2008 Pop Conference kicks off!

Last night’s keynote panel kicked off the 2008 Pop Conference at EMP|SFM. This year’s Pop Conference, the largest so far, features over 160 presenters and 40 panels, covering topics over the broad spectrum of the theme “Shake, Rattle: Music, Conflict, and Change.” Besides the engaging panels (KEXP’s own Jon Kertzer will be sitting in on one Sunday morning), there will be a Saturday lunchtime performance by Blue Scholars, and DJ Michele Myers spins “Rebel Music” 7-9pm Saturday. Hopefully, you all can make it out to this free event, but whether you can or not, we have a man on the inside, Chris Estey, to bring you the 2008 Pop Conference each day:

EMP Pop Conference: Thursday, April 10, from 5 PM – 9:30 PM

It was opening evening at the seventh annual Experience Music Project-hosted Pop Conference last night, an intellectually exhaustive yet somehow mad fun, sometimes baffling, often brilliant event held the same days every year for damn near this whole decade. It is a unique form of public art and discourse that only Seattle is lucky to have, thanks in large part to the wisdom and hard work of organizers (and gifted writers themselves) Ann Powers and Eric Weisbard.

I have been addicted to the four-day music lust-fest since about five years ago, due to its tenaciously creative examinations of every element of popular music culture in written presentation form (sometimes the writing being finalized in the EMP bar just minutes before being presented). The topics have ranged from writers who scholarly deconstruct the origin of James Brown songs to passionate odes to feminist post-punk music, and much more. I would think every committed KEXP listener needs an excuse written by a parent or doctor NOT to go. It is the kind of thing a music fan might be a little scared of — even if they’re fans of shining authors and critics like Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau, who bring their outstanding talents to it every year — but once you do, you end up planning this time of year around it.

I got to the EMP a little early so took out my brand new copy of the 33 1/3 book on Patti Smith’s “Horses” album and read it at the covered bus stop outside for about a half hour till my friend Roy arrived. (Roy was a label manager at 20th Century Media until last fall, and worked on a rock magazine with me a few years back). Soon Ms. Powers was in the bus shelter with us as well, as she was running by and stopped to say, “Hi!” Her excitement for the event at least matched our own, and we briefly chatted about my writing for the KEXP Blog, and her writing on the artistic changes on “American Idol” (which she is covering for the LA Times) and the 33 1/3 she herself needs to get on writing (please do so!).

This year’s opening moments of the Conference started off affectionately as we registered, with return attendees in the lobby of the EMP/Science Fiction Museum like old college roommates or ex-cons greeting each other with lots of hugs and warm hellos and Powers’ and Weisbard’s beautiful little daughter running around in a darling black velvet dress. My friend Roy and I hung out near the entrance, after we found out he could register for the festival but may not be able to get in to the commencement presentation due to a surge in popularity for the event this year. Writer Joe Mabel (a charming local record collector who is a recurrent Pop Con attendee and is presenting for the first time this year, on “Politics and Music in Romania,” in which he will be playing samples from three Romanian bands, including a hip-hop one) explained that the addition of more panels and the extension of the day on Sunday probably contributed to this welcome increase in attendance. I also thought that perhaps theme of the event — reflected in the night’s keynote panel, “Ritmo And Blues: Hidden Histories Shaking Up American Pop,” which in itself connected to the “American Sabor: Latinos in American Popular Music” exhibit currently happening in the museum itself — was bringing out a new slice of the music scene population, the fans and supporters of all kinds of Latin music and the people discussing it.

Kandia Crazy Horse (author of the great “Rip It Up: The Black Experience in Rock & Roll,” and a Princeton grant recipient) came in a little dazed and confused from her flight, the first sign that the turmoil of the recent American Airlines shut-down was going to have a few effects on things.

Soon we were ushered upstairs where Michelle Myers rocked it, hosting a party for the famished writers (a dangerous combination, deep thinking and overdue nutrition and libation) and the love of the event spread through the room. People seemed a little less nervous this time socializing at the start of the Pop Con, but maybe that was just me. I might be getting less anxious around my journalistic heroes. (The fact that many of them actually remember who I am and come up to me to say hello might have a lot to do with that.) It appeared that people were matching the passions of the political season, and the charged topics of the presentations ahead were allowing them to enjoy as much of the socializing time as they could.

I met a man named Michael who worked as a builder in Fremont and though his wife works for the EMP/SFM, hadn’t attended before. He was drawn in this year by the presence of Louie Perez from the band Los Lobos on the inaugural Latin music panel, a band we both adore. I also got to know Jeremy a little, also a first time attendee, who was bounced out of Los Angeles from the writers’ strike, had resisted the charms of music till he was in his 20s, and looked ahead to the discussions with the kind of relish such delayed desire can inspire. Without even mentioning the Science Fiction Museum, somehow we found ourselves fanboy-deep in a discussion about Samuel Delany’s non-fiction, and how the brilliant new wave writer himself started off writing review for rock magazine Crawdaddy back in the 60s.

The big event for the night, a presentation of several writers assertions and a roundtable discussion among them and some other Con attendees — including Crazy Horse, who extrapolated and queried on the connections of black music to Latin and early 70s Los Angeles rock — was a star-studded affair: The aforementioned Perez delivered some tight insights into how easily marginalized it was to be a musician coming from punk and ethnic music backgrounds, and the ways immigrant cultures learn to deal with assimilation and dialoguing with a new society around them; the eloquent Martha Gonzalez of Quetzal very clearly and sharply addressed the struggles for the acceptance of her racial and cultural identity by the mainstream, and why that’s not always the important thing (look for her album, “Die, Cowboy, Die!” on sale at the Conference); while a confident and charismatic El Vez and a sometimes hilariously insouciant Raul Pacheco (of the band Ozomatli) said they were just going to simply be themselves no matter what — they may be proud of their heritage, but they’re also adding their own thing to it as well. Pacheco told a crackling story about playing in Cuba, and how his skills as an LA-based musician revealed the regional roots of his understanding of salsa (which the Cubans were wary of) and his own take on funk (which he says is a lot different than the Cubans’ he played shows with).

That was the surprising thing for an affectionate but under-informed neophyte like me — just how diverse these sounds, stories, and songs are that we lump under the flimsy lean-to of “Latin music.” The crucial initial argument made by University of Washington professor Shannon Dudley reminded everyone just how much rock and roll was based in Cuban influences (the beat for “Louie Louie” so obviously related to the cha-cha), which had been overlooked for decades. From there, Marisol Berrios-Miranda expressed her love for all kids of different musics, and how they weaved together the immigrant communities that played them. As each presenter told their own story, it was never without a sense of unity to their people, but a creative engagement and competition seemed to be at the heart of an occluded narrative. Even artists like Pacheco, who expressed his struggle in terms more universally existential, admitted that there is indeed a struggle (even between the various players of the interwoven Latin scenes themselves). Most agreed that this narrative needs to be rewritten — by the people who live it themselves, not by people who think they have a corporate copyright on the word “America.”

I left the Con before the discussants all had their say, just as New Orleans expert and author Ned Sublette (always a hoot at the Pop Con) addressed what the word ‘America’ meant to the panelists. I needed to get some sleep to tackle the three panels on Bob Marley hosted by one of my favorite critics Michaelangelo Matos at 9 AM this morning! I’ll be back tomorrow with another report.

Note: Sadly, due probably to the American Airlines fiasco, some authors couldn’t make the event, including the British academic Simon Frith and the adorable Idolator editor Maura Johnston. They will be sorely missed, but considering how much the Pop Con has expanded things should continue the roiling pace of tonight’s commencement.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted April 11, 2008 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Chris, thanks for providing such a kinetic and comprehensive overview. Can’t wait to read what comes next.

  2. Joe Mabel
    Posted April 14, 2008 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Simon Frith’s absence was not due to American Airlines; he wrote about 2 weeks ago to say he’s been ill and couldn’t make it (though nothing terrible, I’m told).

  3. Posted April 14, 2008 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Joe. Appreciate the clarification and your presence at another wonderful year.

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