or “How ‘Let’s Make Love to Death From Above’ Will Save The World”
review by Chris Estey
photos by Brady Harvey
THE ROUND-UP. Late Saturday night, after the awesome Sunset Tavern show where so many presenters actually proved they are as musically good and often better than what they discuss. I could hardly sleep. Questions kept rattling around my head, as the Scotch wore off and Sunday morning settled in:
“If it isn’t ‘tricking,’ then is the women meant to be flattered by a male’s advances?”
“Swag: Hundred dollar bills you blow snot in, or an attitude that makes your worm wiggle?”
“Words — murder! Yeah! Punk! — what the hell do they have to do with sex?”
“What does it mean when a lot of white people are talking about what black people are doing when they’re thinking it, or thinking while they’re doing it?” (Poor Larry, what the hell is HE thinking, now that I took him to all those panels?)
“Who’s albums do I want to go to a desert island with and masturbate to — Pere Ubu’s or Britney Spears?”
So I was very late to the panels, and had some tough choices to make. Not at first though — by the time I crawled into the Experience Music Project around 10 AM on Sunday morning, Bob Christgau was already delivering a very emotional, searingly honest, adorably intimate ode to listening to duet songs anent his wife. “The Old Folks Wish Them Well: Romantic Marriage in Rock and Roll” centered on more recent partnering musical expressions, especially the oddly distanced but still connected marriage of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon in Sonic Youth (especially on “Thousand Leaves”), contrasted with the similarly dissonant but much softer and sweeter songs of Yo La Tango. Bob and his beloved want to listen to the Jackie Wilson box set, and though the Christgaus don’t plan for an afterlife, they can imagine no better heaven than that. A very romantic way to start wrapping up a weekend of many visceral and emotional twists and turns. And a fabulous paper expertly presented (big surprise).
The to-die-for writing and presentation skills of Oliver Wang on Betty Davis’s lost albums were an irresistible draw in the “Liminial Grooves” panel, yet even though I heard he killed it, I had to resist them. The four presenters over at the Learning Labs had stacked up an irresistible session of ideas and advocacy on power and place for women in music (“Argh!” I hear Dave Thomas and a thousand integrationist feminists roar), led by Sara Marcus. She had been at the Pop Con a few years back with a paper about the media and young women in the 90s, and now was continuing with a sample of her upcoming book on riot grrrl, due out from Harper Perennial in 2010. This was another high point of the long, Wust-weekend, the sort of climax that induces rare clarity, as Marcus showed a teenage girl on a CD with “incest” written across her chest, gave props to the early 90s femme rage movement for writing words all over themselves (most historically, Kathleen Hannah scrawling ‘Slut’ across her belly, later given homage by the male guitar player in the Thermals), and kissing each other as an act of revolution. Sara did the dance gals learned at the time to both bash into their friends and keep the creepy guys at bay, sort of a happy mosh, and you can tell she was experienced at it. On a more serious note, she described how teenage girl sexuality being a threat to the establishment caused AIDS information to be filled with misogynist assumptions, using the disease to get parents and other authorities to become even more territorial with young women’s bodies. “It’s an emergency crisis with girls!” the propaganda early in the decade claimed, though they weren’t really the ones getting infected.
The writing on their own bodies defined the battle lines, in a way that only Sharpie could profit from other than empowering women themselves. If this paper had been presented before Sean Nelson’s, the feeling of sexual repression at the time in the indie rock scene would seem to make more sense. In Seattle, walking around downtown and either writing or seeing “Dead Men Don’t Rape” scribbled in scurmy venues helped keep us in check: Call it “Little Sister” and I was very thankful for it. It made the milieu safe enough that an adorable sprite like my wife could feel safe(r) in, and that’s how we met.
As sexual panic gripped the uptight white male nation, multi-generational women musicans like Yoko Ono and many up and coming performance artists did things like have the clothes cut from their bodies on-stage or painted with their vaginas. “In her kiss I taste the revolution” was the only way to swing the pendulum back the other way, Marcus asserts, though “often not with the tongue.” Yes, the young women holding each other’s hands and sitting on each other’s laps weren’t simply joining the cause of queer culture with punk culture — though there was certainly no separation from that either. These hips made for walking and not fucking, and women learned through a thousand seven inch singles and in many different regions that “if you wanted so bad to be my best friend — honey, it’s yours.” Can’t wait to read the book.
Tracy McMullen gave one of my favorite papers next, called “‘Are We Not Men?': Punk, Women, and the Disintegrating Body.” I was worried at first at the concept of a feminist paper on Devo. Those guys’ imagery is actually intentionally a bit sexist and this could have been a lot of line-walking and frustrated accusation. Instead, McMullen, a lecturer in the Music and in the Gender and Women’s Studies Department at Berkeley, went back to some of the most shocking and more visceral music and performance ever made, The Bags and The Germs. I never tire of seeing those “Decline of Western Civilization” era clips, and though Darby’s closeted gayness made him a bit of a dick, there was so much meaning in how they “negotiated the lines between artist and audience” as McMullen put it, that street level art never seemed so powerful. Seeing Alice Bag stand up to a pit dude jumping forward is so beautiful; the bouncers clobbering others at the same show not so much, but that’s how it goes.
As levels of trangression increased by truly violent punks getting into the scene, shown my McMullen in a clip of Fear from Penelope Spheeris’ landmark documentary, from the stage and out into the audience, the subversion of using food as abject elements in stage performance, or avoiding the microphone to let the spectacle do the talking became fag-baiting and virulent misogyny. I won’t dispute this; I was there and got my ass kicked too. The only problems I have with condemning this growing machismo in early hardcore is that when Aimee Cooper worked at Lee Ving (of Fear)’s label, she said how genuinely cool he was to the workers there, and even more troubling is that I would rather hear Fear “The Record” a hundred times in a row than ever hear The Bags or The Germs again. But that may be a whole other paper, right? In any case, McMullen thrilled us with the revenge of The Bags’ “Babylon Gorgon” as a concept — the vagina kicking ass in the middle of male violence.
Kim Kattari probably gave the presentation with the most irresistible topic, “Bettie Page Fetishism in Psychobilly: Re-inventing Sexual Values.” Although Kim looks like a sweet-natured neutral academic she apparently knows her stuff about the supposedly ultraviolence-loving current psychobilly scene. She showed clips from bands like Necromatix and their abusive song “S/M” and discussed the line bands walk between the homosocial and the uber-hetero. Band names like Dick Wiggler? That video she showed where a guy is led by dominatrixes into a “Hostel” kind of environment to be physically tortured? Hey, I was a Cramps fan, this shit shouldn’t throw me. But we were a bit classier back then, yadda yadda.
Anyways, apparently the dominatrix image inspired by Bettie Page keeps the boys in this scene horny, but also the girls empowered in that Pop Con-loving dynamic tension kind of way. And the gals don’t just swoon over each other’s new tats and shoes (um, just like the dudes do, I hasten to add), but they all love the REBELLIOUSNESS of the 50s, not the power images of the 50s in themselves. Not only are they subverting it, they are actually puffing it up into outlandish outlaw extremes. (That’s an important distinction from this paper — 50s fetishism is rarely about conformity.) And the all the kids are in it for the music, music, music.
In “The New Girl Disorder” San Francisco Bay Guardian music editor Kimberly Chun ended this panel and the final paper of the Pop Con for me with her delightful rooting for “The New Exotica.” Bands and artists like CSS and MIA and others who blend American junk rock with European party-mojo and Third World groove, ground out by cheap machines on good beats and more vulnerable vocals than “you usually hear coming from the aggressive male-made music in New York.” As MIA raged, “Where the hell has all the rebellion gone?” but she answers that herself with her own music and videos. This is a pop singer who announces, “PLO – don’t surrendo!” She’s sort of the Elvis of our time, but right, not right wing.
This was an appropriate futuristic end note for an EMP Pop Con that also featured nice extras like a Friday night after-con showing of science fiction animation at the Henry Art Gallery — yes, one cartoon was based on the work of the now deceased but always immortal J.G. Ballard. He and his name was psychogeography for this event, not only because of the concert held in that section of town with his name on Saturday night (an observing Steve Fisk, dropping in with HATE Comics creator/bandmate Peter Bagge: “Someone should be making a video of this for prosperity; this is great!”), but in memory of the movie “Crash” in the 90s, when your average horror fan found out that people have sex with cars (actually ABOUT car crashes). I didn’t see people fleeing the EMP l Science Fiction Museum Pop Con 2009 as quickly as I saw them running out of the Guild 45th for the first matinee of that SF film — in fact, there seemed to be far more people attending the event than ever. Shows how far we’ve come in just ten years time.
And yes, I missed John Roderick of the Long Winters at the Groupie panel, hosted by Ben Is Dead zine supertar Mikki Halpen (who is writing a book on fanbases, I type as I drool thinking about it). RODERICK! Just before he had reminded people at the “Sex Machines” panel about BODIES. That’s what that guy does, talks about bodies to the academics, then makes sexy-like upstairs with his throng. Come back next year, I promise I won’t fuck up and miss you this time!