by carl wilson

Pop Goes the Zoilus

emp2.jpg

How's everybody been? I'm writing from the Courtyard Marriott in Seattle, where I'm presently residing at the graces of the Experience Music Project Pop Conference, the fourth annual Critapalooza of academics, critics and interwebbers at the weirdo Gehry building here. It got swimming this evening with shmoozing and edibles followed by an opening panel revisiting Eric Lott's Love and Theft, the landmark study of minstrelsy and American culture that was published 12 years ago. Sean, you so should have been there.

I'm sure I'm not the only one blogging the Pop conf., and I'm not promising minute by minute updates from the rafters a la the political conventions, but I'll share notes with you from time to time. The first thing you need to know is: Everybody here is still working on their papers. I am still working on my paper, which is why I am here in my hotel room rather than attending tonight's David Thomas and David Grubbs show. (They are both giving papers at the conference, tho, so I'll see them in their more elocutionary guises.) I was talking to Jody Rosen (of the Nation and various websites and a book about White Christmas and one he's working on about the Glass Harmonica), who hasn't finished his paper (which he's giving tomorrow) , told me he went up to introduce himself to Eric Lott and say he was looking forward to hearing Lott's paper, and Lott said, "Me too, if I ever finish it." Welcome to EMP, the home of procrastinators, self-second-guessers and last-minute inspiration.

I'd write more about tonight's panel if not for the homework issue, but it was terrific, with everyone paying tribute to Lott's book's importance (as Bob Dylan did when he named his last album about it - Lott said he's calling his next book Blonde on Blonde). Sasha Frere Jones couldn't make it because his plane was grounded in San Diego(?) - I suppose he'll arrive tomorrow. Eric Lott cuts quite a figure, a hunky type with long flowing white hair. Marybeth Hamilton talked about how anxieties around minstrelsy were later carried over to "race" records, which also were considered not black enough (even though they were made by black artists) compared to field recordings etc. "What is at stake when we contend that some cultural forms are more 'real' than others?" W.T. Lhamon praised Lott with a little tinge of envy (he was working on minstrelsy simultaneously and Lott got there first), talking about how even the questioning of authenticity that happens in minstrelsy studies still uses class and race as stable categories - he talked about minstrelsy as lumpen culture that substituted blacks for the Macheath thug figure in English music hall, making this image of American blackness imaginatively "white" at the core. Daphne Brooks testified for George Walker, in the black minstrel team with the more famous Bert Williams, who wrote about being a black person watching white people play black people in 1906, a reversal of the minstrel "primal scene" of T.D. Rice picking up Jump Jim Crow from a black street performer. Guthrey Ramsey Jr., both a black scholar and a working jazz-R&B-funk; musician, talked about overinterpretation and the overlooking of practicalities in theory, and asked why it's okay for English singers to sing Italian opera but not okay for white people to sing the blues.

Elijah Wald presented some amazing stuff on other ethnic impersonation of the time, quoting a review from a black newspaper saying, "the famous Chink impersonator performed... his Dago is equally strong," and talked about black people doing Jewish imitations. It would take too long to explain but he had a great last line: "I'd like to see a world where I can imagine looking at the top bands in alt-country and punk and them not all having to be white." Then Allen Lowe discussed the minstrel show in the context of the medicine show, the emergence of the professional songwriter, and its relationship to a "sweet music" side to black musical traditions.

Mark Anthony Neal went to town on the subject of Li'l Jon as a blackface clown, what Jeff Chang calls "crunkface," going so far as to call Jon "the first Sambo of the 21st century," and crunk as post-hip-hop, but then he allowed for the fact that crunk functions as dance music, not narrative music, and does it better than any other hip-hop, and that has to be taken seriously - perhaps Lil Jon is a trickster figure who can be followed by a new innovator, a Pied Piper ("not the R. Kelly kind") who, the masses having been led to the dance floor, can lead them from there to somewhere better. Jason King followed up with some scary stuff about race and technology, such as virtual reality that would let you actually "try on" ethnicities and Virtual Performing Program software that would let producers put the "DNA" of any given singer's voice into any song ("you could have Aretha Franklin rapping 50 Cent's whole catalogue"), combine voices, etc., so that the next Sam Phillips wouldn't have to wait for an Elvis to come along - he could just synthesize them.

In a last-minute intervention, Ned Sublette also presented some findings on 18th-century minstrelsy in England and Colonial America, discussing British black-imitator Charles Dibdin, who played a character named Raccoon in a ballad opera and one called Mungo in The Paddock (a huge British hit in the late 1700s that toured the U.S. - Thomas Jefferson would have seen it), and presenting a remarkable Dibdin song called Negro Philosophy about the slave trade, which seemed to me likely to be a post-colonial-war anti-American song by implication, all about white Americans beating slaves and fathering children on their wives (the word "cuccold" even appears in the lyrics).

The question period that followed was a bit scattered, with such a huge panel. Robert Christgau asked something about authenticity and honesty, rather aggressively, and the panel voted unanimously against the concept of authenticity although a couple still claimed that there's such a thing as "inauthenticity" (which seems contradictory to me - the point is that you cannot draw this line). Lott said, and I think this is right on, that the idea of authenticity is only ideological, only used to police boundaries, and that truth or honesty is more an affect than any isolatable quality.

Finally Eric Weisbard read Sasha's emailed comments, which were very suggestive. He talked about DJ Shadow and Diplo, white people who became known as DJs for their expertise and love of black music - but notes that when they each made their own "proper" albums, the music was suddenly loaded up with white signifiers, strings and guitar samples and the like. He asked if these artists are so aware of the argument around appropriation that they don't feel free to express their love (because how can it be distinguished from theft?), and that this may be bad news for pop music, which in America has always been all about this fraught exchange.

That's all for now, folks. Back to writing hell. Let me know if you're into this reportage and I'll keep it up tomorrow, in some measure.

News | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, April 14 at 11:58 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)

 

COMMENTS

Hey Carl - thanx for you kind words abt my paper. Email me if you'd like a copy!

Posted by daphne on April 21, 2005 07:38 PM

 

 

Oops. Tried to post this image here:
http://lgb.unige.ch/arlequin/img/arlequino.jpg

Posted by Sean on April 15, 2005 03:37 PM

 

 

Posted by Sean on April 15, 2005 03:27 PM

 

 

Re Lhamon's ideas about Minstrels and Macheath: I think there's more in common there with the Commedia dell Arte, sepcifically the character of Arlequino, than anything from the Beggar's Opera. And you can tell him I said that too. He should look into it.

Posted by Sean on April 15, 2005 03:26 PM

 

 

Didn't you ask any questions? were you too shy?

Posted by Sean on April 15, 2005 12:58 PM

 

 

Joining the chorus of assent.. keep 'em coming

Posted by Jordan on April 15, 2005 12:55 PM

 

 

does the hotel have a nice pool?

Posted by mark on April 15, 2005 12:10 PM

 

 

Yes, keep it up; am interested in what the pros like yourself are talking about.

Posted by jennifer on April 15, 2005 11:39 AM

 

 

yes, great rundown carl - please continue when possible. also if you hear of any panels being streamed and/or recorded for future webcast would you make a note of it?

Posted by jones on April 15, 2005 09:40 AM

 

 

Great post. Very exciting.

Posted by Sean on April 15, 2005 09:17 AM

 

 

wish i was there. i'm gratified to hear that christgau was shouted down for trying to bring up that old authenticity timewaster.

md

Posted by Mike on April 15, 2005 08:01 AM

 

 

shit, yeah, im into it...LIl Jon as the first sambo of the 21 st century? wow!...even if it is only for the gossip...laffs

Posted by Rob on April 15, 2005 07:53 AM

 

 

Terrific capsule of your time at the conference. Definitely keep writing, it's all very interesting so far.
Is it because of this one book that there seems to be so much discussion of the minstrel show, or is that actually a really significant and/or trendy field of musicology at the moment? I'm curious to hear it mentioned so much in your note from the conference.

Posted by Lee Henderson on April 15, 2005 04:08 AM

 

 

Keep it up, by all means!

Posted by Andrew on April 15, 2005 01:32 AM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson