You're listening to the Pop Culture Academy podcast with MK Adkins. And don't forget you can follow us on Twitter and FaceBook. You can find us on YouTube. And of course you can always visit us at www.popcultureacademy.com.
Greetings and salutations and welcome to the Pop Culture Academy where we do all things pop culture with just a bit of an academic slant. I believe we are up to episode four, which, you know, we're very proud to have made it this far. If you've listened to all four, I don't know what to say. Thank you! That's incredible. But if you're tuning in for the first time, you might want to know that previous episodes are still up. You can get those first three episodes. You can get them at ITunes or Spotify. You can go to Podomatic directly. I think there's probably links on our Facebook page. There's links in Twitter. There's links on our Pop Culture Academy webpage. So you can certainly track those down. It's a good time to do that. We are not independently wealthy, at least not yet. So, we're not going to be able to keep up all of our episodes indefinitely. When we hit 10 or 15, at some point we're going to have to start removing some to put new things up. But for the moment, you can definitely get those old episodes and so it's a good time to go back and listen to those if you're interested.
Now, this week's episode was meant to be about Michael McDonald, that's what I promised at the end of last week's episode. But one of the things about the Pop Culture Academy that is important to me is that this not just be sort of a march, a slog through topics. It's not just sort of - okay here's the next topic and we're just going to march through them one at a time and we're just marching through it thoughtlessly. One of the thing's that's important is to recognize that pop culture is happening all the time. News happens in pop culture all the time. And I think it's worth while when it happens to stop what we're doing and throw in an episode that considers whatever is going on. And this last week, I guess it's been a week and a half now, Ric Ocasek died. And I couldn't not talk about Ric Ocasek. He's just so important to me - he's so important to music, he's so important to new wave which we talked about last week. And I thought I might use Ocasek to segue into talking about Andy Warhol a little, who's so important to postmodernism and so important to new wave and I know that we've already talked about those subjects and I keep saying we're going to leave those subjects but - and I didn't really mean to head back into them so soon - but, you know, then Ric sort of died and it was like, you know, I gotta do this. It was like a sign. I've got to talk about The Cars. I've got to talk about Andy Warhol.
So, for those of you who don't know Ric Ocasek by name, and that's okay if you're a bit younger. He's not the household name he used to be. But he was. I mean, people knew Ric Ocasek's name. Ocasek was one of the two frontmen for The Cars. And The Cars, of course, enormously important new wave band. And really just an enormously important band. And if you're of a certain age (I hope we have some younger listeners) if you're of a certain age you may not know The Cars but you do know The Cars. You know hits like "Drive", "Who's Going to Drive You Home Tonight", "You Might Think", "My Best Friend's Girlfriend", "Shake it Up", "Let the Good Times Roll", these are songs that you know and you've heard.
So The Cars are a band out of Boston. They very quickly became associated with the post-punk scene that was going on in New York City in the late 70s. And that scene, really crucial historical moment and it all sort of happens in New York City but beyond that, most of it happens at a club called CBGBs. CBGBs only closed down, I think, within the last ten years but that place was just one of those iconic places where history was made. Some of the most important American and British punk and post-punk acts played at CBGBs. It's where Blondie got their start. The Ramones. Patty Smyth was a major influence at CBGBs. The Talking Heads played there. And then there are bands that people forget, or that we have somehow managed to forget but that are just enormously important bands that somehow get lost to time like - I'm thinking of the band Television which was almost like the house band when CBGBs opened and was really a crucial, I mean, only one album, but crucial link between punk and post-punk and new wave. The Police broke at CBGBs. So it's like this center point for American music at that time. And maybe one of the most important clubs ever.
So, all right, we'll come back to CBGBs in a bit, maybe, but The Cars are hanging out in this scene, along with everyone else who is important to new wave music at that point. The Cars are a five piece, they are from Boston originally, as I mentioned, but then they very quickly get swept up into this New York City scene. They got together in 1976. Ocasek was one of the two frontmen of the band. He wrote songs. He played rhythm guitar. He was one of their lead singers. The other lead singer and frontman was Benjamin Orr, who was also the bass player. The rest of the band included lead guitarist Elliott Easton, Greg Hawkes on keyboard and David Robinson on drums. And, you know, we didn't talk so much last week about the new wave sound which was an oversight. We should have done that. I mean, here we go. It's like Ric Ocasek is helping us out here. He passed away so that we could go back and revisit the things that we missed. But you look in the dictionary under new wave and right there is a picture of The Cars.
You can describe the new wave sound all you want to but The Cars hit it dead center. They're like the quintessential sound, the stereotypical sound of that era. And here's what that consists of. First of all, synthesizers have risen in the mix. Now, keyboards were important. Keyboards have been around and important for at least a decade in rock music. But it was distinctly different. Mainly the keyboards were important in prog rock, bands like Pink Floyd and Genesis. And those guys were playing really complicated, complicated stuff. I mean, we talked about the punks reacting to rock music at the time. This is one of the issues is that all the musicians were playing complicated stuff but if you go back and listen to early Genesis albums, you know those Peter Gabriel sorts of albums, the keyboards are just, they're crazy all over the place, crazy complex. Lots of chords, complicated chords. Let's go back to the punks - it was just complicated and in the punk's mind, too complicated. So in new wave, the synthesizer shifts. Synthesizers change a little bit and they sound less like keyboards and more like, I don't know, the electronic sound is much more pronounced. And the synthesizer becomes more like a single note. One note at a time. What it is is the synthesizer replaces the lead guitar and the synthesizer becomes the lead in the mix. And so guitars, then, move back a bit. There tends to be a lot more rhythm guitar work and impressive, impressive rhythm guitar work. I mean, Andy Summers, Mike Rutherford, these guys are doing some serious serious stuff with rhythm guitar but it moves back a little bit and the guitars are - the way I define it is jangly. The guitars are kind of more jangly sounding. The bass definitely rises. It's sort of competing with the synthesizer as a lead. I mean it's, the bass is where the riffs are coming in, the established riffs that go throughout the song. If you go back and listen to Kajagoogoo's "Too Shy", for instance, you'll see exactly how crucial that the base is. And then the last component, and this is a very important component, is that new wave bands tend to have a singer whose voice is quirky. Like, they sound stressed. Or they sound anxious. Or they sound paranoid. David Byrnes, Talking Heads. Sting's early sound with The Police. Simon Le Bon's an interesting one. Simon Le Bon is so whiny and he's always just a bit flat and yet it's so perfect. Colin Hay of Men At Work. Fred Schneider, of course the B52s. Andy Partridge, XTC. Divo's music. Boomtown Rats. Really, any serious new wave band that you want to name, that's one of the components. They've got that singer. And Ocasek is that guy. I mean, he is - if The Cars are quintessential new wave, Ocasek is the quintessential new wave singer. And he looks the part, right? He's tall. He's skinny. He's got this shock of black hair. He's got an enormous Adam's apple. And he just looks stressed and yet, here's an interesting thing, he also looks incredibly cool. There's something in the 80s that connects stressed, anxiety and cool. And, you know, go back and watch a video for The Cars's "Magic" where Ocasek is sort of like, the main character there. And his persona - that's exactly the persona. He's lost. He's confused. He's anxious. But he's also laid back and cool and it's an amazing combination. And then his voice, again, has that ringing uptight quality.
So, on top of that The Cars's name connects them perfectly to new wave. The reason they named themselves The Cars is because after they'd record a song in the studio they'd take it out on tape to someones car and play it. Just to see how it sounded in a car as though it were going to be on a radio. If this were on the radio, what would it sound like in the car? So, they're thinking about radio air play. They're thinking about what's popular and how to capture that popular sound and again that's sort of that postmodern idea of let's just start with the shiny and go from there.
So, they hit it big in the 70s. Their second album, Candy-O, reaches number three on the Billboard charts in 1979. And they're doing okay in the early 80s. They are kind of adjusting their sound, being a little more experimental. And then, 1984. Now, if you're going to talk 80s or you're going to talk new wave, 1984 is the year. It's one of those years in history that just boom, kind of everything happened. And '84 is the year that boom, postmodernism and new wave and all of that was gelling and coming together. It's just one of those magical years in history all the way around. You've got Band Aid going on which starts something. Michael Jackson has really just hit it big. Madonna has become a superstar. Van Halen, I mean this is across genres, Van Halen releases 1984, their sort of seminole album. I think Lionel Richie's "All Night Long" is out. Maybe The Police's Synchronicity. I mean, some of those things happened in '83, they kind of bleed over into '84. Maybe Duran Duran Seven and the Ragged Tiger is out. You know, or it may be that I'm just thinking that every huge album of the 80s came out in 1984 because that's just the kind of year it was. It's just like everything happened then. Everything major in music happens that year. And that's the year that The Cars release Heartbeat City. And bam. They are superstars. That album produces "Magic", "Hello Again", "You Might Think", "Why Can't I Have You?" and "Drive", which "Drive" was just a monster success. All of that's on one album. So then they follow that up with a greatest hits package but everyone is sort of doing a solo record now. They do one last album in 1987 called Door to Door and that's it.
And it's like that Eagles sort of thing - or Pink Floyd - Ocasek says 'We're done. I've had it with these guys. Never ever ever again.' So then Orr dies, Benjamin Orr dies of pancreatic cancer in 2000 and on second thought, Ocasek says 'Let's get the band back together for one more album.' And so they record one more album. It's called Move Like This. Pretty good, pretty nice coda on their career. A really strong single called "Moving in Stereo" that I like. And then last year, just 2018, they get inducted into the hall of fame. And then, of course, Ocasek passes away on Sunday. So, I mean, The Cars are important. Amazing band. Amazing music. And Ocasek, amazing frontman.
But talking about The Cars gives me a chance to explore something that I missed in last week's episode that's really crucial. Mostly last week we talked, we really focused on British new wave. I don't know if I said that, but that's kind of the direction that I was taking. Bands like The Police, Tears for Fears, Thompson Twins, XTC. I mean there was this - they called it the second British invasion. And those bands became the darlings of MTV. Duran Duran and Culture Club and Spandau Ballet and ABC.
Now, as I said last week, all of that was basically a reaction to punk, or punk's - I hate to use the word but - punk's failure. You know, new wave in Britain was sort of okay punk; the ultimate rebellion failed so let's not try rebelling anymore. And some of that was going on in America too. But America for the most part had a different path to new wave. And this week - I've got this chance to sort of talk about the American path to new wave. And here's the thing, that path runs straight through the artist Andy Warhol. So, everything, I mean, in some ways everything about American music then is about Andy Warhol. In one way or another.
Now, I confess I am getting older and I don't know what kind of cache Andy Warhol's name has these days but look, there are two important artists in the 20th century. Really just two hugely important artists. Everything and everyone else runs through these two guys, it's derivative in some way or other. And the first is Picasso who deconstructed art. The second is Andy Warhol. And to my mind, no one yet, I mean we're soon going to move into the third decade of the 21st century and I don't think anyone yet has risen to the stature of Warhol. And there are some ways in which I don't know if anyone ever will. Okay, so Warhol's one of those guys, I mean we should start with this, Warhol's one of those guys and Picasso really was too, that people like to say- they look at their work and say 'Oh my god, who cares? What's the big deal with this art?' It seems incredibly easy and, you know, I mean with Picasso people say, 'Well you know my kid could do this.' They say worse things about Warhol. And easy is one word to apply to it.
Warhol loved copying what was already out there. So his most famous series is the Campbell's Soup can, right? We all know this. It's iconic. It's so iconic that a few years back, Campbell's Soup actually did an homage to Andy Warhol and did their cans up in sort of Andy Warhol colors. So he sets a soup can up in front of him, he copies it in absolute detail, he makes a bunch of them, he fills a gallery, he makes millions of dollars and suddenly he's the most important artist ever. And people say, 'Come on. That's not art.' It's not even original. All he did was copy something that was already out there and really even at the time people got quite incensed about Warhol. And they still do. I showed Warhol to my students and they just rebelled against the very idea that this guy has any talent.
All right, but here's something that matters in the 20th century more than it ever did before. And remember, some of this goes back to the invention of the camera and some of it has to do with TV, but art isn't about what is in the picture anymore. It used to be you study the picture and looked at what the artist had portrayed and you thought about how he portrayed it and the message and the story in the picture and all of those kinds of things. And that doesn't completely go away. There's some of that still going on. But what's way more important in the 20th century is the idea. What we would call, what art calls the concept. The question isn't 'Is that picture pretty?' Right? Jackson Pollock's drip paintings aren't pretty. And there's nothing in them, there's no recognizable object. There's just drips of painting on canvas. But the idea behind what Pollock was doing, the reason why he was dripping paint on canvas - that was genius. We're not going to talk about Pollock today but Warhol, in terms of concept, was the genius of all geniuses. Bar none. And like I said, there will never be another.
Now remember last week that I said in the late 60s all these postmodern theorists, people like Jaques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, all these theorists and philosophers show up and start noticing what's going on in the world and they label it postmodernism and say isn't this weird? We talked about all this before. And then, you know, it was another 20 years into the 80s when the artists started to make art to copy what these postmodern theorists were talking about. So there's like a 20 year lag. But Warhol was doing it as they were saying it and really Warhol was doing it before the theorists were talking about it. He's like the guy who discovered it. He's like a philosopher and an artist all wrapped up into one. His art is the definitive statement on postmodernism. Period.
And so, if you buy into this notion that postmodernism changed everything and that we're still in postmodernism, Andy Warhol is the root of all of that. He says, here's what the world is and that's it. Anyone after him from Pink Floyd to Jay Z to whoever you want to talk about, is ultimately just copying what Warhol said. Now, what did he say?
All right, so, maybe you should just go back and listen to the first three episodes but let me try to boil it down for you. Warhol recognized before anyone else that the world had become the matrix. In some ways his paintings of those soup cans, for instance, they are the matrix. 30, 40 years before the Wachowskis come up with this idea, you know, and the Wachowskis come out with The Matrix and we all think our minds have been blown. Warhol did it 40 years before.
There are 100 ways to unpack Warhol and I always get way too excited and try to do them all and I shouldn't do that but we'll see what happens. So let me give you one. So, let's think 100 years before Warhol. Before the camera - let's imagine before the camera. Painting before the camera. So there's this thing that every artist paints. It's like a practice picture and everyone does it. It's the bowl of fruit. Check out any artist you want, they've done a bowl of fruit. It's like comedians and air travel. You ever notice, if you go back and listen to all the routines by your favorite standup artist, whoever you like, inevitably they all talk about air traveling. It's like everywhere in standup comedy because that's what they all experience and it's just one of those things that shows up. So, artists always do a bowl of fruit. And maybe they add their new twist to the bowl of fruit or, you know, they're trying to make their new statement or whatever. But they all do it.
Andy looks around, himself, in the 1960s and he needs to do his bowl of fruit, right? I'm an early artist. I've got to make my statement, my bowl of fruit. Only he realizes, and no one has but he does, that there is no fruit anymore. Just an aside, it's not quite true that he was the only one to realize that. Alan Ginsberg, the great beat poet at the time, he realized it as well. Check out his poem "Supermarket in California". But, okay, that's a whole other show. So, anyway, Andy realizes that there isn't any real anymore. He realizes we're in the matrix. There's no fruit. Well, but you're talking about fruit. Go to the supermarket. Go to the supermarket and behold the bananas. Bananas and then next to them the organic bananas. And which one of those bananas is real? And what happens when you make the StairMaster and that whole bit. And he says you know what, the 1960s version of a bowl of fruit is a Campbells Soup can. Not what's in the can, the can itself. I mean that's - tomato soup is your bowl of fruit. Here's a tomato. Except that it's processed and in a can. And so the bowl of fruit is the can. Now that in itself is just brilliant beyond brilliant. It might sound passe in the world of Family Guy and South Park and those kinds of postmodern shows but he comes up with this concept before anyone else.
All right, but it's better than that. I can tell I'm starting to get going again. Because the other thing, the other thing we say is 'Oh, he's just copying something that's already out there. Artists are supposed to be original, right? And he's just copying something that's already out there. It's less than no art. It's the opposite of art.' And here's where Andy was incredibly clever, he'd actually say yes. In fact, he literally said that. Another of his big projects was a room full of boxes with - they were soap boxes - and he actually painted labels that looked exactly like the real. They're Brillo. They looked exactly like the Brillo boxes that you get in the store. And he just copied, like the soup cans, he just copied it and he put these labels on top of wooden boxes and he set these boxes up so that it looked like a Brillo factory had exploded. And he sets this up in a gallery and again, people snap it up and he's a millionaire and whatever. And I'm going to play this little clip here. The interviewer says "Haven't you just copied something?" And here's what he says.
Interviewer: The Canadian government says that your art cannot be described as original sculpture.Would you agree with that?
Warhol: Uh, yes.
Interviewer: Why do you agree?
Warhol: Well because it's not original.
Interviewer: You have just then copied a common item.
Interviewer: Well why have you bothered to do that? Why not create something new?
Warhol: Uh, Because it's easier.
So, you know, he freely admitted that he was copying something but here's the thing, and you gotta go back to The Matrix. If we are really in the matrix, and imagine that we really are in the matrix, and you see an apple or a bowl of fruit. Is that apple real? No. We're in the matrix. There are no real apples. We already scorched the Earth, remember? Morpheus tells us. What you're seeing, then, is just a picture of an apple, an image of an apple, a computer-made picture of it for you. And so you say to Andy, "That's not real." And he says, "Right". In fact, he used to say he wanted to be a machine. He was really into this notion of computers. He said, "I want to be a machine." He went around with a tape recorder and a polaroid camera and instead of having actual conversations with people he had fake conversations with them. So he's already saying as loudly as he can, "We're in the matrix. We're in the matrix. Good God, we're in the matrix."
And he's obsessed with Marilyn Monroe because she's the first person who's not a person. If you want to talk about postmodernism, she's another crucial key, another crucial sign or piece of evidence of postmodernism. You know, she's not really Marilyn Monroe. That's a name that the studios made up for her. She doesn't really look like what she looks like. That's another thing that the studios created. And she's so fake, she's the first celebrity like this that's just completely manufactured. And she's so fake that even she loses track of who she is. Even she doesn't know what her real personality is. And Warhol makes all these pictures of Marilyn Monroe and he paints her with these completely fake huge pink lips and neon - he takes photographs of her and he paints over them so that it's just garish and gaudy. She's got neon blue eyeshadow. And we look at the picture and we say it's like Disneyland for Baudrilliard, we look at the picture and we say, "Well, that's not Marilyn. That's fake. You've made a fake version of Marilyn Monroe." And Warhol says, "But Marilyn was a fake."
What does all of this have to do with new wave music in America? Well, everything. Warhol actually got into music a bit back in the 60s and 70s. He meets Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground and decides to become their "manager" and, you know, there's some question about who was influencing who and how much Andy was really involved. He did, of course, design their iconic banana album cover with the zipper and the blotted line banana. And they put together some things. They collaborated some. But the point is, Andy's already sort of involved in music to an extent. He sees art, conceptually he sees art not just as a painting but art is everything. He was into film. He was into music. He was, you know, he really burst - one of the first people to sort of burst those bounds between those kinds of disciplines.
All right, so at that point Warhol - by the 70s/80s - Warhol just controls New York. I mean, really, just controls New York. But certainly controls the art community, and to some extent the art community of the entire country. And music is just one of those things that has to get filtered through him. For instance, the Rolling Stones close with Andy Warhol. And film filters through him. And we get to the late 70s and disco. I mean, to some extent, disco was created for Andy. And he just rules the world. I don't know how else to say it.
Suddenly, the music world is turning out versions of Andy Warhol. That's what new wave in America essentially comes down to. Lots of these bands that rise in America are artists who were in art school. They either graduated or they dropped out. All of the Talking Heads, for instance, another band that was full of artists. And because they are all artists, they are hip to Andy in that way but even those who aren't outright artists, they meet Andy and they are influenced by him and he shapes their music. He discovers Debbie Harry, for instance, of Blondie at Max's Kansas City where she's a waitress. The Talking Heads are hanging out with him. Madonna is coming up in the New York scene and she knows him. Duran Duran shows up and their keyboard player, Nick Rhodes who in some ways is the architect of their sound, becomes a Warhol acolyte. In fact, Warhol famously said that Nick Rhodes was his favorite masturbation subject. And you know, all the rest. The B52s. Cyndi Lauper. And most of the early rap and hip-hop artists are connected to Warhol in one way or another. And The Cars. So everybody who is key to new wave in America is filtered through Andy Warhol.
So, you know, just to sort of back up for a second, you've got these two versions of new wave in the 80s. Equally important, and they're influencing each other, you've got British new wave which is reacting to punk. And you've got American new wave which is reacting to Andy Warhol.
All right, so that's this week's show. You know, if you've got something you want to say, you want to respond to this, maybe you want to say I'm wrong. Maybe I've missed something. Or maybe you've just got some ideas about what we've been talking about. Definitely definitely hit us up and tell us what you think. There are lots of ways to do that. So, I'll end with this. If you don't know about the many ways to get the Pop Culture Academy, let me just sort of list them again. We've got a Facebook group, of course, and that's a great way to talk back. I know Facebook's getting a little passe now but that's still a great way to communicate with us. There's the webpage. There's twitter, you can comment there. We also do a weekly playlist of 10 or so songs, usually with some sort of theme to kind of get your week going on Monday. And in fact we take suggestions for that via Twitter and Facebook each week. So, definitely hit us up with ideas, with thoughts, with feedback. We want to hear what you think. We're 4 episodes into this and we need to know what your responses are. How are we doing basically?
Last week in honor of Ocasek I put up a Cars playlist. And there's a mix there. Some of those are great live performances though, I'll say for this list, I focused exclusively on songs that Ocasek sang lead on. I didn't include "Drive" for instance which of course is probably their most iconic song because that was Benjamin Orr's. But others - you know, there's some live things there. There's some original videos from the 80s like "Magic". If you want a real trip, check out the video for "Hello Again" which was the first single they took off their Heartbeat City album. Andy Warhol actually directs it. It's as bizarre as you might expect and he even shows up in a cameo appearance. Now on the other hand, if you'd like to have your heart completely ripped out of your chest and you want to see a real taste of Ocasek's genius and you want to do those two things at the same time, you got to listen to "I'm Not The One". It's a stripped down acoustic version that he did very recently of that tune.
So all right, that's all for this weeks' edition of the Pop Culture Academy.
Katie Adkins co-produces this podcast and manages Pop Culture Academy's social media presence including our website. Also, a special thanks to our east coast correspondent, Dr. J Lundquist who contributes news items and story ideas and generally keeps me on track. Join us next week when we will talk about Michael McDonald, I think. In the meantime, remember you can turn on your TV, you can turn on your radio, turn on your PS4, your XBox but that doesn't mean you should turn off your brain.
I’m not sure when it happened exactly, but I’m pretty sure it was in the last five years: television reached a critical mass, a point from which I assume there is no return, when there are simply too many “quality” TV shows for a single human being to watch. I should know – for the first couple of years I tried. But trust me, it can’t be done. Those days are over. Which leaves me, in the wake of the Emmy’s Monday night and with the new fall season already upon us, in something of a television funk. Leaving my personal woes aside, though, I’m also left with the question, where do we go from here?
This has happened before, in fact; not with television, but with music. When I was growing up – mostly in the 80s – there were a limited number of musical artists, and for the most part we all knew them. Madonna, Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, Lionel Richie, Bruce Springsteen, Culture Club – they were a kind of universal language. If you were a certain sort, you might be drawn to the more obscure new wave bands – Spandau Ballet, Orange Juice. Or you might have been a rap early adopter. You might have been “underground” and known who Tom Waits was. Or into country. But even most of the outlier artists eventually filtered down to the masses – I knew who Kenny Rogers was, George Strait, Herbie Hancock, RUSH.
Somewhere in the late 90s, though, the music world exploded. The advent of computers meant more people could make more music for less money. The advent of the internet meant those people could cut out the marketing middle men and distribute their music directly. And overnight there were suddenly more bands producing more music than any one person could keep up with. Tracks were separated from albums and the transition was complete. Now we walk around with phones full of music by artists only we know: playlists that aren’t just personally curated by and for us, but that in certain respects are full of music that was made just for us. Maybe no one else on Earth besides me knows what it’s like to move from Royksopp’s “Remind Me” to Branford Marsalis’s “The Windup” (my favorite track from the Marsalis Quartet’s excellent new album The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul). Of course, you can try it now, but even at the moment you do it, I’ll be hearing another track change that only I will ever hear.
It has taken television longer to work up to the same point. We thought it happened in the early 80s, when cable arrived. There’s a great tune by Joe Jackson – “It’s All Too Much” – about the ridiculous state the world has reached, in which there are so many kinds of things it’s impossible to choose:
Two hundred brands of cookies
Eighty-seven kinds of chocolate chip –
They say that choice is freedom
I’m so free it drives me to the brink.
Later in that song Jackson worries because we now have “fifty channels,” which seemed like a lot – maybe too many – in 1991. Almost thirty years on, fifty channels seems positively quaint.
Of course, even with hundreds of channels, it took time for us to reach the situation we’re in now, since not all those channels offered worthwhile programming in the beginning. How many times could you re-watch Steel Magnolias, really? Even when channels began to push their own original programming, it wasn’t always what you’d call top-notch. Anyone up for a marathon of Manhattan, AZ? Maybe a big helping of The Lot? Take your time; look ‘em up. My point is, it took time for cable to mature.
Once it did though, man did it ever. For a while its seemed like we’d reached some sort of television nirvana. The Sopranos, 24 (don’t even act like you didn’t love 24), Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, and The Office, and Modern Family, and Mad Men, and Lost, and I don’t even remember what else. Fine. It became more fun – and maybe more cerebral as well – to stay home on Friday nights, to stay home every night. The cinema suddenly looked a little sad. And look, I take my TV seriously, so there I was, watching Monk and Psych, Haven and Eureka, and Battlestar and Warehouse 13, and Parks and Rec and Enterprise and Family Guy and South Park and Dexter, and The Wire. If it had the faintest whiff of “quality” I was there. I watched so much television I had to write a book about it. Ironically, I gave up reading altogether, and had to squeeze in a classic film or two at odd moments when I should have been sleeping.
And now...well, I can’t even start listing. A few weeks back I applied for a job writing TV reviews (didn’t get it, thanks for asking), and they asked me to list “everything” I watch. Thirty minutes later, I gave up, and I hadn’t even begun on the most recent shows.
So what am I complaining about, right? Well, for someone whose aim in life for several years was to watch every episode of everything worth watching, this new reality does a number on my OCD – but that’s another one of those personal problems, I suppose.
Maybe I’m not really complaining. But I do think it’s worth taking a moment to think about where we’ve arrived. There was a point, not so long ago, where you could shame a person for not watching a show: “You’ve never seen Homeland? Are you one of those people ‘cutting the cord’?” You can’t expect that anyone’s seen anything now, and the days when we shared television as a cultural object are decidedly over.
But I do wonder what’s next. A few years ago, someone did a thoughtful think-piece on how we seem to be choosing our universes now – “I’m Star Wars, he’s Harry Potter, she’s Law and Order.” But I suspect soon it may be “which network have you decided to live on?” Every network it seems has their own streaming service now: cutting the cord is starting to look like less and less of a good idea in an age where me may now have to pay a separate price for each and every network.
Oh you can certainly get by with nothing but Netflix, no question. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve watched nothing but dark Belgian mysteries. Seriously, like five of the things: that’s how deep content goes. Just know that soon – if it hasn’t happened already, you’ll be watching your very own lineup of shows every night, something absolutely different from anything anyone else on Earth watches. Your significant other will be tuned to something else – no time to waste sharing a playlist. And just like that, TV won’t be something we share anymore.
Is Killing Eve the last show we’ve all heard of? Or is Mrs. Maisel more your thing? Barry? Sharp Objects? Chernobyl? Never mind, I see you’re watching something else.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
What’s going on with Sting, exactly? Is it some form of dementia? Is it a matter of greed? Is it the George Lucas syndrome – the urge to endlessly tinker with your work until it dissolves into a puddle of irrelevance?
Once Upon a Time...
If you’re young enough, you may not believe this, but Sting mattered once – really mattered. Like, “shaped everything about contemporary music” mattered. Like “made rock music that blazed artistic trails” mattered. And no one was ever a bigger fan than I was. In 1991, my college roommate, Ted, and I scored tickets to see Sting in Dallas and made the six-hour drive from the University of Arkansas, playing Sting albums and singing at the top of our lungs the entire way. We talked, only somewhat in jest, of founding a “Church of Sting.” We arrived in Dallas, as obnoxiously hyper as only two 19 year-old budding music aficionados on their first concert roadtrip can be, to discover the whole thing had been canceled. We were absolutely crushed. And here’s the thing; we got back in the car and sang Sting tunes all the way home.
The Police were among the first real rock bands I discovered during my teenage years in the 80s. In 1989, during my first year of college, Sting’s first two solo albums, The Dream of The Blue Turtles and Nothing Like the Sun, helped mold me into a human being. His third album, The Soul Cages, is among the most important albums about death and grief ever recorded. The guy dissolved a band that included Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland, then made Branford Marsalis his sideman and completely reinvented himself and pop music.
I’ve written in this space before about Sting’s innovative lyrics and in my book on new wave, New Wave: Image is Everything, I argue that The Police almost single-handedly bridged the gap between punk and new wave, setting up virtually every musical movement that followed.
Nothing Lasts Forever
And yet here we are: I’m wondering where my musical hero went. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a hero, not a saint. There’s never been a question, for example, that Sting is arrogant. Ask his former band mates. Check out Chris Campion’s book, Walking on the Moon. Read articles from the 1980s in which he speaks earnestly of the global overpopulation crisis while simultaneously producing six children of his own. Check out the time he planned to give back his grammys to protest how Milli Vanilli were being treated.
But we forgave him because he was always one of those guys who had the musical chops to back it up, the lyrical sophistication to forgive his foibles. Artists, right? What can you do?
After his time ruling the world, it seemed like Sting was going to be one of those rock artists who entered a “mature” phase. There were new greatest hits packages; he released albums full of English folk tunes; he produced a Tony-nominated musical. He did the kinds of things that a musical statesman does.
Then there was the Police reunion – perhaps the most highly-anticipated disappointing concert tour in history, ultimately panned by critics and audiences alike. But not everyone can hold on to their rock chops like Elvis Costello or The Rolling Stones, and, after all, the Police in their prime had an energy it’s difficult to go back and just re-create.
His last album of new solo material, 57th & 9th (2016) did well enough in the charts, but it was definitely missing something. Last year, he decided that something was Shaggy and put out the collaborative 44/876. It’s a good Shaggy album. As Pitchfork pointed out, Sting mostly just sounds “out of place.” That review is generous enough to argue that Sting is being deliberately “uncool” and it goes on to declare this “one of Sting’s more enjoyable albums, simply because he’s actually having fun here.” Of course, Pitchfork's entire ethos is making provocative statements, but still, I’m willing to accept that maybe “out of place” isn’t the same as “ridiculous.”
A Step Too Far
But now there’s My Songs, and I find I just have to draw the line somewhere. I just don’t have any excuses left. The title of this “collection” of re-engineered and sometimes re-recorded tunes rubbed me the wrong way right from the start: surely someway or another Copeland and Summer must have contributed something to “Message in a Bottle”’s success?
My experience of the album went downhill from there.
This isn’t just a blatant attempt to cash in, an attempt to make himself relevant again. This is an album full of cartoon music, and not in the good Gorillaz sort of way. It’s amateurish-sounding music that deliberately disrespects a body of brilliant work. He can’t even be bothered to end a song properly. They all just sort of fizzle out when he decides he’s reached the end. It feels lazy.
What Revision Can Be
Re-visiting old material doesn’t have to be a tired attempt to seem relevant, though it often has been (check out Barenaked Ladies’ on point skewering of boxed sets in their song of that title). Other artists have managed it. The novelist Henry James actually used the republication of his complete works to teach readers how a Henry James novel should be read. Some of the prefaces he wrote for this edition are superior to the novels themselves.
Paul Simon’s recent In the Blue Light brilliantly re-imagines some of his songs. It helped that Simon chose to re-think songs that aren’t necessarily the most beloved of his oeuvre. For him the exercise was serious and genuine, an attempt to correct things he felt he hadn’t gotten just right the first time around. I’m not sure any of us would have noticed really. But that’s the thing, isn’t it. The effort had nothing much to do with money or reminding anyone just what an amazing songwriter he is. It was the work of a dedicated professional finishing up a few odds and end. As a result, the album contains just the right amount of gravitas. Simon takes risks on his final recording. And he’s enough of an artist to pull them off, and confident enough in his craft to know that he will.
If you want to have real fun with self-revision, though, I’d recommend Colin Hay’s Man at Work, an album that didn’t receive half as much praise as Sting’s almost certainly will. Hay – who I often think of as a poor man’s Sting – has never been given enough credit as a songwriter or for his influence on new wave. His album isn’t perfect. As more than one reviewer suggested, the re-recordings of “Be Good Johnny” and “It’s A Mistake” are so close to the originals as to be unnecessary. But acoustic versions of “Down Under” and “Overkill” are standouts, and his remake of “Down Under” with Cecilia Noel and the Clams will make you forget how many times you’ve already heard the original.
Maybe it’s me. Maybe My Songs is a sophisticated deconstruction of a career. Maybe Pitchfork was on to something and I’m supposed to see this new collection as a lark, a sort of musical joke played by a man who has finally stopped taking himself so seriously. But it’s an awful lot of mediocre tracks to slog through for a punchline.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
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