by Michael Goldberg
Monday, April 22, 2002
Hey, It's OK To Think About Rock Too!
When journalists and academics met in Seattle for a pop music conference, they learned that you can think about the music and feel it too.
Seattle In 1962, as part of the World's Fair held in Seattle that year, the then-futuristic Space Needle opened for business. Twenty-nine years before Nirvana and grunge made Seattle the center of the rock universe for a brief moment, all eyes were on this Northwest city.
Last week, I stood on the outer deck of the Space Needle, nearly 600 feet above the ground. Below me, looking like a smear of finger-paints, was the Experience Music Project, a $450 million-dollar museum designed by architect Frank Gehry, devoted to honoring the once-outsider music we call rock.
Up there, with the museum, and thus the music it celebrates, appearing as a small speck in the panorama of Seattle, I attempted to get some perspective on the Experience Music Project's Pop Music Studies Conference, which I was then attending.
It's no surprise that the music editor of the Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger wrote a column railing against the very idea of the music conference, which drew 200-300 music journalists and academics (along with a handful of musicians), about 100 of whom presented papers on various aspects of popular, and not-so-popular, music.
"I hate academic music criticism," Jennifer Maerz wrote in the April 11-17, 2002 issue of The Stranger. "Fucking hate it. Just the thought of it makes me cringe, in the same way I cringe when I wake from a dream where I have to go through college all over again. That's why I've never been to grad school and why I avoid events like EMP's Pop Music Studies Conference like I avoid making out with boys with gigantic cold sores on their mouths there's nothing attractive about them."
Maerz's response was not an isolated one. The president of a respected indie label sent me an email some months ago in which he expressed a strong dislike of the museum and said he was boycotting the conference.
Wrongheaded though I think these responses are, I bring them up because I wouldn't be surprised if you, dear reader, are at this very moment questioning the idea of intellectuals gathering to debate obtuse theories about music instead of just rockin' out. "One reason I play music is to remove myself from a purely cerebral existence," Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein said during the "Northwest Musician's Panel" that ended the conference's presentations. "To connect on a level that is visceral, to feel the power of music coming through me..."
Still, later in that panel which also featured Mudhoney's Mark Arm, Quasi's Sam Coomes and K Records' Calvin Johnson Brownstein added, "None of us deny that we use our brains. I can't stick my heart on top of my guitar and make a song. But you're not processing or analyzing all the time. Creating music [for me] is a moment flowing and being created between three people [the members of Sleater-Kinney]."
Now, like Brownstein and the others on that panel, my experience of music is visceral, emotional. To quote something Coomes said that reflects my response, "When I listen to certain music bells go off and I gotta hear it and I gotta buy the record."
I don't care if we're talking about being 13 years old and hearing "Eight Days a Week" on the radio and then sitting there for three hours waiting for it to play again 'cause you just "gotta hear it," or being 48 and putting on an advance of Guided by Voices' Universal Truths and Cycles and "bells go off and I gotta hear it" again and again and again. It's the same visceral response, and it has nothing to do with analyzing whether something is "authentic" or not, or is a part of this genre or that one, is a straightforward personal expression based on an artist's own life, or sung from the perspective of a fictional character created by the artist (all areas of discussion during the conference).
Which is why the conference was so cool. Yes, I respond strongly, viscerally to music. And that doesn't keep me from getting off on reading pop music theory, or being fascinated by the thoughtful writings of Greil Marcus or Robert Christgau or Simon Frith (and loads more). I absolutely loved the EMP's conference.
For those of us who spend most of our waking hours listening to music, thinking about it and writing about it, it was a real gift to have the opportunity to hear our peers deliver such presentations as "Beat Generation, Rock Generation: Observations on a Cultural Continuum" (Simon Warner), "'I'm Not a Rapper': Pride, Professionalism, and Hip-Hop" (Kelefa Sanneh) and "Authorship and Authenticity, or, She Sounds So Sad Do You Think She Really Is?" (Sarah Dougher).
Thinking, even obsessing, about the music we love doesn't take away from its power. Each time I listen to Cat Power's (Chan Marshall) version of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" or Junior Wells' "Messin' With The Kid," or Miles Davis' "Right Off" (From A Tribute to Jack Johnson) I am moved. I am transported. I hear those bells go off. That I have thought long and hard about those cover versions on Marshall's The Covers Record, how she transformed those songs, made them her own, doesn't get in the way of my experience of the music. If anything, it enhances my experience. It layers associations, thoughts, ideas on top of my visceral response.
No one made Jennifer Maerz attend the EMP conference. She was free to ignore it, and I assume that's just what she did (after expressing herself in The Stranger). But I think that to ignore thinking about music, to believe that listening to music is just "about lyrics that make you want to fight, fuck, cry, laugh, loosen up, or shove a lot of cocaine up your ass depending on your tastes and your music collection" (as Maerz also wrote in her column), is to severely limit one's understanding/appreciation/experience. It's like saying that you simply don't want to know that the music of the Rolling Stones was built on American blues and country and early rock, or that a decade of indie underground punk-influenced bands (themselves building on what came before them) led to the music that Nirvana and Mudhoney and other grunge bands made in the late '80s and early '90s. Ignorance may sometimes be bliss, but celebrating one's ignorance is, I believe, celebrating stupidity.
I didn't hear every presentation at the EMP conference (that would have been impossible, since at any given moment, three were happening simultaneously in different rooms), and I certainly found myself amused by some of the presentations. But I think the folks who came to Seattle to present their ideas were brave, and I'd rather hear presentations that occasionally bordered on the absurd, because it means that people are taking chances, pushing the edge. A lot of bright people who love music put themselves on the line, ideas-wise, in Seattle.
Following two intense days of back-to-back panels, many of the conference attendees assembled in the EMP's Sky Church concert hall for a triple bill of the Mountain Goats, Sarah Dougher and Quasi. The Mountain Goats are, in fact, the rock critic John Darnielle, whose music is a kind of punk-folk. Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, Darnielle is a gentle-looking young man whose short hair and almost preppy attire belie the sometimes angry and subversive nature of his songs and performance.
Darnielle sang many songs. Some expressed anger at women who had in some way disappointed or split from their lovers, some described the end of love, and some were about other things. "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton" ended with Darnielle shouting, triumphantly, "Hail Satan." How wonderful that a rock critic could transform himself into a rocker, and then perform in a museum dedicated to officially recognizing the importance of rock, and sing, "Hail Satan."
For his final song (before he was unexpectedly brought back for an encore) Darnielle got the crowd to sing, over and over, a chorus of 30-plus "Yeahs." "Yeah" being, because of its reference to the Beatles, one of those words that has a special resonance, particularly among folks who would attend a music conference of this sort.
This performance by Darnielle, AKA The Mountain Goats, in the context of the EMP museum, was pure punk rock. And, of course, in 2002, punk rock is rock what is now called rock (music by the likes of Linkin Park or, say, the Dave Matthews Band) is, really, the kind of MOR pabulum that Pat Boone dished out in the '50s while Little Richard, Chuck B and Bo Diddley played the real deal. These days, with few exceptions, it is artists outside the borders of this kind of so-called "rock" who express rock's true spirit.
Staring down from the Space Needle during the day, and in the evening watching Darnielle scream out a lyric, fiercely strum his guitar, then look down with an expression on his face that quickly morphed from pain to ecstasy (and for a moment, made me think he was about to cry), I had no question in my mind. This conference, bringing the academics and the rock critics and the musicians together, is not only a good thing, it's an important thing. We can think and we can rock. "Really listening to music I'm looking for the feeling," Calvin Johnson said. "I want to hear the feeling someone is expressing." In Seattle, we heard the feeling, and we heard the ideas. Yeah!