way overdue, obv., but i've still got it in enough my head to do this, with my notes. so, saturday.
the first panel i went to was a disappointment. i already the intriguingly titled "another darkchild classic: the role of forgery in shaping rodney jerkins' sonic signature" (or something like that) was not going to be presented, but i didn't find out until the panel started that cynthia fuchs, with her paper on "selling linsday lohan," was also a no-show. especially a shame because i think that would have been the only teen-pop-related paper in the whole conference, except for "girl groups in the modern mix," which i'll get to in just a minute. i tried to email ms. fuchs (this page seems out of date, but it still conveys that she r0xX - check out those syllabi) to see if she'd send me a copy of her lindsay paper, but i haven't gotten a response (should prob. try harder.)
the two papers that were left had some potential, but turn out to be that interesting. thom swiss is a cultural studies type who was just starting his exploration of "pop portraits," and it just wasn't very well-formed; basically a non-art historian using rudimentary art historical techniques (like juxtaposing contemporary images with reference 'source' images from 'classical' art or whatever) to try to say "something" about the way images operate. i guess the something was that they resonate in reference to other images in an established cultural context, and that we perceive them ("celebrity" pop portraits) as cultural artifacts and never as art. (also he misreferenced the title of john berger's book throughout, which was a little weird.) then courtney young, despite her enticing title, did an informative but pretty surface reading of political incorrectness in beyonce's (passive?) "passing" [not so convincingly unique - mariah carey seems like a more interesting case, as was discussed in the q+a] and gwen's (substantially more disturbing?) "cultural vampirism - w/r/t the harajuku girls (also earlier no doubt stuff, but to lesser extreme.) the discussion was a little better; her friend in the audience had much more insightful things to say. well, i wish i'd gone to the "listening closets" panel on the indigo girls and ani difranco, like skelly did. but whatever.
the next two panels were fantastic. the black composers one was just a pure joy, especially joe schloss on sly stone and janet sarbanes on p-funk. schloss dissected the complex rhetoric of sly and the family's highly deliberate ("artificial") self-(mis)representation based on the manipulation of contrast - the contradictory image of the black hippy or 'freaky wild man' vs. genius frontman/puppetmaster; the communally-focused aesthetic of soul music blended with the confessional mode of rock; and particularly the disconnect between upbeat, uplifting music and sardonic, often bleak lyrics. he pointed out examples of bizarre self-reference (the weird "look at mister stewart!" interlude in "life"; the great "living, loving, overdubbing" in-joke in "sing a simple song") and went on to examine how sly couched his personal desperation and nihilism in shades of deceptive redemption. well, i hope he makes it into a soul-sides post, as insinuated, because then we can read it and enjoy it instead of me trying to summarize it. janet sarbanes had somewhat less of an interpretive agenda, but a very engaging presentation that shed a lot of light on george clinton's project of "redefining the terms of transcendence" and creating a metaphorical cosmology that functions as a radically subversive political "poetics."
[whoa. i wrote this forever ago and never posted it, because i never finished it. hands-down the most memorable thing at the conference was the very next panel; this one:
>> Girl Groups and Yacht Rockers: Male Sexuality and Its Discontents*
Moderator: Craig Werner
Venue: Demo Lab
Heather Stur, "Nobody Knows What's Goin' on in My Mind: The Girls Tell the Story"
Mike Cepress, "Pink Taffeta Gowns: Girl Groups and the Iconography of Sexual Identity"
Leah Mirakhor, "What a Fool Believes: The Enduring Popularity of Yacht Rock"
Charles Hughes, "From Little Eva to Lil Kim: Girl Groups in the Modern Mix"
very briefly, since nobody's likely to read this - well, this was i think unique in being a pre-organized panel; all of the speakers (save one maybe?) were craig werner's grad students from wisconsin. being grad students they were less polished than a lot of the presenters, but they were also closer to my age, which made it more exciting for me. also exciting is that they were talking about girl groups. except for ms. mirakhor, who didn't so much "give a talk" as "show clips from the 40-year old virgin for no apparent reason." (which isn't to say i didn't enjoy her presentation.) but the clear highlight was charles hughes' polemic about modern girl-pop acts (not very many are groups) and how they occupy a directly analogous place to the 'classic' girl groups of the '60s, and should be valued comparably. actually, it wasn't even so much his paper (although his impassioned delivery was definitely inspiring) as the q+a firestorm that followed, wherein the choir bristled at the notion that they were being preached to. this included christgau calling hughes out and telling him to "name names" (including guralnick, as i've alluded to elsewhere), and some kind of nasty intergenerational sniping that i don't entirely remember. (popism may be approaching gospel but it's clearly still a battlefield and a sore subject...)
anyway, i wish i'd written about it at the time, but that's the gist of what happened. i'd still really like charles hughes to send me a copy of his paper, maybe i'll bug him again.
oh yeah, and after that i heard the much more relaxed and low-key (thank goodness!) panel that featured a fairly silly and left-field discussion of rock novels, an entertaining exploration of ELO's out of the blue album, and the consummately enjoyable greil marcus talking about nothing especially interesting, but you didn't care because he's just so articulate and intelligent and kindly that he's a pure pleasure to hear regardless of the subject. his paper was about commercials, but most saliently he talked about enjoying the kinks and the our new orleans album.
*wow, i totally don't remember that bizarre subtitle, i think they might have ditched that before the conference.]
29 May 2006
way overdue, obv., but i've still got it in enough my head to do this, with my notes. so, saturday.
26 May 2006
(or, "go pop is the new keep it real")
from bedbug dave's latest sweeping historical account of teen-pop's development:
...So Europop Britney/boyband falling out of style by 2001…gave way to confessional rock [as the new style of choice for teen-pop]...part Lilith Fair, part nu-metal, part pop-punk, part Sheryl Crow, part Alanis Morrisette becoming the idol of so many performers at the same time post-Alanis producers of female pop/rock acts were finding a foothold in teenpop production (enter John Shanks). Also Tracy Bonham (covered by the V[eronica]s), Letters to Cleo (Kay Hanley in another short-lived paradigm shift to power pop 2003-4…), Liz Phair, Courtney Love. Who else?
who else? well, first of all, though i've mentioned this before...: jewel? s.t. erlewine gushes over 0304 the most (though seems like other people liked it too) - and i see there was one fleeting mention of it on the all-important (?) rolling teenpop thread, but i feel a need for more serious investigation. (ok, it's on order from half.) (incidentally, i'm curious to know more about mr. erlewine's deal. also why am i letting him convince me that i need to listen to sheryl crow albums?)
meanwhile, here's what i've got so far:
female 90's alt-rock performers least likely to undergo (teen)/pop makeovers:
• PJ Harvey
yeah, i just can't see this going well for anyone involved... um, i feel awkward just bringing it up.
• Tori Amos
although she'd do okay image-wise, and she's done more flirting with pop than many of her contemporaries (she's certainly no stranger to big-name dance remixes), she's just always taken herself way too seriously. even given something like "mr. zebra," she doesn't have a fraction of the sense of humor of phair or bonham for instance (or pj, even.) also her career trajectory was pretty much away from confessional and towards arty obscurantism, or something like that. for whatever that's worth.
she's just way too entrenched in anti-pop artiness at this point. which is a shame, really. i guess her being married to matt barney isn't as annoying as e.c. being married to diana krall, but - okay it's not really annoying, i just feel like they've both been keeping such a low profile. i wish they would unleash the combined force of their twisted creativeness on the unsuspecting public a lot more than they do (i haven't really heard anything about drawing restraint 9, have you?) anyway, i just don't see björk embracing her roots and making a pop move any time soon, even though it wouldn't have to involve that much shoehorning...
female 90's alt-rock performers overdue for (teen)/pop makeovers:
• Aimee Mann
she was at her best at her rockiest and most actively emotive (as opposed to passive-agressively so), on i'm with stupid (which, hell, also includes her best sensitive ballads.) bachelor no. 2 is pretty but not so engaging; lost in space flirts worrisomely with boringness; the forgotten arm is more promising but still too samey to keep me hooked... how brilliant would it be for aimee to recapture the excitement of, after all, her most commercially viable moment; breaking out of the tepid so-called rootsy so-called 'beatle-based pop-rock' rut; letting loose with her anger (er, about her happy marriage to like-minded songwriter michael penn?...nevermind); teaching the lyrically lackluster among angstmonger teens a thing or two about caustic cleverness(!). of course, she's certainly too comfy with her npr/xpn bobo audience and 'unjustly marginalized artiste' niche to contemplate anything of the sort. oh well.
well i've already covered this a little bit too, but i want to bring it up because 1) it actually seems pretty conceivable and 2) it would be so awesome to have a return to the mode of their first three albums, which seem to have lost any of the critical interest and significance they once enjoyed. this could work as a shirley manson solo gig, a la gwen - which could be interesting, depending on who she wanted to work with - but it would be cool to keep butch vig on board, and he's certainly overqualified as far as unabashedly mainstream pop/rock production goes.
of course, garbage have always been pop, not to mention fundamentally adolescent, so i guess what i'm really talking about is a more "modern" dance or specifically teen-niche reimagining. come to think of it, though, wasn't bleed like me effectively megaproduced pop-punk, ashlee-style? oh right, it was. hold on. okay, i'm listening to it now... actually, maybe this does sound better than i thought a year ago. it gets more interesting as it goes on, which i may not have given it much chance to do before. either way, it's a total retread of mid-90s post-grunge. but that is what we're talking about after all. i was going to say i wish they had kept up with the electronic elements, but actually they're still there, just more as textural sheen than noise-candy gizmo effects (ooh, i'm digging the bridge on track 4.) well maybe this requires some more consideration... the extreme clash of opinions here (well, the user comments especially) may suggest some worthwhile fodder for discussion. (also, as far as the confessional mode goes - this has it in spades, which i guess is sort of a new thing for them.)
come on, how much would you kill for her to return to pop? like basically everyone else i'm considering here, she was after all a popster originally. well, i'm not sure about the sugarcubes exactly (though, yeah, why not), let alone the weirdo band she was in at like 12 with rosy cheek facepaint in the documentary i saw in reykjavik... but, whatever, when i played debut for my mom, she thought it sounded like michael jackson. ("big time sensuality" at least.) but bjöpop c. 2006 could be even totally weirder, and all the better for it. i'm thinking something on the level of daphne and celeste's perverse and willful absurdity, but with a bjöian slant which would of course be very different; equally playful, but much less snarky, more if not necessarily more abstract.
i'm sorry - although i will admit that vespertine is absolutely gorgeous, i've felt a kind of emptiness in everything she's done post-homogenic; she's certainly gotten more attention in the last five years or so as a celebrity oddball than as a musician. (although apparently medulla was her highest-charting album, so maybe i'm wrong.) but don't you sense the potential for boundary-smashing that could accompany a populist effort from her now that she's such a recognizable public figure? if she wanted to, she could totally turn herself into a bizarro madonna.
(also - homogenic in particular has some stunning examples of confessional lyrics.)
well, i don't really know what i'm talking about any more.
other contenders include lisa loeb and ani difranco (weirdly plausible - well, what else is she doing that's worthwhile? being "jazzy"?)
20 May 2006
whooo! just finished my first attempt at a full-length live-to-cassette continuous dj mix. full-length in this case means 60 minutes (in two unconnected 30 minute "sets" that end pretty much aprubtly when the tape gives out. just like the end of a real club night, at least in places where the lights come on at two.) gotta build up the stamina, y'know.
i did cut in to nice up the end of side one (fade to treble), and there are a few spots on side two where i got perfectionistic and cut in to fix a botched transition, but it's basically all live, and there's nothing that i couldn't theoretically do in a live dj set (although there was some amount of advance planning involved - especially with the side-opening 'live mashups,' less so towards the end of each side, which is why the selections get random. the tape was maybe 25% improvised. and 90% beatmatched. with 75% success. um yeah. (actually, even some of the nasty ones sound kind of okay listening to it now.) 95+% danceable(!)
so the brief for this mix was to combine soul with electro-pop (or what-have-you) in as integrated a fashion as possible - not so easy, because the feels are often pretty different (which can be cool), and the tempos even more so (more of a problem.) mastering (volume) levels are an issue too. anyway, i am in love with these two genres, and i'm trying to figure out whether or not my poptopian electro-soul-dance-clublove dreams are really tenable.
you want evidence?:
love's in need of love today - stevie wonder vs. as serious as your life - four tet
i'd rather be an old man's sweetheart - candi staton
who's that girl - robyn
dumb dumb - rachel stevens
how long do i have to wait? - sharon jones
i need it just as bad as you - laura lee
i'm a slave 4 u - britney spears
something isn't right - herbert
do the funky chicken - rufus thomas
here in the night - kelley polar
crash and burn girl - robyn
there's no other way - blur //
sing a simple song - budos band vs. drop it like it's hot - snoop dogg
mr. big stuff - jean knight
secret garden - rachel stevens
walk a mile - willie hightower
talking about my love - james hunter
freak like me - sugababes
boyfriend - ashlee simpson
jump - girls aloud
everything i'm not - veronicas
i think we're alone now - tommy james and the shondells
an introduction to ghosts - solvent
packt like sardines... - radiohead
otto's journey - mylo
time and place - lee moses //
i'm making a couple copies to distribute in new york this weekend to cassette-friendly parties. lmk if you wanna, k?
13 May 2006
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.
10 May 2006
saw an attractive flyer for something called absinthe drinkers that described themselves as "litpop" among other things (i think more spoken word than music.) i like it - but i'm still working it out. definitely not the same thing (or analogue) as lit rock.
well in procrastEMPinating about the big conference-out, so here are some scattered musical thoughts from my head.
• am i the only person who thinks it's perfectly normal and reasonable for paul simon and brian eno to be collaborators? it makes perfect sense if unless you take the most reductionist view of their respective oeuvres (like, music for airports vs. "mrs. robinson" or something), and they seem to be getting all this attention for being an unlikely pairing. (would it be like this if the album wasn't called surprise?) despite simon's apparent uncoolness, they don't fall that far from each other on the artiness vs. Populism spectrum, once you take into account eno's production work. and they were behind the two most ubiquitous pop/rock albums of the late eighties. i'll stop there. better question - is it actually any good? people who say so seem to be apologists for you're the one, hands-down his blandest album. where's the capeman love? also - i haven't seen the real thing yet, and sometimes this stuff just doesn't translate, but the jpegs i've seen of the cover make it look vaguely hideous and possibly disturbing.
• i'll have to report further about the rest of the babylon springs ep once i've processed it more, but i just want to say how nice i think it is for the mountain goats to cover [trembling blue stars'] "sometimes i still feel the bruise." not because it's well-suited to them in particular, or even because it's necessarily that good a cover (they don't really add much to the song, although it makes a nice bass feature for peter hughes.) i'm just glad they're nodding approval of the song, and bringing it to a new (and, er, australian) audience. because it is a terrific song, not even so much qua song, but as a beautiful and unassuming expression of a common sentiment - strangely potent regret at the absence of a one-time potential(?) lover/friend(?) - that isn't usually presented so simply and adeptly. maybe what really sets it apart is its politeness. the resigned tone and mincingly precise grammar ("i'm under no illusion as to what i meant to you") feel almost meek but don't undercut the sincerity of the emotion; the song somehow manages to avoid coming off as self-pitying or saccharine (to my ears anyway.) and usefully, it's as vague about details of the situation as it is specific and resonant about the accompanying emotion, which makes it even easier to identify with (there are at least two or three people the song could conceivably be about for me, though one most obvious.) so it's both general and personal.
• on the women-in-[nineties]-rock roots of 00s "confessional" teen-pop. (per bedbug dave's "there's a reason the veronicas cover 'mother mother'") just want to stake a claim for garbage as underheralded and underappreciated in a number of different areas, but particularly for making bold strides in the field of unabashedly poppy and ear-candy-centric "rock" and also maybe pioneering some of the emotional terrain that has become more prevalent. i feel like they had a chance for something beautiful with their new album last year, to seize on a more open-eared pop-friendly moment and maybe regain some of the status they enjoyed in their version 2.0 heyday, with a historical reconsideration to boot, but instead they retreated to boring post-grunge territory. this can be hashed out more in the future. also - what about jewel? i'm kind of curious to check out her dance-pop album (0304).
• on the basis of two listens so far... not really feeling the gnarles barkley. it really doesn't seem that catchy. the vf cover is pointless and annoying. i still don't get any kind of consistent identity or aesthetic sense from danger mouse - grey album yeah whatever dangerdoom mostly sounded like doom to me although it was fun demon days i enjoy but a lot of it just seems like hip-hopped out damon albarn - btw i <3 alex ross for shouting out to damon's compositional tendency in his emp paper - still the most dynamic and recognizable and interesting thing i've heard from him is the dm and gemini album which everyone seems to have forgotten about. so anyway i was basically approaching this as a new cee-lo record, which i figured was can't-miss on its own. but so far it seems to be somehow accentuating the annoying aspects of his voice. i dunno, it just seems cluttered and clunky. but i guess i'll listen some more.
03 May 2006
[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.