Perfect Sound Forever

Love & Theft Revisited Revisited

J. Niimi on the 2005 EMP conference
(June 2005)

At the terminus of Seattle's Monorail, in the slender shadow of the Space Needle, sits the hulking, metallic Experience Music Project, the rock and roll museum designed by Frank Gehry and bankrolled by Microsoft bigwig Paul Allen. Every April since 2002, EMP has hosted a four-day Pop Conference, where rock critics, writers, academics, musicians, and luminaries converge to share their thoughts on contemporary music culture. Amid giant LCD-screens displaying Bob Dylan performing "Subterranean Homesick Blues," a towering cybernetic sound-sculpture of self-playing guitars and the obligatory gift shop attendees spend the days milling through the psychedelic-colored building to hear treatises with mind-warping titles like "Ethnomimesis and Authenticity on the American Popular Stage: Performing Hawaiians and Musical Exotica in the 19th Century" and "Pimp My Bach: The Strange Case of Classical Samples in Hip-Hop."

The oxymoronic EMP a corporate-sponsored institution for the preservation, appreciation and study of the pop "experience" provided an apt backdrop for the topic of this year's conference, which took place over April 14-17. Entitled "Poseurs, Playas, and Beyond," the themes this year were authenticity, identity, masquerade, and cultural theft; big ideas that seem to matter more to balding sociologists than the baggily-dressed teens who come to ogle at Kurt's guitars and Madonna's bustiers.

From the outside, the undulating, wildly asymmetrical structure said to have been modeled after a smashed guitar seems to evoke all the qualities you'd associate with rock: sensuality, fuck-all individualism, chaos. Inside, these qualities are tempered a bit: the cavernous ceiling betrays an underlying order of structure, neat trusses, like the inside of Space Mountain might with the lights turned on. It looks expensive; not the house that rock built, but the house that technology and capital built. Not an expression of the Dionysian creative impulse, but of the more banal process of stuffing and mounting culture, of selling tickets and t-shirts. Or are we just talking about two sides of the same coin here?

It's no coincidence that some of the most compelling presentations came from panelists who straddle both sides of a different gauntlet the authenticity of being both music-maker and music thinker. As an ex-punker, current UC-Berkeley grad student and gay sound artist, Matmos's Drew Daniel is singularly qualified to explain "How to Act Like Darby Crash." In his talk, Daniel breathlessly deconstructed a bizarre Germs reunion concert that orchestrated our nostalgia for tragedy and the unease of gender identity in punk culture (Crash was gay) with an odd theatrical factor (the actor who plays Darby Crash in a forthcoming movie about the band subbed for the real singer, who died of a heroin overdose in 1980). Adding to the element of theater, Daniel showed a gruesome home movie documenting the "Germs burn" (the shibboleth of diehard Germs fans) he received from former drummer Don Bolles. Daniel's energy carried over to David Thomas's frenetic talk, which collapsed any distinction between performance and reality, much as his band Pere Ubu did in the late 70s.

In a sweat-soaked, gloriously off-the-rails presentation, Thomas insisted that the origins of the Cleveland avant-punk scene were not in Dada or Jarry or LSD, but Ghoulardi: the campy, Son of Svengoolie 60s B-movie television host (and father of film director P.T. Anderson), whose anarchic antics indelibly influenced the future members of bands like Mirrors and Rocket from the Tombs. "When [pulp rockers] the Cramps came around, we were indifferent we'd seen it all before."

Still, you have to wonder if entertaining talks like these were only that another kind of entertainment, for a much more marginalized crowd that that of the pop figures they're addressing. Perhaps a more productive way to think about authenticity, then, might be to ask not just who owns cultural property, but for whom it's an issue: actual consumers of pop culture fourteen-year-olds spending allowance money on hip-hop CDs or the circle-jerking cultural trainspotters of the ivory tower, not to mention the blogosphere?

The answer is of course both. 8 Mile wasn't just a star vehicle for Eminem, it dramatized authenticity and the struggle to find it: the trailer-raised Rabbit could claim class allegiance with his black inner city freestyle competitors, but is it enough to trump the race card? The final MC battle screams yes as Rabbit drops the class bomb, exposing his nemesis to be a private school alum. On the other end of the authenticity discourse, Kelefa Sanneh's New York Times article about rockism (the idea that rock's latent rhetoric the authorial superiority of the singer/songwriter, the "realness" of analog instruments like guitars and drum kits is the a priori value yardstick by which all pop music is judged) created a firestorm among critics and music bloggers but not the general pop music-consuming public, by and large. Free market capitalism marches on.

As does the academy: academics dominate the EMP scene, with thought-provoking if sometimes insular observations on pop. The University of Michigan's Paul Anderson presented an intriguingly titled paper, "Steely Dan and the Pleasures of Simulation," furthering the famous Burroughsian dildo image in its exploration of the group's "aesthetic of prosthesis": a faux-jazz faux-band whose mission of "returning to and correcting the past" informed songs like "Do it Again" and "Reeling in the Years." The Dan's sleek surfaces spoke to the end of history, a substitution of inauthentic art for "inauthentic Cold War values," and a new kind of static reality comprised of nostalgia, evasion, and pleasure as a kind of artifice in and of itself. Huh and all without breaking a sweat like many of the conference's presenters themselves, who at times were as facile and bloodless as a Steve Gadd drum track.

Making sense of more recent examples of pop miscegenation proves to be an even stickier wicket, one that's well-served by the hydra-headed interdisciplinary tack the EMP conference encourages. In the "Fake Bands" panel, another musician-cum-scholar, former Chicagoan David Grubbs, posed vexing questions in his paper on the German band Workshop: "Fictive groups, fake bands, and so forth exist along a continuum. The relevant question is not in discerning real versus fake, but in asking about the fiction's purpose. What does fake want? Does it aspire, chrysalis-like, to transform itself, or to merely pass as real?" Canadian pop critic Carl Wilson picked up the ball, examining how these questions apply to solo singer/songwriters who concoct band identities: Bright Eyes, Dashboard Confessional, the Mountain Goats. Wilson observed that these "bandonyms" enable artists to refute the first-person, "gut-spilling" narrative fallacy that's usually foisted on guys who play acoustic guitars, diverting attention from the biographies of the singers: "Into your imaginary band you divide and, just maybe, conquer yourself."

Still, it's perhaps a stretch to invoke Foucault and Fluxus in talking about bands like the Silver Jews. By contrast, the EMP's plenary panel laid a more historically apropos groundwork for the weekend's events with a discussion called "Love and Theft Revisited: Poseurs and Playas from Blackface to Hip-Hop (And What This All Means for Rock and Roll)" and the panel telegraphed not just the theoretical concerns of the conference, but some of the personal feelings behind what's at stake when people talk about authenticity.

The title of the panel comes from American studies scholar Eric Lott's landmark work on blackface minstrelsy (from which Bob Dylan also borrowed or stole the title of his 2001 album Love and Theft). Lott was the de facto star of the proceedings; African-American studies scholar W.T. Lhamon Jr. remarked that Lott "did it first" "it" referring to the bold step of taking blackface seriously enough to offer analysis that goes beyond reductive notions of racism and stereotype, seriously enough to suggest there might be a strange love peeking through the theft.

But if it's odd to imagine "love" in such a seemingly distasteful cultural transaction, are we any more certain about what "theft" entails, or if it even exists? (Lhamon says, with tongue in cheek, that he would have called the book Love and Corroboration a nod to minstrelsy's two-way enabling of interclass mobility.)

At this point, distinctions become foggy. While Lhamon argues that "class and race are ultimately coherent categories," Lott counters that authenticity is a "false category" that's only used to "patrol cultural boundaries" a metaphor with more than a whiff of America's violent segregationist past. Princeton scholar and feminist critic Daphne Brooks identified minstrelsy as a model for the evolutionary fluidity of 20th century pop music forms, "black folks watching white folks watching black folks...Jimi Hendrix watching Eric Clapton watching Buddy Guy." Guthrie Ramsey Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania chimed in with a different but equally complex take, stating that authenticity is "generationally relative," an assertion illustrated by the story of his son unveiling a "Niggaz 4 Life" tattoo to him at his tenure party: a clash of two types of authenticity, each equally genuine to its generation's value system. Hip-hop scholar Mark Anthony Neal, fresh from an appearance at the University of Chicago's "Feminism and Hip-Hop" conference the previous weekend, begged to differ: far from conceding the generational relativity of authenticity, this self-admitted "old-school" hip-hop fan derided rap phenom Lil' Jon as "crunkface," ushering in a new age of "post-hip-hop" where dizzyingly creative studio production intertwines with socially retrograde minstrelsy.

It wasn't until the final panel of the conference that all the talk about identity and authenticity became unsettlingly real. In a panel called "Black Mass," moderated by the Sun City Girls' Alan Bishop, the conference's cumulative mental energy (and mental fatigue it's not easy listening to three dozen papers in a single weekend) seemed to coalesce into something visceral and uneasy. EMP organizer Eric Weisbard began by telling the tragic, disturbing story of Buddy Holocaust, an Ivy League troubadour whose acoustic self-described "folk-punk" songs captured on a sole extant live cassette from the Dartmouth student center in 1981 were "the unholy union of Phil Ochs and Johnny Rotten." The audience chuckled during songs with titles like "We Need Another Kent State" the lyrics delivered with a deadpan satirical stoicism against startlingly conventional and catchy chord changes until Weisbard got to the song "Drugs Did This to Me."

The song narrates in graphic detail the rape-like evisceration of a girlfriend, the protagonist slicing her stomach open and thrusting his head inside her abdomen. Adding to the chill was the fact that Holocaust aka Dartmouth underclassman Bill Tate had committed suicide mere weeks after the concert. By contrast, Peter Mercer-Taylor's lucid and informed analysis of Cradle of Death's "From the Cradle to Enslave" was a relative return to sanity though further chuckles from the crowd elicited irate accusations of classist condescension from some metal fans in attendance (as well as from the unlikely figure of Mercer-Taylor himself, a wholesome, Fuller Brush salesman-looking Mendelssohn scholar from Minnesota). The growing tension in the audience signaled that this lecture hall was becoming something akin to a laboratory or maybe a crucible.

Cultural critic Erik Davis closed out the panel with "Magick Man: The Occult Productions of Jimmy Page," a riveting and broadly informed account of Led Zeppelin IV and its virtuosic, counterintuitive synthesis of technology, artifice, and "magic." If the audience was restive and edgy after Buddy Holocaust and Cradle of Filth, Davis's booming recitation of a demonic incantation from an ancient text edited by Aleister Crowley and republished by Jimmy Page's short-lived early 70s occult imprint didn't help matters. Beyond a few witty respites (after playing some hilarious footage of a TV evangelist "exposing" satanic backwards-masking on "Stairway to Heaven," Davis quipped: "At this point I think we need to talk about the possibility of a Christian turntablism"), the mood had become as dark as the panel's title, and the subsequent Q&A session exploded like a smashed Strat.

In an almost mass release, audience members vented their anger and pent-up anxieties. Daphne Brooks took umbrage with Weisbard's admission of having memorized albeit involuntarily the entirety of the lyrics to "Drugs Did This to Me"; one feminist scholar was moved to remind those present that while violence against women was theorized and abstracted in plenty of panels (especially those relating to hip-hop culture), it was as well a reality "written on me, on my body." Weisbard addressed the voyeuristic and possibly morally suspect sides of such fandom with contrition, commenting that the Buddy Holocaust material once represented the transgression of "a limit in music" but is "now part of my biography as well," a fact about which he's "still incredibly conflicted." Critic Ann Powers (author of Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America, and Weisbard's wife) further acknowledged this uncomfortable ambivalence, tying it back to Led Zeppelin's widely perceived misogyny by remarking, with cutting irony, "I love a band that hates me."

The fiery discussion, like the conference in general, didn't come close to solving any problems once and for all, but it was a true rock moment disorienting, pulse-raising, scary where questions fraught with gravity displaced the comfort of pat answers. Like a great pop tune (or a Buddy Holocaust song), its aftereffects still tug at me.

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