Friday, April 27, 2007

The 2007 EMP Pop Conference was a blast.

It was great to put faces/voices to long-time online presences--ILM-ers like Ned Raggett, Scott Seward (and his lovely wife Maria) , Alfred Sotos, donut bitch; blogger man dem such as Wayne (& Wax) Marshall, Carl 'Zoilus' Wilson, John 'UtopianTurtleTop' Shaw--and to meet outright new people like (to name just a few) indie anthropologist Wendy Fonarow, disco scholar Tim Laurence (who's got a book coming out soon on Arthur Russell), and David Grubbs the Great Defender (who, when a bunch of us were looking for a restaurant, got stopped in the street by some 16 year old kid who cried out “are you David Grubbs?!?!?! you're, you’re my HERO!”). And of course lovely to catch up with old familiars in an unfamiliar setting such as Stelfox and Sinker. Kudos to Matos for throwing the Saturday night party.

The papers were almost uniformly good-to-stunning. I can only think of maybe one and half duds, and that's a significantly improved ratio c.f. the last EMP I went to which was the first EMP back in I think 2001 (and itself easily the most entertaining/stimulating popcult conference I’d ever attended). As before, the culprits were poncy-but-inane academic jargon and Other People’s Theories standing in for your own language/critique. More generally, you could see the development of an EMP style that fuses the personal/memoiristic/poetic with culture-critique operating in that interzone between the academy and high-powered rockcrit. If there's a downside with that approach is that a few talks were almost too memoiristic and anecdotal, pushing the person delivering them front and center but losing a sense of the Big Picture.

Out of the papers I managed to see (bear in mind that at any given time four different panels containing three to four speakers were going on)... I'm not alone in thinking Scott Seward was the tournament champion with his “Of Wolves & Vibrancy - A Brief Exploration of the Marriage Made In Hell Between Folk Music, Dead Cultures, Myth, and Highly Technical Modern Extreme Metal” ( funny, poetic, personal, genuinely informative, and it made me want to listen the entire works of Ulver). Other highlights: Jonathan Lethem’s keynote (shame he didn't physically illustrate his early talk of his youthful and highly "engaged" dancing though!); Sasha Frere-Jones's “What's the 911?” (hard to paraphrase but basically about how R&B has become America’s dominant pop music but this is problematic because R&B as it is now--and unlike soul in the 1960s and 1970--is constitutionally incapable of registering let alone expressing/catharsis-izing such political traumas as 9/11, Iraq, Katrina; the best bit though was the coda in which he read out a hilarious and hypnotic poem based on running through the titles of each week’s Billboard Number One singles of particular recent years, which--since many of them were number one for 8 or 12 or even 15 weeks--involved all kinds of emotional and dramatic inflections to leaven the monotony) ; Joshua Clover's “1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About” (conversely this was about major political convulsion-- the staggered fall of communist regimes at the end of the eighties--as registered in the pop music of 1989-90, Jesus Jones ‘right here right now’, Scorpions’ "wind of change", et al); Mark Sinker's “"... b-but does it pass the test of SPACE?!!!" Why rotten music-writing creates worse history; how the music that this damages – not to mention the music it doesn't -- suggests ways writers can do something about it (possibly); how we can bring the lost moment back to life without destroying it...” (even though his talk kinda ended up being less about its topic and more like a long preamble to the reiteration of the title at the end with just a minimal flourish of elaboration on test of time versus test of space theorem... plus he didn't castigate the "rotten writing" as hoped but read out stuff he admired); Geeta Dayal's “Examining European fandom of the Detroit, Chicago, and New York Dance Music Mythos” (amusing presentation; also, it had never really struck me before how Detroit-worship for Germans is a form of displaced patriotism/narcissism, it’s as though the original Detroit techno's own Germanophilia allowed them to affirm everything that’s most Germanic about their music and culture but having a black face on it mades that acceptable); Wendy Fonarow's “The Participant Framework of the Indie Gig: The Three Zones and Contemporary Change” (vivaciously performed and I particularly liked her riff about modern kids livingin the future anterior, the "will have been", video-ing gigs on their mobile phones and impatient to upload it to their blogs or myspaces --as opposed to actually being there IN THE NOW in a fully immersive, Dionysian kind of way); Daphne Brooks “Time Out of Mind: TV on the Radio's Diasporic Data Tapes & the ReMixed Code(s) of Cookie Mountain” (poetic) ; Maura Johnston's “The Season Came To An End: Freestyle Brings Loneliness To A Crowded Dance Floor ” (touching talk that rescued a largely forgotten club genre from history's dustbin) ; Mike Powell's “The Pyongyang Hit Parade” (on North Korean pop, enjoyed both the haunting strangeness of the pure Korean folk music he played and the Tomita-meets-Enya-meets-CelineDion shlockadelic pap it became under communist tyranny, why is it that totalitarianism goes hand in hand with kitsch? answers please Mr Hatherley) ; Kembrew McLeod's “The New Market Affair: Scouting the Hills of the Shenandoah Valley for the Next Big Thing” (hilarious tale of how a Spin prank article circa the post-Seattle record biz gold rush sent some hapless A&R men to the tiny town in the rural Virginia where Kembrew was a college student and how he and his mates tried to exacerbate the prank by staging showcase gigs and such like) ; Erik Davis' “Freak Folk and the Analog Ethic” (in the same panel as Scott Seward's and also an interesting talk called “Moths, Moons, and Toothless Hound Dogs: Joanna Newsom's New Rural Aesthetic” by Meghan Drury Askins who amazingly actually went to school with Newsom, this was as intriguing as you'd expect from Erik, but I couldn't resist pointing out when it came to question-and-answer that the Analog-Only Ethic of Newsom, Tower Recordings et al, only goes so far... Newsom might have banned CD players and digital technology from her own home as soul-pollutants and insisted on recording Ys with analog technology all the way through the process BUT… not only did Ys come out on CD as opposed to only on vinyl, but you can get it and Tower Recordings recordings via Emusic, ie. in even more digitized/compressed/dematerialized form. So there's definite limits--market realities, career requirements--on how far the Analog Ethic gets extended!).

The 2007 EMP Pop Conference was a blast, then, but not an unalloyed one. I'd forgotten how taxing these kind of 9 AM to 6 PM seminars can be. Listening to people vocally deliver prose is draining, both because of the sheer concentration required and also because even when speakers have a really engaging conversational manner they're still
transmitting something that should be read. Then there's the physical wear-and-tear--staying sat all day long, never quite managing to stay hydrated or caffeinated enough (my normal daily routine entails several gallons of tea punctuated by flagons of strong coffee), rushing to catch the 9-AM kick-off and skipping breakfast and then wondering why come noon you've got this weird head-achy dizzy feeling. My one big regret was missing Friday's lunchtime Ellen Willis tribute session but starvation meant I had to go eat a proper sit-down meal.

Alloyed too by a certain tinge of melancholy that peeked out here and there. The music critic profession has gotten distinctly more precarious in the last year. All decade in fact the pinch has been felt in terms of shrinking word-counts and monthly music magazines having less ad pages and therefore less editorial space, taking fewer risks. I was half-dreading the final day’s wrap-up colloquy, "The Future of Thinking About Music for a Living", thinking this sure-to-be major handwringing session would end the conference on a bummer note. Actually it turned out to be pretty upbeat and with some constructive ideas aired, although none of the suggested avenues (e.g. talk of the opening up of space within academia in the form of Music Studies increasingly becoming an in-demand option within the humanities, as opposed to within Musicology depts.) can really replace the role of the regular media outlets that once offered paying space to cogitate (alternate weeklies, monthlies like Spin, the old UK weekly music press).

One lone voice broke the consensus, Amy Philips, Pitchfork's news editor, who more or less chided the assembled for thinking like dinosaurs: she invoked a new breed of youth today who want their info RIGHT THIS MINUTE and don’t have time to to read (or write) considered and extended reviews, let alone thinkpieces. Cogitation was a luxury now she said and she urged us to become like be like jungle animals, adapt to the new media ecosystem, write faster... An involuntary cry rose up from the core of my being: “NOOOOO!!! Slow- it - down. Marinate, reflect.” A visceral response that if articulated might have proposed the intellectual equivalent of the Slow Food movement in cuisine. Someone else later angrily insisted on preserving the "right to ruminate". The irony of course is that while Pitchfork news may get updated every nanosecond, its review section is a bastion of the really loooooong review--not all of them but some certainly stretch out for what looks like a thousand words--and long or not-so-long they are always well considered and clearly the product of serious and protracted pondering, etc.

Indeed on the EMP-dedicated ILM thread a few days ago, P-Fork editor Scott Plagenhoef--
contextualizing Philips’ remarks as not gloating but just grimly realistic--was overtaken by a fit of despair, writing:

"… to an emerging generation of kids, music criticism is 24-hour news and leaks and mp3s and ratings and getting to things first. It's not about digesting music and it's not having meaningful conversations about it or reading someone else's ideas about it. Indeed, it's barely having conversations about it all. The democratization of music crit-- on mssg boards, mp3 blogs, etc.-- seems to not be resulting in ppl sharing more ideas with one another, but falling over another just to plant flags. And now many (specifically indie) fans seem actively suspicious of anyone who talks at length about music. P4k's very act of printing longform reviews and attempting to share ideas about music is, quite oddly, resented and seen to many as us cramming our opinions down someone's throat or inherently self-indulgent because ppl don't look to music writers for ideas, merely for suggestions on what to download. It's resented and kicked against because music crit is, to many of them, seemingly merely used as a tipsheet and now they can just 'listen to an mp3 and make up their own mind.' And I fear that with mp3s giving people v. little tangible to grasp onto (no album art, liner notes, photos-- no product), the internet eliminating the need to hunt for info or sounds about/from an artist (let alone make choices about who to literally invest in), the rise of DVDs and video games as products that kids cherish, collect, and participate in w/o other distractions, and music almost exclusively something you do while you're doing something else (a background/lifestyle item) that there is little myth-making or magic in pop music these days, and as a result fewer ideas and conversations and arguments. In short, the future of writing about music, or whatever Amy's panel was called, is pretty grim because the future of getting people to invest their thoughts in music seems grim, too…. "

He added:

"Put it another way: P4k and its peers and contemporaries could be the first and last eZines. If the future of music crit is online, then the old print mag format-- followed by P4k, Stylus, Dusted, Drowned in Sound, CMG, etc.-- is almost N/A. Maybe I'm off but I can't recall a new eZine starting in the past few years. It's all blogs, and lately all that means is posting music or videos. The energy and ideas that departed the Voice, for example, seem to primarily have gone to writing for retail (eMusic), MTV Urge, or writing about single tracks (the very good PTW). I don't blame anyone-- you'd be foolish to start an eZine now-- but what does that say about sustaining lengthy word counts, which was the very thing the internet and the first wave of blogs got right, let alone expressing and communicating ideas?”

This was the kind of talk I feared "The Future of Thinking about Music for A Living" would be full of and thank God it wasn't and post-conference jollity set the tone, but ooer what Scott says does have the horrible ring of truth about it, don't it? It chimes with some of the stuff that came up in the K-Punk/Fact dialogue and corroborates my talk of a general dis-intensification with what I'm sure in Scott's case is much more frontlines experience of these attitude changes. Most "youth of today" I have encounters with are perhaps inevitably ones who have a similarly inflated--and therefore archaic--sense of what Music Criticism should be as myself.... Perhaps this inflated conception zone was always a minority thing , a subset of specialised demand within the broader market for music magazines; it used to be able to subsist as a space within publications that were probably bought by the majority of readers for other reasons (news, gig guide, basic consumer guidance reviewage), almost like a parasite in a host organism...

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