Weeks before the Experience Music Project’s Pop Music Studies Conference, Seattle began to gird itself against the coming influx of buzzkills. An alt-weekly provocateur proclaimed: “When it comes to rock, I like my criticism the way I like my music: hotheaded and visceral, without all the sociology, psychology, philosophy, and the other -ogy’s and -ophy’s” (she could have added “-city’s” and “-ship’s,” and taken care of pesky ubiquities like “authenticity” and “authorship” too). Yes, there were talks about the shape of poetry and the plundering of genres, about representation and signification and diaspora. But though it had its clunkers, the conference proved a real bust for those Casaubons who bought tickets to Seattle hoping to hear the kind of criticism they like—dated, labyrinthine, and wishbone dry. Instead they got Last Plane to Jakarta zine-ist and Mountain Goat John Darnielle dramatically reading Poison fan mail, New York Times wunderkind K. Sanneh’s VH1-smooth take-out on MCs who won’t admit they’re MCs, the dotcom delirium of Listen.com’s Tim Quirk’s wry memoir “Topless at the Arco Arena,” Joshua Clover defending sameness in a multi-tiered reverie-analysis over Bob Seger’s sibilant “Night Moves,” and Glenn Dixon’s exposé of Christ-rock God-lust, “Making It With the Man Upstairs.”
For many at the conference, the man upstairs is the Voice‘s own Robert Christgau. His career-long project of shuttling between rock scribes and cult-stud macademics anchored the weekend’s conceptual swirl, which was organized by former Voice music editor Eric Weisbard, who runs EMP’s education department. The event’s obvious goal was frisson, like an MP3 bootleg mix—two sensibilities concurrent in the cut. And it worked even if the the twain never entirely met. The meet-and-greet was like two family reunions sharing the same church hall. Deep inside the candy apple grey skull of Frank Gehry and Paul Allen’s undular mecha-maze, we clutched expensive Jack-and-Cokes and Red Hooks, embracing our own and squinting sidelong at low-slung necklace nameplates as we swayed to the Serge and capped on the Jimi. Not really your standard academic conference pick-up trawl (the girl with magenta hair looked like a plant). More like shy mods and rockers, or preps and socs in ironic T-shirts and new suede Skechers. One cowboy-booted prof from Indiana in a paisley shirt and leather jacket did approach me, though. I asked if he’d been reading the conference’s listserv. “I haven’t been to the chat room,” he said, “but you tell The Village Voice, I teach a class on Hendrix.” Hey, man, you owe me one.
Soon Weisbard had many of us filing booze-bleary into an oral history session with former child preacher and soul giant Solomon Burke. Robed in full crimson fezzalia, he did Ahmet Ertegun impressions and plugged his new record. The question session accommodated middle-aged record collectors who wanted to use the word “sides.” The whole session was a typical schedule cram. All of us spent the next two days sprinting in and out of panels, our pleasure in what we were hearing compromised only by our fear that we were missing something better. Some presentations were about drugs, chicks, and rock orgies, and others just invoked those words at strategic intervals to perk up the rabble. We learned that while older poets saw rock from reflective distance in an assumed monoculture, the younger breed references indie rock and fetishizes secret society (Stephen Burt); we saw Beats and Hippies plotted on a grid (Simon Warner); we discovered Baz-maniacs (Darnielle) and the Super-Legend’s Love Club (Holly George-Warren). Ethnomusicology Ph.D. Joe Schloss recounted Cut Chemist’s in-concert trick of sampling audience comments and scratching them instantly into the mix. The keynote found Christgau and U.K. Sound Effects eminence Simon Frith sparring affectionately over the causes and ramifications of world-dominant American pop.
But it was in the scant 15-minute breaks, as we grabbed our belongings and hustled to the next exegesis or revelation, that the weekend’s Doppler-effect overload was most intense. Overheard: “I’m in the music department, so of course I feel like an alien.” “What’s the worst thing about fucking babies? You get blood all over your clownsuit.” Re Empire: “You know, in Italy, they can lock you up and throw away the key.” “Do you think you use less-violent adjectives, being a woman?” “After I was on that documentary, somebody sent me a dead rabbit.” “We’re so phat, when we dance about the architecture, we dance about the architecture.” And, perhaps most revealing of all: “Can I get a coffee?” “We just dumped the drip, is espresso all right?” “Uh, sure, whatever.” “I’m so sorry, all I can do is Americano.” “That works. Hurry up, willya?”
There was too much to see. My intended and I missed the cock-rock panel featuring the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Craig Seymour’s show-stopping “Really Dirty Pop,” which extolled e-porn boy-band slash fiction. We were beat. Ducking into the elevator (a Wu Tang-banging chamber at that moment), we made for the Demo Lab, situated in the back of EMP’s Sound Lab—the pulsing heart of the museum, where real “experiencing” of music happens. We glided past the skin drum table, the troika booths housing little girls learning to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Later on, I would actually kick an eight-year-old off a synth: “Listen, kid, you’ve been playing for 20 minutes, why don’t you go over there and experience some beat matching?” We slipped into the Herman Miller-esque chairs for Richard Gehr’s “Fakes, Teases, Sandwiches, Inversions, Gazintas, Breakouts, and Dyslexia,” a mellow look at jam-band trixterism. Gehr had it sewn up like Betsy Ross. He’d tell you something about the Disco Biscuits, then recline in his chair with a slow grin, and signal the maestro. Up would fade five full minutes of lush—guess what—music! We looked at each other. We closed our eyes. Oh yeah.
But wait. Did those buttery Dead licks convince us to renounce our love of idea-stuffed pop talk? Not a chance. In fact, it made us horny for more. And for more perspective—more discussion of the ways women changed rock, the way pop creates pop place, and power, and race. The way age and family and speed and silence and food and childhood and memory and sex affect and effect what pops. In the most basic sense, the conference seems to have taken the critics off the treadmill and made the academics laugh. As Simon Frith put it: “The general sense of people having something interesting to say and having gone to some trouble to say it in an interesting way was astounding.” Smith College’s Steve Waksman left happy: “It seemed like the vibe at the conference was that people could be funny and still make a point.” And techno lover Pat Blashill, whose talk on the history of “infernal devices” gave some shine to the likes of the TB-303, broke some off for the exposure he got to “the sorts of analytical tools I want to be able to use more deftly to explain why I love that sub-bass sound that rattles my skeleton.”
If that’s not experiencing music, I don’t know what is.