Eric Weisbard: ”‘Me in the R&B Charts?’ Elton John’s ‘Bennie and the Jets’ and the British Invasion-Soul-Top 40 Nexus”
This presentation, drawing on archival source material, will recover a different kind of lost “soul” moment with implications for the still explosive subject of racial exchange in pop. What does it say that John became the first white artist to appear on Soul Train? (“A musician with a sort of psychedelic outlook on life,” host Don Cornelius called him.). Is it significant, given white appropriations of blackness, that on “Bennie” producer Gus Dudgeon placed a clap track on the on-beat, to satirize white audiences? Ultimately, I argue, the Top 40 (“Bennie,” like many an R&B or UK success, crossed over to become number one pop) offered a different sort of cultural nexus than either rock, as it evolved out of the counterculture, or soul, as it evolved out of Black Power. Here, chart climbing still equated with social mobility and ideological affirmations of identity often gave way to theatrical parody. Top 40 preceded the Vietnam era politicization of pop, but it also accompanied it, and needs to be understood as an enduring, ambiguous force for a different kind of popular music upheaval.
J.D. Considine: “If This Note Could Vote”
But is music really so value neutral? Although individual notes may not signify a specific political viewpoint, the ways they are deployed – the melodic structure, the rhythmic and harmonic vocabulary, the compositional form – can be analyzed along a right-to-left axis, just like politics. Is the song’s approach to rhythm radical, or merely progressive? Is its melody traditional, or outright reactionary? Does the harmony spring from the religious right (that is, old-time religious music)? Is there a liberal rhythmic structure, leaving plenty of freedom for the players? Does the recording reflect a conservative view of sound reproduction, hewing to unadulterated, acoustic values?
Robert Christgau: “Waiting on the World to Change”
So what I propose here is an investigation of rock’s and especially indie-rock’s response to neofascism that respects and centers on this hit song. I have no idea where my research will take me, and I do not rule out the possibility that I will unearth all kinds of rousing protests and practical action campaigns I know nothing about. That would be great, frankly—I want nothing more than for my people to rise up. But should it not transpire, it would be my pleasure to praise John Mayer at EMP. It’s been my instinct to like and respect him since long before I saw him guest at a Buddy Guy concert two years ago (they make fun of that too). I would hope not just to research Mayer but—if possible, which it might be – to interview him, perhaps eliciting political opinions, hedges, stupidities, who knows.
David Ritz: “Divided Byline: How a Student of Leslie Fiedler and Colleague of Charles Keil Became the Ghostwriter for Everybody from Ray Charles to Cornel West”
Ritz’s view of music criticism starts with his sense of what Keil once termed “fan-dom.” “The point of genuine ghosting is to love an artist enough to take a chance on entering his or her world,” he says. “The writer no longer stands on the outside looking in, making observations or judgments. The writer goes all the way inside, absorbing himself into the artist’s very heart and soul. In a mystical and sometimes frightening way, the artist and writer become one. Some see the ghost as a hack. I’m partial to the term Holy Ghost.”
Ann Powers: “In Love with a Strippa: Sex and Power in the So-Called Post-Feminist Age”
Women who work in the pop music world stand on a tightrope – clinging to an an unstable line between sexual liberation and self-objectification, between celebrating pleasure and pointing out when that pleasure becomes oppressive to some. Lately, however, the tightrope’s turned vertical, and become a pole.
In hip hop, the paradigmatic heterosexual relationship is now between stripper and john. Whether it’s an ode to a literal working girl like T-Pain’s “In Love With a Strippa,” an instruction manual like Ludacris’s “P**y Poppin’,” or something more ambiguous like The-Dream’s “Shawty is the S—-” in which an every-hottie is metaphorically linked to the trade – the genre’s most popular songs define sexual desire within the context of booties shaken and money exchanged.
Greil Marcus: “Still Here: The Protest Song at the I’m Not There Revue”
I have written and spoken about “Masters of War” before, but the Roots’ version seemed to turn what I’d done before into a footnote to what might be done. I had never heard of Tift Merritt. Focusing in detail on these two performances—their sound, style, manner, staging, and attitude—for the forthcoming conference I propose to look at how songs absorb conflict, and how they retain their sense of jeopardy long after the conflicts that presumably spawned them have disappeared. Does the world change, and the song stay the same? Or is it the other way around?
Charles Aaron: “Words Like a Dagger: Labi Siffre vs. Eminem, Kanye, and the Pop Politics of Manning Up”
I’d like to approach this paper in a few ways: 1) Look at Siffre’s career as an openly gay musician and activist – his 1987 song ”(Something Inside) So Strong” was explicitly written as an anti-apartheid anthem and became an international hit – and discuss how his work has intentionally, and perhaps more interestingly, unintentionally, had a political impact on popular culture; and 2) Use Siffre as an entry point for discussing hip-hop’s debate about (black) masculinity, how far can you stray from thug stereotypes and remain commercially successful, and how West has become basically the only rapper ever to navigate that territory in a non-homophobic way; and 3) Discuss how sampling, which is now fairly rare due to financial concerns, has played such a strong part in hip-hop as a positive creative/social force, giving the music a depth it often now lacks.
Peter Scholtes: “Hi Yo Silver, Purple Rain: The Color of Minneapolis Rock and Roll, From Integrated Bands to Segregated Clubs”
After Barack Obama’s primary victory there in February, Minnesota was described as “snow white” in the national media—but the immigrant gateway of Minneapolis-St. Paul has always been more complicated. Aside from Bob Dylan and ‘80s punk, the city’s deepest claims on the national pop-music imagination have been ‘60s garage rock (the Trashmen, the Castaways), underground hip hop (Atmosphere, Brother Ali), and Prince, along with his old friends Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis of the Time. My paper will tell the largely unknown racial stories behind these phenomena: the black and Mexican American origins of local rock before the class coding of “garage” kicked in, the semi legal segregation in clubland overcome by Prince and the Time, and the integrated ideals (and culturally segregated realities) of contemporary rap.
Tim Quirk is the Vice President of Music Programming for Rhapsody. He spent more than 10 years as the singer and lyricist for the punk-pop band Too Much Joy, then politely eased his way into music journalism. Tim is also one half of an electro-pop outfit called Wonderlick.
Michaelangelo Matos is the author of Sign ‘O’ the Times (Continuum, 2004), has contributed to the 2007 anthologies Marooned (Da Capo), Listen Again (Duke), and Best Music Writing 2007 (Da Capo), and writes columns for The Stranger and Idolator.com, for whom he organizes an annual critics poll. He lives a block away from EMP.