Phil Ford

Paging through the archives of a grad-student blog, I found a post about MC Frontalot’s Rhyme of the Nibelung, a hiphop track about Wagner’s Ring. This is an example of nerdcore hiphop, the existence of which I could have predicted but was not actually aware. I encourage you to listen to more of MC Frontalot’s oeuvre, which you can download for free here. What with the Wordsworth-rapping squirrel a couple of days ago, there seems to be something of a Dial M theme of the week emerging.

Speaking of nerdcore, how about that EMP pop conference?  It was, as I say, cop show. And I went with very few expectations — in fact, with rather low expectations. I was prepared to hate. Everybody wants to hate on the EMP pop conference, because everyone hates and fears critics, professors, hipsters, and academic conferences. Getting a bunch of hipster critics and professors together for an academic conference just seems unnatural and wrong, an affront to all that’s decent. Just as soon as I came to town I read a piece in the Seattle’s alterna-weekly The Stranger that offers an excuse: it’s just a bunch of harmless nerds getting up and geeking out about their favorite music, like fifteen-year-old kids playing each other their favorite records in the basement or, for that matter, like Star Wars obsessives showing off their action figures. Which I thought was probably bullshit, because it sounds so self-serving. We don’t judge! We love! We’re cute and brainy and don’t even notice our cultural authority! But actually, it was kind of true. This was maybe my favorite conference ever, partly because the papers were generally so good and partly because there was a vibe of total geeked-out unironic love and enthusiasm that just doesn’t come naturally to academic gatherings.

I don’t say this to dump on academic conferences. A little word of advice to those of you who are maybe thinking about applying for graduate school in musicology: don’t write a personal statement about how much you love music. No-one will take you seriously if you do that. Of course you love music; why would you be in this business if you didn’t? Academics want to see that you have ideas, not just big squishy emotions; we want to see that you have an itch in the brain you need to scratch, some idea about music that you just have to work out. Professionalization in an academic humanities program means getting past the point where you just gush about how totally awesome Wagner is, because people who take a position of uncritical advocacy tend to be conversation-killers. And in academia it’s not the strength of your convictions that matters, it’s your ability to sustain an interesting conversation. And this, in turn, depends on having a supple mind and a willingness to entertain ideas for the sake of entertaining them.

So what looks like soulless professionalism to people outside of academia is really just a way of keeping things interesting. Still, things have gotten to the point where aesthetic advocacy (i.e., saying something is awesome) is considered not only unprofessional but wrong. Saying Wagner is awesome — or, for instance, pointing to the opening contrabassoon E-flat of Das Rheingold and discussing how all the exfoliating little figures that grow out of that one note create a musical image for creation itself and then saying now that’s awesome — seems politically regressive. I’ve written about this suspicion of aesthetic pleasure before. But what struck me about the EMP pop conference was how most of its participants seemed to be pretty comfortable geeking out on their topics, and that the fanboy tone that crept into the sessions didn’t make them any less intellectually stimulating.

Quite the opposite, really. This was a great academic conference because it wasn’t strictly academic. The journalists are more apt to cultivate individual, expressive voices in their prose — this is the path by which their musical analyses gain subtlety and sophistication. Academics, as I’ve written elsewhere, tend to separate ideas from prose style and can rely more on their skilled use of specialized analytical language to make their points.* The goal of the EMP conference was always to get the two sides to rub off against one another, which is pretty much what happened. We got our peanut butter in their chocolate and they got their chocolate in our peanut butter.** The best sessions, like the hiphop panel with Joseph Schloss (who breakdanced!) and Jeff Chang, were neither exactly “academic” nor “journalistic.” What one heard at these sessions was intellectual music writing — music writing that represents that middle ground between academia and journalism that everyone has been saying doesn’t exist anymore, can’t exist anymore, died with the passing of Partisan Review‘s glory years, etc. What I got out of this year’s Pop Music Conference was, ultimately, the sense that right now pop music is a ground on which the best thinking and writing in and on our culture is taking place. One paper I particularly liked, by an NYU grad student named Devon Powers, was called “Is Rock Criticism Part of Intellectual History?” The answer seemed to be offered by the very session in which it appeared, with Mark Sinker’s curveball meditation on music that “passes the test of space” and Randall Roberts’ funny and meticulously detailed presentation of Creem’s goofy “Rock & Roll News” section, 1971-1976.

The question of what exactly an intellectual is, and how this type of person differs from an academic or a journalist, is a tough one and I don’t propose to answer it here. But to keep you going I’ll provide Stuart Hampshire’s definition, from his essay “Self-Consciousness and Society”:

First, an intellectual is someone who takes it for granted that a strenuously developed and articulate intelligence constitutes a claim to be recognized, and an independent status in society, even apart from any solid achievements in science or scholarship or literature. . . Second, an intellectual is someone who refuses to be confined to one specialized, or professional, application of his power; he will be ready to inquire into almost anything that is formulated in sufficiently strict intellectual terms, and will find delight in the process of inquiry, quite independently of the results. . . . Third, an intellectual is someone who never lowers his voice in piety, and who is not prepared to be solemn and restrained, in deference to anything other than the internal standards of the intellect and the imagination.

Intellectuals are, in other words, annoying nerds, and it is very much to the credit of the EMP pop music conference that it gives them a place to play for a few days.

*This is obviously a generalization, but still.

**This is a reference to an old commercial for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. I don’t know if the kids these days have heard this line. I wanted to make this clear because this sentence looks vaguely obscene if you don’t know the reference. [UPDATE: god I love youtube.]

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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6 Responses to Nerdcore

  1. Greg says:

    It’s funny that you should reflect upon the style and substance of a typical academic talk so soon after reports emerging from the CUNY Grad Student Conference, at which Jenny Olivia Johnson discussed her own sexual abuse, and then “dramatically flung her papers down on the podium.” No reports on whether or not there was also breakdancing…

  2. Phil Ford says:

    Hadn’t heard about this — thanks for the tip. “Performative” papers of this sort are something you see a lot at EMP, but clearly this style of intellectual work is not anyone’s exclusive property and appears to becoming more widespread. This one seems particularly audacious. We’re living in interesting times . . .

  3. Thanks for posting this. I was, of course, insanely jealous as I would have loved to have attended!

  4. Caroline says:

    Thanks for summarizing the conference much better than I ever could! I had a good time, too, and it was nice to meet you. I even ran into some critics I met in LA the next night.

  5. Mike B. says:

    Great post, thanks, although also a bit worrisome as someone who’s about to go into academia and is almost entirely concerned with aesthetics. Hopefully it’ll work out OK if I can construct an elaborate theoretical framework around it or something. (Also, I’m doing media studies instead of musicology, although I want to incorporate a lot of musicology.)
    Anyway, fair points about the performative stuff–it’s sort of hard to avoid doing, and I think when I did my talk I was perhaps so performative my point was lost, which is a good lesson for next time.

  6. Phil Ford says:

    Hi Mike —
    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any problem with “performative” presentations. As long as they’re good, that is. Joe Schloss’s was great; I can’t comment on Jenny Olivia Johnson’s, which I didn’t see. But I would sort of hope that more musicologists would get performative — so many papers are written with no thought given even to how they will sound read aloud, let alone to their dramatic impact. By all means, keep performing . . .
    Aesthetics are coming back, I think. I’ve heard the term “the new aestheticism” being bandied about lately (there’s even an edited anthology of scholarly essays by that name). And in my own case I’ve never felt particularly out-of-favor. I do aesthetics, but although this or that colleague might dislike it, I don’t think the Man’s keeping me down. (I mean, look at me, a professor and all.) Everyone is out-of-favor with someone, right? But the most important thing is to do your own thing as well as you can. Smart people respect good work, whatever its source or methodology.

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