Friday, April 8, 2016

Not on The Wedding List: Kate Bush Gets Snubbed Again

When I choose topics for this blog, I try to pick things to write about that aren’t widely discussed on the internet.  That was the whole reason for starting this thing in the first place, since I wanted to highlight topics that might be under-reported or absent altogether from on-line sources.  I break from that format just this once to write about something that is mentioned fairly frequently on-line, and I’m far from the first person to do it.  You can also reference this site (and this one, and this one, and this one, and this one) to read similar pleas.  But, I always choose to write about things I care about, and that’s where this post is no different from my others, and this week I wanted to add my voice to the countless other music lovers who ask the same thing year after year: Why isn’t Kate Bush in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Bush in 1986

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame attracts its fair share of controversy, and far be it from me to try to explain it all here.  But one of the criticisms that’s dogged the intuition from the beginning is how inductees are chosen.  Only a handful of people control the nominating process, and they’re often criticized for appealing to their own tastes as opposed to more popular views (to their credit, popular views aren’t always right- Nickelback is very popular but shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near Cleveland).  Nominees are chosen each year from all eligible acts, and the year’s inductees are whittled down from that list.  Only acts who are nominated that year can get in.   Any artist who released their first album more than 25 years ago is eligible, and by now that list of eligible acts is huge (and growing).   Acts can be nominated more than once (Chic hold the record- nominated 10 times and still not inducted).  Kate Bush has been eligible for induction since 2003 and has been nominated for inclusion a whopping 0 times.  Yes, that’s right- zero.  None.  In thirteen years or so of eligibility, she’s never even been in the running. 

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland; Kate Bush free since 2003.

Kate Bush fans see this as a bit of a snub.  When considering musicians who came out of the 70s and 80s it’s hard to find anyone who was as wildly original or as influential, and therefore eligible for induction, as Bush.  She’s difficult to classify as a musician, straddling the line between music and art.  She’s a keyboard virtuoso, actress, dancer, and music video pioneer.  I think it’s fair and appropriate to place her on the same level as other groundbreaking British acts like David Bowie and the Peter Gabriel era of Genesis (both in the Hall of Fame, by the way).  They all crossed boundaries between music genres and dipped their toes in performance art, experimenting with elaborate costumes and stage shows.  Musically, she truly pushed the limits of what a synthesizer (a relatively new instrument at the time) could do, and on albums like Never For Ever created sounds that I daresay had never been heard before. 

That perhaps raises another aspect of Bush’s music the Hall of Fame might not fully embrace.  Simply put, Kate Bush’s music is strange.  Her voice can range from a whisper to a shriek to a howl.  She affects accents and plays characters.  She incorporates sound effects in her songs to build moods (breaking glass and footsteps on Never For Ever, birdsong throughout Aerial).  Thematically, her music is just as diverse.  She’s written songs about British composer Frederick Delius, philosopher and inventor Wilhelm Reich, and Adolf Hitler.  The second half of her epic album Hounds of Love is a concept album that describes the final moments of a girl drowning after falling through thin ice.  She has recorded albums that might be considered more “normal” (such as her debut The Kick Inside), but she’s truly at her best when she’s at her most experimental.  Her strangest and most complex work (The Dreaming, Hounds of Love, the double album Aerial), are clearly her strongest, and perhaps it’s this strangeness that’s prevented her from becoming more of a mainstream success in the U.S.    She remains somewhat of a cult figure in the States, and this also might be holding up her nomination.  Other cultish musicians (like Frank Zappa) have been inducted in the past, though, so maybe there’s still hope.

Her recorded work is unique within the music world and remains as lush, strange, and challenging as ever, but it’s her massive influence on others that also makes her eligible for inclusion in the Rock Hall.  Reading through Bush’s Wikipedia page (easiest for us researchers with limited time) the list of musicians she’s influenced is extremely diverse and crosses through musical styles and genders.  Tori Amos is the artist that’s cited most frequently as being extremely influenced by Bush, but the list of her admirers is much more exhaustive and inclusive; Allison Goldfrapp, k.d. lang, Robert Smith of The Cure, Tricky, even unexpected musicians like Johnny Rotten and Tupac freakin’ Shakur.  Her willingness to experiment with image and costume also be seen in the work of PJ Harvey.  Florence Welsh of Florence and the Machine is heavily influenced by Bush, and if you don’t believe me listen to Bush’s “Sat in Your Lap” and “Dog Days are Over”- even the music videos for the two songs are similar.  Joanna Newsom’s song “Leaving the City” could be a Kate Bush song, and the album that song appears on (2015’s Divers) is a direct descendant of Bush’s stranger and more experimental albums like Never For Ever and The Dreaming.

It’s easy to make the case for Bush’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but it’s hard to overlook the one glaring issue that may be keeping her from getting in- when it comes to inducting female musicians, the HoF has an absolutely awful track record.  While researching this post, I looked over the inductees to the Hall, choosing to focus on everyone inducted since the year 2000.  I did it this way because Bush has only been eligible since 2003, and I wanted to focus on her era of eligibility.  The breakdown isn’t particularly diverse, and looks something like this:

Since 2000, 103 acts have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.  That’s counting acts, not individuals (most inductees contain multiple band members, though some are solo performers).

Of those 103 inductees, only 8 have been female solo performers: Bonnie Raitt, Brenda Lee, Patti Smith, Madonna, Darlene Love, Laura Nyro, Donna Summer, and Linda Ronstadt.

An additional 6 inductees have prominent female members:  Talking Heads, Pretenders, Blondie, ABBA, Heart, and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts.

One inductee contains multiple women (but no men): The Ronettes.

In total, that’s only 15 acts that are comprised of all women or some women.  This works out to about 15% of inductees.   If you calculate only the percentage of the inductees who are female solo performers, it’s less than 8% of the total.  8%.  Compare that to male solo performers, and the imbalance becomes even more glaring.  30 male solo performers have been inducted since 2000, making their contribution about 30% of the total. 

O.K., you might say, that’s just the numbers since the year 2000.  Female inductees may be a little scarce lately but surely the entire history of the institution doesn’t look this bad.  Well, not so fast.  Going back all the way to the first year of induction (1986), only an additional 7 female solo inductees can be found (Aretha Franklin, LaVerne Baker, Ruth Brown, Etta James, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, and Dusty Springfield). 

That brings the all time total to 15.  The Hall has been inducting members for 30 years.  Hundreds of acts and musicians have gotten in.  Only 15 of those inductees have been female solo performers.  That averages out to 5 a decade.  Rock and Roll Hall of Fame people, you can do better.  Start by inducting Kate Bush.

Ultimately, what’s it all matter what some music executives in Cleveland think?  Why do Kate Bush fans take it so personally?  After all, not being included in the HoF doesn’t change her music.  We can still listen to it and be inspired by it whether her name is on the list or not.  She’ll keep releasing albums (albeit slowly) regardless of whether or not she’s included.  She might not even care herself.  But fans can take these things personally and see induction as validation for a life’s work- just look at how much fans of the band Rush pushed to get them inducted.  They were relentless in their support of the band and eventually succeeded.  Kate Bush fans need to do the same thing (and I don’t mean to offend any Rush fans, because I know you’re a dedicated lot and I respect that, but Kate Bush is way more eligible for induction then Rush).  Induction also means preservation.  The Hall of Fame is also a museum, and induction means that her legacy, both musical and material, can be preserved for future generations. 

I close with a personal story about my introduction to her music, a story that I think underscores the personal connection that Kate Bush fans have with her music. When I was in college 20 years ago I found a second-hand copy of The Dreaming at the local Salvation Army (on cassette no less).  It cost a dollar.  I knew who Kate Bush was but didn’t really know that much about her music.  I bought it on a whim but was hooked from the first time I heard it.  It was complex and strange and it made me think.  It certainly wasn’t a passive listening experience.  I was studying art and was close to receiving my BFA degree, and I realized that this album was art too.  It had to be interpreted.  It was challenging and dense but also alluring and beautiful.
This is the album cover  I'm referring to.

 I was working as a DJ at the college radio station at the time and I eagerly raided the stacks of vinyl, looking for more Kate Bush albums.  It was always fun looking through the old records at the station since students would often write comments or reviews on the record sleeves.  Sometimes they would be general comments like “this is good” or “don’t waste your time”, and sometimes they’d be warnings to future DJs, like “track 7 uses the F word” or something like that.  As I browsed through the Kate Bush albums I found a simple three word comment written on one of her records that remains one of the most accurate and succinct statements I could ever find on her music.  The record was the 12” single for the song “Sat in Your Lap” and the cover features a bizarre looking portrait of Bush wearing an odd striped costume (see right).  Scrawled across the cover were the words “weird but good”.  I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame holds their annual induction ceremony tonight (April 8) in New York City.  Kate Bush will not be in attendance.  Here’s hoping for next year. 

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