I am very pleased, proud even, that as we approach our first anniversary, Blogcritics has been able to strike a satisfying balance between intellectualizing and a more visceral approach to popular culture, specifically music. Yeay us. Check out this funny, noteworthy survey of an intellectual summit on pop music from the New Yorker:
- One weekend last spring, a few hundred scholars, journalists, musicians, and onlookers arrived in downtown Seattle for Pop Conference 2003, entitled “Skip a Beat: Rewriting the Story of Popular Music.” The Pop Conference was created two years ago by Eric Weisbard, a former Village Voice rock critic, and Daniel Cavicchi, an assistant professor of American Studies at the Rhode Island School of Design. The decision to bring scholars and journalists together was unusual. It gave the critics an opportunity to drop arcane allusions instead of having to pretend to sound like teen-agers, while the academics could loosen up a little. Weisbard and Cavicchi hope that the two worlds can cross-pollinate each other, breeding a sensibility that is scholarly but not stuffy, stylish but not frivolous.
The conference took place within the wavy-gravy walls of the Experience Music Project, a Frank Gehry culture palace, housing artifacts and bric-a-brac from a century of pop. The dress code was diverse to the point of incoherence: some of the older academics showed up in business attire, while younger ones wore T-shirts and jeans. (The divergence of styles became especially dissonant when sixties-generation scholars espoused radical political agendas while Gen X doctoral students sounded a neo-formalist, let’s-just-talk-about-the-music tone.) For three days, participants hawked their wares in a tight twenty-minute format, taking persnickety questions afterward. At any given time, there were three different panels running in the various rooms of the E.M.P., meaning that the curious onlooker had to choose among equally tempting offerings. In order to attend the Bob Dylan panel – entitled The Dylan – you had to skip panels on art music (one paper was “Changing the System: Brian Eno, Sonic Youth, and the Combination of Rock and Experimental Music”) and contemporary R. & B. (“Supa Dupa Fly: Styles of Subversion in Black Women’s Hip-Hop”).
Some of the presentations, a few too many for comfort, lapsed into the familiar contortions of modern pedagogy. Likewise, in the many pop-music books now in circulation, post-structuralist, post-Marxist, post-colonialist, and post-grammatical buzzwords crop up on page after page. There is a whole lot of problematizing, interrogating, and appropriating goin’ on. Walter Benjamin’s name is dropped at least as often as the Notorious B.I.G.’s. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu gets more props than Dr. Dre. At the Pop Conference, I made it a rule to move to a different room the minute I heard someone use the word “interrogate” in a non-detective context or cite any of the theorists of the Frankfurt School. Thus, I ducked out of a talk on Grace Jones’s “Slave to the Rhythm” album when I heard a sentence that began with the phrase “Invoking Walter Benjamin.” And I bailed on a lecture entitled “Bruce’s Butt” – Bruce Springsteen’s butt, as seen on the cover of “Born in the U.S.A.” – when the speaker began to interrogate the image of the butt, which, under sharp questioning, wouldn’t give anything away.
Scholars of this type always want to see pop music as the emanation of an entity called popular culture, rather than as music that happens to have become popular. As a result, songs and bands become fungible commodities in the intellectual marketplace. In the anthology “Popular Music Studies,” the hip-hop scholar Ian Maxwell asks the significant question “How can our analyses avoid reducing the objects of those analyses to desiccated cadavers on a slab?” His solution – a “more rigorous understanding of what an ethnographically informed approach might offer the study of popular music, nuancing that approach through Bourdieu’s reflexive criticality” – gets us only so far.
Roger Beebe, one of the editors of the “Rock Over the Edge” anthology, even looks at music as purely a media phenomenon, inseparable from image and marketing. Analyzing Kurt Cobain’s appearances on television, he says that Cobain mattered to his fans mainly as a disembodied entity, not as an individual with a voice, and that he exemplified something called “the postmodern dispositif.” Such McLuhanesque musings have been rendered obsolete as MTV has more or less stopped showing videos in favor of frat-house documentaries. Meanwhile, the Internet has become the main avenue for the spread of music. The mania for downloading music may be wreaking havoc with artists’ careers, but it is interesting to see how the ear trumps the eye when the computer takes over.
Excellent point, dude.
- Pop music is music stripped bare. It is like the haphazard funeral portrayed in Wallace Stevens’s “Emperor of Ice Cream”: a woman laid out with all her flaws intact, covered with a sheet from a chest of drawers that is missing three knobs, her horny feet protruding. Boys bring flowers in last month’s newspapers, but she is noble to look upon. Twentieth-century music, the empire of ice cream, lies before us in all its damaged majesty.