Prairie Pop: Pop Summit

Springtime is here, and I’m ready to rock: in this case, at the Experience Music Project’s Pop Conference, held last month in Seattle. It’s one of my favorite places to be, for a variety of reasons. The event attracts a diverse mix of music-obsessed scholars, journalists, critics, musicians, and other misfits—a strange brew that injects this annual event with an odd energy. Those who have no need to stuff their résumés regularly attend, including widely respected critics like Greil Marcus, Ann Powers, John Rockwell, Lucy O’Brien, and Robert Christgau. Also, it’s refreshing to go to a conference that is relatively balanced, in terms of the racial and gender makeup of the participants (especially when you consider the white male dominated world of music).

Now in its eighth year, the EMP Pop Conference was founded—and still organized—by former Village Voice music editor Eric Weisbard, who himself straddles the academic-critic divide. I’ve long believed that people in the academy need to find better ways to engage with other publics, and this venue helps make this goal possible. Also, the quality of the panel presentations is high. This is due to the fact that the journalists and critics intimidate the scholars—pushing us university types to think carefully about the clarity of our prose—and, inversely, the professional writers likely feel pressured to make smart arguments.

This year’s conference—titled “Dance Music Sex Romance: Pop and the Body Politic”—kicked off with an interview with Nona Hendryx. She rose to fame in the early-1970s as one-third of Labelle, the all-female glam-funk group whose silver space suits and freaky onstage personas influenced everyone from Parliament-Funkadelic to Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie. Labelle is perhaps best known for their 1974 hit, “Lady Marmalade,” and after the group broke up Hendryx went on to perform with Remain in Light-era Talking Heads and collaborated with artists as diverse as Prince, Yoko Ono, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, and Keith Richards. Scholars Daphne Brooks and Sonnet Retman directed the conversation, covering everything from Hendryx’s obsession with sci-fi to her time spent in the early-1960s on tour with Dusty Springfield and the Rolling Stones.

MatmosAll three of the musician keynotes were fascinating, especially the iconoclastic Indian singer Asha Puthli—who will be the subject of a future Prairie Pop column. Another compelling artist interview was Diane Warren, the queen of the power ballad who has charted dozens of hits over the past quarter century. Warren wrote one of my all-time favorite songs, “Unbreak My Heart,” made famous by Toni Braxton and made annoying by me, who surely tortured his grad school roommates by playing it over and over and over again after it was released in 1996. Warren also penned Aerosmith’s biggest hit, “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing,” a song that melodramatically begins, “I could stay awake just to hear you breathing”—and then gloriously sours into the stratosphere on a cheese-fueled rocket.

It was interesting to see her interviewed in a room full of music critics—a demographic that one would assume would be the first to burn Warren at the stake for her supposed crimes against music. Nothing could be further from the truth. There were several prefatory comments like “big fan!” during the Q&A session, and even those who didn’t necessarily like her music were charmed by this quirky individual. Dressed in a striped shirt and a sweater vest—and sporting a boyish haircut—Ms. Warren turned out to be alternately sarcastic, insecure, and hilarious while answering questions from Los Angeles Times music critic Ann Powers, and the audience. When Warren was asked about the clear disconnect between her demeanor and the sentimental songs for which she is known, she mockingly quoted one of her own songs: “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing.” Warren groaned, and noted that the opening line was a bit creepy, adding that she wouldn’t want someone to stay awake listening to her breathing.

One more reason to love the EMP Pop Conference is that, along with scholarly papers and multimedia presentations, you also get performance art! Immediately following two presentations during the last Friday afternoon session, Holly Bass—who coined the term “hip-hop theater” a decade ago—stood in silence behind a curtain close to where the other panelists sat. Meanwhile, George Washington University English Professor Gayle Wald solicited money from the audience in exchange for a peek. After an acceptable amount of cash was collected, Bass would emerge, moving to various songs dressed in a shiny gold lamé costume that clung to her body—augmented with two golden globes attached to her derriere. The conference program referred to this costume piece as a “bootyball.”

The performance, titled “Pay Purview,” was a commentary on the commodification of black female bodies in popular culture, and there was a charged tension in the room as dollars were coerced from wallets. About half a dozen times, Ms. Bass performed a somewhat mechanical, not-quite-sexy dance outfit to a soundtrack that ranged from Rodgers & Hart’s “Ten Cents a Dance” to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” My friend (and Best Music Writing series editor) Daphne Carr whispered to me: “It’s like Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece,” which similarly dealt with the male gaze and ethnic stereotypes. Holly Bass made me uncomfortable, which was the point—and, like Ono, she injected the performance with subversive humor and thoughtful critique that resonated long after.

Another charm of this music conference is how actual musicians and other creative types are welcomed into the fold; after all, it seems obvious to make room for artists at an event such as this. I’m also impressed how they met our nerdy analyses of popular culture halfway, accepting our analytic approaches and occasionally esoteric terms. Among those who sat in the audience throughout many of the panels were the pop-experimental group Matmos, David Thomas of the influential proto-punk band Pere Ubu, and the sui generis Asha Puthli—as well as indie-darlings/cult figures David Grubbs, Franklin Bruno, and Sarah Dougher.

At the Saturday night after party, a few of the conference participants performed at a local club. The evening featured a DJ set by Matmos and brief performances by Bruno, Dougher, and Thomas—who stole the show with acerbic quips like, “Don’t applaud. I despise your gratitude.” There were also some great fly-on-the-wall moments, like the following conversation that took place between David Thomas and Matmos’s M.C. Schmidt. “I’m sick of all this talk about democratizing music,” the large, intimidating Pere Ubu frontman complained. “Music isn’t a democracy — it should be a secret Masonic society.” Turning to Schmidt, he asked, “What do you think music should be?” Schmidt said, “I just think of music as a pastime,” which seemed to satisfy Thomas.

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