by carl wilson

EMP 4 & Final: Quote-Unquote


EMP 2006 - nothing but the hits. (Continued after the jump, as a courtesy to readers who don't care.)

Besides everything quoted below, there was Ann Powers riffing lyrically on Kate Bush, Rapunzel and ultrafemme new-wave hair; Robert Christgau and Sean Fennessy on how flagrantly offensive coke rap (Young Jeezy, Lil' Wayne, the Clipse) ended up becoming a trap-door through which they experienced their relationships with their fathers - for Christgau as an unexpected vehicle of catharsis after his dad died (one of his only experiences with an actual "guilty pleasure," he says); for Sean as a window into his drug-cop dad's world (followed by a very confusing Q&A; in which it was debated how literal the coke dealing is and what its economics would be, and why anyone is bragging about selling coke when coke has gotten so cheap); Michelangelo Matos on the song Love Child - and being a love child (see yesterday's post); Daphne Carr taking pleasure in shaming the critical world by doing a hilarious pastiche of all the inaccurate ways critics use "art school" as an epithet; Elijah Wald on Louis Armstrong's love of Guy Lombardo (a "guilty pleasure" most of us aren't old enough even to understand as shameful); Baz Dreisinger on Jah Cure, the convicted Jamaican rapist who sings sweet loverman songs of regret from within his jail cell thanks to a prison-rehab program; Alex Ross's off-festival guided tour through 20th-century notational music; Jalyah Burrell's contentious position that Mary J. Blige has started pandering to her white audience (her best line: "Black people who express love for Kate Bush or John Mayer are positioning themselves as cities on a hill") and Jabali Stewart's rallying cry for black people reclaiming rock as "fearless vampire killers" (the vampires being white appropriators of black history and culture); and Sarah Dougher's unsummarizable conflicted tour through her experience as a left-feminist experiencing catharsis through patriotic Nashville country (whose best line was about the song Riding with Private Malone: "I'm crying to a song about a magical car") (I think I cried three or four times during her presentation, which included Dougher playing recordings of tons of the songs but also sometimes singing them herself).

I missed at least that many good papers, such as Geeta Dayal's talk on the neuroscience of guilt-and-pleasure, Drew Daniel's How to Sing Along with Sweet Home Alabama; Franklin Bruno on his guilt about what's become of indie rock (its conversion from bohemia to petit-burgeois business model, mainly); JD Considine on J-pop; Jody Rosen's rescheduled talk on ragtime; and Douglas Wolk's talk about YouTube and "The Numa Numa Dance," which drew a standing ovation while I was oversleeping.

This year's conference was a guilty pleasure in its own way. I loved it, but it felt less sharp and focused and challenging than last year's. Many of the papers were smart and informative but not so pointed. Is this perhaps because people only want to go so deep talking about shame (see Stephin Merritt quote below)? Perhaps because with the Chuck Eddy firing at the Village Voice and other shakeups in the field there was less desire to argue amongst ourselves and more desire to applaud and support each other (this is Ann Powers' theory)? Or because this subject matter doesn't jack into the really divisive issues in criticism right now, the way last year's minstrelsy-and-masquerade theme did? I'm not sure. It could have. (I had thought David Thomas, not Merritt, would be the guest rock star who made everyone furious.) Anyway, it gives Eric and Ann and other organizers plenty to consider when setting up next year's conference. For which I can hardly wait. No matter what, this conference is helping to change some of the face of pop criticism, by educating us, by informing us what others are up to, but perhaps most of all by moving the goalposts, giving everyone who attends a new imagined audience - this network of brilliant readers and peers to serve as a standard. Not to mention a great place to workshop one's book ideas. And now here's some semi-random one-liners.

Stephin Merritt: "Western harmonic music is a system of thwarting and rewarding the expectations of the listener. Undercutting the pleasure only heightens the pleasure. If you've ever had sexual relations, you'll know what I mean."

[On what he learned from doing 69 Love Songs]: "I discovered quantity is quality."

[On falsetto]: "When there's a break in the voice you can't tell if you are laughing or crying. I've discovered this trying to sing at a show in Colorado, at high altitudes. The body starts heaving, huhh-huhh-huhh, and you just choose whether to laugh or to cry, since we're conditioned to associate it with one or another. ... This is also why men cry at Wouldn't It Be Nice by the Beach Boys more than women do - because you are subvocalizing along with the song without knowing it, and when you reach the falsetto break, you subconsciously feel like you are already crying."

[On why he subverts genres]: "Because I'm embarrassed." (He added that this is also why Andy Warhol did everything the way he did.)

[On the difference between shame and embarrassment]: "You can talk about embarrassment. You cannot talk about shame."

Drew Daniel. [On shame and the conference theme - guilty pleasures - which was Drew's idea]: "Last year's conference was all about masquerade, about how pop allows you to escape who you are. I was inspired by this quote from Emmanuel Levinas who said that 'shame is the experience of being riveted to your being.' " (To, as Levinas also said, " that most radical and unalterably binding of chains, the fact that the I is oneself.") "Musical pleasure resembles shame in that you can't control it."

[On the French band Nouvelle Vague, which covers punk and new-wave classic in a faux-bossa-nova style]: "Nouvelle Vague don't just beat the dead horse of punk - they liquefy the dead horse and serve the dead horse as a smoothie."

[On camp]: "At this point, if you're shooting for camp as a gay person, you've already lost." (Followed by a comment I didn't quite get down on how straight people use camp - like the Mamma Mia stage musical - at this point as a kind of "relief" from heteronormativity - that is, in a way, as blackface... queerface?)

Tom Smucker: "The Carpenters represent the thought that maybe Phil Spector and Mama Cass had 'gone too far.' But Karen's voice is the 'maybe.' "

[On Lawrence Welk's music and its fusion of all forms of "postwar fun"]: "It was about a musical family; it was a music about mainstream social cohesion. It wasn't about an inner life, which is what makes it horrifying to rock audiences. ... You can't 'flip' his music because there's nothing there on the inside." .... [And for those who say affectionately, 'I used to watch it with my grandmother']: "That's not a guilty pleasure, that's a temporary suspension of aesthetics for valid reasons of sentiment." (The loneliness of Karen Carpenter, as one of "Lawrence Welk's children", he went on to say, is that she has no musical family - she's just driving through the suburbs with her brother in an expensive car.)

[In the Q&A;, discussing Karen Carpenter's big, Neal Peart-esque drum kit, in which she almost entirely used just the snare and one tom, Eric Lott says]: "That seems like another aspect of her self-denial - you have this huge kit and you're not playing it!"

David Thomas (whose talk was delivered so theatrically that nobody broke through the screen of his performance to question some very questionable assumptions). "Rock is electrified folk music. It is not catholic but parochial, not a wide tent but a narrow road. It is in the blood."

[On the Tuvan region of Yaktusk]: "Land of the mammoths, frozen as they chewed buttercups." [On the band Cholbon from that region]: "Their sound was closer to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon than Pink Floyd ever accomplished. Put aside questions of cargo culture. You wondered why Pink Floyd had never owed up to their debt to the Yakutian rock scene."

"There's no alternative to meaning."

"The corollaries of datapanik: 1: Dataflow is imperative. 2: Judgment is evil. 3: Everything is true. Datapanik muffles the voice of geography."

"The answer to 'Can foreigners play rock music?' is no. No. Not under any circumstances. But sometimes they can sure sound good if they don't try."

[In the Q&A;] "I don't believe that human beings think. Sound is the basis of consciousness. But I can't explain that now. This is just the result of not having had a job for 35 years."

Seth Sanders. [On a Slayer-inspired murder in California] "The girl's family sued Slayer, who responded that they hadn't even done the necrophilia rite!"

"Everything modernity takes away, it gives back on its own terms."

David Grubbs: [On what John Cage didn't understand about recordings]: "Records make accidents happen." (By providing a frame that makes chance visible/audible.)

[Quoting John Cage, when someone offered him a middle-row seat at a concert so he'd get better acoustics]: "Imagine, sound being 'better' in one place than another."

David Sanjek. [On Nashville Sound recordings that provide effervescent music with peppy background vocals by the Anita Carr Singers for bleak lyrics about not wanting to live anymore]: "It's the commercialization of mood swings."

[On music fans who value the tragic stories of dysfunctional musicians]: "The word 'schadenfreude' grants these lookyloos way too much dignity."

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, May 03 at 7:15 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)



Malstain - I guess what Smucker might say is that your sentiment in this case would be about your grandma, not about Lawrence Welk. So you could say that there are two kinds of guilty pleasure, one that's associative and the other that's internalized: "I like that 'bad' music because when I first heard it I was dancing with the woman who became my wife..." versus "I like that 'bad' music because it makes me feel the way I feel about my wife." In practice, though, you're right, those two are difficult and sometimes maybe impossible to separate. (Though in the music-talk context, just calling sentiment "valid" is a step forward.)

Sean - thank you. I really loved your paper, too - it managed the very difficult trick of being funny and tender and painful all at once.

Posted by zoilus on May 4, 2006 1:44 PM



Carl, sorry we didn't get a chance to chat, but I just wanted to tell you that your paper was one of the most clever AND most incisive things I saw all week. Not to mention revelatory. Celine could well have been jokey and one-note and you really imbued with considered prose. (And your panel was dynamite.)

Posted by Sean Fennessey on May 4, 2006 9:26 AM



"That's not a guilty pleasure, that's a temporary suspension of aesthetics for valid reasons of sentiment."

That's a great quote. But other than political correctness, isn't unfashionable ol' sentiment the very thing that makes pleasures guilty?

Posted by malstain on May 4, 2006 9:01 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson