5
May 17

They Ask Me What The Use Is: Pop Conference 2017

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image1 Last year’s Seattle Pop Conference, on Voice, was an epiphanic experience for me, reviving a part of me that had become burnt out since I stopped writing regularly about current music. Like most epiphanies it was almost traumatic – I staggered around for a while afterwards trying to reconcile the critical self PopCon spoke to and the reality of the rest of my life and career. The critic’s life, these days, is often grim and precarious – Pop Conference overturns that, offering an opportunity to celebrate and indulge everything you might want it to be. As someone who’d stepped away from that life in a professional sense, I feel a little like a guilty interloper going there, at the same time as the event energises me and makes me feel so welcome and at home.

Of course I was going back, though. And you can’t have the same epiphany twice – this year I realised what Pop Conference reminded me of was Glastonbury. OK, a Glastonbury where all you have to brave is jetlag, not rivers of mud and piss, and stumbling on the best DJ in the world in the healing fields at 4AM is replaced by catching a presentation about a drag king One Direction tribute act in the quiet of Sunday morning. But something just as surprising and nourishing, if a bit kinder to my mid-40s constitution.

(There’s a structural resemblance, mind you – several people told me how the real party had got started on Wednesday in the hotel bar, and I made a mental note to arrive a day earlier in 2018. So it begins.)

The topic this year was Politics, which in an odd way made for a mellower event, with less challenge and confrontation in the panels I heard this year than last. After all, the presentations at Pop Conference are always political, no matter the topic: perhaps explicitly naming the event’s presiding demon served to remind people of commonalities, not differences, particularly in a political moment where sides are sharply drawn and most, if not all, attendees are on the same one.

Here are quick mentions of some highlights. (I enjoyed everything I saw! But these stand out in the memory.)

Clare O’Connor on Justin Bieber’s use of Christian iconography and symbolism, from his explicit identification with angels to more subtle choices of staging and lighting which implicitly suggest a Christian context.

Tim Quirk telling the story of how his 90s band, Too Much Joy, leapt to the defence of 2 Live Crew when they were in trouble for ‘obscene’ lyrics, covering the songs in question at the same club 2LC had got busted at. The media wouldn’t take the protest seriously; the Florida sheriff did.

Patrick St Michel on Japanese pop responses to Fukushima – while the highly managed idol industry stayed silent (or coy), fringe musicians got angry. Featured extraordinary videos by Japanese reggae veteran Rankin Taxi and independent Idol group Uniform Improvement Committee.

Andy Zax on paranoid records made by the American Right in the 60s, from box sets of 17-hour speeches by the founder of the John Birch Society to conservative attempts to beat the folkies and hippies at their own musical game. A prototype of future (and more successful, sadly) media takeovers.

Charity Singles! Both Chris Molanphy’s chart-oriented survey of the multi-vocal charity jamboree and the entire panel devoted to them on day 2. And still you feel there was more to be discussed. A highlight among highlights was Carl Wilson’s deconstruction of Canada’s mild-mannered and reproachful contribution to the cause, “Tears Are Not Enough”.

Sarah Messabauer’s sterling bit of ethnographic research on Allentown natives’ mixed reactions to Billy Joel’s post-industrial lament “Allentown” – one of the few presentations I saw to foreground the sung-about, not the singer, in political music.

Glenn McDonald’s data machine built to identify which genres, micro-genres, and nanogenres have the most political skew among their listeners. (And why symphonic power metal has the least.)

Keith Harris on the rueful nostalgia of post-9/11 country music, the other side of the coin from ass-kicking nationalism (though still very much the same coin).

Damon Krutowski reframing the free music/paid music debate to be about signal and noise, arguing that signal is cheap and noise worth paying a premium for – a good way of talking about what was lost in the shift from physical media without sounding like a finger-wagging old-timer, and copacetic with the arguments I’ve been having about The Charts.

A fascinating paper by Katherine Meizel about a friend of hers who sold her voice as a vocaloid, and felt very uneasy at how her non-musical vocalisations (laughs, coughs, sighs) were also captured and sold. It expanded into a great discussion of vocal theft and loss in Western culture, from Echo to the Little Mermaid.

Laura Snapes happily naming names during a righteous kicking to the “Where has all the protest music gone?” subgenre of hot takes, whose supposedly right-on request for politically engaged pop just ends up reinforcing the existing hierarchies of the British music biz.

Hazel Sheffield on whether and why Sleaford Mods are mods – tracing the legacy of the 60s mods through Britpop and the post-Britpop disillusionment that plays a part in the bands origins, tying it in to the wider social trends that culminated in Brexit.

Actual dancing about actual architecture in Anna Leszkiewicz’ paper about brutalism and pop videos, focusing on how different acts used the Barbican’s architecture as setting and prop.

(This panel also had me talking about Eurovision and Brexit, which will be up here as soon as I can master the complex technical requirements needed, viz. I used some videos.)

Karen Tongson giving an enthusiastic primer on the Indigo Girls’ work and fandom, in which I learned that I am an Emily, not an Amy.

Eric Weisbard’s reconstruction of the history of pop writing and aesthetics as a pendulum swinging between the sentimental and the vernacular.

Elaine Kathryn Andres exploring the physicality – and the racialised reception – of blues singer Sugar Pie DeSanto, one of the few women blues performers to get much exposure during the European 60s blues boom.

And finally, that awesome paper on ‘boi band’ Every Direction by Jessica Pruett, with interviews with the five drag kings who take on the One Direction roles on stage, talking about how the performances intersect with their offstage sexuality and gender presentation.

So PopCon was an absolute treat, as it always is. Thanks as ever are due to Ann Powers and Eric Weisbard, who organise it, and the rest of the programme committee, and all the speakers and the very helpful and friendly MoPop staff. Should you go? If you have any interest in pop music, and can possibly afford it, yes, yes, yes.

(The photo shows the 22nd April Science March moving past MoPop, the museum the PopCon happens in.)

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