Notes taken on April 16, 2010
Momentum, in literary mosaic, derives not from narrative but the subtle, progressive build up of thematic resonances. –David Shields, Reality Hunger
As science fiction author and critic Thomas Disch once said, “Knowledge is devalued when it becomes too generally known.” This is the great problem with writing about the Experience Music Project’s Pop Conference: I am a hype artist by BOMP! fanzine-label corroded/Marvel Comics impulse, and the annual gathering of music critics, academics, and industry workers is not a product but an organic thing that resists promotion by its very nature. It is more about seeing HaShem than winning scalps. It is what we talk about when we talk about the name for music. More so, it is what we talk about when we talk about the name for it. My continual rounding up of people to attend it with me is part of the exhaustive negative energy that results from its lack of desire to have anyone there doing such a thing for it. It doesn’t need you; you need it more than you know, but feel free to stay at the bar, being the smartest record-collecting geek in your circle. “You should write a book,” your friends will tell you. Hey, here are some people who have done it. Maybe you should listen. Such a thing. They don’t owe you anything and there is no boot camp for it. Still I say, “Dive in.” Even a momentary glimpse of God; seeing four letters scrawled on paper lying in the pop culture gutter; pick it up, burn it, but however you respond to the call is a miracle.
For me, the first full day of this year’s Pop Con started with Continental breakfast provided by the EMP and Science Fiction Museum. Nothing fancy; danishes and fruit and coffee. Rhapsody co-chairman and member of the band Wonderlick Tim Quirk came by our table to imbibe caffeine and chat about his next album, with features the band as superheroes. They even made little action figures of themselves for the album cover. A woman named Karen who comes to the Pop Con every year like I do but who I do not know was sitting next to me and started enthusing about the day’s events; she may have looked like the kindest elderly librarian in the world, but she knew a hell of a lot about the Olympia riot grrrl scene.
Mad Scientists 9:00 – 10:30 AM
The first panel I attended was headed up by New York Times’ Nate Chinen on “The Imaginarium of Doctor Pikasso: Pat Metheny’s Quest for the Perfect Machine.” Chinen is one of the best writers to attend the Con, and even at this early hour, he didn’t disappoint. With presentations, I tend to gage this by my interest in the subject matter; I have absolutely no interest in Pat Metheny. A super-driven god of the Guitar Center gang, Chinen played a hilarious clip from a movie the name I didn’t catch which made fun of those guys (pretty girl hoodwinks guitar wanker-clerks out of flashy vintage Les Paul, walks out of GC). He then described Metheny’s work as closest in genre to a “kind of jazzyness” and that his instincts are rather Steam-Punk: “cables are my axes.” Apparently Metheny was consumed with updating an instrument once known as an “orchestrian” — and in his meandering, musically obfuscating journey invented a Cubist-inspired aberration called “the Picasso” that must be Googled to be believed. I was horrified and entertained by all of this, much so because Chinen again is a great writer and excellent presenter, but kind of lost my breath when he said “Metheny does these things not because they are easy but because they are hard.” I realized that a musician I avoid like wet coughers in the seat behind me on Metro has some pretty awesome motives for his mode of expression. Smugness check one.
Boston-based but freewheeling world-traveling electronic music and art scribe Geeta Dayal was next after Chinen, and she introduced her lecture by saying it was based on her 33 1/3 book about Another Green World, but also would elaborate from its contents. Which she did — she gave a background of her interest in writing about Brian Eno, including the fact that few women had done it before, even if she found his approach to experimental music feminine. Albums like ambient-founding Discreet Music contain “super pretty music unlike John Cage,” but just as progressive.
Dayal pleased the fetishists with wonderful photos of her three favorite machines: The 808 Roland, a pricey object of aching nostalgia which she once played in a shed surrounded by cows (“just the kind of life I lead,” she said); a TV-303 “built from scratch”; and a Jupiter-8, all early, lusted-after synthesizers. She also showed an Apple 1 (1976), and connected this to Cybernetics, which was really the root of her paper. Cybernetics is all about “whole systems thinking,” a whole system being “a learning system,” involving loops of thought and getting at the heart of the idea of the machine.
Cybernetics was the philosophy that inspired everything from the counter-culture inspiring Whole Earth Catalogue (an encyclopedia schemata for zines and blogs decades before they happened), a Chilean government overhaul (and she showed interior design from their government which looked a lot like a set from A Clockwork Orange), to the art school that inspired Eno.
Early on, Dayal explained why there were lots of interviews with Eno’s ex-girlfriends in the 33 1/3 — “because of anyone they would probably know him best” — but not fresh ones with the often quoted artist himself — “because he only wanted to talk about his new art project, but nothing he did in the 70s” like Roxy Music or Another Green World.
In 1975, the year that David Bowie attempted unintentionally plastic soul (Young Americans), Bryan Ferry thanked his hairdresser on the back cover of a Roxy Music LP (Eno was long out of the band by then), Discreet Music printed a “collection of Cybernetic diagrams” on its jacket. But Lou Reed was inventing robot rock with Metal Machine Music, a scam against his record label but also the noisiest, least pop-sounding record ever made for mass distribution, thus inspiring several underground music genres, and coming out the same day as Discreet Music. Dayal didn’t say it like this, but both are “pretty” in their own way. Or at the very least both revolutionary, from one extreme to another.
This was followed on the same panel by longtime Rolling Stone writer and “bassist, guitarist, and hack trombonist” J.D. Considine, who gave a paper connecting the dark sound of the trombone to heavy metal by Black Sabbath, Korn, and Meshuggah. The severed fingered, downtempo guitar playing of Tony Iommi in Sabbath brought back the bowel-stirring depths of an ancient-born instrument used initially in church music but later described as “able to killing the living and wake the dead.” The narrative about the currently under-celebrated “Devil’s Trombone” being an influence on seven string and eight string metal “axes” made a lot of sense. It was worth it all to see the photo of a prototype for the eight string Stratocaster, which they ended up making only two of because it was such a bitch to manufacture.
TMI 10:45 AM – 12:45 PM
Pop Con presenter Eric Weisbard hosted this panel, which featured veteran presenter and author Douglas Wolk on “Beyond the Celestial Jukebox: The Future of Listening to Music.” “The future is ready, it’s just not evenly distributed,” Wolk began his paper, discussing the future of music distribution (implants?), augmented reality (as clear the glasses you wear on your face), psycho-acoustics (sounds that affect your mind), and “God bless You Tube.” (Amen.) Best line: On-line music service Pandora’s awesome, and soon they’ll be contacting you to let you know that “Hey, we see that you contacted your weed dealer an hour ago, how about some Acid Mothers Temple?”
Tim Quirk’s “The Quiet Revolution: From The Walkman to the iPod, How Portability and Infinite Storage Have Changed the Way We Listen, and What we Listen To.” Once upon a time in the 80s, young Mr. Quirk went to college across the country, boiling down his 500 LPs to 200 cassettes with only “What to record?” as a question to aggravate. He discussed the myopic fits of paranoid rage the music business went into around that time, with the really cool “Home Taping Is Killing Music” skull-pirate logo graphic. This battle raged on symbolically into the similar freak out about downloading, but some information about current listening tastes are undeniably interesting: Unmarketed but beloved music like The Sweet’s “Little Willie” (“a fine fucking song,” Quirk quite rightly says of it), floats large in a world where people are streaming tons of Asia and Jack Johnson. Beyond timeless appreciation for proper aesthetics, “People are no longer paying for songs they don’t want in the first place,” “For casual fans, give it away; more engaged audiences can be served with different levels of product”; and “People are not radio formats.” (Tell the Pandora of the future that, Tim. And warn my weed dealer.)
Dean of Rock Critics Bob Christgau asked a question from the audience no one had the answer to or wanted to deal with: How does the artist get paid for recordings? The usual excuses about licensing and performances being the best way for musicians to make money were offered, but no one but Wendy Fonarow (see below) backed up the idea that hey, a lot of people are making money off of recordings, and at least one of those people should be artists. It digressed into “Artists never got paid anyways!” and then we all went on our ways. And oh yeah, some people may be into things like radio because they like someone finding new songs to play along with others we like, without subscribing to a service or thinking about it too much, but it was a room full of people who like to think about it a lot, probably have a reasonable amount of money, and demand having a lot of control over what they listen to at all time, so besides a young woman who worked at college radio and pondered about the future of the DJ, that got left by the Learning Labs door too. (Nobody’s fault but mine.)
Cell Phones 2:00 PM – 3:30 PM
An admission: I love Wendy Fonarow. She’s L.A. girl who grew up and went to England to engage in the indie culture that spawned music she loved, ended up working for Domino, got a Ph.D, and ended up writing the essential music business study Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music. She also gave a paper at the Pop Con a couple of years ago in which she told drummer jokes, and what this meant about our perceptions of working performers and our own fear of economic distress, among other things. But it was really fucking funny. And very few people at the PC laughed at her jokes, because I think they thought she was having them on a bit. This is where critical thinking becomes that moment the bong has stopped being an ally in sensual experience.
This year, Fonarow came back in tall black boots and cracked the whip on anyone texting during her paper, “though half of me is at Coachella.” This time she slaughtered it, because she did a lot of fucking homework on live indie shows and answered a really important question I’ve always had: No dancing. Why not? And what happened to the mosh pit, stage diving, or even chatting with your fellow concert goer between sets?
My answer was always they banned smoking at shows, where we could all share our self-destructive tendencies together and bond communally that way. But Fonarow took it a lot further, and better: First the “Blue Faces” (Blackberry users who would line up at the back of gigs and be lit up by their work as the band played) came; then the cell phone users went from using their devices to holding them up to the amps to play to their friends who weren’t there what was happening (as she did at a Dinosaur Jr. show at All Tomorrow’s Parties) — to giving up crowd engagement all together, by protecting their property and holding still to shoot and record the event.
The big hits used to be when the punters raved and went mad; Now: “When most popular songs are played by bands in concert is when everyone stops moving and starts documenting the event.” Audience members have begun acting like tourists at shows, not participants.
“When you’re using a cell phone, you’re in the future ulterior tense, filming something instead of being present,” she said. “I have a deathly fear of sharks, so if I film it and watch it later I’m not really here right now.”
We have stopped engaging and started disengaging with other people throughout a show. “People are busy documenting where they are to construct their cyber-identity on social networking sites.”
She fictionally quoted, “I’m the kind of person who goes to Coachella” (as she herself said publicly to introduce her own social persona; I might note, as she herself began reading her paper to a group of strangers and associates). “Daily lives have become a persona, a constructed existence. It is no longer ‘I was at the show’ but now ‘I am at the show.'”
She criticized our diminishing “patience to wait for the pleasure.” Mobile phones have infiltrated everywhere, documenting presence to the point that we have no presence. “Till we have become cyborgs for cyber-identities that may not even be there.”
Next up: How the fall of the Czech Republic, the rise of the chill wave cassette nation, how the past has no magical rewind button though we desperately want it to, and how the future was made by eliminating the ability to record it.