Music Meets Politics at the 2017 MoPop Pop Conference

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2017 Pop Con discussion, "Voicing Change: The Artist and the Political Life." Left to right: Tanya Tagaq, Mike Hadreas (Perfume Genius), Meredith Graves and moderator Ann Powers

There was only one event in Seattle last weekend where you could hear about a North Carolina band's resistance to the HB2 anti-trans bathroom bill, hear post-Fukushima J-pop and sit two-feet away from the lead singer of the Talking Heads: MoPop's 2017 Pop Conference.

At the heart of the annual gathering was its theme, “Sign O’ the Times: Music and Politics.” In his opening remarks, MoPop artistic director Jasen Emmons said organizers were worried the theme, chosen before 2016 election, would be boring. “But now,” he added, “it might just seem desperate.” The comment may have recieved laughs from the crowd, but this year’s conference certainly felt more urgent, especially on Saturday as the March for Science could be seen through the museum windows. 

 

Cultural tension is good for discussion. The legendary David Byrne kicked things off Thursday evening with an effortless cool, sporting a powder blue suit and white sneakers. In a conversation with Emmons, Byrne discussed his new politcally-charged musical Here Lies Love (read our review here, and an interview with Byrne here). He went on to talk about his favorite musicians (Atlanta-based Raury and Lorde topped his list), and how he juggles so many creative projects at once (currently: consulting on Seattle's production of Here Lies Love, another play about Joan of Arc, a new album and a recently-closed experimental art exhibit in Silicon Valley). Fans were also invited to ask questions and one told Byrne he’s a “wonderful, beautiful nut,” a compliment he received with a crooked smirk.


Image by Alexa Peters
David Byrne with MoPOP’s Artistic Director, Jasen Emmons

Byrne disappeared Thursday as quickly as he appeared, on his bike no less, but consequent panels continued to yeild insights about today’s music through the eyes of academics, music critics and radio personalities. Later that night, Slate columnist Chris Molanphy presented a statistic-packed exploration of the evolution of the "All-Star Charity Single" in pop music. (If you’ve ever wanted to hear someone argue convincingly for the sales of “We Are the World,” look no further.)  

Friday morning, the anniversary of Prince’s 2016 death, NPR’s Ann Powers discussed how Jim Morrison used “his penis as a weapon” on a panel about artistic freedom, while UC Riverside associate professor of ethnic studies Jayna Brown dissected a Sinead O’Connor cover of Prince ("Nothing Compares 2 U"), DJ Lynnee Denise explored the role of DJ as archivist and Pitchfork editor Jenn Pelle spoke of the impact of facist regimes on the music of punk band The Raincoats.

Saturday continued with an exploration of the essence of soul in the 21st century. As evidence of soul’s melancholy, Duke University's I. Augustus Durham sang Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” over the music from Porgy and Bess, while author Charles L. Hughes’ exposed Lee Atwater, political strategist for the Republican party in the late 20th century, as a soul music lover and performer who exploited its power. “Atwater would say, ‘[soul] music brings us together better than federal policy,’ a convenient thing to say when he was dismantling civil rights policy...he used his love of soul to cover up his own odious methods,” said Hughes.

The conference’s final roundtable event—“Voicing Change: The Artist and Political Life”— featured Canadian Inuk singer Tanya Tagaq, writer and musician Meredith Graves from MTV and femme-punk group Perfect Pussy, as well as Mike Hadreas, who records as Perfume Genius. Tagaq began the roundtable with a display of Inuit throat-singing, pacing the stage and contorting her voice in miraculous, unbelievable ways. Hers was the only live performance of the panel, and it explored spiritual motherhood, illusions of self and most importantly, living in politicized bodies. "Living in the world as an indigenous woman in this era is a political move in itself," Tagaq said, citing that her music and performance can be as disruptive as it needs to be when she’s four times more likely to be murdered.

As the conference wrapped up, it was clear that this year's theme was neither boring nor desperate, as Emmons initially surmised, but offered a creative path forward to many of those in attendance. Hughes summed it up best, sitting in front of a small, eager audience: “I’m so happy to be here. The discussion and community I feel here allows me to move forward after the election.” 

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