Arts & Culture

Moving To the Beat

Let’s Stay Together The receptions held at scholarly conferences tend to be short and not too sweet. They serve more as a staging ground for splinter groups that will head out on the town later than as celebrations in their … Read More

By / May 1, 2009

Let’s Stay Together

The receptions held at scholarly conferences tend to be short and not too sweet. They serve more as a staging ground for splinter groups that will head out on the town later than as celebrations in their own right. But tonight’s event at the Sunset Tavern in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood has become its own after-party. Even though it’s last call and participants at the Experience Music Project’s annual Pop Conference have been going strong since early in the morning, they still linger around the bar, talking animatedly. It’s the first time in the eight years of the conference that organizers opted to move the reception out of the cavernous Frank Gehry structure where the sessions are held. As Eric Weisbard, who has been the driving force behind the Pop Conference’s since its inception, remarks, “The problem with holding it at EMP was that we had to end things too early. Here we can stay together for the whole night.”

What he doesn’t say, but is probably thinking, is that the need to stay together has never been stronger. This isn’t the first year in which dire conversations about the state of the music industry have intruded on the conference. The 2007 program concluded with an anguished roundtable discussion about the impact of new media on the state of criticism. But the economic crisis of the past six months has lengthened the shadows encroaching on the lightheartedness of the proceedings. Universities are cutting programs with alarming speed. And things are even worse in the field of journalism, where even the most prestigious positions are now in danger. It makes sense that conference-goers don’t want this night to end. For many of them, tomorrow’s flight home means confronting the possibility that their preferred mode of existence, making a living on cultural criticism, can no longer be sustained.

Mind you, they’d still be writing about music if it didn’t pay them a dime. Some of them already are. There are plenty of doctors, lawyers and businessmen who profess to love their work. But it’s hard to imagine them doing all of it pro bono. What sets the Pop Conference apart is the degree to which it blurs the line between business and pleasure. Conference-goers network, certainly, but in a way that rarely feels like work. Although there’s a heightened sense of professional urgency this year, the conversations that start up between participants are never just means to an end. It’s part of what brings many participants back to this conference year after year.

But the biggest draw, naturally, is the music itself. No matter how much conference-goers already know about popular music, they always come away with something new. Sometimes it’s trivia with an impact that’s far from trivial, as when Asha Puthli , one of this year’s plenary speakers, briefly compares her Indian background with that of Queen’s Freddie Mercury. Sometimes it’s a different way of listening to familiar records, as when a rough cut of Kembrew McLeod ’s superb new documentary Copyright Criminals: This Is a Sampling Sport authoritatively demonstrates how classic hip-hop tracks from the late 1980s borrowed from the same underappreciated sources. And sometimes it’s exposure to previously unfamiliar music, whether by Joe Bataan, Love and Kisses, or The Bags. The Pop Conference provokes a lust for new records, one that some feel the need to indulge before they leave the city. Indeed, the music played over the four days is so rich and varied that tired participants fantasize about attending sessions in which all they would have to do is settle back and listen.

Achtung, Baby!

The Seattle CenterThe Experience Music ProjectBecause this is a scholarly conference with an educational mission, however, that sort of passive listening is only fleetingly possible. More often than not, conference-goers are leaning forward in their seats, using their powers of concentration to make sense of a presenter’s words. And that’s despite the fact that presentations have grown steadily more accessible over the course of the Pop Conference’s existence. Not only does the writing tend to be less convoluted and more attractively delivered, it’s frequently supplemented with multimedia content.

One of the most exciting presentations at this conference came from Douglas Wolk , an expert on both music and comic books, who managed to stand at the podium for twenty minutes without uttering a single word. The paper he had written for the occasion was delivered instead by a series of pre-recorded voices, many of them female. While this approach disoriented some members of the audience at first, it perfectly suited his topic: the capacity of music to free us from our biological bodies. Less obviously, it also underscored the degree to which the Pop Conference has turned into an event in which individual voices overlap in complex harmony.

This was not always true. During the conference’s first year, back in 2002, the format baffled many of the non-academics in attendance. If you aren’t used to listening to complex prose being read out loud, the delivery of a scholarly paper can be hard to follow. When that paper also drops a wide range of references, some of them decidedly abstruse, the pleasure of learning something new can dissipate rapidly.

That’s part of the reason why, as good as that first year of the Pop Conference was, panels were sometimes tense. The laudable effort to bring together academics, journalists and musicians did not always work the way that organizers had hoped. Academics complained that journalists were trying too hard to please. Journalists, in turn, targeted the tendency of academics to write for themselves rather than reaching out to a broader audience. At one point, long-time Village Voice critic Robert Christgau stood up during the Q&A session following a particularly dense paper and delivered an indignant speech, calling for academics to pay more attention to the craft of writing instead of hiding behind convoluted syntax and jargon-filled diction.

Not in Concert

The musicians, for their part, seemed wary of both camps, not to mention the very idea of holding such a conference at the Experience Music Project, whose patron Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, is a controversial figure in the region. Their reluctance to endorse the proceedings came to a head at a panel meant to showcase their contributions to the Pacific Northwest’s music culture. Scheduled for the museum’s gaudy concert venue, the Sky Church, the panel had been anticipated by conference-goers as eagerly as a concert. Once the four performers – Mark Arm from Mudhoney, Sam Coomes fromQuasi, Calvin Johnson from K Records, and Carrie Brownstein from Sleater-Kinney – walked onto the stage, though, their body language made it clear that this was not their idea of a good show. Chuck Klosterman describes the mood in his book Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs. "For two hours, I watched four people stare at the audience, all trying to prove they were cool enough not to care about the attention."

To look around at the crowd, more hopeful than hip, was to see the word "crestfallen" made flesh. Whatever their professional commitments, everyone in the audience was also a fan. They had come to witness these highly regarded musicians confer legitimacy on their devotion, proving that a conference on music can be as rewarding as a live show. But what they were getting instead was another reminder that no matter how much they might identify with musicians, the musicians weren’t bound to return the favor. 

When it was Brownstein’s turn to be the focal point, though, a few shafts of sunlight penetrated the collective gloom. Although she appeared even less comfortable than her fellow panelists, it was hard to tell whether her distress was inspired by the setting, the audience, or the men on stage with her. She looked up, still blushing. "I wrote this little paper. . ." Unlike Arm, Coomes, and Johnson, Brownstein definitely had an idea of what typically happens at academic conferences. She knew this was a situation that called for a specific type of performance: not a concert, not an interview, but the delivery of a paper. And she had written one. Only she wasn’t going to read it.

Whether Brownstein was embarrassed at herself for taking the conference so seriously or at her fellow panelists for not taking it seriously at all, she seemed reluctant to differentiate herself from the other musicians on stage. Despite the audible groans of conference-goers when they realized she was truly serious about keeping her “little paper” to herself, she stood firm in her decision. Although she did go on to improvise some thoughtful remarks derived from what she had written, the paper itself never left the table in front of her, a monument to the conference’s inability to collapse the divide between musician and critic, despite its best efforts to the contrary.

From Fretboard to Keyboard

But two years later, when Harvard University Press published This Is Pop, an anthology based on that first conference, Brownstein was among the contributors. Most of the selections reproduced words spoken out loud at the conference. Hers, by contrast, featured words she had refused to share live rather than a transcription of the ones she had spoken in their place. Two factors made this switch particularly noteworthy. First, a photograph of her playing guitar, together with former Sleater-Kinney bandmate Corin Tucker, dominates the book’s cover. Second, Brownstein’s piece specifically addresses the difficulty of pinning a show down in words. “Essentially, the live show is nothing more than an impromptu conversation. It’s a moment that lets us connect on a level free from the constraints of everyday discourse. It welcomes as opposed to shuns lexical ambiguities.”

Inside The Conference CenterInside the EMPSuperficially, this would seem to be a classic case of keeping one’s music collection while selling it too. Yet perhaps Brownstein’s refusal to read her paper out loud wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment-decision, but a carefully planned move designed to open up space between her live performance at the conference and whatever printed record of her thoughts might follow. To read off the page about the difference between records and live performance without acknowledging that she was, in effect, putting on a show might have struck her as hypocritical. Whatever her reasoning, though, it was hard for the audience not to interpret her refusal to read the paper she had brought with her as a repudiation of the conference.

Interestingly, Brownstein’s reservations about trying to pin experiencedown with words have not stopped her from pursuing a writing career. Even before Sleater-Kinney declared it was going on indefinite hiatus, her byline began to surface in the alternative press. Now she writes regular blog entries for NPR under the heading “Monitor Mix.” Although she writes insightfully on a range of topics, music heads the list. In a recent entry, she reflects on the fact that bands are often a bigger influence away from home than they are within their own local scene.

While Unwound’s impact was felt more in Southern California and the Midwest,” Brownstein writes, “the band’s hometown of Olympia – where I resided during much of my 20s – was being swept up in a love affair with Britain’s Huggy Bear. The band flew into town in the summer of 1993, sans its handsome and brilliant guitarist Jon Slade, and proceeded to infiltrate basement shows, beach trips, practice spaces, dance parties and, most importantly, song structure. Basically, everyone who was in a band at the time, or who was thinking of starting one, wanted to harness the kind of chemistry Huggy Bear possessed; the sort that left the listener addicted to unsteadiness, vertigo and spontaneous fits.” This is the kind of writing good music critics do, particularlythe sort who participate in the Pop Conference. But does that mean thatshe is now a music critic?

When Sleater-Kinney was active, Brownstein and her bandmates frequently questioned the way their band was classified. Interviewers who weren’t deeply familiar with their work or the cultural milieu from which it came were likely to have their pre-conceptions politely dismantled. In particular, band members took pains to resist the pressure they felt to let Sleater-Kinney serve as a representative for some broader category. They indentified influences and allegiances, as popular musicians inevitably are asked to do, but they also sought to disidentify with definitions imposed on them from outside, in effect declaring, “We’re not x.” Brownstein’s cultural reportage demonstrates a similar wariness, suggesting that she might be reluctant to take on the mantle of “critic” or even “journalist.”

Doesn’t Anybody Stay in One Place Anymore?

But what someone in Brownstein’s position is able to do by choice,operating in the liminal space between different vocations, others havebeen forced to do out of necessity. Each year’s Pop Conference program lists biographies for the presenters. Many of them have returned repeatedly, which is why this year’s reception at the Sunset Tavern feels so much like a family gathering. Yet if you only pay attention to the professional affiliations listed in those biographies, you might think that the turnover has been much greater. One year a person is a Music Editor at a well-known magazine. The next she is teaching and doing freelance pieces on music. And the year after that she has another new set of professional identities.

That flux reflects the economic turmoil that has beset what Theodor Adorno famously termed the “Culture Industry.” A lot has been made of the fact that few workers these days stay with the same company for decades like they once did. In the world of people who write about music, even a year can seem like a long time. While some lucky individuals have managed to persevere in a full-time job that lets them do what they love, most conference participants lead a more unstable existence. Even Christgau, who was honored at the first Pop Conference for being the “Dean of American rock critics,” was pushed out of his position at The Village Voice in 2006 despite having worked there since the 1960s.

It’s hard to find anything good in this state of affairs. People are working harder, for lower pay, with little job security. Yet that is also why the Pop Conference has remained relevant, long after the initial novelty of bringing academics, journalists and musicians together wore off: the four days participants spend there provide the means to transform necessity, at least for a little while, into virtue. The sense of common purpose that now animates the event derives, in part, from the fact that many participants have been forced to switch roles in recent years. They understand each other better than before and take pleasure in that development.

Come Together

This sense of solidarity has also helped to wear down the differences between the different styles of performance apparent at the first Pop Conference. Some presenters still read from the page in the stiff manner characteristic of most scholarly conferences. But while it was usually easy to tell in the conference’s early years who came from a university environment and who did not, that is no longer the case. Even first-time presenters seem to understand that they can break with professional convention. Academics know that their work will be better received if it’s accessible and delivered with as much attention to style as substance. Journalists who have suffered the tyranny of ever-shrinking word counts and editors who demand that they dumb down their work take advantage of the conference’s flexibility to indulge their passion for detailed research or philosophical speculation. And the musicians, who, like Carrie Brownstein, are often teachers and writers as well, seem to have grown comfortable with the idea that exposing their craft to critical scrutiny can actually enhance its power.

The reception at the Sunset Tavern is the perfect testament to this convergence. For much of the evening, entertainment is provided by people who have spoken at the conference. Sean Nelson of local band Harvey Danger serves as a wry MC, as well as performing a compelling solo set, as do Franklin Bruno, Sarah Dougher, and David Grubbs. David Thomas, who got started as a writer before playing in the hugely influential bands Rocket From the Tombs and Pere Ubu, uses his time on stage to deliver spoken-word pieces with a dark Beat edge. Throughout, the intimacy of the venue combines with the sense of camaraderie developed during the conference to make the show feel like a social gathering rather than a formal concert. It makes perfect sense when, during electronic duo Matmos’s stint as laptop DJs, an abrupt shift from a club-friendly dance track to head-rattling hardcore brings conference-goer Seth Sanders, a professor of religion, rushing in from outside to form a mosh pit of one. This is one scholarly event in which passions, however singular, are collectively encouraged.

Paper Planes

That’s something that Alex Ross noted in a long piece he wrote for The New Yorker after attending the second Pop Conference back in 2003. “I often had the happy experience of being held hostage by an informed fanatic who convinced me that whatever he or she was discussing was the most important music on earth.” As the tone of this sentence suggests, Ross managed to praise to the event, which he clearly enjoyed, without passing up opportunities to make fun of it.

Building on a long tradition of journalistic pieces that mock the Modern Language Association’s annual convention, he contrasted this benign fanaticism with the impulse to take popular music as an occasion to theorize. “There is a whole lot of problematizing, interrogating, and appropriating goin’ on. Walter Benjamin’s name is dropped at least as often as the Notorious B.I.G.’s. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu gets more props than Dr. Dre. At the Pop Conference, I made it a rule to move to a different room the minute I heard someone use the word ‘interrogate’ in a non-detective context or cite any of the theorists of the Frankfurt School.”

The Print PressThe Print PressAlthough the archness of this dig is unfair, Ross at least backed up his mockery of scholarly pretense with a serious critique. “Scholars of this type always want to see pop music as the emanation of an entity called popular culture, rather than as music that happens to have become popular. As a result, songs and bands become fungible commodities in the intellectual marketplace.” In other words, they are deaf to the specificity of the music they discuss, treating it as a starting point for their pet arguments rather than an end in itself. There’s merit to this claim, as anyone who has attended MLA-style conferences can attest. But whether it was fair to apply to the Pop Conference, even in its first few years, is another matter.

Anyone who has listened closely to the conversations between panels, at the museum’s café or bar, or at the pizza place or Thai restaurant up the street over the years knows that even the driest scholarly presenters at the conference love music with a passion that threatens to overwhelm them. They might seem to be slotting a randomly chosen song into their paper, but are in all likelihood picking something with great meaning for them. The challenge is to convey that fact effectively, a task that academic presenters struggled with in the conference’s first few years. But not anymore, surprisingly.

There’s something disconcerting about the degree to which the skepticism Ross conveyed in his piece has faded. Like the Experience Music Project itself, the Pop Conference began life as the target of considerable hostility. Right as the conference was about to kick off its first year, it was savagely attacked in The Stranger – a publication, it should be noted, that has also featured praise for the event – by then-Music Editor Jennifer Maerz, who ridiculed its very reason for being. “I avoid events like EMP’s Pop Music Studies conference like I avoid making out with boys with gigantic cold sores on their mouths—there’s nothing attractive about them,” she began, before specifically singling out the notion of writing “papers” about popular music for special ridicule. “Christ, when did rock becomes something we’ve gotta take this seriously? Rock ‘n’ roll is sweaty, wily, irrational and emotional,” she continued, inimical to the “theoretical baggage and critical posturing” of academic critics. “They have to throw in pretentious ideas, obscure references, and often times, things pulled outta their ass last minute to explain why, say, the Rolling Stones are so much better than the Beatles. (Which they are, by the way.)”

It was telling that Maerz wrote this piece, not as a review of the conference, but a declaration of why she wouldn’t bother to attend it. A more clear-cut example of journalistic prejudice would be hard to find. To be sure, she refused to conceal her antipathy to the event behind a mask of objectivity. But that doesn’t absolve her of responsibility for contributing to the tension during that first year. In particular, the musicians seemed to be powerfully affected by her disdain. It hardly seems like a coincidence that her antipathy to the very idea of presenting papers on popular music was mirrored in Carrie Brownstein’s refusal to read what she called her “little paper.”

People That You Meet in the Neighborhood

While the brazenness of Maerz’s piece made it hard to justify, it did echo resistance to the Experience Music Project in the local music scene. The fact that the admission fee to attend that first year of the Pop Conference was quite steep reinforced a perception that it belonged to a different reality than the one inhabited by the city’s current bands and their supporters. The building’s placement in the middle of the touristy Seattle Center also didn’t help. Although EMP staff members were eager to plant roots in the community, the fact that most of the people the museum welcomed came from somewhere else clearly complicated these efforts

In moving the reception off site this year, by contrast, the Pop Conference has signaled that its integration into the local music scene, while not complete, has come a long way. Admission has been free the past few years, inspiring more residents to attend. And organizers have worked closely with the local independent music station, KEXP, to ensure that the sessions are well publicized. Instead of looming on the horizon, out of proportion with its surroundings like the building in which it is held, the conference is starting to blend in with the city that hosts it.

By a happy coincidence of timing, this night at the Sunset Tavern falls on Record Store Day . Inaugurated in 2008, this consumer holiday represents the collaborative effort of many stores and labels to remind people of the pleasures of shopping for music in person. A decade ago it would have been derided as crass commercialism, an injunction to confirm music’s status as a major cultural commodity. That even people who are otherwise highly critical of global capitalism have fully endorsed the event indicates just how radically the music business has changed in the intervening years. More specifically, the need for such a holiday confirms the degree to which the coupling of those two words, “music” and “business,” has been called into question.

It’s worth recalling Alex Ross’s critique here. Back in 2003, his reference to an “intellectual marketplace” was meant to complement the literal marketplace. But as more and more exchange bypasses the financial system altogether, figuring out what constitutes a real commodity and what is merely a metaphor for one has become a trying task.

Shining New Path?

Music remains popular, one of the most important means of making sustainable interpersonal connections. But that social function no longer requires the purchasing of many records. This is not to imply that music culture has transcended consumerism. Money still changes hands, obviously. The difference is that its destination has changed. Whereas music lovers’ primary expense used to be “software,” such as LPs, tapes, CDs and the magazines that cover the field, they are now likely to spend more on the technology needed to manage their collection.

The crisis of music criticism is the direct result of this transformation. It used to be that record reviews served primarily as a form of financial planning. When you only have enough cash to buy one album a week, being sure that you’re making the best choice is crucial. Things are different now. Although music criticism is still an important resource for those who seek guidance in building their collections, the need for it is less pressing. A sizeable percentage of contemporary music lovers know how to “test drive” music without having to pay for it. And they also have a wealth of internet resources with which to gauge the opinions of other consumers.

The advice this demographic requires is more diffuse in nature. In an era when the term “content” has come to stand in for specific media, what they seek in music criticism, often without realizing it, is the means of sorting the culture potentially available to them so that it serves a purpose beyond mechanically filling out their collection.. In a sense, time is the new money. Most music lovers have less of it to spend on culture than their predecessors did. For them, the value of music criticism is proportional to the time it prevents them from wasting.

That’s a task for which the participants in the Pop Conference are perfectly suited. And it’s what coming to the conference teaches them how to do even better. Maybe that’s why the tensions manifested during its first year have melted into an easygoing, but engaged solidarity. Even for those possessed of the anti-intellectual bias typified by Jennifer Maerz’s piece, the time to complain that studying popular music robs us of its pleasures is over. "It’s easy to jab at EMP for being nerdy," wrote Eric Grandy in a favorable review of this year’s event, also for The Stranger, but at least during the Pop Conference it is world-class nerdy."

The expertise that confers that aura of nerdiness can serve as a superb personal organizer, helping to sort through the vast amount of music at our disposal more efficiently than all the algorithms that purport to mirror our taste preferences back to us. Because you can only move to the beat when you’ve found the beat to move you, a task that scrolling through playlists can make extraordinarily tedious. In other words, what once may have seemed beside the point, a detour weakening the force of the pop narcotic’s fix, now looks like the best way to reconnect the body with the power of music.

Pre-Digital Underground

A few blocks down the street from the Sunset Tavern is Bop Street Records, a store that recalls an era when the internet we know today existed only in the speculations of futurologists. It’s hard to imagine a less efficiently organized store. Row after row of tightly packed vinyl dominates the shelf space. Although there are used CDs for sale, they are outnumbered not only by the LPs, but by shellac as well. There aren’t many places where customers can leisurely sample 78rpm records from the era when the fox trot was the hot new dance, but Bop Street is one of them.

Like Sonic Boom, a local chain with an outlet in Ballard, Bop Street is honoring Record Store Day. Because they only sell used items, however, they don’t have any of the special promotional merchandise labels have released to stores for the occasion. Business is heavier than usual, though, thanks to the 15% discount and the influx of out-of-town music lovers. One customer is delighted to spot the cover of a disco record he learned about yesterday in a panel at the conference. Another has a stack of obscure spoken-word discs that he is Researching Music Off-lineResearching Music Off-linethinking of incorporating into his next sonic collage. And a third is content to just browse aimlessly, breathing a sigh of relief that places like Bop Street not only exist, but show signs of a surprising resurgence at the expense of the compact disc

In a way, this remarkable store is a mirror image of the Pop Conference itself, simultaneously the relic of an outmoded culture and the promise of a future in which modishness ceases to matter. Best of all, at a time when the slogan “Show me the money” has the ring of sarcasm, it’s still a financially viable operation. What keeps it running is the same thing that brings folks back to theconference year after year, the conviction that value is a means, notan end.

Presenters at the conference sort through the past like the record collectors at Bop Street or, for that matter,the crowd that gathered earlier on Record Store Day to rifle throughthe $1 bargain CDs and LPs around the corner at Sonic Boom. They redeem the promise of forgotten artists and scenes by asking us to stop for a minute to contemplate them. No, it’s not a “sweaty” or “irrational” performance. Yet it plays a crucial role in the music world. Without it, we might bliss out on the dance floor or in the mosh pit, but would have a hard time stringing those moments of abandon together into something that lasts.


Lead Image: Carrie Brownstein from Sleater-Kinney.