Pop goes the EMP Conference
Music Geekery in Seattle
April 30, 2007
I got back a few days ago from Seattle, where I attended the sixth Pop music conference, which is held at the Experience Music Project in a Frank Gehry building that resembles a crushed beer can. The conference of music geekery is unique in its yoking of academic, professional and hobbyist music writers, a mixture that makes, at its best, for a less professionalized and more passionate conference environment than most.
It was a four-ring circus, and so rather chaotic, and many of us often felt that the really good talk was in the next room. That said, I saw a lot of really good talks. RJ Smith unearthed the psychohistorical marvelousness of Detroit’s Destroy All Monsters; my pal and Yeti publisher Mike McGonnigal gave a loving and incisive presentation on Blind Willie Johnson’s ever-spectral side “Dark Was the Night Cold Was the Ground”; Scott Seward offered up a marvelous text adequately captured in its title: “Of Wolves & Vibrancy A Brief Exploration of the Marriage Made In Hell Between Folk Music, Dead Cultures, Myth, and Highly Technical Modern Extreme Metal.” He began the piece describing his work at a hospital in the Northeast, where, while mopping up blood, feces, urine, or other grim bodily fluids, he often has occasional to ruminate on his love of metal.
This time I got to moderate a panel. Given its concern with high-brow music, the panel in question had the rare feature at the Pop conference of not talking about pop. It also included, as well, three musicians-cum-academics, one of whom, Tim Sommer, who was going to address the re-emergence of “the pre-temperate aboriginal drone form” in rock music, didn’t show up. This left more time for the rest: the experimentalist Dave Grubbs gently mocked the curatorial category of “sound art”; the great electronic musician Tim Hecker broke down some the weirdness of Glen Gould; and a sociologist from Columbia named Lorraine Plourde gave a fascinating account of the rituals surrounding onkyo, an extremely minimalist and quiet musical form that thrived for a spell at a Tokyo club called Offsite. Plourde offered no aesthetic takes on the music, but in talking about issues like ambient noise, the almost autistic rituals that surrounded the performer, and the musicians’ fear that Plourde was intending to give their music a Zen spin, the budding schoalr actually communicated an entire world of sound better than many of the critics present.
On Saturday I talked about something I call “the analog ethic,” and as is often the case I started to extemporize and ate up my twenty minutes before really getting to the meat of the thing. My little digital recorder also crapped out, and I forgot to bring my iPod thingie which would have worked as well. I have a consistent pattern of not recording my talks for one reason or another, which is part of the reason for the paucity of podcasts on this site. I do have a bunch of old files to convert, but you have better things to do than confront my list of web to-dos so I will stop now.
Except to say that I am astounded at how difficult it can be to keep this free digital labor flowing, especially when I compare my frazzled self to those dedicated, passionate, and pathologically compulsive blog warriors out there, hurtling like fierce gerbils along the treadmill of digital novelty. Traveling leisurely back and forth to SeattleI drove back and forth from SF, which, as a stone-cold loather of commercial flight, is increasingly my preference when I travel mid-range distancesI discovered how readily I give up such laptop regimes when immersed in the flow of travel, despite the availability of wifi. That’s partly why you are not, at this moment, reading a “blog” but a web journalI wanted this little digital niche to be a more casual thing, or at least one that held out the hope of heading off guilt at the pass. I also hate the word blog, although it does feature the poetic bonus of echoing many relevant terms: slog, bog, grog, smog…
The ungrounded acceleration of the digital regime partly informed my EMP talk, which concerned the deep, almost metaphysical difference between analog and digital sound and that I will write up in some form or another for some rag or another one of these days. Given how thoroghly digital has transformed the total landscape of music, surprisingly few talks direclty addressed technology. But digital concerns were much more prevelant during the round-table discussion that closed the conference. The rap session was focused on the practical future of writing about music for a living, something which I continue to do, at least in part, and with a limbo-worthy low bar as to what qualifies as “making a living.”
What emerged from the discussion was the widespread commitment to pop music writing as a unique form that fuses analysis with critique with passionate writing with the practical function of helping readers sift through the tsunami of recordings that drowns even the most compulsive and addictive of listeners. However it was not clear how such writing will persevere in the digital age, or at least pay a lot of those present, although a passable case was made that the margins of the academe were becoming slightly less marginal in this regard.
Amy Phillips, the news editor from Pitchfork, made the most frightening point of the morning when she opined that the future of music writing lay not only online (duh), but in bulletin boardsspecifically, the boards she competes with as she races to post fresh news and fresh takes on fresh recordings. She described the nemesis of fuddy-duddies: young, passionate, or at least insanely driven and compulsive listener-bloggers who judge recordings within the first 20 seconds and don’t expect their readers to linger over their words. After all, with music so readily available, why bother to read much beyond the tip? This vision of music writing giving way to a feeding frenzy of stimulus-response opinionating horrified many present. Although the situation is as much about youth as technology, the situation opened up that familiar if no less yawning chasm between the old continent of reflection and rumination and the new vaporland of quick spin and ever-tighter feedback loops of information and viral desire.
After all, as the Internet conquered music writing, two intimately entwined elements of the form as it has developed over the last forty years have been tugged apart. In the old fuddy-duddy regime, typified by Robert Christgau’s short consumer guide reviews, critical judgments and creative prose were also designed to help the reader/consumer figure out what they might enjoy. Pleasure was coupled with interpretation, with dialogue. Today the critical function is being peeled away from what you might call the “viral” function of the consumer guide, so that the point increasingly seems to be “getting the goods” with as little mediation through verbiage or critical wrangling as possible.
Hence the rise of collaborative filtering mechanisms, you know, those “Listeners who enjoyed Arctic Monkeys also enjoyed these other bands that sound just like the Arctic Monkeys” things. I enjoy and use collaborative filters, on Amazon and elsewhere. But though relying on the vagaries of individual human desires and behaviors, these mechanisms also technologize taste, rendering the messiness of other’s peoples pleasure into a cool calculus of flowcharts and statistics. We tend to navigate such mechanisms not as seekers after meaning or context or engagement, but as creatures of sensation honing in on our exact blend of stimulants.
I am on a small listserv set up by an electronic musician and major music consumer I know, and it was designed to spread recommendations around among some of the fellow gees whose taste he admired. When I posted a request to the list that people make an attempt to describe or at least categorize their recommendations, and offered up a revised Blender blurb of one of my choices as kind, a hostile response made it clear that some people on the list needed only the name of the recording and the existence of the network itself, rather than anything as cumbersome as descriptive language.
Similarly, on a private file-sharing network I occasionally surf, one fellow who had uploaded an unusual record posted an elaborate and tantalizing description of the files. Halfway through his description though, he turned against himself, mocking his earlier prose for too closely resembling a record review. Sure record reviews are dumb, but lists of recommends or faves with no context are dumber, even if they are a more efficient vector of metadata. But the new regime is here: already the “record review” itself is increasingly a bundle of tags rather than the little pop rocket it should be: something between an evocative fetish and an aphoristic snark.