The EMP Pop Conference just finished up in L.A. this past weekend. For those unfamiliar (and really, my readers should be familiar), over its 10 years, the Pop Conference has become the most interesting and important annual convalcade of scholars, journalists, musicians and related folk. This was the first year it was not held in Seattle (next year, it will rotate to NYU) and as I’ve done in a few previous years, I wanted to provide a short write-up of the proceedings and more importantly, what I learned along the way.

Before I begin, I should point out that after almost a year, EMP has put most (but not all) of its 2010 talks on iTunes. That’s pretty cool though I wish the entire previous 9 years were represented (forthcoming?). If you’re looking for some good talks to peep out, I’d recommend:

  • Charles Hughes on the impact of rural electrification on music in the 1950s. He makes a great case for FDR inadvertently helping to jump start country and rock n’ roll through New Deal policies.
  • Gayle Wald on the early 1970s Black culture/arts/politics show on NY public TV, SOUL. Amazing show and producer.
  • Holly George-Warren on Arthur Alexander, FAME Studios and the racial politics of early ’60s Alabama. I missed this one personally the first time but everyone told me she killed.
  • Andy Zax on Warner Bros/Reprise run of 7″ promos in the early 1970s. For any record nerd, this one is awesome.
  • Loren Glass and Kembrew McLeod’s “Phoning It In: A Digitized Lecture-Performance”. You just have to hear it to understand.

    I’m still listening through myself. Here’s a guide to the overall set of panels. EMP also has some of their 2009 papers available too but only 24 of them (out of probably nearly a 100). What you will find is this mind-blowing paper by UCLA’s Bob Fink, breaking down the connection between Marvin, Motown and masochism.

    Ok, so onto this year’s papers.

  • “‘California Lullaby’: Sheet Music and the Musical Marketing of Southern California.” Josh Kun and his research assistants have dug through the history of sheet music in Los Angeles (there will be an upcoming exhibit at the Los Angeles Public Library that promises to be incredible). In particular, Josh looks at the role that sheet music played in selling Los Angeles to tourists and settlers, which I found really profound since I’ve been thinking a lot about the the intersection between L.A., consumerism and what Dave Grazian calls “landscapes of cultural consumption”. L.A. has always lead at this (hello CityWalk!). This history runs deep and as Josh (among others have argued), L.A. wasn’t simply sold to consumers, the city was sold as a commodity itself.

  • “The Ephemeral Forums of South East Los Angeles.” Jorge Leal was focused on live music in South East Los Angeles (Huntington Park, South Gate, holler) and how the lack of formal performance venues has lead musicians to get creative with where they play, including people’s backyards, in liquor stores, anywhere/everywhere…what he calls “ephemeral forums.” Very thoughtful paper on how youthful, creative energy will find an outlet regardless of the official local infrastructure.

  • Glitter.” Daphne Brooks traces the concept of glitter (both figurative and literal) in Black performance over the last 100 years. This really works as an audio/visual paper so a sound recording alone won’t quite capture it but as usual, Daphne goes in deep.

  • “Aretha, Gospel, and Money.”. In a preview of his upcoming 33.3 book on Aretha Franklin’s best-selling Amazing Grace (as well as the hopefully soon-to-be-released, Sydney Pollack filmed documentary of the same concert), Cohen talked about Aretha’s relationship to money and gospel. That included a great anecdote about how Mahalia Jackson stiffed Aretha when she took the then-young singer under her wing on tour and then failed to pay Aretha at the end. Apparently, Aretha held it against Jackson for years to come.

    Anyways, peep the trailer for the doc.

  • “Dick Griffey’s Legacy: The Sound of Los Angeles Records — From Soul Train to Deep Cover.” I learned a ton from UCLA’s Scot Brown about this pivotal figure in 1980s Black music in Los Angeles. Griffey, apart from his connection to Soul Train also ran SOLAR (Sound of Los Angeles Records) and eventually took a young Suge Knight under his wing and helped found Death Row Records. I’m assuming this talk was partially adapted from this essay he published last year.

    Meanwhile, climb in the way back machine for this SOLAR classic:

  • “A Cultural Economy Of Record Collecting, or, What Does Crate-Digging Have To Do With Cultural Policy?” To be sure, this roundtable didn’t really tackle the “crate-digging” portion of the title but it did get deep into copyright law as a form of cultural public policy. Bill Ivey was dropping crazy knowledge and Kembrew McLeod is absolutely upping the ante as one of the nation’s leading experts and advocates on copyright reform to help benefit artists of all stripes. McLeod helped put together Copyright Criminals and is the author of both Freedom of Expression and Creative License.

  • “‘There’s A Highway Telling Me To Go’: The Mystery of Jim Sullivan.” Light in the Attic’s Matt Sullivan broke down the history behind Jim Sullivan’s cult classic U.F.O. and more importantly, the strange story of Jim himself, who disappeared in the Southwest desert in 1975 and was never heard of again. I dare you to listen to this and not be haunted.

  • “Militant Motown: the lost Black Forum recordings.” On the same panel, Pat Thomas hepped me to the history of Motown’s Black Forum imprint, which put out about a dozen, largely Black militant spoken word albums in the 1970s (completely 180 degrees opposite of what we typically think of regarding Berry Gordy’s overt politics). This is basically in anticipation of Pat’s forthcoming October book, Listen Whitey: The Sound of the Black Power Movement 1965-75. I didn’t even realize Black Forum existed though I did realize I own at least one album (arguably the easiest to find, Elaine Brown’s self-titled LP, the last BF release) which gave us this Biz Markie-sampled classic, “A Child In the World.”
  • “Records of Movement: Independent Vinyl Releases, Shifting Demographics and Identity in Los Angeles.” Christopher Portugal (aka Thes One) did a great job of discussing how independent vinyl releases serve as an informal – but powerful – archive of social change and demographic movement.
  • “The Big Payback Live: How Hip-Hop Conquered Pop Radio.” Dan Charnas, backed with KDAY’s legendary Greg Mack, Emmis exec Rick Cummings, the Baka Boyz and gang prevention counselor Manny Velazquez put on a kick ass roundtable about the evolution of L.A.’s Power 106 from dance-centric station to the first radio station to boast “Where Hip Hop Lives.” A big highlight. Charnas showed some old, mid-90s TV ads from Power that were hilarious (but alas, not on youtube).

    The Pop Conference is moving to NYU next year – hope some of you NYC locals may consider attending or even presenting.