Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Archive for April, 2009

A Spectre is Haunting Culture -
The Spectre of the Hipster

April 30th, 2009

I try to resist arguing about this every time it comes up, which is several times a day, but the hipster as bogeyman of the age raises his shaggy head again in today’s Russell Smith column in the Globe, which is inspired by the (admittedly funny) Look at this Fucking Hipster tumblr.

While I often enjoy Russell’s column, and he certainly tries to nuance his case later in the piece, his method is still a prime example of the bogus ethnography that hipster-bashers indulge - from merely looking at the 20-somethings wearing the clothes that are fashionable on certain scenes right now, and with no further discernible research or investigation (there’s no evidence he spoke to any of them, for instance), he draws the conclusion that they hypocritically pretend they don’t want to be looked at and also have a complete “lack of interest in any cause or intellectual issue, other than possibly environmentalism (the default cause of the sensitive dropout).”

The resentment of youthful self-possession and good looks couldn’t be writ larger - as a guy nearly Russell’s age (and height), I share that envy, but such extreme reactions to the existence of college-aged kids who dress fashionably and may, big shock, sometimes be supported by well-off parents, only reflects back unflatteringly on us. I’m sure some of them are douchebags. But is getting dressed up to go dancing such a heinous and remarkable act? As the blog Boredom is Always Counter-Revolutionary wrote last summer, “the revelation that young people dress similarly and seem apathetic and politically or morally vacuous” can be tracked back decades if not centuries (a nice example there, a polemic against the “spiritual dry-rot” of milk-bar-going “jukebox boys” from 1957); it is never entirely untrue and never entirely true; and yet it’s a meme that seems to carry its own inbuilt compulsion to yammering repetition, a mania of denunciation.

Why then do hipster-bashers so painfully need the hipster-zombie phantasm? Russell makes the common admission that in part it’s a self-hating thing, that those who point fingers at “hipsters” are almost by definition “hipsters” themselves (which indeed may be the only valid definition) (btw, check out the Globe’s comment section for some enjoyable bafflement from genuine total non-hipsters, many of whom never knew before today that “that’s what they’re called”). The hipster is a projection of the hipster-hater’s own status anxiety. There’s also a self-serving decadence narrative where the hipster serves as the negative exaggeration of one’s own apathy, helping to exonerate it. The hipster serves as a locus for fears of lost control, of social disconnection. Yet it’s a hysteria to focus that anxiety on these kids personally rather than on, say, the system of cool and cultural capital, and what’s more the genuine lack of control you have over hypercapitalism, of which their look uncomfortably reminds you. The hipster-monster is the face of a cultural death wish, along the vector of a snarling circle jerk hurtling towards social atomization and collapse.

(As an aside, I’m surprised that Russell, as a defender of fashion-as-aesthetic, didn’t at least note that hipster-bashing is also a tribal rejoinder against deliberately standing out, looking, however trivially, conspicuously deviant, especially in some way people find hard to “read.” Obviously subcultures have their own peer-pressure counter-hierarchies, and as Revolutionary Boredom mentioned in the above post, the hipster thing is more an outcropping of the mainstream (American Apparel division) than a functional subculture. But for all its internal conformism it’s still a mode of flamboyant aesthetic display and that still makes a lot of people uncomfortable and resentful in itself. At its best the hipster is the new Dandy, the semi-subversive who overloads the system by over-subscribing to it (conspicuously consuming) and yet undermines it by seeming as if the real source of their cooperation is that they can’t take the system seriously enough to bother to oppose it. Sites like “Look at this Fucking Hipster” reek of a paranoid craving for a restoration of social order. You could make an argument for the positive or progressive element of that craving, as Joe Heath and Andrew Potter do in their counter-counterculture book The Rebel Sell, but I’m not sure if that critique holds if the engine of your anti-anti-conformity is revenge, which makes it just counterculturalism in camouflage, no?) (Or maybe camouflage works?)

I’m not particularly concerned to defend the hipster, in the sense of the class fragment vaguely gestured at there. But for any anti-hipster screed to qualify as anything but a full-on strawman-torching session providing a smokescreen for a riot of unprocessed anxieties, I’d like to find a writer able to identify, say, three so-called hipsters by name and provide some minimal grounding of generalizations in fact. Even anecdotally. If you actually ask almost anyone five or six questions, I bet they’d soon complicate the stereotype beyond recognition. (As Margaux Williamson’s Teenager Hamlet film in many ways shows.) There are no hipsters, only anti-hipsters - or at least the ratio is approximately the same as that of actually existing Satanists to anti-Satanists during the heavy-metal and Goth panics of the 1980s and 1990s. The question is what in turn the hipster allows the anti-hipster to deny, and what’s being lost in that continuing deferral.

Bus-ted: Poor Dears

April 30th, 2009

It’s going to be all over the web by the end of the afternoon but I can’t help noting that Montreal band The Dears (who play Toronto tonight) awoke this morning to find that their entire tour bus had been stolen. Don’t shed too many Dears tears: their gear wasn’t on it, and it was rented, and presumably insured, so their month-long tour will go on. But I wondered if there’d ever been any cases of Grand Theft Tour Bus before. A quick check reveals - yes! Most lurid was the theft of country singer Crystal Gayle’s bus in 2007 by escaped prisoner Christopher Daniel Gay, who busted out of a South Carolina prison and also stole a pickup truck and a Wal-Mart 18-wheeler, all in an effort to visit his mama, who was dying of cancer. (He also reportedly picked up prostitutes and entertained them in the bus along the way.) Bluegrass singer Tim O’Brien even wrote a ballad to commemorate the tale. But Dears take note: Gay escaped again in March. Perp watch?

Other tour-bus robbery victims: The Kills last year (apparently by its driver) and Euro-Vision winning metal band Lordi during an Ozzfest tour; and San Francisco band Film School. Expand the definition to include “tour van,” and you have Sonic Youth, who famously lost all their modified guitars and other gear in a tour-van theft in 1999 (the van turned up sans gear a few days later). But stealing a bus does feel like a slightly more glorious and absurd level of theft than with a van. Are there any other notable cases of bus theft, perhaps going back to the classic rock era? Did the Boston Pops ever get its bus ripped off?

Another Helping of Popcon (aka Part 3)

April 29th, 2009

Continuing my belated review of goings-on at the EMP Pop Conference 2009 (now two weeks back), some highlights from panels that I saw. Before anyone asks about my own presentation, it needs some revision before it’s fit to be read (a talk is more forgiving), and I’m considering trying to make a little YouTube documentary out of it, once I master the Keynote-to-video conversion process (and figure out how to incorporate Auto-Tune the News!).

Marvin Gaye sings “Can I Get a Witness” on television 1965

Robert Fink, “Ain’t That … Peculiar? Selling Masochism at Motown, 1962-1969″

As usual I came in a bit late to the Friday 9 am panels, so Fink’s 11 am presentation was the first where I was fully alert and in note-taking mode - and what a presentation it was. Its main thesis was that mid-60s Motown marketed Marvin Gaye as a “shy lady killer” whose songs portray a forever-suffering lover, and that in doing this, Barry Gordy & co. were picking up on an inherent quality of masochism in Gaye’s psyche as someone who grew up with a violent, religious, crossdressing father - “scared and fascinated by male coercion.” Masochism in that circumstance, Fink suggested, is a kind of subversive rejection of “the law of the father” - as Gaye’s song “Ain’t That Peculiar?” put it, “How can love grow from pain?” But Motown “boiled those contradictions down” to the image of “an attractive young black man who appeared to become aroused when you hurt him.” (In questions, Fink agreed that there are a lot of questions about who the audience is for this and how they received it - was Gaye meant to seem like his [presumably black] lover’s slave, and what’s the intended irony? He noted that Gaye had a lot of contempt for his sixties audiences.)

Fink, a leading musicologist from UCLA (indeed one of the pioneers of applying musicology to pop) and an affable, commanding speaker, then took his analysis to a riskier level, paralleling the Motown backbeat (with its roots in gospel handclaps, simulated in the studio “vividly enough to make the palms sting”) to a “slap” or even to “a whip falling on flesh.” He demonstrated how Marvin seemed to respond to this subtext, not only by “audibly wincing” on words such as “hurt” and “pain” but by vocally weaving and bobbing around the backbeat in a song like “Can I Get a Witness?”, like a boxer, “avoiding the blows as they fell.” (Fink introduced some Freudian talk here about the passive-aggression of the masochist, including their tendency not to be punctual, which seemed rather more flimsy, though the account of Marvin having to be literally dragged to the studio in his later Motown years was suggestive).

When Gaye was able to get out of his Motown contract and make his epochal singer-songwriter records after 1971, Fink suggested, he “mostly tried to find a less painful relationship to the beat,” and shifted his subject matter from his personal pain to a more collective racial and human suffering - though in 1982, not long before his death, he recorded the explicit “Masochistic Beauty.” Fink closed by showing Gaye giving a rare late performance of “Ain’t That Peculiar?” at the 1980 Montreux Jazz Festival when he broke off into a (rather weak) drum solo - “now he is the one doing the beating, which may be the closest thing to a happy ending this masochistic story has.”

Greil Marcus, “The Songs Left Out of ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.”

This was one of Marcus’s typically mesmerizing imaginative readings of art-music texts, this time of the slide-show version of Nan Goldin’s important, excruciatingly intimate document of her “recreated family” and its poisonous pursuit of sexual, narcotic and other pleasures, of naked bodies, desperate embraces, bloodspattered walls, empty beds and finally masoleums. In its installation form the show comes with a soundtrack of classical and pop music - to Marcus “the images are the music and the songs are the words.”

He admitted that his initial impulse to make his own alternate mixtape for the images was “an obnoxious conceit - nothing is missing,” but felt that there was in a sense an answer song to Goldin that would deal with the fact that Goldin’s “Ballad” never surrenders its “hipster cool” - he pointed to Lonnie Mack’s 1963 single “Why?”, an underrecognized song he considers “the greatest deep-soul record ever made” (a risky claim, considering that Mack is white). It’s a breakup song, which Marcus convincingly showed is like a slow procession up a staircase to the roof, where the singer seems poised to throw himself to his death - yet in the last verse shows up intact, writing his lost love a letter, as if he’s been saved by the symbolic suicide that the song itself enacts. Marcus didn’t quite draw out the connection, but he linked the Mack song and Goldin’s imagery by remarking, “there’s a coverup that art makes, that only art can expose.”

I’m not sure Marcus illuminated Goldin’s photo series beyond what I already knew and felt about it, but he certainly put Mack’s song permanently on my mental jukebox.

David Cantwell,, “My Mother Wants a Man with a Slow Hand, or I Think Conway Twitty Might Be My Dad: A Not Entirely Disinterested History of ‘Sweet, Sweet, Country Lovin’ “

Of all the papers I heard in Seattle that weekend, this wonderfully titled piece might be my top nominee for immediate publication, from Cantwell, a longtime contributor to No Depression and one of my music-writing heroes and influences. He opened with a very funny but also disconcerting childhood anecdote about his parents fighting over his mom uncharacteristically saying in 1973 that Conway Twitty was sexy (a fight he joked might have led to his sister’s conception). Cantwell then made a case for Twitty as the country equivalent of Al Green, “a grownass lover man,” and his song “You’ve Never Been This Far Before” as a very rare pop case of sex actually being depicted in the act, “like we’re listening in on someone’s eye-rolling pillow talk.” He moved on to the question (using Ellen Willis’s tongue-in-cheek categories of “classical” and “baroque” sex) to ask “What sort of sex is country music sex?”

Almost always, it’s “classical with a vengeance,” he said, noting that the fatalism of country is often overstated by romanticizing outsiders and that most country is cautious and cautioning, about limits, guilt and the fear of isolation - that “heaven’s just a sin away.” As Merle Haggard put it, in country “we don’t make a party out of lovin’.” Conway Twitty in many ways stands out as the baroque exception, perhaps of a moment in the early 70s when sexual realignments were so widespread as to reach even the forbidden places of Nashville. This paper opened a lot of ears both to Twitty and to David Cantwell (though I think he ought to have played some of “This Far Before” for the uninitiated, er, so to speak).

Michaelangelo Matos, “House is a Feeling”

I missed most of Matos’s intriguing case for Chuck Roberts’ 1987 a capella speech from “My House” as a “post-standard” - a piece of music constantly used as a “tool,” as a one-size-fits-all enhancer to other music, rather than one that’s directly covered. (What else would be a post-standard? “Good Times”? “Apache”?) Luckily, he’s published the whole thing on his own blog. Go enjoy.

Douglas Wolk, “My Other Body is a Temple”

In my notebook all it says is, “Douglas Wolk kills it.” I hope that he converts the talk into an online video of some sort, but even then the performative aspect of his incredible presentation will to some extent be missing. In brief, Douglas was talking about how he was never a dancer, and didn’t really have the physical relationship to music (and thus perhaps the sexual one) that others did, but then discovered that by, first, making mixtapes and later by becoming a DJ, he could in some ways transcend that limitation, in the physicality of making other people dance “for” him.

It was a funny and poignant essay in itself, but it self-reflexively transcended that level in its presentation - the text was actually spoken by recordings of other people’s voices, while Douglas “DJ’d” the talk itself, mixing music clips, videos and the text together, silently, totally unspeaking, as if he were invisible, behind the podium. Beyond the obvious meta-commentary, I also thought he was commenting on the process of commenting upon music - how as critics, too, we’re disembodied voices, far removed from the dance floors and cars and kitchens and bedrooms where music operates upon listeners’ bodies, and yet we attempt in some way to recondition that experience, like wizards behind the curtains. And that may reflect some of our own shortcomings, but Douglas’s treatment of that fact was free of the usual ressentiment (and self-hatred), treating it instead as a merciful grace. Bravo.

Graham Raulerson, “The Jocker and the Hoosier Boy: The Politics of Bowlderization in ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ “

This was a great history of the gradual unsexing and depoliticization (and then re-sexing and recuperation) of Harry McClintock’s famous hobo-topian, Depression-era tune. In its original version, the song was directed by a hobo “jocker” to a punk, a boy, a naif, whom he’s trying to seduce for sexual favours with promises of showing him to a preposterous Eden of “cigarette trees” and streams of alcohol. That is, it’s a song of exploitation. But in his own later, cleaned-up version (McClintock even claimed not to remember how the original went), he changed it into an anarcho-populist propaganda tune - McClintock was a Wobbly, and this was in some ways a psychedelic vision of a Wobbly anti-work paradise to be brought about by its main strategy, the General Strike. Later versions updated the sensibility to a more Sixties-style countercultural one.

And then at the end of the line comes the video above, Darius “Hootie” Rucker as an exoticized black cowboy promising a frat-boy-fuck-topia where “the breasts grow on trees,” surrounded by hick-face cheerleader girls in service to, as Raulerson put it, “a King that wants you to ‘have it your way’.” (A perfect definition of the capitalist superego aka Lacan’s Big Other.) The pharmico-phenomenology of the song has passed from bacchanalian booze to escapist acid to soporific pot and saturated fats here, in a masterwork of Bush-era revisionist nostalgia that, as Raulerson said, “instead of hiding sex to bring out the politics, does the reverse.” I kind of wished he’d generalized out a bit from there (can we point to other cases in pop of that sex-politics dialectic in pop?) but otherwise no complaints.

One more part to come before the end of the week.

2009 Pop Conference:
The EMP-ire Strokes Back (Part 2)

April 28th, 2009

Labelle with Nona Hendryx (centre) singing “Come with Me”/”Come into My Life.”

It’s tricky to explain the annual Pop Conference at the Experience Music Project in Seattle to people who’ve not attended. They tend to picture either a stuffy scholarly forum or a pasty-white-guy trivia fair akin to baseball-card collectors’ meeting or a science-fiction convention. The Popcon isn’t innocent of those aspects, but at its best it takes the brains of one and the passion of the other and gets a more robust hybrid.

It’s a kind of weekend retreat where journalists, authors, historians, musicologists, DJs, theorists and, yes, musicians experiment with ways to talk about popular music that might do justice to its value as human experience, its often troubled and troubling place in cultural exchange, and its never-ceasing novelty, invention and frequent blatant absurdity as a kind of moving-parts plasticene model for how to mobilize feeling usefully in a painfully pleasurable world.

This quixotic spirit has bred its own sub-genres of presentations: They’re performative, even competitively so, in the way presenters talk and their use of multimedia; they feature a lot of jokes and a good deal of show-and-tell of finds from crate-digging or data-mining exercises; swearing, personal storytelling and even an occasional tear (as Robert Christgau shed in discussing marriage) are not untoward; you might also encounter experiments in audience participation (such as Daphne Carr’s laptop-along talk on laptops); and while dense, knotty thinking is fine (at least by most of us), mere deconstructive games seldom get traction — there’s a collective conscience that’s listening for a socially productive reassessment or challenging ethical core.

And it was all more effective at EMP this year than the past couple, I felt, in part because the theme “Dance Music Sex Romance: Pop and the Body Politic” drew out the lust and love and, sometimes, ungainly awkwardness of our relationships to music. Take the two keynote talks. (I’ll stick with those tonight and talk about the rest of the presentations I saw, I hope, tomorrow.)

Nona Hendryx, of girl-group-turned-funkabellic-band Labelle but also a technologically innovative solo artist and sometime collaborator with Laura Nyro, Talking Heads, Prince and Peter Gabriel, looking more hot and fabulous than pretty much any 65-year-old this side of Tina Turner, dished on her past (discreetly) and subtly resisted any attempts to reduce it to a transformation or liberation story. Not to fault interviewers Daphne Brooks and Sonnet Retman (though I’d hazard that two interviewers was too much of a good thing) - Hendryx certainly made some sidesteps and wasn’t always expansive. But she also seemed to be making the point that what get told by pop’s chroniclers as major shifts of direction are often not conscious, programmatic “moves” but more spontaneous and gradual responses by artists to their environments, audiences and circumstances - just being young, successful, creative African-American women in sixties London and seventies New York, for instance.

She also made memorable points about the dynamics of a group that got together since they were teenagers, living out of each others’ pockets, and the challenges of reuniting as Labelle recently did - picking back up after a quarter-century and learning to sing as an ensemble again rather than as soloists, for instance. She talked about the shock of encountering Laura Nyro’s hushed audiences after years of singing to screaming crowds at soul revues. (Many of us critics would be prone to vilify that as a rock audience’s less involved bodily response, but she sure didn’t put it that way.) And she came out as a “huge science-fiction freak” and aspiring cyborg - “I want to have an ear in my elbow!” she joked - viz. the “audio tutu” that she’s been wearing in recent performances, a wired-up Plexiglas skirt that lets her trigger and shape electronics while dancing (why not build a laptop into your lap-top?).

The next night, we met Diane Warren, who’s surprisingly tough-talking and sarcastic considering that she’s the queen of the power ballad and writer of hits for everyone from Cher to Aerosmith to (of course) Celine Dion. I was happy that the confab of critics at the Popcon gave such a respectful hearing to a woman our ilk has been prone to pin as a purveyor of schlock, in part thanks to the unimpeachable job done by interviewer Ann Powers, who conscientiously did several advance interviews with Warren to prepare. (Although she struggled with her audio-visual gear, just as happened the night before - there should be a tech person handling this stuff.)

Warren wanted to be a songwriter - and never a performer! - from the age of 12 (!) and, as an L.A. kid, actually managed to get into the business in her mid-teens. I’ve lost my notes unfortunately but I won’t soon forget her account of literally grabbing Cher around the knees insisting that she give “If I Could Turn Back Time” a chance - Ann noted that it was probably the subtheme of aging that made the diva so resistant to recording the soon-to-be smash hit. But it was more the overall ethos of Warren’s way of discussing her craft that impressed - here’s a writer of hugely populist love songs who claims she’s never been in love, yet any tendency to read that, through an expressionist filter, as a confession of mere manipulation was countered by Warren’s incredibly fierce attachment to her own work, really talking about her songs as if they were her children, and her comment that when she is writing a song she absolutely believes and feels it, even though she’s not sentimental in “real” life.

And yet, like the old-fashioned songwriters she most admires such as Irving Berlin or the Brill Building teams, Warren clearly measures success in commercial terms - if it ain’t a hit, then it don’t count - though in her case she seems to feel that they’d all be hits if they were done right. (She’s sure that Whitney Houston’s upcoming comeback Warren-penned single “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” will be one of those, by the way.) Her talk really gave a feel for what it’s like to be in the hit business, with its joys and frustrations, that’s far removed from the soulless caricature. And listening to the snippets of her songs that Ann played, you couldn’t deny their musical deftness - and finding myself unexpectedly moved by some that touched on certain emotions I was feeling that week, I remembered having the same reaction when Celine sang Warren’s “Because You Loved Me” in the Vegas show I described in my book. (I gave her a copy, which was a thrill.)

Warren’s vague lyrics aim at broad targets, and while that’s not a literary technique I would generally recommend, it’s hard to resist it when you stumble into its sights. It makes me wonder if some of us resist this kind of songwriting because it implies that we’re not unique, that our feelings and experiences aren’t as individual and particular as we want (or are told) to believe. Which is also, of course, what many people find comforting about such songs - the sense of recognition and connection, which can be another way of saying “love.”

Both talks, of course, put women in the forefront, both as subjects and interlocutors, which was a good counterweight to any pasty-guy Popcon tendencies. I thought they tiptoed around some very evident and pressing questions about sexuality (beginning but not ending with orientation), but that was a probably inevitable matter of politeness - Warren and Hendryx both having reputations to safeguard and being of generations in which that’s not such an acceptable subject for public discussion.

Both also tweaked us with reminders of the gulf between practice and interpretation, but also something that would arise frequently in the conference, which is the way that context and the machinery of music - whether the business or literally the machines, including instruments, computers or means of reproduction - enable and shape its reveries on love and loss: By the very nature of popular music, it’s more cybernetic than “organic,” a word that should (at best) be confined to agriculture, and not used to mist up our lenses when we talk about pop culture.

More to come.

Pardon the interruption

April 27th, 2009

Test/fix post, please ignore.

No Comments

2009 Pop Conference:
The EMP-ire Strokes Back (Part 1)

April 23rd, 2009

Matmos on Saturday night in Seattle, photo by Ned Raggett,
who also provides extensive Pop Conference notes at his blog.

Now that I’m recharged after too many days of too little sleep, here’s a belated rundown on my experience of the 8th annual (and my 5th) Pop Conference at the Experience Music Project in Seattle. I’ll post some general remarks tonight and follow up with notes on individual presentations tomorrow.

I’m biased as I was part of the programming committee that selected this year’s presentations and the theme of “Dance Music Sex Romance: Pop and the Body Politic,” but overall I’d call it a huge success - the presentations I saw were almost uniformly strong and most of all I felt that by keeping the theme specific and presentations on-topic, we managed to create a conference in which there was plenty of resonance and crosstalk between the papers. (Much respect to my committee cohorts: Garnette Cadogan, David Grubbs, Margie Maynard, Diane Pecknold, Carlo Rotella, Sonnet Retman and Alexandra Vazquez, as well as the man I’d like to call the conference’s artistic director, Eric Weisbard, and the woman I’ll simply call “The Force,” Ann Powers, to whom a special debt of embarrassed gratitude is due for helping me get to the Sunday 9 a.m. panel I was moderating almost on time.)

My main regret (aside from not finishing my own paper before I got to Seattle, which forced me to skip a few sessions and a lot of fun) is that we didn’t create a means by which those interconnections between the papers could be highlighted and explored.

Possible approaches for the future: Build time into each panel when the moderator or else a third-party respondent presents reflections and raises questions about the overall implications of the whole panel; have a closing plenary session in which several people are asked to present such reflections about the whole conference (ideally those people would work out among themselves which sessions to attend so they didn’t overlap too much), followed by a discussion (plus perhaps some consideration of the state of the conference and/or music criticism in general); or have some kind of closing keynote talk that similarly tries to draw the strands together.

I wish we’d been able to fulfill our plan to videotape the whole conference so the presentations could be posted online, which would bring the material out of EMP and into public, to allow more of that kind of discussion. Simply put, we didn’t start early enough finding videographers - we did at least get as far as having people sign release forms! Let’s hope next year that level of documentation comes together. The Pop Conf needs to get its social-media on.

I also regret that, because we couldn’t resist the fantastic prospects of the two keynote interviews (Nona Hendryx on Thursday and Diane Warren on Friday), we had to abandon our original plan for the opening night, which was to have a kind of thematic music-critic cabaret or talent show as a way for participants to meet and get to know one another. The theme would have been “Love Songs,” and any presenter (and perhaps other attendees) would have been invited to sing, dance, rap, tell jokes, orate, do “critical karaoke” (Josh Kun’s [oops, sorry] Joshua Clover’s invention, in which you do real-time commentary on a song as it plays) or otherwise entertain for five minutes around the theme. It would help people break through the intimidation of being a first-time participant or simply not being part of the “inner circle,” by letting people get a first glimpse of each other and providing plenty of conversation pieces. It would still demand some skills and courage, but much more democratically. (Hell, even just plain karaoke would be a fine icebreaker.) Hope next year’s committee runs with that ball.

At least, though, we had what I hope might become a tradition, which was the show at the Sunset Room in which some of the musicians among the participants were given a chance to perform for their discourse-addled peers. It was particularly amazing to watch the faces (and listen to the conversations) during the solo guitar set by Franklin Bruno: Pop Conf types have seen Franklin drop science on musical theatre, the Popular Front, the indie-rock ethic and, this year, calypso; they may know he does analytic philosophy as well as great rock criticism; they might even have known that he plays piano for the Mountain Goats; but a lot didn’t realize that he’s one of America’s most underrated songwriters. (Jody Rosen exclaimed afterwards, “He’s like Elvis Costello if Elvis Costello were still good” - which I think is hard on Mr. McManus, whose TV show I’ve been loving incidentally. But still). Keep your ear cocked for the upcoming Fayettenam Records collection of Franklin’s singles.

Matmos offered a “Just DJ’ing” set including shoutouts to various conference presentations amid their onslaught of beats and noise (I was standing beside David Cantwell when they started yelling “I’m Conway Twitty and I’m fucking you in the ass!” in tribute to David’s gently subversive presentation of the sideburned ’70s country star as a down-home pimpin’ Mack Daddy). And it was amusing when David Thomas (an always-ambivalent but surprisingly consistent Pop Conference participant) took the stage to do a very Beat set of storytelling and spoken lyrics and disdained our applause: “I don’t need your approval.”

Back to daylight, I noted a general tendency to soft-balling in the question periods this year, partly because some of the most reliable challenging questioners weren’t able to make it (Joshua Clover, you were much missed!). Though apparently if I hadn’t been holed up typing during Thomas’s panel I might think differently. (I would give a lot to have seen the brilliant Pere Ubu frontman’s face when Bob Christgau answered his Britney-bashing by asserting casually that in the past decade, Britney’s made better music than Thomas has.)

I’m not sure how to correct this - which I think is, among other things, a natural consequence of the conference settling into a less edgy mood now that it is itself a known quantity - but I think of the spiel that Misha Glouberman gives during every Trampoline Hall Lecture Series show here in Toronto about how to tell good questions from bad (while stressing that bad questions are also welcome). Moderators might be mandated to set up a similar framework at the start of each discussion.

Procedural matters aside, what themes struck me during the conference? Certainly, via papers (whether I heard them or not) such as Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s on Harry Belafonte, Nona Hendryx’s keynote interview, Robert Fink’s on Marvin Gaye, Tamara Palmer’s on dirty-south hip-hop, Richard Poplak’s on music videos in the Arab world, Jody Rosen’s on “Oh You Kid!”, Christgau’s on monogamy music, or Jason King’s on Maxwell, the fact that the erotic in pop music is often a vehicle to express much more complex social meanings - in fact, perhaps that the most effective way pop mobilizes social change is by its interventions in our erotic lives.

Likewise, I thought the conference got at the way that the musical self in the age of phonographic reproduction (and subsequently digital reproduction, though I missed many of the papers that related to that) is always machinic, mediated by our technologies. And finally that the body when it dances (though again I didn’t hear as many of the dance papers as I should have) is a body that’s especially socialized, communalized, assembled and disassembled - that stories of dancing are usually stories of a group being formed or asserting its existence, and quite unlike the stories that recorded singing and playing tend to narrate, where the focus is often on the individual-as-such, sometimes embodied, sometimes merely authorized.

Finally, I should mention the rumours afoot about the future of the Pop Conf. We were all thrown off by the aggressive presence of EMP staff handing out “evaluation” forms at every panel, as if we were students grading the performance of our professors - I guess we should have just filled them in with enthusiastic huzzahs, but many of us took offense to the whole idea of grading our peers that way. They were a symptom, it seems, of the uneasy relationship of the EMP to the event (which as far as I can tell is the most prominent thing it does each year, but whatevs). There have been many changes of leadership and staff at the museum over the past few years while the creators of the conference have been living at a distance (in Los Angeles of late). I would mourn losing my annual reason to visit Seattle, as it’s a chance to catch up with good friends there (friendships partly nourished by the event), but word is that next year or the year after, other sponsoring institutions may bring it to a bigger city.

I worry whether the conference would feel as significant in any place where it was a less distinctive part of the local calendar - but I’m also happy that its existence isn’t too married to the EMP’s ongoing struggle for survival, as it seemed in the past. Given the landscape right now for music criticism, what matters is that there be many more years for this peculiar outcropping of pop passion to wend its way. I’m happy to hear that so long as Eric and Ann, in particular, don’t tire (and thinking about the moment when they do should be on the agenda), the Pop Conf will have many more miles of geek love to go before it sleeps. Long may it run.

The EMP-ire Strokes Back (Part 1)">4 Comments

Free as in Beer and in Books

April 21st, 2009

Ever since we distributed the first two chapters of my book as a free PDF download, I’ve been keeping an eye on uses of that strategy, curious about how it will develop in publishing - an approach that’s particularly been advocated by Cory Doctorow, who says that it’s less likely to lose sales to committed readers than to generate interest (and some sales) among people who wouldn’t otherwise have thought to read the book. In my case, I feel that happened - though I would still have felt very nervous about giving the whole thing away. Well, that experiment is now being tried by Toronto writer Emily Schultz, the author of several wonderful books of poetry and fiction as well as proprietor of the short-story hub Joyland. Emily, her publisher Anansi and the Shortcovers website are now distributing her entire new novel, Heaven is Small for free, online.

The book begins with the Metamorphosis-like line, “Moments after his death, an event he failed to notice, Gordon Small sought new employment.” He joins Heaven Book Company, the world’s largest romance publisher, where “he embarks on a mission that will redeem him, and his writing career.” (I imagine Heaven Books might be loosely based on another large, Canadian-based romance publisher starting with H, where Emily herself was once an editor.)

In other books news, Ned Raggett’s Facebook page alerted me today to Vince Aletti’s new The Disco Files 1973-78: New York’s Underground, Week By Week, which is coincidentally also offering a 30-page PDF sample. It got me wondering about how many other books there are that offer “day by day” or “week by week” chronicles of a music scene or a band’s history. I know there’s at least one or two about the Beatles, and one about the Sex Pistols, but are there any other genre-based ones? New York punk, British punk, Seattle grunge, early hip-hop, Detroit techno?


Mobile Bat

April 21st, 2009

A report on my Pop Conference experience coming tomorrow (still catching up on sleep!) but meanwhile, here’s an interview with me - about the Celine Dion book - on Ed Champion’s “Bat Segundo” podcast.

Easy Come, Easy Pop

April 16th, 2009

I’m away making Dance Music Sex Romance with a hundred-some other pop-cultists at the 2009 EMP Pop Conference. I present my paper on Auto-Tune and hip-hop masculinities on Saturday at 3:15. Otherwise I’ll be lurking - reports back later this weekend or at least early next week.

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Guest Post: Some Definitions
(Of a Canadian rap and reggae style)

April 9th, 2009

In a followup to yesterday’s post on great Canadian singles, I wrote the estimable David Dacks to ask for an assist on the reggae/dub/dancehall front. He more than obliged. (Sorry we didn’t do more linking to samples but we’re both pressed for time.)

David Dacks writes:

Carl asked me about ‘important’ reggae singles in Canada. Since reggae in this country has a checkered history in its popularity and commercial success, it’s tough to determine importance. Also, unlike reggae in Jamaica and the UK, this country’s reggae milestones have been albums rather than singles (though this is starting to change). As a result, many of the country’s most important reggae artists never issued singles.

Light In The Attic’s Jamaica To Toronto series compiles many excellent singles; I won’t go into them here, but you can check out their site. The compiler of that series, DJ Sipreano, is a 45″ bloodhound par excellence and could school us all; but here’s my personal take on noteworthy Canadian reggae singles over the years.

Willie Williams, “Armagideon Time” (Studio One)
If any song deserves to be on Bob Mersereau’s main list, it’s this one. Starting off life as an instrumental in 1967 (written by Studio One music director and future Toronto reggae don Jackie Mittoo), the original tracks were overdubbed with new vocals by Willi Williams and keyboards by Mittoo in 1979. This slapdash yet atmospheric rock steady/disco combo hit big in England, and led to the Clash’s cover version. Though “Armagideon Time” was an internationally issued single/hit as opposed to a Canadian release, that merely puts it in the same league as the dozens of Neil Young singles that will no doubt be considered for the book.

Ishan People, “Come To The Music” (GRT)
This polished, hooky single was a big deal when it came out in the mid 70s when it seemed like reggae might break through to Canadian radio.

The Sattalites, “Wild” (Solid Gold)
“Too Late To Turn Back Time” was the bigger hit a few years later, but this single is top-shelf pop-reggae from their first album.

Messenjah, “Jam Session” (WEA)
This probably got the most play of any reggae song on MuchMusic prior to Snow’s “Informer.” Kitchener’s answer to Steel Pulse has aged well.

Michie Mee and LA Luv, “Run For Cover/Elements Of Style” (Justice).
Reputed to be the first rap record in Canada (also the last Boogie Down Production featuring Scott La Rock), its style is closer to dancehall.

Rumble & Strong, “Crazy Jam” (Gee Street)
Killer hip-hop/dancehall hybrid (on the infamous “Sleng Teng” riddim) for the UK market on Gee St. records.

Dream Warriors, “Ludi” (Island)
Not the first choice of too many DW fans, but it was the first hip-hop song to sample rocksteady as far as I’m aware (Slim Smith’s “My Conversation,” one of my all-time favourite songs), and one of the first songs to make the Canada-Jamaica-New York connection evident in hip-hop.

Kardinal Offishall, “Naughty Dread” (Beat Factory)
To paraphrase the Dream Warriors, “and now the legacy continues”. Great Bob Marley sample powers Kardi’s first single.

Exco Levi, “Oh Canada” (no label)
An interesting if syrupy take on allegiance to the adopted homeland, this struck a nerve when it was released 2 years ago. Easy on the autotune there, Exco…

Dubmatix & Linval Thompson, “Peace and Love” (7 Arts).
It’s unfortunate this album didn’t win the Juno this year, and that it missed the deadline for 2008-09 Polaris Prize consideration by two days. IMO one of the best-ever reggae albums ever made in Canada, and he’s an international headliner because of it.

… and an honourable mention to the Payolas’ “Eyes of a Stranger.”

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