Locals Only: The EMP Music Conference Explores Pop & Politics In L.A.

(Launched by the Experience Music Project in Seattle in 2002, the EMP Pop Conference is designed to convene academics, critics, artists, and fans in a collective discussion. This year's EMP Pop Conference took place April 17-21 in Seattle, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and New York.)

By Melissa Blazek

The Los Angeles installment of the 2013 Experience Music Project Pop Conference — affectionately referred to as "Popcon" — gathered academics, journalists, ethnomusicologists, pop culture experts, and music rulebreakers and aficionados to discuss what they loved, and hated, about pop music. Held April 19–20 on the campus of the University of Southern California and at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater in downtown, the intimate gathering featured a wealth of passionate discourse about Southern California's uniquely cultivated music scenes, sounds and impact.

Centered on the theme of "Locals Only: Pop & Politics In This Town" — a play on graffiti often scrawled by surfers near local SoCal beaches to mark their territory — several panels debated the idea that the Millennial generation has been raised in a way that's made them removed from the "place" in pop music as they are more prone to discover and experience music via the Internet and social media than in a local club. A total of nine enthusiastic panels touched on a wide range of the region's vast pop music history. Among the highlights was the opening night panel, held April 17 at the West Hollywood Library, which detailed the short-lived but influential '90s underground alt-music haven Jabberjaw, once located in L.A.'s shifty mid-city neighborhood. Moderated by singer/songwriter and journalist Allison Wolfe (Bratmobile, Partyline), the panel included club owner Michelle Carr, musicians Eric Erlandson (Hole) and David Scott Stone (LCD Soundsystem, the Melvins), and Jabberjaw scenester Raquel Gutierrez. Placed in a historical context along L.A.'s music timeline, the case for the importance of the unglamorous, slightly illegal coffeehouse/club was successfully made, both as a haven for a community of disenfranchised kids and as an essential DIY proving ground for dozens of bands, including Nirvana and L7.

The "good kid/m.A.A.d. City" panel was an academic listen-and-learn session analyzing the compelling 2012 album of the same name by hip-hop newcomer Kendrick Lamar. Panelists argued that the complex album is steeped in the hip-hop legacy and poetry of Compton, yet embodies more intimate and authentic relationships with women, death, religion, and ambition than Lamar's musical forebears N.W.A. and Snoop Dogg. The album was contextualized within Compton's intricate social, educational and music culture by professors Robeson Taj P. Frazier (USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism), Anthony J. Ratcliff (California State University, Northridge, Pan-African studies department) and Damien M. Schnyder (Scripps College, Africana studies department).

Another deep-dive experience was the "Revisiting The Long Beach Scene" panel. Former Sublime drummer Marshall Goodman (Long Beach Dub Allstars) and Suburban Rhythm vocalist Dennis Owens discussed the origins and specific influences of Orange County's music scene, which was brilliantly mapped out by Sarah Bennett, Long Beach Post executive editor and freelance journalist, and probed by Brett Mizelle, professor of history and director of the American studies program at CSU Long Beach.

The "Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls" panel addressed both the end of hair metal, which was prominent on the '80s Sunset Strip scene, and a fascinating examination of score music in X-rated films (one of the San Fernando Valley's most-exported products). Two of the founders of "krumping," Miss Prissy (Marquisa Gardner) and Lil' C (Christopher Toler), revealed the magical evolution of the freestyle dance movement, which flourishes in North Hollywood, drawing dancers from throughout the state to a weekly midnight parking lot meet-up (the movement was the subject of the 2004 documentary Krumped, directed by one-time official GRAMMY artist David LaChapelle). Other topics included radio listening habits of Mexican immigrants, the Southland's performance art community and the gender-blending of '80s new wave pop. In other words, there was something for everyone.

SoCal's colorful and textural music fabric was woven into the weekend's discussions, all of which spilled out into the hallways after the panels. Despite the concern for the new media kids on the block, by the end of Popcon it was clear that local and regional history are indeed well-preserved in both oral and written form, and are being thoroughly taught at the university level, assuring us that California's pop roots will live on to inform future generations of writers, musicians and scholars. 

(Melissa Blazek is a freelance editor and writer specializing in music and pop culture. She lives in Los Angeles with a dog named Shakespeare.)

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