Posted by Tobias Carroll
For three of the last four years, I’ve made my way to the EMP Pop Conference in Seattle. It’s a fine way to hear smart people talking about music, and the presenters offer a good balance between journalistic and academic perspectives on music and culture. This year, the conference made its way to UCLA, and I made the trip to take it all in. What follows are short takes on what I saw; I’d also heartily recommend the summaries written by Robert Christgau and Ned Raggett.
Friday began with the “Scenes, Screens, and Schemes: The Multifarious Politics of Pop in Los Angeles” panel. Juan Carlos Kase explored the work of Toni Basil in the mid-to-late 1960s, including her work as dancer and choreographer, and played a clip from Bruce Conner’s short film Breakaway (note: link NSFW), including Basil’s song of the same name. (Which is, for what it’s worth, fantastic.) Laurel Westrup discussed the role that two venues in Los Angeles’s Chinatown (Madame Wong’s and the Hong Kong Cafe) played in shaping that city’s punk scene in the late 1970s; along the way, she explored notions of race, class, and gender. And Paul Reinsch took a detailed look at the mid-80s heavy metal benefit album Hear’n Aid, exploring both its place in the metal scene of the time and its connection to current events (i.e. the PMRC). And if you haven’t heard the single “Stars,” might I direct you towards YouTube?
From there, I stayed in the same room for the “Reality Bites” panel. It was led off by Carl Wilson, whose presentation “Reality Music” led off with a Dan Bejar quote (“pop music is about erasing yourself and seeing what’s left”), segued into a discussion of Wilson’s appearance in the film Teenager Hamlet, and ended with a lengthy exploration of the unlikely pop career of Antoine Dodson and the dissemination of the song “Bed Intruder Song.” From there, Diane Pecknold explored the dimensions of and limitations on Disney’s pop stars. (During the Q&A, the question was posed as to just how far Hannah Montana was from a figure in a Don DeLillo novel.) And Katherine Meizel focused on Ke$ha — specifically, a host of representational issues that arose out of several broadcast performances that aired last year.
The next session: “Panic in the City,” focusing on three very different space. Kevin Dettmar focused on the Arcade Fire’s recent exploration of suburban spaces, and how that went — to some extent — against the grain of most traditional rock songwriting. He also discussed the way nostalgia played in to their “The Wilderness Downtown” video — specifically, if its resonances for him were universal or more specific given his age and hometown. (This was followed up by a fine question from David Grubbs, raising the uneasy question of having a warm emotional reaction to something that’s the product of, in his words, “surveillance technology.”) Dettmar was followed by Jonathan Lethem, who began with an analysis of their song “The Big Country” and expanded from there to address the group’s shifting attitudes towards, well, non-urban spaces, from seeming contempt to unlikely celebration. And Devin McKinney’s overview of late-70s and early-80s Los Angeles punk made me want to go on something of a record-buying spree, including work from The Weirdos and Black Randy and the Metrosquad.
Saturday began with the “Keywords” panel. Christine Bacareza Balance’s “Viral” explored the role of, well, viral videos in providing cultural representations to previously underrepresented communities. Daphne Brooks’s “Glitter” explored the historical roots of certain styles largely associated with glam-rock, including a Zora Neale Hurston quote from 1935, and ended with a clip of Janelle Monae’s video for “Many Moons,” with all of the layered imagery that it might suggest. Karen Tongson’s “Plastic” invoked a number of cultural figures, ranging from the performance-art pop of Tracy and the Plastics to the “literal video version” of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” to the New Sound Karaok, which pays tribute to 80s pop even as it critiques it. Gayle Wald’s presentation, “Svengali,” examined the roots of the term, which — this was news to me — comes from an anti-Semitic figure character from the 19th-century novel Trilby. Discussed both in the presentation and in the dialogue that followed was how the term had seemingly escaped its roots in a way that certain similar culturally problematic literary figures turned cultural signifiers had not. Oliver Wang’s “Fetti” closed out the panel with a look at hip-hop metaphors involving money. Wang offered a number of theories, some of them more tongue-in-cheek than others, about these terms’ etymologies.
Up next: two of the presentations from the “Music Video Then and Now” panel. Roberta Cruger, who had worked in MTV during its formative years, explored that channel’s evolution in its first decade of existence. Michaelangelo Matos began by discussing notions of “MTV-style editing” and moved from there to explore MTV’s effect on advertising, both stylistically and aesthetically.
Later that afternoon: “Selling No Sell Out.” David Sanjek explored “The Contamination of Popular Music Studies by Agoraphobia,” invoking everything from a 1969 Columbia Records counterculture-influenced advertising campaign for contemporary composers to the work of Rebecca Solnit. Joshua Alston focused on the influence of the prosperity gospel movement on contemporary music, looking at megachurches, Ma$e, and critiques of said movement from numerous sources. Elizabeth Keenan’s “Trying to Buy Back a Little Piece of Me: Consumer Culture, Nostalgia, and Political Activism” explored contemporary explorations of the Riot Grrl movement, with an eye towards the narratives created by Sara Marcus and Marisa Meltzer in their recent books covering the subject. It made for one of the conference’s high points: comprehensive, detailed, and enlightening, it provided a new perspective on work I’d recently encountered. Simon Reynolds’s presentation, which gave the panel its title, explored the labels and artists instrumental in three periods of music: what Reynolds referred to as “post-psychedelic music” in the late 60s and early 70s; the post-punk era; and the more contemporary trend towards smaller, hand-made recordings in the realm of noise, “free-folk,” and drone bands. (Also referenced: Etsy. “Tons of owls, everywhere,” Reynolds observed.) Reynolds closed by musing on the nature of subcultures, and asking whether the recent shift towards an “almost artisanal” approach effectively removed underground music from a necessary dialogue with the larger culture.
[Sunday’s presentations will be covered in part two, appearing later this week.]