It's time to wrap up this EMP serial. I could go on forever (and in a certain spirit, will) but I need to move on. Having had a few days to return to normal life, I've gained a bit of perspective on general trends that I observed. It goes like this:
In one of the last panels of the weekend, Greil Marcus extended a shout out to Ann Powers and Eric Weisbard for putting yet another successful conference together. He commented on the "stunning lack of pretension and pomposity" that really seemed to define the experience. Another interesting comment on a kind of lack came from Alex Ross: "When writing about American music, I feel like I'm circling around an absent center." Both comments speak to a typically evasive ambiguity surrounding the ability to explain music: an acceptance of the inability to define. There is a strange irony here in the inability (and maybe lack of desire, or need?) of a bunch of writers to put a concept into direct words.
By far, the strongest manifestation of all this is in the pervasive efforts of everyone present to overcome the boundaries of genre. There is a compelling force at work when structures are dismantled; what lies beneath will no doubt be shocking whether it is because of a significant new presence or lack thereof. I detected, throughout the conference, a hunger for a wrecking ball. Matt Brennan made an earnest plea for the removal of genre, exposing the categories as nothing more than power plays between various groups (racial, business, whatever…). I wrote about this once. Alex Ross showed through music clips that the obvious lineage of music can be best understood by listening, rather than talking. I wrote about it the other day. His interdisciplinary approach nicely complimented Thom Swiss's investigation of archetypal images in photography and how they relate to musical concepts of perception. Never has the John/Yoko photo seemed more Freudian. And then there were the papers from Randall Roberts and Tim Quirk, which raised questions about the questionable role of business interests and marketing concepts. I wrote about that, too. Carl Wilson proved the difficulty of trying to bridge the gap between taste and the common man through Celine Dion. Yup.
And reference to Celine brings up Vegas, and then my thoughts get bigger, much bigger. What does Las Vegas represent about America? There's so much to be said, but I think it will suffice to mention two main things: a bastardization of the American dream, and a hyperconsumerized hub of robotic proportions. Is the desire to break down genre a bounce-back reaction to an excessive decadence that this country is most clearly in the midst of? Is it possible that grander social forces are at work and they are manifesting themselves in this arena that ironically lacks the words to describe them? And isn't music, though, the appropriate venue for such inarticulate grace?
Ann Powers asked us to think about the future of our profession, and hinted that next year's conference will perhaps reference this anxiety. All I can say is that I have no doubt about music writing's longevity in the cultural sphere. There's no denying music's ability to communicate powerful messages. The eternal pursuit of definition, however, is what keeps it running, and since we know it cannot be defined, then we can be sure it will have a solid future ahead.