You are listening to the Pop Culture Academy podcast. On this week's episode we'll focus on Casablanca but we'll also explore a little bit the question of what goes into making something a cult classic. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter. Check out our YouTube channel for playlists and videos and of course, visit us at popcultureacademy.com.
Greetings and salutations and welcome to season two episode 22 of the Pop Culture Academy where we do all things pop culture with just a bit of an academic slant. It's a rainy day here in Little Rock as it has been a lot lately. So, please forgive the drips and drops that you might hear in the background. In terms of reporting on what's been going on in the last week, it's been a busy week in a lot of ways. I feel like I've been exploring a lot of different pop culture artifacts this week. I don't know how much of it I should report on because I mean I feel like I'm in the middle of so many things or really just starting so many things. And typically I much prefer to talk about films and shows and albums once I finish them and really once I've had some time to think about them a little and digest. That's sort of the point of this show, right, is to think about things from an academic perspective not kind of rush into what's new and current and you know just get it out there as quick as you can but to take our time and really think reflectively about what these things really mean.
But all right, I finally started the last seasons of Bojack Horseman, a few months behind I know that. But if you've listened to this show, particularly my episode on Seinfeld a little while back, you know that I have this aversion to lasts, right? Last episodes, last seasons; I tend to put them off. It's some kind of bizarre psychosis. But honestly I love this show so much, really I do. It has been a comfort to me over the last several years that I've been able to go back to and you know when you are done with - when you've watched that last episode you are done with a series, you're done. I mean I know that's obvious but there's something about that and I know you can always go back and rewatch and if any show sort of would bear up to deep scrutiny and repeated viewing it's Bojack Horseman. That show's just got so many - it's so rich and deep and so many things going on in it. But even still, it's not the same as the new and I'm about four episodes into this last season and I'm already dreading that last episode. I can see it coming up on my Netflix; I can see that last episode and I'm already cringing. I will say, though, I have found this season to be very thoughtful as really Bojack always is but maybe more insightful and reflective than the previous seasons, particularly at least so far in terms of the way it's been dealing with its female characters. I mean despite the fact that Bojack is about Bojack and he's sort of, I think this is by design, sucks up the energy of that show and in a very meta way to a certain extent. That's the point, right? Bojack is a character is a person is a personality who just sucks everything out of life and there's no room left for anybody else. And yet this series has always had very strong female characters and this season in particular it just seems like they are really kind of thinking about in some, not just clever ways but in some insightful ways about these characters and particularly the struggles that they face as women. I think this show has a lot to say on a lot of levels. Obviously one of the things that draws me to it is that it is quintessentially postmodern. As much as any show ever has been. But it absolutely can be read I think as a work about women, a work informed by the Me Too movement which sort of exploded as the series was just beginning to take off and again you can think about Bojack as this figure against who these women are kind of juxtaposed. And in that sense it's a series that I think ultimately we'll be able to say really came to address its own time. Something happened as that series got started and to its credit the series, the producers the amazing talent that makes up that show, they chose to take on those issues, to take on the Me Too movement as that was going on. And I'm always impressed with a show that has the vision to do that; to recognize its own moment, to be able to shift in mid-stream to deal with that moment and to do it, frankly, so well as well as Bojack has done over these seasons.
All right so for you 80s fans and I really do hope that I have a few of those because honestly, and I don't know if this comes across on the show, but my whole ethos as a human being grows out of the 80s. What can I do? It's the decade I grew up in. I turned 10 years old in 1981. That decade, in every sense of the term, was formative for me. Everything. All of my identity gets formed around MTV and new wave and LiveAid and all the things that are happening in the 80s. Now, I made a very conscious decision not to make this show into an 80s show; this show doesn't live there in the 80s. But let's say it's our hometown. It's somewhere I like to go back to. Anyway, so I'm always going back to that period to explore a new musical artist or film or show. I find that there is always another layer to dig underneath. Now that stunts my growth to some extent. I don't feel like I have progressed and matured over the later decades perhaps as I should have. But there's always something else to explore in the 80s. And so this last week I've been flirting with this band Blue Nile, now, not the name recognition of some other groups but a great band and I think a very influential band. So if you're into 80s or really if you're just looking for good music this is a nice deep dive into someone. They are definitely what you might call synth-pop which some people like, some people don't. Very very sophisticated and their music has a lot of what I would call ambiance and I'm not really sure how to define that term. I mean the Pet Shop Boys hit this sometimes, a song like "West End Girls", you just feel the place. You feel the time, the setting. There's something in the music that puts you there and Blue Nile does that as well as any group that I can think of, just this sort of very romantic with a big "R". Anyway, I've been listening to their album Hats which is widely regarded as a ground-breaking album but my understanding is that this is a band that grows and evolves and so I'm hoping to explore them further. And like I said, I'm just at the beginning and I almost hate to mention it at all but I'll try to keep you updated as I go.
Also I am halfway through (and I know that it's kind of sacrilegious to say this in some ways), I'm halfway through Spike Jones' new film I'm Thinking of Ending Things which is on Netflix at the moment and again, you know, if you're really a film lover or a film connoisseur or you care about cinema, it really is - I really feel guilty, crass maybe is the word, for watching a film in pieces. But I've got a three year old and I just have trouble finding two and a half hours to watch anything in a row or do anything. Nothing in my life can last for more than say thirty minutes at a time and then it has to move into something else, it has to morph. But my wife and I are in the home stretch of this film. Really a fascinating film and I'll confess that I'm sort of waiting to see if there's some kind of payoff or punchline. Of course it's postmodern-y with all sorts of indie references to people like David Foster Wallace and in that sense what's not to like? I would say this one is not for the faint hearted. If you like Jones you should definitely watch it; I'm hoping, I haven't seen the end, but I'm hoping it's a rewarding film but I will say I think so far at least it's the least accessible of Jones' work that I've seen. Not a knock, that's not a knock, I'm just saying in terms of general audience appreciation, I think this is the hardest sell. But again if you like Jones you probably need to see this one.
All right and then somehow this afternoon I find myself watching a bit of a recent Chappelle standup. I don't know how I came across this exactly. It's on YouTube. It's called 8:46 and it's about half an hour long, it's an unusual sort of routine. I really do love Chappelle; I place him on one of those pedestals of comedy with people like, you know and I - this name won't, some people may not like this name but people like Louis C.K., I mean when Louis C.K. was at his best before all of this, before all of his world fell apart (and rightly so). But before that happened he was, the guy was functioning as a comedy mind on the level that you don't see very often. Hannah Gadsby seems to have that right now as well. You know and I absolutely probably shouldn't mention Hannah Gadsby and Louis C.K. in the same sentence, something bad is bound to happen out of that. Maybe some of Seinfeld's recent work but Chappelle isn't just a comic though, right? He's an artist in the vein of someone like Richard Pryor or George Carlin or you know the person I was thinking of as I kept watching this particular bit is Lenny Bruce. And I think if you watch this you'll immediately recognize that. Chappelle has something to say, something to confront us with and he understands, Hannah Gadsby does this as well, that the stage, a comedian's stage is one of our last remaining spaces for social commentary. We will show up there and listen to people talk. Where else do you get that? We don't have the great debates anymore. You're never going to have the Lincoln-Douglas debates or anything like that. The presidential debate is coming up this Tuesday and for the last twenty years, maybe longer, we watch debates they are just little sound bites. There's no capacity, there's no room to expand on thought and to think through ideas. It's just sort of who can blurt out the best sound bite the fastest and who can come off as more dominant or more sympathetic or whatever the emotion is you are trying to get. How can you get that across? But in terms of ideas and just being able to talk through ideas, that's gone except in comedy. So this one again, this one is called 8:46; you can find it on YouTube. It's very recent. I don't know how recent but it seemed to have been done within the last few months. It's outdoors; people separated in the audience. I thought it was interesting the way they did this - you'd have a couple of chairs set up and then ten feet away you'd have another couple of chairs set up and everyone in the audience is in masks. But as the title suggests, this is all about George Floyd and it is absolutely gripping and I don't dare give things away because it would just, you just have to see it. But it is so complex, so nuanced and so layered and at the same time all that complexity, it's also incredibly straight forward. I mean the point just smacks you in the face. Again, it's only half an hour but it's some of his best work, we can just leave it at that.
Well that's a lot to tell you about in one week, you know and some weeks I do feel like I could spend the whole episode just talking about whatever I'm watching and I don't know how interesting that'd be to you but I actually do have a topic for this week. I want to talk a little bit about Casablanca. This is a film, well, let me back up. I came to classic film I guess in my teens. Different people - some people never come to classic film, some people get heavy doses early, some people wind their way into it at different points in their lives. For me it happened in my teens and not probably through the usual way. My parents, normally you get these things from your parents and my parents liked things they grew up with and from my perspective I guess those were classics. The Graduate, The Pink Panther films with Peter Sellers and James Bond films. Woody Allen films. But my sense of film didn't go back very far or very deep I think, at least not through them. Now, my first real girlfriend - I mean how influential is our first love? Actually, I'm not sure I should even call it that. It was one of those three-month summer things, when you're fourteen. It was a girl named Gina McCool and Gina, and I think this came from her father, had gotten something of a film education. At least she knew way more about film than I knew. And the first thing that she did was make me read Lauren Bacall's By Myself which is a book that we have to talk about on the show at some point. It's such a landmark of pop culture and I'm so grateful that she forced me to read this book. It was the best education in classic film that I could have gotten. But of course, suddenly I'm into Bogey and Bacall and now I'm watching all of these Bogart films. Casablanca, of course, is Casablanca. It's the greatest romantic film of all time. What else are you going to put in front of it? Really? I think you can make a case it's the greatest film of all time, period, full stop. You know my affinity for lists. I think AFI, the American Film Institute, listed Casablanca as #2 behind Citizen Kane and let's face it, Casablanca is much more watchable than Citizen Kane. So let's say this, I'm looking for a superlative knowing that I overuse superlatives. I have trouble thinking of another movie that you just absolutely have to see. And if I'm forgetting something, please let me know. But it's the kind of thing, if you're only going to see not just ten films in your life, if you're only going to see one film in your life you really have to be able to say you've seen this one.
All right, so let me think. If I were throwing other films in terms of significance in terms of cultural significance as touchtones, maybe Sound of Music. But I'd say Casablanca has Sound of Music beat. What else might be in the running? Certainly To Kill A Mockingbird is a hugely important film and I think you're really missing out if you haven't seen Gregory Peck in that role. That film, that book is just so important. I've never been a Gone With The Wind fan. Star Wars, I suppose but honestly I don't think I could put Star Wars above Casablanca as a touchstone. I'm sure I'm missing others but I'm also sure that none of them are the film, again, I want to distinguish here between great film and what I'm talking about in terms of cultural significance. I don't think there's a film that can touch Casablanca for cultural significance. But that sort of begs the question, why? And I mean there are all sorts of answers to that question. For one thing it's probably the most quotable film ever made. Think of the quotes: "hold me as if it were the last time", "play it again, Sam" (which is never really actually said but close enough), "of all the gin joints in all the world, she had to walk into mine." Something like "round up the usual suspects", we have a whole film The Usual Suspects that comes out of a quote from Casablanca. "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship", you could just got on and on. This was such a quotable movie. It's is referenced by so many later films which tells you something about how important it is. It comes out in 1943 so it's about the war but it's produced during the war which I think gives it a certain feeling. If you're going to talk about love triangles, I mean this is the film, this is the love triangle. The central character is as cool as any character you will ever find. Ingrid Bergman is as beautiful but also as deep and as conflicted as you'll ever find. It's full of amazing, I mean amazing character work. I mean, my God, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, it's like a who's who of actors from the time and they are all pulling out these brilliant performances. But then there's that ending and I mean there are a lot of great endings to a lot of great films. I am especially fond of the ending to Some Like it Hot. But here's an ending that you absolutely hate, that you're furious at, the whole time it's happening, you're just angry at the movie and then in like the very next instant you are thinking to yourself that's the most perfect ending to any film I've ever seen. And how does a film pull that off? How does a film make you so angry at the ending and so satisfied with the ending at the same time? It's really amazing.
But I think the best explanation of Casablanca comes from the writer and scholar Umberto Eco. Now most people know Eco for his novel The Name of the Rose which was turned into a fine film with Sean Connery and Christian Slater. Great novel; not an easy novel. I mean I remember reading at the time, The New Yorker or somebody said - it was on the bestseller list, it might have been number one on the bestseller list - but it was a book that everybody owned and no one read because it's a tough read. Eco happened to write some "popular novels" but he was the real deal when it came to academic scholarship. He was a medievalist. He's a guy who worked very deeply in postmodern theory. So I mean his novels are dense with latin and all kinds of literary references. There's one of his books that I go back to periodically - Foucault's Pendulum - and I go back to it regularly to see if, to sort of measure what I've learned, right? Like every five years, oh I get that reference now but I still don't get that one. You know, what have Iearned? This book is so dense with those kinds of things it offers a good measurement. So Eco as a postmodern guy was very interested in pop culture and he's another one that we might talk about in more detail one of these days but for now let's just focus on his response to Casablanca.
Let me just read the second paragraph of his essay on the film because I think that kind of sums it up:
According to the traditional standards in aesthetics, Casablanca is not a work of art-if such an expression still means anything. In any case, if the films of Dreyer, Eisenstein, or Antonioni are works of art, Casablanca represents a very modest aesthetic achievement. It is a hodgepodge of sensational scenes strung together implausibly; its characters are psychologically incredible, its actors act in a manneristic way. Nevertheless, it is a great example of cinematic discourse, a palimpsest for the future students of twentieth-century religiosity, a paramount laboratory for semiotic research in textual strategies. Moreover, it has become a cult movie.
So I mean, Eco nails every flaw in the film. Later, for instance, he points out that one of the accidentally great aspects of Casablanca is the ending and it's because when you look at Ingrid Bergman's face she has absolutely no idea whether she will leave with Laszlo or stay with Rick. She's absolutely conflicted, she betrays nothing on her face. She honestly doesn't know who she is going to leave with and there's something very romantic in that notion of being torn between these two lovers. Only that's because even up to the moment that they filmed the final scene the director Michael Curtiz still hadn't decided what she was going to do. So she looks torn and undecided because Bergman herself as an actress doesn't actually know what's going to happen. And that tells you something about the state of the film. It's not being made on the fly.
All right, Eco tells us it's a hodgepodge of references and some of those references are to other films but he also talks a lot about archetypes. Of course archetypes for the uninitiated are stories or story forms that seem to reoccur over and over in our culture, they are stories that we just always seem to come back to. The Fisher King, for instance, shows up in King Arthur but also in Star Wars, in Lord of the Rings, in The Lion King, in Hamlet, any story that involves a quest of any kind takes us back to that model of The Fisher King story, the archetype. There are tons more of these recurring ideas in literature and culture and then those get added to by famous moments in cinema. So we've got all kinds of archetypal references going on through the film. We've also got references to cinema itself. I mean here's Eco's list of some of the different, I don't know, stories that are playing out. So right at the beginning, for instance, he says we get African music and then we get the Marseillaise and immediately right from the very beginning we've got two genres of film that are being evoked. One is the adventure movie and one is the patriotic movie and we're trying to do them both. We go a little way down the adventure movie then we go a little way down the patriotic movie. Then we get a news reel. That's a whole other genre that gets thrown in. Then we get a fourth genre which has to do with The Odyssey, the quest of the refugee to find a home. Then we get a fifth genre which has to do with international intrigue, Casablanca is this central point for spies and international intrigue. And so, you know, as Eco says, we've gone two minutes into the film and we've already got five different genres. The film is trying to pull us in five different directions. He goes on - there are elements of the purgatory archetype. There are elements of trying to get to the promise land. Elements of the magic key archetype. On and on and on and on and on. So as the movie, I mean Casablanca becomes a string of these ideas, concepts, one put together after the other and it shouldn't work. Again, they are all pulling against each other in some ways. They all should be taking us in completely different directions, that's not a stable film. It's constantly threatening to collapse in upon itself. But here's the thing if I haven't made it clear yet, Eco certainly makes this absolutely clear, Casablanca is a great film. He defines it as a great film because it is what he terms a cult classic. And now, two or three episodes ago, I was talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer the television series as a cult classic and I wasn't sure exactly how we define that. How DO we define cult classic? Because Buffy had a very enormous following so you couldn't say, often people define cult classic as this sort of niche film that only a few people know and are very devoted to it but I mean that's the whole idea, a cult following. But it's just the cult following. Buffy is so mainstream in so many ways that can we really call it a cult classic? But here's how Eco defines it, first he says, "a cult classic must have some organic imperfections." Right? It's got to be flawed. It must be already wobbly and disjointed in itself, he says. And it must "live in and because of its incoherence." That is, its flaws allow it to become the great film that it is. Now there's something here about a films ability to make us feel all the threads of the different stories and the different directions it is going in, we feel all of those at once. Eco calls it, Eco says "the cliches are talking to themselves...". And he says if it were just one cliche or two that it would fall completely flat. If we come across a cliche in a film we groan, we roll our eyes but because there are so many cliches that we're almost overwhelmed with cliches we recognize them, there's a certain kind of satisfaction in saying "oh, I know what that is" and they keep coming at you fast and furious and it's satisfying at a certain point. It's not eye-rolling, it's satisfying. And the cliches start to take on a life of their own and as he says, they are beginning to talk to themselves and - he actually goes so far as to say the film sort of makes itself. The film makes itself out of film. And of course, it barely hang together and we can feel that too, there's a kind of energy of it's almost coming off the rails through the whole thing. But then because it isn't a perfect film, it also leaves room for interpretation and that's what draw the cult following in the end. That we can turn Casablanca into whatever we want because when you've got that many cliches, when you've got that many different genres, that many different story threads going you can kind of push it any way you want to go.
Now Eco references T.S. Eliot who said that actually, this is why Hamlet - I mean if you want to talk about serious literature with a big L, Eliot says this is why Hamlet is the most popular Shakespeare play. Eliot thought that Hamlet was actually pretty bad and the essay that he writes is called "Hamlet and His Problems" but Eliot said the problem was that Shakespeare hadn't really written a complete play. He had a bunch of fragments, I mean this is all speculation on Eliot's part, but Eliot suggests that Shakespeare had a bunch of fragments that he'd written that he didn't really know what to do with them and finally he just sort of smashed them into one play and that became Hamlet. It's the same basic idea as Casablanca; we like it because of its imperfections. We like it because of its fragmented-ness. It allows us to insert ourselves into it in ways that "perfect" films, "perfect" plays, "perfect" novels, won't allow us to do.
And so then I was trying to think of other films that do that and I ran into a bit of a problem. The only one, really, I could think of was the original Star Wars trilogy but I'm not completely sure about it. So, Eco himself, this essay that he wrote and comes out in 1984 and he himself talked about Raiders of the Lost Ark as another example of a film that's made up of references to other films. Raiders is just a hodgepodge of stories, a hodgepodge of references. But here's the problem with Raiders, Spielberg, I mean it's not a problem but here's why Raiders isn't Casablanca, Spielberg (and he might be the first major filmmaker to do this) knows exactly what he's doing. He wants Raiders to be a mix and he wants it to be unbelievable in a lot of ways, I mean, he's paying homage to the adventure films of his own childhood. And so you can't think of it like Casablanca because Spielberg, very much unlike Curtiz is doing it on purpose, Curtiz is making it up as he goes along throwing whatever he can into the pot and stirring it. Spielberg is doing that very very deliberately. And that's a postmodern thing and of course it grows and develops and you know that post modern thing becomes more and more and more so. Spielberg was an early master of it but no one has done it quite like Tarantino and again, Tarantino is inspired by essentially the same thing although he's not just paying homage to those films. He's sort of trying to create the world as those films and it gets twisty and Spike Jones and just to go back to where we started this episode, Being John Malkovitch now the film and the reality are actually mixing. Where is the actor, who is the actor who is the real person, what's referencing what? And then it just gets completely out of hand in postmodern terms. And we've talked about postmodernism is all about references to references to references to references and we could go on exhaustively about postmodernism in pop culture. Family Guy and Community and Bojack and The Simpsons and 30 Rock.
But all right, so let me end by going back to Star Wars because I'm not sure Lucas is doing the same thing in Star Wars that Spielberg is doing in Raiders. I mean, it's close. And maybe it's just a distinction without a difference. Both are drawing on their own childhood, their own influences. Lucas is throwing in The Seventh Samurai but also all those dog fights from the war movies going back to Wings, right? Plus there's The Fisher King quest myth plus there's a lot of Eastern religion plus plus plus on and on and on. But I get the sense that he, Lucas isn't doing it intentionally. That in the same way that Curtis didn't completely have control over Casablanca Lucas didn't have complete control of this thing that he'd come up with. Of course it's only a few short years between Star Wars and Raiders but I do think there's a difference and it's not to criticize either movie, far from it. It's to say that Star Wars, for instance, isn't flawed. I mean it is flawed but it's one of the few movies that can rise to that Casablanca status as cult in a way that transcends small audience and niche, cult in the sense of it's a cult that takes over everything I guess you'd say. And I don't know, maybe there were other films. You know, what do you think? Am I missing other movies where the cliches are talking to themselves? What else is out there that I'm not thinking of?
All right, enough for one episode. If you like what you hear, please follow us on Twitter. Check out our YouTube channel, visit us at popcultureacademy.com and please tell your friends. I'll be back next week with an all new episode, see you then.
You are listening to the Pop Culture Academy podcast. On this episode we are exploring rhythm in rock; talking about all sorts of unique examples from Sting and Alanis Morissette to John Bonham and Neil Peart. Just a reminder before we get started, don't forget to follow us on Twitter. You can always find us on popcultureacademy.com and check out our playlists on YouTube. In fact, if you want to follow along with this episode, there's a playlist up right now with all the tunes that we are talking about this week.
Greetings and salutations and welcome to season two episode 21 of the Pop Culture Academy where we do our very best to treat pop culture with the seriousness that we think it deserves. Last week was tough, I know, all that poetry and I promise we will get right into all things rock and roll in this episode but first and foremost, you know, a brief report on what's been going on since last we spoke. I've been watching the new series Young Wallander which is out on Netflix, came out last week. I'll say of course this has the character of Wallander going for it, you know, that's definitely a plus. I always think prequels are interesting, you know, it's an interesting exercise when you get to rethink how a character became who he is, how things got to the situation where they are and the original Wallander is one of those memorable detectives that you DO want to know more about. Famously I think there's the original Swedish version but famously for the BBC played by Kenneth Branagh, just a great performance and I think it's definitely got that going for it. It's not a bad series by any means, it does all the things that it should, you know, sort of a mystery detective series should but I wouldn't say that it has done anything to impress me, at least as of yet. I think you can find at least a dozen detective series on Netflix that are at least as good as this one. On the other hand, I'm only about halfway through so maybe it will shift for me at some point, maybe everything will click into place and I'll really - I mean, like I said, I'm enjoying it. I'm definitely going to finish it but I think I brought this up last week, the issue may be that we are living in a socially distanced world and that's just going to have an effect on the quality of our television shows and our films and our music. And that may be part of what's at work here. I saw something on Twitter just last week, I couldn't believe this, I think I reposted it on Twitter, something about soaps using mannequins for their romance scenes, like kissing scenes. So, I mean, you see the characters sort of talking to each other but they are at a distance, they are socially distanced and you know those are real actors but then as one moves in to kiss the other (and you know, it's a soap so they must move in to kiss one another) as one moves in to kiss the other one of the actors gets replaced by a mannequin. And it's not subtle. So, you know, really, where exactly have we arrived at this point? I should be grateful for Young Wallander.
But I want to go ahead and get into this week's topic that you were patient enough with me last week to sit through a discussion of poetry. I mean, I think I said this last time but it's certainly true, rock and poetry do have a relationship to one another. I think music fans by and large don't want to acknowledge that fact because like I said last week, for the most part we all hate poetry and we don't want to believe anything so unutterably boring as poetry could actually have a relationship to rock music. Curiously enough ( I know this for a fact) that poetry lovers by which I mostly mean English teachers don't want to accept that rock music bears any relationship whatsoever to their sacred poetry. So they are just as eager to keep the two separate. Go back and check out our episode on Bob Dylan's Nobel prize from a few years back. I just couldn't believe how out of their minds with outrage all my academic colleagues were when they heard this news. I mean it just seemed so out of proportion, it was just irrational blind anger. I've never seen anything like it and you know these stayed people that are normally so calm and cool and collected and logical and teaching college courses. But how could the committee be so dimwitted, you know, Dylan is not a poet he's a songwriter. It just went on and on. So neither side wants to acknowledge the other and I get that but okay, leaving that aside. The point of all of what I was doing last week was actually to say something relatively simple and straight-forward. Maybe I should have just done it but I think it was worth exploring. That simple straight-forward thing is that rhythm is one important way that a song creates meaning. It's not the only way; in some cases, well we won't get into whether it's the most important or not. I think in some songs it is and some songs it is less important. But rhythm creates meaning in a song, that's all I was basically getting at and I was trying to give some examples of how rhythm can become unusual and what sort of effects that can have. I said this last week, if I play "Happy" to you, you'll get it, you'll figure that song out long before you hear the words. Now that song is exceptional. I can't think of many tracks that capture their mood quite as perfectly as that one does. It's genius but you know, you get the idea. Upbeat rhythms generally come with upbeat messages. Slower rhythms generally come with more depressing, more emo messages if you will. You get the idea. So of course now I think it is worth pointing out here that rhythm isn't just a matter of the drums. When we talk about rhythm, that's what we tend to think of. And I did kind of want to turn this episode into a top 10 drummers of all time and I'm sure that somewhere down the road that I'll make that podcast but the point is a song can have rhythm even if there is no drummer, even if there is no percussion at all. As we've talked about, the words themselves have rhythm but certainly a guitar can create rhythm; bass gives rhythm. Just the voice by itself is going to give rhythm so let's just establish that right up front.
All right, so there's something to be said, I mean I really want to get into ways in which sometimes rhythm gets played with and turned into something, I don't know something different. But right off the bat there is something to be said for a straight-forward rhythm. Neil Peart, of Rush, who sadly passed away earlier this year might be my favorite drummer. Certainly he's a top five guy and what makes him so amazing is that he's dead on all the time and he's so technically brilliant, so able to pull off the most complex riffs like they are nothing. There's really no one like him and he is a drumming God, let's just say it. At the opposite end of the spectrum if we're just going to talk about laying down the rhythm and doing it in just that precision sort of way, that perfect precision sort of way, you might talk about Jeff Porcaro from Toto who's another one of my favorite drummers. Porcaro invented what they call the "Rosanna Shuffle" which you can hear in the Toto song "Rosanna", you can hear in "Africa". Interestingly enough, Jeff Porcara also was the person who basically laid down the beats for Michael Jackson's "Thriller". So, again, a very steady precision kind of beat. And really, most of today's music relies so much in one way or another on techno beats, you almost never find a song that's not straight-forward, that's not dead on, that's not perfectly in sync. And there's nothing wrong with that; that is a particular style and that's a great thing. Most songs work that way.
But what I wanted to get into are examples where that isn't true and how sometimes an unusual approach to rhythm can transform a work or not just a work but an entire artist, a band, into something different, where something a little unexpected makes a track stand out just a little more. Now we could talk about Phil Collins', "In The Air Tonight", I mean you can't really do an episode on rhythm and not mention Phil Collins' "In The Air Tonight". Collins essentially invented what's called the "gated drum" sound and there's no drum track I can think of that people universally love more than that track. But actually that's still a pretty straight-forward bit of rhythm. I like the drama of it, that sort of quiet menace that we get through the song and things sort of just calm but menacing until things explode in that single moment. Collins is another one of those guys whether you are talking about his solo work or with Genesis who's always up to something interesting, you know, his drumming. One of my favorites I just actually came across recently, I don't know why, I mean I was a Phil Collins fan when Phil Collins was big, no question, but for whatever reason I didn't buy the albums so I didn't have a sense until we got to ...But Seriously I didn't actually know what all the albums - I knew the hits, that's what I'm saying. I knew the hits and I was going back and listening to some of those albums which are brilliant, was listening to Face Value and the song "This Must Be Love", not a hit but a great song. And there's this little hiccup in the bass line, go back and listen to that tune and I don't know it gives something interesting to that song that sort of stutters somehow in the meaning of the song that, I don't know. But notice again that it is not about drums, that hiccup is in the bass, is in the bass line.
So let's consider a couple songs that aren't what they seem. I already said that we know almost automatically what a song's mood is from its rhythm as soon as we hear it. But that's not true 100% of the time and I really like those times when we get fooled. Sometimes, for instance, you get rhythm used ironically. "Born in the USA", Bruce Springsteen, great example. And I mean that's not completely ironic, that rolling snare drum that you hear through that song is meant to sound like a military march because Springsteen is referencing the military, right? The central character of that song is a Vietnam vet. But where typically that snare drum feels patriotic the message here is quite the opposite; it's sort of like the speaker co-ops this patriotic sound and turns it into something different. It still has the energy and the punch behind it but now it's far angrier; it's like he's shoving this patriotism almost back down America's throat so to speak. I don't want to go too far with this, I don't want to put things into Springsteen's voice that aren't there but yeah, that guy is angry. And he has a right to be. But as a result of all of this and the rhythm, the song gets misunderstood because people hear that beat and the chorus and automatically think bingo, patriotism. Do I have to tell the story yet again of how Ronald Reagan decided to use this anti-Vietnam, anti-military, perhaps anti-American and certainly anti-patriotic song as his campaign theme song in 1984? I don't know who was responsible for that one but if you miss the irony it looks foolish in the end is what it comes down to.
All right, so here is one that's less well-known. Not everybody recognizes the brilliance that was Fountains of Wayne. Of course we lost Neil Peart earlier this year, we lost Adam Schlesinger earlier this year as well to Covid-19. On Fountains of Wayne's Welcome Interstate Managers album they have this song "Halley's Waitress". It's not a big track, it's not an early track, it's just kind of snuck in there. The mood of the song is so melancholy, you know, again, you listen to it, you don't have to listen to the words, it's melancholy, you know as soon as you hear the rhythm as soon as you've got the tone. You hear it and it absolutely it's got to be some tragic tale of lost love, right? It's just got to be, that's what it sounds like. And if you're not listening closely that's what it is. But it turns out that the song is this kind of joke. Halley's waitress isn't actually a very good waitress. They say in the song she's on the phone all the time calling her agent, she wants to be an actress. She's never paying enough attention to her tables, right? And the song is in the voice of the customer and he's very frustrated with her and in fact Halley's waitress is meant to be a reference to Halley's comet because that's how rarely she seems to come by. And so the song, which musically expresses this sort of longing and tragic longing, it turns out to be the longing of a customer for some kind of decent service at the diner that he's at. Now, you know, I think that's clever and funny. There are lots of other examples out there like that but I'm never going to skip an opportunity to plug Fountains of Wayne.
It's also true, though, and I don't think this is all that unusual to say, this is not a startling revelation, that music can do things with rhythm that poetry can't. Now, don't get too excited. Poetry can do things that music can't too. But you know, when you're singing a song you alter the way you would say the words. Generally speaking if you read a poem you're supposed to read it as though it is normal speech. "Whose woods these are I think I know, his house is in the village though..." Nothing unusual there, normal speech. That's very different from music and in fact it's one of the reasons that the two are after all pretty different. If you take a song like Casey and the Sunshine Band's - one of my professors when I was getting my Masters degree just horrified by this song, "that's the way, uh-huh uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh uh-huh." It is pretty Neanderthal-ish if you break it down. There's not much - if you disconnect those lyrics from the tune it really can't be saved. There's nothing there. But the thing is that you shouldn't break it apart. Remember I said last time, dancing about architecture, when you turn something into a chant, even if maybe it's nonsense or it's just syllables, it can become something completely different. Even if it's nonsense like "that's the way, uh-huh uh-huh, I like it..." and that's true of so many songs that if you take the lyrics and you disconnect them and you just read the lyrics they may fall terribly terribly flat. And I think that's partly what the argument was in terms of Bob Dylan is that if you take the lyrics, maybe they don't work as well as poetry by themselves without the music.
But, well, I'm not going to re-litigate that issue but okay, you take another song like Tom Petty's "Into the Great Wide Open" a song I really love. A line in there which he sings is "into the great wide open" and the way he sings it though, again, he's not just saying it as you would say it "...out into the great wide open, into the great...wide open", so that you get this kind of expansion as the line goes on that makes it seem like we're actually heading out into that great wide open. But then open snaps it shut and we find out that the character in this song, he's a rebel but, as the song says, he's a "rebel without a clue". Open, there, isn't actually open at all, it's closed. "Into the great wide open..." it cuts itself off just as it's getting there. There's all kinds of that sort of rhythmic meaning going on in music that we don't even really have time to sit down and analyze. Now I think what Petty does there has something to do with delivery, we could call this the delivery. And there's something in music that connects us to drama and we've got to do an episode on that very soon. But, you know, the way a line gets delivered and there are some great instances of singers playing with rhythm in that way as well sort of screwing, again, this is what I really like when it goes in an unexpected way.
Alanis Morissette, for instance, who people have varying opinions about her. She still produced one of the greatest albums ever made, just purely in terms of sales. I happen to love Alanis Morissette. She's really hip to that idea of chant that I was talking about earlier and not so much in Jagged Little Pill, her big album though it is there but more in her later albums. The opening to the song "Front Row" which is one of the early songs on her sophomore album Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie is just one long line and it should have pauses in it but it doesn't. It comes out in a rush and the result is that it sounds very breathless, "I know he's blood but you can still turn him away you don't owe him anything..." No pauses. Every note the same length, just da-da-da-da-da-da-da. Machine gun, rapid fire, right? And in that case she isn't necessarily changing the rhythm of specific words but she is changing the weight of them, the weight that you'd normally give them in a sentence. Another line, "I can't help you because we're supposed to have professional boundaries..." I can't help you because we're supposed to have professional boundaries. That's the natural pace of that but when it gets rushed that way the lines take on different meanings. It feels - the speaker's mood feels different, you feel that kind of rush of energy, that kind of breathless - I gotta get this out - almost in that case of that song almost because I'm afraid of what I'm saying and I need to get it out before my fear takes over and I can't say it. Sometimes, you take her hit off that album which is "Thank You" and in that song she lists out all the things that she's thankful for. "Thank you frailty, thank you consequence, thank you silence." But you know, she suddenly shifts the syllables in that line so she says, "thank you frailty, thank you consequence" and then she says "thank you si-lence." It's very subtle but si-lence. One of the effects of that and like I said, she does it a lot. To a certain extent I think she's trying to capture the idea of chanting but it also forces you to think about those words. You don't quite hear it right and you think what was she saying there, what was she saying there? And it forces you to go back and listen to the word again and really think about the word and I think that's a very useful technique.
Other artists do this to the point of distraction. I am not sure about half of what Van Morrison is saying on Astral Weeks, okay? Now, don't get me wrong, brilliant album, one of my favorite albums. It's the album I always turn on when I need that sort of spiritual kick but I mean the point is, the point he is making is that the words have ceased to matter. He's fit them in musically and it doesn't matter what the words are and if you get them you get them and if you don't you don't. It doesn't matter. In fact I read somewhere recently and I can't remember where now about something he said to the effect that once he writes the words, I mean once he's got them down, he's written the lyrics to the song, from that point on he no longer cares about the meaning of those words. He cared about them when he wrote them down but then he lets the meaning go and now he's only interested in the sound. And you know, there's a musical point to that. We've talked about chant, we've talked about turning the words into sound, letting the rhythm become fused with the sound so that you can't tell the difference between one and the other and you can't tell what those words are.
All right but let's talk about true rhythm and the places where it gets the most unusual. So normally a rock song, a pop song is all about 4/4 time. Now for the musically uninitiated that simply means four beats, basically. So four beats over and over. "Love Me Do", "love love me do...", four beats [snapping 1, 2, 3, 4]. Or, "Domo arigato Mr. Roboto", one two three four. Or, what, Barenaked Ladies, "It's been one week since you looked at me..." one two three four. Now there are other rhythms that tend to show up. There's 3/4, one two three, one two three, one two three, one two three and sometimes 6/8. "Take It To The Limit", "One More Time" if you know that Eagles tune is in 6/8. "We are the Champions my friend...", also in 6/8. Now rock's not unusual in its preference for those kinds of - there are two or three stable rhythms that are the ones that always get used. I guess as humans that's sort of the beat that we prefer. If you think about 4/4, 4/4 is what you would march to, right? You need it to go one two, one two so that your legs can go right left right left. And if you're going to dance to it, same thing. You've got to have that 4/4 rhythm. Most music throughout history has kept to these basic rhythms, long before rock. Those were the rhythms that we went with. The best moments, though, I mean I think they are the best moments, maybe there's something wrong with me, but the best moments to my mind are when we don't use that 4/4, we don't use that standard rhythm. Now you know this song, it's on commercials and you may not know the name. It's a jazz tune, it's called "Take 5" by Dave Brubeck. So instead of 4/4 it's written in 5/4. Now, that may not sound like a big deal on paper but if you think about it if you're going one two three four and you add an extra beat in there it's going to throw off your march so to speak. Think about it. Tap your feet to 4/4, one two three four, one two three four. Now try to tap your feet one after the other to 5/4. One two three four five, one two three four five, one two three four five. Now my wife claims she can't hear the difference when she listens to "Take 5" - that's part of the brilliance of that song. I mean man, look, you can go a long time without finding a better written song in any genre than "Take 5". And part of what's so great about that song is that you don't realize it's an odd rhythm. They are so good, those guys are so good that they gel in this weird off-rhythm so that it sounds like it's normal. It tricks you into thinking it's normal. That's how good they are.
Sometimes in rock it can be done really well too. You may not realize, for instance, that Pink Floyd's "Money" has seven beats. You listen to that opening bass line that Roger Waters plays at the beginning of that song, so iconic. Da da-da-dum...seven, seven beats. Seven beats and then it starts over. One two three four five six seven, one two three four five six seven. "Tom Sawyer" (since we are talking about Neil Peart) "Tom Sawyer" by Rush also has that 7/8 beat. One two three four five six seven. One of my favorites, a Sting tune from Ten Summoner's Tales which is titled "Love is Stronger than Justice" also seven beats. Now there he kind of - rather than sort of fusing it in such a way that you don't notice that it's an odd seven beats, Sting kind of emphasizes it and that really suits that song so well. That song is meant to be a kind of western tune or an homage or a parody to westerns. Cowboys rescuing damsels in distress only it's very funny. It doesn't wind up where you would think it's going to wind up. So making it just a little off kilter where it feels like the - I mean you can hear the galloping horses in that tune only they're just off a little bit, right? And so doing that suits what he's talking about, suits the story just perfectly.
Peter Gabriel likes these strange signatures as well; "Salisbury Hill" I think is in 7/8, 7/4. Led Zepplin's "Black Dog" which was put together by bassist John Paul Jones has that little turn in it, you know what I'm talking about if you know that song, that the rest of the band - that's this complicated change in signature. So he's in like 4/4 time and he changes to something else for a second and then he goes back. So complicated the rest of the band couldn't actually work it out and Jones basically just had to sing it to them until they got it.
But speaking of Sting, let's end things by talking about a couple of drummers who take rhythm to another level. So not just a song but their whole career is about rhythm on this other plane of existence. I've mentioned Peart and you know that performance in 7/8 of "Tom Sawyer" is brilliant, bar none, but as I said before it's straight up, it's exactly where it needs to be. Incidentally people don't realize that he wasn't just an amazing drummer. He wrote the lyrics to most of those songs. All right but there are instances of drummers who aren't straight up. Maybe my - well I don't want to start saying my favorite all the time but really, one of my favorite drummers is Stewart Copeland of The Police. Listen to any of those songs. He's always always always just a tiny bit ahead of the song, always. He's rushing the beat. You have to listen for awhile maybe but it's there. He comes in just, just a millisecond a microsecond before everything else. And that shouldn't work. That should be bad drumming; that should result in horrible songs and a horrible band that can't make it out of their basement. It just shouldn't work. It should throw everything off if you come in a little too early but it doesn't, it fits perfectly. And I don't think it is just Copeland, I think Sting's bass work is key to that but I mean Copeland's the one, Copeland's the heart of that that's keeping that going and what it does is it pushes the music because it's coming in a little fast, a little fast, a little fast. It gives the music this urgency that you know even if you go to a slower tune like "Every Breath You Take" that urgency is still there, just a little bit early, little bit early, little bit early.
Now John Bonham, who many people consider the greatest drummer of all time, I've seen two or three different lists I think that put him as number one of all time, in his work with Led Zepplin is doing almost the opposite of what Stewart Copeland's doing. He's hanging back, hanging back so far behind the beat. I mean, check out the very first song - it's really amazing if you think about it, the very first song on Led Zepplin's very first album. The very first introduction that people had to Led Zepplin and it starts off, you know and there's this syncopated cow bell and then there's this lazy intro. I don't know how to describe it. You're just going to have to listen to it but the drums are just a bit behind. It's a tour d'force and you know he's in a whole other universe from the rest of that band and it shouldn't work. Again, should not work but it's so perfect and that's drumming brilliance. When you can be in your own groove and make it work somehow.
All right and then there's Keith Moon who I've heard it said was the first "lead drummer". What does that mean exactly? All right well listen to something like "Won't Get Fooled Again". So, normally the drummer's job is to keep the beat, to let other things go on top of that. And you know, maybe you've got a cool beat, maybe you've got a great riff going or maybe you've got a cool feel like Phil Collins does on "In The Air Tonight" but normally you just keep the beat in the background. Moon is up to something completely different. There are all these random fills popping up everywhere, anywhere, wherever he sort of feels like inserting them and they undo that song like just enough, they throw it just enough off balance so that it rises above what it might have been. It would have been a great song no matter what. You do straight 4/4, good song. But he turns it into something that's special in a different way. It's a little bit like what I was talking about before with Alanis Morissette or Van Morrison where they get rid of the meaning of the words and they just focus on the sound, giving the rhythm of the delivery whatever they want. Only here Moon is doing that to the pulse of the whole band. I mean he just transforms the band and again, great song but listen to other tunes by The Who, transforms that whole band into something completely different.
All right, so as usual I could go on and on but that is enough for one episode. Let me remind you if you like what you hear follow us on Twitter, check out our YouTube playlist and check out our webpage at popcultureacademy.com. And please, tell your friends about us. I'l be back next week with an all new episode, see you then.
We did a list a while back all about cars and particularly the way muscle cars have worked their way into the rock and roll male consciousness. Taxis are cars too, but they’re of a very different sort. They don’t belong to us, they aren’t expressions of our identity. We feel disconnected when we’re in a cab, out of place, lost, isolated, depressed. We pay for the privilege to feel all these things. And they stink. “My reason for living isn’t here inside this car,” Daryl Hall sings plaintively in “Cab Driver.” In fact, in the musical world nothing good ever happens where a taxi’s concerned. While Chuck Berry has no trouble running down Maybelline in his “V-8 Ford,” he has much less success chasing Nadine in cabs and city buses. It's the “Big Yellow Taxi” that takes away Joni Mitchell’s “Old Man.” Then there’s the cab song of all cab songs, Harry Chapin’s rainy night tale of lost love and a life un-lived.
Of course, Prince being Prince manages to get lucky with his “Lady Cab Driver,” but only in the most impersonal hookup you’ll ever encounter: “Lady I’m so lonely,” the speaker tells her, “Drive this demon out of me.”
Should we expect a round of Uber and Lyft tunes eventually? “ooooh...Trying hard to feel homey and personal but it’s not…” or “stroke me with your rating...ah ah ah...”
You are listening to the Pop Culture Academy. On this episode, we'll think about rhythm and especially unusual rhythms. You can't always dance to them but they make music far more interesting in the long run. Remember you can always go back and check out old episodes of the show at the Pop Culture Academy YouTube page and don't forget to follow us on Twitter and to check out our homepage at popcultureacademy.com.
Greetings and salutations and welcome to season two, episode 20 of the Pop Culture Academy. Episode 20 seems like a milestone of some sort or other. Anyway, if you're a first-time listener we look at all kinds of pop culture using a slightly academic lens. The goal here is to think about your pop culture, to take it seriously.
So, what has been going on since last we spoke? Katie and I, my wife, are about mid-way through the first season of Castle Rock on Hulu. Good series. I've been looking forward to seeing this one, sort of putting it off for awhile. Does all the things that it should. Really good acting I think. Maybe we know the Stephen King story just a little too well for this one to be a "great series". Stranger Things has a lot of Stephen King in its DNA as well but it keeps humming and one of the reasons it keeps humming along and doing interesting things is I think the way it packages that source. For Stranger Things it's not just Stephen King references and even those, even the Stephen King references are there serving functions that often we don't expect; they twist in ways we're not expecting. Here, on Castle Rock, it feels a little too much like we know where all this is going and don't get me wrong, I am cheerfully along for the ride but still...Anyway, my understanding is we will not be seeing Stranger Things before 2021, in fact, we may not be seeing much of anything soon due to the pandemic. All the productions have shut down. Those that have tried to start back up have had terrible problems. This virus spreads so quickly. I'm sort of expecting a b-team of sorts to show up this fall, channels will start using series that maybe they had in the canon for whatever reason and then decided to dump and now those things are looking awfully good. So things that were recorded long before, maybe, the pandemic hit and that now will be kind of trudged out on TV. We'll see how that goes, right? What's it like to watch the b-team play professional football? You know, it's got its charms but it's also got its limitations. But we'll find out, we'll find out as the months go on. I mean, September is the traditional time (we've got the Emmy's coming up) the traditional time to trot out the new shows and, you know, I don't know that there's anything new of substance and quality to trot out.
But for this episode I wanted to think about rhythm and get into this and I can already feel something inside me already feels that this episode may get knotty and lengthy and it may be more than one episode but that's okay. We can do that. Let's start - I'm already worried about this - let's start with poetry. I want to get into rhythm as it applies to rock music, pop music, maybe jazz music (hat might be over our heads) but as a starting point let's - I think it's useful to start with poetry. And I know, I can already hear people switching me off, I mean people hate poetry don't they? I mean that's an interesting question. I don't want to dwell on this, we've got other things to do but how did that happen exactly? And I know, I'm not trying to pry you loose from your hatred of poetry, if you hate it you hate it, that's fine, we'll get to the good stuff soon enough. But just think, this is a thought experiment, 200-300 years ago even much further back, thousands of years ago, 2500,3500 years ago poetry was like the coolest thing. And now people despise it and that's an interesting turn of events. Obviously new technologies come around, they bump off old technology, but poetry is one of our oldest art forms and now we, you know, does it carry on in music, we'll get into that. But if you just talk about pure poetry, the kind you read in your high school classroom, we hate it. And I don't really know why - I mean, that's not actually true, that's not honest - I do know why - teachers teach it badly. And as someone who was a colleague of teachers who taught himself, you know, let me just apologize from the teachers around the world. English teachers teach poetry badly. It turns out, we're not going to get into a whole thing here, but it turns out English teachers teach a lot of things badly. Now I am making an enormous generalization, okay? It's not true of everybody; it's not true of me. But there's a lot of problems with English teachers. I don't really think English teachers like poetry either and I say that, I know some that genuinely and will tell you to your face they do not like poetry. Most of them, though, think that they are supposed to like it so they profess this deep and abiding love for it. It's a kind of badge of honor to be passionate about poetry if you're an English teacher and to put up with the ridicule from your students. It's just this thing you do because that's who you are. You're an English teacher, at least high school English teachers anyway. I mean they love it because they are supposed to love it. But the truth is, again, there's a lot of things English teachers have to answer for. For one thing, this is totally off topic, has nothing to do with rhythm, but I'm not completely convinced that The Great Gatsby is actually an important novel. Now, let me be clear here. I actually go back and forth. Sometimes I read that novel and I think, "wow, this is really genius." And I can identify why it is genius, I can teach the hell out of that if you would sit still for a podcast on The Great Gatsby. Other times I read it and I think, "wow, this is derivative and other people were doing this better than Fitzgerald and he was kind of a jerk anyway." So I go back and forth. I don't know whether it's good or bad, I change my mind. The one thing I do know about The Great Gatsby is that English teachers insist that it is a good novel but they don't seem to know why it is a good novel, they just don't. Somebody said to them, and English teachers (mostly high school English teachers) take what they learn from their teachers and they just accept it and move on with it. Right? That's what we've always done, that's the way we will always do it. Somebody decided The Great Gatsby was great and great it shall ever be. And Shakespeare, who - let me say this right up front because I don't want there to be any mistake - is legitimately, legitimately great. But I've known teachers who thought Shakespeare was a kind of gospel, I mean in the literal sense of that word. It was sacred, it can't be cut, it can't be paraphrased, you're not supposed to put it in a rap, you can't make cool movies about it with Julia Stiles. The words that come out of Shakespeare's pen are sacred. Except they aren't. And again, don't get me wrong, that guy was on a whole other level, one of these days maybe we'll do a countdown of the greatest artists of all time. That guy was on a whole other level; very few people who have ever gone up to that level, if any. I went through a phase where I thought it was cool to dislike Shakespeare, "what's the big deal, you know, he's just saying things that other people have said too." It is a big deal. I don't have time to explain now but it is. But parts of Shakespeare are terrible. Now, they are terrible on purpose. Polonius, character in Hamlet, stuffed shirt, completely full of nonsense. When he talks everything that comes out of his mouth is ridiculous, right? "To thine own self be true..." Now, you'll get these high school English teachers trying to get you to read one of Polonius' speeches and analyze it like it's great poetry. They'll have you write down "To thine own self be true..." and put it in your notebook and emboss it and keep it forever because what great words of wisdom. No. Shakespeare's making fun of this guy. Right? He wants us to say, "this guy is an idiot". So he writes deliberately badly which is a kind of genius in itself. If you've ever tried to write something badly it's not easy. T.S. Eliot.
Here's another - the great 20th century poet. The beginning of his poem, J. Alfred Prufrock, which again, amazing amazing poem but it's not beautiful. The words aren't beautiful, the imagery is not beautiful. Here's how it begins,
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Um, okay. Right? It's like serial killer poetry. We've got the beautiful beautiful scene, the sunset and then we reach into our bag of tricks for this beautiful metaphor because we're a poet and what we come out with is a patient unconscious on a table. That's supposed to be ugly. It's supposed to be ugly. But I do want to get into poetry, though because really poetry is at the root of rock music, pop music. I mean, there's that old thing that Elvis Costello supposedly said and which I love and I want Elvis Costello to have said, "writing about rock is like dancing about architecture." By which he apparently meant that taking a rock song apart and thinking about it in deep ways ruins it. Now it turns out Costello apparently never said that. He says he has no memory of it whatsoever so I don't know who actually said it but I kind of dig what's being said. A song, if you start poking into the corners of a song and you start taking it apart piece by piece like it's a science fair project or a lab rat dead upon a table, it loses its aliveness. And that's sort of true of poetry too. You hate it so you wouldn't know but it is, that's always been true of poetry as well, that if you take it apart too much you'll lose it. A poem or a song is total object. It'd be like trying to take one color out of the Mona Lisa and like taking it out, I don't know, digitally so that there were no more, I don't know, blue in the Mona Lisa and just looking at all the blue in that. And that's - Costello or whoever said that is right, up to a point. Up to a point. I think that's the way to enjoy a work, to get a work, to imbibe work, to understand and feel work. My very first English professor in college assigned us to read another Eliot poem, The Wasteland, his big monster of a poem, all about World War I, deep and a poem like that just isn't going to make much sense to a freshman. But my professor had the sense to say don't try to understand it, try to feel it, just hear it. And that is good advice I think; I think that is the way you approach a poem initially at least. Or a song. Just listen to it. You don't have to pick it apart; just listen to it. But I think there is something important about being able to go back and say why did that make me feel that way? This poem made me sad, I don't know why. This song made me angry, I don't know why. And if it is a good poem or a great song you'll never be able to completely pin it down, I mean that's part of its greatness. But then that discussion where you say, well how is this thing working and you say well maybe it's this instrument that's making me feel this and somebody else says, "no, that's garbage. It's not that at all. It's the rhythm that the saxophone makes." And somebody else says "no that's ridiculous, it's the imagery that the song writer uses." That kind of thing, back and forth becomes its own kind of art and it just keeps the poem or the song going and going.
I mean The Beatles wrote amazing songs, without question, but the mythology that surrounds The Beatles and all of the time we've spent taking their songs apart and thinking about why they might have said this or that or why the drums that come together seem to stir you to the roots of your being or that final chord in "A Day In The Life". What's going on with that? Why does it make us feel this way? So there's got to be - I think there's got to be this back and forth. We hear, we experience the music or the poem and then we go back and think about how it's put together. And we learn something there. And then we hear it again; we turn that analytical part off and we hear it again. And then we stop and we think and we analyze. And then we hear it again. And we get into this back and forth - you think, you feel, you think, you feel. And each one of them sort of feeds off the other and makes the other that much more satisfying.
So, here's how I talked about rock songs to my students. I started with poetry (they didn't like it either). Poetry though is a good way of thinking about a song. It's a good way of sort of, I don't know, it crystallizes a root to a song and then we can build on top of that root. So poetry is made up of layers of meaning and we communicate in lots of different modalities and each one of those modalities has its own set of tricks that help us with meaning. Now you know this - if you get a text message and someone says to you, "did you have a good time last night?" and you say, "Yeah, it was good." And if you are dating that person, if they are your significant other, you know that you have already at some point in your life argued over the use of the word "good". Right? Because when you texted good you genuinely meant good, I enjoyed that. But your significant other did not have the modality of your voice, they only have the modality of the text. They only have what the text said and they reconstructed your text with their own sound and they thought you said, "Eh, it was good." Now, I'm not going to solve your dating problems but it's an example of the different modalities. There's a textual modality, there's what the words literally mean. But there are also other modalities. The simplest one is the difference between text and talking. If you're talking to someone they've got the words but they've also got your voice and that can offer completely different meaning. Now we can get into all kinds of other modalities - there's the visuals of your face, you know, what kind of facial expressions you have as you say these things and how does that change the meaning. It's really quite complicated the way we communicate and one of these day we'll talk about why communication is essentially impossible and we shouldn't even be attempting it but it's this complicated little dance of multi modalities. And poetry has three basic modalities that it works on.
On level one there are the words, that is, what's literally said. So, let's take, I mean the old standby that I always go back to - I've done this poem on here before - "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening". So I'm not going to read you that poem or even stop and let you look it up, you'll remember it from high school or you won't. I mean, if you need to stop, please stop and look it up. But here's literally what the words say: I stopped by these woods today to watch the woods fill up with snow. Those woods actually belong to someone else but he won't mind. I'm here completely alone except for my horse - he thinks I'm a lunatic because I've stopped to do this but I wish so much (and this is where the poem gets really deep) that I could just stay here and watch the snow fall. I might even like to go into the woods, like, and this gets a little spiritual and woo woo but I might even like to go into the woods and become one with the woods and the snow and be apart of the snow falling. Now we could get into - I mean that sounds boring, nothing happens - maybe you are right. We could get into what's going on in that poem but we won't. But a poet, here's the point, a poet has other tools at his disposal to get his message across. A poet, for instance, has sound at his or her disposal. She can make us feel the wind as Frost does, make us feel the cold, make us feel the snow with the sounds that Frost uses. "Whose woods these are I think I know..." That's how the poem begins. "Whose woods these are I think I know...". There's wind there in that "w" sound and there's a kind of echo, a deep dark echo in the oooo at the end. Frost can also use rhythm, he has that modality at his disposal which is where we are headed. We'll get there eventually.
Now Frost here uses a very regular rhythm. Let's not worry about what it is called, let's just call it da-dum. Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. Whose woods these are I think I know. Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. Don't read it that way, okay, I'm exaggerating; da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. Now if you read that poem carefully, again, don't read it that way but if you read that poem you'll see that that rhythm (da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum) never ever changes, it is so steady. And that's really cool. People like to say it's the sound of the horse clopping, right? Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. I don't know if you have to go that far. It's very peaceful, right? It's not a rhythm that is jerking around and it's very smooth and rhythmical and it's designed to capture that peaceful mood of being out in the woods and watching the snow fall.
And other poems work this way, that is, other poems use the sameness of the rhythm to their advantage. Shakespeare uses, for instance, we all know this, the old Elizabethan playwrights are full of iambic pentameter. We don't need to know what that means, well, it means da-dum but five times - da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. You say, okay, what's he doing? Why has he got that particular rhythm going? Well the playwrights used this rhythm because if you listen to English, if you listen to people speak English, we speak in iambic pentameter. Our word system, our syllable system is just set up to work that way. Other languages do it differently. But if you're going to try to capture the way we talk, the best way to do it is to do iambic pentameter because that's the way we talk. We talk in iambic pentameters. Okay, fine. Here's where I think it gets cool and this is where we're going with all of this at some point if we make it there - the really cool stuff I think, I mean that's cool too. Regular rhythm shouldn't be underestimated; what Frost does with that straight-forward steady beat...you know, think of any of the songs that you like. Most of the music you listen to you want it to have a steady beat. If you like disco or if you like hip hop or if you like contemporary sort of techno, you definitely want a steady beat, you just expect that. And we should not underestimate the steady beat and there are such important drummers in the history of pop music, rock music, whose whole career is about having kept a steady, pulsing beat and having been able to do it consistently in just the right way to fit into a song just perfectly. But I'm also interested, and maybe we will get into that at some point, but I'm also interested in the times when drummers sort of vary from that, they throw in something different, and odd time signature, an odd rhythm, an odd way of phrasing things. And there are drummers out there, and we'll get into these people, whose careers were not about keeping this stable, steady, peaceful beat but whose whole careers were about violating that stability and doing something else and breaking out of the bounds of that stability. And that's what I want to get into.
Let me start by giving an example of how Shakespeare did this because just, you know, my students never quite got this I guess, but it blows me away every single time. It's Shakespeare again. I mean, we can do this a different way, we could talk about virtual reality. I think that just like television is a form of virtual reality, music, painting, all of the arts give us virtual reality in different ways. I mean I've said this on the show before; music, poetry does that by using sound and rhythm to make you feel what they are talking about. Robert Frost is setting you in a forest with the snow falling and it's chilly and the wind is blowing but it's peaceful and quiet and he is putting you there. It's like virtual reality. It's like he's taking you and putting you into a computer program so that you see the trees and the snow and the horse and you see it all and you are there, it's virtual reality. He does that with words. Okay, I don't want to overstate it, probably VR is much more realistic, but there's something really amazing about being able to do that, to take us somewhere using sound and rhythm and song do that as well. But okay, so Shakespeare, this is one of the coolest effects, so Shakespeare's poem "Sonnet 116", okay and Shakespeare as far as we know did not title his sonnets. So they get titled by the first line and this one's called "Let Me Not To The Marriage of True Minds". It's one of his more famous poems. And what he says in this poem, I'll just kind of set you up for the literal meaning, is that real love, real honest to goodness love doesn't let anything stand in its way. Right? You think about love as two people who are fused together and nothing, nothing can break them apart and he says, "Love is not love which alters when alteration finds." That is, if your significant other, if your girlfriend changes a little bit, if she grows older a little bit, love doesn't change. Just because she changes your love does not change. Real love stays the same. "Oh, no" he says, "it is an ever fixed mark that looks on tempest" and is never shaken no matter what comes down the pike, love will stand firm.
Now, it's beautiful and he uses all these in his sort of Elizabethan way and I'm not saying this is the only way to do things, it's the Elizabethan way to do things, in his Elizabethan way he begins throwing all these metaphors and crazy things but there's this little bit of rhythm that's so amazing. So, let's see if I can pick this up a little earlier, "Love's not time's fool though rosy lip and cheeks within his bending cycles compass come, Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks but bears it out even to the edge of doom." Now, I didn't emphasize that and so you might or might not have picked it up, it is subtle and poetry sometimes we don't have an ear tuned for it these days and we might miss it. "Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, love doesn't change over time but bears it out even to the edge of doom." Now let me explain what he does here - love al-ters not with his brief-hours and weeks. Okay, we're in iambic pentameter, remember I said that's how all the plays work and that's the way we talk. Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. "Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks." Here's the next line, "But bears it out even to the edge of doom." Now, did you pick up on that? Halfway through the line he stutters with his rhythm. "Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out" that's fine, da-dum, da-dum, but when we say "even" we are forced because think about that word even, even starts with a hard syllable, it's not evEN, it's EVen. So now we've got a jam up of heavy syllables, "but bears it out Even". "But bears it out E," "But bears it out E," and now we've got a switch up, "bears it out EVen to the edge of doom." Now, if you can't feel how that rhythm makes the point of the line, listen again, but the rhythm here it hangs because the point of the line is time doesn't matter to love, love just goes on and on and on. And in the line, that's what happens, right? The line goes longer than it should and we feel, we feel that love goes on, we feel that extra time.
Now, you know, I mean if you don't think rhythm makes you feel things, go back and look at Nazi Germany. Hitler knew deeply what a particular kind of drum beat could do to people, how it could stir people up, how it could get people into a patriotic mood. Other leaders have felt this as well; a certain kind of beat. And we know if you listen to any song, you know instantly when you hear a song what the mood is and why do you know instantly? I mean there's a lot of reasons but the main reason you know, you don't have to hear a word of the song, you don't have to have heard the song before, you will know what the song's mood is because of its rhythm. I mean in simplest terms, if it's faster you know it's going to be a happy song, an energetic song. If it's a slow rhythm it's more likely to be a sad song, a contemplative song. All of those things have to do with rhythm. Rhythm makes us feel.
Now, here's what I did with my students. The idea is you've got this base, right, so let's say the bottom layer is the words, the literal meaning of the poem. The next layer is, let's say, the sound, the sound of the words that they make, that creates a different meaning. The third level that you could tack onto that is rhythm. Now let's go back to Elvis Costello; you shouldn't start off tearing a poem apart like that. Right? You start off by listening to the whole thing because it works together but when you go back and look at it, that's one way of taking it apart is thinking about those three levels; what's going on in the literal level, what's going on on the sound level, what's going on on the rhythmic level. Now to song, songs have all of those components as well. You can begin then adding layers to a pop song, a rock song, you can add the layer of instrumentation, right? What instruments are being used. You can add the layer of vocal delivery, how does the singer sing this and there's a lot of things involved in there - you can talk about pitch, you could talk about harmony, you could talk about chords, you could talk about all of those aspects but then you could also talk about delivery in terms of dramatic delivery. How is the singer saying these words and how long do the notes last? Does that matter? That creates another meaning. If you hold a note for a certain amount of time that gives you certain meaning; if you do it very short and brief, that gives you a different meaning.
All right so I recognize I've been droning on and on, no pun intended, and we've gone, you know, I'm running out of time here and there's still lots more to talk about. I really do want to get into some very specific rock songs, pop songs, and specific musicians who have played with rhythm in very particular ways and we will do that in the next episode but before I leave off today I want to just talk about one more kind of rhythmic effect. That kind of genius move, now, I'm going to reference Allen Ginsberg the famous Beat poet and Ginsberg's an amazing guy biographically and in terms of his poetry - lots and lots going on with Ginsberg. We could spend a whole episode on Ginsberg but you should know that what Ginsberg's doing here, what I'm about to describe and illustrate, is actually invented by Walt Whitman a hundred years before and I've talked about this on the show before, Whitman invents, I mean literally Whitman invents free verse and it's really quite amazing as a genre of poetry. And not only is it brilliant in and of itself but it is meant to recapture the American spirit and it does. We talked about sound and rhythm and these things creating emotions and feelings; Whitman manages to find a way to capture Americanism in words and rhythm and sound. And the honest truth is, every American poet since Whitman has been trying to figure out what to do about Whitman, how to deal with Whitman because he's this - he did it. He did this thing. Now what do we do? Okay, what do we do in response? Well one of the things Ginsberg did is to sort of imitate, I guess, that's too crude a word but imitate, to go back to what Whitman did and do it himself.
Now, the fascinating thing I think Ginsberg does with it and this is what makes Ginsberg important and not just some guy who's copying Whitman is that he turns Whitman's energy and vitality and optimism into something much more negative. Ginsberg's whole career is saying to Whitman, "yeah, it was great then but look what it's turned into." Okay. And so he uses the same kinds of things that Whitman does but he turns them dark. Now, one of the things that Whitman invented - it's free verse which means there is no real rhythm or, that's what it means, no real rhythm. You know, when I said da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, there's none of that, right? Free verse does not do that. Free verse is more like someone talking. But Whitman wants it to have some rhythm and he's experimenting, you know, in the 1860s he's experimenting with different ways to achieve rhythm without rhythm. I mean how hard is that? I'm going to try to put some rhythm in this without rhythm. And he looked to some sources, very American source, the preachers in church, the evangelistic preachers and the way that they would get into a groove and find a rhythm. And it wasn't that every word was in a rhythm but there was a rhythm to the whole thing so that what he did and again, Ginsberg does this too I'm going to show you in just a minute, Ginsberg begins each line with the same word. And the line is long, right? The line is a whole sentence and the line has no rhythm but that word is important and at the end of the sentence or the phrase he comes back to the word and he gives you another long sentence and it doesn't have rhythm and it tangles and twists and goes wherever and at the end of that he goes back to the word. And over and over again he twists and turns but he always goes back to the word, always goes back to the word, but he always go back to the word. This is the beginning of his just monumental poem, "Howl".
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the
machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on
tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light
tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening
to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night
You see how it keeps coming back to who, right? Who did this, who did this, who did this, who did this, and there's a rhythm in that.
All right, that's enough for one episode, truly it is enough for one episode. I am sorry if you tuned into this and you're pissed off now because we didn't get into any songs, we will spend the next episode applying all of this to music, to rock music, to pop music, maybe a little jazz, maybe some country, who knows we might get wild. Let me say for now though, thank you so much for listening. If you like what you hear, please let us know.
Follow us on Twitter, check out our YouTube channel and visit us a popcultureacademy.com. and please tell your friends. I'll be back next Friday to finish up this dissertation, see you then.
As often happens on Sunday evening, when it’s well past time to put together the weekly playlist, but I’ve put it off until the last minute and my wife is rightly chastising me because after all she’s the one who has to get these things up every Monday morning, serendipity manages to save me. The way it usually happens is I’m driving and I’ll hear a couple of songs rub against one another and suddenly I have a theme. This time it was Talk Talk’s “Happiness is Easy” which just happened to pop up as XTC’s “Dear God” was fading away. Quite similar songs actually, and both produced in the same year. And both using children’s voices as a central component of the track. Well, that chance encounter sent me on a quest to see which other artists had made use of children in one way or another. Turns out there are more than a few songs out there, and even more astonishing, they all seem to make use of these voices in their own unique ways.
1. The Smiths offer a sophisticated take on children’s voices. On the one hand, “Panic” deals with the Irish troubles and seems to reference a nightclub bombing, and in that sense the children provide a kind of pathos, the innocence of youth subjected to awful violence. At the same time, Morrissey wants to turn his final chorus, “Hang the DJ” into a taunt that seems childish at first but that holds real threat of violence beneath it. In that sense, the children here help provide a sense of menacing glee, not an easy fusion to pull off.
2. The children in Cohen’s “Last Year’s Man” don’t show up until the end of the song, and their sound is subtle, a kind of elegiac, perhaps angelic, addition to a song that mourns a life lived too long. In all, the children sing only three lines, but they provide a poignant summing up.
3. Turner – or more likely the producers of Thunderdome – thought this was a natural fit. Children in the film, children in the song. They offer a nice final lift to a track that seems to be rising from the moment it begins. Thunderdome, of course, isn’t the best entry in the Mad Max franchise, but this is a hell of a song and video.
4. Benatar wants the title – “We Belong to the Night” to soar. It’s pitched higher than the verses, and the opening emphasizes its heights in the first bars. In this sense, the children serve a sonic purpose, helping to make everything soar still a bit higher.
5. Talk Talk needs children here in a dramatic sense. “Happiness is Easy” sets up a contrast between the world as it is and the world we were promised as kids. More pointedly, they want to criticize the lies of the church and how while preaching love and peace to children, the church ultimately preaches war and greed to adults. Thus the adult voice offers criticism, while the children sweetly sing the lies of childhood, point and counterpoint.
6. Oh, what Thunderdome might have been if it had been filmed as a cartoon, as this Gorillaz video ably demonstrates. At any rate, the children here serve a similar function, innocents who have been drafted to fight in a futuristic world where everyone must struggle to survive.
7. In contrast, The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” uses children for the high seriousness of the sound they provide. The tune is set at a church wedding, and the music generally is meant to capture the mood of the scene. There’s something in the song about the arrival of adulthood, and pomp and circumstance is called for. The children encapsulate that sound.
8. Curiously enough, this one came out the same year – 1986 – as Talk Talk’s tune, and makes almost precisely the same point about religion, though it does so somewhat more pointedly. Unlike some of the other songs on this list, there is only the single voice of a young boy, and where the children in “Happiness” represent a lost innocence: this voice becomes an indictment from those innocence. Even kids, XTC tell us, can see how wrong things are.
9. Not sure I really need to say much here. We all know this one. Where XTC and Talk Talk indict the church, Pink Floyd indict the education system, leaving children as mindless automatons, chanting like zombies, “We don’t need no education.”
10. Like many songs on the list, the children here are innocents who should know nothing of nuclear war, and yet the way they sing the lyrics makes clear that, unfortunately, they definitely, definitely do. Bonus points to Yo La Tengo, for getting children to sing “fuck.” They want to shock us right up front, so they know we’re paying attention to their urgent message. At the same time, they expect us to understand, on some level, that children singing “fuck” is not our biggest problem. It’s the fact that they understand nuclear war so well that should frighten us.
You are listening to the Pop Culture Academy podcast. On this week's episode we count down the top 10 television shows of all time, not just shows from the 80s or best medical shows, all the best shows of all time. Don't forget you can follow us on Twitter and YouTube and you can always check us out at popcultureacademy.com.
Greetings and salutations and welcome to season two episode 19 of the Pop Culture Academy where we do our very best every week to treat pop culture with the seriousness that it deserves. What's been going on in the last week or so since last we spoke - so, um, I don't know how this happened exactly but I wound up circling the year 1978 this week. It wasn't intentional but somehow it happened. First, I caught up with the movie, the 1978 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers which I'd never seen. You gotta remember, no matter how good you are of a pop culture enthusiast there are holes in what you know. There are always holes and, you know, I hadn't seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Now, you know, I hear that the original is the superior film but it's pretty good, this 1978 version. Donald Sutherland. Leonard Nimoy and Jeff Goldblum. And you know it's got all the chills and thrills that you expect with a horror film, a little sci-fi mixed in. Interesting commentary on identity I guess. I found it really interesting that this triumvirate of men, Sutherland, Goldblum and Nimoy, and they work really well together I think they make an interesting little triumvirate but in most ways they are sort of out shown by Brooke Adams who plays the female lead here and who is kind of the first person to stumble on what's happening, what's really going on. Now, the other thing I gotta say is of course Jeff Goldblum who I am more and more convinced is one of those people that you gotta designate as national treasures. He just steals every scene he's in and that's not just true of this film. He just steals every movie he's in. I don't know what sort of phenomenon it is - it's unlike - I can't think of anybody else quite like him and maybe that's what the appeal is. He's so unlike anybody else but, yeah, it's just fun. This was an early one from his career and it's really fun to watch him work.
Now, the other thing that happened is and I, again, I don't know - this wasn't intentional but I've been thinking a long time about this series that I watched when I was seven. Seven years old, 1978, that's also of course the year that Star Wars comes out. I mean I guess '77, '78 - Star Wars comes out of course Invasion of the Body Snatchers, lots of great things coming out in that year, 1978. I just happened - like I said, I was 7 years old and I happened to have my tonsils out at 7 years old. So I'm in the hospital, and you know, I'm 7, and I don't really know what's happening to me. I'm uncomfortable. I don't like it. When I come out of surgery I don't like the way I feel, all the things you would expect a 7 year old to feel about tonsillectomies, particularly in 1978 which is what 40 something years ago? I'm in the hospital and my mother comes and stays with me which I like and the other thing that I really like was that for the first time in my life I had access to the remote control, right? In the hospital I had the little remote that decided what channel. Now of course you gotta think about what control means here - it's 1978, there are only 3 channels so I don't have a lot of control but I don't think my family had a remote control set to be honest with you. I don't remember us having a remote control set and I know it's 1978 but we had a black and white when I was a kid, when I was younger. So, I've got control and my mother and I found this show, the premiere episode of this show and that was kind of cool in itself that we found, that we were watching - I mean obviously it must have been September/October when this happened and we were just watching ABC and a brand new show came on and we were intrigued and so we watched. The show was called Lucan and this may sound ridiculous to you but we bought it in 1978 and it worked. It doesn't sound good on paper, but it works. So, it's about a kid who's discovered in 1967 and when he's discovered he's 10 years old and it's in Montana or somewhere like that - Wyoming - and he's been raised by wolves, he's literally been raised by wolves. And the foresters capture him and they take him to a facility and the facility slowly tries to reeducate him as a human which is apparently not that easy when you've got a feral kid. It's just not that easy. The series, of course, takes place ten years later when Lucan, who is played by Kevin Brophy, is 20. And it stars John Randolph as - I mean he is really the central figure; he's the psychiatrist, the behavioral psychologist who's been working with Lucan for these ten years and now sort of his research is being threatened and people want to put Lucan in a kind of, I don't know, not a zoo but they want to put him on display, study him, those kinds of things and John Randolph's character is trying to prevent that. As I say, it sounds kind of ridiculous on paper, it actually play really well. Now the other thing besides not sounding as, you know, sounds a little outrageous, is the fact that it only made it 12 episodes so clearly it did not catch on. And all these years I've wondered about it; several years ago I looked it up and finally tracked it down, it's on ABC. And then a few more years later I discovered that you can watch whole episodes, that the whole series really, is on YouTube. And so I've just had that in the back of my mind and for whatever reason this weekend I just decided I wanted to sit down and watch a couple of those episodes. I did. It's quality television in an era when you just wouldn't expect it. It's got a really good plot, it's great acting, and it has a story arc and develops over time. And at that point in time what you've got is the best shows on TV were Love Boat and Fantasy Island and shows that were, you know, one off. Each episode was it's own little world and then you moved onto the next episode and things kind of reset and started all over again. So, I gotta say, I'm very impressed with this show and I'm going to have to investigate further and I'll keep you posted on that.
But, let's get into this week's subject which as it happens, you know, it has everything to do with television. I've confessed before just how much I love lists and the other thing that I confess probably as often is that the medium that I am the most passionate about in pop culture is television. Right? I love music, I love literature (I was trained to study literature), I love film, obviously. I love video games and I love graphic novels and I love podcasts but the thing that I love more than anything else is television. And so I know there've been a lot of lists out there already, probably one I would guess in TV Guide, certainly one awhile back from Entertainment Weekly I remember reading. And those were actually more extensive, they were like the 100 greatest shows of all time. And look, you know, I mean I'll confess this too - one more confession this week - sometimes when I'm putting lists like this together I really have to do my homework a little, right? Like I know the subject pretty well but I don't know everything and I've always gotta look things up and find out what other people think and all those things. But this is one topic I know inside and out and I thought, I'm just going to do one myself. I know these others are out there, there's probably a lot of them out there but I'm going to offer up my own thoughts on this subject.
I mean look, tv has been a part of my life from the very beginning. Sesame Street premiered a year or two before I was born I think and it's just been straight on from there. I love, always loved as long as I can remember, television. And I've dabbled in a little bit of everything. I haven't lived through the entire history of television, obviously, but Sesame Street and I was a kid during the whole like Luke and Laura thing on General Hospital. I got deeply deeply involved in that soap. I was absolutely addicted like everybody was. And I didn't grow up with it but I've gone back into the history of tv that the shows like Green Acres and Route 66 and Hogan's Heroes and The Bob Newhart Show and The Rockford Files. I was a Sports Center junkie for awhile so I got that kind of ESPN thing for awhile. I was glued to the first season of Survivor so I understand reality TV. For a few years I never missed 60 Minutes. I spent years watching Adult Swim. And you know I was a teenager just as MTV got going. I just don't think there's a genre or a corner of television that I don't have some expertise in. And so you might or might not like this list but this is one that really matters to me and I make no apologies for my choices.
I tried to make a list that is fair, that represents all sorts of shows though I do have to say upfront my choices, as it turned out, were all (for the top 10 anyway) fictional content. I couldn't think of anything that could bump one of these off the list just because - you know, I didn't want to add a news show just to add a news show or a reality show or a sports program. I wanted to do the ten best. It just so happened that those were all fiction. I tried to choose examples that were both entertaining but also significant, you know, game changers if you will for television. There's not one show on this list that wasn't incredibly satisfying to watch but while in most every case there were other examples that I could have chosen, you know, just as entertaining, none of them felt quite as significant as the choices that I made. And I don't know why I do this but I always have this compulsion to go through the ones I didn't include because I think it says something important about the ones I did. So let me just give you a sampling, I'll just anger you now right up front in this show about the ones I didn't pick. I'm sure they'll all be your favorites and right away you'll say this list has to be worthless because, you know, he left this off. But here's the ones that you know I love and that I wanted to include but there were better examples. Mary Tyler Moore Show. Right? Groundbreaking. The really enormous television franchise Law & Order. The first big extensive television franchise I think. 24 which was ground-breaking in terms of how it told stories. Cheers which I know for a fact was number one on some of the lists that are out there. The Twilight Zone. Walking Dead. Star Trek didn't make the list. It's Gary Shandling's Show. The Andy Griffith Show. Breaking Bad. Game of Thrones. The X-Files. The Tonight Show. Saturday Night Live. The Big Bang Theory. Mr. Rogers didn't make the list and American Horror Story. Those were all shows that just were right there but you know we had to put a cap on it somewhere. So I mean if you are playing along at home which I like to do with these kinds of things and you've got your card with all the top ten that you think belong there you can start marking some of them off.
10 So I started the countdown, number ten, with Buffy. And, look, some of you may disagree. I know, though, if you're a Buffy fan you'll insist it should be higher. In fact, you'll probably insist it should be at the top of the list and to be honest that's one of the reasons that I chose it. I mean it is a great show - entertaining characters and humor that is incredibly clever. It's self-referential and meta and post-modern which you know I love. It's one of the first shows that got really self-referential like, you know, that musical episode in the last season is just amazing. And all of that puts it on the list. But really Buffy, more than any show I can think of other than maybe Star Trek, Buffy is a phenomenon. It's a cult classic that was mainstream. I know it's kind of a contradiction in terms, not kind of, it IS a contradiction in terms. But I guess what I'm getting at is that it has all these hallmarks of a cult classic, like the fan base that just is so devoted. And when I was an academic I can say this as well, no show got the kind of academic attention that Buffy gets. I mean it is treated with reverence and with great seriousness.
9 All right so this one I've gone back and forth on but ultimately I gave the slot to Sesame Street and yeah, I know, it's sentimental for me but beyond that in kids TV - you can definitely make an argument for Mr. Rogers and I get that. I think Rogers, if I'm not mistaken, Rogers was a year or two ahead of Sesame Street. And I actually played with some other contenders as well that had nothing to do with kids TV but I went with Sesame Street because as much as Mr. Rogers came first, Sesame Street perfected the educational TV formula like no show has. Fifty years, still going and still just as iconic as it was fifty years ago. We know all those characters. We know Oscar and Big Bird and Elmo and Grover and Bert and Ernie. But Sesame Street also, here's what's amazing about Sesame Street - it understood the TV format as well as any show ever has and it turned that format into a lesson for kids in how to navigate media. The idea that we should put a kids show that has commercials in it, not real commercials but educational commercials sort of stuck in there and it has different segments like different shows or, it just allowed kids to enter the TV world in a safe, educational way. And so many shows since then have been copying what Sesame Street did in one way or another. [Listen to our podcast "Sesame Street and Virtual Reality", Aug. 14]
8 All right, so number eight. The Office. Again, we could talk about how screamingly funny that show was. It was incredibly entertaining to watch. Or we could talk about how we all fell in love with Jim and Pam and we got so involved in a soap opera kind of way with that romance. We could talk about how entertaining Dwight was. But let's talk about why the show is important, significant. Now, to be fair, The Office was incredibly ground-breaking but only because the original version, Ricky Gervais's version came first and it shed the way. So I mean you know you can't give all the credit to this show. You have to think about its British predecessor. But The Office gave us this new kind of television, the mockumentary, fiction masked as reality kind of show. It influenced Curb Your Enthusiasm and Modern Family and Parks and Rec and I'm sure I'm missing some other influences, important shows that The Office kind of showed the way for. And we really needed that new form at just that moment for reasons we'll get into later. But the sitcom was a dead form. Maybe that doesn't seem right if you didn't live through it but I'm telling you the sitcom was dead. The Office managed to resurrect it single handedly really, managed to resurrect the sitcom just when it needed it. And, you know, I think you also have to say Michael Scott was something new as well, as a character; really not a character like him on television. And early on I remember people kind of didn't know what to do with The Office. Is this going to be a hit? Is this just wonky...I mean he wasn't quite what Ricky Gervais's character had been in the British original. He was a buffoon but he had these redeeming qualities. He was so kind and he was so generous to others. As big of a fool as he was, he also was the firm's biggest and best salesman. He'd been, as they say, promoted beyond his abilities. He was no good as an office manager, he was terrible as an office manager but boy could he sell. I mean he wasn't just, you know, I guess he was kind of in the mold of those negative characters that we got at that time like House or like Dexter, characters who had some serious character flaw but who were also in some ways incredibly incredibly brilliant. And Michael Scott was that for comedy and it was fascinating to watch.
7 Number seven is The Wire and I think The Wire might be the most recent entry on this list. There's incredible acting, again I want to talk about - it is an incredibly entertaining show, right? It has fascinating cat and mouse plots, it keeps you watching and it has that kind of that whole HBO sort of aura going for it. It was one of the first shows of that wave of serious television, serious dramatic television well-acted, well-constructed, filming quality really high. It had all of those things going for it but The Wire more than any show ever offered us a full and complete picture of a real space, of Baltimore as a city. And we see that space from at least five different perspectives in the five seasons and each of those perspectives is brilliantly developed so that you really delve into one aspect of the city. And the other ones kind of are all there too so that by the end of the series you feel like you know Baltimore. You've entered that space and I really feel like television more than any - what it's really got going for it is its ability to take us into a fictional space and let us live there and The Wire did that as well as any show ever.
6 Number six is Battlestar Galactica. Now, you know, I know if you're going to talk about sci-fi shows it seems like Star Trek should be at the top of the list and I do accept that argument. I mean, Star Trek's an amazing ground-breaking series, it has the cult following of Buffy. It continued on in film and other television franchises. It really had an impact. But I gotta say Battlestar is simply the better constructed show. Now again, Star Trek paved the way and if there wasn't Star Trek no Battlestar Galactica. But Battlestar is just the superior sort of outgrowth of what Star Trek started. Most science fiction (and Star Trek certainly was an example of this) deals with politics and Star Trek's very insightful in that way. It's dealing with some very cutting edge political things but for all that I love Star Trek, for all its cult status and its weight significance, even historically it's kind of disadvantaged by having been made in TV's early days when TV was still a poor step-child of film. And, you know, I love those shows. There's another show on this list that comes from that era but the money and the attention is not going into television so that it's cheaply made and sometimes the seams show. Battlestar is better acted, better filmed, more complex plots and narrative experimentation but more than that no show has ever been a commentary on its time more than Battlestar. That show is absolutely essential watching for anyone trying to think through the early post 9/11 years, the Bush years, the Iraqi war years. And it's just so compelling on that level and maybe it's lost some of its luster over time because you have to have lived through that and understood that period to really get Battlestar but boy was it essential to watch that show at that time.
5 Number five. The Sopranos. Amazing show. Like Battlestar or The Wire or some that didn't make the list like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black. It plays with the narrative form of television in such intricate ways. But more than that it was the first of what people now call the golden age of television. You know, for a long time it was popular to say that the golden age was the very earliest days of television. There was some kind of aura, magical aura about those days and then you got into - there's a great Twitter account on the silver age of television, the age that came after that had everything from Green Acres and Hogan's Heroes to Mary Tyler Moore and The Bob Newhart Show to Love Boat and Fantasy Island. And that was fine too. I have a lot of nostalgia for that era but these days when people talk about the golden age of television they're really referring to what happened around the year 2000 when the quality of television just exploded in so many ways and suddenly there were these really serious shows that money was being poured into to really make a film-like experience, that kind of quality. And this show, The Sopranos, was the first of that era. I think that era these days - it's still going on but maybe it's begun to flag just a little bit. Part of the issue as we've talked about before is that our attention is now scattered because there are so many shows competing for our attention and we can't keep up with them all. And so we've kind of lost a little bit of that really golden age that we had for, I don't know, fifteen or twenty years. Without Sopranos though there's no Breaking Bad. Without Sopranos there's no Walking Dead. There's no Homeland. I mean name pretty much any serious well-made show of the last twenty years and it doesn't exist without The Sopranos. Sopranos just broke the mold. It showed us that TV, and I know it was HBO so it wasn't the same thing as network television but it showed us that TV could be every bit the equal of film, that when television was really really on it could be better than film. That show discovered what TV is best at and it made the most of it.
4 Number four. You know a lot of early television has sort of disappeared over time, that golden age I was just talking about. No one remembers - few people remember for instance the Milton Berle show which was so incredibly influential but people don't remember that. People don't remember Happy Days. If you go back to that early golden age no one remembers Route 66 or Father Knows Best or even The Honeymooners, it's such a ground-breaking show. But I Love Lucy has and I suspect it always will linger in our consciousness. It's just always going to be there. It was the first landmark comedy on television and maybe the first landmark show of any kind on television. And all of that of course really was all down to the genius of Lucille Ball herself. I mean there's no show on this list that owes so much to its character, to its leading actress as I Love Lucy. It was all her. I mean I love Ricky, that's great but you know that show is Lucy. And in that sense she opened the door for TV women to be funny in a way that they - I mean - you know I can't really say in a way that they never have before because there was no before but she allowed that to happen at TV's earliest moment. She nailed all the aspects of the physical comedy that everyone since has just been imitating in one way or another, particularly influential on the women that we think of, the women that today we think of as television icons. Carol Burnett all the way to Julia Louis-Dreyfus. They all have a little bit of Lucy in their physical comedy. She also showed how dramatic irony could be turned to true profit, you hadn't been able to do quite the same way in film for instance. It really opened the door to some fascinating possibilities with television in terms of structure and the notion of dramatic irony as, you know, one character not realizing what the other characters are doing or what's happening with them and as a result creating outlandish, outrageous comedy.
3 Number three. MASH. Again, I have a lot of nostalgia and sentimental feeling for this show. Top to bottom, though, that's simply an incredible show. I'd probably say of all the ones on this list that is the most watchable show in terms of pure entertainment. It's insanely, insanely funny and I think that translates to any generation. You know there are shows on this list that I know some people don't get anymore but that show, we're always going to be able to get that show. It's insanely funny but it manages to evolve over time into a show that's also incredibly powerful, has a really serious pathos to it partly because we came to really love those characters. It was of its time, kind of the way that Galactica was but it grew out of that time, right? I mean it starts in the 70s and it's about the Korean War and it's commenting on the Vietnam war but then it goes into the 80s and Vietnam is past and its direction kind of changes and what it has to say kind of changes and it grows into an 80s show. I mean it's able to evolve that way. I don't know that there's ever been that good a cast ever assembled. If you go back and watch that last episode and, you know, that's another thing it's got going for it is that it's one of the few shows that really pulled off an amazing final episode. I hold a very special place in my heart for what happened in that last episode and the way that that series was able to say goodbye to those characters. It brings goosebumps up to me now, all these years later. The most watched television finale, television show, in history because it was so well crafted and really because we came to love those characters. You invest in those characters and it's funny they're a lot of stereotypes in the tradition of early television in those first few seasons. But all of those characters were able to transcend those stereotypes as well. In some ways MASH manages to succeed in spite of its television-ness if you will. In some ways it manages to create a bridge from early television to later television. I was talking about that previous golden age and the silver age and MASH does both of those but then it pushes us to the next generation as well, particularly for comedy.
2 All right. Number two. There are people who may quibble with this one because technically it only lasted a season and a half and by the half, let's face it, it had lost some of its steam. But in terms of drama, Twin Peaks absolutely completely changed the game. Okay, so I said earlier The Sopranos was the first show of the golden age but ten years before anyone had heard of James Gandolfini Twin Peaks was already nailing what television really is. In simplest terms, Twin Peaks was the first show to meld soap opera and that kind of story arc that you want to watch, you want to watch characters grow and develop, you want to watch situations grow and develop, you're interested in how it develops. It melded soap opera with genuine TV drama and professional film quality. It may not seem like it now in the wake of all we've seen since then but, for instance, it was the first show with a soundtrack. It was the first non-soap series that had a story arc that continued across the series. It was iconic in a way that few shows ever have been. The images in that series just stick with you forever. You never forget what Twin Peaks is like. You never forget what that forest and that mill and all of those places, you never forget the feel of that show. And every show since then has, I think, copied it, sometimes in ways that you can see pretty directly. For instance, every show that involves a small town, from Northern Exposure which I love to Gilmore Girls which I love to Wayward Pines which I love. They're all full of these quirky characters and often this very dark foreboding feel that's mixed with comedy in a very strange way that other shows have also copied. I just don't think it is possible to overstate Twin Peaks' value to television and the history of television even though you only get a season and a half and then it's canceled. But I mean how many shows did we talk about that got canceled before their time? You know, we could - that's a completely different episode.
1 All right. So number one. And then there was one. I won't beat around the bush after all I did a whole episode on this show just a couple of weeks ago [Listen to our podcast, "The Wonders of Seinfeld", Aug. 21]. In the same way that Twin Peaks set a particular standard for drama, one that we're still trying to live up to, Seinfeld did that for comedy only more so. Seinfeld broke, we were talking about The Office, Seinfeld broke the sitcom for awhile. The Office had to resurrect it because Seinfeld broke it. It did something, it nailed television and television sitcoms so well that no one else could compete and so they just didn't. But Seinfeld also understood in a way that no other show has ever done - okay, let's be clear. It's Gary Shandling's Show did that too and it did it a couple years earlier than Seinfeld. And there were other precursors to Seinfeld - Cheers and Night Court and Wings, those NBC must-see TV shows - set Seinfeld up, particularly Cheers. But they were all only sort of moving to the edge. Seinfeld got to that edge and went over it and every show in some way involves its DNA. And I mean drama, comedy, every show has some Seinfeld in its DNA somewhere, even the ones that came before it it turns out have some Seinfeld in their DNA. It's like the show reordered the comedy universe forever. Talk about Buffy's meta qualities, its postmodern - Seinfeld is full of meta long before Buffy came around. Friends, right? Fun interesting characters; not as important as Seinfeld though. Big Bang Theory. I mean how much do they steal from Seinfeld. It starts with four characters sitting on couches chatting. That is Seinfeld. The Office - you go back to the British version of The Office - it was really only a reaction to what Seinfeld had done. Really I could list all of my favorite shows since then - Community, The Mindy Project, New Girl, Mom, Modern Family, How I Met Your Mother, they've all got pieces of Seinfeld sort of floating around in there. It just understood what TV was. It understood, and Twin Peaks did this to an extent though I think the newer Twin Peaks season that aired on HBO or, was it Showtime, HBO, a few years ago, I think it understood even better than the original what TV was about, that TV was this fictional world, that these aren't real people doing real things; it's all fictional. And Seinfeld did it, they understood it and they used that as the basis for their humor. And it was so meta and so postmodern and like I said, it's not just the comedies, I don't think the dramas completely realized the possibilities of that idea, that this is a fictional universe and that allows us to shape things and do it differently. What we had before were shows that were sort of pretending to be real life. You watch The Brady Bunch and they are doing this mediocre job - there's a lot of suspension of disbelief in early television. You pretend that it is real life but because the production quality is so not real life and it's so obvious that it's not. And Seinfeld said, look people, this is not real. Let's just put away the sham and just say it up front, this is fake, this is not reality. And that's again, that's where all its humor comes but the dramas come along and they realize they're right. There is no - it's not real. Some shows play with that in a direct way. Other shows like The Sopranos say, oh yeah, this is fictional, let's really invest in that. Let's - if this is going to be fictional, let's really make the quality of the production as high as it possibly can be and not just pretend that we're reality but let's actually become reality. And even though Seinfeld comes out, roughly around the same time as Twin Peaks I don't think Twin Peaks has the impact it does if there's no Seinfeld. And all of that about its significance is not even to mention its iconic characters. Few actors are as good as Louis-Dreyfus, Alexander, Richards. It's got a one, two, three punch that hits you constantly. Things happen that are so unexpected and none of it matters. It is the purest form of comedy. There are no romantic sub-plots, no Sam and Diane, no Ross and Rachel. There are no very special episodes. There are no messages whatsoever. It's just funny and that is so brilliant.
Okay, so it could be that I went a little longer than I should have this week but come on, it's television. There is no more important medium I think, at least for now. I'm waiting for virtual reality to make its move but I feel like I've been waiting for awhile now and it just doesn't seem to be making it. Television is spectacular.
So that's it for another week. If you like what you hear, please follow us on Twitter, check out our YouTube page, and visit us at popcultureacademy.com. Most importantly, tell your friends. We are looking for listeners to validate our existence. I'll be back next Friday with an all new episode, see you then.
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