Diary of the EMP pop conference

POSTED 2:20 PM Sunday
From minstrelsy to Cowboy Troy

April 21, 2007:

One panelist said Elvis was not country and the others said he was -- which just goes to show that events like Pop Conference 2007 at Experience Music Project raise as many questions as they answer.

This afternoon's good-natured and lively panel on African-Americans' abiding influence on country music was filled with good songs, well-written papers offering smart observations, and history ranging from minstrelsy to Ray Charles to Cowboy Troy, the hip-hop hanger-on of Big & Rich and Gretchen "Redneck Woman" Wilson.

Michael Bertrand completely scrapped his original presentation, dealing with the country-music audience of 1945 to 1960, and read a new, richly-detailed paper on "The WLS National Barn Dance," a highly-popular and influential radio program that started in 1924 and ran for decades.

Bertrand, a history prof at Tennessee State, showed that, although WLS was in Chicago, the second-biggest city in America, it was rural-oriented, calling itself "The Prairie Farmer Station." He quoted a letter from diarymen begging WLS to move its morning start time from 5:30 a.m. to 5 a.m., "because there's no milk till they hear your theme song."

An anecdote about a child exclaiming "But Spareribs is an old man!," after her mother showed her a picture of the star of WLS' Saturday morning kiddie show, drew an uneasy laugh from the audience, due to the child's innocence. The picture was of the white man who played "Spareribs," a storytelling, Uncle Remuslike character, in blackface at minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were so popular on the station that "The WLS Minstrels," a 30-piece troupe all in blackface, toured nationally for years.

University of Wisconsin Ph.D. candidate Charles Hughes' enthusiasm, passion and expertise -- not to mention his carefully chosen, and teasingly short, musical selections -- lit up the room with laughter, smiles, foot-tapping and nodding assent. Hughes, a history major with an M.A. in Afro-American studies, said he wanted to show "how black songs turned country." He played country covers of blues, funk, Motown and more.

"Outlaw country loves Southern soul," he said, citing Waylon, Willie and Kris, and playing a snippet of the country-outlaw anthem, "Luckenbach, Texas,"

Did you know Swamp Dogg won a CMA Award for co-writing "She's All I've Got," a CMA song of the year (and a 1972 hit for Johnny Paycheck)? Hughes let that sink in before adding the kicker -- Dogg was pointedly not invited to the telecast. "White folks," Hughes lamented, "manage to have African-American music without many African-Americans involved."

Although the session was nearly two-hours long, it seemed to just scratch the surface. The first two days alone show that the annual conference, which runs through tomorrow, has enough questions and topics for years to come.

Patrick MacDonald: pmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

POSTED 6:30 PM Saturday
Shedding light on dark topics

April 21, 2007:

Maybe after six years the EMP Pop Conference has run its course. There was no admission charge this year, yet on a good day there were only 100 or so folks prowling around (fewer than last year, when you had to pay), and Jonathan Lethem drew only 190 on opening night. The giddy sense of urgency and passion that usually reverberates through that disorienting, hideously misshapen building felt somehow muted. Oh well, could be just a low-energy year.

Nate Chinen's talk at 11 this morning about the night in 1970 Miles Davis opened for Neil Young at Fillmore East, in New York, was pregnant with possibility, but despite some nice (big!) audio visuals of a youthful, guitar-slinging Young, its issue was slightly vaporous. Linking the two musicians with concepts like "playing within your limitations," capitalizing on mistakes and enforcing a state of innocence was not a bad start, though, even if it did ignore Young's fussiness.

This afternoon's "Resurrecting New Orleans" panel could not be accused, like other moments in the conference, of lacking passion. Ned Sublette, Larry Blumenfeld, Alex Rawls and Don McLeese sounded united in their anger and outrage, yet also in their belief and hope -- to borrow their own words -- about post-Katrina music in the Crescent City. Sublette took us through a ghastly litany of offenses in slavery days and Rawls, a local, noted, with some sadness, that "people are slowly coming around to the realization that the city will never be the way it was."

Though uninspiring as a speaker, McLeese offered the best talk, an inventory (with welcome musical examples) of tracks made after the hurricane by Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas (well, almost after), Chris Thomas King, Donald Harrison and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, with penetrating comments appended to each.

Blumenfeld gave an update on the lawsuit against the city brought by the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs -- the groups that organize the "second line" neighborhood parades that are the soul of New Orleans music -- because of last year's near-tripling of parade fees. (What can the city be thinking?) On a more hopeful note, he quoted New Orleans clarinetist Michael White, who told Blumenfeld, "This is all going to continue."

POSTED 3:10 PM Saturday
Shedding light on dark topics

April 21, 2007

Sometimes the arcane world of academic musicology can be fascinating, enlightening and entertaining. Take this morning's EMP Pop Conference panel called "Blurred Boundaries." The presentations dealt with the history of the Hawaiian ukulele from the 19th century to the present-day; musical stereotypes in Asian-themed American movies in the 1920s and '30s; the mostly Jewish parodies of "My Fair Lady"; and the history of Bollywood musicals and videos.

Wayne State University professor Carol Vernallis so got into the pounding Bollywood music in her presentation that she was dancing on the JBL Theater's stage while the music blared. She showed video clips from the silent-film era to the present, explaining that the dancers' over-the-head arm movements, subtle hand gestures and long-held gazes into the camera are all rooted in ancient Hindu dance and music traditions. She also pointed out that you never see kissing in Bollywood movies, because that's consider improper, but directors more than make up for it with plenty of other sensual movements.

Franklin Bruno, a professor at Bard College, played excerpts from such "My Fair Lady" parody productions as "My Fur Lady," "My Square Laddy" (with a male Eliza figure) and, representing the large Los Angeles Jewish population, "My Fairfax Lady." The music selections, featuring such performers as Zasu Pitts and Nancy Walker, and mostly having to deal with Jewish immigrant assimilation, were all clever and funny.

But the most entertaining presentation was the duo of Eric Hung and JessAnn Smith. Hung, of Rider University, did not hide his disgust of Asian stereotypes in silent movies, before showing some of the most egregious examples, most of them sung, with gusto, by Smith. The lyric sheet for "Chinatown, My Chinatown," the best-known song about Chinese-Americans, according to Hung, has a verse so demeaning that it alone demonstrated the jaw-dropping level of racism in silent-era American films.

Patrick MacDonald: pmacdonald@seattletimes.com

POSTED 2:01 PM Saturday
New Orleans reconsidered

April 20, 2007:

Friday Night's onstage conversation about New Orleans (and, briefly, James Brown) between hip-hop author Jeff Chang and Black Studies professor Gaye Theresa Johnson at the two-thirds-full University of Washington Ethnic Cultural Theater was a diffuse and rambling affair, but a pleasure nevertheless, thanks to the brilliant minds on stage.

Johnson recently published a paper about the unsung cultural influence of the Mexican 8th regimental band in New Orleans, in 1884, which left behind a contingent of music teachers who trained the likes of Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet. Johnson and Chang linked the historical invisibility of those teachers to current New Orleans restoration, which has focused on property over people, threatening to erase the very African-American culture it purports to save.

Chang, a deep student of the great New Orleans band, The Meters (regarded by many as the inventors of funk music), picked up the thread, linking post-Katrina New Orleans to the benign neglect of the South Bronx in the '60s and '70s, which, of course, led to the birth of hip hop. An ensuing discussion about the double-edged sword of hybridization and globalization had some meaty resonance for discussions in jazz circles about the current European erasure of African-American roots from the new hybrid jazz forms, but time ran out.

Hopefully, Saturday there will be time to touch on that subject at the 2:15 panel "Resurrecting New Orleans."

Paul de Barros: pdebarros@seattletimes.com

POSTED 6:20 PM Friday
Pop con: Finding deep meaning where there is none

April 20, 2007

You learn things at the EMP Pop Conference. For instance, I did not know that rock T-shirts and posters were full of significance and meaning until I attended a panel this afternoon on "Iconography." Also, not being a mallrat, I had never heard of Hot Topic before but found out at the same panel that it's a mall retailer despised by the rock cognoscenti because it's not really punk, dammit!

In keeping with the general tone of the panel — i.e., finding deep meaning where there is none — there was also a paper on "American Idol" which postulated, shockingly enough, that all the contestants oversing! Who knew?

Of course, being a highfalutin intellectual talk-fest, the word "oversing" was never used, because it's too understandable. Oversinging was referred to as "melisma." Upping the intellectual quotient even more, Machiavelli's "The Prince" was cited because Idol "is political," according to panelist Katherine Meizel, a Ph.D. candidate on ethnomusicology at UC Santa Barbara. "It's an election, after all," she explained, to titters of laughter.

Michaelangelo Matos, a local rock writer who sometimes freelances for The Seattle Times, read his paper about Bob Marley posters on dorm room walls, without ever saying what he thinks of Marley's music, or its significance. His point seemed to be that "wasptafarians," or white college-age Marley fans, deserve to be sneered at because the only reggae artist they know is Marley, and they only like him because he smoked pot. It didn't seem to occur to Matos that maybe white male college students have Marley posters on their dorm-room walls because they actually like his music. There's probably an academic word for it, but I call it "good taste."

Patrick MacDonald: 206-464-2312 or pmacdonald@seattletimes.com

POSTED 6:15 PM Friday
Jazz talk not so jazzy

April 20, 2007

The jazz talks this morning at the EMP Pop Conference were excruciatingly academic and unimaginative. Court Carney's "Black Los Angeles and the Diffusion of Early Jazz" offered some fascinating details. For instance, the vocals in the famous Amos and Andy film, "Check and Double Check," in which Duke Ellington appears, were dubbed by the (white) Rhythm Boys (with Bing Crosby) and that Duke's band "blacked up" for the movie (as in minstrel shows).

But Carney's consideration of "The Jazz Singer" (which, as he pointed out, ironically features no jazz), ignored the significance for jazz of the film's equation of Jewish and black outsiders. He also provided no concrete evidence whatsoever for a repeated (and probably true, not to say obvious) assertion that the film industry helped popularize — no, pardon me, "became the dominant mechanism for the commodification of" — jazz.

Andrew Raffo Dewar's talk about avant-garde trumpeter Bill Dixon's solo trumpet composition, "Webern," started out strong, especially when he played recordings of three versions of this brief, abstract etude, explaining its workings well. However, since no score or even set of instructions for playing the piece exist, his subsequent exegesis on the relationship between score and performance, using the idea of a "recipe" as metaphor, felt slightly — how should I say this? — irrelevant!

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

POSTED 5:41 PM Friday
EMP Pop Con goes pop

April 20, 2007

So far, nothing at EMP's 2007 Pop Conference has risen to the level of novelist Jonathan Lethem's keynote speech, but a couple of bright moments on the pop and hip-hop fronts surfaced late this morning. Joshua Clover's multi-media presentation "1980: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About" explored how pop music dealt with the fall of the Berlin wall, pointing out that, after the Velvet Revolution, Czech radio continuously played that really revolutionary song by Roxette, "Listen to Your Heart."

In another well-prepared — and pleasantly-presented — talk, Roni Sarig traced the journey of a minor, 1986 hip hop novelty record, "Drag Rap," from Queens, New York dance halls to the creation of the Memphis Buck Jump and New Orleans Bounce. With a protagonist called Triggerman and "dum-da-dum-dum" quotes from the old "Dragnet" TV show, "Drag Rap" may, Sarig speculated, have been the first "gangsta rap," though he was as disarmingly What-Me-Worry? about that assertion as he was about why the song caught on in the South in the first place.

By contrast, another song-sleuthing talk — by Michael Barthel on the seady rise of the Leonard Cohen anthem "Hallelujah" (a favorite of Seattle-bred jazz singer Sara Gazarek) — made Sarig look fastidious. Though Barthel did a nice job showing how Jeff Buckley and John Cale subverted the lyrics, and a quasi-comic graph tracing the song's covers and TV usages — from "Crossing Jordan" to "West Wing" — got a good guffaw, Barthel ultimately didn't seem to understand why anyone actually likes or sings this song. His flip befuddlement about why TV producers use it to hit the same emotional "chord" again and again was downright coy.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

POSTED 3:04 PM Friday
Conference lives up to its title

April 20, 2007

The theme of this year's EMP Pop Conference is "Waking Up From History: Music, Time and Place," and the "Dancing About Architecture" session this morning neatly epitomized that theme.

You had to wake yourself up after some panelist dryly reading his academic paper droned on about epistomology, dialectics, binary portals, aesthetics, etc., had put you to sleep. You had to step back in time as the panelists honed in on the 1970s, when they apparently thought rock criticism started (I began in 1962 at the P-I, and certainly wasn't the first rock critic, but that's another story), and place was a factor in at least one presentation, dealing with Creem magazine and its off-the-beaten-track home of Detroit.

Oh, and music came up a few times, too. Not actual music, mind you, but occasional references to it.

The most entertaining presentation, as much for its PowerPoint visuals as for its subject, was online writer Randall Roberts' talk about the "snarly aesthetic" of Creem's "Rock 'n' Roll News" section in the early '70s. Because such gifted writers as Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh and Richard Meltzer contributed to it, the news was always readable, if not always factual. Roberts drew laughs quoting some of the news section's juicier quotes, and the page's illustrations, especially of glam rockers like David Bowie and the pre-wrinkly Rolling Stones, got oohs and ahhs.

New York University instructor and Ph.D. candidate Devon Powers' talk, titled "Is Rock Criticism Part of Intellectual History?," was drawn from her dissertation on rock criticism in The Village Voice in the '70s, but she was the least pedantic of the four panelists. She was also the most up-to-date, calling the Voice's firing last year of its longtime, self-appointed "dean of rock critics," Robert Christgau (a panelist at this year's conference, as well as the four previous), "a proverbial slap at criticism."

Answering her own question, she concluded that rock criticism is neither intellectual nor historical but somewhere "in between." In answer to a question from the audience, she said current rock writing, so much of it online, is best when balanced between "erudition and readability."

Patrick MacDonald: 206-464-2312 or pmacdonald@seattletimes.com

POSTED 11:44AM Friday
EMP Conference begins on a confessional note

Thursday, April 19

Novelist Jonathan Lethem ("The Fortress of Solitude," "Motherless Brooklyn") opened the EMP Pop Conference on Thursday night in Sky Church with an operatic, confessional sweep. He surely is the first keynote speaker to refer to the confab as a "ferschlugginer enterprise."

Culled from Mad magazine, the faux-Yiddish word (meaning "wretched") felt appropriate for the gathering. In the grand tradition of rock criticism inaugurated in the '60s by Crawdaddy magazine, ogle-eyed grad (and ex-grad) students conflate — with a straight face — Sanjaya, Iggy Pop and the Beatles with Nietszche, Marx and Joyce.

Lethem commanded this pop culture/high culture territory so seamlessly (perhaps too seamlessly), that if he didn't exist, EMP surely would have been forced to invent him. (Lethem's talk suggested that, in fact, his life had in some sense been "invented" by the popular culture that has swaddled him since childhood.)

He set the tone perfectly, peppering his talk with evocative descriptions, such as the one of Bob Dylan as "your (scolding) grandmother in a wolf's costume," and opened rich veins for further discussion: the artist as charlatan and the critic/fan as "fifth Beatle" wannabe who wishes to be both as close, yet as far away, from the object of desire as possible.

Paul de Barros: pdebarros@seattletimes.com

Now under way

2007 Pop Conference "Waking Up from History: Music, Time and Place," through next Sunday, Experience Music Project, Seattle Center; free (register in advance; info at www.emplive.com).