by carl wilson

One Week After:
EMP Pop Con 2007, Part 1

I didn't get quite the mind-jolt from the Pop Conference at the Experience Music Project in Seattle this year that I have in the past. As always, it was an amazing event - the only place journalists, academics, some musicians and some industry people as well as a few thinkers-without-portfolio (like Internet fan-discussion group members) gather and exchange ideas and energies. I'm going to break my notes up into a series of more digestibly sized posts but this is really one long recap and reflection.

As I said, I didn't come away with quite the same high. I don't think it's because the presentations were any weaker, though I felt that many were less pointed - collections of intriguing material and analysis rather than arguments. It was partly because it was my third time, and also that I'm a bit worn out from busyness and wasn't as sparkable as usual. It may have been that the subject - about "time and place," geography and history in music - was, though worthy, by nature a little distancing and less likely to cause present-tense controversy and conflict.

But it was also because there were more panels scheduled - which meant that whenever you were hearing one speaker, you were missing three others, and that when you chatted with people at the conference, chances were that they hadn't heard any of the same presentations you had. So conversation was often limited to, "What have you heard that you liked?" rather than "What did you think of what so-and-so said?" I realize it's tough for the programming committee to reject so many submissions, but the number will likely only rise in future (the way proposals have risen for the 33 1/3 series, which along with the annual Da Capo Best Music Writing anthology is in some ways a print analogue of the Pop Con), but the value of the event - as of all criticism - is as much in the conversation it enables as in the presentations themselves, and that side should be nurtured just as diligently. The curators recognized this by scheduling three different discussion/plenary sessions and a presenters' afterparty (thanks, Matos!) on top of the opening and closing receptions, but the architecture of the conference also affects the content of those interactions.

For my part, I decided to propose a discussion session rather than a specific paper this year. It was called "Seeing Scenes: The Music Critic in Place." My idea was to talk about localism and partisanship as both fruitful strategies and conflict-ridden problems in critical practice. I partly used Toronto theatre-maker Darren O'Donnell's Q&A; format - getting individuals up one by one and letting the audience ask them anything they wanted on the theme - and then let that morph into a more free-form discussion. I was happy with how it went - a chance among other things to talk to non-Toronto folk about my somewhat-controversial place in promoting and analyzing things like Torontopia and Bad Bands - but there were some disappointments: First, predictably, it took awhile to get warmed up, and with the necessary time constraints, it felt like we had to end just when things were getting interesting. Second, a lot fewer folks in the room than I expected actually work as local rather than (as they say in the U.S.) "national" critics. I inadvertantly compounded that problem in my facilitation, as the people I knew personally and who were therefore the first to pitch in and help the talk get going were all "national" writers, although Ann Powers, for instance, had some really fascinating things to say about working in Los Angeles and feeling frustrated by the way the entertainment-industry agenda and her editors' need to drive eyeballs to their website prevent her from being able to engage with the city itself as much as she'd like. (With a nice sidebar on the fact that in L.A. the music business itself is "local.")

In the second half a few folks, such as Peter Scholtes of Minneapolis's City Pages (I love the name of his blog, by the way: "Complicated Fun") spoke up for the values of localism, saying that all music begins as local music and that if critics disdain getting their hands dirty in that arena - a lot of the critics present said they just didn't hear good music being made by local acts, for instance - then part of the ecosystem of how great music happens gets damaged. But mostly the localism idea (which to me is also a political proposal about the need as a citizen and an intellectual to be engaged with the community in which you're physically situated, not just in the notional and virtual communities of culture) was slighted in favour of a discussion about how friendly critics should be with their subjects. I felt like this was a misreading of my advocacy of "partisanship" and critical engagement with the artistic process, but probably an inevitable one. Robert Christgau intervened on the side of the predictable but worthy ideal of critical distance, saying that critics who don't maintain it are just bad critics. Ann asked, picking up on some points I'd made in my introduction, whether they might just be up to something different. Bob said, "No, I'll stick with bad." Which got a laugh, but was a bit difficult to answer without feeling like you'd be picking an unwinnable fight. (More about that in a second.) Still, it felt like the session stirred a few pots, and people said they enjoyed it.

(To be continued...)

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, April 28 at 11:46 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)

 

COMMENTS

Ali - Yes, there is something quite backwards, or at least turned around, about the musicians looking for praise from a critic. I think part of what I'm struggling against is that my paper didn't have a music editor, really, up until the person before me (and I'm a newbie in my own right, as this conversation probably shows). They just had two columnists who ran down what shows they thought were worth going to in a given week. So to have a bigger music section with even an iota of critical thought is different for the wee scene.

The saucy alt-weekly tone is something we play with, but not everyone hits; I have a very serious, smart (and sometimes funny) jazz/world music columnist who kept the old format and on the other hand I have interns who are much more likely to introduce their shorts with personal anecdotes (which I almost, completely accidentally, typed as anecdonts). In a way I think I just worry about it too much and haven't learned to have a thick enough skin yet, but on the other hand I think since this paper has never really been critical of local art (as opposed to local government!) there's still an internal struggle as to whether we should just write about things we like or work from a more critical standpoint.

Sorry to hijack the conversation. I'm in Eugene, by the way, and haven't come across a lot of nearby folks to have a similar chat with!

Posted by Molly on May 5, 2007 1:23 PM

 

 

I think this is brilliant, and why I love Zoilus:

"I think it's worth asking *what* is local about it, what does it say about the dynamic of the place you are in, and giving value on that level - rather than, as I think most music writing does, to try to de-localize local music and link it to established successes elsewhere."


Also, Molly, about how to get musicians on the same page...the irony of a musician looking for praise and support from a critic...is it irony? It's counterintuitive, anyways, and, gosh, the only way I can imagine a publication really successful at that is if it has really good taste. And is taste subjective? Alt weeklies tend to have this saucy attitude that permeates everything, and perhaps one that feels more sincere would be more believable because the writing would be more honest?

Disclaimer: I don't know what publication you work with, so I don't mean this personally. I'm in Seattle, if that helps you gauge my points of reference.

Posted by ali marcus on May 4, 2007 8:17 PM

 

 

Ali and Carl - thanks for the replies. I absolutely agree about the necessity of an honest reception, and that the positivity compulsion is beneath contempt - but, like Carl notes, it is something we have to deal with. And the situation seems to me to be that artists DON'T know what they're getting into. That's part of what I would love to have a conversation about: how you express to the musicians in a cozy little town like the one I'm in that we are not here just to promote their shows, no judgements made, no questions asked. I suspect this is a problem alt-weeklies in particular face because, at least with a smaller paper, there's this perception that we belong to the community; we write about local issues and local people and therefore are theirs, somehow.

Carl, I liked what you said about the specific kind of partisanship quite a lot. I think I may have to kick up a discussion about some of those ideas with my freelancers. A lot of my own partisanship is less well-thought-out than it should be, and this gives me some good angles from which to look more closely at it.

Posted by Molly on May 4, 2007 6:27 PM

 

 

"There are also scenes within scenes, scenes that need help and scenes that don't ... "

That's a big part of what I was talking about: The kind of partisanship I mean is not to say "I support this because it's the local scene," but to say, "Among the various levels of local scenes, this particular artist or cluster of artists is doing something unexpected, pushing towards something distinct." This kind of partisanship doesn't have to be local - it can be about non-geographically-based scenes, for instance - but when it is local, I think it's worth asking *what* is local about it, what does it say about the dynamic of the place you are in, and giving value on that level - rather than, as I think most music writing does, to try to de-localize local music and link it to established successes elsewhere.

And making your choices based partly on where you can be useful, too.

The whole compulsion-to-be-positive thing is obviously beneath contempt - though I agree it's something local music journalists have to deal with, that doesn't give it any validity. Although of course it is always worth asking yourself whether your negativity is self-aggrandizing or not.

Posted by zoilus on May 4, 2007 2:36 PM

 

 

Well I firmly believe that a critic should be honest about their reception of the music. Even if it's a friend, and it's negative. It's also the critic's job to pick and choose what to write about, so if they want to stay away from really harsh criticism, it's still possible to comment on flaws and be constructive about what you would have liked to heard instead, or in addition, etc.

I talk about this all the time with people in my "scene." But it's a two way street - the other artists have to understand what they're getting into, and they should expect honesty from the critic. It's like expecting justice from a judge, right? When I find myself on the other side of the coin, that's the attitude I have to have.

Thanks for the relevant points, Molly.

Posted by ali marcus on May 4, 2007 11:22 AM

 

 

Like Mike, I was there but too shy to speak up, despite being what felt like one of the rare folks at the conference from alt-weekly land. It's great to read your thoughts on the panel and see what you meant it to be and how it worked out; I liked the format, and the comments, but was frustrated by the lack of comments that actually addressed a truly local (non-L.A., non-NYC) scene. It all made me want to propose that all the music editors get together at the upcoming alt-weekly conference in Portland - except I can't figure out how to do that.

I also think Mike has some interesting points in his comments about live shows and recordings and how alt-weeklies respond to both. It's true, of course, that weeklies are tied in to what's happening during the week at hand, and that also makes it true that a lot of other local music might not get the coverage (however, at least from my point of view, I can promise that more shows does not automatically equal more coverage; I have a pet peeve about bands that play too often and oversaturate their audiences). But that's not necessarily a fault of the critics so much as it's part of the structure. At least at my paper, space is always at a premium, and anything that's not time-sensitive is the first thing likely to be cut - so you wind up not taking the time to write the other pieces since you know they may just get pushed back and back and back.

One thing I wanted to bring up but, again, was too shy to is the boundaries of community - chiefly, how local music critics handle the seemingly pervasive (again, in my experience) notion that local papers should always praise and be in favor of local acts. That's not a tactic I'm interested in, but in a smaller town like mine there's a perceived attack involved in any negative review, or at least there seems to be. There are also scenes within scenes, scenes that need help and scenes that don't ... and a million other topics I'm going to stop myself from nattering about, as I've written too much already.

Thanks for starting the discussion.

Posted by Molly on May 2, 2007 9:38 PM

 

 

Mike - great point. Maybe part of the problem - or, discomfort, or, dissatisfaction - with the way local music is covered is because the critics are removed from the live performance. Maybe people are too reliant on the digital components of the music, the accessibility of a file, that the practice of seeing the bands itself is starting to be irrelevant in terms of the audience and what the fans are really looking for?

That sounds bleak. But it's true that all this good music can be made and virtual communities and yes, consumers, can be built without a real focus on live performance. Now I think this is a genuine tragedy. But others don't. You are right though to question the meaning of local coverage in this context though.

Posted by ali marcus on May 2, 2007 12:14 AM

 

 

Hi Carl--I really liked the format you used for this, I think the "calling people up" thing worked really well. I wanted to make a comment but felt a bit intimidated. Anyway, it went like this: I think one of the big flaws in the way most critics cover their local scenes is that it's through live performance, and the comments people made (Pete's about his managing editor talking about "someone out in the clubs" being the kind of critic they were looking for) seemed to confirm that. But with the cheapening of recording equipment, there are lots and lots of bands who aren't doing much live performance but are at least as good, if not better than, those bands that are playing out regularly, and I think in the non-blog press they tend to get ignored unless some large national or well-regarded local label picks them up. I understand that this is the nature of the modern alt-weekly music section, where the emphasis is on listings so if you play out a lot you can get three or four times the amount of press than if you just release a CD, but I think it's one of the big ways print critics are lagging behind online ones. And I also understand that the primary way critics interact with bands is through being sent a CD, so maybe it's just that the bands that don't play out aren't good enough to play out, but it still makes me wonder. (Of course I'm also of the opinion that there are a lot of bands that would be way better if they were able to make their music without having to take live performance into immediate consideration, just as there are many bands whose imaginative and novel consideration of live performance makes their music that much better and richer.)

Posted by Mike B. on April 30, 2007 10:21 AM

 

 

I honestly can't see why you think I'm accusing Christgau of hypocrisy or venality. I just think he's wrong, and his wrongness is symptomatic of capitalist social relations in some respects, which we all do, yes, live among.

If all Christgau is saying is, friends shouldn't be allowed to use publications to write advertising copy for their friends' work, well, duh. And -- it does happen.

If he's saying that friendship and aesthetic closeness, such as that held by Kyle Gann in much of his criticism, precludes critical ability, he's wrong. Period. And he knows it. Because he edited Kyle Gann!

I took him to be saying this, which may be a misreading. But since that was how I read it, I then wondered whether he was making a "Gann" exception for non-mass-market music, which led me down really ugly speculations about whether he thinks the icon-worshipping nature of pop music precludes friendship between musicians and critics in a way that doesn't pertain to non-mass-market music. Which was starting to make me feel queasy, which led to my grumpy remark about his generalizing from his personal predilections. I actually believe that he is generalizing from his personal predilections -- which is not venal -- it's human!

He calls his column "Consumer Guide." The name signals his self-consciousness, but it doesn't mean that his column is not in fact a consumer guide, and there's nothing wrong with that!

"Critical distance" is a misnomer. Because Gann *is* so close to the aesthetic concerns of his friends, he is better able to understand -- and criticize! -- them. The issue is "critical stance" or "critical ability." And I'm not sure that Christgau is saying that friendship precludes it. But since the conversation got confused about friendship, and because "critical distance" is a red herring in any case, I may have been confused too.

If I was being harsh, Christgau can be a *lot* harsher. I don't think he'd mind.

Posted by john on April 29, 2007 4:43 PM

 

 

I think you're being a little harsh, John - everybody who's a public critic of capitalism is still enmeshed with it one way or another, as it's the society we live in. The other option is the dropout, going-underground option, which for various reasons I think is worse; hypocrisy is an inevitable consequence, and therefore I think we have to keep the bar set pretty high for what kind of hypocrisies are actually venal.

I agree with you that the objective-ist model of criticism/journalism is overrated and itself fraught with contradictions; on the other hand, I agree with Bob that there need to be ethical boundaries, too. So it is a balancing act. Thanks for the excellent counterexamples.

Posted by zoilus on April 29, 2007 2:42 PM

 

 

Kyle Gann. Musician, terrific critic, and friends with a lot of the musicians he covers. Christgau, if I'm not mistaken, edited him.

Is he saying Gann is a bad critic? That's absurd!

Or is Christgau limiting his case to mass-market capitalist music only?

If so, why?

Christgau's assertion is so anti-evidentiary that I can't help but think he's dogmatically generalizing from his own subjective predilections. That's the most generous assessment of it that I can make.

Posted by john on April 29, 2007 12:01 PM

 

 

Christgau's stance reflects a consumer-capitalist mindset that glorifies capitalist division of labor and relies on myths of objectivity. It's a deadening vision.

He's always had a very clear vision of the economic depradations of capitalism, while being thoroughly enmeshed in it as a self-conscious and quasi-ironic consumer guide. Maybe his role in the capitalist machine has blinkered him to its social/cultural depradations. "You do this, at this emotional distance from me, and I judge your performance." Them's the facts for most critics, but other -- in my mind more humane -- visions of culture -- such as yours -- exist.

And on the facts, Christgau is just blooming wrong. Virgil Thomson was friends a lot of the composers he covered, and he may have been the most astute and elegant music critic of the 20th century. David Toop is a terrific critic, and from what I gather he is friends with a number of musicians he's covered. Nat Hentoff was at least friendly with a number of the musicians he covered, and I love a lot of his music writing.

Virgil Thomson is also the best refutation of the canard, which I heard, second-hand, circulated at EMP, that "musicians can't be good critics."

Posted by john on April 29, 2007 11:40 AM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson