19 April 2009


"Rock 'n Pop Swirl" – well, that's as good a way to describe it as any. [n.b. that this flavor, on offer at a Seattle Baskin-Robbins, features green grape and purple green apple sherbet.] Here's what I wrote for my rather ill-fated Citypaper blogs about EMP. (Electrifying Conclusion TK.]

EMP: the Project. the Music. the Experience.

Each April, scores of music critics, journalists, academics of various stripes, and assorted nerdy sorts descend upon the Frank Gehry-wrought undulating chrome of the Experience Music Project in downtown Seattle for the EMP Pop Conference, a vaguely academic-styled weekend of papers, panels, and presentations about all things pop. That's "pop" in the broadest sense, mind, which might mean anything from techno, T-Pain, and reggaetón (the subject of a panel this year) to honky-tonk country, big band swing, and pre-war minstrelsy. For this year's 8th annual event, the theme is "Dance Music Sex Romance: Pop and the Body Politic." (That's a Prince ref, in case ya missed it.) I'm thrilled to be here; should be a fun weekend!

EMPirical Observations 2009: Day One
Nona Hendryx: Then and Now (top to bottom)

The conference kicked off this evening with an intriguing keynote conversation with veteran musician Nona Hendryx, conducted by Daphne Brooks of Princeton and Sonnet Retman of the University of Washington. Hendryx makes an entirely fascinating figure, especially in this context, not so much because she's a legend, per se, but simply because she's lived such an incredible amount and variety of popular music's history: from the girl group era of the early '60s, as part of Philly's own Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles (an experience she described as "a large pajama party"), to swinging London in the heyday of Carnaby Street, to New York in the groovily liberated disco '70s (by which time the group had morphed into glam-funk fantasists Labelle) and the arty, AIDS-plagued eighties (when she collaborated with Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, and Prince, among others, and launched her own Afro-futurist, avant-rock solo career.) And that's not even mentioning the "audio tutu" she's been experimenting with recently (an attempt, as she explains it, to become more of a cyborg.)

Add all that to the fact that she's black, female, and queer, and you could easily devote the whole weekend of intellectual discourse to dissecting just her life and work.

A generous hour and half proved hardly enough time to delve into that wealth of experience. The interviewers, fumbling with the powerpoint and fawning, at considerable length, over the current Labelle reunion, only managed to bring the discussion up through the mid-seventies before cutting to Q&A mode. Brooks' questions, while insightful and well-informed, sometimes tended toward overly academic cult-crit pontification – that's only customary for this conference, of course, but it didn't always seem fair to the mildly bewildered Hendryx, who offered up a few responses along the lines of "well, we just made music because that was what you did in those days." Still, she had plenty of perspective to offer, on the changing cultural and social currents of her times, and the education she picked up through collaborations and encounters with innumerable legendary musicians and producers.

It was a joy just to watch her relive some of those memories, even when (doubtless unlike any of the presenters who will follow her this weekend) she couldn't quite summon up the words to describe them.

EMPirical Observations 2009: Day Two
a (one-man) committee, working on the evolution of control

Today was the first full day of the EMP Pop conference, an annual gathering of rock critics, journalists, academics, and other musos. Last night's Nona Hendryx keynote (covered in great detail here), in addition to raising some resonant themes and offering some unique historical insight, made a very appropriate keynote in the way it hinted at the conference's fundamental strangeness. The subtly incongruous tone of the discussion, and the slight but tangible disconnect in mode between questions and answers, pointed up the tensions between conference-goers' often highly analytical manner of inquiry and the generally unacademic, and arguably anti-intellectual, nature of the subject material at hand: pop music and rock 'n' roll.

Similarly, many of today's presentations seemed, in various ways, intentional and otherwise, to embody some of the very themes they explored. Most obviously, and brilliantly, Douglas Wolk's presentation on the bizarrely disembodied activity of DJing, entitled "My Other Body is a Temple," enacted its thesis with striking literalness. Wolk never spoke, but instead "DJed" his paper in a bizarrely disembodied way, by playing recordings of other people's voices reading his words, over accompanying musical selections, as well as pressing play on a couple of highly entertaining archival video clips.

The inimitable Greil Marcus, a luminary not just as a music writer but as a writer period, shared a ruminative and highly poetic description of two seemingly unrelated artworks: Nan Goldin's "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency," a slide-show of several hundred images juxtaposed with a carefully selected soundtrack of songs, and Lonnie Mack's little-known 1963 soul ballad "Why" (whose emotional resonance he described in aching detail and in real-time, as the song played, to incredibly potent effect), thereby creating his own sublimely artful juxtaposition.

On a more troublesome note, a promising-looking panel addressing issues of gender and sexuality in electronic dance music culture, among other things, threatened to exemplify some of the very problems it was raising, in a highly uncomfortable manner, as the three male DJs/electronic musicians at the table seemed to visually and vocally overwhelm the lone female, Swedish DJ and sociologist Anna Gavanas. For better or worse, I missed the beginning of the panel, which apparently included Gavanas speaking while a track that prominently and repeatedly sampled the word "penis" played in the background, after an unfortunate quote from Danger Mouse about beatmatching being "for cunts." (Er, ahem.) But I did catch part of a largely unrelated segment wherein the mad-scientist-looking Mark Gunderson, a.k.a. TradeMark G of the Evolution Control Committee (creator of the delirious "Rocked by Rape"), gave a demonstration of his experimental live DJing interface, the "thimbletron," which involves a infrared LEDs attached to each of his fingers, a pair of Wii Motes, and a visible-to-the-crowd rear-projection screen. (see above)

Other presenters took the more traditionaly approach of just reading papers, illustrating them with audio clips where appropriate, which, to be sure, can still make for pretty provocative material. For instance, Robert Fink's witty and intriguing, if somewhat conjectural thesis on the "masochistic lover" persona in Marvin Gaye's early 1960s work, which drew on Freudian psychoanalysis, lyrical close readings, and musicological analysis (e.g. handclaps that sound like whips) – but resisted focusing on Gaye's famously fraught biography.

But the day's most exciting panel was also one of its least predictable, which deviated considerably from the standard text-based argument format in ways that fit right in with the physicality central to the conference theme. The "Rap Memes" panel opened with a tantalizing if frustratingly underdeveloped exploration of sexual entitlement in dirty south hip-hop from Tamara Palmer in the form of an 11-minute audio track mashing up bits of the myriad recent pop hits containing the phrase "It ain't trickin' if ya got it" with commentary from anonymous YouTube users. From there we shifted to John Caramanica and Sean Fennessy's tag-team joyride through the highlights of the (as they argued) preternaturally brilliant career-to-date of Soulja Boy Tell'Em, mostly via a series of YouTube videos, all of which can be found on this Tumblr. Finally, writer/performance artist Holly Bass presented "Pay Purview," a piece incorporating sources from Sir Mix-a-Lot to Tina Turner to a documentary on the Hottentot Venus, which involved Bass gyrating in a gold lamé outfit with a comically massive "booty ball" posterior – check out this video clip, cuz words can't really do it justice (caution – starts with annoying test tone):

To close out the day, Ann Powers conducted a breathless interview with hit-making songwriter extraordinaire Diane Warren. Contra her notoriety as the doyenne of schlocky, extravagantly over-emotional power-ballads (her catalog includes "Un-Break My Heart," "I Don't Want to Miss A Thing," and numerous numbers by Michael Bolton and Celine Dion, as well as Milli Vanilli and Ace of Base), Warren turned out to be delightfully unsentimental, sarcastic, and potty-mouthed, with an endless string of stories.

Quite a whirlwind of the pop world in one day... tomorrow I do it all over again, and see if I can keep my brain from completely overloading.

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