened branches, though neither are artists that I'm often putting on the turntable at home.

Tupac Shakur in 1994
Tupac Shakur in New York in 1994. (Steve Eichner/Getty Images)

Last week I wrote about my thoughts as a first-time Hall voter — turned out I only voted for two of the eventual winners: Pearl Jam and ELO. My other votes went to The Cars, Chic, and Kraftwerk, although I thought hard about Yes, Baez, and Tupac, and figured Journey were likely to get in, whether I voted for them or not. It wasn't important for me to guess right; I wanted to vote for the artists I felt deserved the acclaim, seeing today that I probably lean on "influence and impact" more than other voters seem to do.

The Cars had a string of albums at the turn of the '70s to the '80s that seemed to mix the emerging New Wave and post-punk movements with commercial rock 'n' roll better than anyone except maybe Blondie. It was no wonder leader Ric Ocasek went on to a later career as producer of bands like Weezer — Ocasek's tightly constructed songs and the band's sparked sound laid the groundwork for what we'd come to call "alternative music" in the '90s. I voted for both Kraftwerk and Chic because they changed music in the '70s, opening wide musical veins that are still being tapped by countless artists today, which is not what I would say about Journey, who — while beloved by many — may have opened the door to … heavy metal power ballads?

Meanwhile, hip hop was born on the grooves of Chic (Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash), who also influenced pivotal recordings by everyone from Pink Floyd ("Another Brick in the Wall") to Queen ("Another One Bites the Dust"), the Stones ("Miss You") to Blondie ("Rapture"). Guitarist Nile Rodgers, keyboardist Bernie Worrell and drummer Tony Thompson made the best dance music of the disco era, and it's no surprise Rodgers would be tagged by Bowie, Madonna, INXS, Daft Punk, and so many more to help guide them sonically.

Chic in 1977
Chic in 1977. From left to right, Bernard Edwards, Norma Jean Wright, Nile Rodgers and Tony Thompson. (Gilles Petard/Redferns, via NPR)

Kraftwerk never had hits in the traditional sense of the word (i.e. Top 40 airplay, multi-platinum albums), but they deployed analog synths and drum machines, inventing modern electronic music. Leaders of the "krautrock" movement, Kraftwerk impacted thousands of artists who would follow — from the post-punk era to today. I hear elements of Kraftwerk all over The Current's airwaves every day — maybe more than any of the artists on this year's ballot.

The other reason I wanted to vote for Kraftwerk and Chic is tied to an overall criticism of the Hall — there's so much American Classic Rock in there! One of my hopes is that by reaching from the Boomer generation to Gen Xers like myself to contribute to the process, the make-up of the Hall of Fame will shift to acknowledge some other branches in the rock 'n' roll tree. The hall is missing out on the influential touchstone bands of the '80s like New Order/Joy Division, The Smiths, and the Cure; American indie bands like the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and X; hard rockers like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest; and groundbreaking hip-hop artists like A Tribe Called Quest, LL Cool J, and De La Soul.

A final thought on one of the winners: Mix a little politics and social consciousness from Joan Baez and Tupac Shakur, some prog musical complexity from Yes, the stadium-rock sing-along anthems of Journey and ELO, and you might get Pearl Jam, especially if you add a touch of Neil Young (class of 1995) and The Who (class of 1990). The ultimate amalgamation of rock history distilled into one band, it's little wonder Pearl Jam were nominated and named to the Hall of Fame in their first eligible year.

Here at The Current, we look forward to helping discover who might be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame come 2042, while continuing to look back and celebrate and debate all the great music that's led us to this point. Even with the dust not quite settled yet on this year, who do you want to see nominated next year for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? It's never too early to start dreaming…

Resources


Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame (official site)

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