Experience Music Project: Pop Conference (2)

Saturday was my busiest day at the Pop Conference: I went to five panels. The first was called “Shock and Awe.” I came in a bit late, so I missed the beginning of David Hesmondhalgh’s presentation on “Sex, Music, Pleasure and Politics.” But from what I heard, it was a great presentation, both sweeping and brilliant. Hesmondhalgh sought to map the contours of sexual expression in Anglo-American pop music from the 1960s to the present. Starting from the evident ambiguities of how 1960s rock expressed a sexual “liberation” that was nonetheless heteronormative and male-centered, he went on to consider how more recent genres and styles negotiated the demands of both sexual pleasure and sexual propriety. Most interestingly, from my point of view, was his effort to work out forms of sexual expression and sexual pleasure that were not transgressive in the manner of so much 60s rock: precisely because transgression always remains in complicity with the laws or norms against which it is transgressing. Next, Barry Shank spoke on the relation of pop music to notions of democracy, drawing especially on Lauren Berlant’s formulation of the “intimate public sphere” — this has to do with commonalities that are affect-based (rather than being cognitive in the manner of Habermas’ normative notion of a public sphere). If pop music can be a force for democratic collectivity, it would be through its power to create communities of affective expression (this could be developed further, in opposition perhaps to the overused notion of rock concerts as being like fascist rallies). I wish I had taken better notes on both these speakers; in their different ways, Hesmondhalgh and Shank were both proposing a change, or widening, of theoretical focus that would allow us to think about popular music in much richer ways than are allowed by the customary “empowerment” vs “commodification” debates.

For counterpoint, the third speaker on this panel was David Thomas, legendary frontman of the great band Pere Ubu. Thomas delivered what can only be called a RANT. It was energetic, hilarious, impassioned, self-conscious and self-reflexive yet entirely sincere, and utterly wrongheaded. Basically, Thomas argued that (as the Romantic poets put it) “we murder to dissect.” Thomas said that all the talks he had heard in the course of the Pop Conference, brilliant as they were, in effect negated the genius of the creators whose work was being defined, delimited, and analyzed. He especially objected to any attempts to “psychoanalyze” musical creators, citing specifically Robert Fink’s discussion of masochistic sentiment in the music of Marvin Gaye (this was from a panel that, unfortunately, I missed). He also took a strong “rockist” (as opposed to “popist”) line, denouncing critics who spent their time analyzing and praising the work of pop icons like Britney Spears, whom he regards as commercial products, rather than artists of genius. His prime example, throughout the talk, was the Raincoats — he spoke of his love for this band, and said that critics who talked about them in terms of feminism and women’s empowerment were by that very fact negating and besmirching the entirely singular genius of the band and its members.

Now, I thought that Thomas’ talk was wonderful, in much the same way that Pere Ubu’s music is wonderful. A lot of this had to do with Thomas’ performativity as a speaker (or singer), the way that he seemed at the same time utterly hysterical, yet clearly in control and very precise in what he was saying. But this doesn’t mean that I buy his argument. To understand feminist empowerment as a context for the Raincoats’ music does not mean to reduce the Raincoats to being merely another instance of generic “politically correct” feminism. If done non-reductively, this sort of identification enriches, rather than restricting, our enjoyment of the Raincoats and our sense of what they are doing. All art, popular or elite, depends precisely upon the tensions between the unique or singular, on the one hand, and the generic or familiarly categorized, on the other. (This is precisely what is at issue in Kant’s notion of the aesthetic as involving universal communicability, while at the same time being singular and ungrounded). To reduce the Raincoats to their singularity alone is as misguided as to reduce them to their generic characteristics alone. If mere generic familiarity does not tell us anything new, absolute singularity does not communicate at all. The spark of aesthetic rapture can only come about when a work is at the same time both communicative (by means of being generic) and singular (or exceeding the bounds of generic recognition, by proposing something new). Thomas’ purism fails because it ignores one side of this relation — without the tension between the generic and the singular, the aesthetic force field simply collapses. In the Q&A, one person in the audience, supporting Thomas, invoked Norman O. Brown to say that we ought to be fully and bodily involved in all our experiences, rather than distanced and contemplative. Hesmondhalgh, in response, said “I hate that shit”; he said that he was fully and bodily involved when he played soccer, but he certainly didn’t want every moment of his life to be like this. And at the end of the Q&A, Robert Christgau maintained (not nastily, but just in a matter-of-fact tone) that in the last ten years, Britney Spears had produced better music than David Thomas; Thomas nodded and shrugged, but didn’t respond (instead, the moderator called for a few moments of silence so that everybody could cool down).

The next panel I went to was called “Spectacular Diva Excess” — a topic I find entirely irresistible. Maureen Mahon gave an account of the career of Ronnie Spector,  focusing on her miscegenated racial identity and on her “bad girl” image, and deployment of sexual suggestiveness, in pre-British Invasion rock of the early 1960s. (She also, unavoidably, spoke about Ronnie’s marriage to, and abuse by, Phil Spector). Mahon convincingly argued that Ronnie Spector deserves a larger place in the history of rock ‘n’ roll than she has been accorded heretofore: her singing style, and her dancing, were important, innovative, and influential alongside, and in addition to, the (more widely recognized) impact of Phil Spector’s “wall of sound.” Tina Majkowski followed with a discussion of the stange identity play in Cher’s solo (post-Sonny) career. Cher’s signature songs, often performed together in a medley, (fictively) identified her as a Cherokee “half-breed” (“Half-Breed”), a Gypsy (“Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves”), and as a murderess (“Dark Lady”). This led to an oddly excessive and off-kilter performance of racial and ethnic difference. Majkowsi thereby discovered in Cher’s performances and videos something that is embarrassing and laughable, but that somehow can’t simply be dismissed, because of how strongly it resonates within the racial and ethnic confusions of 20th century American culture. Lauren Onkey followed with a discussion of the vexing problem of Janis Joplin. Janis is a figure of “sexual, sartorial, and narcotic” excess, as well as vocal and performative excess. Yet her mythic reputation has turned into an irritating cliche, in the decades following her death; and the way her performance style is really a form of minstrelsy, in its imitation of African American blues singers, is all too obvious. Onkey explored various ways of rethinking Janis Joplin, rather than coming to any definitive conclusions; I found her talk compelling, because it helped me to articulate my own confusions about Joplin: I loved her and her music in my teens and twenties, but later I came to feel that I had become enamoured of her only because of my ignorance of black music. Finally, Lucy O’Brien gave a talk about “Damaged Divas,” in the course of which she looked at Amy Winehouse, both as a singer and as a figure notorious for her drug dependencies and bad behavior, in the context of a tradition dating back at least to Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf. Must female singers lead such damaged lives, and dramatize that damage publically, in order for us to regard their emotional expression as “authentic”?

In the afternoon, I was the moderator for a panel on “Viral Video.” Richard Poplak discussed the phenomenon of sexually suggestive music videos that are broadcast and seen throughout the Arab world, including especially in extremely conservative countries like Saudi Arabia. These videos seem to provide an outlet for sexual expression that is otherwise forbidden; they are hated by religious conservatives, but financed and supported by elements in the Saudi ruling class that see in them a way of managing and channeling desires that otherwise might explode. SMS text messages can be sent commenting on the videos; through these, young people are able to flirt and otherwise express themselves in ways that would be forbidden in any more open and explicit context. One couldn’t really call these videos and text messages “transgressive,” but they do suggest the complex negotiations of feeling and expression that continue to occur even in “closed” societies. Carol Vernallis followed this with a discussion of the expressive power of music videos. She first made general comments about how music videos address their audiences, and create them as audiences; and went on to exemplify this with a close analysis of will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” video for the Obama campaign. Though Vernallis didn’t use the phrase, her discussion was consistent with Lauren Berlant’s notion of an “affective public sphere,” which was invoked by various speakers throughout the conference (including Barry Shank’s presentation that I discuss above). The last speaker on the panel, Kurt B. Reighley, traced the strange history of “Papaya,” a song by avant-garde Polish singer Urszula Dudziak, which was first picked up, and danced to, by drag queens in the Philippines during the Marcos era, but subsequently, much later (starting in 2007), became a mainstream dance craze thanks to its being featured on a Philippine game show: it has now spread around the world, appeared on TV in the Us and elsewhere, and inspired more than 17,000 youtube videos. Reighley’s account of viral video proliferation made an interesting contrast to that of the will.i.am video discussed by Vernallis.

The next panel I went to was called “Sex Machine.” Charles Kronengold unearthed, and analyzed in depth, some of the strangest soul songs (from the 1970s) that I have ever heard. I can’t reproduce the full subtlety and complexity of Kronengold’s argument; but his key terms were articulation and disarticulation. In the course of articulating (i.e. expressing) feelings in these love songs, the musicians also articulated (literally — in the sense of joining together) a number of widely disparate, and sometimes even incompatible, musical elements. Kronengold took apart these ungainly articulations, and then brought them together again, in order to evoke a sense of oblique affectivity (this is my phrase, not Kronengold’s). Carl Wilson followed with a close look at the widespread use (one might even say, deliberate abuse) of Autotune software in recent pop music, especially hiphop. The current Autotune mania can be related to the use of falsetto and other sorts of voice alteration (like Zapp and Roger’s use of the vocoder in the 1980s), predominently by men, throughout the history of soul and r & b. This explicit denaturalization of the voice is affectively and erotically ambiguous, modulating machismo with vulnerability, and intimacy with robotic affectlessness and distance. I am not doing full justice to Wilson’s argument — one result of attending so many talks in a row is that I haven’t retained as many details as I would have liked — but this is another talk which, despite the fuzziness of my explicit recall, continues to resonate richly in my mind. The last speaker on this panel was Daphne Carr, who speculated on our (meaning, music critics, and more generally, writers) autoerotic love affairs with our laptops. This talk was somewhat audience-involving and performative, as Carr asked everyone in the audience carrying a laptop to turn it on, and perform certain actions on her cues. The actions ranged from playing a few seconds of one’s favorite mp3s, to allowing strangers to touch or caress one’s laptop, to encircling the laptop in one’s arms in a sort of protective cocoon. The point of all this was to think hard about how our laptops are not just tools we use, but (erotic as well as prosthetic) extensions of ourselves, and objects with which we interact in highly charged ways. Carr worked through ideas about the emotional costs, as well as the obvious benefits, of our monadic and work-obsessed (or work-avoidance-obsessed) cyborgian relationships with our machines. All in all, this was one of the most intriguing panels I attended; all three speakers spoke suggestively about how subjectivity is mediated and modulated through our technologies (including songwriting and song recording as technologies in their own right; and suggesting that there is no such thing as a pure subjectivity free of any such modulations and articulations).

I will post this now; the remaining sessions (one more Saturday afternoon, and two on Sunday) will be the subject of yet another post.

One thought on “Experience Music Project: Pop Conference (2)”

  1. Thanks for such informative overviews. I was not able to attend EMP this year — it’s a mighty long way from MIA, plus my fellowship at the NEA Arts Institute was a major scheduling conflict — and, after reading this, am very sorry I missed it (though not at all sorry I went to the NEA instead).

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