Is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just a popularity contest?
The names of the 2018 inductees were released Wednesday, and they include: New Jersey rockers Bon Jovi, New Wave-era hitmakers the Cars, 1980s Brit rock band Dire Straits, 1960s art-rockers the Moody Blues, and jazz soul pianist Nina Simone.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Arkansas-born gospel great who was an electric guitar pioneer and who spent the last 15 years of her life in Philadelphia — she's buried in Northwood Cemetery — was inducted as an early influence.
(Simone, of course, is also deeply connected to Philly. She lived here after her application to the Curtis Institute of Music was rejected and launched her singing career at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City in the 1950s.)
Who got snubbed? Most of all Radiohead, the British art-rockers who just met the quarter-century-of-existence requirement and whose mixture of groundbreaking innovation, massive popularity, and continued relevance seemed to make them a no-brainer to get in.
So, naturally, they didn't.
How come? One indicator would seem to be the result of fan voting. Since 2012, the Rock Hall has encouraged fans to cast a vote for a Hall-selected nominee — this year, there were 19, including Rage Against the Machine, Link Wray, Depeche Mode, Kate Bush, and LL Cool J.
The top five vote-getters count as a total of one ballot in the Rock Hall election process. In other words, next to nothing, considering that more than 900 music industry members, historians, and critics (not including this one) do the electing.
But this year, the five inductees are almost a mirror image of the top fan vote-getters, as though the electors didn't know whom to vote for and watched the results of the straw poll for guidance. Bon Jovi was not "Livin' on a Prayer," their induction was a fait accompli: The Jersey band led the way with fans, with more than a million votes, followed by the Moody Blues, Dire Straits, and the Cars. The only fan selection that didn't get in was leather-clad metal band Judas Priest.
Simone, who came in 10th in the fan voting, took the Rob Halford-led metal men's spot. The Rock Hall deserves kudos for that. The greatness of Simone, who died in 2013, had been overlooked in the culture at large for many years but has come back into focus of late. Kanye West and Jay-Z both recently have sampled her music, and she was the subject of both a terrific 2015 documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? and a terrible movie starring Zoe Saldana, Nina, in 2016. The righteous, uncompromising rage of "Mississippi Goddamn" perfectly suits our time.
Similarly, the Hall deserves credit for inducting Tharpe, though it's odd that the spirit-lifting wonder and singer of "Strange Things Happening Every Day" hadn't already been inducted. She's been dead since 1973, and the renaissance of the big-band singer and musical innovator has been going on for the entirety of this century, since a clip of her performing was included in the breakout art-house hit movie Amelie in 2001.
But let's not cry for Radiohead.
Getting enshrined in what Mick Jagger once referred to as the "waxworks of rock" is not likely a top priority for the forward-thinking wonky ensemble led by Oxford, England, natives Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood. But whether they want to or not, the OK Computer and Kid A band, who came in 12th in the fan voting, are going in eventually. Bon Jovi had been eligible since 1998, so it took the band — fronted by the former Philadelphia Soul owner, who won Marion Anderson Award in 2014 — 10 tries to get in.
Conversely, I can't get too agitated about the Moody Blues, a band that was formed in 1964 and that has been eligible for almost three decades but that was nominated for the first time only this year.
Are there more deserving acts that were eligible to be inducted at the Cleveland ceremony on April 14 that didn't get in?
Just among those that were nominated, I would have cast a vote for the Meters, the MC5, LL Cool J, Kate Bush, Rage Against the Machine, Rufus feat. Chaka Khan, and Link Wray before the "Nights in White Satin" Brits. And among those who weren't even nominated, how are Los Lobos, Warren Zevon, and the Replacements not already in?
And to give Philly some love, I'll repeat what 2014 inductee Daryl Hall said to me this year: "Todd Rundgren should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."
But like the Grammys, everybody knows the Rock Hall isn't an equitable barometer of excellence. It's an argument-starting reward for lifetime achievement. Now that almost all of the obvious giants have been enshrined, its honors are bestowed on a mix of the truly deserving and stalwarts whose turn to see their important historical role recognized has finally arrived.
The Moody Blues fit into that category. In recent years, the Rock Hall has flung its doors open to prog-rock bands like Yes, who were inducted last year, and Rush, who got in in 2013.