Jonathan Lethem Argues With Music Geeks

Photo: Patrick McMullan

Another EMP Pop Conference, another debate about racism. Last year, when critics, academics, musicians, and fans gathered to present papers and deconstruct songs at Seattle’s annual music-geek gathering, Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt caused a minor uproar by describing "Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah," from Disney's legendarily racist 1946 musical Song of the South, as a "great song." This year, keynote speaker Jonathan Lethem referred to the jocular personas of African-American performers Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan as "clowns," prompting an audience member to demand to know why Lethem would call Jordan stupid. (The audience member didn't care about Calloway: "He couldn't even spell 'instrument.'") The semantic misunderstanding was addressed by several audience members; afterward, Rhapsody.com's Tim Quirk quipped, "Someone gets called a racist earlier and earlier every year; it's like breaking a Champagne bottle on a ship's mast." Needless to say, the conference was off to a memorable start. For more highlights, read on.

• During the Q&A session after the keynote speech, someone asked, completely earnestly, if Lethem thought Kurt Cobain had been killed and not committed suicide.

• Rock T-shirt historian Erica Easley told a story about Iggy Pop masturbating onto a friend's homemade Iggy tee: "There," Iggy said, emerging from the bathroom, "I signed it."

The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones recited the No. 1 pop hits of 2004–2005 as poetry: "'We Belong Together.' 'We Belong Together.' 'We Belong Together.'"

• Responding to a comment that emo kids are goth kids dressed in white, Best Music Writing series editor Daphne Carr, who presented a paper on Hot Topic stores, deadpanned, "That's like Spy Vs. Spy."

City Pages writer Peter S. Scholtes sang an a cappella version of "They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love" to begin his presentation on the hymn, which was written by his father.

• Game designer and D.J. Jesse Fuchs, who discussed the history of music-driven video games, said the first time he saw two Asian girls in short skirts jumping up and down on a Dance Dance Revolution arcade machine, he realized, "This thing was going to be fucking huge."

• Filmmaker Charles Mudede spoke about realism in Good Times: "Trying and failing to get out of the ghetto every week turns into a comedy."

• Monologist Elena Passarello acted out scenes from Brian Goedde's interviews with Iowa hip-hoppers: "So we're gonna take over Iowa … because in Iowa, hip-hop is pure."

• Cuban music historian Ned Sublette began his talk on colonial New Orleans with an impassioned demand that the current administration be "investigated, impeached, indicted, and incarcerated."

• University of Iowa's Kembrew McLeod described what it was like to live outside New Market, Virginia, in 1993, the year Spin magazine dubbed the town the next big music scene — as part of an April Fools' issue. McLeod remembered setting up a couch in front of a noise band's speakers so that a major label A&R man who'd been duped by the prank could sit and listen.

• After spending much of his allotted time describing uprock dance moves, Tufts University's Joe Schloss finally demonstrated them. As a friend said, "That was really helpful." —Michaelangelo Matos