Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Pop Conference 2005 / Experience Music Project, Seattle, WA / April 14-17, 2005

(Better late than never, right?)

ATTENTION PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT ROCK CRITICS, ROCK CRITIC FANBOYS/GIRLS, POP MUSIC SCHOLARS OR MY FRIENDS: Move along, nothing to see here. Go play outside. I hear sunlight is good for you.

The reason why I haven’t been updating this blog too much recently is that my life has been consumed first by preparations for the 2005 EMP Pop Conference and then catching up on everything I missed because of it. This annual gathering of journalists, academics and plain old geeks (many of us fit in more than one of these categories) takes place at the pop music museum known as the Experience Music Project, a horrendously ugly building from the outside that is really cool inside. The 2005 conference’s theme was “Music as Masquerade: Poseurs, Playas, and Beyond,” so we all gave presentations having to do with that topic (some more loosely than others). I like to call EMP “Rock Critic Fantasy Camp” because we sorta get to pretend like we’re rock stars for a few days. Also, we stay up late drinking and gossiping and then whine to conference organizers / camp counselors Ann Powers and Eric Weisbard about how tired/hung over we are and how our papers suck.

Soo… here’s the rundown.


At Thursday night’s Keynote Plenary, Penn’s Gunthrey Ramsey Jr. said, “Sometimes we tend to over-theorize things.” That pretty much sums up EMP. But hey, us music geeks get off on over-theorizing. It makes us feel important. And it’s fun!

The Keynote featured a whole bunch of people talking about minstrelsy, with a focus on Eric Lott’s landmark book Love and Theft. (Lott, by the way, looks like an aging glam rock star, with his wavy blonde hair, goatee and earrings. Not what I expected at all.) Some of the panelists droned on and on, some said meaningful stuff. Sasha Frere-Jones’ plane was delayed, so he submitted his comments via email. I had one of those stoner “whoa, totally” moments when he talked about how it was weird that both Diplo's and DJ Shadow's artist albums are whitebread ambient background music, but their DJ sets are all funky beats. Oh, and he said something like “political correctness is the condom of pop culture.” Genius.


Unfortunately, I accidentally slept through a bunch of stuff I wanted to see, like Julianne Shepherd’s Courtney Love presentation. The blogging panel was a bit disappointing, if only because it’s such a huge topic that it would need its own conference to even scratch the surface. One accidental revelation: three out of the five panelists haven’t talked to their fathers in ten years. Whoa. That made me think… maybe we really do turn to music to fill some sort of deep psychological void. Another stoner moment.

Next up was superfriend/EMP roomie Daphne Carr’s ridonkulously good presentation about Polish disco music a.k.a. Disco-Polo a.k.a. polka that grew up listening to WKTU. Or WKTU listeners raised on polka. If you’ve never heard this stuff, your life is incomplete. Daphne was followed by Nate Harrison, who recorded his entire presentation on a vinyl acetate disc. So he sat there and stared off into space while his voice taught us all about the “Amen” break and how drum n bass culture is based entirely around six seconds of sound. It made me really, really want to listen to drum n bass.

I moseyed on over to the “Lessons in Mayhem” panel, which had nothing to do with the Norwegian death metal band and everything to do with Matmos/Soft Pink Truth/Pitchfork cutie Drew Daniel talking about this bizarre Germs “reunion” concert he went to featuring actors playing the Germs and the real live surviving Germs themselves. Drew’s paper also featured the conference’s greatest phrase: “a discursive smoothie of formaldehyde and lube.” Ooh, I get shivers just typing that. He showed a video of him getting a Germs Burn from Don Bolles, too. Punk fucking rock.

Greil Marcus had to follow that, and I actually felt bad for him. His presentation was kinda dull, with him droning on about various covers of blues songs and describing a scene from Ghost World in detail. Why didn’t you just play the clip, man? His thesis—that the most successful blues covers are those that are disrespectful—is right-on, but I wish he had included some sound samples to liven things up.

Marcus’ star was further eclipsed by David Thomas, the ginormous Pere Ubu / Rocket From the Tombs frontman, who delivered a spectacular rant about Ernie Anderson, a.k.a. Ghoulardi, who hosted late-night monster movie marathons on TV in Ohio in the ‘60s. Veins popping, hands shaking, voice cracking, he bellowed about how Ghoulardi introduced all the Ohio proto-punks to media manipulation. At one point, he exclaimed, “My eyes are sweating!” There was also PowerPoint involved. When he finished, he collapsed in his chair. I, too, felt exhausted, like I’d just witnessed an entire Pere Ubu performance. During the Q + A, Thomas was in full-on bitch mode, dissing bands like the Ramones for being too conservative and generally chewing out anybody asking questions. One guy asked if his Jehovah’s Witness upbringing influenced his music. His reply? “NO.”

The “My Other Life” panel started off with moderator Dave Dederer talking about being a has-been rock star (he’s one-third of the Presidents of the United States of America) and a consultant for a public affairs firm. Then this guy from Les Sans Culottes did some impressive air guitaring. Coincidentally (or not), he was followed by Ted Widmer, former member of the Upper Crust. Fake French joke band-o-rama! Widmer told the incredible story of going from being a Boston indie rocker to a speechwriter for President Clinton. Apparently, the FBI thoroughly investigated him, searching his old song lyrics for treasonous sentiments. Yowza. My other superfriend/EMP roomie Sara Sherr had to follow that, but she held her own quite well with her tales of debauched nights with the Philly drag musical comedy troupe Dumpsta Playas. The video footage of the Dumpstas’ performances was hilarious, particularly a scene involving an extremely lifelike dildo and a hole in a bathroom wall. My only complaint: more video of Sara as Mrs. Miller, please!

Edie Sedgwick closed the panel with a performance of his/her Martin Sheen song and some theorizing about the Deeper Meaning Of It All, blah blah blah. But by that point, I’d had enough brain calisthenics for the day, and all I could think was, Edie Sedgwick is balding!”


Up bright and early for the 9:00 am “Scenester Poses” panel, which started off with Phil Freeman saying some very rockist things about pop starlets wearing metal t-shirts. Then some girl blabbed on and on about ageism and rock writing. She played these sound clips from interviews she’d done with big shot writers, but she had obviously recorded them on some shitty mini-cassette deck so they sounded like crap and were totally useless. Luckily, Alex Richmond brought us all back from the edge of boredom with her examination of Insane Clown Posse and their fans. She showed a mesmerizing DVD clip featuring one long tracking shot of an endless line of Juggalos. It made me really, really want to listen to Insane Clown Posse. I guess that means her presentation was a success.

Most definitely a success was Joe Schloss’s examination of breakdancing culture, complete with a live demonstration by the presenter! For a nerdy white Tufts professor, dude can sure bust a move. Hopefully, everybody will remember the breakdancing and nobody will remember that girl’s shitty sound clips.

I skipped Xgau’s supposedly amazing paper on the Coasters to check out the “Making the Scene” panel. Kimberly Chun talked about genderfucking San Francisco art-punks. Evelyn McDonnell expounded on Miami booty bass, but she made the unfortunate decision of playing the 2004 MTV Video Music Awards while she spoke. How am I supposed to pay attention to anything else in this world when a shirtless Usher is confessing his sins to me? McDonnell also played a clip of a booty bass song about Janet Reno, which is now my new favorite song. (I downloaded it and passed it on to Matthew, so now you can find it on Fluxblog.) Then Ned Sublette said a whole lot of cool shit about New Orleans and the Mardi Gras Indians and slavery and Master P. I can’t remember his thesis, but his talk induced several stoner moments.

After buying lunch from that same famous Seattle Center food court where Ann Powers once worked, I caught a bit of the unremarkable academia/journalism roundtable discussion. Then I snuck back to the hotel for a nap. I returned to the EMP in time to catch the tail end of Lavinia Greenlaw’s memoir of being a disco queen turned punk rock girl and Jessica Hopper’s tale of being a grunge rock poser because she wanted to impress some boy she had a crush on in high school, and how grunge lead her to riot grrrl and her calling in life. It sadly reminded me of how I started listening to Fatboy Slim and Daft Punk because of a high-school crush, but I guess I still am an electronic dance music poser. (And You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby is still a great album, I don’t care what anybody says.)

The “How to Rock Like a Black Feminist Critic” panel was the absolute highlight of the conference. It was like taking a breath of fresh air for the first time, then being punched in the stomach, then taking another breath, then being punched again. Daphne Brooks talked about how the key to dismantling rockism lies in embracing the perspectives of people like black feminists. Laina Dawes shared the horrors of being a black woman at metal concerts in Canada. (At a Judas Priest show, a biker guy grabbed her black, female friend by the hair and shouted, “I gotta get me one of these!”) Sonnet Retman argued for the canonization of Nona Hendryx. And the mighty Kandia Crazy Horse went off on Mick Jagger. Everybody got all riled up and inspired to Change the World, but of course that’s not going to happen. As soon as we left the building, the old rules still applied.

We all walked over to some funky performance space called On the Boards, where Ann had organized an evening of twelve-minute sets by various acts. I caught IQU’s delightful electro-pop medley (Theremin! Vocoder!) and El Vez’s sublimely trashy “Mexican Elvis” schtick. Dude can rock a fuzzy leopard-print catsuit like nobody’s business. Note to self: go see El Vez play next time he’s in town.

Then United State of Electronica’s publicist magically appeared out of nowhere, and he whisked us away to U.S.E.’s sold-out show at the V.E.R.A. Project, an all-ages venue that sells candy and soda at the concession stand. Joy! I was in a grumpy mood before the show, running my mouth about how U.S.E. make me want to kill puppies when I listen to them for too long, but the Grinch quickly disappeared once I saw the mass of adorable Hot Topic teenagers (and ecstatic ILM regulars) bouncing around to “Vamos a la Playa.” I guess the way to truly experience this band is live in their hometown, with an umbrella being passed through the crowd during “Umbrella of Love.” Oh, there was also a love train. And I’m pretty sure the keyboardist was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Jesus on it. The show ended with scores of giddy fans bumrushing the stage to bop next to their heroes. As we were waiting for a cab outside after the show, a car drove buy with a guy hanging out the window shouting, “U-S-E! U-S-E!” I was high on Vanilla Coke, so I started shouting, too.


Due to the unusually high number of proposals for this year’s Pop Conference, EMP had to hold a couple of panels on Sunday morning. Bad idea. I stayed awake through Mica Hilson’s talk about how spookily white ‘80s synth-pop was and Joseph McCombs’ examination of straight guy singers taking on gay personae in song, but I nodded off during Gabriel Solis’ Tom Waits spiel and Griffin Woodworth’s presentation about Prince. Sorry, guys.

Then it was off to the airport.

Some closing thoughts…

The best thing about EMP is the schmoozing. You get to share ideas with like-minded folks from all over the world, and they don’t treat you like a space alien because you’re a music geek. It genuinely feels like a community. And unlike ILM or a mailing list, you are having real conversations with real live people standing right in front of you. This is something we all should do more often, don’t you think?