Guest Blog by Lincoln Ballard: Review of the 2010 Pop Conference at Experience Music Project
Having focused so doggedly on classical music during graduate school, I am eager to branch out and explore new modes of critical inquiry, especially in popular music studies. The methodologies used by its scholars are undoubtedly as multifaceted as the sub-genres that fall under the domain of pop music, and as a newcomer, I freely admit to approaching the field with a certain wide-eyed curiosity.
That being said, what better primer for current developments than the ninth annual Pop Conference, hosted April 15-18 by the Experience Music Project (EMP) in Seattle. The Pop Con is a veritable who’s who of journalists, critics, performers, academics, bloggers, and everyone else with far more than a passing interest in pop music. This is an annual pilgrimage for enthusiasts whose grasp of stylistic offshoots, underground acts, and obscure trivia never fails to impress. This year’s theme was “The Pop Machine: Music + Technology,” and organizers Eric Weisbard and Ann Powers asked contributors to ponder, “how have pop’s contraptions reflected, inflected, and mediated musical history? What changes when we start with the technology that makes the ineffable material, and its shaping of modes of production and consumption?” Although some attendees offered blow-by-blow accounts of papers from throughout the weekend (see blogger Ned Raggett’s summaries here), I will keep to the highlights.
Thursday night commenced with a lively keynote discussion moderated by LA Times music critic Ann Powers, featuring the admirably self-possessed R+B artist Janelle Monáe, Chic founder and producer-extraordinaire Nile Rodgers, and roots singer- songwriter Joe Henry. Rodgers exuded an infectious charisma, entertaining listeners with tales of musical luminaries he’s rubbed shoulders with over the years (David Bowie, Madonna, Jeff Beck), and illuminating the elaborate tactics called upon to stimulate the creative imagination or capture magic moments in the studio. Inspiration can stem from unlikely sources, and Rodgers and Henry both mused on the alliance between musical ideas and iconography, namely how films, photographs, and other visual cues can nudge one’s musical direction. Rodgers recalled, for instance, how he and Bowie sifted through photographs for over two months before stumbling upon the image of a pompadoured Little Richard stepping into a Cadillac – “that’s how the album should sound,” Bowie insisted, “that’s the attitude.” Ironically, a power glitch silenced the speaker system partway through this roundtable discussion on the merits of technology, but the guests of honor remained unflappable. Photos from the keynote speech by Rick Berry are available here.
Over the weekend, presenters considered the various ways in which technology has impacted the production, commodification, and consumption of popular music. Many explored how the medium of transfer (CD, mp3) reflects the cultural ideology associated with a particular sub-genre. Michael Mannheimer discussed the nostalgia factor of cassette tapes and how champions of underground styles like “glo-fi” and “chillwave” opt to release new material on cassette to distribute their music frugally and distinguish themselves in a crowded market. Likewise, Lauren Onkey examined how a recent vinyl fetishism (bolstered by DJ culture) ties into live performances of entire albums, a trend that offsets the fragmentary listening experiences common in this age of downloadable singles. On the same panel, Andy Zax amused us with zany promo spots released on 45s circa 1968-1971, when record labels devised marketing campaigns that promoted new releases to counterculture consumers by trying to speak their language. What resulted were hilarious advertisements that offered a glimpse into an age when Neil Young’s prospects shone as brightly as Leonard Schaeffer’s.
Other speakers explored technological devices utilized in the production process. Karl Miller discussed how GarageBand and other home-recording software has become the new “parlor piano,” signaling a shift in industry marketing away from professionals and onto amateurs. Leah Pogwidz argued that the use of Auto-tune and sampled pop divas disrupts hip-hop’s hyper-masculine hegemony (signified by the mantra “no-homo”). Indeed, constructions of gender, sexuality, and race were prevalent themes throughout the weekend. Alexandra Apolloni considered how Lady Gaga’s live appearances and music videos offer a discourse on the debilitating burden of fame, calling attention to the binary stereotype of the female body as an object of desire and a subject of shame and discomfort.
This is but a sampling of the diverse topics explored at the 2010 Pop Con. Notably, performative papers were less common this year than in years past, but honorable mention goes to Neal Medlyn, who performed a reenactment of Alanis Morissette’s “Thank U” video completely in the buff. A close second goes to Daphne Carr, who compensated for her absence by supplying vintage walkmans that played recordings of her paper “Nostalgia for Cassette Culture in the MP3 Age.” Like Mannheimer, Carr emphasized how cassettes offered the first easily manipulated medium for sound reproduction, as well as also how the degradable, lo-fi technology (imaging the dreaded crinkle of your favorite tape being eaten) heightens our sensitivity to overindulging in our guiltiest pleasures.
If I took anything away from the conference, it was the urge to combat lazy listening habits and force myself to embrace new territory. Repeated listening of new music breeds familiarity and even appreciation, and I am making a conscious effort to expand my sonic horizons. It can be a strange and wondrous process, but ultimately one that allows us to become more informed listeners. So take a moment from your busy day, visit your local record shop and smell the aural roses. Who knows what pleasures may await?