Guilt and Pleasure

Rock criticism's power couple get their talk on at EMP's Pop Conference.

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," goes the aphorism. In fact, it's such a dead-on observation that no two people can even agree on who originated it—Elvis Costello? Frank Zappa?—or its precise meaning. While thousands of conversations about music occur every second of every day, a distrust of "heavy thought" about the subject remains among a certain strain of listener.

Those listeners will probably roll their eyes at the news that Experience Music Project's Pop Music Studies Conference will continue next year. Even longtime participants such as first-year keynote speaker Robert Christgau were in the dark about the weekend's future when it was announced earlier this year that organizer Eric Weisbard and program committee member Ann Powers would be leaving Seattle for Southern California, where Powers will take over as pop critic for the Los Angeles Times in June.

The couple (who have been together since 1989, married since 1998, and have the distinction of both having edited Village Voice star Christgau—who says that at different times, each has been the best rock critic in America) talk rapidly, sometimes over one another, finishing each other's sentences and prodding ideas to the surface. It is smart conversation that mirrors what goes on in the best of the Pop Conference's sessions. (Not for nothing has Christgau called it "the best thing that's ever happened to serious consideration of pop music.")

So what's their answer to accusations that Pop Conference participants are engaged in overthink?

"Yes, damn it, we are!" Powers says with a laugh, the first of many in the 45 minutes we speak.

Says Weisbard: "One of [English scholar-journalist] Simon Frith's basic points is that arguing about music is a form of loving music."

This year's umbrella title—"Loving Music in the Shadow of Doubt," known to most as guilty pleasures—should give attendees plenty to kick up dust over.

"The deeper thing that the Pop Conference has always been about, and this year is just another way of hitting that theme, is to stop seeing music from simply a rockist perspective and see it from a lot of different angles simultaneously," says Weisbard. "To appreciate the fact that in this post-rock, hip-hop, everything-in-print, everything-streaming-simultaneously-in-your-head-and-just-try-to-hear-it-at-the-same-time kind of moment, that's a pop view—which is to say, a view that places no one thing above any other thing is about the only sane view you can hold."

Powers sees such re-evaluation as an ongoing project in the music world. Twenty years ago, the Replacements would incite laughter by covering Black Sabbath songs, "and now Black Sabbath are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame." She notes that "the canon of popular music is constantly remaking itself and building itself up and imploding and exploding, and critics are just part of that process. Lester Bangs is another person who built a canon, but also ripped apart a different canon."

For this year's conference, Weisbard's paper considers the Isley Brothers, an act led by Ronald Isley, who has a half-century of performances with everyone from Jimi Hendrix and the Funk Brothers to R. Kelly and Wu-Tang Clan under his belt. Despite their ubiquity, Weisbard considers them, along with Dolly Parton, "pop unmentionables," or "people who, because they go in so many directions, are very hard to place. Everyone says, 'Yeah, they certainly have had a magnificent career,' and then beyond that, they're like, 'Huh, I wonder how we're supposed to think about them.'"

Thinking about wildly popular acts is part of what Powers sees as her brief as a sometime daily critic (in the '90s, she did two stints at The New York Times). "You are both a translator of music culture to the general reader, and you can be an advocate for certain artists you like, but the most important task is kind of making this world that many of us live in accessible to people who just sort of dip into it now and again.

"I think that's a little different at the L.A. Times because the music industry is largely based there, although it's of course in New York, too," she says. "But the New York Times reader is a different reader than the L.A. Times reader, so it's gonna be a challenge to kind of get to know what it's like to be more inside the industry— really working within a city where that's the heartbeat. How that will change my approach, I don't know yet."

Even with music-bizzers closely reading her copy, she'll remain a populist.

"In general, for me, it's about covering the waterfront of music culture from everywhere, from Pink to reggaeton to whatever the next thing is that's happening at [West Hollywood art-pop mecca] Club Largo. I love being a generalist; it's, for me, the best approach. It's not necessarily for everyone. I really like writing for a general audience, so I'm excited to have that chance again."

And what of the general audience that might worry about the Pop Conference transforming EMP into a library for music geeks?

"The academics who come to the Pop Conference, many of them, but not all of them, also work in the popular press and popular media and are interested in reaching a larger audience," Powers says. "So to those people who think they're walking into a library, it's the downtown library. It's an architecturally fabulous, superhip library, and it will entertain you as well as making your brain hurt."

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