2010 Pop Conference at EMP|SFM: The Pop Machine Wrap Up

Pop Con

... or Player Pianos, Evil Twins, Twitter’s The CNN Of America, And Space Is The Place

Notes taken on April 18, 2010

(It was announced by organizers Eric Weisbard and Ann Powers that this was the last Pop Conference to be held in Seattle for awhile -- it is due to be held in Los Angeles in 2012 and New York in 2013. We will mourn its absence for the next two years, and many of us should plan to follow it till it returns home!)

Last year, the Coen Brothers movie A Serious Man challenged people to think about the struggles of their lives as a form of mystical compression. That is, if you identified with the lead character, who was stuck in a grueling, challenging moment of time not knowing how the Jefferson Airplane’s “Someone To Love” was leading his son past the world of math and rabbis and headlong into the void; and someone kept sending condemning the protagonist after his enemy died, possibly the same person who had enrolled him in the Columbia Record Club and kept ordering albums like Abraxas and Cosmo’s Factory when all he wanted to do was listen to Yiddish devotional singing.

That automatic grift of LPs sent randomly and against the character’s will was never mentioned during this year’s Pop Conference, a frenetic affair filled with old ideas (radios coming into living rooms, their softness giving rise to the crooner), current ideas about the old ways (cassettes! Turning smooth groove 70s love songs into G-funk), and contemporary ideas about the future (Pandora, Slacker, what will we do when the rock runs out (?!) nd the rise of noise as emerging cells of resistance.)

Roundtable: In the Girls’ Room: Pre-Internet Teen Girl Bedroom Culture -- 2:00 PM - 3:30 PM, April 17

On my way home Friday afternoon, a nice decompressing bus ride through Seattle’s working class but not really poor neighborhoods, a young woman sat near me wearing a Crass patch sewn on her hoodie. I brought this up at this particular roundtable, thanking participant Marisa Meltzer, but also admitting I told girl to try to find anarcho-feminist Poison Girls (part of the Crass collective), rather than asking why she was into Crass. Meltzer is the author of Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music, which despite its cute-colorful design has a lot of great stories beginning with gals like Mirah in Olympia organizing her record collection according to gender, and how the D.C. girls flipped out when blacks rioted due to a police shooting, “and they wanted a riot of their own.” Meltzer let me off the hook, but the best part of the “Technology” theme this year was learning that there is a lot more to the Pop Machine than you know. Even on a personal level -- I missed hearing a story from someone whose only identifier was a poverty-stricken Brit punk band radically important to my generation, and she was taking on the cause in these dark economic days as well.

This was the panel that fired up the most passionate questions from its audience: Women still angry about body size mattering so much for women in the public; the idea that the Internet has replaced homemade DIY music and print culture; and the digital divide itself, the fact that so many young women don’t have access to computers or the ability to network out of their class.

But first, the other presenters -- Kara Jesella (New York Times, Salon) and Ada Calhoun (NYT, Time) -- joined in with Meltzer on the history of the original movement, talking about how early-mid 90s zine culture and riot grrrl bands and extreme youth fashion developed in wanting to keep a private space, disguising it in rage and outrage. It eventually became Sassy, but then Sassy became anachronistic as creative women like these went on to write thoughtfully and even in a resistant way for mainstream media sources and publishers. Mash Hall’s rapper Larry Mizell, Jr. (also the hip-columnist for The Stranger) admitted from the audience that for him when his mother wanted to punish him, she took away his posters, CDs, etc. (This reminded me of what I heard in the Feminist Roundtable about patriarchy -- sometimes who is having access to girls’ bedrooms is disturbing, due to the tendrils of male power and control; but we don’t want mom as our Facebook friend either.)

Monitoring and manipulation as punishment was one of the first papers read this time at the Conference (sadly though I had missed Barry Shank’s “The Violence of Publicity in the Age of Surveillance” in the first round of presentations). And just as philosopher Paul Virilio, an architect, had been swept up in the Situationist riots of Paris, 1968, space became more and more about the sanctuary of the creative soul -- as much as the liberation of community.

Vibrations -- 2:00 PM - 3:30 PM, April 17

Earlier in the morning over in the “Early Days” presentation, David Suisman had given a talk on “Digital Before Digital: The Player-Piano and Its Analogue Tendencies.” He had mentioned that there were forms of music in this automatic keyboard system so complicated and complex they were never meant to be played by human hands (yes, even before digital, we could create musical instruments that played music that we as humans can not create). He quoted author William Gaddis, who never finished his history of the player piano, but used it in numbers two and five of his five novels, as important plot points.

Veteran Pop Con presenter, Los Angeles resident, and author of The Great Black Way: LA in the 1940s and the Lost African Renaissance, RJ Smith made good on moderator Carl Wilson’s statement that “Vibrations” was going to be about “sounds around the sounds and the nonsense around the sounds.” Smith told a great story of how “famous squares flipped the hipsters at Cornish.” John Cage, an inventor’s son, forced audiences into openness towards manipulated sound (radios and many other things as instruments; silence as a composition). At one point, he got on TV (looking a little like an even more well read Lyle Lovett) and crawled into the guts of a piano, being recorded as he made improvisation sound within it.

As metaphorical and exotic as this may have seemed, there was a sort of post-Vaudeville, space age bachelor pad act that took this further -- the dopplegangers of Ferrante & Teicher, whose career consisted of perhaps asking the question, “What would Liberace think of John Cage?”

Art Ferrante was a big science fiction fan, and his similar looking piano-molesting partner in chimes and plucks and plonks took their instrument-damaging into realms of big bucks and big parties, till the road wore them down and “rock authenticity” made the “sexual napalm” of their backsides on LP covers seem like past-futurism (and not in a good way). They devolved into elevator music, and recorded big time Hollywood soundtracks -- but recently issued their very first unreleased recording, Denizens Of The Deep, which was “Satie-esque” and worthy of their homemade label name, Avant Garde.

Gayle Wald followed Smith’s slicing-wit paper, with the energy of Sister Rosetta Sharpe (whom she wrote about in the essential biography of the woman who arguably created rock and roll, “Shout, Sister, Shout!”). Wald’s expertise in soul music truly showed as she took us into the secret history of an Upper West Side soul music festival that lasted ten days in 1972. Based on concepts of Afro-futurism (still controversial today; just ask Geo of the Blue Scholars) from Sun Ra, who carried forward the idea that blacks couldn’t find peace and place on Earth with so much cruelty and objectification, urging them to imagine a black planet. But to build it here, in “vibe” and at events such as this, which had flyers distributed at churches and everywhere poor people might want to hear about an over-week-long funky get down. “Jazz, soul, R&B was black classical music,” Sun Ra said, and his personal musical and visual wildness matched his theory about each person having a color that vibrates, a heart that beats like a drum, nerves that are used as strings in the symphony of space. It’s all out there and in here in reds and blues. And as Bob Christgau would say soon at the “Music in the 00s” panel: The condition of the human is the blues. And maybe the blues really has conquered all.”

Interrogating the Digital -- 9:00 AM - 10:30 AM, April 18

Sunday morning began for me with this panel; a nice biography of Arthur Russell written by British disco-scribe Tim Lawrence (the history Loves Saves The Day: please read if you don’t think the music had soul), and given by moderator Kembrew McLeod due to volcano ash causing UK flight gridlock. The chief point of this discussion of the Buddhism-inspired, New York mythos-fed bohemian avant-into-dance craftsman creating music discovered by backpackers and bloggers long after his death, is that he would work intensely on music that “is so easy to acquire now, and almost never made that way anymore.” Though technology allows us to access such obscure, moving underground sounds, the life of the artist isn’t as sacrificial as it was when Russell created his grooves. Our casualness and haste and iPods crammed with world music we don’t even have time to listen for; Lawrence said this SPEED and DISCONNECTION would never make music that would seep into the back of our minds and demands to be resurrected decades later. Russell used the moon as an instrument (recording on certain times and days) like he did a microphone. The death of disco as an artform can be described by fellow presenter Michaelangelo Matos’s quote: “What about culture that goes into the heartland and dies there?” (He mentioned roller-derby though.)

Charles Kronengold is from Cornell and is fascinated by how the disembodied African-American voices in EDM, the organic, and the loss of piano-bench squeaking and finger-bone creaking music of performers in it, from its initial visual cues, has changed so much of what we currently consume in our sounds. He explained that thinking is more than what we think it is -- thinking together is communal; we think with our bodies; thinking is not only individual; and we are capable of creating vulnerable thinking that changes us and those around us. (This made me think that The Pop Machine is a feminine device, and the male gaze is the flesh craving it.)

I had discovered this weekend that electronic music reporter/reviewer Geeta Dayal had grown up singing gospel in church; this readied me for Michaelangelo Matos’ awesome paper on “The Digital Glossolalia of Todd Edwards and DJ Koze.” Glossolalia is “speaking in tongues”; as weird an idea as “The Beatles cutting up strips out of the sounds of a calliope and throwing them up in the air and taping them back together to record ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite’” but with very specific intentions. This may have continued this panel’s theme of chopping voices, but the tired implications of violent glitch-thuds by that phrase was replaced by gorgeous play of sonic smears and streaks.

First heard around the time of Daft Punk’s “Face To Face,” which was inspired by his production work, Edwards’ musical worlds are based on his overt spirituality, so the cuts seem more like a holy knife preparing a ritual sacrifice of soul music. He became a deity to house producers who use hip-hop (and probably vice versa) and became Todd the God, and he is a devout Christian. His ability to create beautiful rhythmic collages and washes of praise music out of secular club sounds had my friend Nick saying, “One of my favorite artists I just found out about right now.” (Edwards even redeemed Enya by cutting up her voice.) The high point was the playing of his single “Alabama Blues,” and bits of its versions. DJ Kozy, the second part of the presentation, sounded more like some ambient post-punk dance expressionist, with jungle-sounding “Remain In Light” vibe and David Bowie vox. (Matos also played Kozy’s sarcastic (?) “We Are The World,” where he sings all the parts himself.)

Identity Projects -- 9:00 AM - 10:30 AM, April 18

My final panel of the final day of EMP Pop Conference 2010 was sociologist Carey Sargent’s take on Charlottesville, Virginia, where college town myths face 25% unemployment reality, “Trappin’” is the main theme of local made hip-hop, and Dave Matthews’ “well-meaning” manager funneled money into a club-house where rappers are discouraged about sharing reality in their rhymes.

In “Mapping The Translocal Taqwacore Social Networks to Digital Humanities,” Wendy Hsu found out where all the My Space friends of American Islamic ska-punk-Bollywood band The Kominas (who sound really good) are clustered; bringing up the crazy question of when your fanbase is mostly not anywhere near where you live (hello, Kultur Shock!). Unfortunately, I would have liked to hear more about what she found in the milieu that Muslim hardcore Michael Muhammad Knight writes about; but this wasn’t a panel on religion (or even punk).

Jason Kirby discussed the homogeneous sounds of what Pandora selects for you based on your habits during “Pop Genres and the Question of Musical DNA”; apparently, the company gives you a lot of what you like according to tempo. But the algorithms fail to deliver the moods and depths of a college radio station. Or hey, KEXP!

The final-for-awhile Seattle Pop Conference ended, before many of us went off to lunch together in the warm Sunday Seattle sun, with the Pink Communoids performing a remarkably subtle and sensual noise composition via software that linked them to their guitarist Kevin Parks, currently in South Korea. The other two Communoids are the above-mentioned Sargent and Hsu, the former adept on monastery-like bells and the latter on texturally shredding accordion.

Yes, an accordion Hsu could have set on fire and played with her teeth. Making old things sound new, and new music made at the same time by players across the world from each other. The perfect sound to end the 2010 Pop Conference at EMP|SFM.

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