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Friday, April 20, 2007

A constructive criticism for Pop Conference participants

posted by on April 20 at 6:00 AM

There is a point I did not address in my essay about the Pop Conference this week, mostly due to space limitations. But the manner in which some questions were raised, and opinions were voiced, during the Q&A following Jonathan Letham’s thoughtful keynote address last night compels me to raise it here. Because it is something crucial that has always made me apprehensive about the Pop Conference. It is, bluntly, a bug up my ass:

Folks in academia and critical theory often employ a lexicon that many people are largely unfamiliar with. And if you are discussing pop music in an exclusively academic or critical forum, fine… use it willy-nilly. Higher education doesn’t come cheap. Get some bang for your buck.

But when speaking an event open to the general public – and now that attendance is free, this is hopefully truer than ever of the Pop Conference – this sort of language can alienate other people, discourage them from participating in discussions, and obscure relevant points. It is one thing to use a three-dollar word or complicated construction in a written paper – where the reader has the luxury of putting the book down, and reaching for the dictionary, or diagramming your sentence meticulously to distill the prose to its essence – or a classroom where students are expected to take notes*, and quite another to use these tools when addressing a listening audience in real time.

The exciting thing, to my mind, about the Pop Conference, is the way it opens up a very broad, visceral medium to all sorts of speculation and theorizing and daydreaming. It can be a valuable forum for disseminating big ideas. A chance to share knowledge that could resonate powerfully with someone who might otherwise be oblivious of your subject matter. To turn a complete stranger on to the best band/song/record ever. So why sabotage yourself by speaking in jargon that is only familiar to a small tribe?

* Or even a song lyric. Green Gartside of Scritti Politti has increased both my vocabulary and casual knowledge of philosophers on numerous occasions.

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Amen, Kurt. Lethem was great, but that Q&A was extremely discouraging. It went from initially combative to totally pompous, neither of which are a good look for a Q&A. Extra low scores go to the dude with the self-aggrandizing preamble about Philip K Dick that had nothing to do with his question, the old white guy who told the young black man what the term clown meant for black people as opposed to white people, and the woman who wanted to discuss the cross-cultural appearances of the trickster figure (though she retains some points for not explicitly mentioning Raven or Coyote). Bonus points for the kid who asked if Lethem though Kurt Cobain may have been murdered.

Posted by Eric Grandy | April 20, 2007 9:35 AM

it didnt strike me as a joke at first, but the more i reflected on it, the more i believed that kid asking about cobain mustve been bullshitting the bullshitter, which was great. totally caught the room off-guard and called out the self-seriousness of the whole thing.

Posted by jz | April 20, 2007 10:58 AM

I couldn't agree more. I hate jargon, especially trendy jargon. At least the phrase "rockism" is starting to lose currency. At the conference a few years ago, it was all anyone could talk about, and yet it's one of those insider terms that only serves to exclude people who aren't already part of "the club" (however you choose to define that term, i.e. music critics, academics, etc.). I think all general interest writing should be inclusive on some level. For anyone who wasn't there, "the old white guy" to whom Eric refers was Robert Christgau. I thought his point was a good one, but he made it in a presumptious manner, which negated much of its value.

Posted by Kathy Fennessy | April 22, 2007 3:06 PM

The next day at the conference I realized that was Christgau (I'd never seen him in person before). For a second I felt weird about having called him out, but then I thought about it, and I realized that even the Dean should know better than to tell someone what a word means to people of their ethnicity (or gender or class. Even if it's essentially a valid point.

Posted by Eric Grandy | April 23, 2007 10:19 AM

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