Went to: EMP Pop Conference at UCLA (part two)

Posted by Tobias Carroll

(Part one of my notes from 2011’s EMP Pop Conference can be found here.)

The first panel I attended on Sunday had the fairly dry title “Regional Models and Strategies.” What emerged, though, was one of the strongest and most enlightening sections of the conference. Laith Ulaby led off with a presentation on media and music in the Middle East, ranging from Umm Kulthum to the contemporary history of the media company Rotana. Daphne Carr’s piece on the Czech indie scene (full disclosure: Daphne’s a friend) discussed the difference between direct-to-fan and DIY models, using a pair of musical communities as examples. Her presentation also included one of the most memorable mental images from the conference: a plastic-wrapped copy of Our Band Could Be Your Life, passed from person to person over the course of nine years in said Czech community. Or, as Daphne put it, a “commodity made into a sacred text.”

Theon Weber continued the panel with a look at post-Soviet Russian popular music, and the complicated relationship it’s had with notions of authority.  You can, in fact, read his entire presentation here, and I highly recommend it. And Yaprak Melike Uyar closed the panel with a look at the Turkish street-dancing subculture known as “Apaches.” (Looking for a relevant video link for this has led me down a strange road punctuated by numerous remixes of Flowshakerz’s “Outro Lex.” Like, say, this one.)

From there, the next stop was the “Singles” panel. Douglas Wolk led things off with a discussion of the indie seven-inch — of how the ease with which they could be produced prompted something of a renaissance of the form, only for it to eventually become less essential as CDs became the easier format to mass-produce. (Also: a short and fascinating window on the brief rise and fall of the flexi-disc.) He ended his presentation arguing that the aesthetic meaning of a seven-inch in 2011 was significantly different than in the past; the phrase “conspicuous consumption” made an appearance. Wolk did cite the White Stripes and Fucked Up as bands for whom the “primacy of the seven inch” were still important, but argued that both were, in their own way, revivalists.

Chris Molanphy was next, looking at the music industry’s shifting relationship with the single and with the album, tracing trends over decades and arguing that the music industry’s relationship with the album was “a forty-year failed marriage.” And Tom Kipp closed things out with an utterly fascinating look at…

…actually, the title should give you a pretty good idea. “The ‘Disco Single’ as Commercial Elixir for Aging ’70s Classic Rockers at the Verge of Chart Irrelevance: Decadence, Desperation, & (Occasionally) Unexpected Monetary and Artistic Resurgence!” Which also included stops on Pavement and Disco Demolition Night.

After a fine taco-truck lunch, I headed upstairs for Ned Sublette’s “Money Musk.” Topics on which this presentation touched: Thomas Jefferson, the composer Charles Dibdin, The Beggar’s Opera (and its sequel Polly, which I had not realized existed), notions of when the role of singer-songwriter actually debuted. It was utterly fascinating, comprehensively delivered, and incredibly affecting. It also prompted me to order his The World That Made New Orleans, which I picked up not five hours ago (as of this writing) at Greenpoint’s WORD. So hey. From there, I headed downstairs to take in Alex Rawls’sTreme Second Line,” which focused on the use of local musicians in the show Treme. Specifically: who had benefited, and how — whether financially or via a heightened profile for touring.

Closing out the day, and the conference, was “Dynasty: The KISS Panel.” Evie Nagy began it with a look at Gene Simmons — essentially, how his degree of focus on the band’s image and (for lack of a better word) branding have shaped the group. (Also referenced, and one of the best single quotes from the conference: the “daddy-longlegs-in-the-yarmulke incident.”) She was followed by Andrew Beaujon, who played a short film about a longtime friend of his who’s been a lifelong KISS fan. This made sense: his friend was both an enthusiastic KISS fan and willing to be hilariously candid about some of the band’s missteps over the years. (Lou Reed’s involvement with Music From “The Elder” came up several times.)

Ann Donahue continued the panel with an exploration of KISS’s merchandise — ranging from a Dr. Pepper Cherry endorsement to a KISS coffee house to a KISS Mr. Potato Head. (She also noted that KISS had a website up to sell merchandise in…1995. Which is quite impressive.) Her presentation ended with a raffle of abundant merchandise, including a temporary face tattoo. Following her was Chuck Klosterman, who looked briefly at the band’s contentious (in their minds) relationship with critics, who — Klosterman argued — didn’t pan the band so much as mostly ignore them. Klosterman also looked at the band’s own self-mythologizing — both in terms of their music’s appeal and in terms of their business sense. (They were good at making money, Klosterman pointed out, but almost as good at losing it — and then launched into a list of awful business ideas supported by the group.) From there, he explored the band’s lyrical relationship with money, their handling of “unreality,” and the pragmatic reason for the existence of the 1978 solo records.

Following that, the presentation was over, and with it the conference. Attendees and presenters headed out into the Los Angeles evening, their destinations including restaurants, Oscar parties, bars, or some combination of all three. As with previous years, the blend of academia and journalism made for a fine experience; I’m curious to see what will come in 2012.