Friday, April 15, 2016

EMP Pop Conference Get UR Freak On

This is a longer version of a blog I already published; I spent some time talking and thinking about the theme - transgression and weirdness - in this one, ended up editing it out at the time but I wanted to publish the longer and more opinionated version, so here it is.

I've mentioned that I like to take engineers visiting from out of town out to see some local music. Recently the EMP held the annual Pop Conference with the theme "Get UR Freak On: Music, Weirdness and Transgression" and booked TacocaT, Chastity Belt, S and Childbirth for an opening show in the Sky Church.

This is the sort of different musical experience available in Seattle that would be hard to come by in most cities. The top few cities have comparable and better - NY, Chicago, LA, and a few other huge cities have truly varied and huge music scenes, but few cities under 1 million have the variety and depth and deep bench that Seattle has. This is exactly the sort of show I look for to take the visiting engineers - it's even all ages!

There are challenges, though. The Get UR Freak On theme and sexual content and tone are generally not appropriate in a business environment. On the show web page there were links for the bands & one of the links led directly to "I Only Fucked You as a Joke"

From the album it's a girl!
Childbirth album "it's a girl!" on Bandcamp

While this is a valid artistic expression and probably more common than anyone wants to admit (and a great song!), this is inappropriate in a business context.

On the other hand, we're talking a business context in Seattle, after all. And I've had mild problems with boundaries on occasion too, I overshare on occasion and... well, I talked myself into it.

I mitigated the risk of triggering corporate pain and HR investigations (can you tell I work at a large corporation?) by adding a "BTW If you follow the links and listen to the bands, use headphones. Some of this stuff is NSFW - REALLY!" clause to the email and sent it out to 10 coworkers at Cisco. I wouldn't try that with a larger list or a list that included more people that I didn't know well, but I felt safe in forwarding it to my coworkers, we're all adults with reasonable senses of humor.

It was a great call, of course, but that was never in doubt as far as bands go. About the only thing that didn't go well is that we took so long eating dinner before the show that we missed Childbirth - dang, they had songs I wanted to hear live. Better luck next time, I'll have to keep an eye out for them.

We managed to make it for a classic S set: introspective and haunting, guitar driven without wailing, more a reverb and space approach. Sometimes the lyrics were more out front with multiple parts, sometimes the lyrics faded into the songs yet echoed with emotions felt from a distance or remembered with fading intensity. The instruments change up on occasion for some keyboards but the haunting quality and the feeling of remembered emotional intensity remains.

The EMP Sky Church is a great place to see a show, nobody is very far from the performers and the sound is excellent. My cell phone shot above doesn't do it justice, but it gives you some idea of where we are and the scale of the performance space, anyway. I found a nice creative commons photo from Joe Mabel (here's his flickr page)
I enjoyed it but the Indian engineers were subdued - it's kinda subdued music as far as that goes, I suppose. They were looking for more active music, stronger beats and motion and dancing preferred. Dancy pop music would be more up their alley.

Chastity Belt was up next and while they're not poppy, they certainly brought a higher energy level, louder beat and more positive subject matter to the table. Chastity Belt is more guitar oriented rock and roll, loud with backbeat and a full sound - rhythm and lead guitar, bass, drums and solid rock and roll vocals. Not pretty and polished, more powerful and sneering or laughing - sometimes with us, sometimes at us, a committed performance with a fuck you if you don't like it attitude. That very attitude makes it more appealing and evocative. I just convinced myself they're punk rock too (coming from me that's a complement) but I've never sweated the categories all that much..

They use irony and hit subjects that aren't often covered, or cover them from an angle different from what you're used to. Rock and roll was originally about transgression and so was punk and so is Chastity Belt if you look at it that way. Chastity Belt holds up the great "outsider music" tradition of providing a voice for an attitude, a point of view, and excluded people that is usually drowned out and preached against and trivialized or worse still demonized.

Since my cell phone photo is lame as usual I dug up another creative commons photo so you can see what we saw. Heck, with my nearsightedness we're probably seeing more than I saw at the show in this photo, it's got details! (This photo is from Joe Mabel again; his flickr)

Chastity Belt - Pop Conference 2015 - 04 (17239409565)
The vocals in Chastity Belt are classic rock and roll, not pretty but expressive, able to get raw, to surge to a powerful crescendo and wind it back, but used in a pretty aggressive manner. This is not subtle music, this is loud amplified music that knows it's load and amplified and likes it and has a swagger or maybe a strut.

Fun set, talented band worth seeing in a great venue.

Next up was the sheer (surf?) pop sweetness of TacocaT. This was the perfect for the visiting engineers. Well executed songs, guitar driven with a great beat, very dance friendly. Bright and exuberant, TacocaT has so much fun you can't help but have fun too.

I have no idea if the visiting engineers were able to hear the vocals and understand them, they all speak and understand English very well but getting TacocaT's word play and underlying meaning can be challenging. Figuring out cultural references the first time you hear a song in a live setting in a non-native tongue would be challenging.

That's OK, they loved the show based on the music and the beat and the performer's visual appeal and what they got of the word play, it was a wonderful upbeat fun set. TacocaT always puts on a great live show - you should see them outdoors on a sunny day with a bubble machine!

Knowing what the songs are about, they are another example of songs that are "outside" of the usual POV for rock and roll. Most rock and roll has a leering attitude towards women; when Ted Nugent's song sang "Hey Baby" it was followed by "Get into the back of my car." Direct and brutal and not even remarkable back then. When TacocaT sings "Hey Girl" their purpose is exactly 180 degrees in the opposite direction: to push back on street harassment, not glorify and justify it.

The booking for this show delivered. Get UR Freak On indeed. All of the bands are out of the rock and roll mainstream in a way that seems like it shouldn't be a mainstream criteria at all: they're groups with reversed sex ratios. Some are all women, some have a token dude. This is the exact opposite of the commercial reality in the business of music. Check out Coachella and Sasquatch where the norm  is all dude bands (5 out of 6) and the cutting edge bands have one woman. All-woman-bands are unusual at festivals and that's not because there aren't a ridiculous number of talented all-women-bands out there. Anybody not mired in their privilege knows that there's structural, cultural, financial, and who knows how many other roadblocks and barriers placed in the way of creative outsiders.

Music can be a serious business that moves the cultural consensus and penetrates our careful structures of falsehoods and prejudices and silences and taboos that allow us to ignore our privileges. Ignorance of privilege and it's relative plausible deniability are important elements in helping us continue to behave as ignorant privileged assholes. I swim in privilege and I have a hard time seeing it - our culture is just that good at hiding it and normalizing it and justifying it and misdirection, and it's hard to motivate myself to give up on the illusion that I'm better than most and earned the good stuff that privilege brings.

When someone steps outside of the fake cultural construct it forces us to see our privilege or at least makes it harder to miss. Not to get all meta and cosmic about it, but music can provide access to the marginalized and disrespected, allowing them to pull back the curtain a bit.

Men have been writing and performing explicitly raunchy songs about sex with violent overtones and outright rape for decades. A few women do songs about taboo subjects like menstruation and being sex positive and they're the ones who are transgressive? This brings the ludicrous nature of things, how out of balance it is, into a clearer focus, and at the same time it increases the cultural space available for previously taboo topics. Rock and roll and the outsider music genres like it (blues, hip hop, rap, genres originally considered transgressive that have been mainstreamed) allow us to see some of the problems and illusions and fallacies of our situation if we're paying attention.

Thanks to three kick ass bands for providing a great show and a different perspective and challenging me to try to get out of my comfort zone, It ain't easy and it's never particularly done, but I'm better for the attempts.