Zoilus by Carl Wilson

PopCon09, the last roundup (part 4)

May 5th, 2009

The ever-rad, ever-bad subject Charlie Bertsch offers a long, very thoughtful retrospective on the Pop Conference - not just this year’s but the event’s whole history - at Zeek. It also reminds me that I haven’t quite finished my own, multipart lookback. Here are the highlights I hadn’t hit yet.

Tamara Palmer, author of Country-Fried Soul: Adventures in Southern Hip-Hop played a clever audio mix of samples and interviews she and a DJ friend made as part of her talk on the current rap meme, “It ain’t trickin’ if you got it.” Her presentation made it clear that the phrase is much more perverse than I thought: I’d always taken it as meaning that even though the speaker is spending money, buying women things, he’s hot enough (in that sense of “got it”) that the ladies would still be all over him - he’s not buying their affections (ie., being a john, a trick, to a whore). But in fact it seems to mean something closer to “it ain’t trickin’ if you can afford it” - if you’ve got enough green, then you’re not being played for a fool, not really, if you have to pony up to get laid. While Palmer didn’t go too much deeper, I was a bit startled to realize that the sexual economy depicted in dance music now has gotten starker than I’d thought, with the women-equal-sex, men-equal-money formula so taken for granted that this totally bogus rationalization could get traction - though she also suggested it might be mostly an inside joke that the rappers don’t take seriously, the casual-but-authoritative way it gets dropped suggests otherwise.

On the same panel, Jon Caramanica and Sean Fennessy presented an informal, entertaining look back at the brief bumpy YouTube-riding career of D’Andre Way, aka Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em (though they made only a small gesture toward the promised group dance lesson, sniff-sniff). You can get the general effect by watching the compiled Soulja Boy videos on the Tumblr page they created for the talk. They didn’t have a big point to make outside of SB’s overall awesomeness but the talk did conclude with some speculation on (and jokes about) whether Soulja Boy-style micro-careers are going to become the norm, with whole genres rising and falling faster than a Pop Conference could track ‘em, although the latest turn in Soulja Boy’s own story seems to be his attempt to switch tracks to a traditional career, moving from dance-novelty-singles to Auto-Tuned R&B with Kiss Me Through the Phone (which does at least keep up the subtheme of his career as a tribute to communication technology).

Also on things video and virulent, I missed Kurt B. Reighley’s talk on the Papaya dance - but thanks to this posted video, we can catch up. (See how good it would be if the whole conference got recorded?) I did see Holly Bass’s Pay Purview performance-art piece, which felt like a fairly thin idea (that she’d make the audience pay to keep her dancing in her absurdly sexually exaggerated outfit, thus rendering us complicit etc) stretched out over a lot of standard-issue gender-studies historical material (recorded accounts of the Hottentot Venus etc). Still it helped mix up the format, which is always great.

Then I retreated to my hotel room to write, missing tons of stuff. When I emerged, it was to give my talk. I was a bit distracted by my own tech issues during Stanford musicologist Charles Kronengold’s paper on “Articulated and Disarticulated Love” - I’d like to read it again to get a clearer idea of his thesis about the parallels between how love is put together (or not) and how music is. Then once I finished, Daphne Carr gave a bravura multi-media performance on the theme of writers (and musicians and others) relationship to our laptops, and the dangerous intimacies (and losses of intimacies) and even workers-rights issues involved. Those of us who could get the EMP’s wifi connection working laptopped along with her audience-participation instructions as she spoke, which in a small beautiful way both brought us together more as a group (she was really addressing music writers and scholars as a community in this piece) and illustrated the attention-deficit multitasking way of life she was discussing as an enormous shift in how we listen to and talk about music now.

I can’t do justice to Drew Daniel (of Matmos) and his verbal pyrotechnics later that day on “The Afterlives of Queer Minstrelsy,” but there was a lot of raw meat in his mediation on his own emotional reaction to finding out that electro-queer-punk artist Hawnay Troof was in fact “straight” in daily life (or at most a non- and never-practising bisexual), despite all his on-stage shouting about giving blowjobs etc. It made Drew realize that for all his theoretical sophistication about performance and authenticity, and sexuality as performance, etc., he had some small inner identity cop who wanted to enforce “homo-normativity.” It was an occasion to revisit the complex emotional and social apparatus around all kinds of minstrelsy, but also a chance for Drew to reaffirm what he seemed to most feel his reaction betrayed, which were his punk roots - the value of really queering the pitch, of risking offense, of trying to be someone you’re not. As he said, the fundamental punk nostrum is just this: “Leave home.” Even if that home is your “chosen family” in a “safe” “queer” “space.”

On the same panel the promising young NYU scholar Tavia Nyong’o introduced us to the amazing work of Kalup Linzy, who posts his crossdressing-race-crossing-gender-bending (and sometimes musical) parodic-soap-opera vids on YouTube. Attention Ryan Trecartin fans, we have a new hero. I liked Nyong’o’s thesis about the radical bathos of Linzy’s work, as kind of a Beckett-style flight into the abject while waiting for social change, and also a modern version of camp sadness, but really meanwhile this stuff just has to be seen and enjoyed, if that’s the right word for it. Here’s an excerpt from 2005’s “All My Chirrun.”

Finally on Sunday, there was Jody Rosen’s paper on “I Love, I Love, I Love My Wife But Oh You Kid!,” the first American pop cheating song, from 1909 - as Jody put it, “the year that sex broke.” The presentation was most memorable for the slides of Jody’s strenuously EBay-collected wealth of song sheets and other memorabilia documenting how “Oh You Kid” (or “Oh You Anything Else”) became a kind of mass culture password for naughtiness and insouciance for the next couple of decades, but I think he was suggesting that this shift in attitudes was a founding one in creating pop culture as the rest of the American 20th century would know it. (One revelation was that the classic chunk of schmaltz about a fallen woman, “Bird in a Gilded Cage,” was actually composed on a bet, as a parody, to see how treacly a song the composer Harry Von Tilzer could write.) Robert Christgau’s paper that followed, “The Old Folks Wish Them Well: Romantic Marriage in Rock n Roll,” was kind of an implicit critique of that pop attitude, noting the challenges that face a couple such as him and his wife Carola Dibbell, who are deeply committed to that pop culture - “a singles culture in more ways than one” - but also to their lifelong relationship. Bob’s paper amounted to little but a notional (or real but lost?) mixtape of songs that they could “use” in their relationship, from Elmore James’ “It Hurts Me Too” to Bonnie Raitt’s “Good Enough” to the Drive-By Truckers’ “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife.” But his deep emotional connection to the music, with the number of times his voice broke and tears welled, compensated for the (uncharacteristic) lack of brainwork. As I’ve mentioned here before, I wish we’d had more discussion of the dialectic between Jody’s and Bob’s papers at this point.

The same panel included Karl Hagstrom Miller’s rushed but interesting look at how abortion has been treated in popular (and not-so-popular) song, including this remarkable video by Amanda Palmer (of the Dresden Dolls):

I closed the morning - and the conference - with the “Liminal Grooves” panel, including Oliver Wang’s talk about Betty Davis’s unreleased 1976 album with Funk House (to which we were all hoping the proprieters of release label Light in the Attic, who were in the room, were paying close attention) (here’s Oliver’s own post-conference post, by the way, featuring illustrative MP3s and some kind remarks about my paper); Mark Villegas’s talk on Joe Bataan’s “Rap-O-Clap-O”; Jason King managing to make Maxwell, an artist I’ve never given a second thought, seem hella interesting (though what I’ll remember most is his remarks on how many of the “neo-soul” artists of the late 90s and early 2000s seem to have fallen into this pattern of being unable to finish and release new music since then, as if their mellowness were kind of an overarching philosophy of lack of effort, or on the other hand a symptom of dysfunction [dys-funk-tion] in itself); and reissue producer Andy Zax’s fascinatingly dusty delve into the archives to discover Johnny Mathis’s unlikely lost album I Love My Lady, which he made with Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards (then the most sought-after production team in the business) - a tale of how lost music gets lost and what factors go into whether or not it ever is “found.”

The great lost panel of the ‘09 Popcon, by the way, might have been the impromptu seminar in Bob Marley studies that Garnette Cadogan (who’s at work on a sure-to-be-killer book on Marley) and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro (who’d just published a huge Marley piece in, of all places, the New York Review of Books) held Sunday afternoon in the lobby of the hotel, but some things - in music talk as in music and in love - are still better when they’re done in secret.

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