Experience Music Project: Pop Conference (1)

This weekend I attended the yearly Pop Conference, at the Experience Music Project in Seattle. This is one of may favorite conferences — it’s been going on for eight years, and this is the fifth time I went. It is good because everyone is passionate about the music they are discussing, and because there is a great mix of academics and music journalists. There’s a certain synergy to the conference, which makes it more interesting than nearly any other one I have attended. There are discussions of an amazingly wide range of popular music, from the early 20th century to the present. This year, I went to 11 panels, and heard something like 26 presentations (not including my own). I will try to say at least a little about all of them — noting that, since there were usually up to four panels running at any single time, people who made other choices might well have had an entirely different sense of the conference than I did. This posting will be part one — it will be followed shortly by a second post.

The conference opened Thursday night with a Q&A with the great Nona Hendryx. What can I say? She was inspirational. She spoke at great length about her career, both with Labelle (as a singer and frequent songwriter) and as a solo artist. She gave a shout-out to her high school English teacher, for initiating her into the pleasures of language and rhythm; recalled her collaborations with artists ranging from the Rolling Stones to Talking Heads to Bill Laswell; spoke about how the changes in Labelle’s music in the early 1970s related to the spirit of Black Power and other social and political stirrings of the Sixties and Seventies; traced the genealogy of funk from gospel to r ‘n’ b and talked about how funk is about motion plus singing plus libido. But of course it wasn’t just what she said, it was her presence, her gracious intensity, and the way she communicated the sense that music matters, that it can be life-changing and affirmative, that it isn’t just about the Benjamins. Excuse me for gushing — but this is one case where I really can’t help it. Someone asked Hendryx about her image as being ferocious or “fierce”; she responded that she was just attracted to what was dangerous, edgy, and apart from the norm. [The issue of describing unconventional black women as “fierce” — and the question of how this adjective is applied racially — is of course something that is equally relevant in relation to Grace Jones, the subject of my own presentation at this conference].

I went to three panels on Friday. The first, “Dance Floor Democracy,” featured my old friend Michelle Habell-Pallan, talking about Chicana punk singer Alice Bag, from the early-80s Los Angeles scene, and about the influence of “ranchera” music (the Mexican mariachi sound she listened to as a child) on her performances — a whole hidden history of women’s emotional expression and how this complicates the history of punk. The other two panelists also talked about the racial history of music in Los Angeles. Anthony Macias traced the interplay between Mexican Americans and African Americans in the popular music of East LA in the 1940s and 1950s (he played amazing samples from recordings of the period — I only wish I could have heard more). And Sherrie Tucker gave a summary of her oral history research into the Hollywood Canteen of the early 1940s: a dance hall, sponsored by the film industry, where American servicemen, off to fight the War, could meet and dance with local women. Unusally for the time, the Hollywood Canteen was racially integrated: but only to a certain extent. 65 years later, white and black people who went to the Canteen remember things quite differently — the whites tend to remember how it catered to all servicemen regardless of race, while the blacks still remember the separate and unequal treatment they received once inside the doors. Hmm. In particular, white women were strongly discouraged from dancing with black men. Tucker’s talk illuminated, not only a history that would otherwise be lost, but also the differences that persist in forms of memory in the present, as well as in the actualities of a past distant enough that there are not all that many people left who still remember it.

The next panel I went to, “Embodying Electronic Dance Music Cultures,” featured a joint performance by three DJs (Bernardo Alexander Attias from Los Angeles, Fred Church from New Jersey, and Anna Gavanas from Sweden), together with a lecture/performance/demonstration by Mark Gunderson (aka Evolution Control Committee, one of the masters of the musical mashup). Talking over a mix they had made collaboratively over the web, the three DJs (who had never met in person before the conference) talked about the nature of their work, responding to claims that Djs aren’t “authentic” musicians because they are just playing other peoples’ recordings. They emphasized the musicianship involved in what they do; and they also (rightly) critiqued the whole discourse of “authenticity.” But also, they spoke a lot about the question of embodiment in musical performance. All musical expression is physical and embodied in some way; aside from singing and slapping one’s thigh, nearly all musical expression also requires some sort of mediation, via some sort of instrument. Obviously this worrks out differently when  a DJ manipulates turntables from when a guitarist strums a guitar; and activating a digital interface on a laptop is quite different from playing an analog instrument. But binaries of authenticity versus secondary mediation, or of physical versus virtual interaction, are not really good ways of talking about this. Though Arttias, Church, and Gavanas just hinted at this, it seemed to me that they were really talking about becoming-cyborg, as they interfaced with their digitized musical prosthetics or enhancements.

For his part, Mark Gunderson displayed and demonstrated his homemade system for combining and playing samples, and thereby creating mashups live, in a manner that involved physical movement and therefore a kind of performativity in relation to the audience (unlike electronic “concerts” where the performers simply remain behind their laptops). He said that he had first tried a system in which ten rings on his fingers (sort of like The Mandarin in Iron Man comics) controlled software on his laptop, allowing him to move freely about the stage while creating mashups and mixes on the fly. His current system involves an enormous backlit board, the icons on which he could manipulate like a touchscreen, through devices worn on his index fingers. He simultaneously mixed tracks live and explained how he was doing it: his demonstration was quite impressive, as well as entertaining. I was particularly thrilled to see and hear Gunderson, because his early-1990s mashup of Chuck D with Herb Alpert was the very first musical mashup I ever heard, and really blew my mind when I first encountered it. Today mashups have become so ubiquitous as to be banal (despite their still-often-illegal status), but Gunderson reminded me anew of the potentialities of recombination as a musical form.

The third panel I attended Friday was called Rap Memes. Tamara Palmer led off with a brief discussion, followed by a 10-minute audio montage, dealing with the line “it ain’t trickin’ if you got it”, which has shown up with alarming frequency in the past year or two in raps by T-Pain, T.I., Lil Wayne, and others. Not only has this line been repeated in many songs, it has also led to a lot of controversy, with people arguing vehemently about the phrase on youtube. Are the rappers expressing a sense of sexual entitlement (since they got it, the money they spend on atttracting and dating women doesn’t count as “tricking”), or is it merely a big in-joke? Are the phrase and the sentiment demeaning to black women? Etc. No resolutions, but an interesting presentation of a “meme” that has had a significant presence in Southern rap; a microstudy of how cultural meanings are made, and unmade.

Jon Caramanica and Sean Fennessey followed this with an in-depth discussion of the career to date (i.e from late 2006 to the present) of Soulja Boy.Their presentation was both incisive and hilarious. They went through Soulja Boy’s various — and mostly successful — manipulations of the Net in order to gain attention and make money: his youtube videos, his songs, his instructional dance tapes, his crass displays of wealth and of teenboy swagger and stupidity, his inane polemics (answering Ice-T’s charge that he had ruined hip-hop, by observing, basically, that Ice-T was old enough to be his grandfather), his loopy narcissism, etc. And also some of the multitude of response videos that these displays inspired. What can you say in the face of such a minimal, low-concept, low-production-values, and yet insanely successful (in terms of hits received and even  of money received) new-media assault? I can laugh at the sheer idiocy of it all, but I cannot avoid also feeling a certain sort of admiration for the sheer gall, immensity, and (yes) success of such a DIY media assault. Soulja Boy’s egomaniacal self-expression is pretty dumb, empty, and disposable; but any high-minded denunciation of the Soulja Boy phenomenon as representing the decline of western civilization or some such would be even emptier and dumber. As Caramanica said, it may be totally ephemeral, with no lasting value — it may already be gone and forgotten six months from now, “but I’m OK with that.”

The last presentation at the Rap Memes session was an amazing performance by Holly Bass, called “Pay Purview.” This performance was about “the endless allure of booty — from Venus Hottentots to video vixens.” An announcer solicited all of us in the audience for our dollars; when enough money was collected, a curtain opened and Bass appeared, in a gold lame costume, with two enormous “booty balls” attached to her derriere, transforming her into the Hottentot Venus. She danced for a bit, mostly with her back to the audience, making sure to wiggle that immense booty; and then retreated back behind the curtain. A recorded soundtrack accompanied the dancing, informing us of the history of the Hottentot Venus, and playing musical snippets from then until now that all dealt with the big-booty theme. The ritual was repeated five or six times; whenever the announcer had collected additional  money, Bass would emerge from behind the curtain and dance a little more. Her last dance was to the accompaniment of Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer”; this time she made some eye contact with the audience, which she had declined to do earlier. Bass’ performance was brilliant because of the way it instilled a sense of shame, complicity, and excitement in all of us in the audience: regardless of whether we paid or not, and regardless of how sophisticated our understandings of race, gender, and the economics of exhibitionism might have been, we could not help but being placed in this position, where the ascription of power became a source of embarrassment.

I will continue my account, describing the panels I went to on Saturday and Sunday, in another post.

One thought on “Experience Music Project: Pop Conference (1)”

  1. It IS a great conference, for all the reasons you articulate. I’m writing something about this year’s event today for Zeek, as well as its history as a whole, and have been reminded of just how much good thinking AND feeling I do when I’m there. Your talk was great. Comparing Grace Jones to Madonna works very well. And the extension of the concept of Afro Futurism to non-male contexts is extremely important and helpful.

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