Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Former Editors Perform

It's been almost a week since I returned from the annual EMP Pop Conference in Seattle. The rubric this year was The Pop Machine: Music and Technology, and though in 1988 I gave a four-part freshman lecture series at MIT on a similar topic, I've moved so far in the old-fart direction that any worthwhile lecture on the topic would require research I just wasn't in the mood to do. Happily, I was asked instead to convene a panel on music in the '00s, and once I dug around and found out who else would sign on I eagerly agreed. My thanks to former Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and Blender editor Joe Levy, former Village Voice and Billboard editor Chuck Eddy, L.A. Times critic Ann Powers, former Ego Trip, Source, and XXL editor Elliott Wilson, and NAJP double-threat and ARTicles blogger Douglas Wolk, who with their honed-to-the-minute talks and irrepressible discussion provided nearly two hours exceptionally long on both ideas and laughs.

This was an amazing bunch. Wolk and Powers are EMP standbys known for quality presentations, but Wilson had shown up only once before and I'd been trying to get Levy and especially Eddy out to Seattle for years. You will note that all are certified arts journalists, and that all three of the newbies have a lot of "former"s in front of their rather illustrious credits: Levy now edits Maxim, Wilson is now the proprietor of the Rap Radar site, and Eddy now freelances like crazy from Austin, where the living is easier than in NYC. No need to expatiate on a situation we've been b&m-ing about for years, but it does connect to something I noticed during the two days I managed to squeeze in at EMP this year, constrained by an NYU teaching schedule that compelled me to miss a well-reviewed keynote session in which Powers moderated an artist panel comprising Janelle Monae, Joe Henry, and a show-stealing Nile Rodgers. EMP used to be a conference in which music journalists regularly outshone academics. This year the journalists still shone--Wolk on the celestial jukebox, Jody Rosen on Al Jolson, former Los Angeles editor RJ Smith on Ferrante & Teicher. But they were seriously outnumbered by the academics, many of whom were none too shabby.

There are lots of reason for this. One of them is simply that academics still get travel money for confabs like this. Journalists don't--and because they're less flush, are also less likely to spring for the weekend themselves, tax-deductible or not. But it should also be said that over the years many academics have gotten the hang of what we in the public prints call good writing. I greatly enjoyed all the journalistic presentations I just namechecked and others too, and was definitely bored stiff or worse by a few of the academic ones. But the most entertaining lecture I saw (less than half of it, unfortunately) was by Princeton's Evan Kindley, who enlisted a local pianist to illustrate his research into the "parody" ditties and jingles of Sammy Cahn. And the best-written was a memoir by Nabeel Zuberi of the University of Auckland (academic travel budgets! what wonders!) that centered on the record collection of his India-to-Pakistan-to-Aden-to-Britain-exiled parents. Respect and thanks to Tyina Steptoe on Houston saxophone, Daphne Brooks on Blind Tom, David Gilbert on James Reese Europe, and (ex-journalist) David Sanjek on reissues. And regrets to Daphne Brooks and my fellow NYU prof Jason King in re their Freddie Mercury panel, which I was about to come down and catch as soon as Zuberi started to fade, only he never did.

Next year EMP moves to UCLA and the following year to NYU, whereafter it returns to Seattle for a year. I'm glad I was persuaded not to miss it in 2010 and have no intention of skipping another. Any arts journalists out there who want to say something interesting about pop music to an audience that cares and who for some reason aren't receiving the call for papers should make themselves known to former Spin and Village Voice editor Eric Weisbard, who now teaches at the University of Alabama: Together with his wife, the oft-mentioned Powers, Weisbard has been shaping EMP since it began in 2002. From whatever vantage on the journalistic-academic divide, anyone invested in good writing about popular music owes him a debt of gratitude. He's done more to improve such writing than anyone else in the past decade.

1 Comment

By ries on May 2, 2010 3:56 PM

Wouldn't this be a perfect event to be able to listen to a podcast of?

And yet, despite all that talk of technology and digital this and that--it doesn't seem that podcasts of the conference, any past conferences, are available.

Whats up with that?

Articles, Apr. 25, 2010

And It Don't Stop A Trained Musician