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EMP Pop Conference – Saturday/Sunday Recap

Why yes, I did go to PopCon on Saturday and Sunday as well. Following on my post a few days ago about my Friday Pop Conference experience, below is my belated recap. Though I (and a lot of other people) tried to tweet the highlights via the #EMPPopCon hashtag.

SATURDAY / Session 1: Proto-Punk Explosions

This wasn’t the first session of the day, but it was for me, especially since the subject matter – NY 70s punk and beyond – is 100% in my area of interest.

Lisa Jane Persky, “X-Offenders: A Typical Day in the Life of a Proto-Punk, 1976”
Due to traffic (reminder to self: it’s never a good idea to take I-5, dummy) I arrived midway through Lisa Jane Persky’s talk. But even though I missed the first half, I was thoroughly enthralled by the second. Persky lived the NYC 70s underground rock-n-roll lifestyle, working at the Hotel Chelsea, mingling with artists, poets and musicians there and across the club landscape including CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. She captured not just the rhythm of life in that scene, but how it came to change as record label attention and money started to flow in, along with suburbanite tourists into their former playgrounds.

Kembrew McLeod, “Forget Absurd, It’s Ridiculous! New York’s Downtown Underground Theater Scene Sets the Stage for Punk”
Kembrew McLeod’s talk was a perfect continuation of the broader theme, as he demonstrated how underground theater was a vital force in the downtown music scene at that same time. Max’s Kansas City was, as he put it, the place where scenes merged: the drug scene, music scene, gay scene, theater scene. His description of the musical “Cockstrong” and it’s, uh, climactic moment (and the umbrellas needed by the audience) was especially vivid. And that queer, artsy vibe extended to Blondie, as we saw how Debbie Harry evolved from her initial group, the Stilettos, into a persona that was in part inspired by drag queens and the theater scene.

Ali Colleen Neff, “Mutilating Modernity: Iggy Pop’s Unstable Body and the Political Aesthetics of Punk”
Closing out the session, Ali Colleen Neff traced the roots of punk through Iggy Pop, who was mutilating himself onstage in the Stooges well before the mid-70s. A highlight was a clip of him on a talk show being asked about his shocking onstage antics and his being both charming and blasé about it.

Lunch / Damon & Naomi Perform Fortune


I had just enough time to grab lunch at the Seattle Center Armory and ferry it back to the EMP before (almost) the beginning of an audiovisual performance by Damon & Naomi in the Sky Church. They started with a few songs, no visual accompaniment, before launching into their new album, Fortune. It’s the soundtrack to a film by Naomi Yang, so we were treated to a presentation of that on the massive screen behind both performers as they played. Described in the program as “a long-form music video, a visual poem set to the metronome of a textural score,” it was indeed somewhat cryptic, but very well-suited to the introspective and atmospheric music, which washed over us as visuals of tarot cards, Maine countryside and house interiors unspooled onscreen.

After the film, we got a few more songs, including one introduced simply with “this is another cover”: “Listen, the Snow is Falling”, a Yoko Ono song that also appeared on the final Galaxie 500 album.

SATURDAY / Session 2: New Wave Invasions and Evasions

From proto-punk to new wave, I continued to follow this train along the track of my interests. And none of the speakers in this session disappointed. In fact, you can listen to the full audio of it here.

Sean Nelson, “Has the World Changed or Have I Changed: Revisiting Morrissey’s Artful Evasions”
Stranger arts editor Sean Nelson kicked things off with a very personal exploration of Morrissey and the trials of being a fan. Staking his claim by saying he has “always been squarely in the ‘scratch his name on my arm with a fountain pen’ school,” Nelson nonetheless proceeded to lay out the many ways in which Morrissey’s behavior over the years has made it difficult to disentangle his persona from his music. A highlight was a recitation of Morrissey quotes from the 80s to the present day, with the subject matter veering from the more predictable (vegetarianism) to head-scratching (the London Olympics).

Evie Nagy, “Nerds to the Front: Devo and the Geek Rock Revolution”
Author of an upcoming book on Devo’s landmark 1980 album Freedom of Choice, Evie Nagy expertly examined Devo’s (oddball) place in the musical era – the late 1970s – in which they began to flourish commercially. In 1978, “self-deprecating geekery was not in”, and Devo’s anti-posturing was novel. She described how instead of simply writing specific breakup songs, they owned up to generalized, ongoing rejection and embraced that weirdness and awkwardness. And Nagy got off the most memorable line of the session: “I’m going to call bullshit on the idea that Weezer are part of [Devo’s nerd-rock] lineage.” …To which she was greeted by an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience.

Alfred Soto, “The City is Quiet, Too Cold to Walk Alone: Marc Almond, Jimmy Somerville, Neil Tennant, and Queer Presentation in Eighties England”
The next talk was a look back at queerness, and how it was manifested in varying degrees by popular synth-pop artists of the 80s. We were treated to a number of fabulously of-the-era videos, including “Domino Dancing” by the Pet Shop Boys which gives the works of Frankie Goes to Hollywood a run for its money in terms of mass-culture homo-eroticism in heavy rotation on MTV. But that was part of the point: as fairly circumspect performers, in presentation and style, a band like the Pet Shop Boys wouldn’t necessarily get tagged as “queer” by the mainstream.


And there ended my Saturday PopCon sojourn, though I would pop back one more time the following day for this stellar wrap-up session:

SATURDAY / Session: Mainstream Mutations

The JBL theater was pretty darn full for the final session on a Sunday morning, and it was clearly due to the talent that had assembled to entertain and inform us before sending us on our separate ways. And hey! There’s audio of the whole thing here.

Chris Molanphy, “UnLennon–UnMcCartney: Considering the Only Three Beatle Compositions to Hit No. 1 Without Lennon or McCartney”
Bringing his usual chart-whiz statistical eye to a topic, Chris Molanphy gave us a whirlwind tour through three notable Beatles covers. His talk was jam-packed with tons of interesting trivia about the success (or lack thereof) of various artists’ Beatles covers, noting that a close relationship (inclduing some professional back-scratching) between Elton John and John Lennon likely contributed to the former’s #1 cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” – even if it failed to endure as an album rock staple. His recitation of the longest song title ever for a #1 song in the Billboard charts was especially amusing, as the #1 Dutch “Stars on 45” disco mashup/medley that included various Beatles snippets was not allowed in the U.S. to simply be called “Stars on 45”. No, the names of every single song referenced needed to be part of the title. Mercy.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, “Clones (We’re All): Paul McCartney and His Temporary Secretary Looking for Clues in the Fallout of Punk, Disco, and New Wave”
Touching on a theme also covered in Evie Nagy’s talk, Stephen Thomas Erlewine looked at how the musical landscape changes of the late 70s/early 80s affected what might be considered establishment artists: people like Alice Cooper and Paul McCartney. He cited the former as definite miss (on his new wave-attempt LP: “Good ideas are botched and the bad ideas executed expertly”) and the latter a surprising hit, with McCartney’s electronic explorations on McCartney II as largely successful.

Keith Harris, “The Mall Gaze: Tiffany’s ‘I Saw Him Standing There’ Looks Back at the Beatles”
Keith Harris unabashedly proclaimed his teenage love of both the Beatles and Tiffany, giving us a snapshot of how difficult it was to be a fan of the Beatles, in particular, when those damn boomers kept trying to tell you how damn important they were. And how the commercialization of their music – such as the Nike “Revolution” ad in 1987, the Tiffany and other covers – exposed a preciousness about the Beatles that was, well… rockism in an early incarnation.

Maura Johnston, “The Buttons and the Pins and the Loud Fanfares: The Adoption of ‘Beatles-esque’ Elements by Late-80s Pop Outfits”
Rounding out the session, Maura Johnston gave her own teen-influenced take on the Beatles. Playing clips by New Kids on the Block and her beloved (hair) metal bands, she showed us how “Beatlesque” harmonies, chord progressions and other musical tropes now long-connected to the Fab Four were popping up everywhere in the late 80s/early 90s. Perhaps as a reaction against overly-synthetic musical concoctions of the not-too-distant past, bands could get some analog cred, or just make their tunes stand out on the radio, by looking back a little further musically.

And then…

We had the most epic Q&A session ever, with panelists and audience members blurring into a whole, like a really big bar where everyone has their drinks in hand, ready to talk shit about music. And when something like 90% of people with questions are called-on by their first names, you know that yes, we’re all (mostly) friends here, and we probably could just take over a bar and debate exactly what does “Beatlesque” mean? What period? And what other bands were mining this vein at the same time? When did it begin? Is it possible the New Kids on the Block had heard XTC? As attendee and speaker Devon Maloney put it on Twitter:


Here Comes Everybody


EMP Pop Conference – Friday Recap

It’s the Christmas for music nerds this weekend in Seattle – and no, I’m not talking about Record Store Day. It’s the annual gathering of academics, rock critics and other lovers of musical minutiae otherwise known as Pop Conference. It started at the EMP back in 2002 and has circled back home (after a couple of multi-city tangents) for the past two years.

Pop Conference is an opportunity to meet up with old friends from out of town here to present or attend, and it’s a place where I can feel comfortable among my tribe even when meeting new people. You want to get into a spirited discussion about the lingering effects of 80s influences in mainstream musical trends even though the 20-year nostalgia cycle should dictate that mid-90s influences should be dominating? This is the place.

It’s also a chance to dive deep into musical topics far removed from your own zone of knowledge, led by each presenter, who has crafted a paper and talk about a hyper-specific subject connected in some way to the conference theme. (This year’s: “Get Ur Freak On: Music, Weirdness and Transgression”.) And the best presenters pull you down a tunnel into a highly-detailed, hyper-annotated and researched pocket of musical history, connecting you to the topic with their passion, presentation skills, and (typically) lots of funny anecdotes, pictures and/or musical interludes.

While I skipped the Thursday evening keynote panel and opening reception, I attended for most of the day on Friday, the first full day of sessions. And boy, was it frequently difficult to choose which ones to attend. There are always around four tracks happening simultaneously, and the layout of the EMP makes it hard to sample by wandering from some of the rooms to others.

That said, I’d already staked out my 9am pick, with talks by the always-entertaining and informative Robert Christgau and Andy Zax. So after meeting up with some friends in the EMP restaurant area and wolfing down a donut (mmm, maple-glazed old-fashioned) from the box proffered to me, I was ready to roll…

Session 1: Insider Outsiders

Robert Christgau, “Infectious Clowning: Huey Smith’s Rollicking Heyday and Long Sad Struggle to Get Paid”
I’ll confess that my coffee hadn’t quite kicked in soon enough for me to completely follow Christgau’s rat-a-tat-tat delivery of connections between Huey Smith’s musical clowning and New Orleans boogie-woogie. But we got a post-talk bonus round of stories as technical difficulties somewhat delayed the setup of the next presenter. One such tale included the detail about a house full of records burning down to the ground, which elicited an immediate, collective and surely involuntary groan from almost all in attendance.

Andy Zax, “‘Gee, It’s Nice To Be Alone’: How Rod McKuen Became America’s Best-Known—And Least-Understood!—Outsider Artist”
Andy Zax then took us into the world of much-maligned pop poet/song stylist Rod McKuen who, as Andy noted, was in his day as popular and widely-known as the Beatles. We were zipped along from his early beat poetry years – where I learned that Richard Hell most certainly ripped “Blank Generation” from Rod’s own “The Beat Generation” – through to mainstream TV success, ventures into psychedelia, disco, electronic bleep-bloop and… merchandising. Yes, there was a “Rod McKuen Casuals” clothing line. Zax punctuated his talk with some truly mind-blowing album covers (including this classic) song samples, and video clips. A poem about a cat? Apparently this was mainstream television fare in the late 60s.

Evelyn McDonnell, “‘The Hustle Never Stops’: The Survival of Kim Fowley”
Next up was Evelyn McDonnell, author of Runaways biography Queens of Noise with her exploration of infamous Runaways manager, and intensely weird person, Kim Fowley. Portrayed in the popular narrative of the Runaways story as a master manipulator and all-around bad guy, Fowley was given a nuanced – though appropriately rough-n-ready – appraisal by McDonnell. It was hard not to take away an appreciation for his hustle, in spite of the ick factor inherent in some of his shenanigans.

Devon Maloney, “Multimillionaire Pop Stars, They’re Just Like Us: Taylor Swift and the Performance of Normalcy”
Last up was Devon Maloney, who explored some of Taylor Swift’s efforts to show that multimillionaire pop stars can be “just like us.” Apparently Ms. Swift posts on fans’ Instagrams, bakes them cookies and sends them tea sets with personal notes attached. Huh.

Session 2: From Cock to Rock / Mad Men: The Strange Politics of Transnational Technologies

For the second session, I made a jump to another room at one point to catch the last talk there, navigating many flights of stairs and meandering tourists to do so. But I started with From Cock to Rock, in the Learning Labs.

Elijah Wald, “Cocksucker Blues: A Respectful Exploration of Cunnilingus in African American Popular Song”
Tracing highly explicit lyrical content in songs from earlier last century through to the present day, Elijah Wald’s presentation was profane, humorous and very, very untweetable. His exploration of modern southern soul/blues singers’ embrace of the topic as a way of connecting with their overwhelmingly female, and older, audience was particularly eye-opening.

Holly George-Warren, “Calamity Jane, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Bessie Smith: Janis Joplin and Her Transgressive Forebears”
Known to me through her biography of Alex Chilton (still on my to-read list), Holly George-Warren connected the dots between Janis Joplin and her stylistic forebears, at one point playing us a clip from the early 60s of Janis singing a Bessie Smith song, self-accompanied on autoharp, long before her Big Brother days.

Rob Drew, “The Blank Generation: Trans-Atlantic Transgressions of the Cassette in the Early 1980s”
I always thought it was weird that the first Bow Wow Wow album was an oddly-packaged cassette. Rob Drew explained why, along with how it came to be, and how transgressive the cassette was in the early 80s. I remember buying used LPs in the late 80s/early 90s with stickers still attached with slogans like “Home Taping Is Killing Music” without fully understanding what that was all about. Answer: pirating! Those C-30, C-60, C-90 (go!) blank tapes scared the record industry. And therefore that was a cause for punks to take up.


And then we break! Time for me and a friend to refuel with greasy diner food – and jukebox selections: Jesus and Mary Chain, the Wipers – at the 5 Spot.

Session 3: When They Did That / Voicing Transgression

Jack Hamilton, “Reggae and Shout: Doing Over the Beatles in the Jamaican 1960s”
Another topic that I was completely unfamiliar with prior to this talk, but came away from completely intrigued. Jack Hamilton opened with a clip of a 20-year-old Bob Marley singing a Beatles song, going on to explain – and demonstrate – how completely normal this Jamaican/British intermingling of song and influence was in the 60s. He then played examples of a number of other Beatles “do overs” (Jamaican pop music parlance for covers) that were so charming that I’d like the compilation album now, please!

Michaelangelo Matos, “Sleeping in Between the Two of Us: ‘When You Were Mine’”
Prince expert, electronic music smartie, and class-A presenter Michaelangelo Matos gave us a look into not just the genesis of this key track from Prince’s Dirty Mind album, but the larger context surrounding it: from the sniping with then-tourmate Rick James to the conservative pop and black radio music landscape into which it landed. Fave quote, Rick James on Prince, calling him a “little science fiction creep.”

Tom Kipp, “From the Old Chisholm Trail to the Nearest Circle K and from Actionable Offenses to Metallic K.O.: Exploring ‘The Filthy Song’ in Recorded Music!”
With his genteel appearance, including a nice shirt and tie, you’d have never guessed that Tom Kipp was about to unleash a filthy, filthy torrent of song onto us… and perhaps on some of the kids, families and other museum-goers just outside our open-air/no-real-walls session space. Exploring songs with lyrical content not just dirty, but gleefully so, Tom played a high-volume musical montage of highlights including “Cocksucker Blues” and the Marianne Faithfull classic “Why D’ya Do It?” before launching into his own teenage band’s lo-fi, expletive-filled song about exploits in and around a Circle K. The best part, though, was one question in the Q&A after the panel, which went something like this:

Audience member: "I have to ask: what were you on when you wrote/recorded that song?"

Tom: "I was 18, a virgin, and had never smoked, drank or snorted anything before."

Audience member: "That makes it even better!"


Even though there was another set of sessions to follow, post-diner food coma caused me to retreat. After all, the weekend has just begun.