Rock Hall Induction Ceremony Hits High Gear With Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift, Patti Smith & More

Paul McCartney & Dave Grohl

Getting Back To Where They Belong: Paul McCartney and Dave Grohl rock the 36th Annual Rock Hall induction ceremony at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on Oct. 30, 2021 in Cleveland (Photo by Kevin Kane/Getty Images for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame )
From the moment Taylor Swift strolled the stage in a black lace and sequin catsuit, reinventing the emotional center of Carole King’s vulnerable “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” as an empowered woman confronting a potential lover with the inevitable player/pain reality over an unexpected synth track, it was obvious the 2021 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductions would be a night of strength in the music. Whether Gary Clark Jr inducting Charley Patton with a reminder of how potent the blues remain in all music, Patti Smith on video for the non-attending “Peter Pan prodigy” Todd Rundgren or Angela Bassett’s heartfelt homage to Tina Turner’s courage to emerge at 40, an age most women are thrown away, to become a stadium-sized rock & roll headliner by 50, this night honored icons who did it on their terms, built careers with sweat and smarts, love of the game and making music that endures.

And what a cavalcade at Cleveland, Ohio’s Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse! Sir Paul McCartney dropping an “F bomb” to welcome the Foo Fighters into the “%#&@ing Rock & Roll Hall of Fame!” Drew Barrymore raving as her pre-pubescent self, falling in love with her first record – Beauty & the Beat – while donning towels around her body and hair, then covering her face with a white mask to recreate that album cover as she introduced the Go-Go’s. Carole King reminding people that just as she’s constantly told young female songwriters stand on her shoulders, she stood on and was inspired by Miss Aretha Franklin; then Jennifer Hudson delivered a gut-tumbling “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman,” equal parts gospel fervor and sexual healing.

In a five-hour night, trapped at claustrophobically close tables on the floor, an evening unrolled without a cringe worthy moment. Speeches reached for higher truths and inspiration. Go-Go Kathy Valentine declaring, “…we are who we are, because our music found its way into our fans’ hearts. By recognizing our achievement, the Rock Hall celebrates possibility, the kind of possibility that creates hopeful dreamers. By honoring our historical contribution, the doors to this establishment have opened wider and the Go-Go’s will be advocating for the inclusion of more women.”

 Eminem, Dr. Dre, LL Cool J, and Jennifer Lopez

Rock Rap Pop Royalty: Eminem, Dr. Dre, LL Cool J, and Jennifer Lopez backstage at the 36th Annual Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony. ((Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)

Like the Go-Go’s, LL Cool J – inducted by Dr. Dre, who threw down a history to ground how deep LL’s reach and impact was – inclusion was a long time coming. Speaking of humility, of grace, he rebalanced the scales, offering, “A lot people, when I told them I got inducted, they’d say to me, “Isn’t it is about time?” You see, what people don’t realize is, I wasn’t thinking about the people who voted against me. I was thinking about the people who voted for me. It was love…”

LL Cool J, shining in silver leather with a massive sparkling crystal pop-up collar, stole the performances with a slamming medley as hard-hitting as it was precise. His charisma alone drilled into the crowd; then partway into “Going Back To Cali,” Eminem walked onstage for serious scrimmaging on “Rock The Bells.” Toe-to-toe, they showed the hollow-point ballast of rappers going at each other in rhyme. Pivoting with a solo “I’m Bad,” the 6-time RRHoF nominated rap pioneer downshifted to smooth soul balladry as Jennifer Lopez appeared in Dolce & Gabbana lowslung pants, a high rise thong and a black bra with an electric blue coat trailing behind her for “All I Have,” which merged Jenny from the Block brio with LL’s smolder for a slow burn that ignited “Mama Said Knock You Out” featuring dancers in white sweat suits filling the aisles.

In a world of great debate about who should be in the Rock Hall, LL Cool J – one of Grammy’s most effective hosts – closed his speech with this, “The last thing I’ll say is, rock and roll, hip-hop loves you. We borrow your beats. We sample ’em. We turn them into hits. And we know where we came from. We know where things come from….We love and appreciate you.”

After words from former President Barack Obama, Dave Chappelle went to the podium to suggest the hip-hop counter-balance in an effective truth-leveling speech about Jay-Z’s impact – and the reality of who the rapper/mogul is and what he means in a world divided. After cracking a joke about apologizing/not apologizing, Chappelle schooled the largely white audience about what inherently eludes even the wokest.

Jay-Z and Clarence Avant, with Chairman and CEO of Sony/ATV Music Publishing Jon Platt, and H.E.R.

Hova & The Godfather: Rock Hall honoree Jay-Z and Clarence Avant, with Chairman and CEO of Sony/ATV Music Publishing Jon Platt, and H.E.R. backstage at the 36th Annual Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame )

“This is an incredible honor to induct this next man into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame,” the controversial comic began. “But I need everybody in rock & roll to know even though we are honoring him, he is ours. He is hip-hop. Forever and ever and a day… I could talk about his acumen as businessman. I could talk about his accomplishments in music. But I think what’s most important for everyone in this room to know is what it means to us, what he means to his culture.”

Citing his origins in the Marcy Projects, his early days selling crack, Chappelle made the truth real with this: “American Pie is not made out of apples. It’s made out of whatever you get your fucking hands on…. With success comes co-option. And he never let that get him.

“The way a white person might hear his music is not the same the way someone from Marcy would. Well, he’s said, ‘This Jay is every day.’ He told us he’d never change… He will always remember us. We are his point of reference, that he is going to show us how far we can go if we get hold of the opportunity. For this, we will always love him… And as important as this war is for some, you must understand that he has his people’s hearts. We love him more than you ever recognize or even realize because he embodies the potential of what our lives can be and what success can be.”

Drew Barrymore

Beauty & The Drew: Drew Barrymore, paying homage to The Go-Go’s whom she channelled and introduced. at the Rock Hall. (Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Rock hall )

Jay-Z, who was only honored by an all-star montage of Obama, Beyonce, Rihanna, Rick Ross, Chris Rock, LeBron James, Lin-Manuel Miranda, DJ Khaled, Tyler Perry, Questlove, Halle Berry, Samuel L. Jackson, David Letterman, Common, H.E.R., Pharrell, Trevor Noah, and more hitting Carter’s lines, gave a speech that was a survey course on modern hip-hop. Noticeably moved, he admonished Chappelle for “trying to make me cry in front of all these white people,” but honored those who came before – and offered a sense of hip-hop’s power by recounting the call from President Obama to help reinforce getting the vote out in Atlanta, Miami and Ohio. Women. Blacks. Punks. Outliers.

For as corporate as the Rock Hall can be – and the sponshorship and naming opportunities were everywhere – when you pull back, one thing stood true: whether Clarence Avant’s Ahmet Ertegun Lifetime Achievement Award for being a relentless fighter for Black talent and supportive politicians, Billy Preston who brought a gospel grace and urban funk to the Beatles, Stones and our own music, Randy Rhoads’ groundbreaking hard rock verging on classical music, Kraftwerk whose influence bled from electronic dance music to hip-hop, Jay-Z or LL Cool J’s from the projects hip-hop genre-blasting, the indie/punk GoGo’s or Germs’ veteran Pat Smear in Foo Fighters or the irascible Rundgren, this was not music conjured by an industry or artists nurtured by corporate America.

At its best, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is a repository of what happens when social forces meet determined creators who refuse to listen to what “the suits” say. They keep coming, conjuring, embracing what they feel and building what they want. Along the way, they set people on fire, create paths for other, often equally unthinkable dreams.

Beyond Christina Aguilera belting “River Deep, Mountain High,” Foo Fighters fantasy-backing McCartney for a galloping “Get Back” or Carole King honoring the Section’s Danny Kortchmar, Russ Kunkel and Leland Sklar by reprising their original Tapestry recording with a tender “You’ve Got A Friend,” the magic shone brightest. Beyond the trials, disappointments, trainwrecks and losses to be elected, the inductees – present or not – represent beacons for anyone who as Sapphire says in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” climatic speech, “ever loved some band, or some little piece of music so much it hurts.”