13 May 2006

EMPirical EMPathy: day one

time to talk about the conference. before it gets any longer ago. i'm just going to go day by day and discuss the panels in order, and see where it gets me. so this is about the presentations i heard on friday.

as mentioned, i missed the opening/keynote discussion with st. merrit, which seems to have engendered the most debate of anything at the conf, sparking a 'net controversy that i need to make myself stop reading now and get on with this - seems to me that it's less about rockism and racism per se (though there are of course lessons to be extrapolated) than about jess hopper jumping to unfriendly conclusions and being called out before she realized her mistake and apologized (at least she got her brain fite!) - i wont even link to it, but you can find it, i promise.

well anyway, my conference EXPerience didn't start until friday morning, in the "demo lab" - the most intimate of the three conference spaces, which is why it had maybe the best post-q+a discussions i was around for all weekend. notwithstanding some great storytelling and insights about the conflicting racial images in the marketing of blues from yuval taylor, the highlight of the panel was easily drew daniel's multivalent reading of "sweet home alabama." taking as a starting point one particularly fraught experience of hearing the song among a crowd of 'bama frat boys on july 4th, he delved into the minutia of (as he air-scare-quoted it) "how it means," in the context of the cultural politics of the south, among other things. interestingly, apropos of earlier discussion on this site, he labelled it a Perfect Pop Song, citing in particular its malleability; the vagueness of intention that lets it function either as a vehicle of self-knowing wit or chest-thumping pride, depending on the listener. however, he was less interested in teasing out intention than in examing how it has been adopted, noting for instance that, in the line "in birmingham they love the governer", the jab at george wallace is nullified as the line effectively becomes a shout-out for folks from birmingham. more disturbingly, he suggested that, with its defiant, playgrond-style rebuttal to neil young's simplistic "southern man", the song can be taken as a too-facile vindication of southern culture, collapsing the political to the ethical and equating the wrong of yankee stereotyping of southerners with the wrong of slavery. the ringing retort to the former, he proposes, comes with only a "muffled apology" for the latter (an implied moral race-consciousness in the form of the wallace barb and the musical miscegenation of the backup vocalists, among other things.)

all this plus some ably-deployed if not strictly necessary references to a handful of theorists. the discussion that followed offered the audience some opportunity for music-knowledge flexing, as folks bandied about cover versions and other songs relevant to the skynyrd-young paradigm, by randy newman, warren zevon, tom petty, and others. as well as the first invocation of american idol. (at 10:35, as i marked in my notes.)

as is already obvious, race was a major focal point of discussion at the conference in various ways, probably most interestingly in considerations of music-listening guilt deriving from concerns of political-correctness rather than cultural-correctness - for example, the hip-hop panel that i unfortunately missed (including robt christgau), and in taylor's blues-condescension piece. the rock & roll double-consciousness panel i attended next took up some more convoluted narratives about race and identity, with guilt playing more of a personal/esthetic than political/ethical role, if that makes sense.

rj smith, who's working on a intrguingly narrowly focused book on l.a. music in the 40s, told the fascinating history of johnny otis, a figure in that scene who, greek-american by birth, effectively lived his life as a black man as seen by many of his peers and perhaps - this is tantalizingly unclear - himself. otis, as smith offhandedly mentioned, is a perfect example of a trickster character as discussed by lewis hyde, in his transgressively inhabiting racial boundaries and exploiting that position for both magic and mischief (smith played us a clip from otis' raunchy novelty outfit snatch and the poontangs that, he suggested, allowed whites forbidden access to black vernacular culture.) (interesting questions - from christgau maybe? - about double consciousness as double agency.)

devin mckinney gave a very personal account of his childhood obsession with, psychological empowerment through, and susequent college-theory-inspired rejection of (and more recent return to) the "feminine fear and ferocity" of black female pop. although i identified strongly with the first and to a lesser extent the second phases of this narrative, i was somewhat taken aback by the intensity of the shame he described in the third. he talked about college being a place where minds expand and emotions contract - definitely not my experience, in part because pc concerns are not so stifling as they were during his college days - and also described his rejection as something like rebelling against ones parents, children's literature, or anything that inescapably defined your formation as an individual, before, perhaps, later returning to it. i spoke with him for a while after the presentation, but i wasn't able to get beyond fumbling nods of agreement and identification to talk about the ways my experience differs/has differed, and why there has to be such shame in finding resonance with the work of singers of other race and gender. (too bad that he didn't talk more about bodies too, as daphne brooks brought up in the q+a). he had said in his paper, sort of maddeningly, that to answer the confused queries about the necessity of shame-based analysis, from those who don't feel shame, "would be to answer everything."

meanwhile, nate patrin (full paper there) talked about some other music that i know well from my childhood - well, some of it, anyway, not so much the boz scaggs. his thesis - about the trend of white rock musicians in the '70s incorporating elements of r'n'b having become a critical blind spot in rock historiography because of the macho and arguably racist/homophobic backlash of the punk ethos - seemed like it should be so obvious not to be worth mentioning, but probably it's really not, and the feeling that it might be is actually a powerful confirmation of its rightness. you know? (also, i enjoyed his line "if 'play that funky music' was a shock, then the disco reinvention of the beegees was an electric chair.")

the next panel, "bad subjects", was absolutely one of the highlights of the weekend, despite the looseness of its theme - the presenters were all very articulate and interested in talking to one another even if their papers didn't have the most readily evident connections. charlie bertsch stayed pretty theoretical and non-specific in what i was hoping would be a more personal or at least sociological discussion of power dynamics in pop listenership - but he did do some helpful groundwork for the theory of guilty pleasures, talking about taste and maturity and proposing a (not entirely convincing) parallel between the development of the physiological (literal) palate and the development of the metaphorical musical palate.

michaelangelo matos, whose paper (linked there) is really worth reading, gave such an engaging presentation that i barely took notes on it, but his paper, like drew daniel's, was an exemplary close reading of a song-as-phenomenon that focused on its personal and political ramifications. (and, has been discussed elsewhere, the paper involves some personal revelations that hit on quite an emotional level.)

and (conference organizer) eric weisbard's survey of the isley brothers convincingly painted them as remarkably ubiquitous as they are underheralded in music writing - despite their elevated positioning within black cultural heritage. his proposed explanation involved the absence of a serious/arty/experimental position (as in the rock side of the rock/pop division) in the context of r+b or black music in general. personally, i have been struggling with a closely related issue (as a record collector/librarian) - whether to explore the isleys through compilations or albums (sort of sorry to say, i'm leaning toward the glowingly-reviewed box set that's available through bmg.)

the most fascinating paper on the panel, however, and possibly of the whole conference, was by carl wilson whose blog (and its comments) has some of the best discussion of the conference (including the 'racism' "controversy") that i've read. there's a decent summing-up of his paper (“touch me, celine: a dionyssee or, poptimism versus the guilty displeasure”) here, which essentially grappled with the contradictions between celine's tremendous popularity and the possibly even more tremendous hatred she engenders, while asking some tough questions about distaste and what it reveals about us. the presentation was as full of serious insights as it was of humor (inevitable, but particularly well-deployed.) here are a few excerpts of ideas, paraphrased from my notes: • unlike cultural populism, which strives to find a sense of community beyond marketing demographics, poptimism is solipsistic • the displeasure many people find in opera is not comparably "guilty," since it doesn't involve mockery in the same way (but perhaps there is a correlation between celine and 'lite' opera stars such as jenny lind.) • dion's excesses can't be enjoyed as camp because they aren't in bad taste • her lush, technically prodigious voice is positioned as a luxury item - something to be "touched" [q.v. her comments on looters during katrina, to "let them touch things," because maybe they've never touched anything so luxurious] • she aspires to an outdated version of high culture, and is a figure of ridicule because of her inedptitude at symbol manipulation (which wilson called "our new sport"), as well as her unapologetic emotional directness • her songs aren't really memorable or "catchy" in the conventional sense because they are based on a different aesthetic of melody, coming from the european chanson tradition. also, one of the many amusing quotes that wilson shared with us; celine on why her music isn't more memorable or dynamic: i don't want to bother people while they're baking, [...] or making love - it would be rude to interrupt!

anyway, lots to talk about there, but i won't do it now. one more panel on friday, on lounge and muzak, which offered sort of a respite after some headier discussion earlier in the day. i'm definitely sorry that i missed christgau (who was speaking opposite this), but i'm glad i went to this one, because i met jentery sayers, who i got to interact with on a more personal level than anybody else i met (which isn't really saying that much.) also, even though jessica wood's presentation on harpsichord pop (which i probably could have skipped out on and caught xgau) turned out to be both sort of awkward and not very interesting contentwise (or at least relevant to the general discussion), it did offer a useful contrast to the rest of what was going on that revealed something about the specific fluencies and shared conceptions of discourse that exist even in the scatterbrained non-discipline this conference represents. (also, she showed some very amusing album art, including some prime enoch light covers.) with the probably exception of keir keightley's tone-setting opening paper - which faulted rock's selective historiography for overplaying the 'false patrimony' of american roots music and ignoring continuities of industrial pop, a tendency tied to rock's 'foundational rejection' of the shameful 'parents music' of '50s mainstream (and resisted in jonathan richman's "the old world" - this panel felt a little like the conference's amateur hour, which isn't to say it wasn't plenty revelatory or worthwhile. in this ironic milieu, as the "pop portraits" and "girl groups" panel on saturday made plain, it's the academics that are more likely to come off as amateurs or at least outsiders.

this panel marked the only time i raised my hand to ask a question - of mr. sayers, whose paper on my darlings the dan was a great pleasure to hear, although i think there are some issues left to consider in the distinction between their music as music and as phenomena - broadly, between intentionality and reception - as matos' and daniels' papers, among others, demonstrated. i also wish he had delved more into the lyrics (as he had originally planned), though it was a thrill for him to quote (arbitrarily) the lines immediately preceding my maybe-favorite steely dan line (the one i unpacked at length at the very bottom of this reminced post.) mostly, i think he and i just hear the band in very differently because of our personal histories, and, being younger than many of the conference attendees, certainly younger than most steely dan fans, and hearing them several decades removed from their original context, differently again from lots of other people - something that was evident from some of the audience comments on his paper. was it greil marcus that said the linkage between steely dan and punk was about disgust?

as far as michael daddino's (doesn't he look like joe kille?) paper "how not to defend muzak"... i don't even know what to say. you can read it here. i was really impressed at the level of expertise that emerged in the ensuing discussion from several avowed muzak devotees in the audience.

after all this, i chatted for a while with jentery and brooken (oh look they're married. whoa, that feels weird. well...they're easy to google) and they may have been inviting me to hang out, but i just went and chilled with sarah, because, you know.

so. i really didn't think i was going to get that in depth about all the presentations, but there it is. we'll see about saturday later. time to go play or something.

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