The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame’s Weird Bias Against Alt And Indie Rock

On Wednesday, the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame announced its class of 2022: Dolly Parton, Eminem, Duran Duran, Lionel Richie, Carly Simon, Eurythmics, and Pat Benatar. The New York Times called it as “a musically diverse array of inductees,” which is certainly true. Taken on their own merits, each new Hall Of Famer is … fine. Totally, totally … fine! But these things are never taken solely “on their own merits.” Anyone who cares — and caring about the Rock Hall qualifies as questionable behavior, I acknowledge — can’t help but note who’s not yet in.

I started voting for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 2021, after spending much of my professional career blowing raspberries at the institution. But for all of my criticisms of the Rock Hall, I figured that if this thing is going to exist, I want to have a (very small) say in who gets in. Though as a voter, you only have so much power. Each year, the nominating committee picks in the neighborhood of 20 acts for consideration, and voters pick up to five of those nominees on their ballots. Write-ins are not allowed. (If they were, I would have put WARREN ZEVON in big block letters on all of my ballots.)

It’s no secret that a great number of worthy artists are not in the Rock Hall. In many cases, I understand why, sort of. I suppose John Prine doesn’t seem “rock” enough for the voters? Kate Bush probably isn’t famous enough in America? Most people only know Thin Lizzy for one song, I guess? But there is one glaring bias that I really don’t understand. For all of the focus on producing “a musically diverse array of inductees” — an important goal, for sure — the Rock Hall historically has shown little to no apparent interest in honoring much of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful rock music of the last 40 (!) years.

I’m not one of those people who complains about non-rock artists making it in the Rock Hall. I lean toward defining “rock ‘n’ roll” as loosely as possible, given that the most important artists of the genre have always been magpies who take from all kinds of music, from country to jazz to hip-hop, and everything in between. The Rock Hall should reflect that. (Congrats, Dolly!) At the same time, however, I do find it very odd that a lot of actual rock music often isn’t even considered for the Rock Hall. Sometimes, I think there’s a misconception that all of the notable rock bands have already been inducted. This could not be farther from the truth.

Now, I could be referring to any number of overlooked metal and hard rock acts from the ’70s onward, but let’s focus on one egregious oversight at a time. (Shout-out to Judas Priest for making it in this year as a “Musical Excellence” inductee. Now do Iron Maiden!) Instead, I want to talk about the Rock Hall’s weird bias against alt and indie bands.

This year, former residents of Alternative Nation Beck and Rage Against The Machine were up for induction, and passed on. Reasonable people can disagree about whether these acts are more or less important than Lionel Richie or Carly Simon. But there’s no question that the average Rock Hall voter tends to prefer pop and soft-rock stars of the ’70s and ’80s over artists who appealed to teens and young adults in the ’80s and ’90s. And that hasn’t really changed over time, even as our most iconic alt and indie legends have moved well into middle age.

So far only the highest echelon of ’90s alternative’s one percent have made it into the Rock Hall: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Green Day, Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, and Foo Fighters. (Don’t forget that Radiohead, embarrassingly, was passed over on their first year of eligibility.) Now consider this partial list of notables who are not in: Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, Oasis, Weezer, Fiona Apple, Hole, Blink-182, Blur, Ween, Tori Amos, Stone Temple Pilots, and Tool. (I could also note bands that aren’t strictly alt-rock but are alt-adjacent, like Phish, the Dave Matthews Band, Massive Attack, and the Black Crowes.)

On the ’90s indie side, you have Pavement — once described as “the finest rock band of the ’90s” by The Village Voice — on the outside looking in, along with luminaries such as PJ Harvey, Björk, Fugazi, Wilco, Liz Phair, Guided By Voices, Modest Mouse, Sunny Day Real Estate, Flaming Lips, Built To Spill, and Yo La Tengo.

Maybe you like these artists, and maybe you don’t. But this is not obscure music! They all were either popular or critically adored in their time (or both), and in many cases they continue to be relevant today as legacy acts or respected brands. In terms of music history, they are obviously significant to the continuum of rock music. But the museum that purports to honor that continuum seems to think — outside of the most obvious heavy hitters — that rock music mostly ended after the Eagles broke up.

Earlier this week, Vulture ran an illuminating (by which I mean extremely irritating) interview with two unidentified Rock Hall voters, in which they candidly divulged their reasoning for who they did and didn’t vote for. Based on their responses, I assume these voters are Boomers or on the very gray end of Generation X. (One voter described themselves as “an old person in training.”) Neither of them voted for Beck or Rage Against The Machine. On the latter act, one voter remarked, “It’s too early for Rage Against the Machine. Their music holds up very well, but there are too many bands that are decades older than them that need to be inducted first. Jane’s Addiction isn’t in. Fishbone isn’t in. Get those guys in their first; then we talk about Rage Against the Machine.”

Consider that Rage Against The Machine’s landmark self-titled debut will celebrate its 30th anniversary in November. We’ve had six different presidents since that album dropped! And yet this is what passes for “too early” in the mind of at least one Rock Hall voter. Rage guitarist Tom Morello turns 58 later this month, which means he was eligible to join AARP back in 2014. But by Rock Hall standards, he’s still an inexperienced whippersnapper. Still! In 2022! And you wonder why he continues to rage against machines!

All of that aside, I don’t necessarily disagree with the idea that Fishbone or Jane’s Addiction deserve to get in before Rage Against The Machine. I’m not even that big of a Rage fan, though I did vote for them this year, because they are legitimately important as a bridge between heavy rock and hip-hop, and also because I suspected Boomer voters would ignore them. (Like Tom Morello, I’m young by Rock Hall standards. Thank you, Rock Hall!)

Here’s the thing: The Rock Hall’s record of honoring the icons of ’80s indie and alt rock is even worse than it is for the ’90s. According to the essential Future Rock Legends website, Jane’s Addiction has been nominated just once, in 2012, and was passed over, while Fishbone has never even been nominated. But wait! It gets so much worse! Let me put it this way: Not a single band from Michael Azerrad’s classic 2001 book about ’80s American indie rock, Our Band Could Be Your Life, is in the Rock Hall. Black Flag, Minutemen, Mission Of Burma, Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr., Fugazi, Mudhoney, Beat Happening — it’s a big 0-for-13.

Look again at all those names! How in the hell can you tell the story of rock ‘n’ roll without including a single one of them? As for the ’80s American indie acts not in Azerrad’s book, The B-52’s, Pixies, Bad Brains, and X are also skunked. You might as well add Devo, another 2022 nominee that was passed over, to this pile as well. Expanding beyond America, the list grows even more shameful: The Smiths, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, Joy Division/New Order, My Bloody Valentine, Echo And The Bunnymen, the Pet Shop Boys, and the Jesus And Mary Chain all have to wait their turn before Eurythmics.

Again, reasonable people can argue over whether some or even most of these acts are worthy of induction. But the collective neglect of this era is appalling to the point of being inexcusable, especially given how Rock Hall voters seem intent at the point on delving deep into the second and third tiers of ’70s and ’80s corporate rock and pop, while throwing an occasional bone to a multi-platinum rapper. What compounds the shoddy treatment of ’80s and ’90s alt and indie acts is that it will make it even harder for future alt and indie acts to be considered. Following the logic of that anonymous voter from the Vulture article, how can a future voter induct The National or Vampire Weekend if a band as foundational to the genre as Sonic Youth isn’t even in the Rock Hall?

To be clear, the Rock Hall is the one most hurt by this. Many of the acts I’ve listed have been the subjects of well-regarded books and documentaries. Thankfully, musical historians have given them the proper appreciation. They will all be fine without the Rock Hall. It’s the Rock Hall that is severely diminished without them.