Faculty News: Q&A with Dr. Lena about the EMP Pop Conference and the World’s Worst Song Ever

pop_conference_get-ur-freak-onThis weekend (April 16-19) music scholars, journalists, and fans will be converging in Seattle to attend and present at the EMP Pop Conference. Dr. Jennifer Lena, ARAD professor and author of Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music (Princeton University Press, 2012), will be taking part in the conference as both conference committee member and panel moderator. Taking a short break from her busy schedule right before the conference, Dr. Lena sat down and answered a few questions about the theme of the conference and her (fabulous sounding) panel: “The Worst Song Roundtable.” Read more for her answers to our Q’s!

How did you become involved in planning this year’s EMP Pop Conference?

JL: My colleague in the American Studies program at the University of Alabama, Eric Weisbard, organizes the conference each year. He asked me to be a member of the program committee, and I was honored and delighted to accept. In addition to Eric, I’ve had the pleasure and honor of working with my co-committee members Will Hermes (Rolling Stone), Emily Lordi (UMass, Amherst), Greil Marcus (The Believer), Radhod Ollison (The Virginian-Pilot), Ann Powers (NPR Music), Shana Redmond (USC), Julianne Escobedo Shepherd (NYU), and Travis Stimeling (West Virginia University). It is a stellar and impressive group, and it has been great fun to work with them.

I heard you came up with part of the title for the conference, Get Your Freak On: Music, Weirdness, & Transgression. What did you hope this type of title would invoke in the presenters and attendees?

JL: The process of developing the theme and selecting the presentations is a really collaborative one. In a round of email introductions, each program committee member suggested a couple of themes for the conference. My first suggestion was “perversions and perverts,” and my colleagues took my suggestion and massaged and improved it until it became the conference theme. I originally had in mind the broadest definition of perversion—something that is changed from its intended pathway, direction, meaning, or state. I thought it might encourage authors to write about and critique the status quo—which is something that pop music, at its very best, is able to do extremely well. The term “perversion” obviously also had a sexual connotation, which I think also suits a conference about pop music. You know, “Beware of Elvis Presley” and all that. The idea that music “should be” one thing or another (independent, good to dance to, “clean,” authentic, made by a certain kind of body) is what I wanted us to aim our guns toward, with the goal of demonstrating (yet again) that music criticism—or just music fandom—is pretty empty if it is only composed of a series of volleys at people with different tastes. As my good friend says, “don’t yuck my yum.” I think encouraging perversity—oddness, uniqueness, innovation—is a political, social, and moral philosophy I can get behind, and I hope to learn more about what that means from the presentations at this year’s conference.

Which panels (besides your own, of course) are you most excited to watch?

JL: I suppose it’s cheating to say “all of them” but there really is an abundance of talent, and great panels are (by necessity) booked against one another. I’ll never be able to see everything I want to see. The keynote panel—on “ poptimism and its discontents”—is going to be kind of epic. The panelists include some of my favorite music writers—Oliver Wang, Maura Johnston, Jason King, Jody Rosen, and the enormously talented Carl Wilson and Julianne Escobedo Shepherd. For those who have never heard of it, “poptimism” is a term we use to refer to the celebration or defense of popular music. It kind of emerged as a response to “rockism,” which critics would say was a kind of old fashioned preoccupation with (mostly male, straight) artists who played rock, and a dismissal of the musicality of other styles. The core question the panel will explore is whether that defense has gone too far, and produced its own orthodoxy. Is poptimism the new rockism?

Speaking of perversity, I’m pretty excited to hear the “Formatics” panel on Friday afternoon, which includes Josh Ottum’s presentation on the music used by the Weather Channel. Unfortunately, that means I’ll miss the “Transgressive Timbres in Improvisation” panel, which includes presentations on the “jazz weirdos of Kansas City,” and a paper on “outside music.” I don’t know anything about jazz weirdos or outside music, and the conference is a great place to learn something new.

That just gets us through Friday, and there are two more conference days after that. It is an embarrassment of riches, really.

 I know the panel you are moderating is about deciding the worst song ever. Why pick “the worst song ever” and not the best (as is typically the custom)?

JL: It fits the theme of perversion, don’t you think? Having a building full of the most dedicated and ardent music fans—people who have built their professional lives…if not their entire lives…around their love of music—and asking them to talk about music they hate…it made me laugh, and that’s a good reason to embark on a new project.

I also think you learn about a person, or a panel, or a conference, from the things they claim to dislike or hate. Some might even argue that the attributes you find in the things you hate are shadows or twins of the attributes you consider in the things you love. Talking about why you hate something is just a lot more interesting and fun. Its more perverse.

Do you have any personal criteria you are using to judge the worst song submissions you receive? Any front runners at this point of the process?

JL: I’m not serving on the panel, so I am really looking forward to hearing the criteria that the panelists will use. We sent a survey out to registered presenters at the conference, asking them to suggest three of the worst songs they knew. We got a range of answers and if I were to classify those answers, I guess I’d say they fell into the following categories: “manufactured” or insincere music (like Rebecca Black’s “Friday”); overplayed music (“Hotel California”), simpering or overly sincere music (“We Are the World”), and things that were just self-indulgent vanity projects (“Somewhere Down the Crazy River” by Robbie Robertson). I will say that I was surprised at how many people nominated songs by superstar groups like The Beatles, and how few people suggested songs associated with typically disparaged genres like Death Metal. Maybe you can’t think a song is the worst if you never listen to it? I suppose that tells you something important about what the panel will illuminate—the boundaries of our experience.

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