Monday, March 26, 2012

PopCon Roundup

I am simultaneously exhausted and beyond energized post-EMP/IASPM-US Pop Conference. The exhausted part comes from waking up too early, focusing for long periods of time, and dealing with the FDR and I-87 south of the GWB (and obnoxious New York pedestrians. When I walk, I'm one of them; when I drive, I hate them).

This was my first Pop Conference, and I'm so glad I was able to go. Not previously being all that in-the-loop, I found out about it as part of an IASPM-US tweet. The dates nicely coincided with the opening weekend of UD's spring break, so I'd be able to stay over in the 'burbs and commute into the city for the few days. When I looked at the program online, I noticed lots of big names. I also noticed some very familiar names--two out of three of my thesis committee members slated to present. (The third works on 16th century Italian music. Not exactly PopCon material). So that was it, I decided to go! I'm glad I got to go at this point in my career, a point at which I'm finishing up a chapter and thinking about how to write the next one. I've got some potential projects budding in my mind, and the motivation to follow through. My senior thesis needs to get done first, though.

If you're a Twitter follower of mine, I'm sorry. I think I tweeted close to 50 times during the conference. There were lots of great moments throughout, and I'd like to flesh a few of them out in a bit more than 140 characters. I'll go in chronological order.

Friday morning, 11:15-12:45. I went to the NYC Boombox session for Kathryn Ostrofsky's paper "Taking Sesame to the Streets: Young Children's Interactions with Pop Music in the Urban Classrooms of 1970s New York." I saw on the Twitter later that she won the award for best student paper. Seriously deserved! Sesame Street isn't cool; there's really no way around that. Regardless, her paper presented a well-researched, interesting, and approachable account of Sesame Street's capacity to educate. The show's philosophy states that entertainment should be a prerequisite for learning. Rather than simply glorifying the show's success and reach, Ostrofsky exposed its pitfalls and occasional tendencies to not accurately reach its goals. I'm eager to relate her work to my own on Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts, in which Bernstein used entertainment as a prerequisite for learning, if I may borrow the phrase.

I stayed for the rest of the session, and heard an interesting paper on boombox culture, and an interesting postmodern rant about a compilation record.

Saturday morning, 9-11. Beauty, Noise, and the Canon. All four papers were really great, but one stuck out to me. "Noise and the Canon: The Meaning of Classical Music in Late-1960s Rock," presented by Jessica Wood. Her work examined classical quotation in rock music, but many references were obscure. The obscurity of the pieces she studied was acknowledged in the Q&A. The part I found most interesting was an anecdote about the New Jersey Bach Society (which doesn't seem to exist anymore) demanding that radio stations not play songs that quote classical repertoire because such songs are abominations. Radio stations responded saying that most contemporary performances are equally problematic and that they would continue giving the rock songs airplay.

(Shout-out to my two UD professors, Phil Gentry and David Suisman, for their awesome papers. Neither were in my area of expertise, so I'll leave it to someone else to sum those up.)

Sunday morning, 9-11. Started with Daphne Brooks' "'One of These Mornings, You're Gonna Rise up Singing': The Secret Black Feminist History of the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess." Fun fact: "Summertime" is the most recorded song out there. I wanted to stay and ask about the Janis Joplin cover, something I listen to with nothing but love and energy. Instead, I dashed to the "Distanced Learning" session in time to hear Mark Katz's paper on digital turntables. The final paper in that session, Karl Hagstrom Miller's "I am Sitting in a Room: The Private Pop Experience," was one of the best treats the conference had to offer. Miller started with Alvin Lucier's "I Am Sitting in a Room" as an example of repetition smoothing out imperfections (in Lucier's case, his stutter). He then played a clip of himself trying to play the opening of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," with imperfections galore. His paper went on to present digital ethnographic (and well-theorized) work on people playing music alone in their rooms, mostly captured on YouTube. Best quote: "sounding terrible must be the most universal experience of being a musician." We all start awful, and practice--repetition--helps us smooth out imperfections. This works if we're learning a virtuosic concerto or sweating through 3 open chords on a guitar.

So, thanks to the EMP Museum and IASPM-US for putting together a great conference! I look forward to many more pop conferences.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Change, progression, opposition: music

Whenever I think of changing my attitude or outlook on life, I think of Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror." I'll spare you a link to the music video because it brings up another crazy set of baggage that's irrelevant here. But I think he has a good point with the song. "If you wanna make the world a better place / take a look at yourself and make a change." It kind of goes with that over-used, out-of-context Gandhi quote: "be the change you wish to see in the world." Change is important, and it should be embraced. They tell us not to change ourselves, but sometimes, we should. If we don't like the way we act, it behooves us to change the way we act. If we find ourselves with the wrong friends or on the wrong career track or in the wrong city or...whatever, then we need to change those things. I can say from experience that when I have made those changes, the world becomes a better place. I'm not presumptuous enough to think the entire world becomes a better place, but my world becomes better. If my world becomes better, I'm a better person to the people around me, and they become better people to the people around them. The world can benefit from a giant act of positive pay-it-forward if we all just acted always with compassion toward others, but in our own self-interest.

And then there's the David Bowie approach. "And these children that you spit upon / as they try to change their worlds / are immune to your consultation / they're quite aware what they're going through." If I remember correctly, that lyric is projected in the opening scene of The Breakfast Club, my favorite of the John Hughes-Brat Pack movies. The whole thing is about change. The group discovers that they don't have to fit into their oppressive clique-stereotypes and that they can coexist. So what is Bowie telling us? I'm getting that change should be embraced and authority figures should stop trying to stifle change from happening.

Which brings me to the point of this post. My point is that I want to clap in between movements.

I don't know why we don't clap between movements. I don't remember the first time I was told not to do it, but I remember instantly feeling afraid that I would clap at the wrong time. I remember giving people who broke the rules dirty looks and judging their ignorance. Only in the last few years have I changed my views on the matter. I'm a flip-flopper, and I think politicians who claim to value "integrity" aim to spread the message that learning and adapting is detrimental to society. Good job, guys. I digress. So I don't know about you all, but I don't think there's any reason not to clap between movements. When the music comes to a close, I want to show my enthusiasm for it. When something good happens, I want to applaud. It happens at the opera; it happens at the ballet; it happens at every other performance-based art performance. Why do classical musicians have a monopoly on audience snobbery?

I couldn't possibly pick a favorite number from A Chorus Line, but one of the better ones is "Dance: Ten, Looks: Three." (Perhaps better known as "Tits and Ass.") Without advocating cosmetic plastic surgery, I'd like to advocate the general message of the song, exemplified by the lyric "keep the best of you, change the rest of you." If we already have the great music, great performers, great spaces, blah blah blah, why do we have to hold onto antiquated rituals that alienate potential audience members? I have no idea! But, for some reason, we do. Why can't we keep the best and change the rest? Adapt, people!

John Mellencamp also said it pretty well: "if you're not part of the future then get out of the way."

Change is important. It happens, whether we want it to or not. We'd all be a lot better off if we anticipated and embraced change rather than fighting it off, tooth and nail. Change makes life interesting.

(This post appears to be brought to you by the 1980s. Enjoy at your own risk.)

I'd love to hear what you all think about this! Please comment, and feel free to argue!