Pop-Up Magazine: The Song Reader Issue
Monday, May 20, 2013
Davies Symphony Hall
Better than: The vast majority of print glossies.
In the four years since its inception, Pop-Up Magazine has become the go-to literary event in San Francisco -- the one that draws so many glitterati to Davies Symphony Hall that it's hard to fathom how every one of them could be drinking the same $5 beer or wearing the same pair of affordable designer glasses (a joke not lost on the producers of Pop-Up, who used it in their homemade advertisement for an eyewear sponsor). Getting in is unnecessarily challenging; snagging a good seat is as much a status symbol as landing a second tier box at the opera. Tweeting about it afterward could raise your public profile, though it's also considered outré.
The best part, of course, is the post-show appraisal, during which everyone assesses which acts were earth-shattering and which ones faltered. This time many seemed to agree. The big ticket Q&A between New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean and Beck? Total letdown. Ledisi's soulful rendition of a Beck pop tune? Just stunning. And in between there were the usual crowd-pleasers - documentarian Sam Green, who always stumbles on something profound (This time he traveled to "the quietest place on Earth" to show us that such things aren't even achievable.) or Steven Leckart, who does weird, gimmicky product demos of inventions that won't ever make it to market. (Please don't let him do that at another Pop-Up.)
But for the most part, the highlights outweigh the pitfalls, and there's little question that Pop-Up gets better with each issue. Part micro-blog, part gauzy lit magazine, it's taken the idea of ephemerality and turned it into an art. Every performer arrives with a clean, gorgeously produced piece that theoretically vaporizes when the show ends. The producers ask that no one take pictures or video. Nothing here will be repurposed or documented.
Whether everyone hews to that rule is debatable, but it's heartening that there aren't any archival performances when you search "Pop-Up Mag" on Vimeo or YouTube. And the rule seemed especially important at this iteration of Pop-Up -- called The Song Reader issue -- which mixed a series of live musical performances with narrative vignettes about music or sound. Susan Orlean interviewed Beck about his new concept record (which he called a "folio of songs"); Dan the Automator backed an indie rock band on turntables; Jessica Hopper talked about listening to Robyn during her pregnancy; Joe Hagan read old found love letters to the country star Charlie Rich. The main sponsors -- all sharing-economy businesses and content management systems -- got advertorial vignettes, as well. Some of those were even slicker than the actual magazine content.
It turns out the key to making a good Pop-Up piece is to keep it as simple and comprehensible as possible without veering into schtick -- meaning "don't try too hard" is both a rule and a credo. Many contributors go about it by exhuming a lost voice from a particular time and place -- say, the 17 year-old girl writing forlorn fan mail to a country singer in 1974, or the military brat who listened to that same country singer while shuttling across country in his parent's VW bug -- and then letting the audience draw their own conclusions.
Hagan added an extra layer by re-interviewing his subjects to find out if they still remember Charlie Rich. Really, the idea was to find out where they are now. The 17 year-old is coarse-voiced, middle-aged, and mildly dismissive of the days when girls "did stupid things like thinking they were best friends with Charlie Rich and stuff." The former military brat is Hagan -- he's a contributing editor to New York magazine.
It's a safe bet that we all have personal stories that, if dilated, revised, and refined, could serve as raw material for a Pop-Up piece. But few people really know how to telescope in on the details -- say, dad's wooden leg banging on the gas pedal as he drives down the road singing along to "Unchained Melody " (Laurel Braitman's "Past Lives"), or the errant fan letter that reveals something meaningful about being a girl in the rural south (Hagan). The writers who knew how to illustrate big things in small ways were the ones who stood out last night, on a lineup already littered with stars. We'll bet nobody remembered Susan Orlean's rather complex interpretation of the latest Beck album, but surely several people went home and watched old Charlie Rich videos on YouTube.
This was the first time that Pop-Up really hung its entire event around one A-list celebrity -- Beck -- and it seemed to work as a concept. That's mostly because Beck is old enough and arty enough to serve a lit crowd, though he's also the star whose picture we all used to clip from Rolling Stone and plaster on our bedroom walls. Others who might have worked: Reggie Watts, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, DJ Spooky. Basically anyone who's conversant in pop music and the avant-garde, but who can also drop a few thought-provoking insights for the masses.