by carl wilson

Benny XVI & The Jets

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Later than usual notice of this week's Overtones from Saturday's Globe & Mail, a reflection on some of the "authenticity" issues raised by the EMP conference, with cameo appearances by Pope Benedict XVI, Erik Davis and Jimmy Page. If you were reading the site last week you've already heard much of this, but, hey, enjoy. The delay was due to an illness in the family that took me away from fast modems and other amenities over the weekend - similar gaps might happen here in the future and I apologize in advance for that, but we'll keep on rockin' in the blogworld as much as possible. [...]

The pope had his conclave. I had mine

CARL WILSON
OVERTONES
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, April 23, 2005

When former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger burst through a plume of holy smoke this week to emerge in his new, David Lee Roth-esque white jumpsuit as Pope Benedict XVI, most of the heckling under the roar of the crowd hung on his opinions on sex (homosexuality, contraception, female priests). The 78-year-old pontiff's views on drugs are also a pretty safe bet. But is the new Pope down with rock 'n' roll?

He answered that question at the Eighth International Church Music Congress in Rome in 1986: Rock, according to Ratzinger, is a pagan tendency that "lowers the barriers of individuality and personality" and lets the listener "liberate himself from the burden of consciousness." In some quarters, that process is known as "kicking out the jams," but the man who would be pope said it makes rock "the complete antithesis of Christian faith in the redemption."

Perhaps, like many people in 1986, Ratzinger was just discouraged by the post-new-wave slump. Otherwise, his stance is rather bad news for Christian rock bands such as Collective Soul, who'd been going on the theory that a heavy backbeat is as fit a vehicle as any for the True Word.

Coincidentally, I just got back from another sequestered conclave, the fourth annual Pop Conference at the Experience Music Project museum in Seattle, where for three days last week a couple of hundred musicians, critics and academics gathered to swap verbal riffs. The Church Music Congress probably included a lot less swearing, but the Pop Conference also proved to be a hotbed of skepticism about music's capacity to tell a story straight.

The Pop Conference has rapidly become the Kentucky Derby for music nerds, where writers throw down jokes, insights and allusions like rappers at an MC battle. As Robert Christgau, the Village Voice writer known as the dean of rock criticism, told the Seattle Weekly last week: "It's the best thing that's ever happened to serious consideration of pop music, not just in this country but, as far as I know, in the world."

(Serious, mind you, doesn't mean solemn: I missed Christgau's paper, so I don't know quite how the eminent writer's youthful Coasters fandom led to his "first, disquieting glimpses of vulva" — but it was certainly the most quoted, and giggled-over, line of the weekend.)

It was a jolt to be in a place where music talk took over the status usually given to politics and sports, and the topsy-turvy feeling was enhanced by this year's theme: Music as Masquerade: Poseurs, Playas and Beyond.

The presentations dealt with disguise and crossover, with musicians and songs that play-act in order to give listeners pleasure, often the enjoyment of supposing that we too are something we're not — "fake bands" and "fake fans."

The opening plenary was a tribute to a book that could have lent its title to the whole conference, as it did to Bob Dylan's latest album: Love and Theft, Virginia academic Eric Lott's hugely influential 1993 study of minstrel shows and their influence on American pop culture from early country to Tin Pan Alley standards to blues and rock. Blackface, Lott argues, didn't come solely out of whites' hatred and mockery of blacks, but also from suppressed envy, curiosity, longing and desire.

The panel dug into the many expressions of "blacking up" in American culture, from Al Jolson to Elvis to Eminem. Duke University-based panelist Mark Anthony Neal called current "crunk" hip-hop producer Lil Jon "the first Sambo of the 21st century," with his shades and dreadlocks and gold teeth a kind of "crunkface." Yet as University of London professor Marybeth Hamilton asked, "What's at stake when we contend that some cultural forms are more 'real' than others?"

The rest of the 125 papers ventured further into the gap between appearance and reality, touching on early-1900s ethnic mimicry beyond blackface (with "Chink" and "Dago" characters, or stereotyped "comical Jews" singing I'm a Yiddish Cowboy, oddly enough to predominantly Jewish audiences); on Bruce Springsteen posing as the new Woody Guthrie ("Okie-face"); and on how Polish disco producers adapted nationalist folksongs in the Communist era.

African-American feminist rock critics talked about the frustrations of being fans of music they're not "supposed" to care about, like Southern rock and metal (even though their sources are in the blues). Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith's guitarist, rhapsodized about Bing Crosby-style pop crooning as a side door for men into femininity, not to mention seduction. Others considered the paradoxes of punk reunions, death-metal symphonies, albino rappers, Mick Jagger's lips, the media's Yoko Ono-ization of Courtney Love, or how learning a new dance can transform who and what you are.

It all reinforced what Lott — who cut a bit of a rock-star figure himself, a hunk with fading blond locks and a soft-spoken, confidential manner — said early on: "Authenticity is always an ideological category. Its only use is to police boundaries."

In the absence of authenticity, though, the puzzle is to understand the listener's sense of "truth." Surely Madonna or Tupac or Miles Davis fans aren't wrong when they feel a song honestly resonates with their lives — not, at least, just because the song is fiction rather than fact, constructed rather than somehow natural-born.

Writer Erik Davis took a step toward answering that quandary in the final Sunday-morning panel, titled Black Mass. In a paper on Led Zeppelin's fixation with the occult, Davis said that whatever "black magic" meant to Jimmy Page, the way he deployed his lyrical allusions and his "Zoso" symbol on album covers and amps paralleled what he did as a studio producer: He used technique, a kind of magic, to suggest there is more there than meets the eye or ear. Fans filled up this mystique with their own meanings, just like the televangelists who spun Zeppelin records backward and found cryptic messages.(As Davis quipped, "We may need to talk about a Christian turntablism.")

Benedict XVI might not have liked it when Davis — drawn up to his full height in Hammer of the Gods T-shirt, straggling beard and leather pants — opened up a book Page once published and barked out an incantation to summon a demon. But surely the church's latest pop star would recognize the method — a bit of theatre, shot through with artifice and its own vexed history, in which a figure in strange costume invokes a mystery, and makes spirits rise.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 25 at 1:12 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

COMMENTS

Go Man Go !!!!

Posted by Phil on April 25, 2005 4:53 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson