Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

EMP Lookback

With my customary Net 0.5 alacrity, a retrospective report on the 2009 EMP Pop Conference. I live-blogged this event last year. This year I a) got off the plane in Seattle Thursday April 16 with a 101.5 fever (yes, I had a thermometer with me) b) traveled with my family (my wife brought the thermometer) and c) quickly lost Internet capability on my laptop. Not that I would have filed if I had it. But that's a lot of excuses.

Napped all afternoon Thursday, briefly met, gret, and et, and in the next 24 hours skipped moderating a 9 a.m., publicizing the conference on a 5 p.m. radio show, and events involving (in declining order of regret) the late Robert Palmer, Diana Warren, and Nona Hendryx. At all these junctures, I rested or slept in my hotel room. Thus I somehow had the energy to enjoy a long-planned dinner with a dozen friends to celebrate my and my wife's forthcoming birthdays. Woke up Saturday 67 and 98.6. Good work, immune system.

And yet, and yet, where was my mind? I did attend presentations most of Friday, all day Saturday, and Sunday, when I delivered my own and proceeded immediately to the airport. Took many notes. Find I need them. So rather than a blow-by-blow, let me mention a few special highlights and observations. The announced theme this year was Dance Music Sex Romance: Pop and the Body Politic. This meant a lot of dance studies type papers, most of which failed to attract me away from the competition, and also, I guesstimate, a few more academics from the theory-of-desire axis than altogether pleased me. But the academics were jamming. My favorite presentation was by U.K. prof David Hesmondhalgh. The ominous title "Sex, Music, Pleasure and Politics" could have nnounced the direst theory, but he'd proffered a comment about boys dancing together that I liked the cut of so I took a chance. In about 12 minutes Hesmondhalgh had politely demolished all existing academic theories of rock and pleasure, basically on the grounds that they were too totalizing and too committed to the margin--all power-pointed, one of those living outlines. Explaining how he got to what I will call the normalization of pleasure in pop music is beyond my capacities, although when I told him I thought that his sane notion of talking about specific genres rather than music as a whole could be rendered even saner if we talked about artists within genres, he concurred; I'll have to email him for the lecture, which was not written out (damn academics with their coherent extemporization) but may be by now.

Other special faves were EMP first couple Ann Powers and Eric Weisbard, Ann making her most eloquent appeal to date for a criticism in which emotional needs were expressed and formally exploited, Eric locating the Adult Contemporary audience in a housewife demographic he followed into Friday-night listening clubs and Monday-Friday workplaces--began as research, ended as sermon. Academic newbie Carl Miller offered a survey of abortion songs that topped out with brief testimony based on his own experience in abortion counseling, academic oldie Daphne Brooks showed performance video that demonstrated conclusively why folks are gaga for that not terribly good Janelle Monae record, journalistic tag team Jon Caramanica and Sean Fennessey celebrated Soulja Boy video, my MSN editor Sean Nelson contemplated the sexlessness of early-'90s alt-rock, Jody Rosen illustrated early Tin Pan Alley cheating songs with an endless procession of sheet-music covers, my buddy Tom Smucker power-pointed a history of Pentecostalism from Acts to Sarah Palin. There was more good stuff, but instead I'll advise filmmaker Jim Jabara to edit both his footage and his remarks before presenting in public again. I hung in there because I wanted to see Smucker, but the only rule at a conference as rich as EMP--and in my experience most conferences aren't--is to vote with your feet and walk out whenever you're bored, because there's generally something better a room away.

My own presentation, which followed Miller's and Rosen's, was entitled "The Old Folks Wished Them Well: A Secret History of Romantic Marriage in Rock and Roll." I'm glad Carola and Nina were there to hear it. Felt almost like a renewal of vows--and though I mean to Carola first of all, of course, I also mean to meaningful journalistic criticism, specifically of the sort Ann Powers called for and still so often manages to bring off in the context of a daily newspaper.

1 Comment

By Ann Powers on April 28, 2009 11:08 AM

Thanks for the props, Bob. I'm thinking about posting the talk somewhere, will let you know if I do. And your talk was really beautiful -- enriched, too, by Carola's presence and response to it. Your dialogue is inspirational.


Articles, Apr. 27, 2009

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