Monday, April 19, 2004

The EMP Pop Conference was a lot of fun, and I'm sure I'll be posting a lot more about it soon, but that's gonna have to wait, because I've been spending a lot of time cleaning up my CDs. (Hint: not all of them will survive. In related news, I'm about to make some pocket change.) Anyway, it's probably a sign that I've been breathing blogosphere air too long that my three favorite presentations were all the brainchildren of fellow Blogspotters Etc. Namely, Douglas Wolk, whose tribute to fake Beatles records in early 1964 holds a special place in my heart, given my and my old friend Eric's longstanding devotion to the Liverpools' "Hey, Quiet Down There!"--which, as it turns out, was later remade into a fake Chipmunks record! Franklin Bruno's treatise on "Is That All There Is?" sounded like one of the best pop books never (yet) written. And of course, there was Joshua Clover's absolutely genius idea: Critical Karaoke. The lineup is different from the abstract's, thanks to some last minute dropouts and replacements: the main performers ended up being Clover, Daphne Brooks, Greil Marcus, Elizabeth Mendez Berry, Ange Mlinko, Ann Powers, Oliver Wang, Julianne Shepherd, and Jon Caramanica. The range was excellent, in terms of both songs and presentation; then, three folks from the audience were chosen at random to do their own in the JBL Theater, before five others, including Douglas and myself, got to go at the Liquid Lounge upstairs post-conference proper. Below, then, is the text of my Critical Karaoke as performed, more or less faithfully, in 3:13 or so:

Dancing is a communal activity, but most quote-unquote “dance music” involves solitary, non-partnered dancing; if you can feel alone in a crowded room, you can feel even more alone on a crowded dancefloor. The most important thing about George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” is how passive it is. The song makes you-slash-the singer feel coddled—musically, it’s a big red wash with gold-sparkle guitar and silver lamé hi-hats—but there’s nothing brash about the song apart from McCrae’s muttered “Sexy woman” at the top, before an organ whorls in and carries everything away. But that’s a false start, because with the first line—“Woman, take me in your arms/Rock your baby”—he turns what in the title sounds like a command into a plea. He’s surrendering himself to you, wholly and utterly. There’s confidence here, but the urgency undercuts it a little, adding a sense of hesitance to the way McCrae—or maybe just the song—approaches things. Sure, it’s sexy: McCrae coaxes his lover into seducing him. It’s a double seduction. But while nothing about the song is awkward, everything about it is vulnerable, and that, I like to think, resonates with anyone who’s ever wanted to be saved from their own loneliness.

The first time I heard “Rock Your Baby” was probably more like the 50th: last September at a bar-slash-restaurant during a workplace party. About halfway through, I realized that I’d heard it before—and that it had always sounded great, and that I’d always wondered what it was, and that I’d never found out. (Naturally, I already owned it, on a compilation.) “Rock Your Baby” is famous—the second disco single to hit no. 1—but it was new to me, and ever since then it’s sounded like the missing piece to a puzzle I’ve been forming for years. For a long time, I’ve been obsessed with what I think of as a specific form of dance music interiority—the way certain records evoke an eyes-closed, living-in-my-head introspection that balances and belies dance music’s extroverted image: the two Luomo albums, the Superlongevity compilation, Triple R’s mix-CD Friends, Richard Davis’s “Bring Me Closer,” and Armand Van Helden and Roland Clark’s “Flowerz.” In particular, “Flowerz” has always sounded to me like an aural iris shot, and as my friend Kristal Hawkins once put it, “Yes, and it’s both wonderful and too much at the same time.”

She had a point: “Flowerz” is ten minutes long. But “Rock Your Baby” is not too much; it hovers, tangible and tactile but still just out of reach. But when the rhythm guitar shadowboxes with the beat during the bridge, turning more liquid-metallic by the bar, the distance lessens. And when McCrae opens up his heart and sends out the most beautiful high note ever sung, the world sounds a lot less lonely.

--Written and performed Saturday, 17 April, 2004.