Showing How A Little Woman Can Whip A Great Big Man: The First Full Day of The EMP Pop Con

by Chris Estey

If I were Paul Allen or had the dude’s money I would throw bunches of it at the Pop Con, to pay all the participants very handsomely, and to stretch the damned thing out a full week so that it needn’t start so early with such great presentations I’ve never been properly awake for. And once there on the first morning of the Con I wouldn’t be frantically trying to figure out how to choose between listening to masterly poetic king scribe Greil Marcus work his phenomenal magic around the same time underground emperor of insightful self-publishing Mike McGonical do the same -- and oh yeah, fitting in the intensely interactive and incredibly inspiring feminist workshop led by incredibly wise and talented women like Ann Powers and Daphne Carr and Sarah Dougher which was, I remind you, All Happening At Pretty Much The Same Time.

I blame no one for this; too much of a good thing is something you can’t bitch about, and it was also the theme behind a lot of the paper’s at this year’s presentation Dance Music Sex Romance: Pop and the Body Politic.

I walked in as Franklin Bruno kicked off the JBL Theater’s space for the event (the Mid-Century Moderns panel) with a dependably whip-smart analysis of how calypso created a tame exoticism in post-WW2 American culture. “Homecoming is everyone’s fondest wish,” he said, while describing a hit at the time in which a soldier comes back and turns his woman black and blue. And it was meant to be sort of, you know, funny. “Murder!” as a word became a big band shout-out, though its origins in a song about killing weren’t so innocent. Is murder ever an innocent song topic? Bruno suggested.

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro focused on taming and exoticism as well, focusing on how a black left-wing actor named Harry Belafonte became a sexy icon in the 50s, which really made no sense at all, or every kind of sense. “Jamaica Farewell” took us through the roots of a Harlem-born, young, gifted, and poor black bohemian running a burger joint in proto-beatnik New York, absorbing Jewish and other kinds of folk songs, and getting a lot of attention for his looks and unique skills as a performer. His work on “Islands In The Sun” inspired Chris Blackwell to form Island Records, bringing reggae to the world, and the 9/11 release of a 5 CD set featuring elegant recreations of his hot-era Cold War hits that had been shelved during Vietnam said a lot about his staying power. The comparison of a progressive minority who ruled entertainment with a black President whose own mother swooned over him was thought-rattling.

One of the great uses of multi-media at the PC was during the third presentation on this panel when Rod Hernandez backed up his love for Nat King Cole’s oddly-accented Spanish language records, which he enjoyed growing up in his own childhood home. he showed a clip of the great Japanese art house film made in this century, “In The Mood For Love,” and how Cole’s achingly elegant “Green Eyes” played as a man and a woman cleverly discover that their spouses have been cheating with each other. It was a perfect use of a film clip during the playing of an entire song. Gene Stout and I sitting up in the back of the JBL were thrilled as well to hear other Cole songs from this period, especially a cowbell-blessed one he adroitly commented should be “used in a hip-hop song immediately” (Saturday Knights, we’re looking at you).

Holly George-Warren was as vivacious as her subject Wanda Jackson, the rockabilly queen who brought all of her personality to the stage. From the moment the esteemed author of the long-awaited Gene Autry biography “Public Cowboy No. 1” played Jackson’s late 60s hit “Big Iron Skillet” (from where I pulled the title of this segment of PC coverage) we were all transfixed. We got to hear extensively about the personality behind that bold single, everything from being the only child of a fiddle player and the wife he met at a dance, to her standing near the stage of wild crossover country swing artists like Spade Cooley as a babe, to her hosting her own radio show at fifteen, and still just tearing it up at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Along the way she used a mixed race band and never apologized for rocking as hard as any man (and let’s just admit it, better than most). George-Warren backed her joyful and deeply researched biographical advocacy up with a saucy, still-outrageous clip of an utterly luscious Jackson in a fringe dress ripping out “Hard Headed Woman” that has made me forget all the versions pretty much for good.

“Different Strokes” was the next series of papers/performances I attended and that title was appropriate. Robert Fink, a Professor at UCLA known for really good academic readings of fun music with serious political subtexts, joined in on the theme of this year’s Con with an exploration of how Marvin Gaye cultivated a masochistic persona to great commercial success in the 60s. If he seemed to be fixing a bit too Freud into the significance of handclaps in hardcore gospel (which seemed to inspire the cracking -- as in whip-cracking -- drum tracks of Gaye’s golden era Motown hits like “Ain’t That Peculiar?”), the reading of the lyrics used and how they changed over time worked to his theme. As did the idea that the masochist wishes to stop time, and recreate it for himself, which shows a deep level of psychosexual understanding. Fink took no cheap shots at Gaye’s self-absuing sex addiction, and though commented that the male masochistic urge is often an attempt to wrestle control away from the father and define life’s desires on one’s own (less male dominant terms), he avoided the easy horror of Gaye’s own extremely unfortunate end.

It’s probably no surprise that Greil Marus gave a heart-kneading, spine-bending ode to something marginal and yet universal that he loved again. Last year it was a performance by The Roots, and this year it was a delightfully considered commentary on a psychically challenging series of photographs based on giving into the “love, heroin, chocolate” brain behind our impulses, “The Songs Left Out of ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.’” The unflinching realism of these images, turned surreal in how closely they show our most hard-wired urges for pleasure (including pleasure in pain), sparked Marcus to sweetly ruminate on what our hearts feel matter in this life, in spite of what other people say constitutes reality (your burdened responsibilities in it, for example). A splattering work of 700 no-boundaries and often uncomfortably intimate images in 40 minutes, I now desperately need to see this. Marcus then built his coherent passion for this work into a more emotional plea for us to consider an early 60s album track by Lonnie Mack (“Why?”) -- its grinding blues build-up and sense of perhaps delighted yet hopeless exhaustion and pain similar to Elvis Costello’s “I Want You” -- played for an audience eager to feel what Marcus is feeling. Favorite line: “This is a criticism of art only art can make.”

I came in on “Dance This Mess Around: A Feminist Working Group Discussion” seemingly at an apex of hope and anguish, the Learning Labs filled with circles of women and men sincerely groping with issues both particularly gender and field based. For example, how can women keep writing when men still get most of those jobs especially in this economy, and how can queer theory survive when there are so many cut-backs at the universities? How does one be a female forthright self-exploiter? How can a 47 year old virgin change the pop world overnight? Performers in the spectrum from MIA to Hannah Montana were discussed, positively and negatively; the vibrant fluid world of being a “Poptimist” versus the needling, peculiar attitude of old boy school rockism described; and the energy was both inspiring and convicting. I hope this happen every year and if so next time I’ll be there from the beginning of it.

“Dance Off The Beaten Track” had a seriously awesome one-two punch of Michaelangelo Matos explaining the use of spoken voice as a “tool” in house music in “‘House Is A Feeling’: Chuck Roberts and Dance Music’s National Anthem.” The ubiquitous spoken word track (you know it, and Matos played it recurrently in various houses mixes over the years, each one a different flavor of emotion), a sex-positive preacher-style rant about the unity and commonality (“Jew and gentile alike, black and white alike”) of the “house that Jack built” being a multi-generational and cultural encouragement to recreate spirit in alternate forms of music and body worship. As Matos said, for people who know of it or don’t know of it, “It’s either huge or it doesn’t exist.”

Matos’ own near-minimalism in presentation (using his DJ knowledge and experience to lead us to our own assessment of the sample) fed directly into the first (but not last) panel I’ve seen at th EMP Pop Con where the presenter never spoke (during the presenation). Douglas Wolk expertly edited and then shared a well-constructed oral history of body self-awareness with individuals’ experience with dance music in “My Other Body Was A Temple.” He let the personal histories and confessions about alienation, dance, sexuality, record collecting, and communal identity speak for themselves, and it sounded a thousand times more interesting than how I am describing it here. What it made me realize is how for most of my life (until just a few years ago) records spoke for me in ways I never could. I actually lived through my favorite albums, imaging they were my voice to other people, a voice that was “more me” than mine could ever be. It actually made me realize why I loved music so intensely in the first place, in a very unsettling way. Observations from those who were speaking on disco’s glorious, repetitive excesses entertained the crowd, culminating in a then-period campy film clip about a man seduded by the black female Muse of the disco milieu, which ends in a body as machine/temple Busby Berkeley hallucination as fucked up as “Triumph Of The Will.” (But maybe its opposite? Or not.) Nervous laughter exploded in the room, appropriately, at the climax. This was after photos of 70s album covers with women handcuffed to fridges and open-shirted men with coke spread around them on the ground (someone’s definition of “paradise”); a woman’s voice saying, “incoherent disco account of the passion of Christ ..” with the garbled sound of Judas hanging and thirty pieces of silver hitting the round in a sixteen minute robot romp. Wolk’s paper was one of the few that was as academic as it was sexy, as creepy as it was seductive, as artful as it was pornographic. And arguably like they say about great sex, he didn’t necessary have to mechanically perform it himself to do it. He let The Other -- his subjects, the audience -- have the spotlight, more the director than a participant with his own needs.

At “Shades of Gay” on Level 3 (in the SF Museum) Fred Maus talked about Fred Schneider’s weird view of women’s bodies and how “genitals are both creepy and wonderful” and I could tell not everyone was appreciating the B-52s odd take on the alienation/strange attraction of the gay man toward women’s bodies (but was glad Maus didn’t back down about how this view was unique and not meant to harm). Graham Raulerson’s “The Jocker and the Hoosier Boy” revealed the original homoerotic exploitation of the song “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” covered up by hobo historical revisionism and cultural changes to the “children’s song” in the meantime. Once a twisted-end ode to young people saying no, not allowing people to push them around and being told to work (a punk self-empowerment tale tied to old utopian dreams of indulging every sensual whim to excess), it degraded over time and ended up indulging nostalgic later period capitalistic overdrive when Ruckus of Hootie yarled it as a Burger King melody. But that commercial WAS funny; what isn’t is how corporations love for us to idealize what it’s about, even as we have less.

Every now and then on Friday a single word carried tons of meaning for a paper -- “Murder!” in Bruno’s paper, for example -- but at “Rap Memes” the word “trick” was heavy in a panel anent “the booty and the shaking of the booty” (thank you, modrator Professor Fink). “Trick” as in “It ain’t tricking if you got it,” and DAMN! for the next couple of hours we analyzed every possible way that common rap phrase can be interpreted but it never became academic or less exciting than listening to a lot of the music we heard to figure out what it signifies.

Tamara Palmer wasn’t happy about “tricking” at all, asserting it to be the traditional way women are paid off (or not paid off, by a braggart taking it) for sexual favors. With the help of a DJ friend she presented a mad mix using the phrase in various song contexts, and it was often hilarious. Palmer didn’t come on too strong with her criticism, and admitted she felt it was more like “an inside joke” between MCs.

The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica and VIBE editor Sean Fennessey, tag-teaming on You Tube cum Fruity Loops recording minimalist pseudo-prank star Soulja Boy, seemed as mystified by their subject as Palmer was about hers. But this did not stop them from being fiercely creative and howlingly entertaining in describing the rise and fall and rise and etc. of the utterly obnoxious and somehow endearing Soulja Boy, who went from being the hip-hop version of outsider artists like Daniel Johnston out of his simple musical charms and idiotic, arguably parodic behavior, to using the word “You!” in a wrong tone and losing lots of fans. Which he gained back by getting all stupid even again and then mocking Ice T. There’s more to the story, but pictures speak louder than words from this point on.

This panel was about dance (that’s why it was in this year’s theme), but Soulja Boy is carrying on his possibly faux-moronic performance art as a recording and other type of artist, but it all started with the Soulja Boy dance, which has inspired all kinds of other forms (“Niger Boy” for instance, Nigerian students doing a more African-based version of the simple bust out.)

Journalist and hip-hop theatre perfomer Holly Bass ended the day at the EMP Pop Con for me by actually turning me into a trick -- she had an audience member request we give dollars to a sparkly top hat passed around while she did bursts of erotic dance from behind curtains that would off and on close like a peepshow booth. We had to keep paying, and I did, throwing in several bucks. The objectification of the female body was the main message, but Holly’s performance was so great I didn’t mind almost “making it rain” -- showering her with dollars. She wore two humungous balls on her butt that exaggerated the target of many men’s infatuation with the female form. Once I didn’t pay after she didn’t wave the parodic butt balls around, but the next time she did, I paid twice. (I kept bending over poor Carl Wilson, who eventually just had to get the hell out of there -- maybe he was later for something, I’m not going to assume anything.) People commenting afterwards confessed feeling very uncomfortable. I said I enjoyed “joyfully experiencing a transgressive act in a safe environment.” Fink said, “That’s a good place to end this!” Afterwards, Saturday’s Keynote speaker Asha Puthli (who has collaborated with Ornette Coleman) came up to me and sincerely asked, “So you like the ass, huh?” I told her she was right.

I stayed a bit for the Diane Warren Keynote, but not being a kaoroke kind of guy, so not much into the big anthemic vamp of her sonorous Top 40 hits (enough to fill several CDs!), I will defer to David Schmaeder at The Stranger’s Line Out for those more interested.

I will say though that interviewing Warren seems pretty wide screen for an event often thought to be merely the domain of indie and academic snobs, and when Pop Con coordinator Powers asked her what she thought of working with once-songwriter Michael Bolton, she didn’t hesitate to call him an asshole.

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