review by Chris Estey
Last night the 2009 Pop Conference at EMP|SFM started off with a minimalist sense of space and place (no chairs, or anywhere to sit) but well-served buffet outside the Sky Church, moved from the EMP l SFM bar which has sadly been closed. The Pop Con organizers and attendees’ abilities to adapt and thrive no matter what section we’re squeezed into was evident, as was the absolutely hearty greetings and wonderful spirit of adventure in kicking off “Dance Music Sex Romance: Pop and the Body Politic.”
Legendary scribes like Greil Marcus, Bob Christgau, Jon Caramanica, Daphne Brooks, and hosts Eric Weisbard and Ann Powers said hello to old-timers and newcomers alike and chatted excitedly with anyone, while local and locally based national luminaries Michaelangelo Matos, Mark Baumgarten, Eric Grandy, and others dove straight into excellent exchanges as if we had just stopped having conversation minutes ago, plunging passionately back into the fray.
That sense of extended conversation was of the same energy in the Keynote dialogue Brooks and Sonnet Retman had with multi-talented (vocals, instruments, lead woman, session player), multi-genre (and still alarmingly progressive), and multi-generational (but still amazingly hot) Nona Hendryx. The first hour was a casual walk through the post-60s beginnings for the legend, and her roots in the science fiction soul-pop band Labelle.
Beneath a screen jumbling recurrent images of her hippie-funk-disco-new wave history and inspirations (like the Rolling Stones and Dusty Springfield), Hendryx talked about how things were different back then, “it wasn’t all about the music industry … just a little music business.” She and her sisters in Labelle jammed with Laura Nyro, and toured with The Who.
As party funk turned into club disco, Labelle followed, picking up new influences along the way. Much like the origin of the punk aesthetic, the space theme in funk was an organic integration with fashion from the geek love of Hendryx’s fascination with the future. As the conversation turned more towards the juxtaposition of working with instinctual R&B geniuses like Philadelphia International’s Gamble & Huff (“it was all about feeling with them”) and then Brian Eno and the Talking Heads (“it wasn’t just about the playing, everything was much more thought about and planned”), Hendryx’s own unique views came forward. She has been balancing her love for creating new music with new and self-reliant forms of instrumentation and production — such as an actual skirt she wears she can make music with. There was a sense of the post-human (a philosophy taking post-modernism to more intimate and DIY extremes) in her was of expressing joy with music-making without being dependent on other musicians.
It was a heady, history-heavy introduction, and probably the best choice (besides a more public Prince or a less agoraphobic Betty Davis) to begin the theme of the multi-everything music dialogue known as the EMP Pop Con 2009.