The EMP Pop Conference took place last weekend in Seattle, with critics, journalists and academics delivering papers on popular music and popular culture. I was there delivering a paper titled “The First Rule of Hurricanes” on post-Katrina songs that will hopefully see the light of day someday. Here’s part two of my thoughts on it. If you’ve already read part one, go back because I’ve found links to some of the music or Web sites I mentioned, and they really are worth checking out.
As much fun as the EMP Pop Conference was in Seattle last weekend, one sad fact is that there are so few venues where people can get paid for writing interestingly and thoughtfully about music that is outside the current news cycle. Daphne Brooks’ examination of Amy Winehouse’s musical roots was funny and perceptive, finding antecedents in vaudeville, jazz vocalists, girl groups – not so much in soul – with them brought to life by ’70s R&B beats, but with the Grammys putting an exclamation point at the end of Back to Black, she might as well have written about the antecedents of Helen Reddy. And it seems like there ought to be a market for Jody Rosen’s proto-Britney Eva Tanguay – a vaudevillian to whom he attributed a “vocal madcap-ism,” the sound of a woman in the midst of nervous breakdown.
SXSW suggested that the only thing wrong with the music business is that nobody can figure out how to make money on music right now, and EMP gave me a similar feeling about music writing. This year’s academics were livelier than they were last year – the first EMP conference I attended – and there were few journalists or critics who were merely glib or clever. Many papers had a clear higher purpose – a series of New Orleans and disaster-related papers, the war-related papers (one of which focused on “Starry Night,” the improvised composition for trumpet and war by Lebanese trumpet player Mazen Kerbaj) and a panel on revolution during which David Rubinson advocated using the P2P technology Napster was based on to render the “pimpmedia” irrelevant (“the revolution will not only be televised; it will be podcast,” he said).
And in an election year where so many of us have to consider our relationship to two unprecendented leaders in Clinton and Obama, sexual and racial identity-related papers seemed particularly on point. It’s fair to wonder if these papers will have any reach considering that the primary audience on hand were other writers, but there is to be something said for putting ideas into the air and seeing where they go.
Ned Raggett attempted to take real time notes/reactions to the papers he heard – including mine – and even if they’re not spot-on records, they give a flavor of not only the papers and the approaches but the creativity in the rooms (his included). So far, his record of who did what is the best I’ve seen.