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Three Women and Their Journeys in Song; Too Feminine for Rock? Or Is Rock Too Macho? Print-ready version

by Stephen Holden
New York Times
January 14, 1996

When the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame has its 11th annual induction ceremony on Wednesday at the Waldorf-Astoria, one figure who will be conspicuously missing is Joni Mitchell. The Canadian-born singer and songwriter widely regarded as the most talented and influential white female rock performer ever has twice been nominated and both times passed over by the 800-member voting body of journalists and record-company insiders. This year, her name wasn't even on the list of 15 nominees.

A case could be made that Ms Mitchell is more influential than any of this year's inductees ­ David Bowie, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Jefferson Airplane, Little Willie John, Pink Floyd, the Shirelles and the Velvet Underground. In her lyrics, particularly those for the 1970's albums, "Blue," "For the Roses," "Court and Spark" and "Hejira", Ms Mitchell refined an autobiographical poetic style that pointed rock songwriting toward a probing psychological investigation.

Musically, Ms Mitchell was a pioneer in the exploration of jazz and African drumming within a folk-rock context, and, in her more recent recordings, she has explored the notion of a song as aural environment. All told, her cumulative body of work stands up beside that of Bob Dylan in its breadth of vision and expressive power.

The slighting of Ms Mitchell glaringly illustrates the Hall of Fame's most serious bias: the disdain for folk-oriented soft rock, especially when made by women. Some might argue that such music isn't truly rock-and-roll, that it's folk or pop or something else. But if it isn't, why have Simon and Garfunkel and the Byrds been canonized?

In fact, folk-rock embodies the basic rock-and-roll esthetic. It is a freewheeling musical expression that derives from a roots source. Since the 1970's, it has been the most important rock style practiced by white (and some black) female musicians, and a tradition that runs parallel to macho hard rock. To say that such music isn't rock is to adopt a boys' club mentality that confers the stamp of approval only on the musical equivalent of sticks and snails and not on anything that carries so much as a whiff of sugar and spice.

This sexual bias is a residue of cultural tensions that date back to rock's earliest days. The 1950's pop-music culture in which rock erupted was so polite and squeaky clean it often seemed like a holdover from World War II, when the record industry catered to the dreams of women whose husbands and boyfriends were overseas.

Rock-and-roll intruded as a brutal re-assertion of masculine energy, a phallic blast of rebellion in a cultural, environment that sometimes seemed to be dictated by stern blue- haired schoolteachers with Victorian values. A generation of male performers and consumers began to seize control of a field that had been too feminized for them to identify with. That seizure and the rude, class-clown esthetic that accompanied it became a cornerstone of rock tradition. That's why 40 years later, anything that smacks of refinement, that looks back to the pacified, conformist 1950's, is suspected of being counterrevolutionary.

How else to explain the dearth of women on the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame's recently published list of the 500 most influential songs? This bogus canon, selected by James Henke, the Hall of Fame's chief curator, with input from other rock critics and writers, does a conscientious job of recognizing early blues, rhythm-and-blues and country-music influences. But the short shrift it gives to the contributions of women is an embarrassment to the institution that promotes it.

Of 500 recordings, only 59 are by women, and a good number of those 59 are recordings by male-female duos and sexually mixed groups like Fleetwood Mac, Talking Heads and Jefferson Airplane. The female contribution to the folk-rock tradition is barely acknowledged, with Ms Mitchell getting only one title on the list ("Help Me") compared with two each by AC/DC, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, Eddie Cochran and, of all people, the Monkees.

While the list recognizes minor British invasion acts like Gerry and the Pacemakers and Peter and Gordon, artists who changed the way women expressed themselves in music are overlooked. Influential hits like Carly Simon's "You're So Vain," Janis Ian's "Society's Child," Rickie Lee Jones's "Chuck E's in Love" and Tracy Chapman's "Fast Care" are excluded. Linda Ronstadt, the queen of Los Angeles rock in the 1970's, is nowhere to be found. Nor are Laura Nyro (a significant formal innovator), Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Joan Armatrading, Suzanne Vega, Heart and the solo Stevie Nicks. Even in the pop-soul area, the list is ungenerous to women. Dionne Warwick and the solo Tina Turner go unacknowledged.

Looking back even further, why should early rock-and-roll fluff like Danny and the Juniors' "At the Hop" be recognized and not Lesley Gore's proto-feminist teen-age protest "It's My Party" or any of the hits by Brenda Lee, a singer whose early-60's recordings brought a strain of gusty country-rock into the rock-and-roll mainstream? Ms Lee, whom the Hall of Fame has seen fit to ignore completely, is arguably more influential than the comparatively anemic Ricky Nelson, who was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1987.

In future years it is probable that Ms Mitchell will be admitted. But the fact is, she should have been a shoo-in. As for Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame's attitude toward women, there's only one word to describe it: sexist.

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Added to Library on October 18, 2002. (2101)


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