I spent this past weekend at the Experience Music Project (EMP) Pop Conference in Seattle, Wash., an annual gathering of journalists, academics, and writers of all stripes to talk about pop music with varying degrees of seriousness. If you were there, you might have known what most of them were talking about, or you might not have. Myself, I spent most of the past seven years listening to Shaggy (“It Wasn’t Me”), Outkast’s Stankonia, The Beatles Anthology 3 (Disc 2), and music that appeared in the Star Wars films.
“It Wasn’t Me” may have been discussed this year at some point, but I did not see all 160 of the twenty-minute presentations held from Thursday through Sunday and cannot say for sure. Among the topics I did see discussed were the Toronto reggae scene, the British government’s legal battle against ravers in the early ‘90s, French hip-hop and ghetto riots, the enduring blackness (not, crucially, gayness) of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” Wild West reenactment subcultures in Central Europe, and the enduring rock metaphor of Yoko Ono (going all the way back to proto-Ono Clara Schumann!). Bloggers liveblogged, iPhones were tickled, MacBooks were pecked at. People had fun.
There is something vaguely horrible about all this. Q: How many music critics does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: No music critic can screw in a light bulb, but one will tell you what you’re doing wrong if you do. I have harbored, and continue to harbor, a deep suspicion that pop music criticism is deeply, aggressively useless, entertaining at best and overreaching and trivializing at worst. Is it reductive, or even wrong, to talk about race through Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse, to think about the Iraq war through soldiers’ iPods, or to close-read Radiohead’s Amnesiac through the lens of directed forgetting of rape and war? Does this kind of discourse benefit Winehouse or Thom Yorke or their music?
People whom I had only known through their writing were in attendance, people like Carl Wilson, Oliver Wang, Ned Raggett, Ann Powers, and Charles Aaron. Most of these people were different in person than I had imagined them: taller, paunchier, scragglier, better-spoken, worse-spoken. I suppose this kind of thing is what writing, like pop music, is all about. There was much hugging and bending among this particular crowd, a chummy bunch who probably went out to swap old NME cassettes over beers after each day’s panels. I only just acquired C86, so I probably would not have been much fun at one of these beer things.
I gave a talk on Friday morning about a Swedish pop group called the Tough Alliance. Big-time critic-journo Robert Christgau was speaking on John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change” at the same time as my panel, and so my presentation was poorly attended. Here is a paragraph from my paper, quoted gratuitously and out of context:
“A friend said Henning shouldn’t mope. Living with pee and em and little sis can be a nuisance, Henning had decided early on, before moving in with a girl called Aaby, but his humiliating and vitriolic split with Aaby three months later finally, it seems, whittled his options down to either returning to his parents or getting away, far away. So Henning lived with his grandmother for a spell, listening to Jimi Hendrix and doing pushups on the floor of the den after everyone else had gone to sleep. Henning describes the sky the day he finally flew Lukförting for the hills as ‘upholstered, with clouds with texture and weight of a chair with heavy padding.’ His current music is ‘Ice Cube – Steady Mobbin’’; his current mood is ‘Cheezed,’ spelled with a ‘z.’”
I had prepared a few slides for my talk, mostly to facilitate the playing of musical clips. I thought this fairly advanced, but other presenters that weekend did better than I in this regard, mostly notably a joyously apocalyptic presentation on M.I.A. that spun Jonathan Richman, bird flu, Black-Scholes, and of course Ms. Arulpragasam into a whirligig of an audiovisual display that played more like Godard than PowerPoint. A talk on noise music ended with an unexpected blast of the heady stuff that served as the 90-second final slide of her PowerPoint. Robert Christgau laughs heartily and grandly when intellectually tickled by one of these things. You know you’ve done good in the world when you hear that laugh during your presentation.
The EMP’s Frank Gehry-designed building spills outward from the base of the Space Needle, a puddle of colorful metal and glass. The Needle itself is chintzier than I had remembered, less a shining beacon of modernity these days than a glamorous municipal floor lamp. In that sense, it was a perfect setting for the conference, itself a little gauzy, whimsical, and loaded with bold claims to being “the best thing that’s ever happened to serious consideration of pop music,” as Christgau says. The EMP moonlights as a pretty neat music museum, pulling in young families who want to see exhibits about Ritchie Valens and J Mascis after riding the Ferris wheel and eating pancakes in the rotating restaurant at the top of the Space Needle. I’m not sure if any of these families and school tour groups knew that the conference was going on.
The best talks I saw that weekend were thoughtful, unpretentious, and honest. None of these small, unpredictable presentations claimed to have all the answers. There was a deeply reverent attempt to unpack enigmatic singer-poet Labi Siffre, whose 1975 “I Got The” was sampled by Eminem for “My Name Is.” It was a wise and worldly talk from the ghostwriter for the biographies of Ray Charles, Etta James, Marvin Gaye, and Cornel West, a lovely, elegiac account of Sam Cooke’s life and music. Listening to one writer’s account of Gnarls Barkley’s “St. Elsewhere” and how it helped her cope with her mother’s death, I teared up.
Seattle hip-hop duo the Blue Scholars gave a lunchtime performance on Saturday in a luminous dreamspace in the EMP appropriately called “Sky Church.” Robert Christgau stood perfectly still in the middle of the crowd of roof-raising local kids, chewing on a sandwich and clutching a tote bag tightly to his side as he stared up at the Scholars. Arbitrary dicta for pop music writers: a good pop music writer tries to understand the world on pop’s terms, how the big, unknowably big, features of a time and a place filter interestingly into the tiny, goofy textures of pop, and vice versa. A good pop writer is still a little full of awe and wonder at this whole process. A good pop writer never takes for granted that his audience knows that he loves music. Popular music is funny, dumb, trifling, and, most importantly, popular and should be written about as such.
At a Saturday night after party in the nearby home of Idolator scribe Michelangelo Matos, I had a few drinks as a DVD of old “Soul Train” episodes played on a small television in the room. Small bits of paper with printed directions to this particular party had circulated toward the end of Saturday’s talks, with promises of booze and eats. To a carefully curated selection of jams, balding critics got down, haters ate little pieces of cheese, and hangers-on hung on. The latter demographic was mostly comprised of local writers whose papers had not been accepted to this year’s conference, but who still wanted to soak the whole thing up. There were ho-hos served like cocktail shrimp in a little glass bowl on the coffee table. Globe and Mail writer Carl Wilson consumed a good many PBRs. We chatted for a bit about punk and parliamentary democracy in Matos’ kitchen. I’m not sure either understood the other at that point. This is where criticism happens I suppose; it bursts forth unexpectedly from the continuous stewing pot of culture, people, and words. Amy Phillips of Pitchfork was at the party, also. You like Pitchfork, don’t you?
I did the Seattle thing for a few hours between the last panel of the conference and my redeye back to New Jersey Sunday night. I rode the monorail, had a waffle cone at the Seattle Center, walked through the fish market along the bay. The Dalai Lama was also in Seattle that weekend, though he did not make an appearance to hear about Jimmie Rodgers or mariachis at the conference. He may have also had a cone at Seattle Center; I wouldn’t know. Robert Christgau was on my flight back, wearing a Princeton Record Exchange hat and sleeping most of the way. I did not fall asleep in my 9:30 AM class, though after this weekend of light and sound, I would have liked to.