Scribes Sounding Off: An Interview With EMP Pop Con Presenter Douglas Wolk

interview by Chris Estey

Douglas Wolk is a Portland, OR, resident, a longtime magazine freelancer, author, and a steady contributor to the 2009 Pop Conference at EMP|SFM. I have read his work in cyberpunk magazines of the 90s, and in the best literary criticism magazine for the past few years, The Believer. Mr. Wolk was kind enough to respond to some questions about what to expect from him in a couple of days at the Pop Con, and gives insight into the international but Seattle-only event in general.

You are always a highlight of the EMP Pop Conference, Douglas. This year your presentation is “My Other Body Is A Temple,” and it sounds like it’s about what goes through the minds of DJs, playing music for people but made to stand away from the action in booths or behind machinery — is that correct?

Sort of. It’s more broadly about being a fifth wheel in the performer-audience relationship, and more specifically about a couple of songs from around 1980 by General Strike and George Clinton — but not THAT George Clinton.

Have you yourself been a DJ?

I have! I spent many years DJing on WHRB and WFMU, and have DJed for a live audience many times.

I have felt the most (and best) feedback from an audience as a DJ. I rarely feel as loved or taken seriously otherwise. Why are DJs so special?

Really! I kind of think actual performance is a lot more rewarding, both in terms of the action itself and in terms of the reception I get from the audience. But the presentation will go into that some.

How did you come up with this presentation idea?

I’d had a few phrases and images and sounds stuck in my head for ages, and one night I realized there was a way they sort of all fit together. Also, after I saw Daphne Carr’s astonishing paper last year, I decided that there was no point in doing a presentation that didn’t matter to me personally, and that I’d rather risk doing something that falls on its nose than do something easy and not particularly significant to me.

You’ve been involved with the Pop Con how long? How many papers have you given? And why are you into it?

I’ve been attending and speaking at the Pop Conference since the first year, although I didn’t come to the second one — I think this will be my seventh paper. Writing about pop music is a wonderful job, but there’s a social element that’s usually missing from doing criticism, and a performative aspect that’s almost totally absent from the way it’s generally practiced. Which is weird, because we all spend our time paying very close attention to performance, and a lot of my peers are really good at it. The Pop Conference is the closest thing to an annual convention of the critical community: a social ritual, a place for cross-fertilization of thought, a chance to do karaoke with friends I never see.

Were there other presentations you considered for the theme this year? Can you tell us what they were, or are you going to save them for upcoming Pop Cons?

Not really — I more or less tailored this one to the theme.

It seems pretty brave to have a Pop Conference about “Dance Music Sex Romance: Pop and the Body Politic” when a lot of people are freaking out about the economy falling apart, the printed music press dying, etc. How do you feel about the PC’s theme as a choice this year?

I love it. “Politic” is still in there for people who want it (and, really, every year the theme is broad enough that pretty much anything can be shoehorned in with a little bit of effort), but just because the economy sucks doesn’t mean people stop having bodies, or non-economic uses for music.

You have written one of the best 33 1/3 books, about James Brown’s Live At The Apollo — as well as my favorite collection of comic book criticism, Reading Comics. How do you feel about writing about music compared with writing about comics? Is it a similar critical voice you use, or are the methods of observation, description, and analysis completely different for you?

I’m never sure if I think about writing about music and writing about comics as the same discipline or not — I think the difference is more between venues than between types of subjects, if you see what I mean. For me, figuring out an appropriate voice mostly has to do with working out who my audience is and what I can offer them. But there’s also a lot more writing about music out there; when I write about comics, there are relatively few people working the same beat as I am, which makes it easier in some ways.

We ran into each other at Seattle’s Emerald City Comic Convention last weekend, where I asked to do this interview. I never left the place where you buy things, but at the Pop Con they don’t even have presenting author’s books for sale. Do you think the Pop Con is okay being so academic and above the marketplace, or should it be a little more consumer-oriented?

There are enough opportunities in the world for people to consume stuff; I wouldn’t mind having the chance to buy speakers’ books on site, but I also don’t mind not having it, and I’m guessing it’s more of a hassle to set up than it’s worth.

You are the only person I know to ever hand out your own CD-Rs of favorite mixes (James Brown) at the Pop Con, even to a marginal like me. Do you wish more people brought stuff to share with music friends?

I never object to people sharing favorite music with me — that “make a CD of 150 MP3s that define you as a listener” exercise some friends and I did a few years ago prompted some interesting self-examination and led me to a bunch of revelations — but nobody’s REQUIRED to give anybody presents. I just like doing it myself.

What mix CD would you hand out this year, assuming you’re not already (and if you are, what it is it)?

I don’t think I’m going to be able to make one in time, sadly! Although if a wormhole in time opens up between now and Thursday, who knows?


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