Leave it to the guy who wrote such nervous-breakdown classics as “Head Like a Hole” and “Hurt” to find a way to acknowledge the weirdness of celebrating rock ‘n’ roll during a pandemic while also reminding us why that is exactly what we should be doing.
The guy is Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, and the rock reality check comes during the 35th annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, which airs in a reconfigured, COVID-era form at 8 p.m. Saturday on HBO. Like his fellow inductees — the Doobie Brothers, Depeche Mode and the family members representing the late Whitney Houston, the Notorious B.I.G. and Marc Bolan of T. Rex — Reznor is accepting his award during a pretaped virtual ceremony. And like many of his fellow human beings, Reznor is doing his best to find a little light in our year of darkness.
“What a disorienting and strange year we find ourselves in,” Reznor says into the camera. But after a shoutout to his band, Reznor finds that light and turns it all the way up.
“Music,” he says, “has always been the thing that kept me going.”
Because the COVID-19 pandemic has made big indoor gatherings impossible, this year’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony does not have many of the features that make the broadcast such a red-letter event on the rock-fan calendar. There are no barn-burning live performances by the inductees, like Stevie Nicks’ scorcher from 2019 or Green Day carrying the torch for the Ramones in 2002. There are no Night of a Thousand Stars jam sessions, like the 2004 tribute to George Harrison, in which Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Prince paid their respects by blowing the roof off the joint.
The prerecorded induction speeches from such pop-culture luminaries as Iggy Pop (inducting Nine Inch Nails), Sean “Diddy” Combs (Notorious B.I.G.) and Alicia Keys (Whitney Houston) are uniformly affectionate and respectful, and the acceptance speeches are equally gracious. So if you’re looking for drunken ramblings or epic trashings, you won’t be getting those, either. (Although the quick glimpses of rock stars in their native environments — Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore in a sleek, vaguely futuristic pad, the Doobie Brothers’ Patrick Simmons with a motorcycle in the background, Reznor with his quarantine stubble and shaggy hair — is a nice, intimate bonus.)
What you will get from this two-hour broadcast are many uplifting reminders of the ways music keeps us going. There isn’t much in the way of fireworks, but there is plenty of sustaining warmth.
Each of the inductees — a group that also includes journalist, producer and manager Jon Landau and entertainment executive Irving Azoff — is celebrated with an induction speech and a prerecorded mini-documentary stuffed with interviews, performance clips and various bits of music geek trivia. In a nice bit of scene-setting, the packages are introduced with lyric snippets that capture the honorees’ essence in one radio-friendly bite.
For the Doobie Brothers, it’s “What the people need is a way to make them smile,” from 1972’s “Listen to the Music.” And what better way to sum up a band whose staggering collection of 27 Billboard Hot 100 hits anchored many a party playlist (“China Grove,” “Taking It to the Streets”); soothed legions of battered hearts (“What a Fool Believes,” “You Belong to Me”); and proved that genre boxes don’t matter when you can file everything under “Damn Good Music.”
For Nine Inch Nails, it’s “I hurt myself today to see if I still feel,” from 1994’s “Hurt,” which gets to the heart of Reznor’s brutally beautiful music with one precise stab. (As did Iggy, when he said, “Listening to Nine Inch Nails feels like hearing the truth.”) The Notorious B.I.G. gets “It was all a dream,” from 1994’s “Juicy,” in which Biggie reached out to all of the other dismissed and disrespected street kids with this mantra: “You know very well/ Who you are/ Don’t let them hold you down.”
There is also a delightful assortment of fan-level freakouts and astute observation from fellow musicians and pop-culture stars, making for some memorable odd-couple moments.
Actress Charlize Theron thanks Depeche Mode for providing the soundtrack of her adolescence, while Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top weighs in on the band’s ability to find “new ways of making loud noise.” Joan Jett admits that she had a crush on Marc Bolan, and Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols praises Bolan’s “astoundingly sweet” guitar playing. Nancy Wilson of Heart plays the timeless riff from the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water.” Jennifer Hudson remembers seeing Houston on TV and thinking, “Who is this?” Followed by, “I want to be like that some day.”
The performance clips will remind fans why they stood in line for Doobie Brothers concert tickets, why they got that Depeche Mode tattoo and how a Nine Inch Nails concert felt like a baptism and an apocalypse. In the case of the late Bolan, who died in a car crash in 1977, the collection of cheeky interviews and blazing performances will have you hitting your favorite streaming service for the albums you didn’t know you needed until Bolan told you. And the mini-films on Houston and Biggie Smalls, along with the “In Memoriam” tribute to Eddie Van Halen, are brief, but vivid portraits of artists who rocked fans and shook up the industry.
Throughout the two hours, you are reminded why music matters, now and forever. How it gives outcasts a place to belong. How it helps us find the right words for the things we need to say. How it helps us dream, makes us smile and lets us feel.
And how someday, we will all be dreaming, smiling and feeling under the big tent that rock built. Someday, we’ll be together. Yes we will.