Last weekend I went to my first ever Experience Music Project conference. EMP has been hosting conferences for 10 years and this one was their first outside Seattle. There are plenty of twitter feeds for those interested in a blow-by-blow (including me coming out with a good 1-liner in the Q&A and then realizing that I’d better not take credit for it since it’s not mine). So let me note some things that seem to set this conference apart:
1. Like the Dickens Universe, an opera studies conference and some ethnomusicology events I’ve been to, this conference is populated by people who are not embarrassed to admit to liking what they study. I always find this refreshing in the humanities –versus a certain critical theoryish and avant-gardist distrust of pleasure more sometimes found at conferences. I feel this way even though I prefer to stay a step or two away from my own enjoyment in my work. (I’m the child of social scientists and despite not believing in objectivity, some of that “distance from your material” thing has evidently rubbed off.)
2. Most of the popular music conferences I’ve heard about that had journalists and academics together involved some kind of fight between journalists and academics about predictable things over which academics and journalists would argue. EMP seems to have somehow totally* overcome that unfortunate tendency–probably because of how it’s pitched. People argued, but about substantive matters.
3. The overall vibe was welcoming and positive. Although there is a star system in place there (and I admit to enjoying meeting famous people and people who I’d read — but I also really enjoyed meeting some people I’d never heard of who had some pretty brilliant talks), people seemed generally humble and friendly and interested in other people. As a non-music scholar, Carrie* had very little to do with the conference but showed up to a couple things and people were nice to her, which is a great test since some of the people I met had read me ahead of time.
4. The standards for presentation quality are much, much higher than the regular academic conference. I’m not saying every presentation was amazing, but that the average and mean were much higher in terms of sheer interestingness, performance quality, integration of music examples, wittiness, etc. I don’t think scholarship needs to be entertainment, but I also don’t think there’s any great virtue in reading out unrevised and unpracticed written text from a page. As with every conference, there were panels where I learned a ton and papers where I couldn’t exactly tell you what I learned. But even on those, the material was usually at least fun and engaging. Anyway, this was particularly inspiring and well-timed for me. I’ve given a few long form talks this year and it’s still quite physically difficult. My voice sounds like my old voice but isn’t–one working vocal cord is a whole new thing. So the multimedia angle is particularly enticing to me. I would actually recommend the conference to people outside the field who simply want to see what good presentations can look and sound like.
As for EMP next year, I am going to have to think about raising my game a little bit.
* UPDATE: someone pointed out to me that Robert Christgau took a cheap shot at a grad student’s paper title in his blog. Not the organizers’ responsibility–I’m still giving them credit for a great vibe–but I just lost some respect for Christgau.
**Since we share our work all the time, Carrie has developed a certain expertise in sound studies and popular music over the years just reading my work, as I’ve developed some knowledge about victim politics and political theory from reading hers. This means that she can sit in a music studies panel and tell if the paper is new or good or not, even though she has no direct engagement with the field. It’s not the same kind of expertise as actually being the one doing the work, but still.