moments before the wind.

April 30, 2007

by the stars of the southern hemisphere

The Pop Conference has this way of subsiding but never really ending, because all of a sudden I start to see everything as this reflection of some kind of culture war being played out in the musical arena.

Anyways, I have a big list of other blogs from EMP speakers. It’s almost done, and I think close to comprehensive, so stay tuned for that. I just need a little more motivation to sit down and finish it.

For now, something different. I’m reviewing this book called Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus, who is this classic American songwriter that I’ve never heard of before who seems to have worked with anyone important who ever existed(Elvis, Billie, B.B., Dylan…). More on that in the actual review when it comes out at www.rivetmagazine.org.

What I am responding to most immediately has nothing to do with the book or the story of this particular guy’s life. It’s the format of the book. The litany of people, dinners, run-ins, venues, the teeming masses of unheard of musicians that form this amoeba-like body of artists and businesspeople what somehow every now and then spits out music that we’ve grown to know and love. It’s just an endless catalog of conversations and half-remembered, half-reconstructed memories. Doesn’t matter who the book is about. I think about Wall of Pain, the Phil Spector bio, or David Hadju’s one about the burgeoning 60’s folk scene, Dylan/Baez/Farina-style. It’s like there is no way to expose the complex network of assoications that add up to a career, so all there is to do is make these lists.

And then we read the lists. Abandoning all expectation of narrative for the moments where we come upon certain obscure names, have a private moment of recognition at this odd factoid of history revealed. It’s sort of like scanning the wedding announcements in the paper and, like I do every few weeks, recognizing someone from high school or somewhere else.

And then the names all start to overlap. They’re all in each other’s biographies, all the same cast of characters. It’s like reading the same story over and over again, told from a slightly different angle.

How else can you write a book about such a big thing? I think about what Rushdie wrote in Midnight’s Children: “To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world.” True. House of Leaves is also like that, and it’s not a list. Biographers aren’t novelists, I get that…but still…show me a music biography that goes beyond. Please.

April 23, 2007

EMP Pop Conference #16 – End Bits

One thing that I continually find entertaning is the feedback loop at the conference, presenters quoting writers to help support their point, and those writers are literally sitting in the audience listening to their own words spoken back to them. This kind of validation (or cancellation?) is a kind of black hole, a weird moment in time when the reasoning behind an argument starts to sound circular. For some reason the fact that the original writer is in the room listening sort of serves to render the intellectual capacity of the argument null and void. Like anything that is circular, you have to wonder whether it’s useful to end up where you started. Of course it can be. And of course it can’t be.

Also.

There seemed to be an exceptional amount of political commentaries built into the arguments I saw. The theme of the conference, “Waking Up From History,” propelled many writers to arrive at the concusion that we should actually wake up TO history, to learn from history, and to draw conclusions between the cultural sphere that our work covers and the political sphere of which we are citizens.

Some examples:

-Robert Bennett on the Jazz Diplomacy program and the things we should learn from it.
-Scott Nelson’s timely mention of “abortive gun policies” in the paper about John Henry’s exhumation – I’m not sure how he managed to reference the VA. Tech shootings in that conversation but at the time it made perfect sense.
-Brendan Greaves’ talk of Terry Allen’s border politics and the ways in which the Texas/Mexico border is treated by the government versus the inhabitants. 
-There was also an entire panel about New Orleans, as well as a smattering of other related papers throughout the weekend, all of which contained a fervent expression of the power of music and solidarity and the essential character of the city.

In general, as there seems to be in more and more things these days, there was a real sense of urgency that was more palpable than in previous conferences. It may have been the effect of the theme, but in general people’s research was very much rooted in the grim realities of life and music’s ability to help maintain and even create hope where all seems quite hopeless.

EMP Pop Conference #12 – Guthrie’s Heroic Dams

Filed under: architecture, business, folk, marketing, music, writing — alimarcus @ 12:42 pm

Carl Zimring spoke of Woody Guthrie’s conservationism through an analysis of the Depression-era politics and the songs Guthrie wrote, particularly the ones commissioned by the Bonneville Power Administration like “Roll On, Columbia” and “Grand Coulee Dam.”

With a clever framing of Mermaid Avenue, the album where Billy Bragg and Wilco put Guthrie’s long lost lyrics to music, Zimring suggests that the sociopolitical agendas of these contemporary liberal folksters do not overlap with Guthrie’s sentiments about nature. Consistent more with the Bush Administration’s agenda to “work the land,” to use it’s resources to their fullest capabilities (i.e. logging in national forests, drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), Guthrie’s beliefs are so clearly part of the populist 30’s ethic that this is obviously an unfair comparison.

Zimring posits that had Guthrie lived through Carson’s Silent Spring or Hurricane Katrina, he may have changed his views on the place that nature should occupy.

But neither can you say with any certainty that Guthrie would have ended up a staunch liberal in this day and age, Zimring was sure emphasize. It was a clear message, that we should not be so quick to adopt presumed agendas from historical figures.

An audience member’s comment on Guthrie’s treatment of Native Americans (he had a very derogatory attitude towards them) brought Zimring to a brick wall. Unable to avoid the fact that even Woody Guthrie had his prejudces, he said that for Guthrie, “Indians, like the salmon, are in the way.”

Speaking of salmon and dams, check this article in today’s New York Times.

EMP Pop Conference #11 – County Lines

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, business, country, folk, music, producers, recording, writing — alimarcus @ 11:28 am

A recurrent topic at the conference is the black reclamation of a southern identity, namely, southern hip hop. Countless papers brought this up in conversations about racial politics and pop culture, which makes sense due to the huge and growing popularity of african-american musicians re-forging their southern roots and identities.

To talk about Leadbelly here would be going in the wrong direction, because the idea is that this new generation of hip hop is fueled by a kind of empowerment and self-conscious purpose. But to talk about Cowboy Troy might be entirely appropriate? Or maybe just bizarre. Jon Caramanica was so giddy to get to be talking about Cowboy Troy, I can only imagine the sorts of things that might be going on at Vibe Magazine.

But I think there is something else to this element of absurdity. Charles Hughes gave a fantastic presentation on the love triangle of Nashville, Memphis, and Muscle Shoals – namely, the particular symbiosis of country and soul (and disco?), black and white, that largely determined the mainstream sounds of both genres in the 70’s. And when someone asked him what contemporary artists could be compared to the genre benders Billy Sherrill, George Jones, Ray Charles, etc etc…he said Bubba Sparxx’s album Deliverance. Now that to me is absurd. Not that Hughes is wrong, but that I never took Sparxxx seriously – I think one too many frat parties may have tipped the scales for me in that respect (one?! okay, maybe 20). And then Hughes himself addressed this, as if he’d read my mind, bringing up artists like Solomon Burke and Allen Toussaint, lamenting that “they’re all so damn serious.”

Lightbulb! I get the “too damn serious” comment a LOT, so I get what he means here, though I may be on the other side of the coin. Bubba Sparxxx? Definitely not. Fans of Bubba Sparxxx too – POPISTS! Which is the whole reason why we’re at the Pop Conference in the first place.

We all draw our own lines between what’s pop and what’s serious. Different for every person. This makes me think of a little tibit that Meghan Askins taught us yesterday, that Nevada County, CA, drew their county lines in the shape of a pistol aimed at Nevada State, angry for stealing their name. The way that we all draw our lines tends to have a kind of larger metaphysical purpose as well, aimed with a certain discourse in our sights.

EMP Pop Conference #6 – Quality

Filed under: authenticity, business, music, writing — alimarcus @ 8:11 am

Having just finished my most recent reading of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I have Quality on the brain, Quality with a capital Q, and in the semi-demented abstract manner of the electro-shock therapy patient narrator of the book.

A lunch discussion on the conflicts a critic faces within its local scene elicited some interesting comments. Below, a short dialogue:

Nate Chinen asks, “What’s good for community? What’s good for criticism?,” indicating that these things may not overlap. Talk drifts on towards thinking about how and where to draw the line between personal and professional obligations.

Christgau: “People who don’t try to preserve the boundaries are bad critics.”
Ann Powers: “Is it bad or is it something different?”
Christgau: “I think bad is the word I would use.”

A lot of laughs followed this, but there is a very real point. One thing I am finding is that the people who cross this line may not really intend to be critics at all; they may find out that they have other motivations. So Powers’ accepting tone is appropriate, but Christgau is still right. Is he always right? There’s something in the tone of his voice that makes everything sound so definitive.

April 20, 2007

EMP Pop Conference #4 – On Fans

Filed under: authenticity, business, distribution, labels, marketing, music, writing — alimarcus @ 9:59 pm

Jessica Suarez points out the fact that while new media claims to bring fans closer to musicians, it might in fact be creating not only a false sense of connection but also an avenue for exploitation by the business. I just have a story to share.

Once when I was working for a record label, they held a fan contest that asked the fans to submit names of local places where they wanted to hear the artist’s music. It worked like a raffle; one lucky winner would get some sort of signed memorabilia, like a guitar or something. It’s worth mentioning, too, that this particular fan club is one of the most active and close-knit that I’ve ever seen. I would not doubt that it’s one of the top ten biggest fan clubs around, either.

So anyways, as the intern for said record label, it was my job to filter through the emails. And guess what I had to do? Make a spreadsheet, of course, with all the names and contact information for all of these places, call them up, ask to send an instore play copy specially made for a lifestyle campaign, and then spend the hours packaging and sending. I discovered that a fan contest was, in this case, little more than a direct marketing ploy, not far from cold calling those specially tailored lists that people can buy. And in the end, I just chose a random person to be the “winner.”

It’s not that this was immoral or anything. Nobody was being taken advantage of, not really. But Suarez quoted Kelefah Sanneh commenting on “the potential for a community’s exploitation,” touching on exactly what made me a little uneasy at the time. Fans have no idea about the man behind the curtain, about the fact that the Wizard of Oz has an agenda that has nothing to do with anything except their wallets.

But I find it easier to avoid cynicism now that I know about these things. Strangely, it’s knowledge and the ability to prepare that helps to keep the faith. Which is ultimately why I love this conference, in it’s infinite attempts to expand our little bubbles.

i heard there was a major chord – introduction

Ahhhhhhh. So nice to be back. The continual decline of the EMP’s institutional gravitas only makes this conference all the more sweeter. Oh, how imminent demise doth make the heart grow!

But in the lovely Seattle springtime, everything feels like a rebirth, and so this weekend we embark on the eternal journey of speculation and debate, insight and confusion. Does this stuff matter to anyone else? If it doesn’t, does that matter? And if it does, then what are we doing here?

We are analysts, we are critics, we are artists: I cannot think of a more potent combination of inspired and cynical people who must against all odds maintain faith in this crazy work we do. For me, the conference feels like a yearly pep rally. So lets get to it. Thanks for reading!

March 27, 2007

walk through the bottomland without no shoes

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, business, distribution, marketing, music — alimarcus @ 3:14 pm

A few posts back, I commented on an art show that displayed works which were not for sale, works that exist for artists in an acommercialized arena. It reminded me of Turtle Rock and where my own sympathies overlapped with those of the curator.

And then there was an article last week about the great abstract expressionist Clyfford Still. I did not know it but it seems that he spent a great deal of effort fighting against the commercialization of his art. He managed to posthumously succeed, if only in an incredibly egotistical way – his last will and testament decreed that his thousands of stored away works (only 150 were ever sold) may ever only be shown in an entire museum dedicated to him with no other artist’s work alongside. And now that a celebrity architect has signed on, Denver, CO will be the recipient of Still’s legacy. Egotism and intrigue aside, how fascinating. I mean really.

And then I found myself in a southern room at the Met the other day, a room full of Still’s paintings. It was breathtaking. Paul Klee, Arshile Gorky, and Mark Rothko often get the most praise for their distinctive color palettes, but never have I been this taken with the combinations. (The only exception, maybe, was a Dan Flavin show at the Smithsonian a few years ago, but that’s 3D and so entirely different.)

The colors are dark and brooding, full of movement and emotion. Like a plush velvet curtain and maroon walls. I don’t really know what it was that grabbed me the most, but it was certainly a memorable experience. I personally can’t wait for that Denver museum. Still may have had a high opinion of himself, but in the end I think there will be plenty of people who will find themselves in accord.

But what does any of this have to do with Turtle Rock and free music? Well, maybe an interesting lesson. Maybe you can sell a little bit in pursuit of something much bigger. Maybe you have to, even if you’re kicking and screaming.

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