The Pop Conference is the best thing that ever happened at the EMP. Influential music writers (and former EMP curators) Ann Powers and Eric Weisbard started and still organize this annual gathering, which attracts world-class critics, academics, industry types, collectors, musicians, and producers who come together for the sole purpose of talking about pop music.
That "talking" takes the primary form of 15- to 20-minute presentations based on papers, which the authors deliver (with varying degrees of performer panache) to rooms full of attentive and often argumentative fellow travelers. The conference never fails to be as messy and diverse as its subject, an art that covers a wide area of human culture. There are few societies without pop stars, and few trends, idioms, or histories of popular music that have escaped the notice of this conference. Hiphop controversies in New Zealand's Maori community, the impact of neoliberal recording contracts in Ghana, the deep connections between developments in American rock and its highway system—this is the kind of stuff the four-day conference is radically open to. And it's free to the public. (Disclosure: Stranger music editor Emily Nokes and arts editor Sean Nelson are among the 140 people participating in panels at the conference.)
This year's theme is Get Ur Freak On: Music, Weirdness, and Transgression. There are too many intriguing presentations for us to list here, so instead, we've decided to note the most recent books by a few of the noteworthy presenters. This affords only a glimmer of what the Pop Conference has been bringing to Seattle since 2002 (save for those two regrettable years when it was seeing other cities). We need to keep it here.
Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music (University of Chicago Press)
I hereby disclaim that I know and have been friends with the author for about 15 years, and further confess that my admiration of his criticism, in Spin and the Village Voice, predates our acquaintance by 5 or 10 more. This may not make me the best candidate to chronicle his lapses, but it does offer an ideal vantage for extolling his transition from critic to full-blown academic. This book is a major work about a subject most people either dismiss with a shrug or disdain with conspiracy-theory-laden epithets: commercial radio. Eric Weisbard's analysis of terrestrial broadcasting is ecumenical, observing the communal identities that arise from its industrial specialization. Which is to say: He is very realpolitik about the power of music played on the radio and relentlessly curious about the question of who is being served by its formats (however cynical the business decisions behind them might be). His analysis leaves aside the partisanship of aesthetic preference (which he calls "self-congratulatory entitlement"), focusing instead on the interpersonal, economic, and ethnic effects of an immensely powerful form of social engineering. There's plenty of shallow comfort in the image of people having their feelings anesthetized in the shine of the dial, but Top 40 Democracy offers a less cynical, more humanistic, at times (though I don't imagine this was in the recipe) almost metaphysical inquiry into the perversely complex intersection of time, technology, liberty, desire, commerce, and art. SEAN NELSON
Keynote Panel: Can Pop Really Be Transgressive? Poptimism and Its Discontents, Thurs April 16, 7 pm.
Heavy Metal Fantasy, Sun April 19, 9 am.
Going into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man (Dey Street)
Robert Christgau basically invented, or basically perfected, the cultural niche identity of the pop-rock music critic. The native New Yorker's recent memoir, Going into the City, is an informationally dense journey through the art, music, and relationships that shaped him (passage after uxorious passage emphasize the ways in which his wife and past partners have influenced his work, but do buckle up for the explicit details regarding other kinds of relationships). Christgau also assesses much of his own work without feigning humility about how smart he is, which is fine by me from the person who wrote the words "Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home." EMILY NOKES
Infectious Clowning: Huey Smith's Rollicking Heyday and Long Sad Struggle to Get Paid, Fri April 17, 9 am.
A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton (Viking)
Notorious cult figure and namesake of one of the best Replacements songs, Alex Chilton (1950–2010) was a complicated, mercurial man who began his musical life as the lead singer of the Box Tops ("The Letter" hit number one when Chilton was just 16), went on to form the highly influential (but never quite commercially successful) Big Star, then later washed dishes, drove cabs, produced punk bands, and tinkered with an offbeat solo career before dying of a heart attack a few days before a Big Star reunion. Holly George-Warren's exhaustive, meticulous account of Chilton's every musical move, his fame decrescendo, and his troubled personal life make A Man Called Destruction worthwhile—Chilton enthusiasts to those vaguely interested in Big Star's enigmatic frontman will find a sympathetic, well-written biography with great/sad/crazy stories and enough names of other indie noteworthies to keep you engrossed for the duration. George-Warren has authored some 14 other books and is currently writing a biography of Janis Joplin. EMILY NOKES
Calamity Jane, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Bessie Smith: Janis Joplin and Her Transgressive Forebears, Fri April 17, 11:15 am.
AIMEE MEREDITH COX
Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship (Duke University Press)
This ethnography is based on eight years of fieldwork at the Fresh Start shelter in Detroit. In learning the stories of young black women (ages 15 to 22) residing in the homeless shelter, Cox examines the "choreography" the women exercise in order to navigate and disrupt systems of racism, sexism, violence, and other humanity-diminishing obstacles. Cox is an assistant professor of African American studies at Fordham University, an editorial board member of the Feminist Wire, and a former professional dancer. The book, her first, comes out in August. EMILY NOKES
Work It: Reflections on the Artistry and Impact of Missy Elliott, Fri April 17, 11:15 am.
The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America (Dey Street)
Former Seattle denizen (and Stranger freelancer) Michaelangelo Matos interviewed hundreds of major and minor electronic-music figures, weaving countless accounts into a compelling narrative that traces the evolution of this music from its deep underground roots to its current US mainstream domination. The Underground Is Massive isn't a comprehensive history of electronic music; that would take several large volumes. Rather, Matos starts with the house and techno revolutions in early 1980s Chicago and Detroit, respectively, and then follows the circuitous paths that electronic music has taken in the decades since, culminating with today's insanely lucrative and youth-oriented "EDM" movement. He offers deep insights into the music, as well as the drugs, technology, and culture surrounding it. Look for a review/interview with the author in next week's Stranger. DAVE SEGAL
Sleeping in Between the Two of Us: "When You Were Mine," Fri April 17, 2 pm.
Red Epic (Commune Editions)
His new book of poems, Red Epic, blends Joshua Clover's three leading interests—music, cinema, and Marxism—with the urgency and seduction of a great pop tune. (Not to mention the wit that often eludes the more passionate exponents of dialectical materialism.) From "The Fire Sermon":
Madrid is sometimes in flames
though confusingly the Spanish
Stairs are in Rome
Money, as always, is the root of so much evil and suffering and stupidity, but even as the poems indict it, they also seem willing to acknowledge its ineradicability (from "Apology": "Oh capital let's kiss and make up/And I'll take back all those terrible things I said about you/To my friends in poems"). Fragments of songs and visions from old and new films drift in and out of the lines like old friends. And while revolution is the only solution to neoliberal mechanisms of control, Red Epic also takes solace in the common cause of like minds. "It comes down," Clover writes, "to comrades known and elsewhere." CHARLES MUDEDE
The Worst Song Roundtable, Sat April 18, 10:45 am.
Devo's Freedom of Choice (33 1/3 Series, Bloomsbury)
Accomplished rock critic Evie Nagy (a former editor at Billboard and Rolling Stone who currently writes for Fast Company) chose Devo's third—and most commercially successful—album, Freedom of Choice, for her 33 1/3 book. While many have written about the importance of Devo's earlier work, and the band's identity as fringe-dwelling harbingers of the odd-rock everynerd counterculture, Nagy focuses on the point at which the subversive band moonwalked into the mainstream. As Devo cofounder Gerald Casale says, "Freedom of Choice was the end of Devo innocence... the high point before the shitstorm of a total cultural move to the right, the advent of AIDS, and the press starting to figure Devo out and think they had our number." Devo's Freedom of Choice (apparently the first-ever authorized book about Devo) will be out May 21. EMILY NOKES
Nerds to the Front: Devo and the Geek Rock Revolution, Sat April 18, 1:30 pm.