03 May 2006

perEMPtorily

[hey-yo. if any of the lovely folks i met at emp this weekend stops by here...well, hello! you should drop me a comment in the slot or, if you like, e-mail me, like so. i'll put up a track list and some more information soon about the cd that i might have given you. but first i want to do some writing about the conference, so hang on a sec.]

okay, general reactions, before i get into the content of the 'ference... wow. this was one of the most unique and acutely enjoyable experiences i've had in a while. pretty far out of my realm these days - it felt like the closest i've been to academia since graduating, this semester's course notwithstanding. maybe more like quasi-academia, or semi-. and in that sense it made me think a little more about considering higher academe, especially upon encountering a bunch of grad students working on pop matters.

not that i've been to either, it was like a cross between an academic conference and a fantasy sports camp, for music people not sports people, obviously. though rachel shimp made the point in the seattle weekly that it's plenty relevant for non-total-music-geeks too, which i think is accurate. still, everyone there was noticeably knowledgeable or at least enthusiastic, and that was probably the greatest and simplest joy of the weekend, quite a visceral one as it turned out: just to be the midst of a small but highly concentrated community of people excited to be getting analytical about music together.

which is also to say that the dialogue flowed pretty freely. it took me some time, partially to overcome my shyness, but more importantly before i could come up with things to say to people. which makes sense, especially since i didn't come with a specific agenda. after i had seen a couple of panels i could at least identify who i might be able to talk to about certain things, even if i mostly refrained from asking questions in the panels themselves. i have the habit (i guess? i wish i didn't) leftover from college of not moving quickly to chime in in a group setting - i tend to hold back and listen to the conversation unless i feel sure that nobody has anything more worth contributing than me, which is never going to be the case at something like emp. i did ask something at the last panel on friday, though, and that presenter ended up being my most friend-like acquaintance of the weekend, so maybe i should have tried fumbling through more. (i did also tend not to think of the questions i really want to ask until later, once i've had time to process the sessions, and anyway i'd rather focus on what's being said than scramble to formulate my responses into language.)

actually the biggest obstacle to conversation was limited opportunity, at least once i got myself into proper mode (which took a day or so) - there was a fun reception saturday evening, at which i mingled reasonably well, but a lot of the folks i had wanted to talk to didn't show up, and i didn't see most of them on sunday (a half-day of panels) either. so i'm hoping to contact several of them. (it also didn't help that many people already knew each other.)

there was little or no atmosphere of standard-conception"networking", at least in my perception - which was a good thing, i think - on the other hand it wasn't hard to make myself want to talk to people, but harder to be proactive in talking about myself in view to sustaining a connection beyond the weekend. i did foist a few copies of october is eternal (in a slightly revised *special new edition*) upon folks who seemed potentially interested. but it took me a while to get the idea - and even longer to get the gumption - to discreetly leave the stack of "syllabi" for GeNReCaLiA that alyssa photocopied for me on the table of, mostly, books written by participants. i did do that, but not until halfway through sunday, so i doubt many people saw it. which is okay. actually, perhaps the most exciting moment of faux-networky ambition-furthering connectivity came at the very end of the conference, when i was chatting with tom kipp outside the emp and he saw this url on the cd jacket and asked if i was part of a mix-making community and i was like no, what do you mean and he said yeah, i know these people who make mixes for each other on a regular schedule and i said wow, that sounds like something i should be involved in and he said he'd send me information about it.

i want to launch a full-on reflection/recounting of the ideas discussed during the weekend, panel-by-panel (at least the ones i attended), but it's late for that now. it was interesting to note the effect the conference's theme - paraphrased, maybe-reductively, but basically across the board, as "guilty pleasures" - on its character. admittedly, the official title - "ain't that a shame: loving music in the shadow of doubt" - is kind of hard to interpret, maybe because the 'shadow of doubt' wittiness is sort of a mixed-metaphor red-herring, plus the fats domino reference is pretty much a throwaway. so, shame and guilt, vis-a-vis pop music, and how we interact with it.

a common mode was nostalgic/semi-personal "reevaluation" narrative - a substantial number of the presenters spoke on a style or artist or album which might be considered in poor taste (and usually, which they had liked in their youth), arguing for (or occasionally against) its reconsideration in light of its questionable status. so "reclamation" was a buzzword, and maybe there was an underanalysed, almost knee-jerk eagerness to uncritically celebrate anything and everything potentially unseemly, the unlikelier the better (as drew daniel sez: "lots of people at this event fall all over themselves to reclaim various pop stars who are widely critically reviled.") people were talking about it as a sort of group confessional or communal therapy session, with everyone holding up their "flawed" tastes for the absolution and approbation of their peers.

not that this is a bad thing, but it could veer simplistic - one issue that was often skirted is what it means exactly to have "gotten beyond" the shame of liking something. where's the line between a working-past and a denial? isn't our perception of something "tainted" by popular or critical disapproval going to be colored by that fact (assuming we acknowledge it)? alternatively, why does shame have to play a role at all in whether we enjoy something? it's hard to know how honest people are being with themselves about this stuff, because the issues are probably more complex than they seem. i would earnestly disavow feeling any guilt or shame for liking the music that i like - but i have a hunch that i'm atypical in this regard, maybe even among this specialized community - but i do think guilt plays some role in how i mediate my musical tastes externally (that is, in communication with others), and also in how i encounter music in a broader sense, beyond pure listening enjoyment or indifference. (for example: my tendency for compulsive record buying, or more complexly, my motives for wanting to explore certain kinds of music and not others.) it would have been interesting to hear more about how guilt/shame comes into play in music fandom more generally - something i thought charlie bertsch was going to explore, in his paper subtitled "confessing ones lack of ignorance", more than he really did, or in a different direction. (we had a good discussion about it at the reception though.)

a more basic consequence of this rhetoric was that the focus was kind of overwhelmingly on music of the past - understandably so, if guilty pleasures are often about nostalgia, and especially since the presenters were, for the most part, a good bit older than me (the age spread was pretty well distributed between mid-twenties and, say, fifties, with a handful of outliers and maybe a median of late thirties or so.) also because, as somebody pointed out, the people that are journalist-types have to focus largely on contemporary music in their regular writings, so this is an opportunity for looking back. still, it would have been nice to hear more discussion of current pop (particularly with teen-pop being my current guilty-but-not-really area of interest. dave, an ashlee paper from you would have been an excellent contribution to the proceedings - not to mention messrs. kogan and eddy, er, xhuxk - where were they?) ostensively, this work has been done, and nobody is supposed to feel guilty about liking any kind of contempo-pop (tho, now maybe some corners of indiedom are swinging around towards condescension to compensate - not sure whether franklin bruno talked about this in the paper i missed) - but i'm not sure i'm convinced. there was a pretty fascinating (and heated!) debate about some of this involving christgau and some others defending the critical community on this point against (sort of ) a panel of wisconson grad students (mostly), which i'll try to discuss more later.

the tension - or, not quite, say dialectic - between academic types and critic-journalist types was, as promised (well, as discussed by weisbard in his intro to the anthology) a lot of the defining character of the conference. maybe types isn't right either - a lot of people straddle both camps at least to some degree (and i'm somewhere in between the two, certainly) - but there were at least those two impulses. as well as the separate, moderating impulse of (typically extreme) music fandom, knowledge and love, which was similarly resident in most of the attendees (pretty much by definition.) the academics that stuck out most as such were those who were sublimating (valiantly or destructively, depending) that impulse in the name of a more analytical and considered approach to their subject, usually as an unorthodox tangent from an outside discipline (which is all of them) - in a few cases this turned out kind of comically incongruous, and could lead to a sort of snarky impatience from the audience (me included), but it made it quite telling how new and uncharted this kind of thing can be from an academic perspective, as opposed to the more comfortable but sometimes-pat critical establishment.

of course, this incongruity smoothed over in many cases by academics with a strong base in pop-crit culture, often with a foot or two in it themselves, who made it look easy and were consequently some of the best presenters (i'm thinking in particular of joe schloss's fascinating close-reading of sly stone's lyrics.) even more engaging were the couple of presenters who were musicians as well as academics and music-writer-types - drew daniel and sarah dougher in particular (absolutely some of the smartest, canniest, and most felt papers, my predilections notwithstanding.) in general there wasn't too much crit theory gab, which was probably for the best - i heard bourdieu invoked a couple of times with middling success, benjamin and adorno and also freud and that sort of thing. (daniels, that cool cat, glibly and unostentiously slipped in derrida ["sensuous manifold"] as well as - maybe less relevant? - bernard williams.) (side-note to alyssa - it was crazy how often people would say things that resonated with the lewis hyde book. that williams shame-guilt stuff and also a lot about signifying and the dozens, but also more trickster talk in general.)

more effective, in general, were citations of music writers - often, and amusingly, of writers who happened to be in the room or even on the panel - which, among other things, helped create a strong sense of camaraderie and shared sensibility among the journalistic faction. i felt like i got to be a part of that, and it (of course) made me want to reassert my connections to that world, even as they were all to some extent relishing this unique haven of like-mindedness as respite from having to mediate (and mediocratize?) their love music to the general, less-obsessive public (plus deadlines editors etc.) some of this got aired at the showstopping "critical embarrassments" panel, at which greil marcus also lauded the conference as exceptionally "free of pomposity and preteniousness." that's very apt. (even if the presence of megast*rs like him and mr. xgau created an awareness, for me at least, of latent hierarchy amid the generally very open and egalitarian atmosphere.)

where does this leave me? well, obviously, wanting to be a part of this community. the only problem being that, as far as i can see, it still doesn't actually exist, except for a few days once a year at this vaguely utopian summit (poptopia?!) the scholars and the journos and the straight-up musos and even the punters like me and kipp all seem sort of necesssary for this particular dynamic to function, and i can find probably find a way to put myself more firmly in each category (since i already am, pretty much), but what i'm really digging is the interplay, the overlay, the floating nexus of viewpoints. i came away from the conference feeling tangibly excited and inspired, even if - apart from doing what i'm doing now - not much more directed or focused. but that's okay. for now, all i can say is that i plan and hope to get back to the pop conference next year and every year i can. and i'll be thinking about a presentation. who i want to see on a panel at emp next year (not necessarily the same panel): me, bedbug dave, and the books' nick zammuto. i think he'd have some interesting things to say. plus he's nice.

2 comments:

Dave said...

That sounds awesome, I'll need to do everything in my power to attend next time (side note: haha, I guess "bedbug dave" is better than "diabetic dave," anyway). Still don't really feel comfortable with the idea of pitching or (given a chance) presenting at this point. I do think Fr Kog could/should do a major Ashlee thesis expanding on some of the stuff he's written. Starting (at least) with '99-'00 origins of "confessional" performer co-written teenpop (M2M as a starter? Just got Shades of Purple today, hot damn!) through the Kellys, Skyes, Ashlees, Lindsays, etc.

Benjamin said...

1) I think the psychology of guilty pleasures needs some serious analysis. It pervades how many people talk about their tv watching (whether reality shows or other even "trashier" shows) not to mention eating--it's all about consuming dessert before the main course. I feel like reclaiming various forms of pop is a little like reclaiming dessert or calories--the whole point is that it's succumbing, reveling in satisfying the urge to consume the refined consumable. perhaps this is just retreading what you've read.

2) the fact that the community coalesces once a year should not be a hindrance to you, as you have hinted. it might be like your burning man--a glorious week of self-expression that is the culmination of a long preparation period. i encourage you to present and perhaps if you get to know some of these people, they'll send you their papers or preliminary outlines beforehand--then you can come up with one good question to ask each in public.

3) i don't know who any of the critics or academics you're mentioning (even the famous ones) are, with the exception of freud and derrida. for the sake of accessibility, please explain.