by carl wilson

EMP 2008: Academy Fight Song

Douglas Wolk's super Ballad of the Green Berets presentation at the Pop Conference. Photo swiped from Chelsey's Practice Space.

Some folks have been down on the recent latest edition of that annual pop-think mindmelt, the prattle in Seattle, the EMP Pop Conference, for leaning harder than before to the academic end rather than the journalists' side. They complain that it makes for drier presentations and more esoteric language. Maybe yes, maybe no, but I also wonder why that shift might be happening.

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To make that argument, you have to overlook the amazing work many academics have contributed - including this year Katherine Meizel on "God Bless America" and "God Bless the U.S.A." and American civic religion; John Vallier on Christian "applied ethnomusicology" (that is, writing hymns in the style of local musical cultures as an evangelical gambit); Dan Thomas-Glass comparing Public Enemy and poet Lyn Hejinian's pauses, stresses and caesurae as figures of urban spatio-cultural gaps, in a hilarious fast-thinking power-point presentation; Tim Lawrence's bracing polemic on the way disco is left out of the story of the late 70s/early 80s downtown avant-art/music scene (with Arthur Russell as exhibit A); and Charles Hughes's lovely meditation on Sam Cooke, among others.

More significantly, you have to overlook the fact that many, many of the people who present at the Pop Conference are both academics and pop critics, including some all-stars like Joshua Clover (whose by-all-reports-mindblowing M.I.A. lecture, like many others, I missed on the Friday because I was holed up in my hotel room overcoming writer's block on my own talk), Oliver Wang, Elijah Wald, Daphne Brooks (whose Amy Winehouse paper, which again I missed, was named by many as the best piece in the conference), Daphne Carr, Will Hermes (whose paper on 70s NYC rhythm culture, from salsa to minimalism to hip-hop, dovetailed beautifully with Tim Lawrence's), Franklin Bruno, Greil Marcus and of course conference organizer Eric Weisbard himself.

By conference's end, Robert Christgau was surveying folks to see how many critics were doing academic work or knew other critics who either were combining the two fields or had switched over to academic work entirely. A comparison to poetry and fiction occurred to me - sometime, it seems in the '70s or '80s, there must have been a pivot point where the authors who made a living mainly from writing or from another sort of day job started to be outnumbered by writers who made their living as teachers, because that's how the economics and the culture had shifted. These days, it's almost surprising to meet a creative writer who is not in some way connected to the academic world (unless they work in the publishing field itself). Are we seeing the same thing happen with pop criticism, and indeed arts criticism in general?

For sure, the freelance environment has gotten harsher both economically and creatively, as the print medium is struggling to survive and most newspapers/magazines also have become less hospitable to long-form reviews and cultural journalism. Simultaneously the academic world has become more welcoming of pop-cultural discussion and studies (provided they're put through disciplinary filters, of course) - an opening partly owed to the way journalists and critics on film, music and TV built up intellectual cred for their forms over the past 40-plus years. The Pop Conference itself is a product of that crossover.

I don't want to leap to conclusions about the trend, but it's worth tracking.

Otherwise, I thought it was a strong conference. The opening panel suffered a bit from the decision to cross-promote with the EMP's (excellent, from the bits of it I saw) "American Sabor" exhibit on the history of Latino/Chicano/Hispanic (take your pick) contributions to U.S. pop music. It was great to hear the perspectives of Louie Perez from Los Lobos (whose testimony to the band's discovery and embrace of their "parents' music" was terrific), Raul Pacheco of Ozomatli, the amazing El Vez (Robert Lopez, fromerly of The Zeros, who connected punk outsiderness and Latino outsiderness) and younger L.A. musician Martha Gonzales of the band Quetzal (whose music I have to check out) as well as the scholars and curators.

But the tendency to continually refer back to the exhibition and debate its effectiveness and its set of terms really hobbled the discussion and prevented it from getting deeper into the core issue the panel began with, the dominance of the black music/white music binary in talk about American pop music and everything it erases. (It was great to learn that "Louie Louie" was actually based on a riff from a cha-cha sung by Ricky Martin's dad - I'm embarrassed not to have known before!)

What's more, and this made for an uncomfortable tension in the whole conference, it meant that the opening panel didn't succeed in framing the conference theme of "music, conflict and change." Of course the two subjects are related - any exploration of race/ethnicity, community and cultural history has to do with conflict and change - but there was a split throughout the program between the Latino/a-themed panels and papers and the ones squarely aimed at political-social content and context in music. There were a few points where they were juxtaposed, but it was a programming challenge that couldn't really be overcome.

Combine that with the fact that there were so many presentations this year - more than 160! - with four panels going on at once, most of the time, and it exacerbated a sense that there were several separate (albeit intersecting) conferences going on at once. While the inclusiveness is great, I still would prefer a somewhat smaller conference with less counterprogramming in the interest of what comes out of the conference, as a conversation that then continues in the days, months and years to come. When fewer conference-goers have heard the same papers, it's harder to have that conversation.

I don't want to come off as endorsing Christgau's "I miss the monoculture" proclamation (during his terrific John Mayer talk), but just as there is content to that sentiment, in yearning for a shared public culture that maybe never existed, I'd like the conference to combine its diversity with a strong sense of focus. (Which may mean that not all of the all-stars get to present every year - which might be a promotional obstacle but still seems the right road. That's what you call affirmative action, no?)

That said, I do think the "conflict and change" theme prompted people to sharpen up their arguments this year - there were more strong assertions and on-a-limb theories, along with the excellent research and analysis. For instance, in Jody Rosen's utterly ass-kicking talk on early 1900s vaudeville wild girl Eva Tanguay (which I hope becomes a book and a documentary and, hell, PBS series on vaudeville and the American experience), he didn't stop at asserting that she was the first-ever pop star (!) and that her all-but-forgotten influence can be traced in the styles and manners of female image-making and music-making alike well into the jazz age; he added that pop history has overlooked vaudeville's vital role in between minstrelsy and the age of recording, and that it's a distortion that needs to be addressed.

However, in my experience the stronger theses didn't lead to so many really lively, provocative Q&A; sessions - maybe because the schedule was so packed that people were thinking more about where they were headed next, and also felt run a bit ragged?

I won't go into all the other fine work I saw and heard, let alone all that I missed. (Do a Google blog search on "Emp Conference" and you'll find a nice set of reports.) But despite my (I hope constructive) criticisms, it was a great conference. As always, I can't wait for next year.

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 20 at 11:10 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)



I totally, completely forgot about the pop conference. it was only the sudden curiosity about Zoilus that brought me to this post which alerted me to the fact that it had happened. thank you for being ever more diligent than us Seattle musicians who might be starting to take the conference for granted. it sounds like we seriously missed out. Bob Christgau on John Mayer? gah!

as a conference attendee and blogger for the last three years, which by most accounts seems to be a kind of Pop Conference Golden Era, i am shamed!

however, i thought the time had come for the conference to do something outrageous. i remember the discussion at the end of last year about the future of the conference and of music writing, and i guess i expected things to be done. have things been done? it seems to me that this year's attempt at a solution involved the philosophy that more papers bring more people.

but what about all those cool ideas that were thrown around, like a publication, an online forum, more events-based outreach? Was that really a whole year ago? Seems like yesterday.

Anyhow, i didn't expect the whole event to pass me by without some kind of splash that was going to be made. But maybe I've just been busy.

Posted by ali marcus on April 23, 2008 11:55 AM




Solid post, appreciate your thoughts.

I, for one, didn't think this year's conf leaned more or less towards academic vs. journalistic papers. I'm sure one could run through the panelist's bios and quantify the numbers of each and compare that with previous years but I think the choice of what papers to attend will ultimately color the impression one comes away with. Moreover, as you point out, there's a great deal of crossover between the two professions these days. I think your analysis is pretty spot-on - it's a reflection of economics and how changes in both professions are bringing them closer together. Used to be Simon Frith was the exception to the rule but I think he's been one inspiration for other folks to follow suit. I would add though: there's plenty of journalists-who-just-journal out there but something like EMP is going to appeal to those with more of an "academic"-bent (however you want to define that) simply by nature of the event itself.

I do agree that the conf could be better served by narrowing the choice of panels - I know they went for a more broadly inclusive set this year, which included two Sunday morning sessions (not done before) but while I'm sympathetic to the desire to be more inclusive, I've always liked EMP for being more compact and intimate compared to a conventional academic conference.

I absolutely agree with your critiques of the opening panel and I think you're actually being overly generous. My impression - and what I gathered from everyone I spoke to - was that the opening panel was a low-point. It came off poorly on multiple levels, not the least of which was the defensiveness of some of the curators to what I thought were legitimate concerns. I wish David Ritz had been keynote instead - his talk wouldn't have fit the theme better either but at least it would have been provocative and entertaining.

Good point about the Q&A; sessions - those were kind of lackluster and I was surprised by that. Wasn't sure what was going on there but I do find that those tend to be personality-driven rather than topic-driven so it could just be an issue of who came this year (or who was on quieter behavior).

Personally, I think the conf has hit a really good groove the last 3-4 years now. I've gone every year since the first and what's happened is that the conf has achieved a nice balance between bringing in new folks every year who help diversify the perspectives and topic-base, and a growing community of EMP faithful who provide some consistency and identity to it as well.

Some folks complain that EMP has its little cliques, which I suppose is true, but that's not unique to the EMP: any kind of annual event of this nature is bound to develop social circles and networks regardless. I, for one, saw more "new" people this year than at the last two and I think that was a conscious effort by the organizers to bring in new folks.

As for "combining its diversity with a strong sense of focus" - I think one obstacle to that is based on how people can submit panels rather than individual papers. In those instances, it's an all or nothing shot - they can't line-item who they want off a panel even if you could create a theoretically more interesting panel by mixing-matching.

In any case, I missed Bob's "monoculture" lament though, as you note, I'd seriously question if such a thing ever existed. I think the world seemed smaller "back in the day" so I'm sympathetic to what's being said there but to me, there's always been different worlds of pop music to follow.

Posted by OW on April 21, 2008 10:30 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson