For my first "real" post, I decided to plumb the archives, and came up with this rather scathing indictment that I penned 7 years ago after attending something called the Pop Music Studies Conference. It was originally published in Splendid, http://www.splendidmagazine.com. Splendid was a great little music website that I did a lot of witing for "back in the day". It ceased publication in 2006.
I am currently working on a new entry about the band Kind of Like Spitting. It should be ready to post in the next day or so.
The Pop Music Studies Conference
Experience Music Project, Seattle, WA
April 11-14, 2002
Chances are good that if you're not a Seattle resident, you haven't given a great deal of thought to the gaudy blob of color (which I enjoy referring to as the "technicolor loogie on 5th Ave.") known as the Experience Music Project -- or, in common parlance, the EMP. Hell, could be you've never even heard of the thing. With that in mind, let me give the unenlightened a little background info on the locale of the Pop Music Studies Conference, which I spent a good portion of last weekend attending.
Like many Seattle enterprises, the EMP smacks of far too much money and far too few ideas on how to spend it. The scenario goes something like this: local gajillionaire and lifetime music fan Paul Allen decides that the world needs to see his collection of Jimi Hendrix memorabilia, among other things. From this seed, he creates the idea of an interactive music museum, where normal folks from all over can see a wonderful collection of music-related artifacts (ranging from the aforementioned Hendrix memorabilia to a leather jacket worn by Elvis to a Fender Jazzmaster played by J. Mascis in his Dinosaur Jr days) as well as participate in various interactive workshops designed to make even the most slobbish, fanny-pack-wearin' tourist feel like a genuine rock n' roll star. No mean feat, to be sure. To accomplish this, Allen commissioned famed architect Frank O. Gehry to design what has to be one of the ugliest examples of public architecture that the world has yet seen: multicolored, organic and sprawling, the thing looks more like an alien radioactive materials plant in critical meltdown phase than it does a building. Inside the EMP, we find lots of the aforementioned rock n' roll artifacts, as well as a completely impractical performance space dubbed the Sky Church, a bar called the Liquid Lounge, lots of computers and other various technological gadgets and gewgaws, and a gift shop that sells, among other things, Britney Spears t-shirts.
Over the past few years, I have resolutely resisted the temptation, however slight, to investigate what the EMP had to offer. There were several reasons for this, but mainly it was a combination of intellectual arrogance on my part (what could they possibly tell me about music that I don't already know?) and base economics (a general, one-day pass to the EMP is something like twelve bucks -- personally, I figured that a much more valid way to "experience music" would be to spend half as much on a real live rock show). However, having picked up the flier advertising the Pop Music Studies Conference at a local coffee shop, I figured that my number was up -- I would finally cave in and see what the EMP had to offer in the interest of appeasing my inner rock-nerd.
In the end, I won -- I got into the PMSC, and the EMP, free, gratis, all because I can identify myself as a member of the media. Thanks, George. Thanks, Splendid. So, of course, my main charge while perusing the not-so-hallowed halls of the EMP was not to get wrapped up in their roomful o' computers loaded up with their "digital collection" (a fairly mind-boggling trawl through the annals of rock history, replete with interviews of lots of folks, live footage, encyclopedia entries -- a virtual musical treasure trove on a computer, if I only could have been bothered to figure out how to make the damn thing work) or to gaze fondly at the beautiful solid-body Guild once owned and played by John Lee Hooker; no, friends, my charge this weekend was to geek out with the cream of the crop, the rock geeks cum laude, those select folks who have spent large amounts of their time thinking about and intellectualizing the silly fluff of pop music that most saner folks let pass 'tween their ears without a second thought.
At this point, I would like to personally thank John Darnielle, better known in some circles as The Mountain Goats, for single-handedly preventing the Pop Music Studies Conference from disappearing up its own asshole. With his amazing live performance on Saturday night and his hilarious, spot-on analysis of hair metal fans on Friday morning, he proved the perfect antidote for the otherwise stale, rarified, tomblike air that pervaded many of the panels that I attended. Now, to criticize what purports to be an academic conference for being overly intellectual is, I'll agree, more than a little absurd. However, allow me to explain. To me, pop music -- or more specifically, rock music -- is something that one must experience to fully understand. And I mean experience -- there's nothing to substitute for the eyebrow-searing combination of a cranked Marshall stack and a Gibson SG. Obviously the founders of the EMP realized this -- it is called the Experience Music Project, after all. However, all the computers and hi-tech gadgets in the world can't replicate the simple phenomena of an electric guitar plugged into an overdriven tube amp -- it's just that simple. And to me, a conference that purports to intellectualize the feeling of an electric guitar plugged into an overdriven tube amplifier comes off as somewhat suspect.
Now, don't get me wrong -- I spend a lot of time thinking about, talking about, and writing about music, too -- probably just as much time as any of the eggheads who populated this weekend's conference do. And I'm not saying that the way I think about/talk about/write about music is right while the other guys' way is wrong -- I'm just saying that for the most part, I felt an extreme disconnect between the actual music under discussion and the way that these guys (and sometimes girls) talked about the music. For the moment, let's take the case of William Echard, an Assistant Professor of Music at Ottawa's Carleton University. Dr. Echard presented a paper on Neil Young, entitled "Expecting Surprise Again: Neil Young, Waywardness, and Genre Lines in Rock". Let it be said, before I delve into Dr. Echard's presentation any further, that I love Neil Young. I think he's one of the most fascinating and enduring artists to come out of the rock era, an assertion supported by the fact that just last Tuesday, he released a record that is widely reported to be the best thing he's done in years (despite its hideous cover art), Are You Passionate. Keep in mind that this release comes a full thirty-three years after his first self-titled solo release (and thirty-five years after the first Buffalo Springfield record). I'll bet you can't name one other artist who remains vital and active, and is still putting out great records, in the fourth decade his or her music career. So, let's just say that a man would be hard-pressed to present a paper on the music and career of Neil Young that would bore me to tears. Dr. Echard did just that. The basic tenet of Dr. Echard's paper, if I understood him correctly, was that despite all of the rabid genre-hopping that Young has engaged in during his career, he is still recognized and easily classified as a "rock musician". Fair enough. However, in order to come to this conclusion, Echard felt the need to engage in some of the most incomprehensible high-minded intellectual babble I've ever had the displeasure to sit through. In fact, had there not been a talk titled "Bits of me Scattered Everywhere: Ray Davies and the Kinks" scheduled after Echard's talk (which, unfortunately, proved to be only marginally more interesting than Echard's), I would have walked out after five minutes.
Other forums, while not as dreadfully dull as Echard's, suffered from a similar difficulty. Deena Weinstein, a professor of Sociology at DePaul University, gave a talk on "Creativity and Band Dynamics" -- a subject that, speaking as someone who has tried (mostly in vain) to keep a band going for the better part of the last ten years, was potentially fascinating to me. Weinstein gave a very interesting talk, but I had the feeling that I would have gotten a lot more out of her paper had I simply been allowed to sit down and read it at my own pace. While I found her ideas intriguing, much of what she said went over my head. Without the ability to take in the material at my own pace, I found myself tuning out more than I wanted to, and missing a lot of the content that Weinstein presented.
Unfortunately, the success or failure of many of the various panels that I attended boiled down to a simple factor: whether or not the presenter was a dynamic, interesting speaker. Unfortunately, most of them were not. A great majority of the presenters simply read from the papers that they had prepared, without any attempt to inject any life or spontaneity into their material. Also, despite the hi-tech environs of the EMP and the JBL Theater, where most of the panels I attended were held, a shockingly small number of panelists opted to include actual examples of the music that they were talking about in their presentations. The few folks who did this stood out -- their presentations were infinitely more enjoyable than those of their colleagues. For example, while I am by no means a fan of hip-hop music of any stripe, Kelefeh Sanneh's talk, entitled "I'm not a Rapper: Pride, Professionalism, and Hip-Hop" proved to be one of the most interesting and absorbing talks of the conference, simply because he was a much better speaker than most everyone else involved, and he peppered his talk with actual snippets of music by the artists he was discussing.
The fact that only a few panelists elected to include music as a part of their presentation is emblematic of my biggest problem with the conference as a whole. It seemed to me, what with all the over-intellectualizing and sometimes masturbatory self-congratulation going on amongst the assembled critics and academics, that the original point of the conference was lost. It was music we were supposed to have been talking about here, right? Reaffirming this confusion was Saturday evening's "Northwest Musicians' Panel", which featured Sam Coomes of Quasi, Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney, Mark Arm of Mudhoney and Calvin Johnson of K Records/Beat Happening/Halo Benders/Dub Narcotic/whatever other project he's involved with this week. The musicians, for the most part, expressed mild bewilderment over what the conference was meant to accomplish, and why they were called on to participate, as none of them, by any stretch of the imagination, could be construed as making "popular" music. Basically, these musicians seemed to have the same problems with the conference that I did. For them, the conference's emphasis was not really on the music, but on the constructs that academics and critics create to help them put the music into limiting, theoretical boxes that seem to serve their own egos more than they serve the music that they're supposedly discussing.
At this point, I'd like to come back to John Darnielle, whom I credited earlier in this article with single-handedly preventing the conference from disappearing entirely up its own asshole. This is, of course, a bit of hyperbole; there were certainly quite a few other speakers who showed a reverence for the music, and a desire to embrace music for music's sake rather than as an excuse for a self-indulgent intellectual exercise. Darnielle, however, was by far the best speaker of the entire conference. This was due not only to his rapier wit, but also due to the fact that, as a musician (entertainer), he understands a basic premise of performance: if you're standing up in front of a bunch of people who are watching you perform (or give a speech, or, in this case, read a paper), you'd damn well better do it well enough to keep their attention. In this case, words and ideas simply aren't enough to get by -- you need to present. Darnielle did just that, and was by turns funny, insightful and tremendously intelligent -- a stark contrast to many other conference participants. Darnielle held a rather unique position in the conference, in that he was the only participant who gave a talk and a musical performance. This is significant; many panelists gave the impression (and, of course, I've no idea whether or not this is actually true, but it certainly felt that way) that they'd never even picked up a guitar, let alone been on a stage under the pretense of entertaining a crowd with their music. Darnielle, on the other hand, amply demonstrated his facility at both ends of the spectrum. He's an intense, riveting performer, and had the audience in the palm of his hand for the entirety of his set. The other acts who performed on Saturday evening were none too shoddy, either -- Sarah Dougher turned in an excellent set of her thoughtful, bold pop songs, and Quasi was spot-on as well, delighting the crowd with their rip-snorting garage-pop. Janet Weiss, in particular, was a sight to behold, pounding out fills like there was no tomorrow. However, it was Darnielle who stole the show with his erudite, bizarre lyrics, strong, reedy voice and primitive yet entirely satisfying acoustic guitar bashing. And his talk, although it focused on that most-scorned of all genres, hair metal, revealed the true depth and appreciation that he has for music in general, as well as for the people who make it and the people who love it. Now, as I said before, it's not as if Darnielle was the only one who displayed these attitudes; Holly George-Warren, with her delightful talk on traditional Country and Western fans, exhibited a similar selfless love for the music. If only there'd been more like George-Warren and Darnielle.
There were several important things that I brought back from the conference. These were mostly realizations about myself that had very little to do with the conference itself, but since this is my article, and you've gotten this far into it, I'm not about to stop now! First off, it cemented my self-image as a musician and music lover first, and a critic and writer second. When I write a record review, I do so to convey to the reader what I believe to be important aspects of the music -- does it suck? Is it brilliant? What does it sound like? Should they drop everything and run out and buy it? I don't try to imbue any greater significance to it than it deserves. While it may be my life's work, it's also just rock n' roll. It's one of the most important things in my life, but I also recognize that at its most basic, it can be boiled down to three or four guys (or gals) in a basement bashing away on crappy instruments -- but that, in and of itself, can be extraordinarily important and life-affirming. Perhaps more important to those of you reading this article is this observation: the critics and the academics concerned with such matters might need the music, but the music sure as hell don't need them.