Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

EMP III

Rather than some illusory narrative, let's see if I can bullet-point the final two days of this year's EMP Pop Conference in Seattle. It would help if I knew how to make a bullet-point in this program (or any other). You'll have to settle for asterisks.

  • Worst presentation: the first one I saw Saturday, by an academic who will remain nameless, though not genderless. His topic: "What Is the Sound of Revolution? The Auditory Imagination of the American Radical Left." His problem: indicated no knowledge of any difference in historical importance or political acuity between the Weathermen (dead wrong but smart and momentous), Timothy Leary (never a political figure even when he claimed to be), and the Manhattan pseudo-anarchists who briefly gathered under the rubric Up Against the Wall, Motherfuckers (marginal publicity seekers without even minimal follow-through).

  • Best New Orleans presentation I saw (I was moderating during Ned Sublette's, which my boss at Microsoft thought peachy): Alex Rawls, editor of NO music mag Offbeat, on Katrina protest songs, though he did forget BG's "Move Around."

  • NAJP baton pass: Larry Blumenfeld on the struggle of New Orleans marching and Indian bands against Bush's malign neglect and Nagin's police (Larry has a Soros grant to study this stuff) to--quick, run upstairs to Level 3--Douglas Wolk on "The Ballad of the Green Berets" (Douglas specializes at EMP in obscure historical resuscitations).

  • What I learned at the panel I moderated. 'Tis better for a young academic to deliver her postgraduatese as if it's a punk song than to humanize her language and be mild about it. Also: Tom Smucker hasn't altogether mastered PowerPoint. Saved by the tech.

  • Journos under 30--established Nate Chinen and newbie Tal Rosenberg--made me care about Hawaiian balladry and an Israeli peace song that join hands in the transcendent schlock category. Special award to Rosenberg for best use of the first person at this conference. Supposed to be a no-no, young fella. Shouldn't be. No no-nos.

  • Sometimes my old friend Greil Marcus describes music he regards as transcendent that I come away regarding as no such thing. His description of the incredibly bland Tift Merritt's careful rendition of Dylan's "Hard Rain" convinced me completely. He then trumped it with an equally convincing description of the Roots' furious "Masters of War," which he nailed to the wall by playing the music. We were spellbound.

  • I hope somebody taped as-told-to king David Ritz's plenum disquisition on the spiritual satisfactions of an amanuensis. Completely off-the-cuff, or so it seemed, and I wasn't the only one who feared it would go on forever because start so anecdotally and indirectly. Finished right on time, with a flourish. Clearly the man has developed an instinct for long patterns of speech.

  • The seminal cultural sociologist Richard A. Peterson, who got his Ph.D the same year I got my B.A. and whose 1997 Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity I'd just taught that Wednesday, did an intro for the panel he moderated on "Making Roots Music Pop Heroes" that cut even Barry Mazor's excellent Jimmie Rodgers talk.

I thought maybe this would be the year the academics took EMP over, quality-wise. But Peterson and John Vallier and a few others notwithstanding, the best stuff continued to come from journalists, many of the standouts professionally marginal. I became a journalist because I had concluded there was no better place for someone like me, having quickly learned after college that my talent for fiction was nonexistent, to do lasting work as a writer. Little did I suspect that four decades later a semi-academic conference would be one of the best places to prove it.

1 Comment

By Dean Jones on May 16, 2008 12:07 PM

Christgau, the quirks and accuracy of your writing never fails to engross and amuse my own critical instincts. It is true - your inner critic just will not allow you to suffer even the slightest of bores. I don't think I've ever agreed with anyone so completely. I liked your review of Bryan Adams. Very funny.

Articles, Apr. 23, 2008

Postscript Notes:

Replaced the original asterisks with proper bullets. [TH]


EMP II Beat Generation