After skipping a year due to the pandemic, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted its 2021 class with a wild, surprise-guest-filled party held in the town many argue is the ceremony’s only rightful home: Cleveland, Ohio. What a homecoming it was.
Paul McCartney became a seventh Foo Fighter. LL Cool J, Eminem, and J. Lo blew up the night like old-school hip-hop Avengers. And later, LL was the only person on the arena floor to stand and clap for the late, great Biz Markie. Both Carli(s)les — Brandi and Belinda — were in the house. Drew Barrymore did Ponds performance art.
The Go-Go’s swore to use their induction to get more female bands into the painfully male-dominated institution. And, randomly, Survivor host Jeff Probst was there — the sole person recording Gary Clark Jr.’s entire Charley Patton tribute.
Taylor Swift opened the show with a souped-up, syncopated version of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” sashaying across the Rocket Mortage FieldHouse in a bodysuit reminiscent of her role in Cats. This felt apt since, in her speech inducting Carole King, Swift didn’t miss the opportunity to point out Tapestry as a trailblazing moment for felines on iconic album covers. And with that, a night of history, heroes, and Jay-Z was off.
Carole King was brought to tears by Swift’s words. But the 81-year-old star returned the favor in spades when she stepped onstage in her glittering black ensemble, bringing everyone in the arena to multiple emotional peaks not 20 minutes into a five-hour show. That’s a legend. King performed a delicate “You’ve Got A Friend” on piano, with three of the session players that were with her to record the album it was on 51 years ago. Danny Kortchmar was even playing the same guitar.
During her poignant speech, King thanked Swift, calling her a musical granddaughter, and graciously used the rest of her time to invoke the first woman ever inducted, Aretha Franklin. “We can feel you, baby,” King said lovingly. Jennifer Hudson came out for a predictably heart-melting rendition of “Natural Woman,” the song King wrote for Franklin. Hudson, an heir to that musical path-crossing, later said it best: “Aretha Franklin told me that I should always use my voice. Carole King told me to use my words.”
This year is technically King’s second entry into the Rock Hall. The first time she was inducted as a songwriter was with her late former husband Gerry Goffin. This time, King’s induction celebrated her career as a solo performer, which includes the music she made after the life-shattering divorce that inspired her to move to Los Angeles.
This made King a spiritual proxy for her fellow, criminally-overdue inductee Tina Turner, who was absent from the event. Like King, Turner was inducted into the Rock Hall years ago, but only as part of the songwriting duo with her abusive husband, Ike. Turner was forced to reinvent herself at age 50 — a career death sentence, as P!nk noted in a video montage — but ended up producing music that’s nothing short of miraculous.
With all due respect to H.E.R., Keith Urban, Mickey Guyton, and Christina Aguilera who sang tributes — and to Nicole Kidman who showed up for her husband — it was pretty clear by the massive, impromptu singalongs to “The Best” and “Steamy Windows” and “Better Be Good To Me” that the arena would have preferred to just rock out to old Tina Turner music videos on the big screen.
It was refreshing that the night’s most effusive speeches came from the hip-hop folks. Dr. Dre gave a moving speech about LL Cool J. And Pharrell inducted the German experimental band Kraftwerk by translating what their legacy meant to hip-hop pioneers, and later, Barack Obama did the same speaking about how Jay-Z became both a beacon for and chronicler of Black inner-city life in America.
Chappelle inducted Jay-Z, which wasn’t announced beforehand — potentially to avoid backlash after his controversial Netflix special about hypocrisy within the LGBTQ community. His first line — “I would like to apologize… I’m just fucking with you” — got the biggest, nervous laugh. The second? “Being Black in America is not as easy as it looks.”
Chappelle spoke for eight minutes, poetically, about what Jay-Z meant to the Black community: “I need everybody in rock and roll to know that even though we are honoring him, he is ours. He is hip-hop. Forever.”
Then H.O.V. entered rock’s pantheon with a 15-minute hip-hop history lesson (“Really? You’ve got to clap more for KRS-One,” he said). He spoke with candor about how a younger version of himself didn’t think it was even possible to be inducted into the Rock Hall, and how that exclusion motivated him to put his own experiences on the page (specifically, in a small green notebook his mom gave him.)
Rock Hall exclusion was also a thorn for the Go-Go’s — the first commercially successful all-female band whose members actually played instruments and wrote music. They played hits like “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Vacation,” and “We’ve Got The Beat” bringing the arena to an aerobic high.
The night ended with what everyone knew would be a total blow-out by the Foo Fighters. This band always delivers. Grohl was a force. He was spiraling around the stage, shredding manically on his signature powder-blue Gibson — the same one from two nights earlier — and was practically levitating as the band blasted through “Best of You,” “My Hero,” and “Everlong.”
In past years, Grohl has been a fixture at Rock Hall ceremonies, always on-hand to wax on about the profundity of rock and roll. But when it was finally his turn, he seemed oddly lost for words. But when the Foos returned to their instruments with their plus-one for a victory-lap of the Beatles’ classic “Get Back,” Grohl grabbed the mic.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doesn’t always get it right. If you’re like this year’s purposely-absent inductee Todd Rundgren, you might even think it’s insulting to be voted in at all. But as so many moments last night prove, the reason artists do show up, even begrudgingly, is because you can never thank the songs — and the artists who made them — enough for changing your life.
This was abundantly clear watching Grohl stand shoulder-to-shoulder with McCartney as he said, “I never took a music lesson — but I had Beatles albums.”
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