Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

EMP Report

Just back from this year's EMP Pop Conference, held for the first time at UCLA rather than the Experience Music Project in Seattle--next year, it'll be NYU, and then it is hoped back to Seattle on what may turn into a three-year rotation only who knows. The university setting proved a little harder to negotiate due mostly to food and coffee issues, both of which were easier to come by in Seattle and both of which are essential if one is to attend panels from nine in the morning until 6 or even further into night. I left on Saturday to have dinner and missed the 8-to-9:30 artist summit featuring Moby and Raphael Saadiq, and next time I may bring a thermos--I can go without food, but not coffee, especially if I'm presenting or moderating.

Of course, it's a credit to EMP that one never wants to skip a session--and that quite often there are two things you really want to hear going on at once. Not only did I miss Jonathan Lethem on Talking Heads because we both presented in the same slot, I missed David Sanjek on academic agoraphobia because he was up against Greil Marcus's "Music About Money" panel, both the reportedly and as I'd figured hilarious Scott Seward about the vinyl trade and J. D. Considine on the death of hi-fi because I wanted my wife to see David Ritz on Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, and money and also because I wanted to see Ritz myself. Like that. It's the world's greatest concentration of pop music speculation and scholarship and has been for a decade now--this was its 10th year.

My general judgment is that there were fewer transcendent peaks and also fewer duds--avoiding suspected theory victims (which you can surmise from bios plus titles that include such language as "Late-Capitalist, Gendered Hipster Ennui"), I didn't walk out on a single presentation, a record. A fellow journalist-on-the-cusp remarked that there were simple performance problems with many of the younger academics, who often seem to have very little idea how to read something aloud as if it's alive. But in every case the material presented held enough of my attention to keep me in the room whether the delivery was scintillating or not: a new Arab-world megalabel, Ma Rainey as live performer, the 20th-century minstrel Neil O'Brien, Capitol Records' attempts to crack the soul market, a brief biography of Solar Records' Dick Griffey (albeit without the thug rumors, an omission I deplore).

As I remarked last year only moreso, many of the academics proved they can write--shout-outs to Alice Echols and Daphne Brooks, to name two who come to mind. I was especially impressed by Karen Tongson's "keyword" takeout on "plastic," which was almost as poetic as journalist Carl Wilson's brave attempt to chase the concept of musical "reality" down the rabbit hole. Then there was the burgeoning clan of journalist-turned-academics (a lot more common than the other way around these days): Oliver Wang on the keyword "fetti," Theon Weber on Putin-era pop, Daphne Carr on Czech D2F (cool acronym for direct-to-fan). I could go on with these examples, and some non-academics like old reliables NAJP-er Douglas Wolk and moonlighting Googler Tim Quirk were even more writerly. But it's only right to climax this paragraph with Eric Weisbard, who ran EMP at its inception, which was right after he'd left the Village Voice, and now runs it as a tenure-track American Studies prof at the University of Alabama. His presentation on the legendary Cleveland rock station WMMS began the conference with a major bang and some of the best audio of the weekend.

My apologies to anyone I heard and left out, because I enjoyed and learned from you all. But though the general level was as high as I can remember, it is true that the transcendent moments EMO-ers count on were somewhat fewer--maybe it's just harder to surprise us. Nevertheless, there were two such moments, one by a pure academic, Gayle Wald, and the other by--well, not exactly a journalist, but definitely a freelancer, impecunious independent scholar Ned Sublette (and if you want the lowdown on how impecunious, find his criminally under-reviewed 2009 memoir The Year Before the Flood--and not just because he needs the royalties).

Wald chose for her keyword assignment "svengali" and told its story to a whole bunch of people who should already have known it--only even she didn't when she volunteered to take the term on. Turns out Svengali was the villain of a tremendously popular fin-de-siecle novel by one George du Maurier called Trilby. Which I and many of us had heard of, dimly. But as only Victoriana specialists know (and they tend to downplay it, or so Wald told us during the question period), Svengali was an anti-Semitic stereotype down to his hooked nose and bad smell--a conniving Jew who controlled the angelic vocalizing of the hapless title character who loved someone else (who wasn't Jewish, need I add). For some reason the figure of Trilby faded but the word "svengali" entered the language--soon divested of his Jewishness, Wald told us, but always carrying that baggage. There were a lot of knowledgeable people in the room. Chances are every one of us had used the word, and this completely plausible connection was news to all. I just checked and am pleased to report that, through dumb luck, most of the people I've called svengalis over the years, sometimes ironically, are not Jewish.

Then there was Sublette, at a minstrelsy panel I moderated. I know a lot about minstrelsy too, and was probably one of the few people in the room who recognized the name of the British songwriter-performer Charles Dibdin, accurately characterized by Sublette as the Elton John of the late 1700s. What I did not know was that Dibdin scored his first big hit blacked up--in a song that Sublette was inclined to believe was informed as much by abolitionism as by racism, but still. Nor did I know that Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of the sheet music for this song, "Negro Philosophy." Sublette is no friend of Jefferson, for reasons his previous book, The World That Made New Orleans, lays out in appalling detail. (Buy that one too. Cuba and Its Music would make a nice trifecta, actually--it's much the best of the three, which is saying a very great deal.) To hear Sublette riff on the relationship of the white pop star and the supposedly progressive slave owner to their black sources was mind-boggling.

Then again, I spent a lot of the drive back to my niece's place Sunday thinking about Ohio State's Barry Shank's attempt to resuscitate such concepts as "greatness" and "beauty" in pop music criticism both academic and journalistic. Could be a response paper there. Next year.


By david sanjek on March 15, 2011 12:12 PM

Thanks, Bob, for the shout out. I missed seeing you and just chatting. I can send you the comments and let you know about the book of which they form a part.

Articles, March 1, 2011

Commenters' Lament Honoring--and Learning From--Ellen Willis