On poptimism, ubiquity, and Rod McKuen: EMP Pop Conference 2015

Flying home from another EMP Pop Conference while my seat companion laughs aloud reading David Baldacci provides a good chance to think about the opening keynote panel on Thursday, April 15, often the conference’s intellectual ballast. This year’s opening night subject was the rockism vs poptimism debate. A comment by Joshua Clover two days later at the “Worst Song Ever Roundtable” highlighted how even flippant allusions to Rihanna as a genius don’t get to the heart, in my judgment, of how pop music works, transgressive or conventional. The #1 song in America as I type eulogizes the late Paul Walker in a manner that I find generic and vacant but has nevertheless struck major chords in listeners, many of whom don’t stream or download music but are fervent Fast and the Furious fans; that’s why it boasts numbers this impressive. Whether Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth are talented is beside the point with a record this huge. Its vacancy is the point: listener can project and alchemize their mourning for Walker into a paean to dead friends and relatives. The subject of the song, after all, is family: “How could we not talk about family when family’s all that we got?”

Secondly, the ubiquity of Rihanna that evening frustrated me, which in a non-intentional irony confirmed how discussions about pop concentrate on the one percent. Romeo Santos’ sellout shows and John Legend heard in a taxi cab in East Africa were brought up to show how artists who aren’t famous enough to stand on stage to promote Tidal can nevertheless command titanic influence without even operating at the subcultural level. K-Pop could’ve come up too, no longer a curio for college radio programmers getting off on its exotics. I hear it in unexpected places: from Nicki Minaj and Sky Ferreira to Jason Derulo’s “Want You to Want Me” (I don’t have the space or bandwidth to explore how K-pop manifests itself in each of these artists, but the lipstick traces are visible), every one of whom is a person of color. A veteran of journalism conferences and board meetings, I know discussions take on a life of their own, despite the goals and points of organizers. Worth noting though.

Finally, by assuming the audience understood the rockism/poptimism debate, the panel puzzled a few non-critics in the audience. Even those of us who have fought in these trenches for years could have benefited from an overview of the debate origins. I would love to have heard how if at all this debate shaped the critics of Jason King, Karen Tongson, Maura Johnston’s — hell, everyone’s — listening/writing lives. I know they each define these terms differently.

Still! I saw at least (at least!) half a dozen fascinating papers and panels: Andy Zax’s positing of Rod McKuen as the mega selling direct mail superstar whose reappraisal has not yet come (I thought of Richard Viguerie’s direct mail campaign for Ronald Reagan in the late seventies responsible in large part for putting him in the White House), Michaelangelo Matos on Prince’s “When U Were Mine”; Jack Hamilton tracing the secret history of the Beatles in reggae; a fantastic Missy Elliot panel; Brittany Spanos on how Drake wrestles in song with his mixed identity; and Jack Curtis Dubowsky’s explaining how Martin Gore uses chords and tone for transgressive effect. The final week of the semester meant I couldn’t even stay for a Matos-moderated panel on which Maura, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Keith Harris, and Chris Molanphy approached the Beatles in ways that we haven’t thought about them (any panel that exposes people to Tiffany’s “I Saw Him Standing There” is OK with me). I presented “The City is Quiet, Too Cold to Walk Alone: Marc Almond, Jimmy Somerville, Neil Tennant, and Queer Presentation in Eighties England,” accompanied by Sean Nelson’s wrestling with how to respond to Morrissey when the joke isn’t funny anymore and Evie Nagy on Devo’s epochal Freedom of Choice. I omitted others I dipped in and out of. Finally, EMP would not be half this satisfying without good friends who also happen to be smart critics and excellent writers.

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