Photos courtesy of Anthony Easton.

EMP’s Pop Conference Goes Mobile and Returns Home

In its 13th year, the Pop Conference offered more exciting ideas about music and mobility than you could shake a walking stick at.

Looking to heighten your enjoyment of the annual Pop Conference? I suggest bringing along a game. Specifically bingo. Specifically what I, at heart a small-town midwestern yokel, will call “ten-dollar word bingo”. The conference, held this year from April 24-27 at its home base in Seattle’s Experience Music Project (EMP), swarms with hardcore academics, yes — but also academics who moonlight as music journalists, music journalists eyeing academia for its steadier paychecks, and the occasional out-fielder (law, church music) who enjoys hanging out and soaking it all in. These people really go the extra mile and use “foreground” as a verb and “construct” as a noun. You can foreground that shit with your bingo board, a construct that’ll help you track some themes. For instance: This year’s conference theme was “Go! Music + Mobility”. My bingo board’s free space was the word “diaspora”, and sure enough, I heard both pronunciations within 10 minutes of arrival. Might have said it myself, even.

The conference opened Thursday night with a reception for meeting new friends, catching up with old ones, and practicing your lip reading skills over the clamor of a local DJ. NPR’s Ann Powers then talked “life on the road” with soul singer Sharon Jones, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, polymath bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, and Hurray for the Riff Raff leader Alynda Lee Segarra. Wise anecdotes from everyone and a music theory lesson from Ndegeocello — “just patterns on top of patterns” — led into a brief audience Q&A, which began with an unfortunate question about how musicians can avoid making “overproduced” music, whatever that is. McCready and Jones took the bait and stressed the importance of writing and playing from “the heart”, whatever that is. Ndegeocello refused, countering that since she grew up in poverty, she loves tech and all its musical and promotional possibilities. (On Friday, historian Karl Hagstrom Miller would demonstrate how aspirational songs like Travie McCoy’s overproduced “Billionaire” aspire not just to wealth, but to the stability of steady work.) Jones revealed she didn’t earn a living from music until 2006, a decade into her solo career. Jaws dropped. Segarra also recounted an early life of poverty and how she grapples with adapting African American music in New Orleans. (Bingo space: “appropriation”.) McCready, who found early fortune thanks to cultural luck and serious riffage, had good things to say about the impure musical tastes of punk house parties. We saw video of him shredding Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption”.

Friday and Saturday were scheduled to the hilt with panels: four at a time, three or four presenters per. For another fun EMP pastime, you could concoct the most creative/lame/pathological excuses for missing a colleague’s presentation. Though with something good always happening, who needs an excuse? Occasionally someone fell into the “read yr jargony paper in a monotone” trap, but those seemed fewer and farther between than in previous years. Panel hopping was rampant and unchecked.

Anthony Easton presents “Hurry to Get Done: Chasing Deer and Chasing Class in Contemporary Country Music”. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Easton)

Everyone’s Pop Con is different, but these were some highlights. English prof Nadia Ellis found sublime links, both beautiful and terrible, between Jamaican dancehall and New Orleans bounce. (“Diasporic gestalt”!) Examining how the work of sissy bounce artists like Big Freedia and Katey Red represents a “spacial reclamation” of post-Katrina New Orleans, and how their queerness could teach recent dancehall a thing or two, she also showed us amazing videos filled with ass. Or rather, azz. “So many azzes! How to fathom?” said Ellis. Her delight was a great way to kick off the morning.

Next came the panel called “Charting the Infinite Soundcloud”. You hate to privilege certain panels over others, but as journalist and panel moderator Geeta Dayal put it, “These people are all rock stars.” The four talks were linked by a common thought: inanimate forces like media and algorithms determine what music we hear, or never hear again, as surely as human beings do. Critics Michaelangelo Matos and Katherine St. Asaph found iterations in dance mixtapes and decaying websites, respectively. Data whiz Glenn McDonald guided a funny computerized tour through musical soundbites that may or may not have been related to one another. I got lost in there somewhere.

My favorite of the four was pop chart journalist Chris Molanphy’s “Charting the Portable Jukebox”, a thorough breakdown of how modern technology affects which songs hit the charts. Like, did you know Arbitron’s Portable People Meter is at least partly responsible for all those boshy Europop songs and piano ballads on the radio? Sometimes it’s just nice to have something to blame. This panel’s Q&A saw the return of “overproduced” guy, who fretted that today’s youth might lose the ability to process narrative because nobody listens to albums any more. He must have forgotten that kids impose narratives on everything, Tommy has a stupid plot, and today’s youth have all memorized the Frozen soundtrack.

Frozen did pop up in critic Carl Wilson’s talk “We Shall Be Moved” — I’m told it makes people cry. (It’s just — Elsa really does wanna build the snowman, but she hates herself and can’t let anyone see who she really is…oh, shut up.) Wilson had interviewed friends and colleagues about tear-inducing art, and found that the tears are jerked not only by emotional connections, but also by aesthetic magnificence and musical effects, descending basslines and appoggiaturas and whatnot. It was a conversation starter in the best way. As was the talk that bookended Wilson’s panel, producer and writer Andy Zax’s hilarious “Goodbye 20th Century!” Zax rattled off the myriad ways record labels are losing track of their master tapes, and concluded that someday our musical memory of this century might rely on terrible sounding digital files. Of course, St. Asaph might point out, those files might themselves cease to exist…

One tearjerking number from Carl Wilson’s presentation. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Easton)

Pop Conference organizer Eric Weisbard and his program committee work really hard and do a good job scheduling a diverse group of presenters; the conference is multiracial and queer friendly. Which doesn’t explain how all three of the papers on Spanish language music wound up on the same panel. OK, this was my panel, and though I enjoyed hearing from academic journalists Diana Buendía and Josh Kun, I think we were all hoping to preach to the unconverted a bit more. We appreciated all those who attended, though, and we fielded some generous questions. Including one about “hegemony”! I threw in a “subaltern” for good measure.

Even better questions arose during the country panel, whose presenters were the theologically minded writers Anthony Easton, Jewly Hight, and Tom Smucker. Easton unpacked the “homosocial” “corpus” of “paratexts” (Lordy!) around music for hunting deer, Hight showed how queer folks find ways to fit into Evangelical country culture, and Smucker bemoaned country’s inability to address the recent labor crisis. All held their own and then some during the Q&A, with contributions from critics Powers, Jody Rosen, Alfred Soto, and Robert Christgau, among others. Topics included the definition of “working class” in the fracking age, class aspiration and resentment in country’s audience, who exactly listens to contemporary Christian music any more, and Luke Bryan’s ass (or “azz”). Real good feel good stuff.

And I haven’t even mentioned Friday’s “Reality Bites” panel, paper for paper probably the best researched and presented group I saw. Music scholars Franklin Bruno, Eric Harvey, Brian Jones, and Rosen covered various means of mythmaking in music from folk to rap, from PJ Harvey to Rahsaan Roland Kirk. And then there was Ph.D. candidate Monique Bourdage’s deep dissection of hi-fi articles in Playboy. And what about the Beyoncé roundtable or Critical Karaoke game or numerous panels I couldn’t attend? Look, there’s Mark Sinker talking about Adam Ant videos!

In its 13th year, the Pop Conference offered more exciting ideas about music and mobility than you could shake a walking stick at. Some of the conference’s ideas will eventually wiggle their way into articles and books, onto your Tumblr, into your mind; many never will. That’s OK. The superabundance is part of the point, as surely as when Freedia and Katey Red sublimate all those azzes into a gesture of unintelligibility. Bingo.