Dispatch from Seattle | 2009 EMP Pop Music Conference
This years EMP wasnt the business-as-usual, put-your-peepee-on-the-table and rumble caucus weve grown to love and (sometimes) resent. Just last year, I emphatically referred to it as theschlongfest slow to change. What a difference 365 days make. There are too many reasons for this years bright and airy fissures. Im writing from the road, so permit me a few jetlagged and rapid-fire observations:
First and foremost Eric Weisbardsprogram tweaks (large and subtle) were furrows for fresh critical moves. The adjustments included putting Nona Hendryx and Diane Warren in the conferences pole-positions and the switching up of those who got to occupy the captains chairs. Bravo.
The care and craft behind the call for papers did much to recruit and amend at once. This years line up was especially badass: lots of smart folks saying smart things. For the most part, participants brought with them openness in both vibe and substance. One did not feel the need to enter the space of the conference defensively (ala cover your genitals!), but with a posture of relaxed joy. “We belong” felt like an implied anthem over the weekend. For whatever critiques one can make of EMP, it is an occasion to gather with fellow music nerds who love to talk about music. It is a safe house for those of us who like to drop Starship references without shame, and have non-ironic attachments to someone like Joe Walsh.
Im curious to what others might have to say about this: is it because we are all growing older together that the tired academic/journo divide felt (refreshingly) not as thorny as usual? Did we find common cause in our distaste for evaluation forms? Was it a matter of throwing food and liquor at this thing? Drinking together never felt so reparative.
And finally, one could palpably feel the productive work behind all those years of getting mad, and getting mad publicly. For this, we thank those who dug out those early foxholes and tirelessly reiterated the call: this can be a beautiful thing.
Photo Credits for Diane Warren Event + Special Thanks to Rick Barry.
The event I cant stop thinking about: the public conversation between Diane Warren and Ann Powers. I know that my compatriots have much to say about this event–the shared feelings to be found in and by way of it. But Id like to linger on the scaffolding. Ann Powers gave us not only a wonderful interview, but also a fine piece of writing. Think about the structure she gave to the thing by bookending Warrens career retrospective between DeBarges “Rhythm of the Night” and the photo of Irving Berlin that hangs on her office wall. I admit to getting insta-crushes when I see ladies doing the work. We were not only presented with Anns moving ethos of preparation (sound clips on the ready, idiosyncratic details of an incredible oeuvre), but were also made privy to the everyday of Warrens perfectionism. And yes, Brandys “Have You Ever?” moved me to tears.
When speaking of insta-crushes, we have to mention Karen Shimakawa and Licia Fiol-Matta, whose presentations (once again) gave us the occasion to work on our thinking wrinkles. One of the many things I appreciated about both their presentations was their attention to generational relationships to the same object of music, be it Enka or Lucecita BenÃtez. [L: Lucecita]
Ill throw fuel to the accusations of nepotism given all the friends Im lucky to have in this particular circus. Time constraints prevent me from being properly apologetic. So I begin with some shameless tooting of my curatorial horn by shouting out the glorious musings heard from the“Background Noise” panel. Talk about stand and deliver! Patty Ahn, Greg Londe, Chelsea Adewumni, Judith Casselberry and Van Truong took their time and did it right. Another grand assembly: “Take Back the Nightclub.” In their own unique ways, Karen Tongson and Josh Kun wove some stunning filigree between their archival objects. Inna Arzumanova killed with her bits on interracial teen dance floors. And does it get any better than Christine Bacareza Balances spin on assolationism? Her turntablist credo allowed her to put together a particularly tight and right piece of writing. And finally, I was lucky to wander in on David Grubbss, “I am a Recording. I Dont Age,” a lovely treatise on growing old in the absent-presence of a beloved recorded object gone missing. ““ (ATV)
I. “Because You Loved Me”
Most of my time lately has been spent writing alone and wrestling with intellectual demons in isolation, whichis not to be confused with the collective virtuosity of “assolationism”””a term all about dance, music, sex and romance spit to life one night by sister CBB while we were sipping wine with some fierce Asian ladies on Rodney Drive (including Party Pumper, la Kang, and eLBee).
One of the things that PopCon made possible for me this time””made possible from the very beginning, actually””is an occasion to get together with the sisterhood of the traveling hot pants to think, eat, talk, work and feel loved. Because we each presented on different panels this time, I also had a chance to watch the ladies from the audience as they carried on that spirit of “assolationism”””the precarious spectacle of solo booty breakdowns weaving in and out of ecstatic group choreographies. Through these exogamous moments I was inspired anew by their words and work: from ATVs daring and deep critique of “Lonely Planetliberalism” couched in a tender encounter with a Regaetton disc she never heard, to CBBs affective, alternative genealogy of hip-hop, Filipino dance, and the aesthetic and spiritual sustenance of the crew, or barkada. There in the company of my barkada, watching them work and work it out, I was reminded that I am never truly alone.
II. “I Get Weak”
So much good stuff at this years PopCon, but I have to give a special nod to the hard-hitting ladies who ruled the keynotes. The weekend kicked off with a surprisingly sensitive, lo-fi and intimate event featuring Nona Hendryx, an artist whose presence looms so large, but whose quieter side was lovingly coaxed from her by Daphne Brooks andSonnet Retman. [L: iPhone audience snapshot of Daphne and Sonnet introducing Nona]
As youve probably noticed by now (ATV set this up in her “sizzle reel” of the weekends events), the soundtrack for my PopCon is, was, and forever will be scored by Diane Warren. Sure, timeless Top Pop doesnt hit the spot for everyone, even though it leaves me completely prone. But hearing Warren relinquish her own hardened cynicisms to her well-wrought anthems of everyday passion, and seeing her close her eyes to listen again to the work from within, yet also so far outside of her”¦well”¦I got weak. Thanks so much to Judith Casselberry for enduring the group sing in the back row, and of course, to Ann Powers for letting Diane Warren be Diane Warren: funny, crass, arrogant, wise, down to business, down to earth.
III. “Give a Little Love”
– To the grad students who hit their moves hard all weekend long, not only holding their own, but making it their own: Greg Londe, Chelsea Adewumni, Van Truong and Patty Ahn (on “Background Noise” anchored by the amazing Judith Casselberry, and ATV), as well as Inna Arzumanova who took back the nightclub with Josh Kun and me.
– To the purveyors of Perreo and beyond at the Regaetton Roundtable, especially the 2 of the 3 editors of the volume who were present, Wayne Marshall and Raquel Rivera, for pushing us to keep moving, hustling, and thinking about what this music can mean in intimate and global hemispheres.
– To the formidable trio of Sarah Dougher, Ann Powers and Daphne Carr who ran the feminist working group, “Dance This Mess Around” on Friday afternoon. Sadly I had to take off before the groups coalesced, left to admire from afar, as I always have, the fierce work these ladies do everyday.
– To the Dance Dance revolutionaries of “Step Up 2 the Screen” (CBB with Ann Shaffer, Priscilla PeÃ±a Ovalle, and Michelle Habell-PallÃ¡n moderating), keeping the dancing body salient and strong in the conference mix. “What a Feeling” indeed.
– To the ladies whom ATV has rightly dubbed “insta-crush worthy”: Licia Fiol-Matta and Karen Shimakawa of “Nation and Pop Takeover” (moderated by Josh Kun). I now carry the refrains of Lucecita in my heart, and cant wait to experience firsthand the delicious schlock of Enka when I hit Tokyo in a few short weeks.
– To the elegant, eloquent faggotry of Drew Daniel and Tavia Nyongo on “How Low Can a Punk Get.” Thanks for being unafraid to bring the heavy, queer theoretical artillery with you to this shindig.
– To the boys who make this lesbian fundamentalist feel a little less separatist with each passing day: Ned Raggett, who was a wonderful presence at all our panels, and at our party. Special thanks for the iPhone pic with Diane! Elijah Wald, whom I had the pleasure of chatting with several times beyond the Gehry-sculpted boundaries of EMP | SFM. Eric Weisbard for bringing us all together, always and forever. And last, but certainly not least, to Josh Kun for never “trickin” “˜cause hes always got it…
IV. “I Dont Wanna Miss a Thing”
But every year I have to, because theres just too much great stuff””and so much of it on Sunday morning this year (Female Punk! Queer Hip Hop and Regaetton! Liminal Grooves!). My biggest regret by far this year, though, is missing Jason Kings convo with the great Asha Puthli.
Even obsessive Virgos need a break, and I needed a quiet moment to recover and regroup with my beloved Kangagi during a brief, lesbionic getaway to theHothouse Womens Spa in Capitol Hill.
On a personal note: many thanks to the good folks at the University of Washington’s Simpson Center for the Humanities and their working groups (Queer Worlds, dis-Orienting Asian American Studies, The Race/Knowledge project) for bringing me to campus and keeping me in Seattle a few extra days after PopCon. A very special thank you to Prof. Gillian Harkins, Shelley Halstead and their furry brood, for Scotch and sympathy on their sunny porch. ““ (KT)
Following up on ATVs nepotistic inclinations and KTs sha booya roll call, I would like to give a shout out to the brave and brilliant:
Greg Londe and Chelsea Adewunmi, for offering up the most musical of presentations in remixed recant on black back-up singers;
Judith Casselberry, for “moving” background from a staging concept to biography and illuminating the church we feel in Grace Jones performances. A special shout out for being entertained by our back row, lighter-raising sing-a-long antics during the Diane Warren keynote on Friday night.
Patty Ahn, for the pleasure of revisiting the utopic potential of the Fly Girls and In Living Color as well as animating a few hard-hitting academics in the back row.
Wayne Marshall, Raquel Rivera, and Alex Vazquez, for bringing Reggaeton out of the shadows of being “merely a fad” and into the overlapping spotlights and bullhorns of Caribbean popular culture. A special shout out for constantly having to get perreo with the repetitive chorus and droning beats of that old power/agency vs. womens bodies routine
Josh Kun, for blasting wry and dirty jokes over the loud speakers at 9AM, giving us bawdy thats so much smarter than Beyonce ever could.
Karen Tongson, for not only perfecting the aural cue of voiceover-as-closing-montage but, also, for bringing out theO.C. freaks and geeks and re-igniting the possibilities of a little archive fever.
Licia Fiol-Matta, for putting the sexy back into “seria” and sharing with us Lucecita-as-fashion-icon.
Karen Shimakawa, for, as always, gracefully keeping it real while still being speculative and funny.
And, finally, to Ann Powers and Diane Warren, for putting the POP back into Pop Music conference and for writing some of the most anthemic selections on the Oh! iPod playlist: “Nothings Gonna Stop Us Now”; “Rhythm of the Night”; “For You I Will”; “If I Could Turn Back Time”; “Love Will Lead You Back”; and “How Do I Live Without You.” Her songs glitter across the various locations we occupy, populating our collective soundscapes””from suburban (read teenage) desires to urban tribal karaoke sessions, from Philippine provincial roadsides to first and last dances at weddings, gay clubs, and bars. A big kudos to two sisters who work hard for their money ““the work shows and it inspires. ““ (CBB)
CONFERENCE AND POST-CONFERENCE SOUNDTRACK
Many thanks to Patty Ahn for putting the sped-up traffic beats from my I-95 past back into my universe by way of KP and Envyis “Shorty Swing My Way.” This beat was picked up at the post Oh! Party where I got to relive some 1995 house glory days (though this go “˜round felt more Ft. Lauderdale then Miami).
Post conference soundtrack: Tuned into the act of songwriting, I am currently going through much of Diane Warrens catalogue, especially her work with Starship and Ace of Bass and Heart ala “Who Will You Run To?” She also made me go back and rethink Akon. Oddly, but perhaps not accidentally, Guns N Roses Appetite for Destruction has also called out for some renewed love. This was no doubt inspired by the sounds of “Paradise City”straining through the rental car speakers during the long car ride to the final night party. Note to Eric: my one suggestion for next year would be to have the party somewhere that doesnt require so much driving. Ive also been harboring a little bit of a thing for Pink Floyds“Have a Cigar.” But theres a future post Im working out on this song that has to do with feelings of overexposure.
Like ATV, I too have let our encounter with Diane Warren draw me into a reflective mood about songwriting and the gestures both big and small that stunning songcraft engenders. Beyond listening repeatedly and continuing to be surprised by Diane Warrens massive oeuvre, Ive tuned back into the “Great American Songbook,” notably works by Warrens hero, Irving Berlin, like “How Deep is the Ocean,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Lets Face the Music and Dance” (Anita ODays version is one of my faves), and the song that I always imagined as Berlins proto-Warren gem of sentimental object-relations, “Whatll I Do?”
Further inspired by CBBs homage to Pinoy bodies playing other shades of brown and yellow on stage and screen, and Josh Kuns stunning archive of the bawdy, blue Jewish ladies of Palm Beach, I also spent downtime in Seattle listening to songs from musicals. Add to this confluence a lovely, if all too brief visit with one of my best high-school gal pals, Rebecca Meneses (who played Anita inWest Side Story, Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, Marian Paroo in The Music Man, etc, etc, etc.), and you get a soundtrack that sounds a lot like this:
And you also get this video of Lea Salonga auditioning for the role of “Kim” inMiss Saigon, spin-cycling together all my not-so-secret Broadway dirty laundry of Oriental sentiment, Star Search fantasies and naive chutzpah:
Thanks to Daphne Brooks, I have actually been on a black girl rock kick – intrigued and inspired by the tight, jerky dance moves of Janelle Monae that accompany her musical theater-trained vocal stunts. Not to mention, she got me wanting a pair of saddle shoes again and Pronto! Here’s a slightly Unplugged rendition of her “Violet Stars Slightly Hunting”:
And, thrown back a bit to the 1980s thanks to the subtitle of this year’s conference as well as another phenomenal Ann Powers public conversation withWendy & Lisa, the following Prince jams have been in heavy rotation on my iPod and in my mind. Not the usual Top 40-worthy, “A Side” fare from the Purple One, these songs’ upbeat, new wave rhythms remind me of being sandwiched in between my Oh! sisters on our respective workout machines in the tight spaces of a hotel gym – perfectly pop-py, allowing for many a riff off of Solid Gold dance moves:
LIFE LESSONS LEARNED
-Do the research and make many reservations before you go
-Dont accept an unfiltered Camel under any circumstances
-If you build it, the ones you love will come
-Even 20 minutes on a treadmill can make things right
– A schwitz in time saves nine. But never assume the bottle of lotion you find in the spa locker room is communal property. Or even lotion. Also, dont forget to bring hair product.
-Stock up on fresh and dried fruits and try to eat as much kale and greens as possible during times of irregularity ““ keeps the pipes clean!
-Looking fierce often equals feeling fierce (plus its always best to be prepared for those photo ops)
-Take it low and slow the first and last nights so you can hit it hard in the middle.
-Late night snacks and water can save your life. Always keep a Salumimeat and cheese platter stashed in the hotel fridge for the after- after-after-party.
-Never leave roasted cauliflower in an enclosed car ““unless you like the smell of dirty ass.
– Pigs in a Blanket, Deviled Eggs and a giant Amy Sedaris-inspired cheeseball guarantee a good time.
-Always have dancing at a closing night party (especially at a conference with the word “DANCE” in the title): enough talking, its time to move!
WHY WE HEART SEATTLE
1. The flower arrangements at Pikes Market = the stuff of philosophy
2. The Ravioli di tapinambur al al burro e salvia con pignoli at Cucina Spinasse.
3. Thanks to our waitress at Spinasse for recommending the Hothouse Womens Spa. Fantastic when its empty, and clean enough for a Virgo to love.
4. The simple salami and mozzarella sandwich at Salumi (methinks theres crack in that olive oil spread). Their Sopresatasandwiches save lives.
5. Bar tabs are thankfully cheap.
6. Oprah is right about Ezells Fried Chicken