As it happens, today is Van Morrison’s 75th birthday, and that’s certainly a day worth celebrating, with a playlist featuring some of his best work. Morrison has never shied away from controversy, whether it's his dalliance with Scientology in the early 80s or his recent insistence that the music world needs to ignore social distancing guidelines and go on with the business of concerts. I don’t always agree with his point-of-view, but unlike a number of other controversy- courting artists – Ted Nugent, for example, or Kid Rock – you simply can’t deny the depth of his musical genius. Many, many people have covered Morrison. In fact, I can’t think of another
songwriter, other than Lennon and McCartney, who has spawned so many tributes, from artists as diverse as Englebert Humperdink, John Lee Hooker, and Iggy Pop. All that’s leaving aside Kevin Rowland who came close to turning Dexy’s Midnight Runners into a cover band while revealing that there was enough in Morrison’s sound to support two acts. The real hallmark of his musical genius though are the many insightful themes he mines in his work. Songs such as “Into the Mystic” tie into a deep spiritual quest for meaning. Often that quest is tied specifically to an interest in his own childhood and his native Ireland, in songs like “Sweet Thing” or “Caravan.” At other moments, this turns into a deep appreciation for the history of his own art form, in tracks such as “Domino,” which was written to honor Fats Domino and “Jackie Wilson Said.” The latter demonstrates that beyond the gentle nostalgia and childlike wonder of his more reflective work, his tone can be equally rough and raw. Has anyone ever been as forceful in his profession of love as Morrison is in “Gloria?” In the end, he is one of the most prolific and diverse songwriters of all time while at the same time he has created a body of work that is immediately recognizable.
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You are listening to the Pop Culture Academy podcast. In this week's episode we're talking about artist revisions - revisions that work, revisions that don't work. George Lucas, for instance. Don't forget you can follow us on Twitter and FaceBook or subscribe to our YouTube channel. You can always find us at our home base at popcultureacademy.com.
Greetings and salutations and welcome to season 2, episode 18 of the Pop Culture Academy where we do our very best to treat pop culture with the seriousness that it deserves. So, as always, let's start with what we've been up to since our last episode before we get into the meat of the show. So last night my wife and I finished HBO's latest documentary, I'll Be Gone In The Dark, which you may know deals with the Golden State Killer who was, spoiler alert, sentenced just this week, sentenced to life. Deals with that case, particularly through the eyes of Michelle McNamara who's tireless work and bestselling book helped to reshape that case and bring it to national attention. So the story is really interesting if you're interested in true crime, if you're interested in serial killer kind of things. But if you follow the headlines you probably know most of the highlights. I will say the documentary is really well done, just as a documentary. I thought it was very well directed. Hits all the right notes. Raises some important questions about the nature of people and how we can never really know anyone, no matter how close we may be to them. When we turned this off last night that's what we sort of couldn't get out of our heads is this idea that even if they are family members, even if it's your spouse, you can't ever know anybody. And I mean, in some ways that's a very frightening sort of thing to say but if you think about it we simply can't break out of our skulls, you know, our consciousness. And as long as that's true we're always going to be mysteries to each other. And oddly enough, I mean, if this makes you feel any better, you're going to be in some ways a mystery to yourself, that is - your spouse will probably know you better than you know yourself in some ways. But you can't ever really truly know what's going on, how someone else is seeing the world. And in extreme cases you get somebody like the Golden State Killer.
Meanwhile I've been re-reading Red Dragon, one of the Hannibal Lecter novels, so not sleeping great at night the last week or two. I've tried to counter balance that darkness, and you know everybody needs a little darkness in their lives, tried to counterbalance that darkness with Mary Chapin Carpenter's latest album which is called Between the Dirt and the Stars, and actually that album as you'll see led me to this week's topic. I've read a lot of reviews that talk about how that album - the word that I keep running across is "reflective". And that's true for what it's worth. But my first experience of Mary Chapin Carpenter was back in 1992 with her album Come On Come On. Amazing album. One of those albums that is part of the soundtrack of my life. If you had to choose those 5 albums that make up your - you know that can just take you back to a moment in your life and that is certainly one for me. But it seems to me that she certainly might have been called reflective back then and that was almost twenty years ago. So, is it startling to say Mary Chapin Carpenter album is reflective? Frankly, I don't know anyone whose lyrics and sound and vocal delivery really pack so much nostalgia into the package of a song. And that's not always a good word, I know, nostalgia, we don't always like that word. It can seem smarmy or sugary or sentimental. But it's not in this case and I'm going to say something else that's probably not going to make it sound any better but Carpenter always makes you find the heart in every experience; like what is that - if you go back to your memories, what is the piece of the memory that tugs on you the most? Carpenter just manages to nail that in virtually every song that she does.
But all right, so this week I want to talk a little bit about the idea of revision, that is, re-making work. If we're talking about songs, and we will, songs that are re-made. And of course we know that that's a very common thing. We'll get into exactly what we mean for this episode but a couple of years ago Mary Chapin Carpenter's previous album, this is the 2018 I believe, was a collection of songs that actually she'd recorded before, one from each of her previous records. I think there were twelve records and then she added one additional new song to the album. So she took one song from each of her records and re-recorded it which actually is becoming a kind of a common thing for different reasons. That same year, as a matter of fact, in 2018, Paul Simon released a very similar album which he actually has said would be his last album. We'll see if that holds. But he also went back to songs from throughout his career, in his case songs that he just wasn't happy with them for some reason or another. He liked the songs, he liked the idea of the songs, maybe the lyrics but he just didn't feel like they were right. And so he went back and re-recorded them. And then of course within the last year (and I think this album did pretty well though I'm not sure I understand why) but Sting did something similar, came out with an album called My Songs which sort of went back through his catalog and re-recorded several of these songs both with The Police and as a solo artist. And all of this got me thinking about what it means to revise a body of work. And we'll talk about musicians, we'll talk about directors. This happens in several different genres.
But revision, it actually - as I was thinking about it - it raises a lot of interesting questions and that's kind of what usually gets me into a topic for the week is what kind of questions seem to bubble up to the surface when you're thinking about a pop culture subject. So, we could start with for instance - do we need new versions of things that we already know? Right? I think it's generally pretty well acknowledged - I don't know whether - I don't want to get into whether they are right or not but, I mean this many people can't be wrong. It's generally acknowledged that the Star Wars fan universe has never been happy with George Lucas' insistence on returning to those movies and tinkering with them. You know, the question is, do we need another new release of Star Wars with additional 30 seconds of bonus footage? People always ask this question and I think it's a fair question - do we need another version of "Satisfaction" or can we just say that The Rolling Stones kind of nailed it and we don't need to worry about it anymore? And yet we keep getting these new versions of "Satisfaction". But there are a lot of other questions that come up about revision as well and hopefully we'll hit on some of those as we go through the show.
In a sense most artists are quite familiar with the process of revision, it's something that they kind of get very used to and maybe get attached to in some ways. It's something that's usually built into the creative act. You don't just sit down to write the great American novel and just kind of vomit it out, you have to outline it. You have to draft it. You have to play with it. You have to have other people look at it, play with it a little more, revise, revise, revise. You're not done until it satisfies you or at least until it satisfies some judge, a publisher in this case. Now of course the exception to this rule would be the Beats, right? The Beat poets. Ginsberg, Kerouac, all those guys who like to proclaim "first draft, best draft" though, I mean, that was something of a misnomer. You know, if you know Kerouac, the story is - well this isn't a story this is the truth - famously he typed On the Road, the manuscript On the Road, on one long roll of teletype paper, just feeding it and feeding it into the typewriter and no breaks and no editing.
But...he'd been keeping notes for a long time and sort of shaping his ideas, thinking through the material. Now none of that completely diminishes the myth that the book is a "first draft, best draft". But it does complicate it a little. But I mean, revision for most artists is a fairly complicated thing. Creativity in general is this painful process. I was reminded while watching this documentary about Michelle McNamara just a couple of days ago. I had a professor once who said there's nothing quite as excruciating or quite as painful as the process of taking this thing, this idea that's in your head. In your head it's all shiny and beautiful and perfect and then putting it out there into the world in some form that can never be perfect, that's necessarily going to be flawed. And my professor said that that is the source of all procrastination, right? And it afflicts everyone from opera composers to first year comp. students. I mean it's just too hard to confront that. We all have good ideas; that's just a given. We all have these wonderful ideas in our minds it's just too hard to get them out and that's what separates the person who can do it and who can become the artist from the person who procrastinates for their entire life. And you know, I mentioned Michelle McNamara earlier, in the documentary Patton Oswalt, her husband, talks about telling her that finishing a work is actually the hardest thing because you've got those last beautiful bits of the idea, the last ones that are left and that are desperately clinging on to their perfect state. They don't want to leave your head and you have to, you really have to force them out to kill the perfect idea in order to complete the imperfect idea. So in these terms, revision becomes, it's a chance to try to take the awfulness that you've put it in and make it more like what's in your head and that can be - in some ways that's a very gratifying process to get it more and more like what you imagine it to be. In other ways it's a very difficult process because how do you do that? How do you capture what that perfect state was and how do you know, for instance, here's another question, how do you know when to let go?
Now, of course, we could talk about all kinds of revisions. In particular, probably the first thing this brings to mind at least when I think of revision is the cover song or the film remake or television remake. What does it mean to take someone else's work and to remake it, to transform it into something else? And that's a fascinating subject and it's one that's very apropos. I mean, this year's slate of films we've already seen Call of the Wild, The Invisible Man, Dolittle, we've had a live action Mulan. Secret Garden is coming out soon. I say "coming out" in whatever way things are going to come out. The Witches. We've got a new Dune coming up. We've got a new Westside Story. And all of that, all of those re-makes are just this year. But my interest in this episode, I mean, that's a whole episode in itself and it needs to be dealt with but my interest here is in what makes an artist themselves go back to their original work and take another stab at it. And I mean, you know, obviously revision is part of almost every artist's process. But once the thing - the artifact, the work of art - gets out there into the world, what causes an artist to want to pull it back again and change it? And of course, that raises the question, maybe, when is something done? Right? How do you know it's done. How do you know when to let go of it - when you release a film in theaters and I'm looking at your George Lucas, do you call it finished and let it go? Shouldn't you, I guess? I mean, isn't that the convention that once you release it into the theater you've let go of it? You know, there's actually a whole wikipedia article I was looking at today - all of the changes, the big and small changes that Lucas made over the years to his original trilogy. Now I assume since he's sold it now to Disney that life of Star Wars, that sort of revisionist tendency that Lucas kept having that that's over.
But I don't know. And I guess it's impossible to really answer the question why he made each of the changes. Probably they all stemmed from different impulses. Obviously some of them had to do with advancing technology, right? Lucas feels or felt that a film like Star Wars is so rooted in technology which was in many ways a technological breakthrough, invented so many special effects that a film like that should be updated to match the times. It shouldn't be allowed to sort of look dated I suppose. And so you get CGI storm troopers and you know these new creatures on Tatooine to sort of, I don't know, go with the times and the times were CGI. Now, you know, the CGI was fairly primitive and some of it doesn't look great now. I mean, in fact, in some ways maybe he aged those films, you know, by trying to prevent them from aging. I don't know. Some of his changes were to restore things, obviously, that the studio had insisted he cut. For example, his relationship to his childhood friend Biggs which some people felt was a distraction from other parts of the film. But restored, and this is an example of where the restoration that Lucas does, the revision that Lucas goes through actually maybe gives more depth to Luke's character; this childhood friend who dies. Some of the changes have to do with the progression of the films that is, for instance, Episode IV, that title wasn't added until we had a second film coming out, right? Until there was Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars was it's own singular thing and so, you know, so they go back - well you know, again, there are debates about why he chose Episode IV. Did he know up front that he was going to go back and do I,II,III or was it a gimmick? Doesn't matter. But that gets added after the fact because something happened, another film is coming out. Another change - the ghost of Anakin Skywalker that shows up at the end of Jedi has been altered, you know, several times to reflect whatever has happened to move that universe forward so that now I think, I guess - I assume it is still Hayden Christensen who's there in that little trilogy of ghosts.
On the other hand it isn't completely clear why Greedo has to shoot first in the cantina scene. That's the one that really bothers people I think. It seems only to make Han a "better guy" and I think there are lots of us who sort of liked him more when he was a little bit scruffier, when he was more of an outlaw I guess, to be perfectly frank.
But then there are whole other issues here - who controls, who owns a work of art? Right? And again, this is an enormous issue and this is just to touch on it but I think Star Wars fans would definitely say that they should have rights when it comes to that universe. They, you know we've talked about, we talk all the time about universes on here, we talk about fictional universes. The fans are the ones, the viewers, the audience, those are the people who inhabit that universe or who come to live in that universe along with the characters that the artist creates. And they like, those fans particularly Star Wars fans, like to make their voices heard. And, you know, do they have a point? I mean, if you are an artist you say look, I made this. It's mine. What was the way that, I guess it was Chris Carter's old ending to all The X-Files episodes - "I made this." It's mine and I'm in charge of whether it gets changed. And if I want to change it, it's mine and I'm going to change it. And we talked recently about the idea that that notion of ownership is part of a long cultural era where the book is the main kind of art, and the painting, and these two are usually solo productions. So we develop this idea because those are our two main art forms; we develop this idea that the author owns her work. But once she publishes it, produces it or, you know, puts it out there into the world, is it really still hers? Do I get to decide what a movie means as an audience member? As the viewer? Don't I get a say in what a movie means? Or is the director the only one who can really, you know, the only person who's allowed to interpret it.
Of course, revision is an important issue historically. Charles Dickens famously had to rewrite the ending to Great Expectations to please his audience who wanted the characters to live happily ever after. So there's an incident where the revision wasn't the author's own idea but rather the audience kind of pushed that revision on him. Henry James is very famously associated with revisions; constantly, I mean, he was the original George Lucas, right? Constantly going back and tinkering with his novels and in fact he re-issued the entire set, right, in a new edition late in his life that he'd revised very heavily. Now, you know, in James's case you sort of get the mature master giving you all he has, right? It's like going back to his works from when he was younger and less experienced and less of a gifted writer and fixing those shortcomings and making it better. I want to put forward as I'm nearing the end of my life I want to put forward my work in the very best way that I possibly can. Should that be allowed? Don't look at the junk I made when I was younger. Look at how good I am now.
On the other hand if we go back just a bit to the world of jazz I don't know that any song in jazz was or is ever fixed, right? No song is thought of as completed or done. How many recordings do we have of Thelonious Monk playing "Around Midnight"? How many recordings do we have of Bill Evans playing "Waltz for Debbie"? And each one of those is a completely different interpretation by the artist because that thing, that thing that they are playing isn't considered done when they get to the end, right? It's one long over the course of their career one long interpretation with many variations. Jazz is an improvisational form and the point is never "here's the finished product". The point is always what will this particular moment produce?
Now to some extent, rock music has kept that alive with live performances. When you go to a live performance you expect something different. You expect there to be a variation in what you heard and if we really get down to it, I mean, these days watching Duran Duran the other day on AXS tv they were going over Duran Duran's album Rio on classic albums and John Taylor talking about the fact that he creates this part in the studio for the album and it's a brilliant part, it sounds great but it was created out of two or three different parts that he fused together and so then before he can go out on the road and tour this he has to learn how to play this complicated thing that only ever existed on three different pieces of tape. So then there's the question of what is the "original" and what is the revision and how's that even work? But a lot of hardcore rock fans are far more interested in the live performances than in the original conical recordings. That is, if you want to put it this way, they're more interested in the revisions than in, you know, the finished product per se that came out of the studio. And sometimes, I mean this is certainly true, lots of times the live version really is better. No one is going to say for instance that "Fulsom Prison Blues" isn't better in the live recording Cash made of it at Fulsom prison. I mean it just is. Jimmy Hendricks' "Voodoo Child" at Woodstock; it's significantly better than the album version of that song. And so the revision, again, the revision if you want to call it that works better than the original.
But then you get into other revisions. I think we have to consider that word very carefully as we go through this. Re-vision, to re-see this, to re-think it. Seeing in another way. The Eagles famously do this with "Hotel California" in the late 90s when they decided to reunite. And really, you know, both great versions I'd say but each with a significantly different flavor. Each has a different feel to it. And yeah the later one is live but I'm really not thinking of it, I mean I really think of it as a second version almost as though another band had created it though it's not. It's The Eagles going back and reinterpreting their own work. Who else could we talk about in this regard? Phil Collins' revision on his first big album, of the Genesis song. He's part of Genesis and Duke album and the song "Behind the Lines" and Collins sort of says "I'm going to take another stab at this", right? It's fine the way it is on the album that we made but I want to see what it sounds like in this new version, speed it up and with horns.
Of course, you know, there often are multiple versions of a song when it's originally created, right? You might make a disco version or an extended play version or a 12" remix version, whatever you want to call it. There are album versions versus single versions. And so in that case, you know, are we creating a revision in the very moment that we're creating the song? Is it - it's already being revised. But let me end by going back to where we started with these three fairly recent albums all three of which involve an artist who is remaking his or her own songs. So I mean, here's how Mary Chapin Carpenter described sort of her inspiration for doing this when she was interviewed by Rolling Stone. She said,
"Certain phrases jump out at you and recently that happened exactly. Patti Smith was speaking about life and about finding your way. The essence of what she was saying was that life is hard and it can break your heart. It can tear you apart and disappoint you but there are so many beautiful things about it too."
She lists a few things like "sometimes it's about meeting an old friend." And then she says "sometimes it's just the sky. And that was in my head and I wrote it. Sometimes a phrase just jumps out and all of a sudden it means everything to me." Now, what she's talking about there in literal terms is the ending song of the album which is a new tune that she wrote called "Sometimes It's Just The Sky" sort of getting her inspiration from Patti Smith. But there's something in there too that tells you about the whole album, right? It's about going back and thinking about the life that you've lived and the good times and the bad times and the hard times and the disappointing times and the beautiful times and she talks about sometimes reflecting like that is about meeting an old friend and that's exactly what she does on this album. She goes back and treats, you think of these songs as old friends, and she goes back and re-encounters them. And that's a very poetic kind of exercise to go back and do that. Now, you know, you can listen to that album and decide song by song whether it's successful or not, if she achieves that, but it's a reasonable reason to do revision like that. To go back and reflect on your body of work, to go back and think about, you know, what have I done and how might I think about these subjects now that I am a little more mature. One of the songs that's on there is "This Shirt" which comes from one of her earliest albums and it's a song that is so - I mean I said this at the beginning when we were talking about Mary Chapin Carpenter, the original song is already so reflective. I don't know how old she was when she wrote that song, it's an amazing feat for a young songwriter to have been so nostalgic and reflective and to have captured that feeling in a song. And then to go back 20 years later and to rethink that song now that you really are mature, now that you really do have experience to reflect on. It's really a fascinating, of all the songs on the album I think that's the one that grabs me the most.
So Paul Simon's album In The Blue Light is a little different. He's not just re-encountering songs, it's not sort of reflection - I mean I guess it is reflection but there's something more to it than that. It's more like the Henry James thing. Simon's stated purpose was that he had, you know, a dozen songs or so that he recorded over the course of his career but that he just wasn't happy with, for whatever reason he never felt like they gelled when he did them the first time. And so going back and revising was a statement of "now that I'm mature, look what I can do with this song. It was a good song, a good idea, but I wasn't mature enough to make it what was in my head." Right? Let's go back to that idea. And, "now that I'm better at figuring out how to capture what's in my head, how to turn that idea into reality I'm going to go back and correct these songs."
Now Sting's album, on the other hand, struck me very differently, more along the lines of George Lucas only I gotta say not so noble. You know Sting's always been comfortable revising. He worked with a lot of jazz musicians at the beginning of his solo career and so this makes sense but he's always been someone who is comfortable with the idea that a song wasn't finished, it was never finished, it was just a version and feel free to go back and revise. When he went solo, for instance, he had no qualms about re-recording in the studio and in his early live performances many of The Police's songs. Like Dream of the Blue Turtles features "Shadows in the Rain". And, let's be fair, it's a very interesting re-examination of the original. Maybe superior to the original. He redid "Demolition Man" for the the Stallone/Snipes movie of that name. Oddly enough he redoes "Demolition Man" another time here, I don't know why that's necessary. Here's the problem. This is not Simon carefully re-crafting songs to dig deep into them to make them better. It's like the opposite is true on this album. It's like the heart's been completely ripped out of the song. And you know, I can't say what he was thinking, you know, is the point to try to update these songs for a YouTube/Spotify generation? And if so, maybe I don't get the point. Maybe I'm too old to get what that generation is hearing. But what it comes across as to me, as somebody who has listened to Sting for his whole career, is like a lounge act. It's like some sort of Vegas version of these great songs, and they are great songs. And part of that has to do with how he goes about his revision. There's not Stewart Copeland here, no Andy Summers. And it turns out those guys from The Police were actually pretty important to those songs, right? Okay there's Sting songs, and you know, Stewart Copeland, God love him, in a recent interview talking about Sting's brilliance and how they really knew right from the beginning that this is the guy this is the angelic sort of God-like figure who was going to guide The Police to greatness and they understood that. But those two guys were essential to what The Police produced and turns out when you take them out and you don't replace them with anything it loses some of its, I don't know, soul. As far as the solo album, his solo work where he's sort of remaking some of his solo songs as well, the same thing that you might say is true. It's not, in this case it's not The Police, but all of those brilliant jazz musicians that he surrounded himself with in the beginning, carefully chose - Brandford Marsalis just to name one, any of those world-class jazz musicians that he used - you take those people out and you know the whole thing just feels kind of hollow. It really feels like an attempt to, again, to be perfectly honest, it feels like an attempt to cash in one more time on the tunes that you already cashed in on once. I mean, again, if it's that jazz thing and you're going back to the song and it's just not quite finished and you keep working, fine. I don't feel like that's what this was. It's not the way it comes across. Look, I love Sting, okay? You know, I drove with a friend of mine, we were going to see him in Dallas and it was 6 hours away and we did nothing but play Sting tunes in the car, this is 1991 somewhere around there, nothing but play Sting tunes in the car. We talked about, you know, we talked jokingly but we talked about inventing the church of Sting. That's how serious we were about Sting. Sting's first three albums are part of my psyche. I don't know how more deeply to express that. And, I know that it's become popular lately for artists to re-record their songs, particularly there's actually a very good reason, legal reason and that a lot of them are trying to get the rights back to their songs. If they re-record the song, you know, then suddenly they get the rights back from the publication company or whoever happens to own them. And Prince is a perfect example of someone who did that. But this is much less like Prince's re-recordings and a lot more like those of The Little River Band. I don't know if you know that group. Such a sad story. That was an amazing group that produced some great hits. I always think of them as kind of the poor man's Eagles. Australia band. Just lots and lots of great tunes but over time the original people in that band have slowly left or been forced out until now that band is nothing but a cover band. And yet they are still going by the name The Little River Band but it's nobody who was ever associated with the original The Little River Band. They've also put out an album on re-recording of Little River Band hits. And it's such a blatant attempt to undermine the original and to sort of push the original people out and make money for themselves. It's a cover band releasing an album of covers and stealing the name of the real band. It's tragic.
As usual, I could go on indefinitely on this subject but that's enough for this episode. Thank you so much for joining us once again. If you like what you hear please follow us on Twitter and FaceBook. Subscribe to our YouTube channel and tell your friends. That's important; tell other people about the show. I'll be back next week with an all-new episode. See you then.
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Greetings and salutations and welcome to season 2, episode 17 of the Pop Culture Academy where we do all things pop culture with just a bit of an academic slant. I'm your host, MK Adkins. What has happened this week since last we spoke? I finally caught up with the Miles Davis documentary, Birth of the Cool, which came out I believe earlier this year. Really good; very in depth. I'll say this, I was really looking forward to this, you know a Miles Davis documentary is really going to have to impress me because for me he's one of the top five or six artists of the 20th century, in any genre. You know, name whatever genre you want. He was that important. And so, you know I expected big things from this documentary and it's pretty good. Very in depth. I think the thing that got to me the most were the interviews with some of Davis's wives, especially Frances Taylor who was this brilliant, brilliant dancer and who had this conflict. You know, she'd essentially given up a world-class career for Miles Davis because he was a bit jealous about her career. And she talks about that. I mean, she's clear - her sort of, I don't know, frustration with that comes across. But at the same time that's fused with this recognition of how important he was, not to diminish her stature but I mean this was a guy who was among the most important musicians ever. He's very humanized - we deal with the drug abuse that caused the breakup of their marriage. But she lionizes him at the same time, the fact that he insisted, insisted, that the studio put her photo on the cover of his album, Someday My Prince Will Come. So, anyway, I found those interesting. It's a good documentary if you - if you don't know about Miles Davis you definitely should pick it up but even if you know something about Miles Davis, it's a pretty good watch.
Also an alert, I happened to notice - I don't keep up with these things as well as I should. So many things going on in life these days and, we talked about this before on the show, but I don't always keep up with the latest album releases and so sometimes they hit me a week or two later and surprise me. Mary Chapin Carpenter has a brand new album out in the last two weeks; it's called The Dirt and the Stars. Now if you missed it, Lucinda Williams also had a new album out earlier this year. These are two of my all time favorite singers and I tend to connect them to one another I think because of "Passionate Kisses" which was on one of Mary Chapin Carpenter's earlier albums, kind of put Lucinda Williams on the map a little bit before Cartwheels on a Gravel Road came out, before she really hit the big time. Anyway, I've heard really good things about this album. I haven't had a chance to really sit down and listen. I promise I will report back when I do. Awhile back I did catch an early release of one of the songs off the album, "Our Man Walter Cronkite" which is a typical Mary Chapin Carpenter brilliant tune. You know, she hits notes of nostalgia better than anybody. And also, just a note for my good friend J out in North Carolina, this one recorded at Peter Gabriel's studio. So, you know, kind of an interesting connection there. Peter Gabriel, Mary Chapin Carpenter, not necessarily people you think of together but you know, a studio is a studio.
So for this episode I want to get into Seinfeld a bit. I guess it's still on in reruns, right? Maybe TBS in the afternoons. For awhile you couldn't escape the reruns. For about fifteen years Seinfeld was just on all the time and deservedly so but I mean I guess anything wears out, fades a little over time. I mean, as bizarre as I find this I know that some people don't like Seinfeld. I have a good colleague at my last teaching job who just didn't like Seinfeld, never got that humor which - I don't know, by the end of this episode you'll - I don't really understand that. I don't really understand how you don't get Seinfeld. But it also, you know, maybe it's lost some of its sparkle, dare I say it has become somewhat passe? I know in the last years that I was teaching it had really lost something for my students' generation. But then you know, how many years has it been since that show went off the air? More than twenty, right? I want to say 22. In fact, let me confess something. I still haven't seen the series finale to Seinfeld and there's a story there. That last episode I was really excited about. It came out on my birthday. I have a good birthday. I share a birthday with George Lucas, for instance, and so a lot of the Star Wars films have been released on my birthday. But it just so happened that the Seinfeld series finale, the last episode, was going to be released on my birthday. My first wife and I went out to dinner, my oldest daughter who was two, well 18 months at the time, went out to eat, went over to Walmart and I mean, I live in Arkansas, where you going to go on your birthday if you don't go to Walmart? So, we go to Walmart, we're heading back to the car, we're going to get in the car, go home, watch the finale. This is back in the old days where you could record it on VCR and in fact, I did record it on VCR. But this is before the days of DVD, this is certainly before the days of DVR. And so we're heading back to actually watch it on television and we were run over in the parking lot of Walmart and - you know when I say run over, we were run over. You know, the car didn't actually run over us but we were hit by a car as we were walking to our car. Somebody just turned the corner and didn't see us and just popped us. We were really, in many ways we were very very lucky. Terrible things might have happened to my 18 month old daughter who is 23 now. They didn't. But, we spent some time in the ER that evening. And missed the Seinfeld finale.
Now, here's the second part to that story, a second confession. I am terrible about delayed gratification, right? I get a letter from an old friend and it's not that I don't want to read the letter, it's that I desperately really want to read the letter. It's from an old friend; I know it's going to make me feel good to read the letter. I don't open the letter because when I open it and read it then it will be gone, it will be through. I have this, like I said, therapy-level problem with delayed gratification. And, well let me tell you another story. I heard this story about the writer John Irving, you know World According to Garth, and Cider House Rules and...amazing, important contemporary writer and happens to be a massive fan of Charles Dickens and from what I understand has read absolutely everything Charles Dickens has ever written except for one story. And he's saving that story to read on his deathbed so that he'll have something new of Dickens to sort of charm him at the end. It won't be done. That's kind of the way my delayed gratification works. If I watch the Seinfeld last episode then it's done. Right? And as long as I don't I feel like maybe somehow it's not completely done, I'm saving this little nugget back. Now, I understand it's a terrible series finale and I'm not really saving it anymore. These days it's just 'cause I haven't gotten around to watching it. But I haven't seen it. But I will say this, I've seen every episode other than the finale, you know, dozens of times. But the fact that it is kind of a dated show, the fact that it's 22 years old, it's lost some of it's luster, it's not as popular as it once was in terms of syndication. It doesn't speak to this generation the way that it once spoke to my generation. To me that just means it gives it more reason why we need to revisit it and think about it.
My wife accuses me all the time of saying that everything is the greatest, right? This is the greatest show ever, this is the most important artist...I mean, I've already done it once in this episode, right? We were talking about Miles Davis. And it is true that I get excited about almost everything I watch and listen to and it becomes important. But I have trouble thinking, truly, of a more important television show than Seinfeld. I mean, that's probably ripe for an episode too - the top 10 most important tv shows of all time. But this one really does do something that ticks all the boxes. It really did change the television landscape. It's one of those shows, it's one of those artistic moments where it not only changed the future of television, what came after it, but in a lot of ways it changed everything that had come before. It made us rethink everything that had come before. Now, it's incredibly enjoyable; it's funny as hell. You could say that about a lot of sitcoms of course. You know, I've been watching Mom lately and fallen in love with that series. Alison Janey is a national treasure. You could talk about The Office or Everybody Loves Raymond. The Bob Newhart Show or Newhart or Mary Tyler Moore Show or I Love Lucy or Friends. Seinfeld is just as funny as the funniest of those.
There are important shows that aren't necessarily entertaining to watch, do you know what I mean? Like I would say that Twin Peaks is one of those top 10 most important shows ever. And first season, so good. But there are definitely moments in that series, especially as you get into the second season where you're like "uh, it's just not enjoyable to watch as something else might be." That's never true with Seinfeld. Seinfeld is as funny as any of the shows that I listed before but it has significance that goes well beyond it's comedy. Maybe only MASH. That's the only one I can think of that I would think of as significant in this same sense and the genius here is that the significance of the series is melded together with its comedy. So, if you get the comedy then you've kind of gotten it's importance and if you get it's importance then that only makes it more howlingly funny.
All right but let me stop singing it's praises and get into it. We might start with the fact that Seinfeld has famously been called "a show about nothing." And there's absolutely truth to that statement. And part of it's significance has to do with that statement, the fact that it was a show about nothing. But that's also a little misleading, it wasn't entirely a show about nothing. You know, in one of the mid seasons they have a whole plot line where George and Jerry pitch a television show to NBC the same way that Larry David and Jerry had pitched Seinfeld to NBC. It's sort of art imitating life if you will. George comes up with this great idea of doing a show about nothing and it's clever because already at that point Seinfeld was being called a show about nothing and so they were sort of writing the real world into the show. He gets in there with the top NBC producers and they say "what's this show about?" and he says "nothing." And they say, "I don't know if we're going to go for that." That's really the truth, right? On Seinfeld what happens is they come up with this ridiculous sitcom-y premise and if you know sitcoms - you could get really, if you start looking into the premise of sitcoms, the situation of the situation comedy, you'll find some really outlandish premises out there. And so they sort of make fun of that; they have Jerry who has a butler. I think at some point maybe somebody ran over him (a little synchronicity here). I think maybe somebody hit him with his car and couldn't pay off the debt and so he becomes Jerry's butler to pay off the debt. And that's the premise of the show, Jerry, which is the show within the show Seinfeld. That's kind of the way it really happened.
Seinfeld is not a show about nothing, it certainly did not begin as a show about nothing. It's actually, I mean the situation of the situation comedy is he's a comedian. And originally the point was each episode you sort of saw how his life informed his comedy and also, I guess, how his comedy informed his life. That was one of the things that led it where it went is that you sort of saw how those two things fused together. And it wasn't always just that his life informed his comedy. Sometimes you felt like the comedy was almost creating his life. The shows always began with a standup routine from Seinfeld himself and usually that set up what would happen in the episode. So the situation was comedian's life. So the show sort of becomes about that process that a comedian goes through, at least that's what it is in the beginning. But the seeds of pushing the envelope are already in that idea if you think about it. His life, like most comedians, his life informs his comedy. So, he's going through life. Things happen to him, he makes an observation, it becomes a comic bit. Only in this case what we are seeing is his life is a sitcom. So, the life that creates his bits is also a bit. And the bits in his comedy are actually what made the sitcom, if you see what I mean so that it's a bit about a bit about a bit about a bit and you lose track of where it comes from. There is no real.
But pretty quickly Seinfeld and Larry David seem to have caught onto this, to have recognized what they had and they came to understand that the premise, that setting him up as a comedian could be really pushed in some fascinating ways. And at the same time they really understood the form they were working in, the sitcom. Better than anybody they seemed to have grasped exactly what a sitcom is. A sitcom, again, the humor in a sitcom so so far removed from real life. The things that happen in sitcoms take moments and push them so far out from reality. The situations are so extreme, you know, it's not like drama. With a sitcom you really have to suspend disbelief. I mean, take Three's Company, right? Jack Tripper (John Ritter) has to convince his landlords that he's gay so that they'll let him live with two women. And he keeps this premise going up for years and the most outrageous situations come out of that single ridiculous premise. On Malcom in the Middle there's a great episode where Lois decides that she's just had it with the whole family. And so she gets in the shower and she just, she won't come out. She's in the shower for several days. It's just things that could never be, they are so exaggerated. But with comedy we suspend our disbelief. Here's the weird thing, we do suspend our disbelief with comedy but we pretend it's coming out of something real. There's the comedy half of a sitcom and there's the situation, a sitcom. You go back to a show like, I don't know, Leave It To Beaver or The Andy Griffith Show, what is the content of Leave It To Beaver? The content is supposed to be real life. This is a kid, we watch this kid and he has a brother and family and he goes to school and he gets into all the hijinks and whatever. You're supposed to pretend that this is a real family that you're watching. That's what's going on in your mind; we're getting back into virtual reality again. What's going on in your mind is this is a real kid that I am watching do real things. And it's crazy and you suspend disbelief but you're thinking of it as a real situation.
Let me put it in other terms, think of the show as a snapshot, a photograph of life okay. Like imagine a tree for instance and you take a picture of the tree. So then you've got the real tree and you've got the picture of the tree and they look pretty much the same. They aren't the same, that's important. But they look the same. And maybe that's kind of the way drama work on television. Something like, I don't know, the show Thirty Something or Grey's Anatomy. It's a picture of the world and I know it's fiction but as we watch we're supposed to pretend we're watching real life unfold. That's why we get upset if someone dies on a show like that because we're engaged in it as though it were really happening.
A sitcom does that in a slightly different way. Maybe we might call it a caricature of the tree rather than a photograph of the tree. So there's still the real tree and then there's this funny drawing of the tree, but it's still the tree. When you watch The Brady Bunch you're supposed to pretend you're watching this real family doing real things. The dad's an architect, he's got three boys. He marries a woman with three girls and that's okay, that's a little outrageous but we buy into it, we believe it. And Seinfeld starts out that way. You're supposed to be watching the life of this guy who's a comedian. And you're supposed to see this as a slice of reality. It's exaggerated, it's funny because it's a comedy. But it's real. But then somewhere along the way Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld realize something; instead of pretending this is reality let's just leave that completely behind. Right? It won't be a show that mimics reality at all. It'll be a show that's about a show. It's not about the world, it's about the sitcom world. Again, the sitcom life which isn't real feeds the comedy which isn't real which then feeds back into the sitcom which isn't real.
So, the outrageous things that sometimes happen on a sitcom, they decided they were really going to push very deeply into those. So they start thinking, what do sitcoms typically do? Let's do all those things but let's take it as far as we possibly can so that it'll be completely obvious and no one will be confused that this is not real life this is a sitcom. We'll try to draw attention to the fact that this isn't real. You know, for instance, sitcoms typically have a couple of plots in each episode but for whatever reason everything comes together nicely and neatly at the end. Everybody learns a lesson. I mean, think your Full House, for instance. Think your Brady Bunch. Everything comes together, we learn a lesson, there's a moral. Everything works out and it gets wrapped up nicely and neatly. Now, that makes no sense in real life but that's how it happens in a sitcom. There's always a nice conclusion after 22 minutes.
So Seinfeld creates these bizarre plot lines that go in all these different directions and are all completely separated from one another and then suddenly in the last scene, magically, they just come together. And there's no reason why they come together, they just do. My favorite episode is the episode where George decides - well, Jerry decides that George is going to be a marine biologist. Right? They run into someone they knew from school and George is obviously interested in her and so Jerry says, 'Oh, yeah, George is doing well. He's a marine biologist." So now George is stuck having to be this marine biologist. Now we could explore this in another way and talk about, again, the fake within the fake within the fake, within the fake. But let's just go with it. George becomes a marine biologist or George pretends to be a marine biologist. Meanwhile there's a secondary plot going on that's completely disconnected. Kramer has decided to go out to the sand dunes that overlook the ocean and practice hitting golf balls. It's this new thing that he's discovered, it's cool you can just go out and hit these golf balls and they just sail out into the ocean and it's beautiful and relaxing and it's zen, whatever. All right, completely different plot line. At the end of the episode George begins telling this story about how what happened to him when he pretended to be a marine biologist. He's walking on the beach with the girl, he's telling her, making things up about marine biology, things that he doesn't know. Talking about plankton or whatever. And suddenly there's a beached whale up in front of him and this crowd has gathered and everybody is worried about the beached whale. People are very concerned and upset that this whale is beached. And somebody in the crowd says, "Is anyone here a marine biologist?!" And George's girlfriend says "Yes, my boyfriend is a marine biologist." So now George who is never one to let a lie go, I mean he's going to take it as far as he can possibly take it, finds himself climbing up on top of this whale. And he doesn't know what's going on. He, obviously, he's not a marine biologist. But he gets washed up on top of the whale so that he's looking straight down into the blowhole and he realizes that the whale can't breathe, that there's something keeping the whale from breathing. And so he reaches his hand down in there and he pulls out a golf ball. Right? And Kramer's comment at the end is "hole in one." Now, that is howlingly funny on so many levels but one of the ways it's howlingly funny is that these two plot lines have come together in a way that makes no sense and yet makes complete sense.
So, let me go back to the photograph analogy, the picture analogy. Now instead of a picture of a tree or a caricature of a tree now we have a picture of a picture of a tree, right? Almost like you took a picture, well you know how you get mirrors - if you put two mirrors together and its mirror mirror mirror mirror and it just - there is nothing in the mirror but mirror, right? There's an image of an image of an image of an image and in all of that in post modern terms, that is the world that we now live in. Where there's nothing but an image, right? We're in the mirror world, there is no real. The tree, it doesn't exist anymore. And once we get into television - all of that starts, post modernism really gets going when we get into television. Post modern theorists like Umberto Eco, Jean Baudrilliard, Lyotard, they say we've become the image. We are so surrounded by images, once tv gets invented, we are so surrounded by images that we can no longer tell the difference between the real and the image and so the image becomes an image of an image of an image. Simpler terms, we're in the matrix. Think about it. In the matrix, if you're really in the matrix and you see that woman in the red dress. What is it you're seeing? I mean she's not real, she's only an image. But here's the thing, she's not an image of a real girl she's an image that's been completely created out of nothing. She's only the image. There is no real girl. That's Seinfeld. And once you say, well, okay, this is a show about a show. It's a sitcom about a sitcom, a sitcom about what a sitcom is, well, I mean, then you can play with it in all sorts of ways. You can have an entire episode set in the lobby of a Chinese restaurant or you can have an episode that happens basically backwards in time.
All right, and that's brilliant and all but let's go one step further because Seinfeld managed to show us that the world has become the matrix. I mean, that's not easy to do. We may know, postmodernists told us, that the world's just an image of an image of an image, but we spend a lot of time pretending that's not true. I mean, how upset, for instance, are we with Donald Trump? How upset have we been with Donald Trump for years? I know that I'm livid almost every night. But if it's true that we're in the matrix, then Donald Trump isn't real. He's just part of the simulation. Now we don't like to think that way; it scares us. It feels like we've lost control. So most of the time we pretend. But Seinfeld sort of forced us to look at this situation because in bizarre ways reality and tv shows started to blend.
So if you know the show you know that there are clear echos of reality. George is obviously based on Larry David; Kramer is based on Seinfeld's real neighbor when he was a struggling comic in New York who was a guy named Kenny Kramer. Characters like the Soup Nazi; the Soup Nazi was a real guy. Then in the middle of the series they do a - we mentioned this already - they do a whole season that's based on making a sitcom. That is, they relive over again the process of pitching a show. They take what was real and put it into the show. They write the pilot, they film it. The show basically recreates Seinfeld's reality. And in this case it's a show within a show that's postmodernism. It's meta. We're going to give you a picture of a picture. We're going to look into that mirror again. But it gets stranger, right? So the real Kenny Kramer decides, in true Kramer fashion, that he's going to cash in a little on his celebrity. He's always coming up with a scheme. He comes up with schemes in the show, this is what the real person was like. And one of the many schemes he came up with was to create what he called The Kramer Reality Tour. This is all real. Quote on quote "real". The Kramer Reality Tour was this bus that he drove around New York, took people on and charged them and he pointed out real places that were connected to the show. Actually I don't think it was The Kramer Reality Tour I think it was called The Seinfeld Reality Tour. So now you've got life imitating the show, right? I'm going to show you real things about this fictional show but the show is based on reality. All right but then the show picks up on this. They know. Jerry and Larry David, the writers, they know that Kramer's doing this. So they have, in the show, Kramer sells his past life to Peterman. But then he loses the rights to his own stories because he sold his life story. So the only way he can sort of cash in on his story is to create what he calls The Peterman Reality Tour, right? So now you've got the show, Seinfeld, which is making fiction out of a real event but that real event is based on the fictional show. And the fictional show is based to some extent on reality. You lose track of what's real and what isn't.
All right. Then the show ends. Like Seinfeld ends. I never saw that episode but it ends. But Larry David starts Curb Your Enthusiasm and now that's supposed to be real but it's not, it's fake. Right? It's supposed to be a documentary following Larry David around. It's not. And the Seinfeld cast is always showing up. And so you're supposed to be seeing them now as "real people" only they're not really being real people because they are playing sort of fake versions of themselves. And then, for a whole season, the whole season is about Larry trying to reunite the cast to film a new episode which in real life the cast had said they were not going to do. But in the Larry David Curb Your Enthusiasm reality they get talked into it. And in the final episode of that season, we see them make an episode of Seinfeld. And so, here's the bizarre question - have they really reunited because this really is a new episode of Seinfeld? We really are watching the cast reunite on the old sets and do Seinfeld only at the same time it's not Seinfeld because this is Larry David and it's not - it's fake reality. It becomes, you know, we lose track of reality - that's what post modernism is all about.
Now Seinfeld is not quite as ground-breaking as it might seem. Seinfeld premieres in 1989. I think you have to give a lot of credit to Cheers, the show that came before it, was kind of the lead in before it. And Cheers was a show, you know, to it's credit began as the classic guy/girl sitcom. Will they get together, won't they get together? But once Shelley Long left it morphed into being a show about nothing, just people talking at a bar. But more than Cheers you really have to give credit to Garry Shandling. Shandling was just this brilliant brilliant, I mean, he's one of those guys you know went too soon. But in 1986 which was 3 years before Seinfeld he creates It's Garry Shandling's Show which really is, I mean he really takes it further than Seinfeld. The whole world really is on a sitcom and he says it up front - we break the fourth wall right at the beginning. He knows he's a sitcom character, he knows his house is the set, the theme music talks about itself, it really is an image about an image and in that sense it goes deeper with this premise than Seinfeld does. And of course it beats Seinfeld to the punch by three years. But it was on Showtime so it's not getting the same wide audience, particularly in those days, as Seinfeld was getting on NBC. And so It's Garry Shandling's Show only manages four seasons. Now it's brilliant. If you can track it down and watch it. It's incredible. But Seinfeld is the one that's introducing this to a much broader audience.
Together though, these shows break the sitcom. There's another popular postmodern term and that term is deconstruction. And deconstruction, it's a complex term and we need to spend a whole episode on it one of these days but it's when you take a word or an image completely apart until you realize that there's really nothing there, that the word doesn't mean anything. Seinfeld takes the sitcom completely apart so that you can't pretend anymore like you used to. You can't suspend disbelief anymore. Traditional sitcoms, now, after Seinfeld, look ridiculous. They look fake. They aren't clever anymore. And so actually, this is true, go back and check the historical listings, no new sitcoms that succeed after Seinfeld ends for several years. Now there's Friends and there's Everybody Loves Raymond, both of which started while Seinfeld was going on. But nothing else for a number of years like four or five years, nothing else works. They keep putting sitcoms out there and then they just quit producing sitcoms altogether for awhile, the major networks just quit doing it because they couldn't find a way around this. Seinfeld had made all sitcoms look stupid in comparison. Until The Office. And what does The Office do to get around the sitcom? We're not going to be a sitcom; we're going to pretend to be real life. So you turn the sitcom completely inside out and you go a completely other way. Park and Rec follows that. Curb Your Enthusiasm. And then after a period of time when that's kind of cleansed our palette we finally begin to go back to traditional sitcoms. In the last 10 years or so. Big Bang Theory. Two and a Half Men. Modern Family. The Middle. More traditional-like. I mean, Modern Family is still very faux documentary. But for the most part we've gone back to - Mom, is another good one. We've gone back to the traditional sitcom. But it took several years for us to get over that hump. All right now look, we haven't gotten into some of the finer points of Seinfeld. I mean, for instance, has there ever been a cast like this one? These four people and you add Larry David, it's a staggering amount of talent. And what's even more staggering is that these people weren't stars coming in. They made themselves. And they made this show. We could talk about the catch phrases. Such a sitcom thing and deconstruction. Think of (Steve) Urkel's "did I do that?" Seinfeld deconstructs that idea of a catch phrase so that every episode has its own catchphrase. Spongeworthy. Master of your domain. Close talker. Golden boy. Yada yada yada. And here's the amazing thing, and I love it when this happens in postmodernism, they are making fun of the sitcom but they are also out-sitcoming every other sitcom in history. Other examples of this. The South Park Movie parodies Disney but out-Disney's Disney so much so that South Park winds up with show tunes from the movie up for Best Original Oscar. Or, another good example, Fountains of Wayne was this band who they could copy everything in music. They could copy country, we've talked about them before, them copying the muscle car song that's very popular trope in rock music. They copy everything. But Fountains of Wayne manages to produce better versions than the songs that they are parodying so that then, again, they are screamingly funny but also really really good dead-on versions, homages if you will, to the originals. And, anyway, there's so many aspects of the show that we could get into. But as usual we've gotta stop somewhere and that's enough for one episode.
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Huey Lewis and the News is one of those bands that ruled the airwaves in the 1980s – radio and television (via MTV) – but then largely disappeared from the pop music scene with the coming of 90s grunge. As with other such artists, that disappearance was something of a shame, as they could always be counted on for powerful melodic hits with a bit of bite to them. Their sound might be called a version of “garage band” with elements of 50s doo-wop (check out “Naturally”) and some occasional country honky-tonk. Around the same time (early to mid 80s), Billy Joel was experimenting with a similar sound on the Innocent Man album (“Uptown Girl,” “Tell her about it”). However, those sounds were filtered through the new wave production styles of the 80s to deliver fresh versions of those influences. The album Sports really solidified their place in rock and roll, and on the follow-up, Fore! they upped the ante by adding the Tower of Power horns to the mix. 1991’s Hard at Play seemed like the last Hurrah. However, the recent Weather, which Lewis has suggested may be their last album because of his progressive hearing loss, is certainly full of what Lewis and company do best, including the wistful yet sharp hit “While We’re Young.” The list is organized chronologically so you can chart the band’s development, including a couple of great live performances from the 1980s. “Power of Love” might be the real highlight, a song that can stand up against any you want to name for pure thrilling listenability. Personally, I prefer Sports to Fore, which felt a little too produced, but anyway you look at it, Lewis is a master song writer in his particular style of rock/pop.
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Greetings and salutations and welcome to season 2 episode 16 of the Pop Culture Academy where we do all things pop culture with just a bit of an academic slant. I'm your host, MK Adkins, and what has happened in this last week since last we spoke? In the last week my wife and I finally caught up with Fear the Walking Dead. We've been behind on that one a bit. No spoilers, of course, but at some point I really need to put together an episode or a blog post or an article or something on the way that this last season offered this kind of post-apocalyptic reading of the Exodus story. It was really interesting. In general this is such a great series. It's certainly, I think, as good as the original. Right now it's got an amazing cast; so many people drawn from such other great series, I mean people that you will absolutely recognize and frankly, I don't know how they can afford this cast. It's become quite large. I mean, I'm expecting that very soon some people will have to go. You know, if you haven't seen season 5, you really should. And if you haven't seen the series at all, it's really good. I like the whole thing but you can start at season 4 and be fine really. I mean there's some continuity that goes over the whole series but really they do a kind of a reboot after season 4 and so you can start there and not be particularly lost.
Also I am watching, at the moment, Star Trek: Voyager. A good friend of mine, Ida Bostian, she started this, she did this, and I - you know I thought it was such a great idea that now I'm stealing it but she started with the original Star Trek and worked her way through it series by series, chronologically, and I know that she's been watching Discover and I know that she's been watching Picard. I'm up to Voyager and I'm enjoying it but the question keeps - I mean this doesn't really particularly bother me but why do Star Trek shows seem to become so dated so fast?
Watching this series, watching The Next Generation. Certainly if you go back to watch the original series it feels so...it just feels so dated. Is it something about the particular sort of future that they're imagining, that it just dates itself very quickly? I mean, if you compare it, for instance, to Star Wars, you know, that original trilogy, everything already feels very old, rusted, used and that's great because then you don't have to worry about it becoming out of date - the technology seeming to become out of date over time. I think one of the problems with episodes one, two and three in the Star Wars universe is that they were suddenly - we went back in time and everything was suddenly new and shiny and it felt a little wrong and it didn't have the same kind of allure. I mean, I don't know why you want your future to feel rusted and worn out but you do. Does all great science fiction have that kind of dated...I don't know. Battlestar Galactica is one that's coming to mind. The Galactica in that series is being retired so, again, there's a since that things are past their prime, things aren't new and shiny anymore. Is that what we need for a sci-fi series to stand the test of time and look good? People love Star Trek. People loved the original, The Next Generation. I'm really enjoying Voyager so maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe it's some kind of suspension of disbelief involving aesthetics. I mean, just, you know, the uniforms, the bridge, the console. None of that looks like the future, right? But, anyway, I definitely am enjoying the series, about two seasons in, and it does something - I think each of the series have really added to the whole Star Trek universe in fascinating ways.
All right, so I want to talk a little this episode about children's television which I think is really actually a very fertile subject and one that we probably will come back to more over time. But you know, Sesame Street's ending it's 50th season, a very very big deal. I mean, 50 seasons. And of course Caroll Spinney who has played the beloved characters of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch for all 50 years passed away this year. Sort of a sad milestone, I guess you could say. And so in some ways it seems like we have some good excuses to go into the subject of children's television with all these things going on with Sesame Street.
Before I get into children's television, I think I've got to lay out a theory of television that I've been working on actually for a few years now and it involves thinking of television as a kind of virtual reality. Let me see if I can explain this in a way that will set up the rest of the show. We've talked a number of times about this - the relationship of art to virtual reality. And my argument is that all art is meant to be virtual reality, essentially. We can get into some representational things, some abstract things in the 20th century, but that's a whole other episode-long story involving photography. Other than that, all art, I think, is meant to capture reality. And each generation of artist is trying to capture reality in a more and more realistic way to recreate reality. And so I would say art from it's very beginning, if you go back and again I've talked about this in other shows, you go back to cave paintings 32,000 years ago - all art from that point is trying to create a virtual reality, an alternative universe that human beings can walk into and feel like they are somewhere else. That's what all art is about. And television, this is the next part of my argument, television, at least scripted television, I would argue is the most sophisticated version of virtual reality that we have got at least so far. I think that video games could overtake it. I think that things involving what we term virtual reality like say the HoloLenz or something like the Occulus Rift, maybe that down the road will be will supplant television as the best version of virtual reality. And there are, you know, probably more things on the horizon that will show up but for right now television is the closest we've gotten to allowing ourselves to enter another reality, an alternative universe and exist. A television show is like a little world. You know this about the shows that you love; they've got characters, places, you get familiar with them, you feel comfortable, you move around to different parts of the world. I mean, you know, let's take an extreme example like Game of Thrones. Obviously, I mean, it's a whole fantasy other world that's realized and I love the opening credits to that show and the way that you get to see the world in it's all they do a very clever thing by making it all clockwork. But it's all there. The whole world sort of spreads out or pops up if you will over the map and you can see the whole world and the series does that. We're moving from one country to another country and crossing oceans and it feels like a complete whole developed world.
Now, on the other end of the spectrum, we've talked about this recently, soap operas happen essentially every day, every week day and you've got people who play those roles in some cases for their entire lives and certainly for, you know, 40, 50, 60 years. We're talking about Sesame Street turning 50. A lot of these soap operas are that old and some people have been playing these roles that long. And so if you're watching that you're seeing the same people, the same characters, every day at the same time. It's like it's really happening in your life. That's as virtual reality as we can get right now. And there's this great bit in the old Phillip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which many of you know from it's movie title, Bladerunner. But in the novel there's a talk show and the talk show is always on. I think the talk show host's name is Friendly, something Friendly. It's always on, 24 hours a day. And that's one of the ways that you know something is amiss in this world. This guy never sleeps he's just on 24 hours a day. Dick in the way that he always did, predicting the future and predicting human behavior into the future. Projecting out what kinds of things we would love and what we would be attracted to. Dick gets it dead on. If we could have a television show, I mean, The Truman Show kind of plays on this idea as well. If we could have a tv show that was on 24 hours a day and never ended, that would be pretty close to virtual reality. Now I know it's not the same as putting on a suit and feeling like you're in, well go back to Star Trek, feeling like you're on the holodeck. We're not there yet. But television has gotten pretty close.
All right, so if you buy into the idea that a tv show is virtual reality or is trying to recreate an alternative space that we can go and visit, what's really fascinating is the connection between that concept (television and virtual reality) and children. In one sense you could say that children's tv trains us to be tv watchers. Think about that statement. It teaches us how to live in these television worlds. Kids aren't born understanding television. Just like, I mean we've talked about this recently, when movies were invented movie-makers had to teach us how to watch. We didn't know what to do with movies. We jumped out of the way when a train came on the screen because we thought it might be coming at us. We had to learn how to watch a movie and kids have to learn how to watch, how to understand tv. It's almost like its own language or maybe it'd be better to say it's own grammar. And children's shows do this. If you turn a child loose, I know, I've got a 3 year old, if you turn a child loose with television narrative they will figure it out. You don't have to explain it to them. They will pick it up. And I think a lot of these children's shows are designed to teach them how to pick it up, how to learn television. And we might say, well okay, that sounds awful. I mean, I know that all my teachers growing up would say that. We all know someone who will tell you how awful television is for us, right? Those people who would say, the old boob tube terminology that gets applied to television. It's still there. Even in this golden age of amazing storytelling, that's still there. That's hung on to television. And there's all kinds of studies about tv and the brain and screen time. Of course, all of that has to kind of go out the window during covid. We're all home now and we gotta work at the same time we're entertaining our kids who can't be at school and so...I mean even if they're going to school it's going to involve screen time. So a lot of that advice has now gone out the window. But frankly I've never been so sure about that advice, what they say about screen time. I don't want to take a beating from parents for this episode. And it's really a much longer argument but I don't think we know - are the studies right that it's probably changing kids brains? I have no doubt of that. I would also argue probably that when people learned to read and write 2500 years ago that also changed people's brains. And if you lived 2500 years ago would you be the one who was saying well let's not read and write because that might somehow screw up their brain chemistry? Television may be doing that. Screen time may be doing that. But that's moving them into something different, not necessarily moving them into something bad. Again, that's a whole other argument.
All right, so let's look at this from another angle. I've raised this question before - why do we as human beings have this desire to create virtual reality at all? If our entire history of art has been an effort to do this, why? Why are we obsessed with creating alternative universes? What is it that compels us to make art and to try to make art so realistic? It turns out there actually may be answers to that in childhood. A number of child psychologists including a great, important experimental psychologist D. W. Winnicott back in the 60s/70s argued that children exist in this very strange world. This isn't just speculation. We know this. When an infant is born, when a child is born that child sees the world as absolutely subjective. That is, the child thinks that everything in the world is a part of her. Her mother, other people she sees, the objects in her room, all of that is part of her because she has no other way of thinking about things. We're born with that total subjectivity. Everything is us. Now, over the first years of life we have to be pried out of that. We have to learn the difference between what's us and what's out there in the world, the subjective us and the objective out there in the world. We have to learn there's a difference between them. And really, who are we kidding? To some extent we do that our entire lives. We're struggling our entire lives to get over our sort of subjective selfish impulses and think about the larger world. But kids are doing that in extreme form in the very early stages.
One of Winnicott's great breakthroughs was when he discovered this thing, this in between place. He uses the word "liminal" which is really just a fancy way of saying in between places. He talks about what he calls magical objects. So the way Winnicott describes this - something that's not the child gets caught up in being part of the child. For instance, the child may have a stuffed bear and at some point the paw of the stuffed bear manages to get into the corner of the child's mouth. And so the child who is experiencing everything as subjective feels this bear as part of itself, this bear is in his/her mouth. It is part of itself. But then mom or dad comes in and takes the bear out of the child's mouth so that the child doesn't choke to death because they are good parents. When this happens, the thing that was part of the child is now taken away and the child has this moment of "this thing that was part of me is now away from me". Winicott says that those objects, that bear, becomes a very special object for the infant. What he calls a magical object because it occupies a space that is both inside of the child and outside the child. If you want to think about it this way, it is part of the child's world and it is part of the outer world.
Winnicott takes this further. As you grow, as children grow they keep this up, they continue to have these magical places that are in between, imaginary worlds, play worlds. And for kids those are truly places that exist in between what you might call the real world and the not real world. And it's not a stretch. Winnicott suggests to think that maybe this same impulse, that the idea that we want to cross the real world with some kind of other - the real and the not real - someplace in between. Winnicott suggests that might actually be the impulse for art. That might be where our desire for art comes from, this need to find a space in between. It's not our world but it's not completely other, it's an artificial world. It's an alternative world. So that if you think about it, if you've studied virtual reality, is what's leftover from our childhood impulses and you say television is virtual reality it actually turns out that television might be left over from something that we really needed in childhood. It's that search for a real/not real space, an in between space. And I think if you think of kids shows in this sense then they become a lot less problematic in terms of is it right to let your kids watch television. Is it not? If you consider that the whole reason tv exists might actually be because of children.
Let's go back to the earliest children's television show, Howdy Doody, there's a whole world they are trying to get there. You've got a kind of a ranch and there are buildings in this space and we move from place to place in the building. And what they are creating for kids is an imaginary space where you can play. Captain Kangaroo. All the shows have basically continued this. If you look at almost every children's show, they're always about developing a space for the kids to be in. An imaginary, in between space. Captain Kangaroo. And you may or may not know this, Clarabell the Clown from Howdy Doody (Bob Keeshan) becomes Captain Kangaroo and the space is different. This time it's the space of a house. But that house has many rooms and we go exploring and that becomes the imaginary space. The old Soupy Sales show, very popular kids show. Again, kind of a limited space but it was still a space that the camera explores. Bozo, there the space turns into the big top and carnival and circus. Peewee's Playhouse, another sort of space, a playhouse that has lots of different places you can go, lots of different components. And they all have this very familiar format. Almost all these shows include several small segments that are all united by the fact that they happened within the larger context of this world. So for instance, on Bozo which is one of the ones I grew up with, it was all about cartoons. The segments were all cartoons - Popeye and Tom & Jerry, whatever the cartoons were. The big top was an excuse to just show all these cartoons and you have Bozo as the host. Here's a cartoon, here's a cartoon, here's a cartoon. It was really just a cartoon show. But all of those individual cartoons are united by the particular imaginary space that they're in.
So within all of this, I think there are probably a couple of shows that deserve special recognition. First of all, Sesame Street. Right? Again, we talked about 50 years old. It's certainly a world in the way that we are talking about. It's certainly a space. I mean the whole idea is it's a street.
There are tenement buildings, there's an apartment where Bert & Ernie live. There's an apartment where Elmo lives. There's a little store, a bodega. All of these things - there's a trash section where Oscar lives. There's Big Bird's nest on part of the street. All of these things are part of this world. If you go back and look at the music, the original opening credits to Sesame Street they are always going down a road, they are going to a place, they are entering this magical in between space. And that's what Sesame Street was and so it definitely works in the same way. Think about it, in the segments you've even got "Elmo's World". That's a whole world within the Sesame Street world. But I mean here's the thing about Sesame Street that was so cool - and it's not like this anymore, it just isn't. I grew up, I think I was 2 - no, I'm sorry - Sesame Street preceded ME by two years. So I grew up with Sesame Street very very earliest days. I have a 23 year old daughter who I watched go through Sesame Street and that's sort of in the middle years, around year 25. Now I've got a 3 year old daughter, I'm watching again. It is not the same as it was and that's fine; shows evolve over time. But once upon a time Sesame Street, its purpose, you can go back and look at interviews with the creators - its purpose was to imitate television. One of the cool things about Sesame Street was that there were educational commercials, "This episode is brought to you by the letter B". And the number 7. And the little clips inside were all educational. But it imitated television. It gave you everything that television has. It even, now, you get an awful lot of parodies. Game of Thrones parodies on Sesame Street, or Orange is the New Black parodies. Again, the whole idea is this recognition that Sesame Street is a world that exists on television and telling kids that and teaching kids.
In a lot of ways Sesame Street was the ideal show, I mean, we can talk about it as one of the first really important educational shows. Kids shows weren't educational. Howdy Doody wasn't educational. Howdy Doody was full of commercials. It was entertaining as hell but it wasn't educational. Sesame Street set out to be educational, to give all kids, even kids who weren't going to preschool, that same kind of educational advantage. And it was an amazing show for that reason. But it also served this really interesting function of teaching kids how to understand the television world. And again, you say, well that's awful. I don't know. I don't know if it's so awful. Teaching kids how to survive in the media environment as opposed to being manipulated by the media environment - maybe that's an important skill. Maybe Sesame Street is the antidote to Howdy Doody. Howdy Doody is not teaching kids, Howdy Doody is just manipulating the kids, "Come on kids, we know you love imaginary spaces, come on into this one and we'll sell you some candy." It's creepy. Sesame Street was different; "Come on into this tv space and we'll teach you how to navigate this tv space. We'll teach you how to understand this tv space."
The other show that's coming out at roughly the same time, same time era, is Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. Kind of a companion show for Sesame Street. And again, definitely a world. Think about what that show's opening credits are. It's very Game of Thrones, right? You move down these streets, there's nice music playing but you move through these neighborhoods and it's pretend but it's a world. It's spread out beneath you, you're going through this world. You're going to Mr. Rogers' house.
And Mr. Rogers was all about moving you from the real world into this imaginary world. You come into the house, it's obviously a fake house, it's obviously a play house. The walls don't look real. The door doesn't look real; nothing looks real. He comes into this house. He changes clothes to remind us that we are moving into the world of play; we are leaving the real world we are going into the world of play. There's the trolley that takes us from the real world, such as it is, to the really imaginary world of puppets and that exists somewhere else. But Mr. Rogers, and it does this more than Sesame Street I think, really teaches kids how to handle that. There are moments in Mr. Rogers where he steps outside - you'll be in this fantasy zone and then he'll step outside. You'll see him, for instance, holding one of the puppets and you'll see "oh, he's the voice behind that puppet". There's a great episode, and there are a lot of episodes like this, where he goes to the set - the old show back in the 70s, early 80s, The Incredible Hulk. Mr. Rogers takes the kids to the set of The Incredible Hulk and one of the things - one of his goals in that episode is to show kids that you don't have to be afraid of The Incredible Hulk. And so you see The Incredible Hulk and then he takes you behind the scenes, behind the cameras and you talk about how do they make this? How do they put this together? How is this created? And it certainly teaches kids that adults are all about imagination too. Adults are all about creativity and about pretend spaces just as much as kids are. But it also right from the very early development of a kid it teaches that kid television is an imaginary space and that's great but we also need to know how to step outside of that space. And so you have these two shows kind of happening at the same time on PBS that are really addressing the issues of children and television in a fascinating and different way.
Now, I'm especially fond of the Teletubbies which my oldest daughter grew up with and she was right at the height of Teletubbie mania. And if you've never seen a kid watch the Teletubbies, if you don't have a kid who's in their 20s, and believe me, my daughter is still quite devoted to the 'tubbies. Even today. But there were some amazing, I don't know what it was about that show, it was absolutely, again, the word I can think of is a little creepy. My daughter would play - the tv might be on, you know she liked Barney and she'd watch a little Sesame Street and there were some other shows, and she'd play while those shows were on and she'd you know, she'd notice what was happening. When the Teletubbies came on, the world for her stopped. It's the only thing that she sat still for, she stopped what she was doing, she put down her toys, she sat still and she was glued to and mesmerized by the television for that 25 minutes that Teletubbies was on. I don't know if it has to do - again, it's a very interesting space. There's that sun baby and there's something very hypnotic about that and so maybe there's something going on there. But kids just love Teletubbies. But Teletubbies is a really interesting thing, again, thinking about shows like Sesame Street, shows like Mr. Rogers that were actually thinking about television. They were television and they were thinking about television. Teletubbies, I mean, think about the name of the show. I don't know if you've ever watched this but the point of the show is that these creatures have televisions in their bellies, right? They are tele-tubbies. It's so incredibly post modern. It's what Bozo would have been - you know, the cartoons, again Popeye and whatever we were watching, if they had shown up on Bozo's belly. Instead of the segments being something that are shown on a screen and just introduced by the host the televisions are actually embedded in these things bellies. And each episode, you know, you go through the episode and then at some point in the middle, one of the 'tubbies gets a television signal in his belly and we watch the show, the film that comes onto his belly. I mean talk about, it's so post modern. The tv show that's about watching tv shows. Except that here's the really mind-blowing thing about the Teletubbies, the videos that are shown on their bellies are actually real life. They are videos sent in from kids who are showing you slices of what their real lives are like. It's a chance for you to see how different kids in different parts of the world live. So, you're watching this show and then in the show you go to watch television but what's on television isn't actually television, what's on television is the real world. And so there's this reversal between, I don't know, it gets very confusing. Where's the real world, where's the fake world? It's a real world within a fake world. It's very post modern. It's awesome.
Of course, you know, as with all pop culture, things now have become so incredibly glutted. There are whole kids universes now with multiple shows. I mean, as soon as Disney had it's own channel, I mean and Nickelodeon to some extent, you get these umbrellas of imaginary worlds and they all fit within the Disney world. But, you know, it's not just Disney anymore. You've got the Star Wars universe. My 3-year old is heavily into Star Wars. I know I make it sound like we watch television all the time - we don't. We limit her screen time. But there are Star Wars cartoons - the big thing is the Star Wars Lego cartoons and there are these whole different universes of Lego cartoons and they all kind of fit together in this larger universe. So it's not just - and there are a ton of other stand alone shows. All of these kids shows that are out there just tons, every channel, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon and - they've all got their own set of shows. And there are all these exotic kids channels. Right? Like Baby Bum. And YouTube is full of kids shows, all kinds of kids channels. My daughter just kind of surfs between one YouTube channel and another. And there are literally there are hundreds. And I'm fascinated by the things that she discovers. She used to watch this show about cars and it was - I don't know how to describe this and you can probably find it on YouTube - you're looking at real cars. I guess it's a little bit like Robot Chicken except that it's less animated. You're looking at real cars and somebody's hand is moving these real cars along a road or along a track and narrating as we go. So, you know, the car comes to a railroad stop and we see, you know a hand comes in and puts the railroad crossing signs down and then the train comes through and all of this is being narrated, "oh, look at the train coming through. We better wait on the train." And these little segments, these little five or ten minute episodes where you just follow along with the cars. And I was thinking about this this week - it's very video game like, right? Instead of just watching the action you are kind of with the cars as they go through which is the way a video game works. The great advancement of video games over television is the first person aspect. You can actually be the character. You don't get to do that in the same way in most television. But if you're a kid and you're watching this television show, that is kind of what you get, is a first person moving along with the cars feeling like you're in the world where these cars and these trains, like a little train set. Is this a bridge - I mean, the way these things work - kids grow up with something and they take whatever it is they grow up and they are so used to it and so attached to it that they make it the whole world. Is kids watching these kinds of first person videos on YouTube, is it a bridge to a day when video games will be tv? And the kids, right, the kids will already be ready. They'll already be there ready to do that. The rest of us may not. But they'll be ready to have a show with a narrative like a television show but where you get to play the character and you get to move around the way that you do in video games. Is that the future of narrative? Now, as usual, I can probably go on about this subject indefinitely and maybe at a future point we'll come back to it but I think that's enough for one episode.
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Greetings and salutations and welcome to season 2, episode 15 of the Pop Culture Academy where we do all things pop culture with just a bit of an academic slant. I'm your host, MK Adkins and, well, let's talk a little bit about what's happened since the last time we spoke. I've been watching a new series on Netflix. Actually, I say new series, it's a new series to me. I think it was 2013 -2016 so, not a fresh new series. But these days, you know, there's so many things that we miss and you gotta constantly be going back and adding things that somehow you didn't catch the first time. This one's called Hinterland. Right up my alley. It's a British mystery series, I mean I suppose you'd say British, it's a British mystery series which is my absolute favorite genre, sort of my comfort food, if you will. Set in Wales and dark, dreary - atmosphere's dark and dreary. The crimes are extremely dark and dreary. I've actually been pleased as they've gone into the second season that they've now made - they actually now kind of - I would say two central characters. The central character is this troubled detective from Britain who has, in the beginning we don't know why but has moved out to Wales to begin working for the Wales police department. He is partnered with a woman who is local to Wales. In some ways it's very Broadchurch like, if you will. And I suppose those series were out at the same time which may mean, that could explain why this one didn't get quite the love that that one did. You know, my wife says that I've never met a troubled character that I didn't know. And, you know, I like those characters who really have emotional baggage. But my argument is that every great character in literature, film, television, all the great characters have emotional baggage. That's what makes an interesting character, right? I mean, who would Captain Ahab be if he hadn't lost his leg to a white whale? I mean, what would be the point, at that point? So, anyway, Hinterland I would definitely recommend it if you like that sort of thing - mysteries, dark, a little bit darker.
All right, so for this episode I want to talk a little bit about one of my favorite artistic forms and that is the concept album. Kind of, in some ways, a vanishing art form I would say because it's so rare for people to buy whole albums these days. People grab a song here, grab a song there, put it together in a playlist. That's the way it works. But a very refined art form, I think. Difficult to do well. And very serious when it's done well, it's done properly. I want to think today about Taylor Swift's new album, Folklore, which I am going to argue definitely qualifies as a concept album. And it's quite good as well, I should add. But before we get into that specific album let's talk a little bit more broadly about what a concept album is. You know, is it one of those things that you just say well, I'll know it when I see it. For instance, some people have argued that Frank Sinatra's album, In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, one of his classics from 1955 is a concept album despite the fact that there is no theme running through it. There's no character that keeps reappearing. But it does have a certain feeling, a certain atmosphere. But that's a question, right? Can Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, could that be seen as a concept album? It's an album that definitely has a certain feeling, a certain mood. It's also united by a particular approach to jazz music. On the other hand, some concept albums are quite clearly that. I mean you can't think of them as anything else. Everyone would agree that pretty much all of Pink Floyd's albums should be classified as concept albums. Except, you know, maybe those early ones where Syd Barrett was kind of running things. But after that, I mean, everything for them becomes a concept album.
Genesis tends to put out, it's a very prog rock thing, though it's not exclusively limited to prog rock. Simplest terms, a concept album is what the word says. It's an album whose songs are united by a concept. All right, but then that begs the question - what does concept mean here in this case? I like to talk about motifs which is - that's an idea that's borrowed from music. The motif is an idea or an image or even a word that shows up again and again in a work and sort of holds the work together. Can kind of create sometimes it's own underlying theme. And I would say concept albums tend to be united by some kind of common motif. I mean, I don't know that that necessarily - we went from defining the concept album to defining concept to defining motif.
Let's look at some examples. The Who's Tommy, right? That is clearly a concept album though they - I mean I guess a lot of people call that a rock opera. Is a rock opera beyond a concept album? But that album is united, very unified, has a single character, tells a single story. As I said, Genesis has used the concept album approach. And again sometimes a character, a story, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway certainly has that feature. Could look at something like, I don't know, Styx's "Mr. Roboto". That album (Kilroy Was Here) doesn't get much love anymore. I have fond feelings for it because it was popular in my youth. But, whether you like it or not, certainly works as a good example here of an album with a central character and a plot line. Tori Amos likes to channel certain figures, often historical figures. Like Under the Pink, for instance, Anastasia Romanov is this character - not character, a figure that she kind of thinks about throughout the album. There's an example that's not the only thing in the album. There are other things there too but that kind of gives the album that - that historical figure gives that album its character.
Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon, maybe the greatest concept album ever made. Maybe the - can make a case, greatest album ever made perhaps? I mean a lot of people prefer The Wall but Dark Side of the Moon is really - there are no flaws in that album. And, you know, what is that about? What unites that album? You know I used to teach that album and my students would say ok, you know what are we going to say this album's about, its concept? The problem to some extent is that album is about life, right? Life and death and birth and money and there's not much that they don't get into. But you can't say, I mean, that's too broad, right? You can't say well this concept album is about life. Madness is a clear motif in a lot of Roger Waters' writing. And here we get into the issue of how many concept albums can you make on the same concept or the same motif? Does it become something beyond just a concept album? A concept career, if you will.
Alan Parsons who, under appreciated. I've talked about recently his connection to Pink Floyd and Dark Side of the Moon. Very key concept album guy, particularly in the 70s, early 80s. And my favorite of his, I mean he's - people who are really into Alan Parsons love The Raven which is all about sort of Edgar Allen Poe obviously. My favorite album of his is another under appreciated. It's called On Air. Came out the mid to late 90s I want to say. And the motif there is flight, right? And so there are songs about the first air flights. You know, the Wright Brothers. There are songs about being afraid of flying. There are songs on that album about space flight. It's all kind of different angles on the idea of flight which - it's just a good album.
And then there are lots of these. From Soft Cell's Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, Gary Numan's The Pleasure Principle, Sting's The Soul Cages which deals with the death of his father. Or Lou Reed's Magic and Loss which deals with loss of a couple of his friends. There are country versions - Willie Nelson's Redheaded Stranger or Teatro. System of a Down. Green Day. Janet Jackon's Rhythm Nation. All these, this is a reasonably popular form. But not everybody can do it. And, you know, it's not to say that this is the - I mean there are plenty of albums, there are plenty of great albums that are organized around the song, right? And just - you know, Fountains of Wayne made great albums where they just made these wonderful song after song after song after song. And they're not united by anything except that they're just brilliant studies in the song form. But back to concept albums. Other than - I mean again, it's still hard to define, right? Ben Folds Five, (The Unauthorized Biography of )Reinhold Messner cd/album, is that a concept album? I mean I've had people argue to me that it certainly is and they can tell me the whole story - that it's about a character and they take me through the whole story. I don't know.
Springsteen's best album in my mind is Nebraska which I think is definitely a concept album. It has this running theme about the depression of poverty that haunts America. That album came out in the early 80s. Reagan's America. And just this - I don't know - this overarching sadness to that. It's one story after another on that album of people who have been crushed economically in one way or another and what they do as a result of being crushed. But then does Born in the USA, does that album qualify as a concept album? Is that united by something? Can the concept be just a mood or can it be an approach? You know, Gerry Mulligan the famous jazz saxophonist at one point has his groups - it was an experimental - has his groups abandon using the piano. The piano is generally used to give the root chords to an ensemble. And he didn't want a root cord, right? He wanted the instruments to simply be playing off of each other. Does that make that first album where he's experimenting with that - does that unite that album as a concept album? For that matter, are Sting's first two albums? Right? Nothing Like The Sun and (that's the second one) Dream of the Blue Turtles. He completely ditches the idea of rock musicians and hires a bunch of jazz musicians and puts together these two albums. Does that unify - are those concept albums? Certainly Paul Simon's Graceland which was recorded completely in South Africa and which was making a statement about apartheid in South Africa and musicians. The song, again, the song's are necessarily related to one another but the concept is in the album itself. The concept is in what we're going to attempt to do here. But then if you stretch it too far maybe every album is a concept album. Most albums are united by the artist who produces that album. Which means in some ways they are all the product of one mind and so they hang together in that way.
I don't know. In literature there are some comparisons. A book of poetry is often united by a theme or a concept or an approach. You see that in photography books as well. In poetry, William Blake's "Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience" which incidentally have recently become inspiration for U2's most recent albums. Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads which is trying to take a brand new approach to poetry in 1798. But I think I like to compare concept albums to the literary form called the short story cycle. And what this is is it's a collection of short stories that can all stand alone, that is you could read them by themselves as short stories they stand up as whole complete stories but they also seem to relate to one another in some important way. Really the first important one of these was Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio in the early part of the 20th century. Again, every story it's own story, it's own characters, it's own events, has a climax, it comes to an end and it works as it's own little story. But they're all set in the same town, this fictional town of Winesburg, Ohio. And so you get to sort of see the whole town as you move from story to story to story. The early 20th century, again, Hemmingway writes In Our Time again, where every story is unique and different but they're all about his experience and his shellshock, post traumatic stress, after WWI. Similarly you can go into Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried which is a short story cycle that's all about post-Vietnam.
All right, so Taylor Swift's Folklore which just came out - does it qualify as a concept album and I'd say absolutely. We get certain motifs, again, words, images, ideas that keep coming up over and over. Blood, for example, shows up over and over. High heels show up frequently. Film shows up all throughout this album. Now, let me stop at this point and confess - I am not a Taylor Swift expert. And honestly, I don't typically - this isn't a show where we do reviews of contemporary albums, contemporary shows. If something catches my eye its worth talking about as an example. You know, here we're talking about an example of a concept album. A few weeks back we talked about Bob Dylan's new album as an example of what makes Bob Dylan so important to American literature. Generally I like to do things that are a little further in the past because it gives us a chance to reflect on them rather than just sort of spouting out is this good? Is this bad? Should you listen to this? Should you not listen to this? But again, I was really captivated by this album and particularly as a concept album. But I'm not a Taylor Swift expert and I've been a little amused as I've done a little - just a bare minimum of research into this album at just how much of an industry it is deciphering her lyrics. I mean, I've always known that people like to say this song or another song of hers is about this breakup and this song's about that breakup and this guy and that guy. But geez, the way people pick her work apart. I mean, my life is about analyzing things and picking things apart but surely there's a point where it gets to be just a little much. I mean, let it go folks. But actually I think that gives me a unique take on her album. That is, I'm not really all that interested in Swift's biography. I'm just not. Right? That's just not my thing. And maybe this is a question for a whole other episode but my question is this - what can we take from this album without really knowing anything about Swift herself? Right? Does this album stand on it's own. It's not what this album tells us about Swift, but rather, what does this album tell us? Period. Question mark. What is it really about?
I mean the thing that really strikes me the most about this album is there is a certain antiqueness to it. Cardigan sweaters. The mention of the roaring 20s. There's this tale of the wealthy socialite. There are all these mentions of the cinema. Images such as high heels on cobblestones. Ghosts. Hauntings. You know, even something that's relatively recent like a t-shirt - it's vintage tees. There's a great song "Mirrorball" that connects us to the antique idea. I mean it connects, for Taylor Swift, I mean not for me, but for Taylor Swift the mirrorball is sort of an - the 70s disco is definitely an antique kind of thing. But actually the mirrorball dates back to the 1920s and the dance halls in the 1920s. It was sort of rediscovered at Studio 54. They kind of found it stuck back in some back corner and thought let's put this up and it becomes a staple of the disco era. But it goes back much further and so that's an antique as well. The word, the title is folklore. And that's a fascinating choice. She uses that in so many different senses. You know, folklore is about revisiting history but it's in a very particular way, right? It's mythical, that is, you expect folklore to be a little exaggerated, a little not true. But it's also personal. Myth tends to be about heroes and giants and - folklore is more, um, I don't know, more personal, more down to earth. Folklore, that's the stories that we invent as families or as a region. I mean I'm from the south and folklore is a big part of the south, the southern tradition. This is how we tell our tales. There's folklore about our family, our region but I think there's also folklore that we tell ourselves about ourselves. Certain folklore that we invent about us, that helps us explain who we are and our identity. We all have kind of a certain folklore about our childhood. You know, what happened in your childhood is it's a little exaggerated in our memories. It's not quite real but it is real and in our minds we shape it so that it makes a certain kind of sense for us. And I think all of that is going on in the use of this term. And there's a definite fusion here of past and present. That is, there is an antiqueness and it is about folklore in the sense of thinking about the past. But it's also about folklore and thinking about the present. Over and over in this album another of the motifs is that when you get something antique often it is fused with something from the present, something contemporary.
Maybe the most important song on the album I think is "The Last Great American Dynasty" which brings together this woman from the 20s who was seen as too wild for her times. With the speaker, who was presumably Swift. And the speaker sort of wraps herself in the mantle of "I'm going to accept the gossip and controversy as a kind of badge of honor." You know the woman from the 20s was, you know, people said terrible things about her for her time but the reason they said those terrible things about her is because she was living her life out loud and I want to do that too. Again, there's this whole biographical thing. Taylor Swift apparently bought this house - does this connect us to this actual woman? But leaving that aside it's an interesting idea of the past and the present and I'm going to try to - finding feminist heroes in the past and I'm going to try to live up to those heroes. And that mix of past and present runs through the whole album.
But of course, you know, that's all a useful turn on what Swift's already done I think for contemporary music. Her enormous contribution to contemporary music is her exploration of the situation of women in the 21st century, especially in response to the Me Too movement. Her music is so caught up in the Me Too movement I think. I mean, she's thought of by a lot of people. Her fans, but also people who don't like her. As someone who encodes all of her relationships into her music, like it's some sort of self-indulgent biography or worse, like self-pity. Or revenge. Or whatever. But it's actually much deeper than that. She turns all the varieties of romantic experience into some deeper commentary, not on relationships, although maybe there's a lot of commentary on relationships, but more on how women experience those relationships. The struggles they face to define themselves in a changing world. You know, it's like she takes this single idea, a single thing - relationships - and she turns it and she turns it and she turns it and she turns it so that we can see it from one perspective and another perspective and another perspective and another perspective. And you know we won't get into how many artists have done that but some of the great artists, that's the way they work. Henry James, for instance, comes to mind. It's this - I'm just going to take this one thing and I'm going to look at it from every possible way that I can see it. And so here Taylor Swift does that again but in this case she's sort of moves out to this broad historical perspective so that we can see how women over time...It's got contemporary relationships, it's got past relationships and how do you - all these relationships again we're turning and looking at them and thinking particularly about how women deal with these relationships. How women find their identity in the contemporary world.
All right, but that's enough for this week. Thanks so much for tuning in. If you like what you hear, please let us know. Follow us on Twitter, follow us on FaceBook, check out our YouTube channel. You can always find us at popcultureacademy.com. And if you like us at all, tell your friends. Please, tell your friends. I'll be back next week with an all new episode, see you then.
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