Being there together is enough: EMP Pop Conference

At a point determined by guests, the sharing of anecdotes about freelance pitches, accepted and failed, combines with the scent of artisanal pizza from the museum cafe and the chirp of Steve Winwood’s keyboard solo in the “Valerie” video to create an enclave in which, to quote Wallace Stevens, being there together is enough. Sometimes after a couple of drinks the unsaid gets massaged out. Freelancers envy the professionals with full time jobs. The pros want academic sinecures. Attendees who don’t have papers to present think we’re all glorious. Regular EMP visitors glare at panelists drinking at a bar staying open later just for them. And this attitude works. The level of excellence so general that it gets taken for granted comes in part from competition. Looking from the dais to an audience comprised of colleagues and friends — some of whom had written books before I was old enough to read them — can be dizzying.

When Greil Marcus wrote about “I’m Not There” in the late nineties, his description of this spectral tune was itself spectral (“Words are floated together in a dyslexia that is music itself, a dyslexia that seems meant to prove the claims of music over words, to see just how little words can do,” he wrote). He could take as much license as he wanted, for no one who didn’t own a bootlegged acetate or whatever of this unfinished Bob Dylan song could hear the damn thing; I depended on his effort (it was one of the first songs I downloaded from Napster). Readers of The Old Weird America took him on faith. As for Pop Con, it may convert the unconverted, but with newspapers hemorrhaging jobs, the question asked a decade ago return with a fiercer urgency: Who’s going to read these ideas and artists? Over lunch with colleagues I remarked that after the CIA’s front organizations had ceased its subsidizing of the arts we enjoyed a thirty-year interregnum when ad revenues could substitute. The arts mattered to a general population because the American national security state wanted a means by which to distinguish us from the godless and culture-free commies, who could not enjoy the marvels of Partisan Review and public television (“Never thought I’d get nostalgic for the Cold War,” a friend quipped). Along came the internet.

Me, I’ve never known a time without scarcity. It was ever thus: those who want criticism constitute a coterie of a coterie; the need of those who want it is compensatory. Market forces for a time allowed critics small remuneration. One striking recent phenomenon is the degree to which young postgraduates who hustle can find tenure track jobs theorizing about Beyonce and the human voice in American studies or musicology programs while the journalists check bank balances nervously after filing a listicle. I think we need both. I heard several excellent journal papers this weekend, and, hell, I’ve read several excellent listicles too.

Finally, we also need models we haven’t come up with. Functioning not as a summit so much as a think tank, EMP Pop Conference permits the exchange of new ideals of working in the SEO age. As the superb works showcased suggests, no one got this far by complaining about how much it sucks out there. We get to work.

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