At the MoPOP Museum, about three dozen conference attendants and more than a few bemused tourists packed the cavernous planetarium-like chamber called the Sky Church to hear activist dream hampton and Robert Christgau testify. Voice often cracking with emotion, the self-styled Dean of American rock critics read from ““Who the Fuck Knows: Covering Music in Drumpfjahr II,” which chided colleagues whose work in the last year failed to address the horror of November 2016. He still had hope, he insisted; a lifetime of commitment to unionized labor and the power of organized action had born fruit with the millions-strong resistance to Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominations and his determination to kill people unblessed with good health.
So it was regarding “Sign O’ the Times: Music and Politics,” this year’s theme. “Is there a heaven?” Bryan Ferry sang in 1973. “I’d like to think so.” For a majority of attendees, this annual event offered solace as well as stimulation. Anxious, quiet chats with colleagues this weekend confirmed the news is bad, bad, bad for rock crit: more layoffs, more consolidations, more clickbait, which, to be clear, would have taken place had Hillary Clinton won. But for two full days and two half ones — the longest pop conference I’ve attended — we beat on, boats against the current. From Jalylah Burrell’s marvelous “Spurning the Soul Silo: Millie Jackson’s Freedom Songbook” and Tim Quirk’s “What I Learned in Jail” to Annie Zaleski’s “November Spawned a Monster: Why Morrissey’s Tangible Acknowledgment of Disability Culture Remains so Radical,” which took a good look at the Smiths singer’s contradictory and maddening use of disability equipment for presentational ends of uneven quality, and Jose G. Anguiano-moderated panel addressing the many prisms—Mexican, queer, performative—through which to examine and enjoy the work of the late Juan Gabriel, the presentations bore the influence of a lifetime’s inquiry and passion. I learned from my co-panelists too: Sheryl Kaskowitz on the New Deal-era Resettlement Administration’s interest in community musical projects and Jeff Trevino’s study of North Korea’s Moranbong Band. And I haven’t even mentioned the erudition and wit of David Cantwell, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Keith Harris, and Michaelangelo Matos, colleagues on the panel I moderated, “Red, White & You.”
“No one got this far by complaining about how much it sucks out there,” I wrote last year. “We get to work.” More true than ever.