The EMP POP Conference: Saturday, April 12, 2008
by Chris Estey
You might find it unbelievable that someone who stayed inside the Experience Music Project all day yesterday — easily the most beautiful day of he year in Seattle so far (or so I’m told) — would have no regrets when he left and caught the final traces of sunshine. The speeches and visual presentations and music clips and the performance by the Blue Scholars in the Sky Church and the discussion and socializing was so warm, inviting, and existentially enriching at the third day of the Pop Con that I don’t regret a minute I spent inside. So yes, I guess I’m a hopeless music freak.
“Singing The Disaster” was my fist panel of the day, and I was seduced to it due to the moderation by Greil Marcus (one of my very favorite authors, who I‘m enthralled to be able to see this morning). Once again faced with a really hard choice of what to check out (and to make such a decision at the mind-smacking 9 AM hour) — Sister Rosetta Tharpe (!) biographer Gayle had them grooving to 70s TV soul clips at the JBL Theater at the same time as Kara Attrep handled “She Yoko-ed The Band” in the Demo Lab — I simply settled in for watching three of the four panelists at the Learning Labs. I was really there for Carl Wilson, the Canadian writer who did a devastatingly subversive criticism of hipster culture in his 33 1/3 book on Celine Dion’s “Let’s Talk About Love,” and his paper on ‘event songs’ did not disappoint. Although a lot less sumptuously reckless than using Dion as subject matter, “The Singing of the Disaster: Newsreels, Protests, Charidee and Shock Absorption in Popular Music” had Wilson handling topical disaster broadsides through the decades in ways often viciously funny. He says that music fans have always needed sonic channels for comprehending disasters, as blues scholars have always noted, and before the works of people like Jimmie Rodgers supplanted the genre as a huge part of the record business in the 1930s, enormous quantities of the songs were played and made. Wilson hilariously bypassed the teenage car crash dramas of the 1950s (a lurid topic probably discussed in whole papers at the Pop Con before) and went to the wretched nature of “We Are The World,” wherein the mere vocal presence of “superstars” tells you something’s really bad (like famine or AIDS), and no one bothers to sing directly about what’s actually going on. (A website like the AV Club should do a blind ‘taste test,’ playing these songs and seeing if anyone remembers what cause the anthem was originally tied to.) Apocalypse has become a central part of listening to current music, anyways, Wilson mentioned, as if the final inimical warning of a narrative becomes the entire basis of many songs themselves. (I didn’t have ‘Charidee’ explained, but what the hell.)
More serious, and extremely saddening, were the two papers given before Wilson’s, Mark Allan Jackson’s “Electric Chair Blues” and Mina Yang’s “The ‘Tsunami Song’: Hip-Hop At The Vortex of an International Disaster.” Jackson’s portrayal of gritty female Stagger Lee characters beating down and stabbing up their victims and ending up being executed by the state in the blues was initially fascinating as a glimpse into morbid folk art, but when the ordained killing of five black men in Texas became the subtext for dozens of haunted songs about the electric chair one realized the horrible injustice being addressed. Even more horrifying, and confirming what a lot of us feel about the lowest common denominator humor of radio shock jocks, was Yang’s playing of a soul-achingly bad “We Are The World” parody based on a natural disaster that slaughtered thousands of Koreans, and the tolerated racism that would allow such musical atrocities to air in the name of “humor.” The relief was that Asian-Americans united with each other and many others (especially in the hip-hop community) to assess the cruelty behind the situation, raise awareness to combat it, and force an apology from the radio station that aired the brutal “joke.”
The panel “He Pop/She Pop” was next up, because when one is at the Pop Conference and star music critic at Slate and author of the book White Christmas: The Story of An American Song Jody Rosen is giving a presentation, you do not miss it. He is irresistible — usually picking a completely neglected subject, like this one on “Girl Gone Wild: Eva Tanguay’s Madcap Feminism,” and delivering it with much humor and startling facts. I did not even know who Eva Tanguay was. She was a huge star in the Vaudeville era, and though her musical talents were somewhat limited (though from the sample that Rosen played of her signature tune “I Don’t Care” I am sure she influenced by favorite new wave singer Lene Lovich) her ability to give the five publicists on her payroll enough to get the press to write up about was legendary. The mystery of her public demise wasn’t really answered, but then Rosen is as mystified as the rest of us how people can be so influential and then fade from view. The pictures he showed of the entertainer were magnificent, and you should have seen them projected on the big screen — tracking her down on the internet (as I did last night) doesn’t hint at her resplendent, zaftig glory.
Ann Powers’ “In Love With A Strippa: Sex And Power In the So-Called Feminist Age” followed, in a remarkable timeline of stripper songs that examined the plots of Motley Crue’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” and other videos. Powers didn’t hesitate to describe the stripper as an oppressed figure, explaining why stripper songs are always very sad — whether the stripper is objectified by the deluded adoration of a customer — the singer of the song, usually — or thrown away by society (always the implication, inevitably). Powers did tell a great story about Method Man wanting to do a sad portrait of a stripper in a video himself, but the ones he picked were actually having a good time, and this really disturbed him.
Spin magazine music editor Charles Aaron came next to the podium for “Words Like A Dagger: Labi Siffre vs. Eminem, Kanye, and the Pop Politics of manning Up.” The faint applause for Aaron based on his day job didn’t diminish my fond memories of his brilliant work in the early days of Spin, from the mid to late 80s, when he got me to buy more records than I should have. But I wasn’t prepared for such a passionate, poignant advocacy of a poet and singer who recorded the mesmerizing a cappella soul song “Something Inside So Strong,” which Aaron played and slayed us with. Siffre only released six albums, and three apparently awesome books of poetry, and I want to own all of them after Aaron told the story of recording a song Eminem’s “My Name Is” is sampled from, and how Siffre made him change one of the homophobic lines. Aaron described Siffre’s bullshit detector personality, his resistance to being pegged gay in a milieu even though he has no problem living openly homosexual, his ambivalence about everything so sweetly that I fell in love with the guy’s work myself, and I’ve barely started investigating it. Man, if I owned a reissue label, those six lost albums would all be coming back out … or least we’d have a killer anthology of his genius. Sample line: “It isn’t easy being a man, but being a woman is worse, try it in Sudan.”
At lunch time Seattle hip-hop avatars the Blue Scholars melted the hearts of the people in the EMP Sky Church. Geo and Sabzi rapped and spun and sang and danced and I didn’t see anyone not throwing their hands up or refrain from dancing or hollering back. Their set celebrated the working class, and seduced the hard working people attending the museum into sharing incredible joy. Robert Christgau himself was getting down on the dance floor, but I didn’t see too many more Pop Con attendees checking out the band, which made me sad. A perfect opportunity to see probably the most peace-promoting, politically aware, and musically powerful bands that have ever existed, and no one should have missed it. I’m dead serious.
I went up to Level 3 for the rest of the day, and it got pretty packed up there, despite the afternoon heating up outside. This is because both panels — “Anti-Nostalgia” and “Conflicted” — had so many transcendent moments. There were a couple of papers that probably needed some editing, and a couple that really jarred people, so my opinion will be as subjective as anyone’s. Steve Waxman (in a gorgeous Black Flag t-shirt) did a kick ass job by playing Blue Oyster Cult’s “This Ain’t The Summer Of Love” (one of my favorite songs ever) and then talked about the differences between the original and the cover by Green River. I just loved BOC getting some much delayed due (most early punks held the band’s oeuvre dearly), but couldn’t see exactly how Green River’s attempt was so different (OK, lamer, but maybe that was Waxman’s point). Steve is probably a full on metal guy, and those guys are always smarter than an old punk like me (it’s true; for some reason, metal often attracts really intelligent committed fans I’ve found).
Douglas Wolk (author of the essential James Brown 33 1/3 and the best introduction to comics you‘ll ever read, “Reading Comics“), also a perennial “must-see” Pop Con presenter, did an impeccable job on “Silver Wings And Stranger Things: The Special Force of the Green Berets.” The highlight was a video of a German woman singing the song in the 60s dressed in black leather; it struck me as creepy-Nazi, but Wolk explained that this was because the German had audaciously translated it into an anti-war song. Apparently Sgt. Barry Sandler inspired quite a ruckus with his story song about a brave, doomed special forces soldier — and his own life just sort of spun out and sparked up failure even after being redeemed from killing a guy in the early 70s. This was a tightly-paced, terrifically given presentation, and a perfect example of picking a topic a lot of people would overlook and doing it succinctly (clocking it at just nineteen minutes and a little change).
Nadya Zimmerman’s “A Timely History: Revising the Vietnam Era One Note At A Time” addressed how the social ‘movements’ of the ‘60s did not end up counter-culture, but actually were distracted by the exoticism of worshiping Eastern imagery. This was an electric reality check for those who think that buying the right sounding records is superior moral form to little tasks like voting. I could quibble on whether or not expression is protest in itself, no matter what the basis for inspiration, but the political atrocities we live with is proof we have probably been a little too into feeling something new instead of creating something real.
At “Conflicted,” superbly moderated by Amy Phillips from Pitchfork (her presence at the annual event always an encouragement for it to keep evolving), Wendy Fonarow analyzed humor of bands on the road in her paper “Singing About Love When All You Want to Do Is Strangle Someone: Musician Jokes and Pranking as Mechanisms to Relieve Conflict.“ I really could have used a lot more examples of pranking (like the band that sent phony messages to their pompous lead singer pretending to be the head of the label saying, “I only signed thee band because of you,” and “You should go solo!”), but I need to share at least a couple of the jokes:
“What is a bass player?”
“A cross between a drummer and a musician.”
“What’s the difference between a puppy and a singer songwriter?”
“A puppy stops whining.”
Daphne Carr did an intellectually dazzling presentation on noise that could only touch on some deeper religious and psychosexual issues (considering the immensity of the topic regarding how the body responds to noise itself). Pulling her hood over her hair (like it says for women to do in the ‘holy‘ texts?) and throwing up many levels of thought on a black screen overhead at the end, with “Getting Closer: Extreme Loudness and the Body In Pain/Pleasure” Carr successfully avoided all the historical and emotional traps of discussing the enjoyment of coarse sound, focusing on the sensuality of enduring musical sensations many people try to avoid. I could tell some people were uncomfortable with her paper and performance, in the same way noise music itself freaks people out. In that way, it married form and content beautifully — and was as informative as it was emotionally intense.
From bad jokes to sonic trauma, the third day of the EMP Pop Con had it all — within the time frame of two papers! Now it’s time for me to head to the Seattle Center to do it all over again, for the final time this year.