There’s more to rock criticism than whoring for a dollar or two per word. That is the bold if implicit claim made by this batch of papers (many from Voice writers) given at the Experience Music Project’s annual Pop Conference, and you can bet I’m as skeptical as the next Top 40 fan allergic to academia: My abstract got rejected. (Whatever, guys—while you were in Seattle, I ruled Hi Fi’s MP3 jukebox.) But though their eyes may grow red and watery after the umpteenth deployment of the word “authorship”—the section heading after “Narratives” and before “Values”—folks into amateur sociology, people’s histories, media-tech talk, low-cultism, deep geeking, or debates on American dominance will be continually refreshed by the gusts of thought here. Consider the brain farts (on rock poetry, submitting to relativism, and compulsive collecting) as pungent diversions.
In his dry, expansive introduction Eric Weisbard admits his convening of journalism and cultural studies may be “as much karaoke contest as town hall meeting.” Cryptic, this, until you read those who sing as they argue. In his (to borrow Weisbard’s word) extradisciplinary defense of the Top 40, “Good Pop, Bad Pop,” Joshua Clover hops on pop to show how, for all the sameness of the bounce, it takes us higher. Tech whiz Douglas Wolk demonstrates in “Compressing Pop” how radio rock has literally (that is, sonically) become streamlined, while hip-hop ingeniously exploits the same compression. Meanwhile, English professor Gayle Wald’s “Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Prehistory of ‘Women in Rock’ ” greatly broadens our common, alt-biased notion of ladies with guitars.
And here’s the coda: Robert Christgau, after blowing open Simon Frith’s blithe reduction of America’s increasingly “oppressive beat,” exhales and writes, “I’ve avoided the jargon and dead verbs and distracting repetitions of so much scholarly discourse because they suggest carelessness in a world where there isn’t enough caring.” And “Values” doesn’t even start for another 197 pages.