A vote for Chic, but not for Nirvana: A Rock and Roll Hall of Famer voter explains her ballot.

December 18, 2013

With all the votes tallied and inductees named, music critic Maura Johnston did a brave thing Monday night: She posted a photo of her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot to Twitter and Instagram.

People feel strongly about the Hall of Fame — too strongly, perhaps. Then again, induction to the Cleveland museum is one of the strongest historical endorsements an artist can receive. So within minutes of posting her ballot, Johnston was slinging arguments on metal and the providence of rock-and-roll with a Deep Purple fan sorely offended by her failure to vote for his favorite band. Meanwhile, legions of blog commenters, Redditors and Internet malcontents have begun their annual induction chorus: Why was Yes passed over? Where’s the love for prog rock? Why do people care about awards from The Man, anyway? Is rock-and-roll officially dead?

Johnston and I took up a few of these questions over e-mail. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

The Washington Post: First off, how did you go about making your ballot choices? Was this like a long ponderous agony, or not so much?

Maura Johnston: It was somewhat strategic. I have full respect for all of the artists I chose, but you can only select five, and I figured Nirvana was a first-ballot lock that didn’t really need my vote. So I picked some artists who I both liked and thought needed an extra boost (particularly Chic, who were on the ballot for the ninth time this year). I’m a bit of an outlier voter, I think; this is only my third year voting, and so I want to make my pro-pop, pro-dance, pro-R&B voice heard.

Tell me a little more about Chic. [Who were, sadly, not inducted, for the ninth time.] Why did you want to see them in the Hall of Fame?

Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards met when they were session musicians, and the band they went on to form made some of the most indelible hits of the disco era — “Le Freak” and “Good Times,” in particular. They had a very precise, relatively minimalist aesthetic that gave their music a sharpness; Rodgers’ crisp guitar rhythms and Edwards’ bass lines darted around in a way that added urgency, which was only heightened by their relatively restrained use of embellishments like string sections or heavy synths. They were also notable for being a band, when other musicians of that era were either singers or producers. “Good Times” went on to be sampled in “Rapper’s Delight,” which should make that track notable on its own, and Blondie’s “Rapture” is a direct descendant of the type of gritty, funk-influenced dance music Chic specialized in.

Rodgers also worked on so many crucial pop records from the ’80s — “Like A Virgin,” Duran Duran’s “Notorious,” Robert Palmer’s “Riptide.” Edwards died in 1996. Rodgers, of course, brought his crisp guitar style to [Daft Punk's] “Get Lucky” this year, but his contributions to Avicii’s “True” shouldn’t be overlooked — particularly “Lay Me Down,” which brings Adam Lambert in for diva duty and which is probably the best marriage of the EDM hyper-everything aesthetic and the flintier stylings of Chic.

Do you see any big pros or cons in the way critics vote for inductees now?

Doing so is very easy, and I’m honored that I’m part of the committee. I would guess that the downside is the opacity, although I know that shadowy cabals are what keeps lots of this country going.

But you’ve been refreshingly not-shadowy about the process — tweeting your ballot, explaining your thinking on Twitter to trolls who don’t like your votes. Do you have a philosophy on how you engage in that kind of online discourse?

I grew up in the message-board world, and the most important space where I cut my rhetorical teeth was Echo, which had two rules for its public forums: “You own your own words” and “No personal attacks.”

The two are actually related; Echo didn’t have any anonymous posters, and the first maxim was both a reminder to take responsibility for what you were saying and protection of your copyright (i.e. someone couldn’t lift a post of yours and use it in a story they were working on without permission — the board was pretty heavy with media types). The second flowed from the first and forced you to take on a person’s argument, even if you found them personally distasteful; I honestly think I’d be a very different writer now if I hadn’t had those rules to live by at 19. And so I’ve tried to use these in my public life (although I haven’t always succeeded).

First of all, getting into snippy [flame] wars about nothing is a waste of my time. I did get a little snarky with the Deep Purple fan at first, but actually engaging with people who put forth b****iness (which he did) is often off-putting enough for them to go into sincere mode quickly. On the flip side, I want to keep open the possibility of learning something from people who disagree with me. I figure that I exist in a pretty closed space that has the illusion of being vast and all-encompassing (thanks Twitter and THE CASCADE!), and so if I get to push through that bubble now and again it’ll help me in the long run.

However. I know that I’ve been very lucky with people who disagree with me online; colleagues of mine (particularly women writing about male-dominated cultural spaces) have received horrifying abuse and harassment. I tend to brush off insults to my intelligence that are obviously gendered; when I speak positively about pop music on certain radio programs, for instance, I am derided as a “Valley Girl” by male listeners — although they don’t seem to have the same problem when I am saying nice things about rock-and-roll!

Speaking of rock-and-roll, a common criticism of the Hall of Fame is that it increasingly includes artists who do not technically play rock. What’s your take on that?

“Rock and roll,” the museum designation, has been an umbrella term since the Hall of Fame’s inception; the first class included Marvin Gaye and James Brown, who aren’t exactly staples on America’s classic-rock outlets. But it’s consistent with how rock-and-roll the genre has, over the years, constantly bitten off pieces of other genres and subcultures. (Kiss’s 1979 smash “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” probably wouldn’t have existed without Chic laying the groundwork, for instance.)

Influence in pop music is a sprawling, messy thing, and I’m all for more nods across (human-constructed) genre boundaries, if only because it opens the door for more honesty and bridge-building.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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