CMJ '97

--New York

BOASTING PERFORMANCES BY more than 1,000 bands--most of which you will mercifully never hear--the annual CMJ Music Marathon created a week-long virtual reality, one aiming to reflect the fickle yet surprisingly conservative tastes of that heavyweight CD-buying demographic, the American College Kid. By that logic, jazz, R&B, and all manner of international music were effectively banned from the four-day multi-venue revue and conference. But what was set in its place said plenty about the creative vacuum once known as alternative rock.

The planners themselves pretty much conceded the above with an opening-night blowout devoted to various breeds of electronic music. There were high points (Daft Punk's roller-coaster cyberdisco) and low points (Sneaker Pimps' flat-footed runway rock). Yet despite the usual crowd of industry cadavers, a high proportion of folks were doing things people almost never do at these sorts of biz fetes: dancing, gettin' stoopid, and having fun.

In a nutshell, that seems to be the reason behind the rise of DJ music, not to mention that of '70s-styled kitsch, alt-country yee-ha-ing, and righteous bubblegum shallowness: the return of the Pleasure Principal. As whatever genuine emotion alterna-rock once channeled became suspect and ultimately tainted by the marketplace, dance music avoided the problem by stealthily delivering emotions through the hips. It can be dark and densely abstract (like the multi-turntable dubscapes of We and DJ Wally & Swingsett, who performed Thursday), or crazily giddy (like the whirring techno of France's Laurent Garnier, who performed Friday), or both simultaneously (the head-exploding mixes of Coldcut and DJ Food, who closed things up in the wee hours of Sunday morning). In the end, the music is about the pure joy of sound and movement, and can be appreciated on those grounds with no need to fret over whether the singer's self-loathing is honest pathology or focus-group marketing.

While most of the buzz surrounded the electronic/DJ acts, there were still guitars and singers that made an impression, albeit quietly. The new breed of hush-rock turned up at a couple of gigs by the eight-piece Scottish chamber-folk group Belle and Sebastian, who crossed Nick Drake pastoralism with the Velvet Underground. Their music was lushly romantic, but also emotionally ambivalent, with vocals so wispy the words often blew away. Even more elusive was The Daniellsson Family, a (supposed) clan of seven (supposedly) born-again kids from southern New Jersey who played a strange revival-meeting indie pop (in matching, customized hospital uniforms!) that was one part Palace, one part Pixies, and one part put-on. Chemical Brothers pal Beth Orton led a large band through some impressive, Fairport Convention-ish folk rock, while a Friday-night bill had alterna-rock stalwarts Mac McCaughan (Superchunk), Rebecca Gates (Spinanes), Mark Eitzel, Julianna Hatfield, and Ben Lee performing more-or-less acoustically--looking, it seemed, for a less heavy-handed way to put their emotions across than the options offered by their full bands.

The conference portion of CMJ kicked off Thursday with a pair of strangely confessional keynotes. Moby, who shared the fact that he comes from "a long line of repressed WASPs with big sticks up their butts," gave a sermon on personal courage, and then got politely reamed by audience members for caving in when his label requested he alter potentially offensive lyrics in the video for his cover of Mission of Burma's "Revolver." Ex-rock critic Marilyn Manson, meanwhile, confessed "music is an excuse for me to talk shit," then advised parents in the audience on how to raise kids to form their own opinions through his music. Can a collaboration with Raffi be far behind?

In the wake of an industry-wide recession and big-fish-eats-little-fish corporate mobsterism, the conference featured plenty of panels about the sorry state of the biz. But ex-REV 105 poobah Kevin Cole waxed optimistic in one business-is-hell session, while compadre Shawn Stewart (now associate music director of WXPN-Philadelphia and co-producer of the wonderfully eclectic World Cafe (unsyndicated here in the Twin Cities--hello MPR?)) discussed the improving status of female musicians and bizers during a panel on women in the industry. But mostly the discussions were the usual mix of hand-wringing and self-promotion--an odd foil for a festival of new music that, more than anything else, urged people to shut up and dance.

 
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