Better Than: Watching two full days of rock docs.
At the 12th annual EMP Pop Conference at Tisch School of the Arts on Friday afternoon, Princeton professor Alexandra Vazquez was presenting on Superstorm Sandy, remaining structures of colonialism, and Cuban-American salsa singer La Lupe, also known as the Queen of Latin Soul. On a PowerPoint slide behind Vazquez were the lyrics to “Oriente,” one of the many songs Lupe made with Tito Puente; except this time, she sings about how the King of Latin Music threw her out of his band, as if Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony made a song together about their divorce. “Tito Puente me boto,” Lupe spits, crying her signature “Yiyiyiyi!” at the thought of him replacing her with the “good girl,” Celia Cruz. Suddenly, in that same spirit of provocation, Vazquez paused her presentation to address the “whispers” that had been going around the conference. “Is this the last year of EMP?” she asked.
“I haven’t been hearing those whispers,” said Tavia Nyong’o, a professor of Performance Studies at New York University that also organized the conference. I hadn’t heard anything either, but I did notice that EMP– which has been bringing together musicians, academics, journalists, scholars, and “industry professionals” for a few days of music panels since it began at Seattle’s EMP Museum in 2002– had downsized from the four floors of NYU’s Kimmel Center, where it took place last year, to two classrooms on the sixth floor of Tisch. This year, there were fewer attendees (instead of taking over one location, the conference was split between five different cities, and EMP New York was scheduled for a Thursday and a Friday instead of the weekend), the book room had shrunk to a book table, and the fat, glossy schedules had been reduced to paper pamphlets. Though Nyong’o explained that that particular setup made logistical sense for multiple reasons, he hoped next year’s would bring everyone together in the same place again. In 2013, EMP felt like a shadow of its former self.
It also came at the end of one of the worst weeks in recent memory, which contributed to the underlying current of despair. “Forgive me if I’m a little scatterbrained,” said Harvard ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall on Friday. “My thoughts are in Boston and Cambridge,” where his wife and children were weathering the lockdown. Despite trying not to cry, Marshall successfully moderated one of the conference’s most exciting panels, “Migrant Locals,” which focused on diaspora music: Jace Clayton talked about cumbia sonidera warehouses off the BQE, DJ Chief Boima addressed African music night clubs in the Bronx and Queens, and Venus X (and founder of GHE20GH0TH1K) bumped dembow, a Dominican variant on reggaeton. When a British audience member asked whether the music of the Jamaican diaspora in London (i.e. grime, ragga-jungle, dubstep circa 2005) was the same as the one in America, she said of course it was. “Being Jamaican in New York means DJ Kool Herc, means hip-hop. What does it mean to be Jamaican in white-ass London with the queen and shit? Grime!”
On Thursday, “Everybody’s On the Beat: The Music-Movement Continuum in New York City” addressed a different kind of underground movement, the “kinship of movement.” Dr. Kyra Gaunt streamed videos of black schoolgirls playing double-dutch, which she said explains to a certain extent African-Americans’ sense of rhythm. Moncell “Ill Kosby” Durden, a choreographer and dancer who has performed with rappers like Biggie and MC Hammer, filled in the gaps with clips from his forthcoming documentary on b-boying, or breakdancing. He juxtaposed dancers from the 1900s “spinnin’ on they butts,” as one nearly toothless elderly interviewee said, with images of the first wave of breakdancers doing exactly the same thing in the 1970s. They were a necessary part of the dance floor ecosystem, which panelist Rich Medina said depended on respect for the DJ and each other and dedication to the art. He told a story about Larry Levan (aka. Lawrence Philpot), a disc jockey best-known for his decade-long residency at Paradise Garage in the late ’70s and ’80s. In the middle of his set, Levan would set up a ladder in the middle of the packed floor, climb it, and polish the disco ball while everyone patiently waited for him to finish. Now, he went on, club owners “don’t give a damn” about club etiquette because they’re beholden to New York’s cabaret laws, which prohibit dancing in establishments that sell food and liquor.
This sense of nostalgia permeated the entire conference, but most of all Joe Boyd’s keynote speech. The producer for Nick Drake, Pink Floyd, and Fairport Convention began by saying he was “cheered” by the recent New York Times headline, “At Coachella, Nostalgia Trumps Newness” (even if there were only tumbleweeds, as former Voice music editor Maura Johnston later said, at the Stone Roses’ set). “How many records made with ProTools are going to stand up fifty years from now, like the Beatles and the Stones?” Boyd asked. In the ’60s, he continued, records were made with musicians playing real instruments together in the studio, “a synthesizer has every sound in the world, but they all sound the same,” digitization has contributed to the decline in audio quality, etc. To his credit he didn’t belabor these points, which have already been made by people with more insight than what Boyd learned from recording Five Leaves Left. Instead, he suggested that vocalists today don’t sing with the same wide ranges (think Joni Mitchell on “Cactus Tree”) because they don’t have as positive an outlook on life as music makers in the 1960s. “It was delusional, but we were optimistic,” Boyd said.
His hypothesis kind of stood up until the next day, when Amanda Palmer took the stage at the Cantor Film Center for her keynote, full-out belting “The Thing About Things” with her ukelele. If having an expansive range means a musician is optimistic, according to Boyd, she is a contemporary singer who seems to think she has a bright future. Never mind that a lot of people hate her, that Kickstarter campaign did nothing for her dismal solo album sales, and she was in Boston on Marathon Day. She’s out there polishing disco balls for all those Twitter fans of hers, and according to her, that’s all a musician needs to survive.
Overheard: “Alec Wilder can fuck a duck.” – Robert Christgau, on his forthcoming memoir.
Overheard II: “I refuse to listen to Wingdings bands.” – Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
Critical Bias: Christgau would not publicly say what he thinks of the Voice’s music coverage. That, and the fact that Daphne Brooks’ 5:30 a.m. notes on Diana Ross were better than 13 pages of excerpts from the Dean of American Rock Critics’ life story, means I will not be purchasing his book anytime soon.
Random Notebook Dump: Steve Waksman’s hair is amazing.