From April 20 to April 23, MoPOP hosted their annual Pop Conference, uniting writers, academics, and musicians for a weekend of uninhibited music geekery. This year's conference provided visitors with a nearly overwhelming number of panels, roundtables, and performances to choose from. Rock crit don Greil Marcus talked about The Mekons, activist and writer dream hampton discussed politics and music with long-time Village Voice writer Robert Christgau, and we even heard new music from Mike Hadreas (Perfume Genius) during a Saturday night artist interview alongside vocal artist Tanya Tagaq and Perfect Pussy's Meredith Graves. Hear music from the panel-packed weekend of Pop Con 2017 below.
Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne opened up the conference on Thursday. While the talk centered around Here Lies Love, Byrne's musical with Fatboy Slim, which is now playing at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, moderator and MoPOP artistic director Jason Emmons encouraged Byrne, once a painfully shy child, to discuss how he came to performing. "I felt like, 'how can I express myself?... This is me. I'm here. I have thoughts,'" said Byrne. "Eventually I realized, 'Oh, I can do this through music.'" At a conference for pop obsessives, surely many shared his story.
There's something about the question, "What have you been listening to?" that makes minds go blank. We've all been there, even David Byrne. When Emmons asked Byrne to list recent faves, Byrne asked for a minute to fish out his phone, eliciting quiet chuckles from around the crowd. Byrne mentioned, among others, Lampchop, Sampha, and Sinkane. In 2015, Byrne played with Sinkane in The Atomic Bomb! Band, performing the music of Nigerian funk musician William Onyeabor, but we like to imagine it was Sinkane's recent session with Cheryl Waters that jogged Byrne's memory.
Introduced by moderator Damon Krukowski (Galaxie 500) as "the reason we get to do what we do," legendary rock critic Greil Marcus offered an close reading of The Mekons' discography, interspersed with live performances from founding member Jon Langford, who sat next to Marcus, holding an acoustic guitar. Rocking back and forth in his chair as he delivered a kind of slam poetry version of the piece -- someone in the audience shouted "Tell 'em, Greil!" as the talk climaxed -- Marcus gave just as much of a performance as Langford, who played an stripped-down version of "Last Night on Earth," and "Neglect." After the talk ended, NPR Music critic and conference co-organizer Ann Powers, stood up, declaring what many were thinking: "That was peak Pop Conference."
Folk singer Woody Guthrie confronted uncomfortable subjects, singing about war, inequality, and -- as many were surprised to learn during University of Virginia doctoral candidate Sophie Abramowitz's Friday afternoon presentation -- venereal disease. That's right, folks; After WWII, the US Department of Health, folklorist Alan Lomax, and Columbia University's Erik Barnouw enlisted popular singers like Guthrie and Sister Rosetta Tharpe to create a series of radio skits to raise awareness about syphilis, which affected millions at the time. Find Jim James, Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, and Anders Parker's rendition of Guthrie's "VD City" below. The more you know...
MoPOP imported Britain's brightest for "Britbeat," a panel on English music, which neatly fit this year's theme: music and politics. Each paper juxtaposed a different set of tunes with larger cultural ideas. London-based journalist Hazel Sheffield and Guardian columnist Tom Ewing separately connected two different musics -- British band Sleaford Mods and Eurovision -- with Brexit, former NME features editor chopped up the British press' love of old white guys with guitars, and New Statesman pop culture writer Anna Leszkiewicz compared recent uses of the Barbican, a controversial work of Brutalist architecture in London, in the recent music videos of Skepta, Dua Lipa, and Metronomy. Take or leave their takes, but don't leave the music they discussed. Metronomy's M.C. Escher-esque video for the wistful "A Month of Sundays" is well worth the click.
On Saturday morning, I. August Durham, a fifth-year English doctoral candidate at Duke University, stepped behind the podium and announced that he was a little nervous. The first presenter during a roundtable discussion entitled "Soul Politics in the 21st Century," he was about to try something different, singing "Trouble Man," over an aria from Porgy & Bess to make a point about Marvin Gaye's influences. As he falsetto'd the opening lines of "Trouble Man" over a chorus of dramatic voices, conference-goers cheered him on from their seats. Who says critics can't perform too?
It was only a matter of time before the conversation turned to Kendrick Lamar; the reigning king of hip hop released his latest album, DAMN., a week before Pop Con. So seemingly universal is K. Dot's appeal amongst critics, it seemed less likely that the conversation would yield new takes on the Compton rapper. At the tail end of "Soul Politics," Marco Pavé, a rapper, activist, and educator from Memphis, TN, spoke up, criticizing how quickly audiences reaffirm Lamar's dominance. When Lamar releases a new project, Pavé suggested, it takes up all the air in the room and all the space on your newsfeed, leaving little room for other voices. What about the female MCs? What about artists from the LGBTQ community? As Pavé gained steam, people began to nod vigorously and mutter affirmations. After he finished, there was an audible pause, filled when panelist Fredara Hadley, an Ethnomusicologist at Oberlin Conservatory, supported his claim. It would take an artist to ask the questions no one else wanted to. Hear more of Pavé's thoughtful questions in his video for "Black Tux."
Talk of recent Sub Pop-signees Downtown Boys highlighted intergenerational divides amongst critics. During a lunch lesson with filmmaker and activist dream hampton moderated by KEXP's Sean Nelson, Robert Christgau admitted that he didn't get the hype, saying flatly: "I think Downtown Boys aren't good songwriters." Meanwhile, after her talk on The Raincoats, Jenn Pelly from Pitchfork called Downtown Boys "the band America needs the most right now." Peep "Monstro" below and decide for yourself.
For those who were stuck around for Saturday's last event, it was well worth the wait. Seattle's own Mike Hadreas (aka Perfume Genius) spoke in the SkyChurch during the panel "Voicing Change: The Artist and the Political Life." He remained fairly soft-spoken throughout the conversation, letting his eloquent co-interviewees, Tanya Tagaq and Meredith Graves, do most the talking, but when moderator Ann Powers asked him about writing music that seems overtly political (ex: "Queen," which Slate called the "Gay Anthem of 2014") he demurred: "For me, when I try to have a message and have everything built around it... it usually comes across preachy. If it's purely political, without that personal edge, it becomes easy for people to dismiss it." At the end of the evening, Powers previewed "Slip Away," from Perfume Genius' highly-anticipated No Shape, out this Friday on Matador, for an eager audience. "That's protest music," declared Powers as the song grew in force, reaching the chorus: "They'll never break the shape we take / Baby let all them voices slip away." For one final time on Pop Con's last full day, the personal became political.
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