Thursday, April 17, 2008


Last weekend I loaded into the rock camp van with a couple of comrades and we went up to Seattle to check out the Pop Conference at the Experience Music Project. All conferences are essentially the same, I think: this structure of panels with three or four people saying different things about the same thing, or saying different things about different things, as it often turns out, followed by some windy and/or wonky audience questions, followed by everyone shuffling out for a ten-minute break and then shuffling into another room. The rooms are windowless, the chairs in rows, the panelists seated with their elbows resting on a beclothed folding table. This was all true at EMP, but the rooms were pretty cool--the one in the Sci-Fi museum part looked like it molten red lava or Mars or something. (Exhibit A: Douglas Wolk giving his funny and smart and well-technologically-endowed presentation on "The Battle of the Green Berets." Always such a pro.)

What's cool about the EMP Pop Conference is that the idea is to give writers and critics a forum to present their work like art--more like a festival than professional development. I won't go on at length about all I saw, I just want to hit on a couple pieces that really stuck with me, the ones where I left hungry to know more.

Charles Aaron, the music editor at Spin, delivered a really beautiful, heartfelt talk about Labi Siffre, whom I'd never heard of before. It was a simple talk, read straightforwardly from a paper, and at times it almost sounded like he had a lump in his throat. You could tell he really felt it, this love and respect for Labi Siffre, not just an analytical or academic interest.

Notes on Labi Siffre: He had a few hits in the 70s and 80s, notably "Something Inside So Strong," and Eminem and Kanye West have sampled his songs for some of their hits. Born to a Nigerian father and a Barbadian/Belgian mother. Gay. Met his partner when he was 19 and the partner 38, and they're still together. "Something Inside So Strong" is ostensibly an anti-apartheid anthem but the lyrics are straight-up liberation that could just as well be gay.

When Eminem came to him to clear the sampling rights for his first hit single, "My Name Is," Siffre said he'd do it only on the condition that he rewrite some sneery lyrics about a gay teacher. Eminem complied. In his own subsequent liner notes, Siffre wrote that we should go after aggressors, not victims--he said degrading women and gays is "lazy writing." In two words, that's the most succinct and apt critique I think I've read on that.

Siffre has a blog which is apparently his primary artistic output right now.

This guy spoke too. This is pretty much all I remember. A lot of stuff about Mudhoney.

The last talk I saw--because after it I couldn't imagine sitting through anything else--was Daphne Carr's paper correlating musicality with sexuality--namely, extreme loudness and masochism. This too was an intensely felt presentation, obvious in the occasional quaver and long pause as well as in the gradually more personal revelations, though it followed a more deliberate structure. First, the science of noise, and I loved all this, the way the sound is created from feedback, the physics and physiology of it. Our bodies are full of liquids that vibrate with sound; the proximity of other bodies alters and sets the co-vibration; even when you plug your ears, sound enters through your nose and mouth.

Then the social dynamics of live shows, etc., and finally she worked up to the heart of the piece, where musicality and sexuality meet. The punishment avenue to pleasure of masochistic sexuality=the painful intensity of experiencing noise. The noisemaker is not a sadist, she said, but a sadomasochist sympathetically offering pleasure to his fellow pain-seekers. Finally, a silent slideshow of rapidly shifting words and phrases, simple white text on black, then 3, 2, 1, period, and an immense noise blasted from the giant speakers, filling the room, heavy and all-encompassing. It went for about a minute. Shivers ran up and down my body again and again. It was visceral and awesome in the classic sense of the word.

End result: I ordered two Labi Siffre albums. I went to see Thurston Moore the other night and I thought about the sound traveling into me and the liquids in my body vibrating and co-vibrating. I even, I'll admit, opened my mouth for maximal admittance (Trees Outside the Academy is one of my favorites of late). I had gotten a little jaded about shows, like oh big deal, stand in a room for three hours, shifting from hip to hip, stretching up on tiptoes trying to peer around the huge dude inevitably planted in front of me. But now I got to thinking differently about it, the science and the sound of it, and I felt the way that live music is more than just sound and sight, that it's in your whole body, that it's a non-replicable feeling and experience. It revived my interest in going to shows and being in the singular moment. No camera. No saving it for later. Just being there and feeling it.

This I could stand to do more of in the rest of my life as well.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this beautiful post.

mlle said...

What a great post--made me wish I was there. I am going to have to check out some Labi Siffre.