What I Learned at the Pop Conference
On Pearl Jam, '70s Trivia, and the Sex Appeal of Music Geeks
T he theme of last weekend's EMP Pop Conference—a gathering of music critics, academics, artists, students, and fans from across the country and beyond—was "Dance Music Sex Romance: Pop and the Body Politic." The first half of that title may not be what you think of when you imagine a room full of professional music nerds, but... well, you'd be mostly right. (There was music, though! And those Matmos guys are pretty foxy.) The Pop Conference isn't a great cruising ground, and the only dancing I did all weekend was decidedly off-site, but the conference is an overwhelming experience for anyone who enjoys thinking about music. Excluding all the actual music trivia and history, popular and otherwise, here's what I learned.
If you work in the lobby of the Experience Music Project, a lot of the music you experience is going to be Pearl Jam.
Twice in the course of two days, Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" was playing over the PA and on the weird, mesh-covered video screen in the EMP lobby. One employee, asked how many times in an average shift he usually hears Pearl Jam, estimated 20 to 30 times in an eight-hour shift, explaining that they used to run their songs on a four-hour loop, and that while they have recently expanded that to a six-hour loop, the two new hours contain additional Pearl Jam material, thus not changing the odds much.* "Eddie Vedder's all right," the employee said. "It's all the Blondie and Devo..."
There are music geeks, and then there are Music Geeks.
If you're not sure exactly which kind of music geek you are, the conference quickly puts you in your place. I watched one friend of mine—a working music critic with fingers in indie rock, hiphop, and beyond—reduced to stunned silence upon coming up against one of the conference's more excitable encyclopedias of music trivia geeking out on some tangent or another (I don't recall the specifics). And not just because he was critically outgunned, but because there is some seriously impressive—almost competitive—Asperger's and OCD on display at this conference. If you can't recall on command the Top 10 singles of 1978, you are in the minor leagues here.
At least one New York Times music critic is not afraid of busting a few halfhearted moves of the "Crank That" dance in front of a room full of his peers.**
Jon Caramanica Tell 'Em.
People like gimmicks.
Les Savy Fav have a crazy hobo for a lead singer. Monotonix set their drums on fire and pour garbage all over their audience. Lady Gaga hates pants. As in rock 'n' roll, some of the best presentations of the weekend worked some kind of gimmick. Douglas Wolk, presenting a paper on the incorporeality of club and radio DJs, the disconnect between their bodies and the sound they produce—they can't physically touch the sound they create the way that a guitarist can touch the vibration of a string, they aren't physically interacting with their audiences, and if they're doing their job right they might as well not even have a physical body—stood at the podium, silently shuffling his papers every couple minutes and cueing video clips while prerecorded voices read the paper he'd written. A cute and effective conceptual stunt. Daphne Carr, for a presentation called "Computer Love(r)s" about the intimate relationship that writers and music critics have with their laptops, encouraged the audience to take out their laptops and follow along to series of cues and instructions she'd posted to her website. ("Stand up and play your favorite video for five seconds, showing everyone you can." "PROTECT YOUR LAPTOP FROM EVERYONE ELSE'S GAZE [BY] MAKING YOUR ARMS INTO A COCOON AROUND IT.") Sean Nelson, for a presentation about sexlessness in '90s indie rock, titled "Let's (Not) Get It On," pointedly refrained from having sex with anyone onstage.
Even the best writers say insane shit sometimes.
During his rather academic presentation titled "Articulated and Disarticulated Love," which had something to do with Motown, Charles Kronengold paused, stunned, and asked: "Did I just say, 'The weight-bearing agency of his guitar'? Do you ever read your paper and think, 'Who wrote that?'"
9:00 a.m. is too early for rock 'n' roll.
Sorry, J. D. Considine. Sorry, Jody Rosen. Sorry, Robert Christgau. I wanted to see you speak. I wanted to attend an entire panel devoted to the use of sexual moaning and groaning in pop songs. But there is no way I'm going to make it down to the EMP at 9:00 a.m. on a weekend morning—I have actual music and dancing (and on a good weekend, sex and romance) to attend to after dark. The best I can do is like 11:00 a.m.
People do still visit the EMP/SFM.
I think about the EMP about twice a year—once during the Pop Conference and once during Sound Off!—and if I didn't write about music for a living, I probably wouldn't think of it at all. But despite my blind spot for the magnificent eyesore (and I actually really like the building), the place still draws visitors on warm spring weekends. True, most of these tourists seem more interested in the architecture than the memorabilia it houses—everywhere, people gawk at the interior and exterior of the building; a trio of girls line up, crane their necks, and aim a camera at one shiny, metallic ceiling to take a group portrait in its reflection—and rightly so. The EMP is kind of a big, beautiful, but empty box—like the Central Library if instead of books and internet terminals it had only a series of exhibits about books. (J.R.R. Tolkien's backward red baseball cap! Virginia Woolf's sequined glove!) I mean, really, walking through that out-of-this-world space to see some episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation playing on the gift-shop TV screens is just totally upside down and backward.
In a year when arts organizations everywhere are making cutbacks (EMP itself has announced plans to lay off 16 of its 159 employees), EMP continues to support the Pop Conference, and by extension the idea that thinking, writing, and reading about music is valuable.
The Pop Conference and Sound Off! are both fine examples of things EMP does right, connecting to living music communities (critics, young musicians, fans) rather than presenting pop music as something that should be kept under glass. It's easy to jab at EMP for being nerdy, but at least during the Pop Conference it is world-class nerdy. And let's be honest: Music criticism—existing as it does at the intersection of two industries (publishing and music) that were looking fucked even before the larger economic downturn—needs all the support it can get right now. The Pop Conference, now in its eighth year, consistently draws original work from some of the best minds in the field—work that might never otherwise happen. And that's admirable.
Even a room full of the field's brightest minds cannot definitively parse the meaning of the popular rap credo "It ain't trickin' if you got it."
It is hard in here for a music critic.
* The fact that EMP—which, according to its website, is "dedicated to the exploration of creativity and innovation in popular music"—provides its ambient music the same way that, say, Starbucks does (via programmed CD loops) seems especially inhumane and ironic. (Elsewhere in the building during the conference, the music is supplied by satellite radio.) Seems like at the very least they could pipe in KEXP—doesn't Paul Allen own that, too?
** A lot of the funniest moments at the conference are only funny in a kind of lame, pseudo-insidery way, where the joke is predicated on knowing and giving a shit who these people are because you admire their work and maybe you're a little intimidated by them, but then they turn out to be, sure, smart and funny and good public speakers, but also just regular people, albeit music geeks or capital-letter Music Geeks.