by carl wilson

The Death of Rumination?
EMP Pop Con, Part 2

ellen-willis2.jpg
Ellen Willis, photographed by Jade Albert, circa 1981. Thanks to Rockcritics.com.

The other lunch sessions included the very touching tribute to Ellen Willis, where Bob Christgau, Ann Powers, Sasha Frere-Jones, Daphne Carr and others who had known or been very affected by Willis's work spoke affectingly about her and read various kick-ass passages of Willis's rock writing, which cries out for a comprehensive collection. She sounded like a formidable woman. Christgau, who had a relationship with Willis in the 1960s and renewed their friendship later in life, said, "People thought she was shy. She wasn't shy. She was thinking - and ignoring you."

And then there was the closing discussion, "On the Future of Thinking about Music for a Living." The story of this session has already been boiled down to the moment that Pitchfork's Amy Phillips said that kids don't read long pieces anymore and that if the writers in the room wanted to make a living they would have to learn to write very, very fast, for a market that wants information about music faster than they can listen to it, practically faster than it can be made. And then the room had a collective shitfit and Tom Kipp (a great thinker-without-portfolio) said, "We must not accept the death of rumination."

Part of what's wrong with how this story has been recounted is that Amy was interpreted as saying, "Pitchfork is gonna eat your lunch," whereas in fact her passionate tone definitely conveyed her own alarm at the situation. But it also omits a lot of the other responses to and anticipations of the same idea that came up at the session: The academics spoke about the increasing support in disciplines such as American Studies and Musicology for pop-music studies and a growing crossover with journalistic methodology (as in researching music by actually asking the musicians). Jody Rosen (of Slate and many other publications) talked about the publishing industry's hunger for non-fiction books - saying that he's written a book about Irving Berlin and the song White Christmas and has a contract for a book about an obscure 18th-century musical instrument (Benjamin Franklin's glass harmonica), and as a result he and his wife own an apartment in Brooklyn. If that sounds crass to you, you're not a critic - the future of thinking about music doesn't seem at all dark to me, but the question of making a living at it (and thus having time to do it deeply and well) is a fraught one indeed. Also, Douglas Wolk made a great, pithy point, that with the Internet, writers need to think of what they do less as making pronouncements and more as proposing conversations. (This is exactly why I started Zoilus.)

But Jody's point also spoke to the bigger context that I think Amy missed: If nobody wants to read about pop music, if nobody wants extensive analysis, why does the 33 1/3 series exist? Why does the Da Capo anthology exist? Why are there more high-quality books about all kinds of music being printed these days than ever before? I think what Amy sees from the Pitchfork vantage point is actually a lot of "kids" who never would have read in-depth pop criticism in the first place, and are using blogs and Pfork the way previous generations would have relied on John Peel or another favourite DJ, just as tip sheets for good new music. But other blog readers, the students in popular-culture courses, the buyers of those books, form the same passionate minority that's always been the critic's audience, and I suspect that mini-crowd is bigger now than before - maybe not as activated as in the 1970s, when rock crit as we know it was born because music was the overwhelmingly dominant force in youth culture, but still plenty healthy enough to give rumination a future. (Pretty Goes with Pretty has some parallel thoughts.)

However, to move that future in a direction that Pop Con types would like to see, as Eric Weisbard (the director of the conference) pointed out, the Pop Conference community, if we can call it that, also has the ability to band together. Josh Kun brought up one possible venue - the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg's Popular Music Project, which he directs, and which proposes to be "a one-stop home for the interdisciplinary study and analysis of popular music" and a "point of open contact between scholars, musicians, students, producers, musicians, engineers, critics, label chiefs, and of course, fans."

As well, though, there was some talk about trying to create a way for the people that EMP brings together to stay in touch and share their work between Pop Cons - apparently this happened once before, in the early years of the event, with the "Pop Talk" message board, which fizzled, but perhaps the time has come to reinvigorate that effort. The most exciting vision, though, would be to try to start a magazine - online or in print or both - that would talk about music in the terms and on the level that the Pop Conference inspires. The Believer has been brought up a couple of times as a model, and in fact the Pop Con is in discussion with that magazine about doing a collaborative issue sometime in the future. An ongoing magazine, obviously, would require a group of people to step up to plan, finance, edit and publish the thing - and it would have its own downside, no doubt factionalizing folks who felt included and those who didn't - but it's a dream worth dreaming.

As for those who say rumination has no future? Keep thinking - and ignore them.

(To be continued...)

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 29 at 1:47 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

COMMENTS

... I suspect that mini-crowd is bigger now than before.

C'est vrai, mon ami. This crowd is called "ILM members."

Posted by Ryan on April 29, 2007 7:37 AM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson