What’s a Girl Gotta Do to Get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

By: Alexandra Apolloni (UCLA Center for the Study of Women, Los Angeles, CA) //

Each year, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (henceforth Rock Hall) announces a new list of inductees: artists that are deemed worthy of commemoration—and canonization—as rock greats. And in 2016, none of the inductees were women.

The underrepresentation of women in Rock Hall is nothing new:­ of 259 musicians, bands, and music industry luminaries who have been inducted since 1986, a mere 42 are women, or even groups that include women.

Maybe this is unsurprising. Rock and roll is, after all, a man’s game, right? Not so! Women have always been involved in rock and roll—and the notable but few women who have made it into the rock hall are a testament to that. Those women include Rhythm and Blues pioneers Ruth Brown and Lavern Baker; iconic performers Aretha Franklin and Madonna; and songwriters Carole King, Cynthia Weill, and Ellie Greenwich, to name a few. But Rock Hall inductees are disproportionately male. And the reason why becomes clear when we ask one particular question: what do Rock Hall inductees do in rock and roll?

Performers are inducted into Rock Hall through a voting process, in which a group of music industry insiders select inductees from a list of nominees. There are multiple categories beyond Performer: the Non-Performer (renamed the Ahmet Ertegun award in 2011), which honors songwriters, producers, executives, and other industry professionals; the Early Influences award, which recognizes artists who pre-dated rock and roll; and the Award for Musical Excellence (previously called the “Sidemen” award), which, in the words of the Rock Hall, “honors musicians, songwriters and producers who have spent their life creating important and memorable music.” The Hall of Fame also gives out lifetime achievement awards. Recipients in these categories are selected by a committee rather than by vote.

As music critic Courtney Smith has noted, the current Rock Hall voting processes have led to women being disproportionately underrepresented. And recently, even inductees have taken the Hall of Fame to task over the induction process. In his acceptance speech at the 2016 induction ceremony, for example, Steve Miller called on Hall of Fame officials to address the problem of gender representation: “I encourage you to keep expanding your vision, to be more inclusive of women.”

Steve Miller’s 2016 induction speech into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

But what are the real numbers behind this gender inequity problem? In order to identify and quantify the scope of this problem, I counted all persons inducted in each Hall of Fame category. Then, I broke down the performer category even further: I categorized all of the performer inductees according to what they are primarily known for doing in rock and roll. Was the performer a guitarist? A singer? A producer? A songwriter? A member of a vocal group? A member of a drums-guitar-bass rock trio? Then, I divided the inductee count according to gender. (I categorized solo performers as men or women, and for ensembles, according to whether the group included any women or not.)

Table 1 shows the number of men and women inducted into the Performer category—those selected by voting by industry insiders—in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I broke the Performer category down into the following subcategories: Singer/Songwriter/Producer, Singer/Instrumentalist/Songwriter, Singer/Songwriter, Vocal Group, Bandleader, Singer, Band, Guitarist, Backing Instrumentalist, and MC/DJ. Notably, of the seventy-four bands, sixty-one include no women. Of the forty-six artists who work as singers/instrumentalists/songwriters (that is, people who sing and play instruments and write their own songs), a mere six are women. Only one of the fifteen Singer/Songwriter/Producers—Madonna—is a woman. And a number of subcategories (bandleader, guitarist, backing instrumentalist, and MC/DJ) include no women at all.

Table 1: Gender Representation among Performers in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

CategoryMen/Groups Consisting Only of MenWomen/Groups that Include Women
Vocal Group195
Backing Instrumentalist60

The categories selected by committee rather than industry vote fare no better when it comes to gender equity. As Table 2 shows, of thirty-one musicians inducted as Early Influences, twenty-five are men and six are women. Only three women have been inducted in the Non-Performer award category.

Table 2: Gender Representation in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Non-Voting Categories

CategoryMen/Groups Consisting Only of MenWomen/Groups that Include Women
Early Influences256
Award for Musical Excellence150
Lifetime Achievement60

The number of Rock Hall inductees that falls into each of my performer subcategories offers a revealing glimpse into what one has to do to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. For instance, the vast majority of inductees in the performing category are bands comprised of singers and instrumentalists; these are bands that write some or all of their own music. By contrast, the smallest category—and, incidentally, the one that includes the largest proportion of women—consists of musicians who are primarily singers and who don’t write their own songs. The second largest category—performers who write their own songs and are both singers and instrumentalists—includes fifty-two musicians, six of whom are women.

What these numbers tell me is having one’s contributions to rock and roll recognized isn’t just a question of what type of music someone plays, or how well they play it. It’s also a question of participating in music in a particular way. For instance, being in a band in which the members play instruments, write songs, and appear to have a degree of creative autonomy “counts” as rock and roll in a way that being primarily a singer doesn’t. And the Hall of Fame’s criteria for determining what kind of music-making is worthy of recognition stems from larger cultural ideas about what kind of music-making activity is and isn’t laudable. Furthermore, because Rock Hall positions itself as an authority, the type of musicking that its voting board values has a profound influence in perpetuating larger social ideas about the kind of music-making that is valuable.

The heart of Rock Hall’s gender problem lies in the question of what kind of musical activity counts as valuable contribution to rock and roll in the eyes of the Rock Hall’s voting board. To put it another way, it’s a problem tied to the kind of musical work, musical involvement, and musical labor that counts as rock and roll in the eyes of Rock Hall voters. It turns out that the kind of musicking that is valued in rock culture consists overwhelmingly of musical activities that are often inaccessible or difficult to access for women.

There’s a perfect storm of factors that keep women from doing the kind of labor recognized in Rock Hall: from gender ideology that results in barriers to participation, to outright discrimination and abuse. Sociologist Mavis Bayton found that ideas about what kind of behavior is “appropriate” for young women makes it harder for them to pick up guitars and play in bands—or even imagine themselves as rock musicians. She noted that, as a result, young women have less access to equipment, transportation to venues, and practice space and time. Furthermore, women who are involved in music-making often face outright hostility and abuse from male producers, venue staff, and even music store employees.

The artists honored in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are largely those who have had the freedom, time, and resources to start bands, develop reputations as iconoclastic artists with individualistic styles, and perhaps even stand up to authority. They’re recognized as musical geniuses. But, as Sara Haefeli points out, not everyone has the opportunity to become this kind of genius. They may, however, contribute to musical life in other ways. As Rebecca Cypess argues in her essay on once-prominent—but now largely forgotten—performer and patron Sara Levy, historians of classical music value composition over other kinds of music-making, and have overlooked other, equally important contributions to music culture. In rock and roll, the value placed on songwriting and instrumental virtuosity, for instance, overshadow the contributions of those who don’t have the opportunity to engage in those practices.

Some women do become recognized rock icons, and have pioneered the performance styles that continue to define rock and roll. But still more participate in rock scenes in roles that are overlooked. They’re fans and aficionados who fuel the production of music. They’re backup singers or dancers. They might, like Rock Hall-recognized songwriters Carole King and Ellie Greenwich, work in behind-the-scenes roles.

While we’ve begun to recognize the work of the musicians and musickers behind the scenes as crucial to the creation of rock and roll, we need to do more to redress the gender disparity in how we recognize them.

Not only should the names of every backup singer and dancer be writ large on the walls of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but so should those of musicians’ spouses and partners and other people in supportive—and often feminized roles—who care for artists, and engage in un- or under-paid, unrecognized supportive work that enables musicians to devote time to their art. And I want to see Rock Hall acknowledge the work of music fans, whose emotional engagement, participation, and financial investment makes the success of rock greats possible. Let’s start by inducting the thousands of screaming teenagers who welcomed the Beatles to America.

In the end, I suppose that I have two answers to my opening question. What do women have to do to make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? We need to empower people of all genders to play music with (and perhaps like) the boys; organizations that follow the lead of the Willie Mae Rock Camp and the Portland Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls are doing just that. But it’s equally important to redefine what counts as making rock and roll. If we recognized that many types of musicking matter, perhaps we’d have a more gender-inclusive Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

For Discussion

  1. Do you think that your gender has shaped your access to musical opportunities? How do you think we could prevent gender from being a barrier to music-making?
  2. Why do the choices of institutions like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame impact public opinion on what counts as “valuable” or “praiseworthy” music?
  3. What examples of behind-the-scenes work in music can you think of? Why do you think this work goes unrecognized? What are the consequences of leaving that work unrecognized?

For Further Reading

Bayton, Mavis. Frock Rock. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Coates, Norma. “Teenyboppers, Groupies, and Other Grotesques: Girls and Women and Rock Culture in the 1960s and Early 1970s.” Journal of Popular Music Studies 15, no. 1 (2003): 65–94.

Leonard, Marion. Gender in the Music Industry: Rock, Discourse and Girl Power. Farnham: Ashgate, 2007.

Mahon, Maureen. “Listening for Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton’s Voice: The Sound of Race and Gender Transgression in Rock and Roll.” Women and Music 15, no. 1 (2011): 1-17.

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