We should have packed tissues. The theme of the annual Pop Conference at the Museum of Pop in Seattle this year was death. It was couched in a lot of verbiage: “Only You and Your Ghost Will Know: Music, Death, and Afterlife” was the official 11-word title. But it didn’t take a seance to locate the ghosts. They were all around, as we tried to pontificate without breaking into tears. I failed at both the panel and roundtable I moderated, suddenly finding myself unable to speak. I believe so did everyone else I shared a dais with. It was weird to find oneself suddenly, repeatedly vulnerable in the quasi-academic space of delivering a paper. As I always tell my kid, weird is good.
MoPop felt like a safe space to let oneself feel, perhaps because in the conference’s 17 years, so many bonds have been formed. I was riding with multiple posses myself. And of course, there was a ghost in this machine: It was the first year PopCon was not run by Eric Weisband, with keynote assistance from his spouse Ann Powers (both of whom I have known since long before there was a PopCon). Charles Hughes, of Rhodes College, nobly and ably ferried us across the Mersey to this Pop afterlife. It was the saddest year, and the funnest year.
There were more than 100 presentations over four days, and I can’t possibly mention even all of those I saw. Let’s just say it began with a keynote panel where Journey frontman Steve Perry was the most solid, emotionally honest classic rock star you could imagine sitting with a bunch of scholars and lesser luminaries, and it ended, for me, with a fascinating rumination on the influence of Franz Liszt on Donny Hathaway by I. Augustus Durham. The highlight, perhaps of any PopCon presentation I have ever seen, was the slideshow duet by Hugo Burnham and Jon King on the strange business of rock-band reunions, a subject they know all too well. They were brilliant and poignant and funny, and they were one-half of Gang of Four!!! Dave Allen was in the audience, and the Gang of Three DJed that evening. Women who write Vivien Goldman and Holly George-Warren and I danced till the midnight hour.
Earlier that day, I moderated What Becomes Legend Most, a panel featuring the authors of the first four books from the Music Matters series, which I not incoincidentally edit (along with Oliver Wang) for University of Texas Press. Fred Goodman delivered seemingly without notes a lyrical summary of the extraordinary art and life of the late singer Lhasa de Sela. At the end, he simply played a video of her performing “The Bells” a few months before her death from cancer at age 2010. You could have heard a pin drop in the JBL Theater.
Tom Smucker compared the crazy death of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson to the unlikely survival of his brother Brian. Karen Tongson pondered the suburban tragedy of her namesake, Karen Carpenter. Donna Gaines paid ode to her heroes and friends in the Ramones. Hearing their literary meditations all together made me understand on an emotional level what we are trying to accomplish with this series: putting on the page that ongoing argument you have with every music lover you know, about why your favorite band/musician is the GOAT. That night we held a release party for Tongson’s Why Karen Carpenter Matters that doubled as a launch party for the series; attendees included future authors Caryn Rose (Why Patti Smith Matters), Michelle Threadgould (Why Rage Against the Machine Matters), and Annie Zaleski (Why the B52’s Matter).
Too early after the late night of parties and dancing, Saturday morning I moderated Death and the Maiden, a roundtable of contributors from Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyonce. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl. The venue was the museum’s capacious Sky Church, so we began the proceedings with Solvej Schou singing “Amazing Grace”, then took a moment to pay respect to Nipsy Hussle and Gary Stewart, two visionaries from the City of Angels who are now angels themselves. We discussed how death – supposedly the great equalizer – can be shaped by gender. Holly George-Warren compared the tragic trajectories of Patsy Cline, whom she wrote about for Women Who Rock, and Janis Joplin; her biography of the music legend will be published in the fall. Lucretia Tye Jasmine spoke hauntingly about hunger, shaming, and Karen Carpenter (yes, I presided over two papers about Carpenter). Schou paid homage in words and song to Sharon Jones. Threadgould weaved a poetic narrative about mortality through the works of Diamanda Galas, Laurie Anderson, and Selena. Folks were smart and deep. I was proud to be their editor/interlocutor.
And then we had fun fun fun. Vivien and I took the theme literally, ghosting for an afternoon to shop at Pike Place. Donna and Tye read tarot cards. There was sushi with Tricia Romano. For the first time at Pop Conference, I checked out Saturday night karaoke, and was glad I did. Attendees’ love of the music they get all theoretical about was on drunken display, and I marveled at everyone’s humility, their lack of embarrassment – as well as at some genuinely great voices (Kate Kay, Kathy Fennessy). Hearing Karen Tongson sing “On Top of the World” made me all weepy again. Girl sings it like she writes it. The day that began with Solvej’s “Amazing Grace” ended with her karaoke of “Respect.” Baby she got it.
We should have organized a jazz line. That’s how I felt flying back from Portland on Tuesday, having followed the conference with a visit to my oldest bestie, Cindy, who has been busy the last seven months kicking cancer’s butt. If you’re going to spend four days talking about death and music, book a New Orleans brass band to march you outta there. And then on Thursday came the Tweet. Thanks, Beyonce.