Anticipating my first home-mixed martini with a trembling wonder akin to watching the sun rise over an eastern beach, I sat in my Lyft car a few minutes before seven this morning wondering if this year was the best #PopCon or the benign conflation of meeting new friends and deepening ties with older one. Both? Sure. I’ve written often how MoPOP Pop Conference works as both professional development and mass therapy: a refreshening of the spirit against twelve months of frontal assault from trends in late phase capitalism. Continue reading
When I am dead, my dears, sing no songs for me — no sad songs. My contribution to MoPOP Pop Conference’s theme “Only You and Your Ghost Will know: Music, Death, and the Afterlife” posits the B-52’s “Deadbeat Club” as yet another of the quintet’s songs devoted to partying out of bonds, this one haunted by the ghost of Ricky Wilson. I’ve attached the PDF below. Thanks for reading.
Doing research for my 2018 MoPOP Pop Conference paper on Angela Winbush, I found the following bit published two years earlier:
It’s a shame the St. Louis native, who’s a successful producer, arranger, songwriter and musician in addition to being a powerhouse vocalist with a five-octave range, isn’t more well-known outside of R&B. But some of the fault lies with Winbush. Steeped in the holy waters of gospel, like many soul sisters who preceded her, her style was perhaps too black. And given the culture erasure of the Reagan era, that was too much.
“The cultural erasure of the Reagan era” — a phrase fraught with significance. So vehemently do we despise the GOP and Donald Trump that we have allowed media elites on cable shows to use Ronald Reagan’s appropriation of John Winthrop’s figure the city on a hill as an example of What We Have Lost; so swiftly do we mythologize our presidents that the evil is oft interred with their bones. To millions of gay men and black Americans, the white straight dudes who endorsed an assault on state and federal power lived in a beautiful city on a hill; the rest of us were condemned to shacks at the foot of the hill.
Not until a week before the conference did I understand that the author of this Winbush piece would sit on my panel — beside me. This intimidated me. Reading a paper on the power of Chaka Khan, Rashod Ollison seduced the crowd from the moment he played a clip of her marvelous hit with Rufus, “You Got the Love”; he held their attention with the precision of his insights, read in a silken purr that rumbled when confronted by an obscenity. Black and gay, Rashod Ollison, the columnist and reporter who died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma two days ago, could not be bullshitted. I sensed he would not bullshit me either. After my presentation, he looked me in the eye, nodded, and mumbled, “Thank you.” I demurred. He said, “Now I’m goin’ back to my room to blast me some Angela.”
Other tributes have praised Rashod’s warmth and the depths of his commitment to music as soul power. Because she gave us permission to “dream and build,” Aretha Franklin “will always be a revolutionary act,” he wrote two months ago about the R&B and gospel singer-pianist. A life like Rashod Ollison’s was also a revolutionary act. Men like Rashod don’t wear out their recti muscles looking for cities on a hill — they make do with what they have, describing it as ruthlessly as their imaginations allow.
At the best MoPOP Pop Conference of the last eleven years of intermittent attendance, I learned about the centrality of Geto Boy Bushwick Bill’s shortness to his rapping, that Taylor Swift and Spandau Ballet stare at each other across the wastes of history in the hopes of building castles out of all the things we critics threw at them, and smoked spaghetti and butternut squash soup are available at underground karaoke bars so long as you can endure my version of “Modern Love.” Did you know Karen Carpenter recorded a shelved solo album? Are you aware of the extent of Harry Styles and Young Thug’s fascination with feminine high fashion? Of the aesthetic and sexual fluidity of Associates singer Billy MacKenzie? Of how Seattlelites have a fealty to Uncle Val’s Gin exceeded only for their contempt for Miamians bearing umbrellas?
A safe space for a critical community assaulted by the sordid but inevitable union of the internet’s democratizing ethos and capitalism’s appetite for turning what is least fungible into the most expendable, the Pop Conference has an exceptional knack for collapsing what used to be called high and low culture; it has a special interest in the ways in which communities shape popular musics, for, let’s not forget, we live in those communities. In these eleven years of my attendance, I’ve seen how critics with journalism background have given electrical shockers to academic publications, and how research methods have deepened the reporting of the journalists where once these phenomena existed as a binary.
I was delighted to moderate a panel called “Contested Masculinities Across Pop” with stellar papers by Jenny Gathright, Marissa Lorusso, and Maria Sherman. I drank well, ate better, talked best. Here is When I’m Bad, I’m Better,” the paper I wrote on Angela Winbush and the politics of R&B crossover. Thanks to Ned Ragged and Kate Izquierdo, I’ve got audio of my presentation.
“Friends are fables of our loneliness,” J.D. McClatchy wrote in his poem “An Essay on Friendship,” or, to quote an artist cited a few times this weekend, thank you to “all the ladies and gentlemen/Who made this all so probable.” Eric Weisbard and his programming panel should feel proud. Let’s get back to work.
Devotees of eighties and nineties R&B love Angela Winbush while the rest of the pop world may remember she married Ronald Isley. This auteur deserves better.
Below is a copy of my proposal “When I’m Bad, I’m Better: Angela Winbush’s Secular Salvation in Gospel and The Politics of the R&B Crossover” for the MoPOP Pop Conference held in Seattle in 2018. I hope to see y’all in a few months.
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.
I’ll have a MoPop Conference post-mortem up soon. Here’s a copy of my paper “Mourning in America: How Ronald Reagan Smiled on a Low, Dishonest Decade”