Last week, the Pop Conference — held since 2002 at Seattle’s Experience Music Project — shifted locale to the UCLA campus. As before, the conference — a mix of accredited academics, critics and journalists pursuing pet themes, and musicians with ideas about what they and others do — featured a lot of smart talk about all kinds of pop, from the shape-shifting beats of Low End Theory (the LA club that served as the crucible for Warp Records star Flying Lotus), which served as the subject of a climactic roundtable, to the prototype minstrels of Thomas Jefferson’s time, brought to life by Ned Sublette. Here are five notable lessons from a weekend packed with them.
1. “Svengali” began as an anti-Semitic slur
Gayle Wald, an English professor at George Washington University and author of a good Sister Rosetta Tharpe bio, was part of a panel on “Buzzwords”; hers was “Svengali.” The name originated in George du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby — Svengali was a character whose vileness was directly related to his Jewishness. As time went on, Wald continued, the controlling character lost his ethnicity but retained his characteristics — and for those in the room, a few things began to click newly into place.
2. There was a heavy-metal “We Are the World”
Well, OK — we did already know about Hear N’ Aid’s “Stars,” helmed by Ronnie James Dio in 1985 as the metal world’s answer to the wave of charity songs and events begun by Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and climaxing in Live Aid. But Occidental prof Paul N. Reinsch pulled the song’s social context apart with entertaining thoroughness, suggesting a few reasons that it’s been more or less written out of history, despite his insistence that “Stars” has a better claim than “We Are the World” toward being a real song: for one thing, “It’s in a real genre.”
3. Motown spent the early ’70s sticking it to the Man
This isn’t about the stuff you already know, like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On or the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” but actual Black Power leaders delivering the speeches collected on the small handful of titles from the Motown-distributed Black Forum label. Pat Thomas, who in October publishes Listen Whitey: The Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 through Fantagraphics, played through all seven of Black Forum’s releases, including poems by Amiri Baraka (sampled recently at the end of Kanye West’s latest album), interviews with black American soldiers in Vietnam, and polemics from Stokely Carmichael.
4. The single is dead; long live the single
The “Singles” panel was entertaining from beginning to end. Douglas Wolk’s “Singles Going Nowhere” traced the indie 7-inch’s trajectory between the publication of a ‘zine by Simple Machines that detailed the prices and methods of getting your own single out at the beginning of the ’90s (Wolk began his label shortly thereafter) to the compact disc’s increasing cheapness at the end of the decade edging out the vinyl 45 as repository for new bands’ best stuff. Chris Molanphy followed with a thorough history of the single as salable object during the era of Billboard‘s Hot 100 — particularly the ’90s, when the major labels withdrew them from sale, forcing consumers to purchase entire albums they didn’t want, only for Napster to bite the hand right back. (Download a .pdf of Molanphy’s talk here.) Finally, Tom Kipp walked through ’70s rock’s relationship with the 12-inch disco single, high- or lowlighted (depending) by a giant color slide of “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” era Rod Stewart in orange-and-green bikini briefs positioned, er, artfully. Or, as one shaken attendant put it, “I don’t need to see Rod Stewart’s junk!”
5. Hip-hop radio was changed one shrug at a time
Dan Charnas led a panel about L.A. hip-hop radio during the ’90s, full of great stories, a few of which didn’t make it into his book, The Big Payback. The funniest had to do with Rick Cummings, who helped make LA’s Power 106 the city’s biggest station by injecting hip-hop into its bloodstream with new on-air talent like the Baka Boyz and community figures like counselor Manny Velazquez. Cummings explained at one point that rather than being a hip-hop head, he couldn’t have cared less about the music — his job was strictly to get ratings.