Notes taken on April 16 and 17, 2010
In his preface to The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides acknowledges that he he “found it impossible to remember the exact wording of speeches. Hence I have made each orator speak as, in my opinion, he would have done in the circumstances, but keeping as close as I could to the train of thought that guided his actual speech.” — David Shields, Reality Hunger
Music in the ‘00s: A Technologically Informed but Not Determined Discussion
3:45 PM – 5:45 PM, April 17
Wow, look at that tornado. Nine years of Pop Conference and for me it hit with a connective tissue-scattering force on a late Saturday afternoon panel at the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum, when Robert Christgau, Joe Levy, Chuck Eddy, Ann Powers, Elliott Wilson, and Douglas Wolk shared their many years of writerly wisdom and engagement with pop, rock, and hip-hop music in live and recorded and otherwise experienced forms, broke each other’s balls, took on audience members like angels calling Jacob out in the desert, snapping us awake and crepitating reality.
The topics, in order of presenters, and out from there: The death of the blues; the death of the music business and music magazines; eternal creation in mutation and the illusion of genre (Brooks & Dunn is the new AC/DC); pop is made of everything lying around and it’s time to dumpster dive again; starting a fanzine which only reviews bootlegs in its second issue because record labels never know how to promote their artists properly; rock as fossil fuel, scarcity lacks the gleam of fetish when some of us start flying to Africa to photograph elephants, and rock as dead by late 70s and early 90s in the same time loop.
The players at this apogee, crowning point, ascension of the event:
Robert Christgau: Continues his decades-spanning Consumer Guide at msn.com; NPR’s All Things Continued commentator; teaches at NYU’s Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music; five books published drawn from every music magazine worth reading. Always at the Pop Con, and always as edifying as he is encouraging, caring as he is caustic, and as amazing for what he knows as for how he wants us all to know it and live it too.
Joe Levy: Probably gets this all the time, but as hilarious as Richard Lewis and yet ten times more handsome; editor at Spin, Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and the last great general mainstream rock magazine Blender (R.I.P.). Hilarious as fuck. A scream.
Chuck Eddy: First time out at the Pop Con and used all his on-fire nervous energy to captivate like Elvis Costello on the Armed Forces tour. Ferocious scholar of pop mutations, an intense wiry guy who looks half his age and never smiles, the author of a metal guide which includes art-damaged bands and girls, Billboard, CREEM, Spin, rhapsody.com, ubiquitous and has a much-desired by me collection imminent from Duke University. (Exponential woot.)
Ann Powers: A pop-loving potential Kali, uses her powers for good. (Whew!) Chief pop critic for the L.A. Times. (“Best pop critic for the L.A. Times” is how Bob put it, and Ann allowed us to laugh at that.) Started at The Rocket in Seattle, remembers Rich Jensen’s weird ass spoken word release before he was at Sub Pop and recognizes the commercial that used it to make him retirement money.
Elliott Wilson: Ego Trip! Best fanzine ever. Exhilarating bad ass humor, knows it has to be a hit, whatever the fuck it is. Probably coached the best things in several music scenes you are now enjoying in the infinite hall of mirrors of your personal listening device. XXL Magazine when it was hot, former music editor of The Source, The (White) Rapper Show, Big Book of Racism, currently the founder and CEO of RapRadar.com
Douglas Wolk: Wrote one of the best 33 1/3 books (Live At The Apollo, 2003), and the best comics criticism, Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean (Da Capo, 2007). Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, The Believer. The first time I met him, at a Pop Con maybe five years ago, he gave me a mix CD of his favorite James Brown songs. As sweet as he is smart and that’s a ton.
Questions from and answers to Oliver Wang (Waxpoetics, Soul Sides) about the demise of female rappers since the break down of Lauryn Hill; Jody Rosen from Rolling Stone on the feminization of pop; Jon Caraminca from VIBE amping it up somehow without even saying much, his partner in crime Sean Fennessy helping in that.
So this was the state of the game as the final full day of the EMP Pop Con came to a close. The best minds of our generations shrieking about the creation of the world amidst suicide bombers, bar code coupons manufactured from your personal computer history that stalk you as you walk through malls now, and volcanos that kept presenters Tim Lawrence and Daphne Carr from flying in. Gridlock in the sky. Dying of the light? You didn’t see it here.
It was recorded, you should watch it somewhere. And my laughter is the squealing, choking gasps behind the camera woman. All apologies.
Retro Uses — 3:45 – 5:45 PM, April 16
You may have heard this one before, but there’s no stopping me now.
Charlie Cross had thrown a big party at his house. This was before Internet invitations, and he had a good idea of who he’d invited. Something about 100 invitations, 99 RSVPs, and one missing possible attendee.
The party was over, it was late, everyone was ushered out, lock down for the night, Charlie passed out on his couch. Oh yeah: And he knows all about them. The M100C, like they show at the beginning of “Happy Days”: The touchstone jukebox of rock and roll. A classic Wurlitzer 1015, too. And more. Charlie actually collects them.
I don’t know which machine it was in his living room after that party, but he likes to keep its revolving light tubes glowing. Lying in the darkness, exhausted, his staff writers from The Rocket and Backstreets gone, and all the writers, photographers, musicians, and artists he knows, entertained, drained, and sent home.
“Nice juke, man,” some guy says, standing in his living room. He’s holding a full bottle of Vodka in one hand.
Charlie’s a little freaked out. “How’d you get in here?” he asks. All the doors were locked, he was sure of it, before he crashed out.
“I have my ways,” the guy said.
It was Jeff Dowd, who some of you might know as “the Dude.” The real human the Coen Brothers based on for the protagonist in the movie The Big Lebowski.
“Let’s listen to it,” Dowd / the Dude says, pointing at the juke.
Also on this panel mostly about vinyl and tape fetishism and was Lauren Onkey, from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland (and author of Blackness and Transatlantic Irish Identity), who gave a meaty, old school rock critic paper about the failure of Bruce Springsteen to record an album worth playing live. She played samples of the wretched “Working On A Dream” and criticized the “playing the whole ‘classic’ album” trend with veteran pop and rock performers. Those of us in the weird margins mentioned things like Pussy Galore covering all of Exile on Main Street, and Douglas Wolk brought up the brilliant ruse of covers band Ex-Lion Tamers performing Wire’s beloved early post-punk oeuvre before they headlined with more experimental electronic material in the 80s. This wasn’t necessarily dismissed, and I’ve never seen Springsteen run through “Born To Run” or take “Darkness On The Edge of Town” to its bleeding edge, but that sounds kind of good to me. If the album is dead in “format,” is this really such a terrible way to keep it alive?
Andy Zax gave an outstanding paper on this panel too, playing recordings of the often corny but sometimes brilliantly funny seven inch promotional singles from Warner Brothers from the 60s and early 70s. Zax is actually a Grammy-nominated music producer, and was on Comedy Central’s “Beat The Geeks.” He’s helped put out many great box sets, and his presentation was as rich and slick as Los Angeles, where he lives and which spawned the label that boasted “Don’t Ever Buy Nothin’ You Don’t Dig” (the title of his assertion, from a band member on one of those rare 45s — which he made us a CD compilation of and gave out to anyone who asked!) The radio spot gauchely attempting to hype Neil Young’s Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere and and the one for the Faces’ second LP featuring a stoned girl giggling “Faces, Faces, Faces, Faces …” all the way way through were delicious.
Michael Mannheimer ended this panel with “Big Wave Rider: Cassette Tapes, Inverted Nostalgia, and the Creation of glo-fi,” citing factors such as punk/indie-nostalgic Portland DIY culture, lack of financial access to on-line marketing, and the love of homemade grimy music not everyone can get easily for its, um, success. Though born after cassettes stopped being manufactured (!), Mannheimer’s excellent presentation showed his love for the first couple of albums he owned, on tape: Phil Collins and MC Hammer (“Hammer Don’t Hurt Him”).
On a similar note, long-time Pop Con coordinator Daphne Carr handled some of the same material in her presentation, but she is currently stuck in the Czech Republic. So she ingeniously put together a message about cassette fetishism delivered via loaned cassette on spray-painted Walkmans you could borrow from the EMP hosts. It fluttered, went in and out, and there was no rewind button so you were encouraged to listen straight through like a paper given in the regular format. (Though you were encouraged to use the Fast Forward button to “be kind, rewind.”) I liked being stuck like that.
Carr is the series editor of the Best Music Writing series from Da Capo Press and assistant editor of Current Musicology. Her 33 1/3 on Pretty Hate Machine is on its way. I loved her references to Central European bands who used relied on cassette releases out of political (not economic) necessity. “The media was state-controlled here and censorship was high,” Carr states, “but cassettes were the first sound recording medium that allowed public (re)production of sound. People produced, copied, and circulated cassettes because they had no access to professional media.” Now there are contemporary bands like Kazety putting out making their music only through on-line sources and on CD. “They are a generation who have no nostalgia for Czech culture, but who consume American nostalgia for it as part of the larger Western media diet here,” Carr continued. (Carr has a great voice, and relaxing, walking around, and spending a little time alone with it was refreshing in the middle of a Conference often caught up in raging psychic engagement and sitting still on our asses.)
Carr interviewed representatives from Silver Rocket, a Czech Republic label and promotions collective. One of the bands they have was interested in the cassette fetish of the United States and asked to do a release this way; “SR was confounded at the idea,” Carr says. “The production and circulation of format nostalgia has unintended consequences or produces results in completely different historical places where cassettes mean different things.”
Feminist Working Group Session — 9:00 AM – 10:30 AM, April 17
This was my favorite feminist workshop at the Pop Con yet. They’ve always been good, but in the transitional economy last year, there was often a sense of futility to working as a women journalist or musician in a lot of the interchanges. Facts is facts, but this year the panelists extolled a lot more hope, probably due to the solutions they offered up in the ruins of finances.
DJ Analog Tara (Tara Rodgers) spoke first, speaking of growing up with her dad’s collection of jazz greats like Count Basie and Oscar Peterson, becoming professionally trained at keyboards herself, and programming a synthesizer for a 70s funk cover band. This led her to creating in a private space, for herself, replacing pieces of gear with better pieces of gear year after year, rejecting concerns of the future due to not seeing women’s role in it. “What do you see? You see all male programs, you don’t see any place for women,” she quoted Pauline Oliveros.
She showed a slide of the “ladies glove” which could be played by the fingers of a woman reaching out to touch, “responding to sensuality of feeling.” Rodgers liberated everyone there with the idea that a focus on the small, personal time and space devoted to their work may be as (if not more than) important than networking.
Los Angeles-based musician Emily Wells played violin over loops (gorgeously), showing off her pink electronic loop machine and its crushing skills, and talked about creating with male collaborators and trying to be assertive, but “does this make me a bitchy girl?” Character is an essential part of collaboration, and that tension is where creativity comes out of. Just remember: “Make the sound guy your best friend.” And she said it doesn’t hurt to be nice about that.
Wells always extrapolated on her heartfelt cover of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy, which has gotten both rabid objectifying response, and sincere encouragement by being available on You Tube. Of the beats behind her work, she admits “the technology is old and I am loving that.”
On the other hand, offering up artistic resistance and fucking shit up socially, Wynne Greenwood of Tracy and the Plastics gave one of my favorite papers, showing her bedroom video dub videos and playing her music, isolating voice from visual image, penetrating back into the male gaze to challenge what it is thinking. (I am ashamed I missed out on her band in the electro-clash confusion, and am seeking out access to her work immediately.)
“The male gaze is the gaze we’re all looked at with,” Greenwood said. Her play / work has been about how “the audience has to confront the gap in reality. The wonder in being.” (I noticed some people in the room laughed a little at her presentation, possibly because it seemed self-indulgent, or precious. But it made me want to create dubs of my own life to terrorize those observing me I have no control over, too.)
Greenwood fell in love with a drum machine in 1997, and insists on crowd participation being a major element of her performances (like in church, we clapped along with the beat, as a female band fell apart before our eyes). “The role of a band, the identity of a band, I want to bring them all into question.”
She also fears technology in the way it has created access to young girls’ bedrooms via the Internet. “I feel like there’s possibly something dangerous or conflicted with bedrooms being linked.” Rodgers brought up the fact that “I like technology because I can create privately. Precisely because I don’t have to deal with people.”
I wanted to ask questions at this panel but all the women kept asking them before I could, and then went further with what I was thinking.
Analog-Digital Divides — 10:45 PM – 12:45 PM, April 17
I am obsessed with questions of analog versus digital sound, and PC presenter Loren Kajikawa described these poles well in his paper on “The Analogue Sound of digital Production: Dr. Dre’s G-Funk in Post-Rebellion L.A.” Analogue means to engrave something in sound, proportional to output. Digital means to encode something in sound, not necessarily proportional to output. “Producing hip-hop is not an abstract game of zeros and ones,” he asserted, and then broke down how Dre took Leon Haywood’s 1975 R&B mid-tempo get it on song “I Wanna Do Something Freaky To You” and transmutated it via Afro-digital futurism and a subversive Latin bomp from El Chicano’s “Viva Tirado” into the “sociopathic E-Z listening” booming pop of “Ain’t Nuthin’ But A G Thing.”
John Fenn used Neil Young’s quote that “Analog is a warm bucket of sound poured slowly over your head,” while “Digital is ice cubes dumped on your head” for his awesome panel on super-personal, highly-developed fuzzbox craftsmanship, “Analog Circuits, Digital Community: Boutique Effects Pedals as Convergence Culture.” He showed fabulous slides and stories of gizmos like the “Big Gay Fuzz” which raised money to help defeat the homophobic Referendum 8; described the weird little personal statements people make when building their devices (sort of like zines or blogs that make noise with other instruments!), which are always an economic risk due to people wanting to pay on commission and not being able to depend on sale site locations; and stressed Henry Jenkins’ theory that “evolution comes from a convergence of old and new media,” a recurrent theme throughout the Pop Conference.
Brilliant academic and soul music scribe Oliver Wang gave a streamlined figuration called “Microwave DJs: Digital Technology and Contemporary Disc Jockey Practice.” It was a high point of the 2010 PC, but it was a little depressing (crates of luxurious vinyl are indeed being quickly replaced by the instant gratification of crap hits shot through a sound system by button pushers in clubs), but had one of my favorite lines of this affair regarding DJs who don’t crate dig “don’t have a right to play that song yet!” Whether using vinyl or not (CDs are fine), modern club needs are encouraging laziness, weakness, and lack of skills on the part of party-music providers.
Early Days — 10:45 PM – 12:45 PM, April 17
For visceral intensity in writing and presentation, and a complete lack of fear in choice of subject matter, author and Rolling Stone editor and reviewer Jody Rosen brought it with his clips and descriptions of Al Jolson in “The Microphone Has No Footlights: Al Jolson’s Radio Days.” Those days were few, as Jolson’s burnt-cork face became a symbol of shame for the nation just after his exuberant, ferocious vocal style melted into the mellifluous advent of crooners like Rudy Vallee, perfect for goyim to tune into and swoon over in the privacy of their now-radio-owning homes. Jolson was made to rage it on the stage, and his manly Vaudeville style, so steeped in overt masculine sexuality and mother love freaked the straights out. The strange energy of the city lost its connection to the heartland in the choice of aesthetics and the juggling of the classes, and the loud vs. soft culture wars began.
I will leave you now as they left us then, in a loop, and remind you what Tim Quirk said was the most important thing about the Walkman when it was premiered by Sony in 1979: It didn’t have a record button. The soft foamy headphones, the mobility — it was criticized by Luddites as an encouragement to cultural alienation and possibly the cause of autism, but the Walkman made the music business happy by keeping listeners from taping music on it. And everything changed. And it all had to do with a little social control, something in every biological relationship beyond the individual, underlying every story written as science fiction, and inside the heart of every paper at the EMP Pop Music Conference 2010.