Don's diary: Seeing the American dream in Bruce's butt

May 2, 2003

There's war in Iraq and I am going to a conference on pop music.

It is hard to suppress the sense of superficiality but, of course, music matters too - maybe more so in times such as these.

The conference is in Seattle and, unusually, brings together musicians, DJs, journalists and academics. It is being staged at the Experience Music Project, one of the world's only museums of popular music.

It is an extraordinary-looking place: funded by a Microsoft billionaire and inspired by one of the guitars destroyed by Seattle-born Jimi Hendrix. Clad in sheets of red, blue, bronze and silver steel, it looks like a giant piece of Play-doh. Although one of the locals describes it as a "multicoloured turd".

The keynote address is delivered by US music writer Greil Marcus. He finds echoes of the American dream in obscure blues tunes and in the bass lines of rock. "Some songs strip me naked," he confesses.

Today there is talk of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, but clothed in the language of Dionysus, Nietzsche and Euripides. Pentecostal "speaking in tongues" is linked to the birth of rhythm and blues; the rhythm of Louie Louie leads to the argument that Cuban music lies at the heart of rock's history. I can't compete. My own paper, on the relationship between music and politics, follows one on Bruce Springsteen's backside: Bruce's Butt: Masculinity, Patriotism, Rock's Ecstatic Body . Nevertheless, the session goes pretty well. (I make a note to work on my titles.) While all the news stations report endlessly on "Operation Iraqi Freedom", there is surprisingly little discussion of the war at the conference, despite the musical protests made by the Beastie Boys and (briefly) the Dixie Chicks, or the fact that there is a pro-war song at the top of the US country charts.

I have dinner with Mike Jones, who now teaches at the University of Liverpool but whose band once performed on Top of the Pops . He was lyricist for Latin Quarter and tells great stories about the music business.

This doesn't feel like work. Amid the traditional academic papers, there is someone testifying to the redeeming power of Johnny Thunders and someone else charting the global (and political) presence of hip-hop by rapping his paper over a jazz soundtrack.

At lunchtime, Jon Langford of Mekons sings and talks. For him, the most useful political task a musician can fulfil is to direct money to good causes (his is anti-capital punishment).

In the afternoon, there is a panel session by journalists from the hip-hop magazine Ego Trip . They answer questions selected from a vast revolving turntable. The Political Studies Association was never like this.

This is the only chance I get to look round the museum. I marvel at the way that it treats pop as seriously and unselfconsciously as other museums treat science or fine art. The array of stage clothes echoes the displays of royal dress at the Tower of London; Hendrix's lyrics and guitars are set out like so many fossils at the Natural History Museum.

Upstairs kids fight over the chance to play at scratching. I learn the riff to The Kinks' You Really Got Me and feel indecently proud. However, I fail dismally to master DJ mixing. This has been a special event in a splendid venue, but I decide to stick with the day job.

John Street is reader in politics, University of East Anglia.

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