Scribes Sounding Off: More Than Human (Pop When The World Falls Apart)

As I write this review of an anthology made up of papers given at a previous Pop Conference, the 2012 assembly of the EMP-sponsored legion of academics, working class scholars, performance artists and poets, dancers, and street-level scribes are meeting in New York for Sounds Of The City (the topical theme this year). There is no place else I would rather be. To quote ever-ready master music maven Robert Christgau on the back of this collection, it’s “the best thing that’s ever happened in serious consideration of pop music.” I heartily agree, and if city-agoraphobia didn’t keep me in Seattle, I’d be in the middle of it reveling as I regularly did every year through the ‘00s.

And yes, I do feel a loss for choosing my parochial grind over the illuminating revelry, as the ideas and expressions and research and challenges given every year by the EMP Pop Conference have rivaled many of my favorite concerts, albums, and movies for sheer enjoyment (along with the edification).

But I do have solace: The publication of Pop When The World Falls Apart: Music In The Shadow Of Doubt (Duke University Press, sponsored by the Experience Music Project, out on April 9, 2012) has been sending my mind reeling with details and dreams about the power and pain of music, the joyful spaces and dark places we find the healing and the heartbreak of it. Eric Weisbard really wove together a tantalizing assessment of creative thought cultivation for this edition. I have been sampling its literary pleasures bit by bit as Elliott Murphy once described as “taking tiny bites of some very rare meat.” Savoring it all, scared when it will end, immediately planning to reread everything. The two previous EMP Pop Con collections, This Is Pop and Listen Again, were quite awesome. But Pop is my favorite: These papers were given more recently, and it seems to sweetly snare a developed time when prose-visionaries like Greg Tate and Jonathan Lethem continued building the new, unafraid-to-wake-up-sticky bridge between journalism and music obsession. I never thought the Pop Con got jaded; but these are hot “tracks,” electric essays that rattled against the dread of the previous decade’s state of emergency in America, and all seem like a big celebration for coming out (in more ways than one) for love, truth, beat: Pop.

I’ve been journaling my own memoirs of dancing at shows based on Lethem’s elegant, ecstatic lead essay “Collapsing Distance: The Love-Song of the Wanna-Be, or The Fannish Auteur” (where pop music puts us in a “world permanently drugged or psychedelically sick with fever, or dead and dreaming, like characters in a Philip K. Dick novel”). It reminds me how much music journalism has little to do with dance, and yet I remember almost all my favorite moments enjoying music being about dancing (whether in my room or as part of a sweaty mingle).

Tate’s exuberant declaration for and tracking history of Black Rock appears next in the book, and couldn’t be printed at a better time, when groups like Shabazz Palaces and THEESatsifaction are getting into electronics and actually creating a new genre of space and time, fully adult and lustfully experimental. Black Rock has often been cast off historically (I might as well use the term “ghettoized”) but I know someday there will be a record label or something that has the vision to reissue the artists that Mr. Tate delightedly chronicles here.

“Sexual Healing” co-writer (!) David Ritz gives an enthralling oral history-like memoir about what it’s been like to be a ghostwriter for artists like Ray Charles and cultural bellwethers as Cornel West, an inspiring piece for those attracted to “the art of ghosting.” (I highly recommend this short autobiography for those who write bios for bands, for both its succinct style and its assertion about “listening and speaking with the artist’s own voice”).

Karen Tongson’s “Agents of Orange: Studio K and Cloud 9” meticulously describes the sociological and musical structures of the mid-late 80s dance music milieus of Knott’s Berry Farm; with its concerns of race, identity in clothing, and the control of DJs as security agents, is fascinating. I wouldn’t have thought twice about the worth of huge dance music clubs playing pop music, but that collective engagement really started determining how people would related in the music world and real life cultural identifications of the next decade. Really high quality journalism, as is another woman’s view on music and race, a very timely analysis by Michelle Habell-Pallan on Alice Bag (“Death to Racism and Punk Revisionism”). Alice grew up in an abusive East L.A. household, and returned to that area after she experimented in the amorphous miscegenation of the Hollywood punk scene. As the jocks took over the once vibrant melange and the empty canvas of deracinated angst, Alice took her Cancion Ranchera style back to her original neighborhoods. The email exchange with fellow Hollywood punk curator Brendan Mullen reveals a huge conflict in the early forces of that musical culture. And to be honest, it challenged me on a very deep personal level, as I used to be more inclined to agree with Mullen.

Going back to what you may learn from these essays to help you in the music business, Oliver Wang’s fiercely-documented account and observations of the rise of retro-soul, in how it became known as the dichotomy between Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones (and so much more) is a definite read of the year. (Imagine Northern European musicians/label owners placing old-looking but brand new 45s in Southern American record shop bins surreptitiously to try to create organic buzz! Yeah, that was the roots in the 90s.) Nate Chinen on the tragic-magic of Iz, the sweet voiced Rainbow Warrior. And among many more delights, two superb essays on Karen Carpenter that are both are absolutely essential. The exquisitely acerbic epilogue of Carl Wilson examining the weird questions of faux-authenticity and hazy prejudice that came up around his 33 1/3 book on Celine Dion is the perfect way to cap a book that fully redeems my faith in pop as revelation and transcendent experience.

If you’re in the New York area, please don’t miss the Pop Con: My life is being changed right now just reading collections of papers presented at it in previous years. Imagine experiencing it all first-hand in the flesh!

Sounds of the City
2012 EMP Pop Conference presented by NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music
Jointly held with IASPM-US Annual Conference
NYU Kimmel Center, 60 Washington Square South
New York City, March 22-25, 2012
@empmuseum @clivedavisinst @iaspmus #popcon
more information

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