Are you ready, music fans? Here are your 2011 Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame nominees: Alice Cooper, the Beastie Boys, Bon Jovi, Chic, Neil Diamond, Donovan, Dr. John, the J. Geils Band, LL Cool J, Darlene Love, Laura Nyro, Donna Summer, Joe Tex, Tom Waits, and Chuck Willis. Feeling a bit overwhelmed? Yeah, so are we.
Don’t get us wrong: Tom Waits had better get in, no contest, and while Alice Cooper may be a glorified novelty act, he’s certainly been influential. It’s especially nice to see the late Laura Nyro, an under-appreciated contemporary of Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, get some well-deserved recognition. The Beastie Boys, Dr. John, Donna Summer, and LL Cool J are unquestionably legends… but they also aren’t rock musicians. Joe Tex, Darlene Love, and Chuck Willis, if not household names, are at least important historically. And then we’ve got Bon Jovi, Chic, Neil Diamond, Donovan, and the J. Geils Band. Uh, Rock Hall selection committee, are you guys running out of rock stars?
Let’s take a closer look at these five especially dubious picks, shall we? In the J. Geils Band, we’ve got a second-tier, classic-rock relic that won’t stop reuniting and is most famous for such goofy hits as “Love Stinks” and “Centerfold.” Donovan is the dude who Bob Dylan spent most of Don’t Look Back making fun of. Neil Diamond is the guy your mom likes, of “Sweet Caroline” fame (although perhaps he deserves the honor purely for penning the sparkling Monkees hit “I’m a Believer” during his tenure as a Brill Building songwriter). Bon Jovi may have been wildly popular (and who doesn’t like a drunk karaoke rendition of “Livin’ on a Prayer”), but is he anything more than a cut-rate Springsteen? We’re not saying that these artists haven’t been good for a fun pop hit every now and then. And Chic, for heaven’s sake, are the disco sensations we can blame for “Le Freak.” But they probably haven’t earned eternal enshrinement for their great contributions to the art of rock, either.
So, what gives? This year’s nominees needed to have released their first album at least 25 years before the induction date, which means we’re working with artists who have been around since 1986 or earlier. Of course, the early ’80s weren’t the best decade for rock: There was New Wave and hair metal (which hopefully won’t be producing many nominees), along with the rise of hip hop and the ascendancy of mega-pop stars like Madonna (inducted in 2008) and Michael Jackson (2001). But compared to the parade of rock legends the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s produced, the ’80s don’t look so hot. And it’ll be another half-decade before we get to deserving ’90s alt-rockers like Nirvana and Radiohead.
Could the selection committee have made better choices? Certainly everyone has their own pet picks. We might point to Joan Jett, who released her debut solo album in 1980, or her first band, The Runaways, who were among the first successful all-girl rock groups. The conservative types at the Rock Hall have consistently ignored post-punk, when bands like Joy Division should be shoo-ins. American art rock represents another massive gap, with no mention of Sonic Youth, who have been eligible for the past few years. The Smiths have never been nominated. Friends, Brian Eno, who has not only made genre-defining music himself but has produced albums for bands the Rock Hall crowd actually listens to, like U2 and Coldplay, has not been inducted. (His early band, Roxy Music, hasn’t received the nod, either.)
The point here isn’t about these exact artists. Rather, we’d just like to see the committee look beyond platinum albums and Billboard #1 singles to consider acts that have actually moved popular music forward.