Tuesday, April 20, 2004

So I'm back from the Northwest. I had an awesome time in the up there, but I love me some Baltimore and I'm glad to be back. Olympia is a gorgeous little town, and a whole lot of cool people live there, but there's this weird left-wing hipster playground aspect to it. It seems totally disconnected from the rest of the world, and I can totally picture people there trying to out-left-wing each other. When we were there, everyone was still dissing The Passion. Like, dudes, give it a rest. It's an OK movie with a few great parts and some utterly confusing inexplicable parts and some seriously dubious overtones, but it was still better than Hellboy. But it's not like any of these kids bashing it have seen it. And it's not like it became a huge success just because People Are Stupid. And it's old news. Find some new target, please. Wow, that was a weird digression. The thing that best summed up Olympia for me was when I was in this completely awesome cheapass vintage clothing store where I copped a whole lot of badass shit for no money (and it's connected to the Kill Rock Stars record store, which is cool in theory but has very few good records), and the girl working there is talking on the phone, and I hear her say "My mom called me on the phone to say Happy Easter, and I was like 'Mom! You're Buddhist! Just how brainwashed are you?'"

Portland, on the other hand, seems like a ridiculously cool town, the sort of place I can totally see myself spending a few years. It's beautiful, you can walk everywhere, and they seem to have great bookstores and clubs and record stores. Seattle seemed sort of ugly, but they've got this huge park thing called the Seattle Center where the Space Needle and Experience Music Project are, and there's this huge dome-shaped fountain that has, like, musical displays. That was awesome. And they have a monorail, but I didn't get to ride it.

And so I went to the EMP Pop Conference, which is like this big annual music critics' conference where a whole pile of prominent music critics come together and show each other Powerpoint presentations about whatever. I loved the idea, and most of the presentations I heard were great, but there was something intimidating and alienating about the whole thing, like if you're not one of these hugely prominent critics you don't really have a place there. I must have been one of the few people who paid to get in and wasn't presenting anything, and so I barely talked with anyone because what would I say to them? "Um, dude, I liked your paper and I like your blog, and check it out I write for the Baltimore City Paper and we should totally kick it!" Well, maybe I should have done that, but I didn't. Also, it's a bit weird to have this conference where most of the people are just reading papers, papers which are then never published. Like, I'd rather read the paper myself than have someone read it to me. And, with notable exceptions, prominent music critics are a whole lot of old ugly dudes.

But so anyway, this/last week's top ten is going to be all Pop Conference people because I can't think of enough non-Pop Conference stuff to do one.

For the week of 4/16/04:
Top 10 People

1 - Elizabeth Mendez Berry. This lady kicked so much ass. It took me a minute to figure out that she was the one who wrote this absolutely amazing article about Jay-Z in the Village Voice a few months back. And she worked hard at the conference, doing three different panels in a row. She was on the truly fascinating female hip-hop writers' summit, and then she gave a paper on the larger-than-life Mexican lesbian 60s popstar Chavela Vargas, a paper that was in some ways really, really similar to the paper that Judith Halberstam had already given on Big Mama Thornton. I'm generally not one to get all into someone talking about old world music-type stuff, but EMB completely wrecked it, mostly by showing a total, all-consuming love for her subject that was really cool to see. And then she was one of the best on the great Critical Karaoke panel, a thing where a whole lot of critics talked about a song that had at one point been their favorite while the song played. She did some old cumbia song that her mother had introduced to her. And so she danced. Beautifully. This lady is so awesome.

2 - Jason King. King did a paper on, roughly speaking, Timbaland and feng shui. More specifically, he talked about how music critics should better address the way music affects the body and the way we dance, how we dance differently to a Timbaland track than to new jack swing or whatever. And also the way Tim uses flow and silence in his music, the way it sounds fast and slow at the same time. His paper really got me thinking. Like, the reason that Tim and Jay-Z compliment each other so well is bigger than just Jay is a great rapper and Tim makes great beats. Both of them use silence, hiccups, pauses, little undercurrents, and open spaces in these amazingly complex ways, and these ways rub up against each other just right. King left me liking Timbaland even more, if that's possible.

3 - Benjamin Melendez. Melendez was the founder of a gang called the Ghetto Brothers in the South Bronx in the late 60s, and he was instrumental in putting together an all-gang truce in the early 70s Bronx, something that helped to make hip-hop possible, though the panel didn't really dwell on that. He was also a member of a band, also called the Ghetto Brothers, that combined Latin music with funk and the Beatles in this totally joyous, organic way. Jeff Chang brought him in to do a panel pretty much just about himself, and it was a completely fascinating presentation. The footage of the gang truce meeting looked totally straight out of The Warriors, dudes from gangs named, like, the Savage Skulls passionately arguing with each other in 70s jivetalk. And the Ghetto Bros. music Chang played (and that he's hoping to reissue) sounded just great. But the main attraction was Melendez himself, a big, charming bear of a dude who loves to talk and will go off on huge narrative tangents at the slightest provocation. I'd like to take him out to lunch sometime.

4 - Joan Morgan. All of the participants in the female hip-hop writers' summit had fascinating things to say, but Morgan was the one who put it together, so she gets the credit. Music writing politics are weird and fucked up, especially on the highest levels, and I'm glad that there are voices like hers injecting a hugely needed dose of reason into the whole thing. She will tell you just how fucked up things are and how different they should be.

5 - Jon Caramanica. I guess I shouldn't have been, but I was surprised to find out Caramanica is white. His paper was about how Andre 3000 and Pharrell are abandoning hip-hop for rock, and how this could mean a brain drain for hip-hop as its brightest minds move on away from the genre. It's not the most interesting subject to me, and I'm dubious that a scene with the sort of sui generis genius and constantly changing nature of hip-hop will be seriously hurt if a few of its practitioners go off the artistic deep end. But that didn't matter; Caramanica is funny as hell and incredibly knowledgeable; his tangents are way more interesting than his main point. I could've listened to him talk for a lot longer. His Critical Karaoke on Smoothe the Hustler's "Broken Language" was pretty great too.

6 - Tim Lawrence. Lawrence just published a book about the history of disco, and his paper was about the "lost years" of disco, the early 80s times when people like the Clash and Arthur Russell crossed lines between disco and punk with absurd glee. I love the topic, and I loved the way Lawrence took down the disco-punk soft-hard dichotomy.

7 - Julianne Shepherd. Have I been spelling Julianne's name wrong all this time? I think maybe I have. In any case, her presentation posited Christina Aguilera as a potential new-school feminist icon on the strength of that one song with Lil Kim ("Can't Hold Us Down? Is that it?), and I hope she's right. She also did the Roger Rabbit during critical karaoke (to Shanice's "I Love Your Smile"! Middle school represent!), so you know you can't even fuck with her.

8 - Johnny Temple. Temple runs Akashik Books and plays bass in Girls Against Boys. He ran a panel about the crossover between music and the independent press that turned out to really not be about music at all. But he is a strikingly handsome, charming, well-spoken man. I'm going to be more like Johnny Temple. That's my new year's resolution. Maybe I'll even take another stab at learning to play the bass I got for Christmas 2002.

9 - Jeff Chang. Jeff had the unenviable task of trying to reign in Benjamin Melendez and keep him from spinning off too many anecdotes, and he did it with grace and aplomb. He also seems like an incredibly pleasant, laid-back dude. I can't picture myself sitting on the back porch drinking beer with too many music critics. I can with him.

10 - Judith Halberstam. Academia represent! Halberstam is a feminist/queer theorist, and I think I may have read her stuff in college (I read a lot of stuff in college), so it was really cool to see her talking about music, specifically about how Elvis stole his particular brand of masculinity from Big Mama Thornton, an interesting idea, though I don't know enough about either to say if she's right. She also did audience-volunteer critical karaoke to Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide". It's really cool when someone elbow-deep in academic theory can come right out and profess complete, undiluted love for anything, and she did it beautifully.