If Fannish Love Is Masturbation, Then A Recording Is A Blow Up Doll: Second Full Day of the EMP Pop Con

or “This Is Not A Fuck Tape”

by Chris Estey
photos by Brady Harvey

All apologies for this being posted a day later than it should have been — between the second and third (this past Saturday and Sunday) of the Con was fit in a late evening of beautiful music at the Sunset Tavern. This was actually the Pop Conference Concert, which started at 10 PM after the day of panels and presentations and a buffet at one of Seattle’s best music venues in Ballard, and featured sinewy power pop folk-rock sets by dually taelnted working authors/musicians Franklin Bruno and Sean Nelson, along with laptop madness from the beloved sample terrorists Matmos (featuring Drew Daniel, more about him later) and the bewitching Sarah Dougher (more on her, too).

Frank

David Grubbs

Frank

Sarah Dougher

Speaking of Ballard, J.G. Ballard just passed away, and this weekend of body celebration at the EMP Pop Con (again, “Dance Music Sex Romance”) touched a lot on science fiction scenarios, not unlike Pere Ubu’s songs from the mid-70s. And though I missed the final set of that night in the space of Ballard, by Pere Ubu co-founder/continuing frontman David Thomas, having seen him ferociously, forcefully, and spitfully chew through the crap of celebrity culture in his early Saturday morning panel on Keane (?) (“Out Of The Closet Shock! David Thomas Reveals That he Is Keane!”) I experienced plenty of creative proto-punk conspiracy theory.

Again, as he had at the PC a few years before, Thomas roiled on about the word “punk” — how “punk rock” was a corporate/possibly government twisting of more amorphous and less categorizable rebellious youth impulses for making art and spectacle, which in the mid-70s had to be named and claimed or we’d all go up in flames. Thomas hilariously invented a market-driven inventor to throw his mental daggers at, someone who could adeptly balance androgyny and angst with people’s joy of talking shit about sexy famous people, “because he’s got to make a living, like the people who make automobiles.” From the “Rebel Without A Cause” 50s” past the “Rebel With A Cause” 60s, rock and roll was melted and formed into a landscape of “vulva divas” and mob rule . The mystery religion that was once rock and roll, that has always been young and alienated people creating magic in secret, in a world of absolute reality that can only be faced by being “purged by fire” to become something real, “intuition must be forced to wear a hair shirt before it can be trusted.” Thomas was crippled by his own love for The Raincoats as journalists could only fit them into “women in rock” angles. “The music they made is weird, that’s why they were important,” he emphasized. Shaking his fists, ranting “fuck identity politics!” in a Conference that often seems utterly devoted to it, full in that knowledge. Then he went off on Robert Fink’s paper on Marvin Gaye’s male masochist persona I reviewed in the previous installment of this weekend’s odyssey, for basically the same reason he doesn’t want to hear another thing about Britney Spears (“Who wants to know?”). Bob Christgau, from the audience, retorted, “But in the past ten years Britney Spears has made better music than yours, Dave.” Thomas did not try to dispute this, wiping away his tears and much likely going his way and the rest of the world going theirs (golden quote as he was skipping ahead in the draft before him: ” … thing about Dylan …”).

Before all this, I had walked into a very well thought out paper presented by Barry Shank, “The Naive Pop Body Politic: The Scandal of Innocence, the Power of Scandal.” Though its touchstones were on fascinating ideas about “the intimate public” (the vague notions we all share created by our love for 19th century novels and carried into the pop music world) and Miley Cyrus’ ambiguous anthem “Everybody Gets That Way” (“what way?”), it’s plain to see why Thomas may have been a little worked up. This was a lot to do about a lot of shit people like Thomas and I — and I’m guessing most KEXP listeners and staff — avoid pretty extremely.

The next panel “Sexual Healing?” (note question mark before you guffaw, like I did at first, from its perceived inevitability here) was moderated by author Charles R. Cross, who cracked many of the best and well-timed jokes of the weekend between the writer’s presentations, and brought an aura of smooth Seattle cool to four papers on passionate lesbian separatist music, Adult Contemporary radio, Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out Of Hell,” and “How George Michael’s ‘Father Figure’ Made Me A Man.” This was either an incredibly random or brilliantly designed or bizarrely fated collection series of dialogues bouncing off each other, and Cross kept it lively but civilized. Folk-singing Dougher teaches about women’s music history at Portland State University and the Rock and Roll Camp for Girls, as well as working with homeless teenagers. She just put out an album based on the “Orestes” tragic myth, which seemed appropriate, when discussing how the wonderful energy of early feminist indie pop (“women’s music” from the early 70s) went out of style. I was excited by all the old photos of strong women with cropped hair and warm smiles, staring down the patriarchy. One of the bands on the Olivia label almost seemed like a female Clash, visually at least, with their devoted connection to their fanbase and stubborn non-conformacy. Tragically, most of the music from that period doesn’t “hold up very well,” Dougher suggested (and compared to her own sweet songs, she has a right to criticize), but it was a thrill to see the vitality of that community. “And then there was Phranc,” she ended with.

Which did need some explaining, as audience member Mr. Matos pointed out. “What about Phranc?” he asked. Phranc was a scene supporter, a musician (Catholic Discipline and Nervous Gender), and one of the early 80s hardcore scene kids to take the music back to an early 60s protest vibe with her “Jewish lesbian folksinger” “persona” — changing the punk world for riot grrrl in the early 90s. What went unmentioned was how much Phranc obviously loved the pre-rock folk style of the early women’s movement music; she’s never really cut an out and out (no pun intended) rock album.

This was something I found often with the assertions at the Pop Con — there is an assumption of synthesis going on, but often there is more attention paid to the conflicts of music history than how a once marginalized or out of time (“corny”) music form becomes the inspiration for the next avant-garde. Those connections are not always made; but maybe I am asking for an overstatement of obvious dialectics.

Pop Conference organizer Eric Weisbard presented on what I cared about the least of probably the whole festival of music analysis, “Is This Women’s Music? The Strange Case of the Format Adult Contemporary (Middle Of The Road).” I wasn’t into the topic because I once worked in the Christian music industry and already knew the statistics about how much radio programming is devoted to women (he didn’t bring up CCM, but it’s very comparable to AC, in that middle-aged women are a significant majority of listeners). But as with Weisbard’s book on Guns N’ Roses, which I put off reading due to not being particularly fascinated with the specific album he chose to write about, he showed why his editing of “This Is Pop” and “Listen Again” (the HIGHLY recommended Pop Con anthologies) is inarguably compelling. Weisbard is a master of making you care about stuff you never gave a second thought to, and more than that, learning to laugh with and love it at the same time. He chose a wonderful video of Vicki Carr from the 60s that showed good songwriting and soulful performance lacking in the squealing and loop-play of today’s hits. “Rock critics needs to consider AC radio,” he said, and he’s right: Just from my experience, I know that people’s frustrations with the lameness of most Christian rock has to do with them not understanding who that part of the music business is actually trying to reach.

“Like most great rock and roll it was about wanting to fuck someone.” That’s Tim Quirk (VP of Rhapsody programming, who was in Too Much Joy and now Wonderlick) on Meat Loaf; but what went wrong with the heavyweight’s classic rock kidney stone? Quirk is a presenter who always makes a crowd crow with laughter and share in his often self-depreciative revelations about the enjoyment of mass-marketed music. I have never not seen him make everyone relate to his observations on the silliness and the best parts of rock. “Endlessly Horny for Wonder and Magic: How Jim Steinman’s ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ Perfectly Captured the Pre-Pubescent American Id (and Nearly Ruined Me For Life)” — wow. Meat Loaf and his mentor Jim Steinman felt like they had more in common with punk rock than the meathead post-glam pseudo-prog metal most people think of when thinking about this obscenely over-popular over-the-top chart dominating extravaganza. Due to the Rocky Horror overtones and Meat’s role in that film, that POV is not as whacked out as this might seem, though Quirk didn’t mention that connection. ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ was just too much of everything — Rich Corben’s underground art warped into an LP cover of ghastly uber-phallic Lovecraftian horror-sex miasma; Springsteen 70s piano brambles, overplayed much too quickly. To separate themselves from Springsteen at the time, though, they admitted that Bruce was “too smart, singing about Harlem and the names of streets and things.”

‘Bat Out Of Hell’ was originally conceived by composer/arranger Steinman as theatre, a proposed production called “Neverland,” which contributed three songs to Meat Loaf’s multi-million selling debut. It was then as science fictional as the album cover (Corben was the star American artist on the then popular Heavy Metal magazine) — about young men mutated into eternal teenage boys by chemicals — but though those trappings were foresaken as the musical kept getting rejected and Todd Rungren stepped into actually make the thing work as rock music, the alienation towards growing up and into a world of women persisted in the songwriting. Thus, its level of sexism is sort of metaphysical, tapping into pre-adolescent ideas of fear towards commitment, and the adult women body itself. Quirk didn’t hesitate to lash his own adolescent struggles with these issues as he made it clear why this album, as catchy and nostalgic as it is, remains one of rock’s guiltiest pleasures (at a conference which often tends to resist the idea of any sort of ‘guilty’ pleasure). Great quote near the end, regarding his older brother’s misunderstanding of male-female intercourse (you pee inside the girl): “Sometimes guys who sound like they know what they’re talking about are horrible liars.”

Tim Grierson’s heartfelt confessional about a girl named Kathleen, his rejected teenage pining for her, and how George Michael’s multi-generational ode to seduction made him possibly better understand the needs of women, did an admirable job standing up to all the talent that came before. He centered the audience back to focusing on real attraction, and carried the maturation theme further. The sadness in longing can be sung about, Michael suggested, without moping. This is one of the few papers that dealt with real romance, not a whole lot about guilt or transgression, and had a happy ending. For a Pop Con about sex, this aspect would have been missed.

Kurt B. Reighley: The best in the business and I missed it somehow? At least you can check out the post below to watch the man who can get a whole crowd of music critics and academics dancing in the daytime

One of the high points of the Conference was after lunch on Saturday, when MSN Music editor, Stranger writer, and Harvey Danger/solo artist Sean Nelson presented “Let’s (Not) Get It On — Or, Fucking To ‘Songs About Fucking’ and Other Uncomfortable Developments in the Awkward Relationship Between What We’re Going To Have to Just Agree to Call Indie Rock and Sexuality in the 1990s.” Young men making mix cassettes for girls that certainly did not imply they wanted to fornicate with them; the generation of VERY “shirted” singers in bands who evinced “decreased sexual energy” every chance they got. On Sunday morning Sara Marcus in her exploration of riot grrrl’s self-empowerment would actually answer some of the questions Sean’s paper brought up — where did this weird repression come from? Well, the women needed a safe place. But I felt those strange feelings too then, in an oasis of romantic hope created by having to make rock and roll safer for female energy. The Social Darwinism of hard and/or alternative rock needed a counter, besides just the punk hardcore of Bikini Girl and female protest. After Motley Crue and Ratt, what we now know of as early 90s “indie rock” is where the women and men could come to meet and actually get to know one another in an admittedly uncomfortable nook of Pavement and other bands’ soundtrack of self-denial. I’m not sure everyone agreed with Nelson that “the 90s sucked” — Franklin Bruno offered up his collection of Sebadoh for Sean to check out, and reminded him that “now balding, chubby, short guys could find romance in the scene after these changes too.” But as was quoted in the really well presented paper, Bikini Kill’s single sides of the two songs “I Like Fucking” and “I Hate Danger” was a necessary response to Big Black’s “Songs About Fucking,” which was ubiquitous in indie rock houses and most certainly wasn’t.

Sean Nelson

“On Gushing: Relocating Desire in Pop Criticism” by EMP Pop Con coordinator Ann Powers was actually mostly over my head. That’s a good thing, though — you want your teachers to be a lot smarter than you and sometimes remind you of that. Just like the Dave Marsh-written chapter in masturbation in the seminal (um) rock anthology “Stranded,” this was a rule-breaker that had to be performed to put everything into context. Noting that Li’l Wayne is a psychology major who adroitly manipulates his audience with pleasure and shock, and how Frank Kogan was quoted on Twitter as an altered state of being, the chief pop critic for the LA Times reminded the ambivalent in her crowd that “taking pleasurable pop seriously upsets people.” As she closed with the image that not only is fannish love considered masturbation, but the recorded simulation of it could be a “blow up doll” for the act. Loving pop music is scary because to desire someone is to be sent back into ourselves, something pop music may or may not do.

Theology teacher and author and “ultrajogger” Seth L. Sanders ended the early afternoon “Relocating Desire” panel with “Fanatical Doubt” which traced the Seattle-originated National Prayer Breakfast to religious totalitarianism and how our government has been used and uses belief in the Bible to control and infuse media and society with submission and compliance. Playing tracks by the Middle Class, who helped invent hardcore and then when the jocks took that over slowed it down and made it more communal-funk punk like The Minutemen, and current punk demi-gods Fucked Up, he fed into the audience’s anger of being told what to do by mystic do-gooders IN POWER and then read Scripture from St. Paul as the music helped spin everything Sufi-like into ontological nothingness. One of the most emotionally powerful and politically charged papers the Pop Con has presented.

At 3:15 PM my dude Larry from They Live! and I took in the “Sex Machines” panel, where Carl Wilson (the author of the 33 1/3 “Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End Of Taste,” and who was recently interviewed by America’s favorite talk show host on The Colbert Report) constructed a wonderful extrapolation on “T-Pain & The Real Girl: The Autoerotics of Autotune, Falsetto & Other (Un)Manly Modes of Oral Self-Gratification.” Larry’s presence has to be noted, as he comes from a family of musicians who worked heavily in soul music, where the falsetto is cherished, and his own hip-hop pairing with B-Boy MC/DJ blesOne loves to electronically tweak the vocals in more rattling and street level noise/rhythm than T-Pain. But the pleasure is still there — and it’s still all about the uncanny, the sense of other in the altered electronic voice. A 1939 video of swing music performer Alvino Rey was shown using a primitive steel guitar voice-altering device and predated the vocoder and the Autotune, and seemed creepily like a cyberpunk hoax (which later over drinks at the Sunset Wilson agreed with). Showing an interview with T-Pain on Jimmy Kimmel, in which it was perceived (by me at least) his abject loss of virginity might explain his desire for vocal disguise, the “trickster” element of the electronically-altered voice has reasons based in menace, amusement, pathos, and sometimes like sex, no reason at all other than itself.

We then became Da Capo Best Music series book editor Daphne Carr’s orchestra for the ode to the warm component on our lap-tops in “Computer Love.” This was engaging and thought-provoking and amazingly timely considering roof construction is presently forcing me to take my “tool, work-place, lover” to a nearby cafe to get this finished. Carr mentioned Stranger writer/freelancer Matos’ “slow listening movement” about actually absorbing the music we write on much longer than the market insists, and how we all share You Tube to ridiculous levels. Very few music critics seem to listen to music when they write about it… many laptop owners don’t want to take their “precious babies” out of the house… people without cars and homes (like Daphne and myself) put the biggest payment into their portable computers. She’s still pissed about the amount of space her PC used to take up. She drew her pink pullover from her waist to the screen of her laptop to show how she prefers to work, four or five hours a day, earbuds in her ear (not headphones, but linked extensions), like the time tube in “Donnie Darko.” Anonymous answers to her pre-Pop Con survey (sent out over Facebook) shown on the screen above her had a lot of opinions most of us can agree or identify with, even something as extreme as “It’s changed my relationship to everything and I hate it.” But as much as I enjoy my time off the grid, and impulsively use my laptop to evade the work I must do on it, Carr rang true when she said, “we need to provide our own self-control for connecting, as if the Internet invented procrastination.”

“How Low Can A Punk Get?” was the final panel for me on this day, and somehow I missed the first part of Matmos and 33 1/3 (Throbbing Gristle edition) Drew Daniel’s extremely cohesive and arresting to challenge to never take the “punk” (as in sexual punk, as in perverted social bottom negotiating his own power as an agent and an object) out of punk rock. I wouldn’t have much to add anyways, and it should by all rights be published when this year’s presentations are (hopefully) anthologized by Weisbard. “Punk is not a safe place,” Daniel said, but I never got to ask him whether he would want to confront all the jocks who kicked my art-fag ass back in the first wave hardcore days. I doubt he would call me a pussy for asking it, but I have the feeling he would relish the confrontation.

Tavia Nyong’o, an assistant professor of Performance Studies, actually fucked shit up by bringing up submission, scat, and cultural shit-talk itself in “Brown Punk,” a study of the viral videos of Kalup Linzy’s masochistic soul parodies and harmonizing, orgasmic phone “sex” duets with psychic hotline advisers. Guess you had to be there, and after a long anal-ysis (pun intended) of the punk aesthetic turned into soul-terrorism, my mind was so weary, I’m still not sure I was.

But I was at the Sunset later that night… and saw that a lot of these people who can dance about architecture so well also build some many damned fine buildings.

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