Here are the rest of my notes on the 2009 Pop Conference. The last panel I went to on Saturday, “How Low Can A Punk Get?,” had only two speakers. Tavia Nyong’o presented an overviewÂ of the work of video and music artist Kalup Linzy. Linzy has created a series of soap-opera videos, together with an album of songs accompanied by music videos, recounting the lives of characters whom he has created, and many of whom he plays. These characters are black, Southern, poor, and mostly gay; they play out tacky, trashy, and campy scenarios of love and desire; they enact or embody exaggerated stereotypes, sending up (but at the same time lovingly reinvesting) images of black folks that may well be racist in certain contexts. Abjection and parody thus become ways of expressing desires that have historically been debased and devalued. This is a camp strategy which has a long history among gay men in North America and Europe; but Nyong’o argued for its racial specificity in Linzy’s work, and for the way it took on a punk sneer as well as a campy sigh.
Drew Daniel is one half of the great electronic band Matmos. He described his paper, “Why Be Something You’re Not?’: The Afterlives of Queer Minstrelsy,” as the second in a series of reflections on queer punk music and culture. Daniel told the story of his encounter with the music of Hawnay Troof, who engages in over-the-top, and deliberately crude and excessive (hence “punk”), almost pornographic, expressions of gay male sexual desire. Daniel recounted his own assumption that the Hawnay Troof performer was (in actuality, or in “real life”) gay, and had fantasies on this basis, only to discover that he was actually bi, and showed up with a girlfriend for the recording session Daniel had set up. Daniel used the incident to critically reflect on those old questions of normativity and authenticity: why should a queer performer have to be “really” queer? why should a punk performing style, one that is so evidently artificial and enacted, nonetheless have to be grounded in the actual sexuality of the one who is doing the performance? It’s easy to be anti-essentialist in theory, but much harder to divest oneself of “essentialist” attitudes and assumptions in practice. Or, in more concrete terms: when is a performance of queerness by somebody who isn’t a legitimate and even powerful expression, and when is it minstrelsy in the most pejorative sense, a putting-on of the queer role by somebody in order to ridicule it and to separate oneself from it (because it is “only” a put-on performance)? By reflecting back upon, and in effect psychoanalyzing, his own initial response to Hawnay Troof, Daniel provided one of the most powerful and thought-provoking talks of the entire Pop Conference. However, I felt that the answers he gave were not quite up to the level of the dilemmas he explored. For he said, finally, that his assumption that a queer performer ought to be “really” queer was an instance of what he insisted upon calling “homonormative naive realism.” Now, this seems to me to be a bad way to criticize the tendency. First of all, because, as Graham Harman has argued (though I cannot find the precise posting), the denunciation of “naive realism” is itself something that should be viewed with suspicion. For the person who critiques naive realism is probably not thereby asserting that there is a more sophisticated sort of realism that would not be thus subject to critique; he is rejecting realism altogether, and saying that it is always naive. But as we’ve seen from Harman, from Quentin Meillassoux, and from the other “speculative realists,” the anti-realism of so much Continental theory of the last several decades ought not to be given a free pass. I’d even go so far as to say that “social constructionism” only makes sense to the extent that we are realists about “social constructions” themselves. And, given the richness of Daniel’s overally presentation, I don’t think that any sort of “realism” (naive or otherwise) is the problem; nor do I think that “homonormativity” is the problem either, even given the fact that pressures towards a kind of normativity of behavior exist in queer communities as in other social spaces, despite the non-normativity of queerness overall in relation to heteronormative society. Rather, the problem is that Daniel’s fundamental question does not have a fixed, conceptualizable answer. When do we judge a work of queer mimicry to be offensive minstrelsy, and when do we judge that it has critical and expressive power? (The same question can be asked, of course, in relation to racial and gender mimicries). The answer is that there is no answer: no criterion, no normative principle with which to make the judgment. We just have to judge this matter case by case, example by example, without being able to extract some higher principles to guide our judgment. This is what Daniel in fact was doing, as he moved through various instances of “fake” queer performativity. Case by case, the talk was cogent and compelling; it is only in its theoretical generalization that it ran into a certain amount of trouble.
I went to two panels on Sunday morning, the last day of the conference. The first panel, “Constrained Pleasures,” included my own talk on Grace Jones and Afrofuturism, which I will not discuss here. (I am still working on or revising it; eventually I will make the full text available on my website). The other talk on my panel was by Adrienne Brown, who discussed the use of music — or rather, perhaps, its non-use — on the TV series The Wire. Brown noted that, although music is ubiquitous on The Wire, usually as a diegetic feature of the scene, there is no attempt to use hiphop (for instance) thematically, even though hiphop arguably expresses much the same sorts of insight into poor black urban life as the show was striving for. Brown showed how this denial of the power of hiphop is programmatic: “The creators of The Wire have little use for hip-hop as a potential life-force, situating it as one more institution that has cut out those people whose imagery it profits from.” Affluent white suburban teenagers listen to hiphop; for the creators of The Wire, the people whom hiphop is ostensibly “about” do not have the luxury to draw sustenance from it. Listening actively to music is thus associated in the show, at best with feelings of grief and paralysis; at worst, as Brown illustrated with several clips from the show, it leads characters into trouble when their investment in music causes them to relax their street smarts and not notice what is going on around them. Brown argued both that “music intervenes in the show, in spite of itself,” in several important ways, and that the creators’ rejection of its expressive power, though justified in part, goes way too far.
The last panel I went to was called “Liminal Grooves.” Four speakers gave accounts of “lost” musical moments. Oliver Wang gave the history of what was supposed to be Betty Davis’ fourth album, Crashin’ from Passion. It was recorded in 1976, but not released, due to various factors that still remain murky, but that were both internal and external. One can only speculate as to whether the album could have given a boost to Davis’ career if it had been released back then; instead, she basically retired from singing. Betty Davis was never a truly popular and successful artist; she is probably better appreciated now than she ever was when she was actively performing. In any case, he album is now, finally, being prepared for its first proper release.
Mark Villegas was next, with the story of Joe Bataan’s “Rap-O Clap-O.” Bataan is an American artist of “mixed” ethnicity: his father was Filipino and his mother African American. “Rap-O Clap-O” was actually one of the first pieces of rap music ever recorded: it dates from before the initial successes of the Sugarhill Gang. Bataan originally wanted to provide a musical background for some Bronx rappers; but when they didn’t show up as planned, he did the rap vocals himself. He had difficulty getting the track released, and it never got noticed in the US at all; but it became a hit in Europe and South America. Villegas’ recovery of Joe Bataan exemplifies how so much musical history is a matter of contingencies and missed encounters.
Jason King examined the music of Maxwell, whose Urban Hang Suite made an impression in 1999, but whose laid-back, slacker ethos, and long fallow periods between albums, has made his relations with his fans difficult. Today, Maxwell sends out self-deprecating Twitters to his followers, and posts half-finished tracks on MySpace only to withdraw them shortly afterwards. Fans are still waiting for his long-promised fourth album. King linked Maxwell’s public performance of his persona to the themes and affects of his “ambient soul” music; he worked through “Maxwell’s radical embodiment of femininity, not only in his queer
deployment of falsetto, but also in his bohemian imaging and his
approach to original songs and covers.” All in all, this was a fascinating and deeply insightful look at a truly peculiar, and indeed wilfully self-marginalized, artist.
Finally, Andy Zax described his rediscovery, in the vaults, of a long-lost and never-released album which Chic (Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards) produced for the singer Johnny Mathis in 1981. The album is an odd one; it was not released due to its clash of styles (between Mathis’ lite crooning and Chic’s sophisticated swing). Zax only found the tapes two years ago, and hopes to release the album soon. The story of its loss and rediscovery is an exemplary one, for what it says about how the music industry operates.
All in all, the Pop Conference was an exhilarating experience. It stimulated me to think about music differently, and about different sorts of music, than would ever otherwise be the case. And although I have tried to give an account of all the talks I heard, this itself represents only a selection of what went on at the Conference. Other people, who heard other talks, may have come away with entirely different overall impressions.