Of course hipsters hate the EMP Pop Conference. A balding middle-aged dork glancing at his note cards can't do justice to "Ace of Spades" the way Motörhead intended. And just imagine if the subject is Gordon Lightfoot's lost masterpiece.
But music and academia can coexist. And just as cranking the volume makes a song rock harder, the more the eggheads turn up their absurd combo of Lemmy and higher learning, the better. Thank heavens for the Pop Conference's over-the-top academic pop.
Music safeguarded me through the hell of high school. Singing the Buzzcocks' "I Believe" at a senior talent show, banging my fist on the stage while wailing "there is no love in this world anymore," ranks among my fondest memories. So when I finally escaped suburbia, what did I pursue as my college major? Music.
Bad call. Think nothing can drain the drama out of Beethoven? Try listening to his Ninth Symphony in a freezing-cold lecture hall, then being instructed to accurately notate certain chords you just heard on a sheet of staff paper. At eight in the morning.
Yet a funny thing happened after graduation. The two seemingly contradictory skills sets I had developed—the ability to condense complex works of art into painstakingly footnoted term papers and my knack for extolling the virtues of any UK recording artist with an asymmetrical haircut—dovetailed. I never planned on writing about music professionally, but after I used the word "timbre" while mouthing off about Siouxsie Sioux from behind an NYC deli counter, a magazine editor offered me a gig. I have never looked back. Reviewing free records and concerts sure as hell beats coming home stinking of mayonnaise.
When the EMP Pop Conference began in 2002, I imagined a tiny cadre of recluses splitting hairs over an anointed canon of artists and albums. In 2005, the first year I extensively participated, what I initially encountered was even worse. I moderated a panel featuring something called "Girl on Girl: Bio-Queens, Fat Femmes, and the Re-radicalizing of the Gender Fuck." The title was its high point. Sorry, but I don't care if you're discussing Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria or the merits of Sylvester versus RuPaul. It takes an especially cloistered nerd to ferry the glittery realm of cross-dressing straight to Yawnsville.
But later that same weekend, jazz critic Nate Chinen blew me away at "Do Ya Think I'm Savvy? Rockers, Crooners, and the Hijacking of the Great American Songbook." His informative survey was accompanied by a nonstop soundtrack, tightly choreographed to sync up perfectly with his banter. It worked because not only was his subject well researched, but he communicated his excitement like a rock band would: cranked up.
Ultimately, that carefully calibrated mix of razzle-dazzle AND inspired research is what makes or breaks a presentation at the Pop Conference. All the esoteric citations in the world are no substitute for the raw excitement of seeing a grown man like Yeti publisher Mike McGonigal gushing unapologetically about the glory of Electric Light Orchestra's Out of the Blue before his peers. The wise participant leaves the PowerPoint in the meeting room, allows the subject matter room to breathe, and relies on hand gestures, moxie, and communal enthusiasm to carry the day.
And if they don't, and that discussion of the Bush Tetras or dancehall turns out to be a snooze? Nobody is forcing you to stay. That's the real beauty of the Pop Conference: There is no quiz at the end.
For a complete list of events, go to www.emplive.org/education/index.asp?categoryID=26
The EMP Pop Conference gathers some of the sharpest minds in music criticism (as well as our own Charles Mudede) together for a brain-busting weekend of theories, research, and poetics on popular music. It's sort of a fantasy realm where nerddom and fandom are the same thing, and for the first time in its six years, it's free to the public. There's an impossible amount of information to digest, but here are some picks to get you started. ERIC GRANDY
"Collapsing Distance: The Love-Song of the Wanna-Be, or, The Fannish Auteur"
Thurs April 19, 7—9 pm.
In his novel The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem captures the conflicted feeling of fandom—a combination of longing and distance—in a protagonist who loves but can't fully be part of the world of black, '70s, protohiphop Brooklyn that he grows up in. Lethem kicks off this year's conference with a meditation on the disappearance of that distance between artists, critics, and fans.
"What's the 911?"
Panel: Year Zeroes
Fri April 20, 9—10:45 am.
The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones can get as esoteric and referential as you'd like, but his greatest talent is his ability to express big ideas about music—any music—in a way that's smart, informed, and refreshingly plain. Here, he examines R&B's chart-topping hegemony in the wake of 9/11, the seeming inability of pop music to address such a massively historic event, and the end of R&B history.
"Just 4 U London: Place and Race in British Dance Culture from Rave to Grime"
Panel: Urban Dance Squads
Fri April 20, 2:15—4 pm.
Londoner by way of New York Simon Reynolds is the author of Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978–84 and Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture. Reynolds is a gifted musical academic whose inventive ideas are matched by alarmingly thorough research. In this presentation, he'll explore the relationship between London and dance music, and the ways in which music is both defined by and independent of its geography.
"A Matter of Trustafarians: Behind the Bob Marley Poster on the Dorm Room Wall"
Fri April 20, 2:15—4 pm.
Michaelangelo Matos deconstructs that old college-campus cliché—the Bob Marley poster on the dorm room wall—in an effort to understand the motivations of the "trustafarian" and the significance of the Marley affectation. Matos is an astute observer of both cultural trends and musical meaning, and he might be the one to finally get to the bottom of this.
"What You Hear Is Never What They Heard, and What You Get Is Never What They Had"
Fri April 20, 4:15—6 pm.
Pitchforker Dominique Leone will explore an odd irony of digital music distribution and internet-based criticism: a "relativity effect" in which the rapid dissemination and digestion of new music eliminates the possibility for shared cultural/musical moments and events, making it impossible, despite all the information out there, to ever "be 'on top' of 'what's happening.'" As a writer for Pitchfork, the premier site of accelerated music criticism on the web, Leone is unquestionably qualified for the task.
"Take Me Back: Ghostface's Ghosts"
Panel: Time Travelling with the Wu-Tang
Sat April 21, 9—10:45 am.
Steven Shaviro, the DeRoy professor of English at Wayne State University, will get into the "hauntology" of soul samples in Ghostface Killah's music. Ghostface has stated that '70s soul is his favorite music because it's what his parents were listening to when he was conceived. Shaviro will explore how samples of that music in Ghostface's songs act like ghosts of an inaccessible time.
"1969—1973: The Birth of the
Panel: Breaks in Time: Rethinking
Sat April 21, 4:15—6 pm.
Jeff Chang is the author of the indispensable cultural history of hiphop Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. Here, he'll dig into the record crates of the DJs that defined hiphop's early sound and trace the histories of the records therein with the lofty hope of uncovering a "unified theory of the breakbeat." Whether he finds one or not, this should be a fun discussion.