Show Me the Money

Seattle's EMP proves that great popular music conferences cannot live by inclusive intentions alone

There's full disclosure, and then there's tooting your own horn. I keynoted the first EMP Pop Conference in 2002, served on its program committee in 2002 and 2003, and have spoken there four years running. The conference organizers, Experience Music Project curators Eric Weisbard and Ann Powers, are former Voice music editors at whose wedding my wife and I presided in 2000. So let's just say I'm representing.

With a clear conscience. Co-keynoting in 2002 was my old friend Simon Frith, a professor in Scotland who also oversees Britannia's Mercury Music Prize and has sat through more such confabs than anyone. "The best pop music conference I've ever attended," he called it. My wife came along that year armed with lists of Seattle bookstores and hamburger joints and never left the guitar-shaped ('tis said) Frank Gehry museum, and in 2003 our 17-year-old abandoned the lectures only to explore the disco exhibit you can experience at Lincoln Center's Performing Arts Library through May 14. Neither of these intelligent music lovers has much appetite for the abstruse or the scholarly. But like everyone else at EMP, they often had trouble deciding which of two competing talks they could stand to miss. Last week I sacrificed Banning Eyre on African hip-hop for Cecil Brown on Mae West, a scholarship-versus-journalism roundtable relevant to this column for a mesmerizing Holly Bass piece I won't get to mention again, and Julianne Shepherd on Courtney Love for James Hannaham on lip-synching—which closed with Hannaham karaokeing Whitney Houston's "Star Spangled Banner."

The short explanation is that EMP isn't exclusively academic—of the 180 presenters this year, only 84 ID'd themselves that way, including many grad students and wearers of multiple hats. Nor were all the nonacademics journalists; we heard from several alt bizzers and quite a few artists, literary and performance as well as musical, with David Thomas's video-enhanced celebration of Cleveland horror-movie host Ghoulardi a major hit. Big tent is a fantasy often invoked and seldom achieved in cultural studies circles. But beyond the boldness, imagination, and actually existing openness of Ann (English M.A.) and Eric (a thesis shy of a history Ph.D.), EMP's tent is so roomy for one simple reason: money.

Mae West with Libby Taylor, 1934
photo: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Mae West with Libby Taylor, 1934

Conferences are a way of life for college teachers, with travel expenses a perk of the trade. Hosts expect attendees to pay their own way because at most schools, even graduate students are reimbursed when they present and sometimes just attend. Journalists enjoy no such support unless they're covering—and conference coverage is something editors seldom encourage. EMP is different, or has been; thanks to a now expired grant from Microsoft founder and EMP angel Paul Allen, the conference could afford to help contributors get to Seattle. The funds had to be doled out judiciously, and some EMP'ers will be chagrined to learn they were there at all. But they made the difference. When Harvard University Press based its This Is Pop anthology on the 2002 conference, 14 of the 25 essayists selected were nonacademics, and six of the academics had extensive journalistic and/or artistic résumés. By now everybody knows the deal. The journalists do archival research and risk themes too arcane for paying venues, the academics shy away from jargon and hairsplitting, and most papers prove interesting at worst. Many are even funny.

Under the rubric "Music as Masquerade: Poseurs, Playas, and Beyond," the EMP of April 14 through 17 (I missed the final morning because I couldn't find a cheap fare) was the most academic so far. The keynote was a mini-plenary incorporating 11 comments on Eric Lott's seminal 1992 minstrelsy study Love and Theft, and among the titles were a few of the sort journalists have found humorous since Derrida was king. Only Ghoulardi prevented me from catching a bit of "Poop as Hard as Rock: Putting the 'Anal' in Analysis," and when an Albert Ayler paper tarried with two lesser A's, Adorno and Attali, I escaped to hear an entertainment reporter from Sioux Falls document Lakota hip-hop on the res. On the other hand, a few journalists were strictly from dullsville, while a PowerPointed lecture on 19th-century hula stuck with me.

Two of my top four presentations came from renowned scholars who also kicked ass at the keynote: Lott on Sinatra's Amos 'n' Andy shtick (Live at the Sands, check it out) and W.T. Lhamon on the genius blackface of Bert Williams. In my favorite of all, alt-pub editor Yuval Taylor historicized—persuasively, although I await counterarguments—Jimmie Rodgers and confessional song. And then there was Voice columnist Douglas Wolk, who (after musicologizing imitation Beatles in 2004) unpacked the all-star Coke ads of the late '60s. Credits were also mixed on my second tier. History prof Maribeth Hamilton (the genteel racism of foundational ethnomusicology) and book-a-year folk-music journalist Elijah Wald (gangsta rap con accordions) seem a likely pair; so do David Thomas and his critical patron Greil Marcus (the aesthetics of disrespect). But what are we to make of Michaelangelo Matos (the story of "Apache"), who never attended college, like publicist-blogger-gadfly Jessica Hopper, whose explicit grunge-wannabe memoir meshed neatly with the elegant punk fashion memoir of novelist and University of London "lecturer" Lavinia Greenlaw? And how exactly does Cecil Brown get by? He has a Ph.D., he's published with Harvard, but unlike most of this year's overdue profusion of black scholars, he boasts no institutional affiliation.

Without Allen's grant, I clearly would never have heard some of these folks. But although Boeing kicked in for this year's performance-reception, who knows whether support will continue? "Fine art" museums, like opera companies, assume moneybags will put their trust funds where their cultural self-interest is. Pop music—even at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a promotional device of unabashed utility—is expected to pay its own way. Bless Paul Allen, but that was seed money. Since 2002, EMP has cut its workforce in half and devoted part of Gehry's guitar to sci-fi. And of course, that's how ultra-right hypercapitalism conceives the former public sector. The humanization of scholarship, as opposed to the subsidization of ideological hegemony, is for pansies.

There was too much masquerade on the performance program to suit my straight tastes, although you should catch drag queen Dina Martina in Provincetown this summer. But when sly Chicano Elvis imitator El Vez closed while flashing Bush's sins on a back screen, I said amen.

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