moments before the wind.

April 30, 2006

EMP Pop Conference #7

Filed under: authenticity, digital, live shows, music, writing — alimarcus @ 4:44 pm

Douglas Wolk is one of my favorites.  (read his blog: His memorable paper at last year's conference investigated the instances of major artists in the 60's and 70's who recorded entire songs as advertisements for Coca-Cola.  It was a fantastic and interesting topic, and his wealth of examples spoke even louder than the words that accompanied them.

This year, he achieved a similar effect with a history of "The Numa-Numa Dance."  Google it if you want to see for yourself.  The highlight of his presentation was a video collage made from YouTube clips of people making imitation videos of the original.  Wolk's point is that there is a powerful urge among geeky adolescents and people of all ages, to be part of an accepted community, and this dorky guy doing this dance somehow gave them an outlet to broadcast their own outsider-ness in a way that, by nature of the act, bestows and displays a sought-after sense of security.  That someone would "understand their pride and their geekdom, and love them for it."  And he really made this obvious in a simple, feel-good kind of way that also invites larger ideas about the overarching issues: the purpose/benefits of the internet, of media in general, of pop music, etc etc.

Wolk used the word "beautiful" to describe the effect of the Numa Numa dance, as shown in his well-made collage.  He compared the Numa Numa phenomenon to the Macarena and the Electric Slide.  There are major differences though, between Numa Numa and previous fad dances.  The visual makes it the most obvious; on the one hand, there are groups of people in close physical proximity dancing together, and on the other, there are (in most cases) solitary internet junkies with a webcam, alone in their half-lit bedroom.  The ideas about outcasts and social desires are similar, but for all the strengths of the internet, I can't help but wonder if it makes the weaknesses more insidious.  Sure, a widespread increase in the usage of the internet makes it easier to "connect" with people, but it also forces much more of the individual's attention to a screen (in place of a person) than previously so.  I think in a lot of ways it's much more anti-social than even TV watching.  In Wolk's collage, there was a poetic tragedy that came through just as much as the beauty.


EMP Pop Conference #6

Filed under: authenticity, business, distribution, indie, marketing, music, writing — alimarcus @ 4:24 pm

Matt Corwine gave a hilarious and also informative talk on the theme music from Super Mario Bros.  (He pointed out, quite perceptively, that it's not often to listen to one song, over and over, for hours and hours and years and years, and that there is areason why it is so completely embedded.)  At a certain point, he began to talk about other video games, and said that no video game has ever come up with a score that compares to this early 80's composition that remains in a certain generation's hearts to this day.  Anyways, a delightful Freudian slip brought to light a very relevant issue.  The exception to the rule, Corwine said, is the popular video game "Grand Theft Audio," and then he immediately corrected his mistake.  I wonder if he realized the irony, as I am sure that I cannot have been the only one.  In speaking of music licensing, alternative revenues in a changing industry landscape, and all these kinds of related issues, Grand Theft Auto is well known to be a major player in the market.  Even I, who to this day really only enjoy playing the original Super Mario Bros. and certainly has never played Grand Theft Auto, am aware of it's central usage of pop music in the soundtrack, and the money it generates for artists.  But to inadvertently mistake, or subconsciously substitute, the word "Audio" in there was more than poignant – to the point where I wonder if Corwine did it on purpose, though he did not seem to be one of ther performative speakers. Grand Theft Auto Grand Theft Audio Some questions on the latter:  Can music be stolen?  Is it being appropriated by a consumerism that is engulfing all sense of culture, individuality, character?  Is it thievery if the musicians actively seek it out? 

EMP Pop Conference #5

Filed under: authenticity, business, folk, labels, marketing, music, writing — alimarcus @ 4:07 pm

A couple of different papers either explicity or tangentially dealt with the role and meaning of Jewish participation in the music industry.  From Ronald Cohen's survey of Jewish involvement in music to Jody Rosen's discussion of Irving Berlin, mixed in with the oft-discussed similarities between Jewish and African-American culture and even an article in today's NY Times about Jew's sympathetic interest in Darfurian refugees, the issue of Jewishness and music and assimilation has been present pretty consistently all weekend, at least in my head.

Rosen, in his lecture about the gray areas of ragtime, made a distinction between the earliest Tin Pan Alley music and the later tunes, explaining that second generation immigrants didn't have ethnicity issues to work out 'and all of a sudden all the songs were 32 bars and 'I love you.'"  He cited Berlin vs. the Gershwins as a prime example of this.  Now I don't know what to make of this example because I am not incredibly knowledgable on any of these men's lives and works.  But they were born within a few years of each other, and while Berlin was born abroad and came to the US at the age of 5, Gershwin was born in New York to immigrant parents.  There is a separation here, but not really that many years, and not really at an age where conscious appreciation of culture is in great effect.  I wonder if you really can find a lot of harmonic and structural difference between the songs they wrote. 

I wonder, in fact, if you can make such a claim about Tin Pan Alley.  Despite the issues with the actual example, ther larger point that Rosen made is I think that somewhere along the way, due to ethnic assimilation, industry consolidation of power and marketing channels, and a growing trend away from blues and jazz towards country, folk and rock (i.e. from complex to simple), among other things, the character of Tin Pan Alley changed for the worse.  For the commercial.

My perspective on Tin Pan Alley is that it has always been about the business of the music.  The factory aesthetic of the way the production worked always carried, for me, that idea of a kind of corporate structure, a manifestation of that central industrial revolution revelation – the assembly line – in the music world.  So first, that Rosen distinguished between different eras made me more curious about it, and second, that his ideas about this supposed change have to do with jewish assimilation in American popular culture were certainly thought provoking.  Does Jewish culture continue to have a significant role in the music industry?  How much of it continues to have to do with assimilation of a marginalized culture, if we are into 4th and 5th generations down the line?

April 29, 2006

EMP Pop Conference #4

Filed under: authenticity, music, writing — alimarcus @ 10:16 pm

In Janet Sarbanes' entertaining paper about George Clinton, she quotes from Funkadelic, "What is soul? Soul is the ring around your bathtub."

And once, a zen monk asked his master, "What is Buddha?" and his master replied, "a shit stick!"

EMP Pop Conference #3

Filed under: authenticity, music, reviews, writing — alimarcus @ 4:52 pm

Carl Wilson is one of my favorite music writers.  I got to know him from his blog,, and you should too.  His talk yesterday was about Celine Dion.  He is writing a book for Continuoum's 33&1/3 series on her, and spoke, basically of the "guilty displeasure" that many people take in her music.  Going through all the obvious descriptions, including viciously hilarious excerpts from reviews, the basic question is, since Celine clearly has an incredible amount of vocal skill (Wilson described her voice as having "many octaves like the wings of a mansion"), and celebrity as well, what exactly is it that prevents people from truly respecting her work?

A central culprit, in Wilson's view, rests in psychoanalysis.  Treating taste from a Freudian perspective, he supposes that since you can judge essential things about a person from their greatest fears, it follows that you can do the same based on their greatest hatreds.  (Strong negative reactions somehow elicit something that is deeply instinctual within us.)  In a musical sense then, contrary to popular belief (and top ten lists), people's admiring reactons are not nearly as central to their essence as are their deeply disgusted ones.

This is an interesting idea.  I think it has a lot of value to it, but I don't think that it's necessarily true.  Its value comes from the attention that it draws to conflict and the necessary tension of opposites that illuminate a conceptual notion of definition.  I would bet, from this discussion, that Wilson is a person who, when asked if human nature is basically good or basically bad, would choose the latter. 

I am not this kind of person.  To believe that a primal, innate, subconscious force within us is there because of repression and therefore is fundamentally negative, is not something I am capable of.  I say capable because I don't have the foundation in me that could believe in this Heart of Darkness kind of mythology.  Instincts and primitive connections certainly bind, but the interaction of biology and mental process doesn't have a qualitative aspect to it. 

Wilson asserted that people who deeply hate Celine Dion are distancing themselves from their conception of the people who love her.  The gut-level reaction is not a conscious thought: "Joe loves Celine and I think Joe is a loser, so I have to hate Celine in order to separate myself from his loser-ness."  This is where the subconscious Freudian analysis comes into play.  It's also basic playground antics, and also a weighty social or political force that drives much interaction (see Stalin, WWII).

And what about the bands that you hate?  Or the bands that I hate?  What does this say about us?  Is it an inability to take criticism that suddenly becomes self-imposed projection, or is it truly irrelevant?  I am interested to find out what Wilson ends up celebrating about Celine Dion in his forthcoming book. 

 4.30.06 UPDATE: See Wilson's own blog for a different but related discussion of Celine and "otherness,":

5.3.06 UPDATE: More from Wilson here:

EMP Pop Conference #2

Filed under: music — alimarcus @ 10:46 am

I missed Stephin Merritt's keynote speech but an offhand comment made by Robert Christgau made me smile.  The statement wasn't even a full sentence, but it was in reaction to something Merritt had said, something that Christgau called "Stephin Merritt's absurd contention that there's no such thing as a happy song."

Articulate and right on the money.

April 28, 2006

EMP Pop Conference #1

Filed under: authenticity, digital, music, producers, recording, rock, writing — alimarcus @ 11:51 pm

Michael Coyle gave a presentation about cover songs that made a distinction between jazz "versions" and jazz, pop, or otherwise described "covers."  He asserted that they are fundamentally different in that "versions" are elementally about the qualities of a song and a particular musician's take on them in various combinations, while "covers" are based on a specific sound recording and respond more to particular details of a recording aesthetic than to underlying compositional structures. 

It's an interesting point and there is a lot of truth to it, because the paradigm shift that recording technology caused in the way people perceive the world and create art definitely allows for this to be true.  Coyle played some selections in which jazz bands cover "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and 'Black Hole Sun" to help show what he meant.  The voicing of the instruments, the mic techniques, and the adherence to basic melodies already put in place by Cobain and Cornell was unmistakable.

My reaction though, is that the explanation is more nuanced than Coyle laid out.  Nirvana and Soundgarden recorded albums, in a time before the digital revolution when albums as a singular work were – and to a large extent still are, though I'm not sure how long it will last – the framework that guided the creative process.  It follows that the characteristics of their songs, including things like production values and instrumentation, were responding to a greater cultural circumstance.  The tradition of rock music laid all the groundwork for that kind of stuff, and it's understandable for many reasons why it's inescapable.  This being the case, isn't it fair to posit that jazz musicians who are covering rock music make similar choices in their covers due to this same, much larger scope of influence?  Is it justifiable to make it seem as though the jazz musicians – and this was only implied in the talk, but a central idea especially given that the theme of the entire conference is "shame"- are ripping off the rock musicians? 

 –side note– The shame involved purportedly comes from the listener's enjoyment of the cheese factor, essentially from the failure of the cover artist to achieve the core rock value: sincere authenticity. I dont think there is one, but a paper on Richard Cheese would have fit right in at this year's conference. –end–

I wouldn't be able to answer this, but I wonder about similar concerns regarding more "normal" kinds of jazz.  I mean, in contemporary recordings of even the most traditional sort, has there been a shift in mic tech or voicing or other kinds of these issues over a period of time?  I don't know the answer, but I'm willing to bet that there has, and that someone out there ascribes that shift to the general cultural situation, regarding the effects of both technology and rock.

something tells me

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, music, news, rock, writing — alimarcus @ 1:54 pm

Today I'm, er, livereportingonsite from the Pop Music Conference at the Experience Music Project (EMP). I have a feeling that the panels and discussions of the next few days will be fueling a large amount of forthcoming blog content.  It's pretty exciting to take a bunch of self-professed, accomplished, happily nerdy music writers, mandate a certain amount of academic basis for argument, and let opinions fly. 

I was always an outspoken student with strong opinions.  I find it hard to participate as fully as most of the conference attendees because their constant espousal of obscure history puts them on a different plane than me – a definite competitive subtext of trivia(l) knowledge.  Also, my neurons need more time to think through connections than these people who have ten, twenty years of experience, banter and pitching behind them.  In a practical sense, I don't have the experience.  But I certainly have opinions, and some of them are even well-founded, too. 

The result in the past has been that I have these reactions to things that are said, I make notes, and later try to talk about it with other friends who then sort of just nod, smile, and file it under the category of "Ali's music opinions" and have no capability or desire to discuss; in short, I want to participate in the dialogue but I need time to process, and moments lets me do that.  So the next few days will be chock full of bizarre connections and relevant ideas about msuic and our wider culture.  For now, see for all the info.

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