Scribes Sounding Off: EMP Pop Conference 2013 in Seattle!

Book Reviews
Chris Estey

The EMP Pop Conference is back in Seattle! On Saturday, April 20th, from 9AM to 5PM, at the Experience Music Project, a whole bunch of voices will be heard in debates, five minute talks, and excited dialogues about music, music culture, art, politics, and all the other fascinating subjects that get thoughtfully and passionately chatted about at each Pop Con. Whether you’re a writer, musician, music business innovator, creator of any type related to popular culture, the EMP Pop Con is the place to be to learn, connect, and share with others into what you’re into (and a great way to discover new ideas and sounds).

For the past couple of years, the Pop Conference has been held in other cities, and they’re continuing to have their Cons, as are new places involved in the annual event: There are simultaneous Cons being held in Cleveland, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and New York, some over more than one day. If you’re reading this in vicinity to one of those other major cities, check it out online for expanded info.

The Pop Conference held in Seattle will feature both great voices from previous years, such as Douglas Wolk (author of the James Brown Live At The Apollo 33 1/3 book and Reading Comics) on “Keep It Short, Stupid,” in which he will play 15 great miniatures of song-craft encouraging brevity in imagination. Pop Con 2013 also features performers such as Rachel Flotard (of Visqueen, now a label owner) on “Banging Your Head Without Losing Your Marbles” and a rumored debate on the punk rock by John Roderick. I personally can’t wait to check out Ma’Chell Duma LaVassar’s “My Vagina Makes My Musical Decisions” and The Believer Magazine’s Litsa Dremousis on “Yoko Ono Can Stomp Your Ass: The Artist At 80” because I know both these women are brilliant and who can resist presentations with assertions like that? (Also: Pop Con vets picador-journalist Tom Kipp and Beatles-history author Devin McKinney debate the best Beatles LP! I vote for Venus And Mars.)

A special appearance by KEXP’s own Kevin Cole is scheduled too, talking about his own The Afternoon Show, in which the Senior Director of Programming shares stories about hosting a daily show that delights, educates, and enlightens listeners of a community public radio station. Then *gulp* I follow this presentation in the JBL Theater with a little something I call “Old Sounds, New Visions,” where I discuss why the hell you need a copy of Sixto Rodriguez’s Cold Fact as much as any LP by Dylan, L. Cohen, or Joni Mitchell, and how the hell we all came to realize that in a marketplace that often pretends everything is about new bands all the time.

Meanwhile, what would be some good books for Your Own Private Pop Conference to bone up for such illuminating festivities? Here are three which would set the tone for Pop Cons in years past, highly recommended to get your mindful music fan interchange this week before it all happens next Saturday:

An exquisitely well thought out anthology about music played with raucous abandon and blistering emotional intensity, editor Zack Furness has stacked some clear-headed and deeply questioning voices on the cultural factors that inspire, hamper, help, and harass the punk rock in Punkademics: The Basement Show In The Ivory Tower (Minor Compositions). Punk actually started off related to academic upheaval, as anyone familiar with its connections to the May ’68 movements will tell you, and even when it was spreading through the mobs of yobs in the UK in the 70s street level theorists like Dick Hebdige was taking notes of its dialectics for his Subculture: The Meaning of Style book. I’m usually a little put off by the terminology of academic books studying popular culture, but the vocabulary used throughout Punkademics is lucid yet unafraid to be extrapolative. In other words, essays like “Her Life Was Saved By Rock And Roll” by Maria Elena Buszek (about why feminist art history-criticism desperately needs a feminist voice as visceral and voraciously self-examining as Lester Bangs) and “Milo Went To College: An Interview With A Descendent” by the book editor and Milo J. Aukerman gets into the actual relationship of punks with the academe. Both of these viewpoints are inspiring and unique, urging the punk music fan to listen more, and not just to their favorite albums, but not just to passed along notions either. This book is like a punk-themed really great Pop Con all in itself. As author/activist Anne Elizabeth Moore writes about it, “This important exploration of the space between the two is weird, uncomfortable, and fraught with mistakes. And we don’t give a fuck if you don’t like it.”

Joe Bonomo is one of my very favorite authors, having written a really you-are-there 33 1/3 book about AC/DC’s Highway to Hell and the gritty, heartbreaking, and hilarious Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, among other rock read classics. He has collected together a University Press of Mississippi compilation of Conversations with Greil Marcus, and it has happily formed in my mind as a love letter from an author who seemed to be at every previous Seattle-held Pop Con, so is desperately missed of late (though he’s made an appearance even when the PC was held in NYC and LA). Marcus has the same nimble ability to teach and surprise in interviews as Brian Eno or Joe Strummer did near the end of his life, and this delightful book is full of conversational liner notes to his essential books like Lipstick Traces, Mystery Train, and how he got hopped up to do the expansive and gorgeous The Shape of Things To Come. His personal opinions can suddenly jolt the reader throughout the book (was kind of blown away by his contempt for most second wave ska); it’s very much like finding out the gracious instructor who can elevate your ability to perceive the most genuine subtexts of media can also beat the blood and shit out of critical sacred cows in his office after class. Not that Marcus holds that much back when he’s “on,” either in his books or giving his richly enjoyable papers at the Pop Con. But this looser, a bit more acidic look into how he has developed his personal tastes is worthy of Bonomo’s superb curation of these interviews and very candid email chats with fans over the years.

The people who book the Pop Cons (including Eric Weisbard, Ann Powers, and our EMP’s Jasen Emmons, among many others) shrewdly book university punk ranters and rock magazine-formed Americana poets; but they have also been keen to include those who explore the more technical side of the medium. Less Noise, More Soul seems like one of those panels of people where you find out things like why a CD is a certain length of time (probably), or the lives of producers you’ve never heard of but have created sounds you can’t dig out of your ear-hole with a sharpened tore iron. This Hal Leonard collection is also like a mini-Pop Con about a specific theme; but it includes many elegant arguments for rethinking where technology is taking the sounds we crave, how to properly redirect those sounds into technologies where they’d be better heard, and how to be a professional yourself about the whole thing. David Flinter (who holds a PhD from Tufts and has written for the Boston Globe, Billboard, and elsewhere) has constructed an awesome manifesto to endorse listener-friendly production and promotion, and has drawn from voices both scientific and poetic to carry that message across. For example, there’s Bob Ludwig, the Grammy and Latin-Grammy winning mastering engineer is here on “The Loudness Wars” (why every damned instrument is designed to be shoved into your head at maximum capacity at all times); and Gino Robair, who has worked with Tom Waits, Terry Riley, and Fred Frith, on “The Problem of The Constant Upgrade” (which really warmed my heart, as I agree with how alienating this is); and awesome journalist-musician-novelist Eugene S. Robinson, who ontologically asserts “The Death of Music.” Provocative, much more prickly than any guidebook to music tech has ever been, whether you work at a label or run a small studio or just make noise on your laptop, this is a great place in which to find creative argument and encouragement.

(Just like the EMP Pop Con, August 20th! See you there!)

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