Category Archives: Pop Conference

The Hidden Depths of “Seasons in the Sun”

7 inch

Here’s the presentation I gave at the 2019 Pop Conference, where the theme was MUSIC, DEATH AND AFTERLIFE. As soon as that theme was announced, I knew I was going to pitch a paper about the odd history of “Seasons in the Sun,” and how/why Terry Jacks made it a multi-million selling success, when multiple artists before him had recorded remarkably similar versions of the song that went nowhere, commercially. 

By some miracle, I got through the entire talk without crying once.

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What I Learned in Jail

2 Live CrewHere’s a longer version of the presentation I gave at this year’s Pop Conference, about Too Much Joy’s brief moment of playing protest music, and what that taught me about the skepticism that so often greets artists who take political stands. The first draft, and associated video clips, lasted 30 minutes, so I had to shave off a third of it at PopCon. This post restores the bits it killed me to lop off, although, really, I could keep talking about this for hours. Continue reading

Budweiser Bought My Baby

This bud life2one was presented at the 2011 Pop Conference. David Lowery, who also presented that year, suggested that reluctance to license music to commercials was mostly about class, as you have to be pretty privileged in the first place to turn down money. That didn’t make me feel much better, but another thing he told me sure did: he’d spent time as a quant for some investment firm, and he said the traders there had a very unique take on being an unrecouped band. “That means you won!” they told him, when he explained how major label contracts tended to work. The way they looked at it, being unrecouped was less a mark of failure than of getting the better end of a transaction.

The closest my band, Too Much Joy, ever came to breaking up was in 1991, as we argued about whether we should accept a lucrative offer to record a radio jingle for Budweiser, which I personally considered the second worst beer in America.

The argument began in our manager’s office. My position was not nuanced: commercials were antithetical to every reason we’d formed our rock band in the first place. This was debased, and rock bands – especially indie rock bands — needed to be pure. Continue reading

The Quiet Revolution

While walkman20the amazing storage capacity mp3 players made possible at the turn of this century felt pretty profound, the Walkman was a more revolutionary consumer electronic device, as this presentation from the 2010 Pop Conference attempts to explain. I searched in vain when writing this for a Malcolm McLaren quote I remembered from the late-’70s/early-’80s, in which he damningly contrasted white people hiding behind Walkman headphones with black youth who more proudly imposed their soundtracks on the world around them. Like a lot of things McLaren said, it was savvy, provocative, and wrong. Turns out those headphones had more power to shape the environment.

The world changed, quietly, on June 22nd 1979, the day Sony unveiled the first “personal stereo” to skeptical journalists in Tokyo .


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Endlessly Horny For Wonder And Magic

Presented bat_lp_coverat the 2009 Pop Conference, and later published as a chapbook which you can purchase for 99 cents from Feedback Press, or from Amazon if you prefer an electronic edition. I have no humorous anecdotes about this one, as they are all contained within the paper itself. But I should probably explain that it’s broken up into pretentiously-titled sections, including an overture and a coda, because that seemed like the best way of honoring an album that is so lovably, ridiculously overwrought. If it’s not clear from everything that follows, I still adore this record. There’s a lot to admire in being ridiculous and overwrought.

Overture: The Cover

It’s 1977, bleeding into 1978. I am 12 years old. This is on my wall,

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Good News For Yo La Tengo

Thisjuke presentation from the 2007 Pop Conference was oddly controversial, in that during the Q&A I was taken to task for supposedly lauding a future full of white guitar players. If you think the paper’s title is one more example of cloistered music critics privileging indie rock, well, then my saying “Good News For Yo La Tengo just sounds funnier than Good News For Luther Vandross” probably isn’t going to change your mind. But the point remains that the examples that follow have analogs in every genre. I do think Indie Rock is more prone than most genres to view a gap between critical and commercial success as something desirable, though, so I’m particularly interested to see what happens if/when there are more than just psychological rewards for being a critic’s darling.

I am here to make some proclamations about the future of the music business. I should provide a couple caveats at the outset, however. First, I will confess I’m not 100% sure whether what follows is a prediction or a just a wish. I’m pretty confident (so, like, 99%) it’s the former, but I offer that 1% of doubt as a little place of refuge anyone who disagrees with me can go try to build a city where all the citizens do their best to keep the existing, depressingly diseased music business functioning as-is indefinitely. Good luck with that. Continue reading

How To Write About Music You Hate

ears-dissonanceI read this at the 2006 Pop Conference in Seattle. When I was finished, Robert Christgau ran up to me and said, “Who is Mike McGuirk and why haven’t I heard of him?” The answer to the first half of that question is, “The best natural music blurb-er I’ve ever seen.” The answer to the second half is a mystery even to Mike, I think. 

Like, I assume, most of the people at this conference, I have what average citizens, upon entering my home or office, almost always declare to be a frighteningly large music collection: LPs, CDs, cassettes, hundreds of gigabytes of mp3s scattered across an array of hard drives and portable devices — it all gathers in piles both physical and virtual wherever I spend serious time. When these average citizens are new or casual acquaintances, they often move from commenting on the vast and tottering nature of the stacks of discs to making deductions along the lines of, “You must really like music, huh?”

I almost always reply with a semi-embarrassed, “Kind of,” which is the most honest answer I can give. Though my collection is indeed larger than the average citizen’s, it’s far smaller than that of most of my music geek friends, and the reality is I hate far more music than I like. Continue reading

Going Through the Motions: Why Pete Townshend’s Windmill Works Even When He Doesn’t Mean It

pete wightI presented this one at the 2004 Pop Conference. It was later published in the academic journal Popular Music, with an introduction by Jason Toynbee, and followed by some back and forth between Jason and me, in which we argued good-naturedly about the different ways academic writing and popular writing tend to analyze the same phenomenon. In other words, the piece was a microcosm of everything great and infuriating about the Pop Conference itself.

We’re going to start with some film — the Who playing “Young Man Blues” at the Isle of Wight in 1970. I’ve always loved the Who, but I never really cared for their version of this song until I first saw this clip, which just nailed me to my seat. I actually got goose bumps – all the hairs on both my arms stood straight up. I watched it again the next morning when I wasn’t so stoned to make sure I’d seen what I thought I had, and it still blew me away.

The song lasts for about five and a half minutes, and during that time you witness a wild transformation: the band starts out playing the song, but by the end it’s the other way around — the music takes over, and it’s the song that’s playing the band. As a fan and a critic, of course, I live for moments like that. More importantly, though, as a guy who spent a good ten years on the road in a band that very much wanted to be the Who (actually, the Clash, but it’s really the same thing), I know just how easy those moments are to fake, and how that can make chasing after genuine onstage epiphanies not just a point of honor, but a physical craving that gets harder and harder to satisfy the more often you do it. Continue reading

Been Caught Stealing

My samplersecond Pop Conference presentation, from 2003. The audio from this one is still available at KEXP. I believe E. Michael Harrington was on the same panel, with a proposal for a much more sane sample clearance apparatus in which any sampled entities would automatically split a % of the song’s earnings, sampled works would have to have been in the market at least 5 years, and samples would have to be under 10 seconds. Seems like a reasonable set of conditions to me.

I Was Going To Title This Paper “Been Caught Stealing,” But Warner Wanted Five Grand And Perry Farrell’s Publisher Demanded 50% Of Any Money It Ever Made: Why All Artists Should Be Horrified By Sample Clearance Practices

I’m going to talk about sampling from the artist’s perspective. Actually, I guess, there are two artist perspectives: there’s the one of the artist doing the sampling, and there’s the one of the artist being sampled. Although almost everything I say is going to describe the view of a sampler rather than a samplee, I really don’t think there’s any serious difference between the two, and I hope by the time I’m done you’ll understand why that’s so. Although the sampling battles that make it as far as court are often reported and debated as though they pit the interests of two artists against one another, that’s a gross oversimplification. Sampling disputes always represent a conflict between the rights and needs of an artist and the rights and needs of a copyright owner, and that’s a very important distinction for two reasons. Reason number 1 is that the copyright owner usually isn’t an artist, but a corporation that has amassed its market power by convincing as many artists as possible to transfer their copyrights to the corporation. Reason number 2 is that even when the copyright owner actually is an artist, he almost never talks like one while he’s pursuing a copyright infringement case. Continue reading

Topless At The Arco Arena

My T-shirt_logo no namevery first Pop Conference presentation, given at the very first Pop Conference, and written at the suggestion of organizer Eric Weisbard, who sensed there might be something worth exploring in the whole dot-com-explosion-scoops-up-random-musicians-and-writers-of-previously-questionable-corporate-value dynamic. He was right enough that I kept going after the paper was finished — it became the title and the theme of Wonderlick’s second album, whose 16 songs attempted to analyze the same thing from a variety of different angles. The result was catchier than that might sound. What follows served as the liner notes to that album, and was also included in This Is Pop! (Oxford University Press), a compendium of papers from the conference, where it sits between contributions from Simon Reynolds and Carrie Brownstein. Good company, and a good example of the range of perspectives the conference has always attracted.

One night in April 2001 I jumped in a white stretch limousine with the CEO of, the Vice President of Business Development, one of our Strategic Account Managers, and several cases of beer. We drove from San Francisco to the Arco Arena in Sacramento to see AC/DC in concert. In the middle of the show, while the band played “The Jack,” cameras connected to the giant TV screens panned the crowd of 20,000 rock fans wearing blinking devil horns emblazoned with the AC/DC logo, looking for a female willing to strip. While several ladies appeared ready to undo a button or two on their blouses, the cameras seemed able to tell they were poseurs, and finally settled on a young, exuberant blonde. As the band vamped, she began to remove her shirt, timing her moves perfectly so she could flash her breasts in diamond vision as the music climaxed and the crowd went wild. Continue reading