Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

EMP 2008 I

Every April for seven years now, Seattle's Experience Music Project has sponsored the EMP Pop Conference, an extraordinary venture in criticism and scholarship that brings together academics and journalists specializing or sometimes just moonlighting in every kind of popular music. In seven years of nonstop presentations, for precisely one 20-minute period have I found nothing I cared to listen to at one of the three-become-four separate lecture sessions that run all day Friday and Saturday plus Sunday morning--there's always something valuable being said somewhere. At EMP, the journalists regularly kick ass. Not only do they write better than the academics, they have better ideas and sometimes even better research. This year's conference kicked off Thursday, April 10. There's still time for anybody nearby who cares about what arts journalists are capable of when they can presume a responsive audiences and no holds barred should come down whether he or she is a pop music fan or not. One way or another, most people are.

That said, the keynote can be dicey. In 2007, Jonathan Lethem killed, but Thursday's panel discussion of EMP's excellent current special exhibit, American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music, was, well, a panel discussion. Except for Quetzal's Martha Gonzalez, whose mild and rather whiny militance reminded me all too much of her band, I liked all the participants: Los Lobos's almost scholarly Louie Perez, Ozomatli's earnest Raul Pacheco, world's most sophisticated Elvis imitator El Vez, and curators Shannon Dudley and his wife, Marisol Berrios-Miranda, who elevates her warm-heartedness into a convincing intellectual position. But they all tended to wander around the key themes of the mutability of "Latin" identity and the failure of rock's blues-and-country-had-a-baby foundation myth to come to terms to the many different kinds of contributions Latinos have made to it anyway. You know how panel discussions are.

Friday, on the other hand, was nonstop. Except during a lunchtime panel discussion about youth activism, I was engrossed from nine in the morning till seven at night, with many of my favorite moments coming from academics for once. After concluding that I might not get full value from the young academic whose Bob Marley presentation would follow those of freelance scholar Garnette Cadogan (a brief history of slavery in popular music) and British academic Jason Toynbee (who had flown in from London via Amsterdam and whose body seemed to have shrunk visibly in the two hours between my encountering him in the hotel lobby and the meet-and-greet Thursday, yet who convinced me that morning that there were deep class implications in Marley songs I'd always passed over), I went upstairs to the tiny Demo Lab to see whether ethnomusicoligist-archivist-librarian John Vallier's "Ethnomusicology's Missionary Position" would unpack, as they say, the one-worlder evangelical zeal that weakens the discipline. Instead I learned that real Christian missionaries had for decades been studying "applied ethnomusicology" in order to write hymns--let's call them Christian propaganda songs--utilizing the scales and instrumentation of various indigenous peoples. That was mind-blowing enough. But at the end Vallier tied this, positively and negatively, to the zeal to which I just referred. A terrific piece of writing in a room that, when I arrived, was about to engage in a heated discussion of whether the graduate-school postmodernese in which the dreadful previous paper was written constituted a dialect of English whose effect and/or intent was exclusion. Vallier's academic prose sure wasn't.

Time to go to the Saturday session. I'll report more in the days to come.

Articles, Apr. 12, 2008

Commodity Speculation Shock! Horror! Narcocorrido!