Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Thursday, April 26, 2007

A bit of follow-up on the EMP discussion. An academic musicologist who attended weighs in, and this captures both my resistance and my enthusiasm:

I went with very few expectations -- in fact, with rather low expectations. I was prepared to hate. Everybody wants to hate on the EMP pop conference, because everyone hates and fears critics, professors, hipsters, and academic conferences. Getting a bunch of hipster critics and professors together for an academic conference just seems unnatural and wrong, an affront to all that's decent. Just as soon as I came to town I read a piece in the Seattle's alterna-weekly The Stranger that offers an excuse: it's just a bunch of harmless nerds getting up and geeking out about their favorite music, like fifteen-year-old kids playing each other their favorite records in the basement or, for that matter, like Star Wars obsessives showing off their action figures. Which I thought was probably bullshit, because it sounds so self-serving. We don't judge! We love! We're cute and brainy and don't even notice our cultural authority! But actually, it was kind of true. This was maybe my favorite conference ever, partly because the papers were generally so good and partly because there was a vibe of total geeked-out unironic love and enthusiasm that just doesn't come naturally to academic gatherings.

Matos has an admirably pithy round up, and a blog search of “emp pop conference” will bring up many other worthwhile commentaries, with no doubt more to come.

I wanted to touch on something Matos alluded to: the racial dynamic in Jonathan Lethem’s keynote speech. To recap: Lethem referred to the comedic African American singers Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan as “clowns.” An African American questioner, who identified himself as a saxophone player, asked where Lethem got off calling such a fine instrumentalist as Jordan a clown. (Jordan had played alto in Chick Webb’s orchestra, which featured Ella Fitzgerald, before making it as a bandleader and singer himself.) Nobody accused Lethem of racism, and Daphne Brooks, an African American scholar who in her own paper later in the conference (which I caught and admired) urged us to consider that perhaps we are all always talking about race, whether directly or by omission, said that she had no problem either with Lethem’s characterization or with the questioner’s question.

I shared the musician
’s discomfort with Lethem’s characterization. Elsewhere in his talk he had talked about Ringo being “our representative” on the Beatles, the allegedly not-as-brilliant musician with whom “we” could relate. Lethem’s discussion of Jordan and Calloway came in the context of his discussion of James Brown’s quasi-non-musical screams that punctuate the instrumental sections of many of his funk recordings. Lethem’s conceit was that the quasi-non-musicality of the screams were likewise points of audience fantasy -- points where “we” could imagine being part of the band.

Lethem wasn’t addressing me. I’m a musician, and he was specifically addressing non-musicians, and confirming non-musicians in their fantasies of what being a musician must be like. And some of those fantasies are off, especially the fantasy that bands have room for people who are only semi-musical. (Well, some bands may, but that
’s another story.) James Brown’s shrieking is not only technically virtuoso -- sonically beyond the reach of most voices -- but always rhythmically, musically canny. (Previous bandleading vocal exhorters like Bob Wills and Charles Mingus also punctuated their sidemen’s solos with musically shrewd interjections.) And Ringo -- well, Ringo may have been the most influential instrumentalist in that band he used to be in.

I don’t think Lethem would disagree. He “air-quoted” the line about Ringo being a “bad drummer.”

He also had a riff about “faking it,” which he has written about before. Lethem contends that we are all always “faking it.” I don’t believe him. Language is always incomplete. Any representation is partial and contingent, and any self-presentation requires a choice from several options. But I don’t believe that Lethem was faking his discomfort when an African American questioner indignantly asked him where he got off calling a great musician like Louis Jordan a “clown.” I believe he sincerely had no intention of giving offense.

I wish I could have caught more of the conference. Papers by Franklin Bruno, Carl Zimring, Joshua Clover, Simon Reynolds, Jeff Chang, Mike Powell, Peter Scholtes, Douglas Wolk, Camara Dia Holloway, and many others sounded intriguing and got positive reviews. Here’s hoping it happens again next year.

And -- well, if you’re not a musician, and you love music, you should do something about not being a musician. You don’t have to learn an instrument, but -- have a singing party. Seriously. “Experiencing music” is not only about raising your fist and boogie-ing, and then spinning elaborate cogitations about it afterwards -- which are both fine things to do in themselves. Anybody can make music too. There’s nothing better.

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