The EMP POP Conference: Friday, April 11, 2008
by Chris Estey
Everything seemed to unfold like an “accidental novel” for me the second day of the 2008 Pop Conference at EMP|SFM. Not only were ethnic musical cultures a-clanging on each other as among the panelists the night before, but abstract ideas and purely aesthetic opinions spilled all over the place among all the participants. Highlights included manic depressive folk singers dressed in gold suits challenging their audiences with street theater; a battle over whether Neil Young’s recent protest music is any good, and whether John Mayer is any good at all (wait a second, there was no real argument there); and whether The Clash sucked at playing reggae.
My pal Spike and I made our way first to Level 3 of the EMP where a lot of the best, off-the-beaten-path panels are held (perhaps coincidentally). We wondered if 33 1/3 editor David Barker comes to the Pop Con, and I had to admit though a lot of the authors were here, I’d never heard of Barker showing up to this magical combination of monster truck rally and comic book convention.
The 9 AM panel we took in was “Continuum of Protest,” moderated by the sparkling wit of Tim Quirk of Rhapsody (and once the lead singer of college rock favorites Too Much Joy). Saul Austerlitz (author of “Money For Nothing,” about the history of the music video) gave a fairly terse run down on how pop music has become depoliticized in his paper “Anger Is A Gift: Political Hip-Hop and Punk Rock’s Mixed Legacy, and the W. Challenge.” Austerltz did a good job juxtaposing the topical nature of artists Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, and M.I.A., in all the ways they have given “voice to the voiceless.” While not a startling revelation, it was brought up how most indie rock is not political — merely offering engagement, but no information. This was followed by “Anarchy In The AARP? Adult Contemporary Protest Music’s Silent Scream” by Richard Gehr — not that one, silly, but a ubiquitous big-time freelancer who assessed the recently released horrible “protest albums” by The Eagles, John Fogerty, and Joni Mitchell, none of which apparently sold “squat.”
So excited was I then to hear Dan Booth’s liberating call to artistic challenge, “Phil Ochs as Elvis Presley: ‘Gunfight at Carnegie Hall,’” which reminded me of how the protest singer once took amazing chances with his art and image, when folk music was the indie rock of its time. Booth is a zine dude who name-checked the Minutemen and The Mekons as he took the podium (yeah!), and described how Ochs became disenchanted with the ineffective political stiff-necks of his fan-base and forced them to give up phony grabs at authenticity, finding truth in the raw vision of artists like Merle Haggard — exemplified by himself dressing up like Elvis and playing raw rock and roll along with his caustic political songs. I’ve been an Ochs fan for years but never really understood this bizarre experiment until now. Ochs’ best quote on the subject: “To cater to an audience’s taste is not to respect it.” Ochs showed how anger could be used not only in the content of his lyrics but in the form in which he presented it.
We then headed to the JBL Theater to catch the firebrand Mr. Christgau at the “Ballad For Americans” panel. The King of Rock Critics apparently had been dueling with folk-pop singer-guitar show-off John Mayer. To paraphrase it succinctly: “John Mayer has been running his stupid mouth” since putting out his album Continuum. Well, as the kids used to say, this was awesome. Christgau is still in great shape intellectually and physically, at the top of his game as he now heads the editorial staff at Blender after years of doing his Consumer Guide and reviewing for Rolling Stone and Spin. This was my favorite paper from him yet in the history of the Conference, and it was simply assessing the ethical responsibility of artists. Its sometimes visceral, intense, sexually-charged and innately progressive material about artistic justifications of political indifference (Mayer’s horrible song “Waiting On The World To Change”) was sometimes shocking. Especially as a follow up to opener Franklin Bruno (of the Mountain Goats and the Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces 33 1/3 book) and his very restrained, polished, academic work on Was-He-Communist? folk singer Paul Robeson (and showed a very funny clip of Bing Crosby baiting for fellow patriots and using a segregated choir).
Christgau inspired hope for change openly confessed an ache for the days when music seemed to involve as many people as possible, a “monoculture” that has “eroded as our democracy itself seems to be eroding.” A bracing warning, completely verified by the cold hard facts of “American Idol” obsessive Katherine Meizel, whose whip-smart paper and presentation on “God And Country: Civil Religion and Popular Music In America” adroitly communicated how easily our system is becoming dangerously theocratic. Without espousing any left-wing conspiracy theories, Meizel showed clips of our leaders singing “God Bless America” after September 11, 2001, and wondered how we got to the place where that would be the first song we reach to, instead of “America The Beautiful” or any other kind of anthem. New Dark Ages, anyone?
Time for the final panel for the day — as ambitious as I was to stay longer we realized how invigorating and utterly exhausting the Pop Con can be — “Deformation Of Mastery.” The sophisticated and soulful Kyra D. Gaunt (author of The Games Black Girls Play: Learning The Ropes From Double-Dutch To Hip-Hopbeautifully endorsed the work of a high school teacher and artist named Eric AKA Miles (as in “Miles Davis” and “Miles to go before I sleep”) who crafts poetry about is personal life and then creates homemade hip-hop around it. Taking J. Dilla as his number one musical inspiration, Miles didn’t hook up with a crew in Brooklyn, but instead networked using Garage Band and other computer programs with someone in Barcelona. This intimate portrait was one example of how music isn’t always about money, and some of the best papers at the Pop Conference don’t have anything to do with the music business at all.
This was followed by a complete mind-screw of a presentation by Jesse Fuchs, a computer game whiz kid who when he dabbles in music writing has a tendency to mess up our nerves a thousand ways. Using a magnificent Power Point presentation of very wacky and funny visual puns, “The Record That Eats Itself: Form, Content, and Subversive Recursion” combined Escher prints, Godel mathematics, They Might be Giants, and I can’t remember what else in an insanely paced and coded demonstration that nothing is as it seems. If the EMP Pop Con charged anything (it is ABSOLUTELY FREE), this would be worth the whole four days’ fee to get in. Fuchs got a hold of a recording, an answering machine hoax perpetrated by someone pretending to be Robert Christgau, calling up TMBG and warning them to give up or he would stop them, and then seeing as the final image Christgau’s own Escher-design-style reclining felines . “Hey, those are my cats!’ Christgau shouted, seated behind us, raising the presentation to an even deeper level of weirdness.
Finally, we encountered Debra Rae Cohen and Michael Coyle’s “The Only Band That Matters’?: Citation As Struggle In The Punk Cover Song.” It reminded me a lot of the better writing in the 33 1/3 book series — scholarly but inspired, as it juxtaposed the “more complicated than we thought matrix” of ideas going through The Clash’s version of “Police & Thieves” with the genuinely reggae original. It was erudite, but had a nice energy to it that I thought was — would you believe it? — rather punk. Shortly afterwards, an obstreperous discussion erupted among many zealous attendees, who confronted these street-level English professors with whether or not The Clash were doing some sort of aesthetic reinvention of the contemporaneous apocalyptic Jamaican hit, or were messing it up like silly British boys.
There is much more that I would like to report on, but I could only be in one place at one time, which is the only bad thing about the Pop Con — so many great things happening at once. (The trick is to bite off a little at the time and come back for more. But try it, you’ll like it.) At that point we were fried and left, which was a bit sad, as some wonderful things were coming up. But it was time to come home and write this and actually listen to music before I head back down to the EMP the next morning!