CLEVELAND — Like many awards shows during the pandemic, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame hosted a virtual induction ceremony in 2020. On Saturday night at the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, where the organization’s museum is based, the event returned with a powerful lineup to laud its 36th annual class: a former United States president, Taylor Swift and a Beatle.
A video introduction for Jay-Z that flaunted the New York City rapper’s wide reach opened with a tribute from Barack Obama. “I’ve turned to Jay-Z’s words at different points in my life, whether I was brushing dirt off my shoulder on the campaign trail, or sampling his lyrics on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 50th anniversary of the Selma march to Montgomery,” said Obama, who spoke in the package alongside Beyoncé, Chris Rock and LeBron James.
The comedian Dave Chappelle, who delivered Jay-Z’s formal induction in the arena, opened with, “I would like to apologize …” — an apparent reference to the controversy surrounding his recent Netflix special, “The Closer” — before sticking to the subject at hand: Jay-Z’s eternal sense of calm and how he has stayed true to his community through the decades.
“When he said this is Jay everyday. When he told us he’d never change. You heard this and you probably said as a white person, ‘Well, maybe this guy should focus on his development,’” Chappelle said. “But what we heard is that he’ll never forget us. He will always remember us. And we are his point of reference. That he is going to show us how far we can go if we just get hold of the opportunity.”
A tuxedo-clad Jay-Z, who did not perform, followed with a charming, sometimes meandering 10-minute speech in which he referred to the mentors and peers who guided him: LL Cool J (who received a musical excellence award on Saturday after he wasn’t voted in on his sixth nomination), KRS-One, Rakim and Chuck D, among others. “Growing up, we didn’t think we could be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame,” Jay-Z said. “We were told that hip-hop was a fad. Much like punk rock, it gave us this anti-culture, this subgenre, and there were heroes in it.” Hopefully, he added at the end of his remarks, he is showing the “next generation that anything is possible.”
Jay-Z joined one of the more diverse recent Rock Hall classes: Carole King, the singer and songwriter who was honored by the organization in 1990 with her songwriting partner and former husband Gerry Goffin; the arena rockers Foo Fighters, whose frontman, Dave Grohl, traced the band’s longevity to the familial bond developed between the musicians; the indefatigable powerhouse singer Tina Turner, finally inducted as a solo performer after gaining entry as part of Ike and Tina Turner in 1991; the 1980s power-pop band the Go-Go’s, hailed as the sound of “pure possibility” in a big-hearted introduction by Drew Barrymore; and the classic rock auteur Todd Rundgren, who recently told TMZ that he “never cared much about the Hall of Fame” and stayed true to his word, skipping the event to perform a solo set in Cincinnati. HBO will present highlights from the ceremony on Nov. 20.
Jay-Z’s speech, filled with asides and memories, well demonstrated how despite the multitude of big personalities packed into one of Cleveland’s biggest venues, the event often centered on more intimate moments.
Swift helped set the more personal tone, recalling in her induction speech for King how at age 7 she used to dance throughout her house in socked feet while listening to the musician’s records. “I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know Carole King’s music,” said Swift, who went on to describe the seemingly magical way that King’s songs could be introduced by an outsider — a parent, a sibling, a lover — only to become an integral part of a person’s own internal world.
Swift embodied this idea in her show-opening performance, gliding through “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” which Swift reinvented as a gently pulsating synth-pop ballad that wouldn’t feel out of place in her own discography. King, who could be seen onscreen in the venue wiping away tears as Swift finished the song, thanked the pop star for “carrying the torch forward” in her own speech.
“I keep hearing it, so I guess I’m going to have to try to own it, that today’s female singers and songwriters stand on my shoulders,” said King, who was quick to extend the spotlight to her own forebears. “Let it not be forgotten that they also stand on the shoulders of the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. May she rest in power, Miss Aretha Franklin!”
In his speech for the Foo Fighters, Paul McCartney joking pointed out how Dave Grohl followed in his own footsteps. Both were swept up by music at a young age, McCartney said, landing in popular groups that came to an untimely end. Both rebounded by making albums and playing all the musical parts (Grohl with Foo Fighters’ self-titled 1995 debut; McCartney with his 1970 solo album). “Do you think this guy’s stalking me?” the Beatle cracked.
Onstage, Grohl, born roughly 60 miles east of the Rock Hall in Warren, Ohio, praised the influence of the Beatles and in particular McCartney, describing him as “my music teacher.” After the Foo Fighters muscled through a trio of battle-tested rock singalongs — “The Best of You,” “My Hero” and “Everlong” — McCartney repaid the favor, joining the band for a galloping cover of the Beatles’ “Get Back.”
In other performances, H.E.R., Christina Aguilera, Mickey Guyton and Keith Urban combined to pay tribute to Tina Turner, who did not attend the event. During the in memoriam segment, Brandi Carlile joined her bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth for an understated take on the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream” to honor Don Everly, who died in August.
The Go-Go’s captured all of the sunny, sneering urgency of their 1981 debut “Beauty and the Beat,” the first and only album from an all-woman band to score the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s chart, opening with “Vacation,” pogo-ing into “Our Lips Are Sealed” and closing with a bounding, bass-heavy “We Got the Beat.”
In Janet Jackson’s 2019 induction speech, she spoke of the Rock Hall’s well-documented gender imbalance, asking voters to “please induct more women.” The Go-Go’s bassist Kathy Valentine echoed these comments during the band’s own time onstage.
While Valentine credited the Rock Hall for making progress, she also prodded the organization to do more. “By honoring our historical contribution, the doors to this establishment have opened wider,” she said. “Because here is the thing, there would not be less of us if more of us were visible.”