In the 31 years that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has been honoring icons of modern music, it has never inducted more than two women or women-led groups per year, and in several of those years (1986, 1994, 2003-2005) not one woman has been inducted. So Joan Baez being voted in for 2017 as the sole woman—alongside a group that includes Nile Rodgers, Pearl Jam, Tupac, Yes, Electric Light Orchestra and, maddeningly, Journey—is really par for the course, if not a little better than average. Women or women-inclusive groups who were nominated but knocked out of the running this year included Chic, Chaka Khan, and Janet Jackson, who have been nominated but not inducted 11, three, and two times respectively.
It’s a museum called the “Rock & Roll Hall of Fame,” an outdated default moniker for pop music and so, mirroring the relative cultural outdatedness of the Grammys, one might wonder rhetorically why it even matters. Yet for archival purposes in the most prominent museum of its kind, the institution is the kind that builds canons, which in itself asserts a kind of worth for its anointed, even if that worth is, again, relative. Genrewise, the Rock Hall’s staidness is only just beginning to peel back. Tupac is only the first solo hip-hop artist ever inducted, and the fact that Journey was chosen over nominees Kraftwerk—inarguably more important to the progression of contemporary popular music (electronic, hip-hop) than the former group—shows where the Rock Hall voters’s allegiances lie.
The inductees are chosen by a broad coalition of voters in the music industry and a less-weighted public vote—a coalition that, judging by the history of the inductees, we can presume to be mostly older and male and rockist. In the Rock Hall’s own words, voters include “more than 900 historians, members of the music industry and artists—including every living Rock Hall inductee—and the five performers receiving the most votes become that year’s induction class.” And though the museum’s nominating committee generally includes at least a handful of women for voters to choose from, a look at how few women are ever chosen reeks of a kind of tokenism, a putrid notion considering that every woman nominated can feasibly be described, in some way, as a genius.
Women have been historically marginalized in the music industry the same way we’ve been marginalized overall; there are endless stories of women musicians being screwed over for their profits or recognition or label owners or managers or husband-managers, and with this exploitation, other types of abuse has often come. The struggle to make art without gendered interference hasn’t been tamped down just because of stronger equity overall; just this year we’ve had women musicians being sexually assaulted by publicists, the ongoing saga of Kesha v. Dr. Luke and Sony, of pop stars being publicly diminished and doubted after speaking out about their rapes. Women musicians work doubly hard to make music just by rights of being women, and so when it looks like the establishment doesn’t gives nary a shit about that music, it chafes to say the least.
I realize that the induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is largely ceremonial, a chance to wax nostalgic and have a big flossy concert, which by the way, has included far more women representation than the actual inductees through careful programming. But as part of a larger cycle in which even women who’ve made lasting, tangible impact on American culture still can’t depend on their canonical visibility, this kind of marginalization matters.