by carl wilson

Investigate, Impeach, Indict and Incarcerate:
EMP Pop Con, Part 5


Finally, notes from some of the papers I got to hear:

Jonathan Lethem's opening keynote talk was a lovely piece of writing about the sort of transcendental condition of the "wannabe," about the music critic and fan's place in the "fifth Beatle" position and the way various musicians have created room in their own music for those sorts of points of identification. (The hypeman being an obvious example.) People were a bit snooty about Jonathan's talk, mainly because it didn't tell us anything we didn't already know, but I appreciated the generosity of it: Jonathan, who's got the kind of popular recognition for his writing a lot of critics would envy, was explaining in subtle, memoiristic style why he's got his own case of music-critic envy. Still, as a keynote, it did set a bit of the tone of the conference, in which provocation and dissent took a back seat to appreciations and contextualizations.

Robert Fink showed how musicological analysis can rock in his paper on James Brown's Soul Power, 1971, when he mapped that chorus against Stokely Carmichael's 1966 "Black Power" chant - and showed that the "soul power!" shout falls rhythmically like a shout back at the black-power chant. "It's as if James Brown recognized Stokely Carmichael as another performer - and decided to cut him," Fink said. He also noted that Brown's anti-revolutionary song ("we don't need-uh/ revolution!/ we gotta have-uh/ constitution!") put the emphasis on the word "soul" whereas Carmichael's revolution-minded chant stressed "power." He was calling up the political speech but also rebutting and rewriting it. As Fink summed up, "If one's brothers rhythmicize politics, what can one do but politicize one's rhythm?"

Joshua Clover gave one of the conference's best presentations, "1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About," part of a book in progress. I can't convey all its multimedia umph, but its main point was to weigh the actual year 1989 (the year that included Tiananmen Square and the "fall" of the Berlin Wall) against the signified cultural 1989, or 1989 versus "1989". Using the example of La Marseillese, he said that "it's no easy matter to date a song" (adding, "as every Pazz & Jop voter knows"), which is like "the difficulty of dating history itself." When the French Revolution happened in 1789, La Marseillese didn't exist; it was composed in 1792. "It cannot belong to 1789 but it belongs entirely to '1789.' " The result of these slippages is that "our sense of process disappears," and we lose our awareness of historical contingency, when memory is consolidated in images and symbols and songs.

Joshua then applied that thought to the songs of "1989", such as Scorpions' Wind of Change, which came out in 1990 but actually had been written earlier about glasnost, but was attached to the Berlin Wall story by its video (and the fact that Scorpions were German). "Power ballads exist so one can feel all weepy and overwhelemed, as one does in the face of the historical sublime... like a tiny Zippo in a world on fire." He went on, "The 'moment' is 'magic' but unstated, so that it can attach to whatever magic moment may arrive - the first kiss, the sixth beer, the end of Communism, whatever." His next example was 1991's Right Here, Right Now, by Jesus Jones, which was the musical equivalent of Francis Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis and made the boast "Bob Dylan didn't have this to sing about." His last example was Roxette's Listen to Your Heart, which besides being the first number 1 single that never came out as a 45, was the soundtrack to Civic Forum (Vaclav Havel's party) advertisements in the then-Czechoslovakia, a song that Joshua said had the "eventless, pleasurable, post-historical ongoingness" that mirrors "the path of the 'new world order,' or as it would like to think." These songs and their videos helped make "1989" an "image-story that every song helped to tell," a story in which "1989" is removed from historical process and becomes a "magic moment," rendered unanalyzable, a moment of "nerf humanism." The music critic, he argued, has a responsibility to historicize in the face of "the pop-songization of history."

I enjoyed all of the "Songlines" panel, though I missed Roni Sarig's first paper on Triggerman while I was listening to Mark Sinker's interesting ramble on music writing; Michael Barthel, known to Zoilus readers for his Clap Clap Blog, one of my favourite music blogs, gave a great paper about how Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah has gradually been reduced by successive cover versions (beginning with John Cale and then multiplying exponentially with Jeff Buckley's cover of John Cale's cover, which was then itself used as the source of uncountable covers), and their use in film and TV soundtracks. It's gone, he said, from a drily sceptical, wry, multifaceted work into a one-dimensional "sad" song to use whenever you need to show a montage of various characters in various places being sad. "It's become the auditory equivalent of a silent-film actress pressing the back of her hand to her head." The effect, he said, was like "making a Matisse into a washcloth" - but, he added, a song isn't a Matisse: "Wring it out and it's ready again." Then he demonstrated this by playing his own recording of Hallelujah, using verses Cale and Buckley cut from the original (which no one ever sings) and a panoply of wild, cheerful musical styles. Now there's a critical manoeuvre you wouldn't get from an academic. It was great finally to meet Mike, who's as bright-eyed and wry himself as any reader would expect. His paper is up on his site now.

Next came Mike McGonigal, a writer I've admired since he was publishing the wonderful Chemical Imbalance zine in the early '90s, speaking both reverently and humorously about Blind Willie Johnson's Black was the Night, Cold was the Ground, and offering fascinating notes on guitar evangelists, street-corner singers and shout-singing preachers (most amazingly, Washington Phillips, who sang to an instrument that might have been an autoharp or a miniature piano called a doceola, but which sounded like "a celestial ice-cream truck"). His paper also featured the most hilariously self-reflexively sarcastic Power Point slides of the conference, which went perfectly with his mix of passion and self-mockery as a speaker. And the panel closed with Anthony Miller's survey of songs about Patty Hearst, of which of course there are loads, and I can't believe I'd never realized it before - from Patti Smith's version of Hey, Joe to some awful Dylanish folk music to the Ramones' Judy was a Punk, the Misfits' She, Camper van Beethoven's Tania on Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and Black Box Recorder's Love Song to an Heiress. Miller didn't really have an extensive argument to make about all these weird refractions of 1960s mythology, but it was rich material.

Yuval Taylor's piece on "feelgood/bad vibes" culture in 1972 was very fine, though he couldn't improve on his opening, which pointed out that 1972 was the sole year the Grammys gave out an award for "Best Pop Instrumental With Vocal Coloring," and the nominees were Santana, Isaac Hayes and Emerson Lake and Palmer. What kind of strange world was this, he asked, where flutey exotic-semi-rock with sighs and chanting could be considered an entire genre? A world where gatefold album covers were for rolling joints, clearly. (I'd say this was also a foretaste of the New Age music to come.) Meeting Yuval was one of the weekend's highlights.

Franklin Bruno may win the prize for the conference's weirdest topic: The various fifties-and-sixties satirical versions of My Fair Lady and their cast albums. He pointed out that My Fair Lady's own original cast album was actually the "jackpot" that cemented the place of the 33 1/3 LP, selling 8 million copies. One of the versions was Canadian content (Franklin apologized in advance if he was about to commit any offences against Canadian culture): My Fur Lady, a hit musical at McGill in the late '50s, featured, if I followed correctly, an, um, "Eskimo princess" who for political reasons needed to become a proper Canadian, and the main joke of the show seems to have been that you can't "Teach Me How to be Canadian" (as one of the songs was titled) because Canadians don't have any distinctive attributes. The others were My Square Laddie, in which someone tries to learn how to be a bohemian ("I could've boozed all night"), and, most interestingly, My Fairfax Lady, a kind of double-reverse-satire in which a British actress in L.A. wants to learn to be American, but stumbles onto L.A.'s Jewish strip and so ends up being taught to speak in a Yiddish accent, in a script loaded with Catskills-style humour. Franklin was a little pressed for time so he didn't get to elaborate too much on his final analysis, and I didn't take proper notes - again, hopefully he'll publish it, at least on his blog.

Another of my favourite bloggers, Mike Powell, was at the conference for the first time, and it was a delight to meet him. I really enjoyed his paper, "The Pyongyang Hit Parade," which brought us into his pathological obsession with North Korean state-produced pop music, which is of course the only pop music there. It seemed as if Mike started out his journey feeling like he'd stumbled into sort of a "reverse Disneyland" that could be his own private anti-utopian dreamworld musical hobby, but became more and more uncomfortable and disturbed by it as he found out more about it. What sticks with me is his assertion that there is absolutely no sign of a musical underground, a culture of samizdat, in the country, according to accounts from people who have gotten out. I find this an impossible thought to assimilate - usually, at least after dictatorships fall, one finds out about the underground activity that was going on all along - it even happened in Nazi Germany - and I feel compelled to believe that of North Korea. It seems like the bleakest of all possibilities to contemplate that there can be a totalitarian state so complete as to staunch even private imaginative expression. But it also feels important to consider that possibility. This is what I love about Mike's criticism, that it's not only intellectually keen and curious, but never without a personal imprint, an eagerness to put the messy emotions and less-noble impulses and involuntary nerves and bruises on the page, too. I aspire to that.

It's late and this is getting lengthy, but a few more: Kathy Meizels' paper drawn from her thesis work on American Idol was typically strong - I've interviewed Kathy for my book, so I'll wait to remark on her ideas there; Daphne Carr presented some cool research on the Great Battle of Hot Topic among teen punks and wannabes; and Michaelangelo Matos had the brilliant idea of doing a reality check on the stereotype of the Bob Marley poster in the white kid's dorm room, highlighted by his interview with a couple who go around from campus to campus selling posters.

Wendy Fonarow talked charmingly about her "three zones" research on the psychogeography of the indie-scene club gig, which I've referenced here before - I need to read her book - updating it with some salient thoughts on how the cellphone-camera gig-documenting epidemic in zone 1 (the "pit" in front of the stage) is messing with the participatory dynamics there, moving the experience "into the future anterior," so that it's not about being there, but that tomorrow, "I will have been there."

I've already referred to Jesse Fuchs' paper on musical video games, which was a technical tour de force of game visuals and sounds. He argued that games can offer music context, causality, a blur of the listener-performer boundary, familiarity, educational purpose and decontextualization (appreciating music differently by engaging with it physically rather than aurally), and made a pitch for the value of the "honest fake" over "fake honesty" and the utopian impulse in game playing, an activity that's the opposite of work.

The conversation at the University of Washington on Friday evening, between the great hip-hop writer Jeff Chang and the music historian Gaye T. Johnson (whose research on the way the arrival of the Eighth Regimental Band from Mexico in New Orleans in the 1880s for the Cotton Exposition would influence black music in NOLA sounds fascinating) was just a delight, and included some very stirring discussion of the plight of New Orleans now, "the right of return" and "the imperative to forget." Their commitment, sensitivity and intellectual rigor were inspiring.

There's more, like RJ Smith's recreation of how the first incarnation of Destroy All Monsters (a proto-punk noise band with artists Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw) emerged from the post-sixties bummer of Detroit and Ann Arbor. Kembrew McLeod's uproarious recounting of how his tiny Virginia town became the butt of a Spin magazine prank in the post-grunge search for the "next Seattle." Simon Reynolds's paper talked about the way that techno goes through cycles in relationship to the city of London - that a new style will come out of London (usually meaning black London), and then it will get modified by DJs who are responding to the tastes of a more international (white) audience, and at some point that will reach a breaking point where someone feels the need to assert a London identity again, and often their response creates the next genre. The kind of thing that's obvious when pointed out but not beforehand. Meeting Simon at last was another of the Pop Con's pleasures.

Then there was Ned Sublette's call on the "Resurrecting New Orleans" panel that members of the Bush administration be "investigated, impeached, indicted, and incarcerated" for what they did and didn't do around hurricane Katrina, which does in some ways seem even more criminal than the Iraq war. I spent a long night in the hotel bar being regaled along with David Grubbs with Ned's tales of playing with Glenn Branca and LaMonte Young in the 1970s. Ned is an amazing, intoxicating raconteur.

But enough now. An affectionate hi to all the folks I got to meet at EMP this year, the old friends I got to spend too little time with, to Jake London and John Shaw for being my chauffeurs and tour guides to Seattle, and to those I wish I'd met and didn't find space or nerve to talk to, or whose papers I had to miss. Next year, the great spirit and Paul Allen willing.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, April 29 at 4:08 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)



Hmm, I don't know if I trust Wikipedia on this one.

From Lerner's memoir, "The Street Where I Live" (which also may not be reliable, but this rings truer, because "Fair Lady" doesn't sound like them):

"It has been my experience over the years that unless the title is born with the idea, as it was with Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon, after a while it becomes a parlor game, and like all parlor games the longer you play it the sillier it is apt to become. [Hey -- sounds like naming a band! -- ed.] To date we had had 'Liza' and 'Lady Liza,' both of which went to their final resting places in the trash basket, because it would have seemed peculiar for the marquee to read: 'Rex Harrison in "Liza".' For a short time we had 'My Fair Lady,' but discarded it because it sounded like an operetta. While we were in London, Fritz [composer Loewe -- ed.] came across 'fanfaroon,' a rarely used Enlish word meaning someone who blows his own fanfare. [Hey -- if I ever start another blog I'll name it that! -- ed.] He clung to it tenaciously. . . . The song on which we were now working was called 'Come to the Ball,' and for a while we even considered that. . . . [Months later]: ''Why don't we just take the title that we all dislike the least,' I sugggested. . . . After a brief summary of all the candidates, we decided the title we found the least indigestible was 'My Fair Lady,' and with a helpless shrug we agreed to it. A few months later we all thought it was brilliant, except Fritz, who still liked 'fanfaroon.'"

I keep trying to feel a connection with London Bridge falling down . . .

Posted by john on May 1, 2007 12:00 AM



The kind of question for which Wikipedia always comes in handy:

"The show's title was derived from one of Shaw's provisional titles for Pygmalion, Fair Eliza. However, when Rex Harrison protested that Lerner and Loewe's originally proposed title, Fair Lady, was too femininely sympathetic, the show's authors added the possessive pronoun 'My' to appease the temperamental star."

The mention of Lerner reminds me of one of my favourite moments in Franklin's lecture, which came after he ran through some of the political background of Shaw's play and how it evolved in the film treatment:

"I'm not saying that Alan Lerner was a crypto-Fabian, although this conference may be one of the few places in the world where I could use that sentence."

Posted by zoilus on April 30, 2007 5:51 PM



I should probably email Franklin and ask him, but perhaps your readers would find the question of interest as well.

Do you know whether the title of Lerner & Loewe's show alludes to anything other than "London bridge is falling down"?

And why would they want to allude to that?

Thanks for the roundup.

Posted by John on April 30, 2007 5:01 PM



Thanks Carl! It was good to meet you finally. I agree that there was a sense at the conference of information over argument; I feel like a lot of papers (including mine!) didn't answer the "so what?" question very well. I haven't gone before, so I don't know if it's normally better or not, but I definitely felt there was a weird sense of disconnection.

Posted by Mike B. on April 30, 2007 10:45 AM




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