Evelyn McDonnell | Longreads | March 2019 | 11 minutes (2,166 words)
When Janelle Monae inducts Janet Jackson into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on March 29, it will be a beautiful moment: a young, gifted, and black woman acknowledging the formative influence — on herself and millions of others — of a woman who seized Control of her own career 33 years ago. It will also be an anomaly.
Jackson is one of only two women being inducted into the hall this year, out of 37 inductees, including the members of the five all-male bands being inducted. The other woman is Stevie Nicks. During the 34 years since the hall was founded by Jann Wenner and Ahmet Ertegun, 888 people have been inducted; 69 have been women. That’s 7.7 percent. The problem is spreading.
A November Rolling Stone article announced that the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, was collaborating with the Rock Hall on a new exhibit of “iconic instruments of rock ‘n’ roll” called Play It Loud. Scheduled to open on April 8, the list of acts whose instruments would be on display included only one woman. My social media feeds exploded with rage and quips, as we wondered whether St. Vincent made the cut because the curators assumed from her name that she was male. Since then, the Met has added several women (and men) to the exhibit list, including Patti Smith, Wanda Jackson, and Joan Jett. It isn’t clear whether the Met added these women as a result of the internet outrage or if they were part of the show all along. After all, all three institutions — the hall, the museum, and the magazine — have, as Jett might say, a bad reputation for excluding women from their reindeer games.
People and institutions have to stop defining rock and rock ‘n’ roll as music played by men, especially white men, with guitars.
The Rock Hall is the most obvious offender in what I’ll call the manhandling of musical history. Manhandling is akin to, and often — as with the Rock Hall — intersects with, whitewashing. Manhandling pushes women out of the frame just as whitewashing covers up black bodies. People of color account for 32 percent of Rock Hall inductees, a far better figure than for women, but still not representative of the enormous role African Americans and Latinx people have played in American popular music. Manhandling is standard practice on country radio; there were no women in the Top 20 of Billboard’s country airplay chart for two weeks in December. Manhandling is standard practice on classic rock radio, where women are relegated to token spots on playlists, and are never played back-to-back. It’s standard in histories of music; there are no women featured in Greil Marcus’s seminal book Mystery Train: Images of Rock ‘n’ Roll in America. And of course, it’s standard practice at IM Pei’s partial glass pyramid in Cleveland. One year of affirmative action at the Grammys cannot wipe away decades of manhandling.
The problem is pervasive, and it is ideological. It is a way of seeing and presenting the world that is based on projections of power and control, not on reality. People and institutions have to stop defining rock and rock ‘n’ roll as music played by men, especially white men, with guitars. We have to change this image, this historiography, this institutionalization, this lie. In short, you do not need a cock to rock.
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Exhibit A: Sister Rosetta Tharpe. In the 1930s, the blues and gospel singer began picking her guitar in a way that we now recognize as the foundation of rock ‘n’ roll playing — she laid the foundation upon which Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly built. There’s footage of her with a Gibson that’s been viewed 2.7 million times on YouTube. If you’re not one of those viewers, become one now. Tharpe was finally inducted into the Rock Hall in 2018.
Holly and Berry were both among the first 16 acts inducted in the Rock Hall, in 1986. All their fellow inductees were male. Built on such grotesquely imbalanced footing, the institution may never get itself right. After all, its main instigator was Ahmet Ertegun, an admittedly legendary records man who treated women abominably, according to Dorothy Carvello’s 2018 memoir Anything for a Hit. Carvello is a music executive who began her career working for Ertegun at Atlantic. Ertegun subjected her to crude sexual harassment and once fractured her arm in anger. The Rock Hall named its main exhibition hall after Ertegun. How can this ever be a place where women feel welcome, let alone safe? Just as universities have removed from buildings and fellowships the names of film executives who gave them money, such as USC renaming their Bryan Singer Division of Critical Studies, the Rock Hall should remove Ertegun’s name from the building and from the annual industry executive award that bears his name. It’s an award that has never been given to a woman.
I would like to not care about what institutions such as the Met and Hall of Fame do.
I pick on the Rock Hall because I care. I love rock ‘n’ roll, to borrow a phrase. I attended the building’s inaugural event, and despite my ever-growing disenchantment, I always pay attention to who is nominated and who wins. I even get to vote — finally. Aware of the way it was increasingly being seen as a sort of hospice for aging white men, the hall has been trying to diversify its voting body, or risk obsolescence. After two decades as a professional rock writer, I was finally asked to vote a few years ago, and to recruit friends. The problem is, every inductee also gets a vote. So every year, more and more men get the franchise and vote in their friends and heroes, who tend to be men. The hall rigged its own system with its testosterocking inaugural class, and despite efforts to add gender and color balance, the numbers are getting worse.
It’s tempting to just say so what. I would like to not care about what institutions such as the Met and Hall of Fame do. They are essentially shrines to white men created by white men, so of course, they honor white men. But they pretend to serve the public — and in the Met’s case, it is in part a publicly funded institution. The Hall of Fame and its associated museum have enormous cultural power, writing in stone the historical importance of individuals in a way that no other institution or publication or organization does. They also create real economic benefits for culture workers. Being inducted into the Rock Hall doesn’t just look good on your resume, it helps sell records and tickets. Most importantly, these institutions provide inspiration — role models — for future generations. And if the only women you’re going to see receiving awards on that stage at the Barclays Center are Janet Jackson and Stevie Nicks, would you, if you were a little girl, go pick up a guitar?
Time’s up for the Rock Hall and the music industry. The Grammys got called on its #GrammysSoMale gender gap in 2018. After women complained that they were largely shut out of the telecast winners, Recording Academy president Neil Portnow responded that female artists needed to “step up” and they would be welcome. Needless to say, that patronizing, clueless comment went over like a lead zeppelin; there were calls for Portnow’s head, including an online petition for him to resign. So this February, the telecast featured an impressive roster of contemporary and historic talent, from Lady Gaga and Brandi Carlile to Dolly Parton and Diana Ross. But then Portnow stepped on stage and publicly patted himself on the back for the show’s sudden gender balance, like he was our white savior, our knight in shining armor coming to our emotional rescue with this feel-good moment.
Moments are not enough. Thankfully, Portnow is stepping down from his position in July. And yes, I’m sure a woman would be happy to take his place. This is part of the change that must happen in the businesses and nonprofits that support music. Women must be hired and promoted across all facets of the industry: as the editor in chief of Rolling Stone, the chairman of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the CEO of Universal Music Group. After all, a recent study from the University of Southern California shows that women are outnumbered in most aspects of the business, accounting for only 2 percent of producers and 12.3 percent of songwriters, for instance.
Some of this imbalance is a result of outright exclusion or unwelcoming environments. (Just ask any woman who has worked at a music magazine or a recording studio what it’s like to be, as former Rolling Stone writer Robin Green titled her 2018 memoir, “the only girl.”) Some is a result of sexual harassment or assault, which leaves women so traumatized that their careers stall or even stop. Ever wonder why a favorite artist, songwriter, or DJ ghosted for years? Increasing revelations about the predatory behavior of musicians, publicists, producers, managers, and executives show that, as a whole, the music industry can be a frightening place to be female, whether you’re a young intern working for R. Kelly or a talented country singer married to Ryan Adams. Mandy Moore married Adams in 2009, and hasn’t released an album since. They divorced in 2016. A New York Times investigation of Adams’s alleged predatory behavior toward younger women described him as “psychologically abusive” to Moore.
Guys like Ertegun, who died in 2006, reportedly manhandled in the workplace, in addition to creating the Cleveland shrine to gender inequity. Carvello’s book documents in scandalous detail how he and other executives created a boys’ club environment where women had to either pretend to be one of the boys, betraying their sisters, or trade sex for promotion. In Ertegun’s world, women were not allowed to step up; they were stepped on. Having systematically excluded and oppressed women from the business of making music, Ertegun and his cronies at the Rock Hall then carved that exclusion into stone by essentially writing them out of history, year after year after year. When women do get let into the Rock Hall boys’ club, it is on the arms of men: Carole King is there for her songwriting with Gerry Goffin, not as the woman who recorded numerous hit songs herself, including those on the record-smashing album Tapestry. Tina Turner was inducted alongside her abusive ex-spouse Ike. Indeed, the hall seems to define rock in a way that is disturbingly masculinist, as opposed to expansive and risk-taking — the qualities I like to think of as defining popular music. How about a Hall of Fame that includes Selena, TLC, Patsy Cline, and Grace Jones?
There’s nothing so scary to certain men as a bunch of women banding together. That’s another tool of the patriarchy: divide and conquer.
I’m delighted that two deserving female artists, Janet Jackson and Stevie Nicks, will be inducted this year. It’s particularly noteworthy that Nicks is getting the nod as a solo artist, after she was already inducted as part of Fleetwood Mac; she’s the first woman to be inducted twice, joining 22 men in the so-called Clyde McPhatter Club. Next year, the Hall must do the same for Tina and Carole. After being nominated so many times, Chaka Khan must finally be inducted as well.
That still won’t be enough to counteract the sheer numerical voting power of all the male musicians who get in as members of bands, especially if the men of Rufus, Khan’s collaborators with whom she has thrice been nominated, are inducted alongside Khan. There are three things the Hall of Fame can do to rectify that imbalance: 1. Flood the nominating committee and voting membership with more women. Six out of 29 members of last year’s nominating committee were women; the notoriously tight-lipped hall has not revealed this year’s committee members. 2. Reduce the voting power of members inducted as players in bands (so, say, the five dudes in Def Leppard each get one fifth of a vote). 3. Nominate a shit ton of all-female bands next year.
Female musicians and groups are particularly absent from the Rock Hall, as from the industry. There’s nothing so scary to certain men as a bunch of women banding together. That’s another tool of the patriarchy: divide and conquer. It’s why Lady Gaga is basically the only woman in A Star Is Born, a film ostensibly celebrating female artistry. She has no mother, no sister; even her girlfriends are male, and they’re drag queens. By focusing on individual artists, not a collective, the entertainment-industrial complex elevates the star, not the gender. The lioness is separated from her pack.
That’s why some women involved in music have formed an activist group, named Turn It Up! As our mission statement says, we “advocate for equal airplay, media coverage and industry employment of groups who are historically and structurally excluded from the business and the institutions of music-making.” And yes, we’re coming for you, sons of Ertegun.
Here’s who I’d like to see inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame next year:
Salt N Pepa
That would add more than 30 women to the voting rolls. It’s not enough to correct the historical record, but it’s a step up.
Evelyn McDonnell has been writing about popular culture and society for more than 20 years. She edited Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyonce, Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl and coedited the anthologies Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop and Rap, and Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth. She is the author of four books: Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways, Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kids and Rock ‘n’ Roll, Army of She: Icelandic, Iconoclastic, Irrepressible Bjork, and Rent by Jonathan Larson. Associate professor of journalism at Loyola Marymount University, she edits the Music Matters series from University of Texas Press. She lives in Los Angeles.
Flor Amezquita, Marika Price and Adele Bertei assisted with research for this article. Figures are based off the official Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s induction page, which was then cross-referenced with multiple lists and sources.