The 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony took place on Friday, drawing forth the same conversations about the merits of its nominees that consistently characterize the event. This year, there was arguably little room for doubt, with the inductions of Pearl Jam, Tupac Shakur, Journey, Joan Baez, Yes, ELO, and Nile Rodgers seeming to inspire more debates about which artists fans would have rather seen inducted first, rather than whether or not the seven artists recognized deserved the honor at all.
In keeping with unfortunate tradition, women were extremely minimally represented both in the pool of nominees and of those actually honored, though Joan Baez’s recognition following decades of highly influential work as a pioneering folk artist and activist, served as one of the least debated of the night.
Baez made a point to express gratitude for her “unlikely nomination” as she joined an elite group of just under 40 female artists to have ever been inducted since Aretha Franklin shattered the hall’s glass ceiling in 1987. Though still no women have been inducted as producers, executives, or managers, and only one has been honored as a songwriter (Carole King in 1990), the number of deserving female icons who have dramatically influenced the world through every realm of the music industry is plentiful.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Born to a musical family in a tiny rural town in Arkansas, Sister Rosetta Tharpe became an overnight sensation in the early 1940s when her first-ever recordings became some of the music industry’s pioneering gospel hits. Throughout her career, she fell in and out of favor with the spiritual community because she was a female guitarist (cue pearl clutch) but nevertheless managed to sustain her momentum as a contemporary of some of the most well-known blues and jazz musicians alive.
Tharpe’s uniquely genre-morphing discography and “masculine” style of playing made her a star across Europe as well, and her innovative, disruptive work shone through both gender and race barriers amidst the socially contentious environment surrounding WWII. Ultimately, her powerful influence echoed through the industry via artists like Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, who all have cited her as an inspiration.
Sylvia Robinson, dubbed the “Mother of Hip-Hop,” initially began her career when she dropped out of high school to join the rock/R&B duo, Mickey & Sylvia. Though the group earned her a consistent place on the Billboard charts throughout the late 1950s, dissatisfaction with the state of the industry transformed her from a performer into an executive when she and husband Joe founded their first soul music label together in 1966.
In spite of her frustrations, Robinson remained quite involved in the process of writing and production, the label’s star-studded lineup ultimately featuring her own wildly successful self-produced solo act as a result. Having already established her extreme versatility and independence, Sylvia Robinson went on to truly cement her legacy as an industry genius by arranging the 1979 release of the hit song “Rapper’s Delight” through her co-founded label, Sugar Hill Records, thus bridging the gap between New York City’s budding hip hop scene and public consumers, pioneering the commercial practice of sampling, and revolutionizing music forever.
Nina Simone remains one of the most frequently-cited examples of women unjustly snubbed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and for good reason. Growing up a preacher’s daughter in North Carolina, she briefly attended Juilliard in New York, where her genre-bending performances as a pianist and vocalist first brought her notoriety on the local jazz club circuit. In spite of the extremely dark and volatile personal history that plagued her simultaneously, the young prodigy quickly began establishing her legacy as a fiery, dignified, powerful improvisational genius, leaving other music legends famously stupefied at her talents.
Though she sustained this success for many years, Nina Simone’s most profound influence would arguably come from the radical political themes that ultimately martyred her mainstream career. Her controversial Civil Rights-era discography now not only acts as a masterfully-constructed historical time capsule, but also as an immortalized testament to the unwavering boldness that defined her as an artist and has inspired every admirer of hers since.
Formed in the center of the pacific northwest’s developing early ’90s music scene by college students Kathleen Hanna, Kathi Wilcox, and Tobi Vail, Bikini Kill quickly grew to represent a full-scale sociopolitical revolution. While their widely-varying mainstream influence included frontwoman Hanna’s accidental inspiration of the Nirvana hit “Smell’s Like Teen Spirit” and the Spice Girls adoption of the “girl power” slogan that originated from their fanzines, Bikini Kill maintained a specific reputation in the underground punk circuit for being uniquely confrontational of the scene’s problems with women.
In production, they frequently teamed up with producers like Fugazi’s Ian McKaye (another notable artist that has been deprived of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognition thus far, might I add) to articulate their feminist message and delivered on the philosophy by aggressively enforcing a safe environment for young women at their shows. Though controversial at the time, their fearless abrasiveness transcended punk and even music as a whole, manifesting in the Riot Grrrl movement that is undeniably threaded in the fabric of society today.
…and the list goes on
Realistically, four mini-bios are nowhere near enough to do all of the ladies who have earned a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame justice. There is no denying the vast sociocultural impacts that these women have somehow managed to channel through music, but to suggest that these four are the only feminine cogs vital to the industry machine would, of course, be ridiculous.
Grace Jones, Bjork, Kate Bush, Carly Simon, Cher, Selena Quintanilla, Ella Fitzgerald, The Runaways, The Slits, The Eurythmics, Sonic Youth, any band Kim Deal has ever been in — I could list female artists (and groups featuring them) that have been under-appreciated by the hall until the cows come home, but until they put me in charge of the entire operation, this really means nothing.
While it is true that there are major gender disparities in the music industry itself, the fact that there are still masses of seemingly obviously Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-worthy women that have yet to be recognized indicates that the problem doesn’t lie in numbers, but instead in history’s silence when it comes to their contributions.
Accounting for the uneven playing field may require a bit of actual research on the part of the hall, so the deep allegiance to sales numbers will probably have to go. With streaming obliterating these traditional metrics whether they choose to comply or not, it will be interesting to see how the empowerment of independent production impacts diversity within the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Grammys, and any of the other hierarchal music industry honor systems over the next few decades.
Until then, I’m going to keep emailing the dudes in charge about the genius of Kathleen Hanna.
[Featured Image by Staff/Getty Images]