Missy Elliott, Cyndi Lauper, Sheryl Crow, Kate Bush, White Stripes drummer Meg White, and New Order keyboardist Gillian Gilbert are among the 2023 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominees, the most women ever nominated in a single year.
Yet even in the very unlikely event that all of them are chosen in May, women will still constitute barely 8 percent of inductees in a place that claims to honor “the people who shaped the history of rock ’n’ roll.”
Women rock. They always have. But nearly four decades after the rock hall was established, it remains overwhelmingly a men’s club.
“If so few women are being inducted into the rock hall, then the nominating committee is broken,” musician Courtney Love wrote in a recent essay for the Guardian. “If so few Black artists, so few women of color, are being inducted, then the voting process needs to be overhauled.”
Love is right. And while some will dismiss her as bitter because her band Hole hasn’t even been nominated, consider some of the women still left standing outside the hall’s doors:
Roberta Flack. Yoko Ono. Grace Jones. Mariah Carey. Chaka Khan. Dionne Warwick. Mary J. Blige. Diana Ross (as a solo performer). Erykah Badu. Celia Cruz. Barbra Streisand. Patti LaBelle. Emmylou Harris. Björk. Valerie Simpson, who with her late husband Nick Ashford, wrote and produced some of the greatest pop songs ever recorded, including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “You’re All I Need to Get By.”
It’s tempting to chime in here that most of these women aren’t rock artists. Last year, New York Magazine interviewed two unnamed rock hall voters about the 2022 nominees. They often sneered at artists who did not fit their cloistered notions of rock ’n’ roll. “Hip-hop is great, but hip-hop is not rock ’n’ roll,” Voter No. 1 said. Nominating Pat Benatar, inducted last year, was “ridiculous,” said Voter No. 2. Voter No. 1 didn’t vote for Warwick because “there’s nothing rock ’n’ roll about” her. Also, she “didn’t even write her own lyrics.”
Neither did Elvis Presley. But that didn’t keep him from becoming an inaugural inductee.
I have always believed that choosing “rock ’n’ roll” instead of the more inclusive “pop music” for the hall became akin to a velvet rope or bouncer at the door. It was intended to be exclusionary. Rock ’n’ roll was created by Black people, with Black women like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Big Mama Thornton an integral part of its origin story. But when rock ’n’ roll was rebranded as rock, it became music primarily associated with white men — who also became the genre’s self-appointed gatekeepers.
In 1986, the hall’s inaugural class featured 16 inductees in categories ranging from performers to early influences — all men. Not a single woman was deemed worthy of walking with them through the hall’s then-virtual doors.
A year later, Aretha Franklin became the first woman inducted; in 1988, she was joined by the Supremes. Yet women were most likely to be inducted as “early influences,” defined as those “whose music and performance style have directly influenced and helped inspire and evolve rock ’n’ roll and music that has impacted youth culture.” That’s how pioneers like Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday were eventually recognized.
It’s been more difficult for women to be honored as performers. During the hall’s first decade, few women, either as solo artists or part of a group, were enshrined. Many times only one woman per year was admitted, and seven times, including as recently as 2016, not a single woman was inducted.
Of course, women are regularly nominated — this is Kate Bush’s fourth time on the ballot. But it’s also reminiscent of NFL owners interviewing Black candidates for head coaching jobs already promised to white men. It’s a phony invitation to a party they won’t be allowed to attend.
In their 2021 acceptance speeches, members of the Go-Gos promoted “the inclusion of more women” into the rock hall. That’s been a constant theme for other honorees — both women and men — tired of yet another institution that talks about diversity and inclusion but looks and operates more like a lunchroom clique.
After nearly 40 years, either its board members and voters will listen and open its doors wider, or they’ll continue to enable the rock hall’s skid toward irrelevance and obsolescence.
Correction: An earlier version of this column misspelled Cyndi Lauper’s name.