Don't have time to listen to our podcasts? Don't worry. Read our "podscripts" here.
You're listening to the Pop Culture Academy podcast with MK Adkins. And don't forget you can follow us on Twitter and FaceBook. You can find us on YouTube. And of course you can always visit us at www.popcultureacademy.com.
Greetings and salutations and welcome to episode six of the Pop Culture Academy where we do all things pop culture with just a bit, just a bit of an academic slant. Last week when we ended the show I didn't have an episode title in mind for this week. And so I wasn't able to plug it properly. I think I've settled on "Why the Trump Administration is So Good For Art". Now, you know, I know I know, so a guy who's publicly stated that he'd like to do away with the NEH and the NEA and who probably hasn't heard of NPR or PBS which might be a good thing. If he should discover that those organizations exist they may be in trouble. But what's a guy like that got to contribute to the arts? So, just stay with me. I'll explain.
So, by way of explanation I want to begin this episode with a clip from my favorite film, well, you know, I say favorite. It's one of my favorites. I mean I don't know how you are about this but really my favorites in any category can change on any given day. It sort of depends on exactly what category of film we're talking about or what am I trying to accomplish with my pick? Like, am I trying to impress someone with how deep my knowledge is? Do I want to sort of pull out some film that nobody's ever heard of and say, "Oh, this is my favorite"? Am I trying to show someone that I'm hip? Am I trying to prove I'm not hip? Yes, I'm someone with pop credentials who loves my Blockbusters and here's my favorite Blockbuster. But today my favorite movie's The Third Man. Now, if you don't know this movie you really need to. Really. I mean, even if you're younger. Even if you're not into black and white films. You haven't watched anything that was made before, you know, 1985. You owe it to yourself to see this film. And it's a good introduction into classic film if you're not someone who watches a lot of classic film. It's an incredibly important film. It's an example of film noir which is just so cool but influential, so American in terms of film. It comes from such an American form of the novel. The hardboiled noir detective story. And Third Man, also a great example of how black and white directors really really knew how to work in their particular art form. The use of dark and light in this film. The use of shadow. I mean, it's a masterclass in filmmaking. And that's something worth saying, I think. You know, it isn't about art getting better over time necessarily. I think sometimes we get into this mindset of "our art forms are more realistic than the past and that makes them the best". So, naturally, the latest video game, the latest film technology, the latest virtual reality headset, that's all supposed to be the apex of all art. And we look back at something like Donkey Kong, right? And we say, how primitive. How primitive is this? Compared to something like, I don't know - what's the latest? I'm so out of video games these days. But you know something like Arkham Asylum which is, I know - it's a little dated now. If we look at something like Arkham Asylum and we compare it to Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong seems so primitive. Why would - you know - you poor 80s kids, right? You poor kids of the 80s who had to grow up with such primitive technology. And I don't think my oldest daughter who's 22 - I don't think she has ever seen a black and white film, to be quite honest. But every kind of art has its own particular rules. And so if you go back to black and white film, it wasn't that they felt limited. They learned the rules of that form and the masters who worked within those rules, they're as good as any artist you can think of. Just because they're working in a slightly different medium doesn't mean that medium or that product is lesser.
All right, so The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed in 1949. Reed also did Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol; won Best Director for Oliver in 1968. And, obviously as I say, Reed is a master of light and shadow. This particular film is based on a script by Graham Greene and Greene doesn't show up in many high school or undergraduate english classes and so not a lot of people remember him. But he really is a hugely important British writer of the 20th century. Certainly one of the top 10, I would say, of the 20th century. Maybe higher than that. The way I feel about Greene is that he's kind of an heir to someone like Somerset Maugham. And then kind of an ancestor of John le Carre. So like, he's sort of a link between - I mean there's some mystery, there's some spy focus in Greene sometimes. You get it in this film. You get it in Our Man in Havana which is quite comic but also sort of spy-based. There's something about spies in there but more importantly there's this sort of British, stiff-upper-lip kind of quality to his work, his characters. And so, like I said, I think he makes a nice link between Maugham and John le Carre. The film stars Joseph Cotten who I happen to really like. There's just something really likable about Cotten to me, something very genuine in his acting. It's very smooth. It's very calm and in this film it works out greatly because the guy playing against him is Orson Welles who really could...and well, let's face it...who really does steal the film. But it works as a nice contrast, Welles versus Cotten. And in fact they worked on a number of films together. It had just been eight years since Citizen Kane and Cotten had been in that film as well and they were in, I want to say half a dozen films together. And really, I think, make a nice contrast. Welles is sort of, I don't know, the rage that's in him but that's very controlled versus Cotten who's just totally relaxed all the time. Anyway, but the film is kind of stolen by Orson Welles and there's every, really, there's every reason to think that Welles had a great deal of influence on the making of this film and not just his own part. I mean, I think he's - I don't know why I want to say co-director, I don't know if I want to go that far but certainly had an influence. And so you have to think about the time period, this is another important part of this film, the time period when this gets made. It's 1948-1949 and we're really, we're only three or four years from the end of the war and the world this movie is set in, which is post-WWII, it's really still there as they are making it. They are making this film about a very contemporary moment.
All right, so before we get to this clip let me set it up and try to do it without - I want to do this without giving too much away. I don't know if I can do that or not. So Joseph Cotten plays a western writer. He writes western novels. He's shown up in Germany really to see an old friend of his named Harry Lime. And this is Berlin just after the war and the city's been divided up by the allies and Russia's closing down it's section of Berlin. And it's not a good situation. And everybody - you know, there's high poverty, it's a destroyed city. And the black market, in particular, is really thriving. And so Cotten's character whose name is Holly Martins, he manages to track Harry down. Right? Again, they were old friends. And they meet very famously in this dark, sort of, well I don't know that it's deserted. I mean, there are people at this - it's a fair grounds - and there are people at the fairgrounds but I guess the way that, again, this black and white sheen to this movie, it feels very dingy. It feels very dim. It feels kind of isolated. They ride up on the ferris wheel which is one of those ferris wheel's that's a car rather than a seat so they are standing up in this ferris wheel. And they are looking down on the people below them and it's rainy and dreary and it's a bombed out city. Now Cotten has heard these terrible things about his old friend Harry Lime, I mean, just terrible things. Apparently Lime sold, among other things, you know and the police are looking for him, right? So among other things Lime sold a bunch of tainted black market penicillin to orphanages. And children died. And so Martins confronts him. Martins says, "How could you do this, Harry? It's the black market. And you're trying to get a fast buck and I get that. But the children, Harry." He says, "The children." And this is the scene and it's one of the most famous in all cinema and personally it's probably my favorite bit of dialogue ever and I think you could make a serious case that this is the most important scene in cinema.
<playing audio from movie>
Lime: Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Look down there...Would you feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man...free of income tax. Only way you can save money nowadays.
Martins: Lot of good your money will do you in jail.
Lime: That jail is in another time zone...There's no proof against me besides you.
Martins: I should be pretty easy to get rid of.
Lime: Pretty easy...
Martins: I wouldn't be too sure...
Lime: I carry a gun...I don't think they'd look for a bullet wound after you'd hit that ground...
Martins: They dug up your coffin.
Lime: And found Harbin? Hmm, pity. Oh, Holly, what fools we are, talking to each other this way...As though I would do anything to you - or you to me. You're just a little mixed up about things...in general. Nobody thinks in terms...of human beings. Governments don't, why should we? They talk about the people, and the Proletariat... I talk about the suckers and the mugs...it's the same thing. They have their five year plans and so have I.
Martins: You used to believe in God.
Lime: I still do believe in God, old man... I believe in God and mercy and all that... The dead are happier dead. They don't miss much here...poor devils. What do you believe in? Well, if you ever get Anna out of mess, be kind to her. You'll find she's worth it. I wish I had asked you to bring me some of these tablets from home...Holly, I would like to cut you in, old man. Nobody left in Vienna I can really trust - and we have always done everything together. When you make up your mind, send me a message... I'll meet you any place, any time. And when we do meet, old man, it is you I want to see, not the police. Remember that, won't you?
Don't be so gloomy...After all, it's not that awful. Remember what the fellow said...in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and the Renaissance...In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce?...The cuckoo clock.
So long, Holly.
So, what Lime says here is really a fascinating idea. We talked about last week what separates literature from "literature" and it can be different things. Sometimes it's a stylistic device. Sometimes it's a concept. Like Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, if you know that novel. What makes that book so important - I mean there's several things that make that book important - but right off the bat, right at the beginning of the novel you have this question that is presented to us that Raskolnikov, the central character, asks. And Dostoyevsky gives us an answer to this question but the question really is still hanging out there. We still have this question now and it comes up and I mean it gets molded - this question and this issue gets molded and turned into all sorts of interesting, I don't know, television shows, films these days. And the idea is this - if you're a good person, if you have something important to give to the world, like, in this case if you're going to be a doctor and save lives but you can't do that because you're too poor. You're too poor to afford medical school, if you are in that situation is it okay to kill someone who's sort of useless and kind of mean and then to use their money to accomplish this great thing? You're going to help so many more people than this old woman who's close to death anyway, right? She's going to die soon anyway. And what's she contributing to the world? And if I bump her off and I use the money to fund my brilliant medical career, well you know, isn't that a fair tradeoff? So it's a fascinating idea that Dostoyevsky just sort of comes up with. And The Third Man has this amazing idea too - does horror, horrible circumstances, does that produce better art? Harry says very clearly "horrible times, Italy." Horrible situation. Everybody agrees. People are dying right and left. The people are repressed. The leaders are so corrupt. People are poisoning - it's just a terrible situation. But some amazing art. Whereas Switzerland, lots of peace but not so much art, or philosophy, or music, or literature. Just kind of "okay, we're very happy and we're very boring".
Now, there are different dimensions to this idea. Can we make it - is it personal for instance? What I mean is - must you be half mad to make art? Must you be depressed and must your life be miserable to really make great art? How many drunken suicidal artists or musicians or painters do we know from Mozart to Van Gogh to Sylvia Plath to Jack Kerouac? It just seems like that's an important component, perhaps, of personality in art. But this is another story entirely. And I was thinking about the Trump era and the impeachment process that's underway and how chaotic things are and how unhappy a lot of people are. And I don't know if there's so much that's been produced in the last three years. Is that connection going on? Is this negative point in American history, is it producing good art? It may take some time to recognize. You don't always recognize it when it's happening. I do know what some things that 9/11 and the Bush administration and the Iraq war produced. I mean, that was a turning point, it was a turning point in a lot of ways and it set up some interesting contrasts and some interesting conflicts that I think a lot of great artists of that period, that first twenty years - well, we're still in the first twenty years- but that first 10 or fifteen years of the 21st century did produce some fascinating art. I think it starts with a turning point in how we as human beings and we as Americans think. My parents grew up in the shadow of WWII and I grew up during the Cold War. And the thing that mattered most, and of course that period - those periods of course also produced, I mean post WWII we get The Third Man. But I really take a lot of pride in the fact that the 80s, growing up in the shadow of the Cold War produced some really fascinating - particularly music that captures the anxiety people were feeling in different ways. And not always, you know, not every song's about nuclear war, though there are some great songs about nuclear war but that idea of nuclear war sort of filters down into the culture and shows up in, I don't know, "Psycho Killer" by The Talking Heads. This anxiety, this fear then it's not about nuclear war but it sort of spreads out into other ways of being anxious. But anyway, so back to our - so I grew up in that period and in that period, from my grandparents from my parents from me, the idea of anyone collecting your information or spying on what you're doing, knowing what kind of phone calls you're making...When you go to the airport, you know, scanning you, running you through these scanners where someone can essentially see you naked so that they can tell if you're carrying a weapon. In the era that I grew up in and in the 80s and the 70s, no none would have allowed that. I mean people would have just risen up and just absolutely rejected these ideas. And again, part of it has to do with post-modernism. But it's also very tied to this post-9/11 thing. For me, for my parents, freedom and the right to privacy - these were fundamental rights, like more important than life. People had died not to preserve safety for America because really in WWII it wasn't really about safety. It was about freedom. And during the Cold War we were free and the Soviet Union wasn't. And we had freedoms and they didn't. And that was what was important. But 9/11 wasn't about freedom. 9/11 was about safety. And suddenly at that point all we wanted was safety.The whole point of terror is to make you afraid and it worked. We were afraid. And so when I would teach, you know, the last years that I was teaching we'd have these conversations with my students because I hadn't even, by that point, I had not gotten it but I was beginning to - they were universally - they absolutely approved of airport scanners. They thought it was a fantastic idea. And you know we're getting this right now with Edward Snowden who's you know what's his situation. Is Russia going to kick him out? That always brings the debate back up. I mean, to me and to a lot of people of my generation, I think, and certainly my parents generation, the notion that - he blew the whistle on the fact that we were being spied on. But the problem is the generation now, they don't care about being spied on. And part of it's post 9/11, the idea of safety, but part of it's all the technology that's fueled by spying like Facebook and Amazon algorithms that send you exactly the book you need. And if you're of this age, you don't really care if companies are spying on you because freedom isn't our biggest concern. Our biggest concerns are safety and convenience. And if we have those two things we'll give up a little freedom. And that's okay.
But out of all this we also came to question ourselves, in the early 21st century, post 9/11 because the question was what are we willing to do in the name of safety? How much freedom will we give up? And, again, at this point I think we're really pretty much giving it all up. We don't care. But at that moment it was still kind of new. Do we give up freedom - do we give up this fundamental right for safety? And, you know, okay so - and we sort of decided we're willing to give up our own. We certainly didn't seem to mind giving up other people's. So we create these black sites and we decide on using "modified torture" techniques or whatever you want to call it. I should say, I'm not endorsing or condemning this moment. That's a completely different show, a completely different conversation; you can email me and we'll have that conversation if you want. I'm not doing that. What I'm doing is I'm pointing out it was a serious shift in our thinking. It was a change in how we thought and when you have those moments of change art's going to have an interesting response to that. So we went to this place, and I guess it's sort of like the place Dostoyevsky went to in a way, you know, Raskolnikov what are we willing to trade? In his case, are we willing to become a murderer so that we can be a great doctor? And in our case for safety, what are we willing to trade? So we traded. But that worries us a little because we're not the true blue good guys anymore. There's a shift. And it kind of happened when the Cold War was over. I mean, for all those years, starting with WWII, post WWII - think about this, we loved Superman. I mean we could not get enough Superman. Why? Because Superman is all good. And we thought of ourselves as all good. And with the Nazis it was pretty easy. We're good, they're bad. Easy to figure out. Case closed. And Cold War, same thing, right? We were good, Soviets were bad, easy - we were free, they were not, you know, we wanted to spread freedom around the world, they wanted to take over the world and put us under a dictatorship. It's very simple to tell where the lines were; who's good, who's bad. So, Superman works great. But in Bush's white house, in that America, suddenly Superman lost his mojo. Superman didn't seem so great anymore because we weren't all that good anymore. It was okay, we were trying to accept that we weren't all good, but we weren't. And Superman kind of made us feel a little shallow. So, you know, who wants to watch that? And so who rises then? Well, Batman. And not the Michael Keaton Batman, the Val Kilmer Batman, the Christoper Nolan Dark Knight trilogy. And that is a whole other universe with a whole other Batman. And that Batman, I mean it was always there in Batman but Christopher Nolan brings that out in a more dramatic way. Batman will bend the rules to save the day. His motives and his methods are sometimes questionable and better than that, who do we really love in those movies? Because it's not Batman. Batman's really not the most important character in those movies, right? It's not Batman. The guy who gets us, the guy who grabbed us was the Joker. And Heath Ledger just molds that character and changes it for us and he makes him into the perfect post 9/11 villain. We sort of like, in a way, because he's sort of like us, right? He kicks ass and takes names and he isn't interested - he's not motivated by money. He's not a common thief. He's interested in chaos. And somehow these negative antiheroes start to grab us. And they start coming out of the woodwork in droves. I mean, you've got - well let's talk about Jack Bauer from 24. That - and that one comes from a whole other direction but 24 was a phenomenon because we wanted a hero who kind of reflected us, who didn't mind torturing a few bad guys if it helped people, who didn't mind bending a few civil liberties if it would save the President from assassination. But you get all these antihero characters from House to Dexter to, you know, ultimately Walter White. All of these people who we like because they are shady and part of that, again, part of that is this post 9/11 thing where we really identify with that struggle between doing good but sometimes doing bad if it will have a good outcome. It's an interesting question. And there were other statements around the time, Spielberg's Munich, for instance, is a great commentary on, you know, what is - if a crime is vicious enough, what is acceptable in terms of payback? How far can we go? American Idiot from Green Day was another sort of outgrowth of this in another direction having to do with, well again, freedom and your voice and what we're allowed to say and not say. But if you're going to talk about the par excellence for art in that period there really are only two words - Battlestar Galactica. And quite frankly, if you were able, and you can't obviously now, but if you had been able to see that series in it's context, as it was unfolding in the early days of the Bush administration, I think it's probably in the top two or three shows, television shows, ever made. Now, it doesn't have that context anymore. You can't watch it that way anymore. That moment's past. It doesn't move us in the way it did at that particular moment in history. And that's a whole other question, like, that maybe we should explore in another episode. How much does context count? How much do we miss by not really knowing and feeling and being in the times that Shakespeare's Macbeth was performed in? And if we could watch that play, somehow, in that moment and be in that moment, how much different, how much more amazing would that be? But Battlestar was something truly special. I mean, to be honest, I'm not sure if they knew what they were doing when it all began. I mean they're going back to the original series, it's a remake. And the series was a fascinating concept. That idea that Caprica and the other twelve planets, the other twelve colonies are destroyed in a sneak attack - I mean, did they mean that to suggest 9/11? I'm not sure. They certainly figured out the relationship pretty damn quick. In the first several episodes, already, just I mean like in the first episodes there are questions about who's in charge. Should the military be in charge? This is a military situation, right? Or, should the civilian government be in charge? Does an event like that, 9/11 or a sneak attack on your home planet, does that mean we just turn to martial law? Do we give up our freedom so easily and let ourselves just be locked down because that's what's going to make us safe. And if it's going to make us safe, we'll live in a kind of prison. But, you know, they ask questions - what have we lost if we do that? And then as the series goes on we run into countless questions of just what are we willing to do to survive? What are we willing to give up? What are we willing to give up about our humanity, for instance? Are we willing to torture? And what happens when we find out actually who the bad guys are and that they're way more like us than we thought. Or, what happens when we find out that some of them are us? And what do you do, I mean, that's the real question towards the end of that series, right? What do you do when this thing that you've hated and hated and hated and you turn it around and look at it and you see that, oh god, that's me? I'm that. And who's the bad guy now? And who is the good guy? And the madness and the desperation to survive. But then what do you do with survival if there's no hope? Right? How good is safety if there's no freedom? All these kinds of questions come up. And then, of course, the end of that series absolutely ruins what it was. I mean, it's fine...it was not, it was not satisfying. And of course the ins and outs of what was wrong with it are more than we can get into here. I will say, I put up a blog a month or two ago about finales if you want to go looking for it. It's somewhere on the Pop Culture Academy website. But let me just say, I don't think that the weakness of that finale should undo what the series was. And I'll say it again because I'm not sure - if you haven't seen it, you can't go back and appreciate it without context. I mean, can you - is it a good series? Yes, it will always be a brilliant series. But it's missing something if you go back and watch it now because it's just not in the same context that we were living in.
All right, so I think there have certainly been efforts to deal with the Trump administration or to capture the unease that we feel during the Trump administration. I mean obviously we can look at something like American Horror Story, for instance, and who did that season just after the election or within the year after the election and it was all about the election. But maybe that's too on the nose. Right? It's too much - it says too directly what's bothering it. I was struck recently in watching The Handmaid's Tale which, of course, that began - the early season of that hit just as the Me Too movement was getting started. And it still has terrific resonance with that moment. But I was struck this season in the scene where the Marthas are helping June prepare food packages for the children. I'm trying not to give too much away. In that moment it's just so obvious, right? It suddenly struck me, if you're trying to escape from persecution to another place, if you're trying to cross a border, someone has to make care packages for you. And in that moment I realized that they were saying something about immigration, about crossing borders. And it's not a one to one analogy, which maybe makes it better. Again, some things are too on the nose. The children at the end of the season are welcomed when they cross the border, instead of shut out. And so, it does kind of give you pause to think about the reasons why people choose to try and cross borders rather than simply seeing the situation through your own eyes, think about it in terms of what kind of persecution must someone be facing to make that trip? And if Canada doesn't want refugees, then it's sort of on them to overthrow Gilead, right? Because, again, it's not one to one, because it's not the kids get rejected in the way that immigrants today get rejected at our borders but there is something being said there. There's an analogy being drawn. But I can't really think of another work, movie or an album or a show that's digging as deep as Battlestar did with the Bush administration. And I don't know what that means. I mean, there's bound to be something post-modern about it. If you think about the political progression that has happened and I don't mean it in literal terms, again, I'm not interested in talking about politics. But think about it from the standpoint of being in the matrix. That whole post-modern idea that we've discussed - nothing's real, right? So it's not about talking about politics and who's got the power because there's no power. But we go from having an actor in the white house to then the first president that was so monitored that was so much in the matrix that he couldn't conduct an affair in secrecy. Right? I mean, lots of presidents have had affairs. We are in an age where you can't do that without being caught and he was the first president to live in that age where you were going to get caught. To now we've got this guy, and I mean, what does it mean to move from movie actor to television reality show star? And that's the shift we've undergone in a nutshell. That's postmodernism. So, why don't I just say this at the end of this week's show - what do you think is the artistic response to the last three years? Is there something out there that I am missing? Is someone making a statement that I haven't picked up on, somehow? Somehow I've missed it. I pay a lot of attention to pop culture. I don't get it all. And so I'm curious what you think. Is there something out there that does get it? And let me know what you think. Don't forget that there's the Pop Culture Academy Facebook page where you can give us feedback and let us know what you think. There is Twitter, Pop Culture Academy Twitter account, there's a playlist for the week and there's, you know, obviously on YouTube there's a section for comments. Let us know what you think and particularly on this issue - what do you think is the best art that has come out of the Trump administration?
Katie Adkins co-produces this podcast and manages Pop Culture Academy's social media presence including our website. Also, a special thanks to our east coast correspondent, Dr. J. Lundquist who contributes news items and story ideas and who generally keeps me on track.
You're listening to the Pop Culture Academy podcast with MK Adkins. And don't forget you can follow us on Twitter and FaceBook. You can find us on YouTube. And of course you can always visit us at www.popcultureacademy.com.
Greetings and salutations and welcome to another edition of the Pop Culture Academy where we do all things pop culture with just a bit of an academic slant. This is episode 5 of which I have titled "Why Michael McDonald Is So Damn Cool". Now, you know, it occurred to me actually just as I was sitting down to record that there are actually two very cool Michael McDonalds. There's the Michael McDonald that we're talking about today, the musical artist. But there's also the Michael McDonald who was a cast member on the old MadTV series. And also very damn cool but in a completely different way. We're going to focus on the musical artist today. So let's make sure we keep those two separate.
So, I've got a couple of concerns. One concern is that you might not know who Michael McDonald is, which would make me kind of sad I guess. But really, you know, I get it. I'm 48 years old. Michael McDonald's of another era. Not everyone's lived through the music that I have. I hope that we have some listeners who are younger than 48. And those of you that are my age, you know, not everyone's tried to go back and give themselves the musical education I have. I don't know why I needed to do that but, I do remember when I was a college freshman, the guys in the room next to mine would play this game of trying to be the first person to guess who the artist was playing on the local classic radio station. A song would come on, you know, who could figure it out first. It's a way of teaching yourself, it's a way of going back and picking up on the history of classic rock. And I sort of picked up on that game and I played it for several years and it became, I don't know, it became...here I am. So my other big concern is that a lot of you who do know who Michael McDonald is might be saying, "All right, why would I want to listen to an entire podcast episode on Michael McDonald?" Like, just for example, what's the last important thing Michael McDonald did? I think he did a couple of Motown albums, like a couple of cover albums of Motown tunes and I think that was 10 or 15 years ago. And they were good but, you know, is that the last thing that he did? Why are we talking about him?
All right, well so first off Michael McDonald is cool. Just like the title says. And the fact that you don't realize it, and you don't realize just how cool he is is reason enough to make this episode. Just so that we can make it absolutely clear, his coolness. But the truth is I've got other things in mind to talk about today too, things that sort of intersect with Michael McDonald, if you will. And, he's sort of an entry-way into talking about a few other things.
So, here's the thing. I go through phases, maybe you do as well, where I'll go back and listen to albums or bands that were important to me at one point in my life but that, for whatever reason, I haven't listened to lately in a serious way. And a couple of months ago I was just feeling The Doobie Brothers. I don't know why. My big Doobie Brothers phase was in my second or third year of college which, again, almost 30 years ago. You know, my Doobie Brothers knowledge isn't as deep as some, probably. Probably somebody out there listening knows them far better than I do. I do know their history. I've certainly worn out their greatest hits albums. I also even listened to a kind of an early 90s album they did called Brotherhood which was -- and they're still putting out albums occasionally, you know. They are very nostalgic and they're still touring. I saw them in the late 90s a couple of times but you know I just moved here from Rapid City and I know up at the Sturgis motorcycle festival that happens every year, the motorcycle rally, that they play almost every year. So I mean they are still very vital in that sense, again it's very nostalgic sort of tour but they're still out there doing their thing.
I don't know if I should admit this but The Doobie Brothers are one of those bands that I came to late and I came to through the singer rather than the band. Like, well I definitely shouldn't admit this - I listened to all my parents - this was an amazing thing I still have these actually - I listened to all my parents' old Beatles 45s. They had the 45 records when I was a kid. Because that's what they had, you know? They had those and they had "Wooly Bully" and they had "Downtown" and so that's what I would listen to. And I gotta admit, I'm ashamed to admit this but I had zero interest in those 45s. I had zero interest in The Beatles. Now, these 45s - this was the early stuff, The Beatles early stuff. That's one way that I - I don't know that that is really an excuse but it's one excuse. And I'm listening to them in the late 70s and the early 80s and I just had no ear for it. That's not what was going on at the time and I just didn't get it. And then in the early 80s I discovered, "discovered", Paul McCartney. Now him I liked. Right? I don't know anything about The Beatles but this McCartney guy, he's quite good. So, when I finally sorted it all out I realized that you're supposed to start with the band and then move to the solo career. But that's the way it happened for me. And that's what happened to me with Michael McDonald as well. I discovered him in high school and from there I started backing up and listening to The Doobies. And I'm not going to get into a long history of The Doobie Brothers or for that matter a long history of Michael McDonald. I don't want to turn this podcast into a sort of biography of the week. But if you know The Doobie Brothers you know they basically had two phases. The first was under Tom Johnston an amazing band leader. But at some point Johnston became ill and the band needed a new front man. And so they went searching and they found Michael McDonald who had been working with Steeley Dan. I mean that's a pretty good resume. And he came in, brought a very different, a new sound. A little more funk to the sound I guess you might say. Heavier keyboards. Maybe less guitar. So, that second phase lasted until the early 80s and then the whole thing kind of dissolved. And then at some point Tom Johnston came back and reformed the band and every once in awhile Michael McDonald shows up at a concert or two so that's that. And here's what I'll say, I really like Tom Johnston and the music, the sound that he pioneered with The Doobie Brothers. I like all of their early work. I like "China Grove". I like "Listen to the Music", all of that. "Long Train Running". And I think most - my sense of things is that most fans of The Doobie Brothers really prefer his era. They think of it as the sort of the more authentic version of The Doobie Brothers. But, you know, what can I say? I'm partial to McDonald. That's how I came to the band in the first place. And, you know, that's a whole interesting topic and worth a conversation that we don't have time for today but bands that switch lead singers somewhere in the middle of the band's career. The Doobie Brothers are a great example but AC/DC, Van Halen, Chicago to a certain extent though I don't know that anybody was ever really fronting that band. Then there's bands like Joy Division which loses it's lead singer and becomes a completely different band. They become New Order instead of Joy Division. Pink Floyd, another kind of example. Genesis, another example. But I had a different direction in mind for today and let's stick to the original plan.
All right, so let me go back to this story. So, I was back tracking a little a couple of months ago and listening to The Doobies in both eras. Because I really enjoy both. So I listened to the first greatest hits package and the second greatest hits package, you know, one's Johnston one's McDonald and I'm listening to both. So I'm out mowing the grass one afternoon and "What A Fool Believes" shuffled onto the mix. And I thought, you know as I'm out there mowing the yard I thought what he's doing here, lyrically, just the idea of what he is doing is so brilliant in its way. And I thought this guy deserves his own episode, you know. It's early. It's only the fifth podcast episode but this guy really deserves his own episode. So, let me set this whole thing up a little because there's a couple of larger points, like I said, I want to make by talking about Michael McDonald. And the first one is pretty basic but I do think it's worth talking about.
My PhD is in English and I taught an awful lot of straight up traditional literature classes over the years like surveys of American literature and classes on the contemporary novel and whatever. And inevitably when I'm teaching a literature class this one question comes up right from the beginning and it comes up over and over again and I try to deal with it at the beginning of the semester but that doesn't - it doesn't necessarily go away and the question is this - what exactly is literature? Now, that question can mean a lot of things. Usually the discussion isn't - I mean, usually the discussion is broader than literature. Usually it encompasses all of what we might call art. Music and literature and art; visual art. And the question is what makes something art? And I think what people usually mean, I mean this is the way I interpret the question, is that, you know, let's say art with a big a, Art. And what separates art from Art? And what separates literature from Literature? You've got to take your voice down a little bit. And actually that's a good question, you know, because if you're in school - I mean I remember being in high school and you don't really know. You don't really know, do you? Some teacher tells you Shakespeare's important or The Scarlet Letter's important or The Great Gatsby is important. And I think we've all had that experience of reading the book, or you know someone like me tells you Andy Warhol is the greatest artist of the twentieth century. And we've all had that experience of - I don't get it. I don't see why this guy, this woman, I don't see why this artist is so important. What's the big deal? Or maybe, maybe we're a little more assertive, right? I mean, I was always fairly passive. Whatever they told me I just sort of nodded and said okay. And I might have hated it. In fact I'm still not very fond of The Scarlet Letter even though I've read it multiple times and I see it's importance but I don't really like it. But they tell me it's important and I nod and I say okay. Because that's just my personality. But maybe you're a little more aggressive and you say, "Nope. I'm not having that. That's not art. That's boring and stupid and I'm not buying it." But whichever style you are, you go through school all those years and you just let them tell you this person or that person is important and you get out into the world and maybe you have some idea of whats what and maybe you don't because they never really have defined it. And so, you don't know. And you know I had this problem a lot because I study popular culture and a lot of my colleagues, like other english teachers, other english professors, english teachers of a certain sort let's just say, they had a hard time swallowing sometimes what I did. There's a certain sort of english teacher who will tell you Shakespeare is the be all, end all of literature and maybe we'll throw in some John Dunn and maybe some Milton, Paradise Lost, but that's as far forward as we're going to go. That's as new and exciting as we're going to go and I'm trying to argue that The Simpsons has literary value and that was a hard pill for that sort of teacher to swallow. And sometimes they - often they just wouldn't. No, that's no, that's of no importance. It's a cartoon, right? It's of no importance. It didn't matter how I phrased it, how I put it, how I tried to explain it they just weren't taking that. So if you study popular culture then it gets really confusing because there's no historical sort of sense of who is important. Who has stood the test of time. Who's going to last. And so it gets really confusing to talk about what's important and what's not. And then that just throws the whole system out of whack. Is an episode of The Kardashians art or literature? I say again, with a big A big L. Are The Kardashians - is an episode of The Kardashians Art? Or, how about an episode of Game of Thrones? How about The Bachelorette? All right, so let me confess something up front that your teachers will not tell you. If you think there's one answer and that all your english professors, all your high school english teachers have this one answer of what literature is, well no. We don't. I mean most of the time we stand up there and profess that we do or we read a definition out of a book and say "This is the definition." But we don't have a definition. There are literally hundreds of directions out there, hundreds of different definitions of what literature is. Everybody's got their own. Some people will tell you. And I don't know that I completely disagree with this idea, that really classifying and categorizing things as art or literature is actually elite, very elitist. You know, doing that sort of activity is a way of saying - it's just kind of a way of being able to say "I know more than you. I know what's important. And if you think The Kardashians is an important show, well you're just ignorant. If you think The Simpsons is important, well, you know, you're just uneducated." Or whatever. And actually people who say this notion that categorizing is elitist, that's a completely legitimate way to look at the whole thing. And, like I said, part of me totally accepts it. Accepts that idea. If you like something and you find value in it, then it's important. Period. And you shouldn't let anyone tell you differently. No matter what degrees they may have. And make no mistake, there are all sorts of snobs, and particularly in academia and sort of the intellectual circles. There are all sorts of elites and snobs. They don't have to be professors. You know someone - the guy that's cooler than everyone else. The guy that only listens to deep deep underground music. Artists that people just have never heard of, and they'll tell you straight up that The Doobie Brothers is just commercial crap. And you know, maybe you love Elvis. Not like hip young Elvis but like Las Vegas, way past his prime, Elvis. Or maybe you like Barbara Streisand or Barry Manilow or Clay Aiken or whoever it is. There's always going to be someone over your shoulder that says, "Oh, that's not art. You're an idiot for liking that. How could you possibly like that?" Elitism is just, I don't know, maybe it's part of human nature. And it doesn't have to be a professor. It can just be that guy you know who thinks he knows everything about music there is to know. So I did have an answer for that question though. I sort of made it up one semester but I got really attached to it over the years and so I'll give you that answer. And here's - this is my answer to the question of what separates Art and art. I did that backwards. What separates art and Art? And my answer is - does the artist or the work do something original? Something - and I don't mean they like shatter the world necessarily but do they do something that makes you see the world in a completely new way? Now, again, that sounds like a hard standard to live up to. Did you change art forever? That's not exactly what I'm saying. I mean, maybe that standard is hard, but if you look at most artists who people label important or great or if you look at artworks that stood the test of time and are still seen as classics, they usually have that quality in one way or another. They give you an idea or a feeling that you just hadn't encountered before.
So, let me give you my favorite example. And of course at this point you tuned in to talk about popular culture and hearing that it was going to be about Michael McDonald was already a disappointment and now I'm really off track because you know, where's the pop culture? But I promise you it's in here somewhere and I will make the connection. I promise. But let's talk about poetry. Oh my god, he's going into poetry. So one of my favorite poets is a guy named William Carlos Williams. I wouldn't call him a poetry superstar by any means but he's an important enough guy, right in the early 20th century. Was a doctor. Wrote poems in his spare time. So, all right, Williams wrote several great poems and the one that - if you've encountered him in an english class before you might remember - the one that usually comes up is "The Red Wheelbarrow". "So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, glazed with rain water beside the white chickens." Right? That's the whole poem. But my favorite is a poem called "This Is Just To Say", also fairly short. And here's how it goes, "I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast. Forgive me. They were delicious. So sweet. And so cold." Now, if you write that out on a sheet of paper, just as like a sentence, a couple sentences, it looks like something your college roommate left in a note on the fridge. Let me read it again just so you can get that sort of post-it note feeling: "I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast. Forgive me, they were delicious. So sweet and so cold." And my students would say, and maybe you would say, that - and they're not wrong - this seems pretty basic. Pretty simple. Not like something you'd call art. All right but stop and think about the poem just for a minute. What's it saying? So literally it says I have eaten your plums, sorry. But that's not quite right, is it? It isn't just that I ate your plums, sorry. There are some other things in there that sort of complicate that basic idea. First of all, why does he have to say "which you were probably saving for breakfast'? I mean, that seems sort of like a dick move, right? Oh, those plums, the special ones you were saving for breakfast? Yeah, I ate those. And then there's the last sentence - "Forgive me. They were delicious, so sweet and so cold". Wait, what? And the first thing my students say is - when I point it out these extra little tidbits in the poem - they'll say "Oh, you know, he's just really descriptive because he's a poet and that's how they talk." But that's not true. Don't do that. Read it the way it's written and imagine your response if someone said that to you. It might be easy to say the roommate's a jerk. The roommate's just a jerk. But he's not quite - he's not just saying "Oh yeah man, those plums you were saving so special? Man those were awesome. Too bad for you." All right so let me read it one more time, just to kind of to think about it once more. I know it feels so much like literature class, doesn't it? "I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast. Forgive me. They were delicious, so sweet and so cold."
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
So, there's an apology in there. But it's kind of a weird apology. Like, I shouldn't have done this and I really am sorry but at the same time they were just so damn good. We've all been in that position, I think. Where we're sorry for something but not sorry. But if you think about it, that's a really complicated emotion to feel. I'm sorry for something but I'm not really sorry. I'm sorry and yet I enjoyed it. And it's a complicated emotion and it's even more complicated to describe. And somehow in just a few words Williams manages to pull that complicated emotion off. And I would say that's Literature, with a big L. He's captured a feeling that no one else had captured. And that most of us, I mean I would have said, you know, if you just told me I'm going to try to capture this feeling of sorry but not sorry, I'd of said you couldn't do it. But he finds a way.
So one of my points in this episode is just to sort of say that here's what marks important works (literature, art), here's what separates those from less important works. Again, I think - I don't want to get too far into saying some are good and some are bad but if you're going to do that, this is one way to do it.
But then what I want to do is use that argument, here's what I think literature is, to make a bigger argument. That there are lots of really important moments out there in pop culture. In rock music, for example, which is what we're talking about today, there are lots of artists who are doing or who have done some amazing things. Who've invented themes that weren't out there before or captured feelings that just hadn't been captured before. Or, and Michael McDonald's one of those guys. And I think that makes him worth talking about. Now, certainly he's not the only guy out there - the only artist out there worth talking about in this way. There's tons of great stuff that's been produced in the last fifty or sixty years since we entered what I'd call sort of the age of pop culture. But every once in awhile I listen to Michael McDonald and he just kind of floors me. I'm always so astonished and it's like the same two or three songs, you know. I don't - it's like William Carlos Williams - I don't think Michael McDonald is a major artist on the level with, I don't know, Andy Warhol or The Beatles or Bob Dylan. I mean, I like his sound and he's fine as far as he goes but then there are just those two or three songs that always just floor me.
So let me start with the one that gets me every time. And I just can't think of another song that gets me in the way that this one does. Not quite in the way that this song does. It's unique for me. And it's a Doobie Brothers song, "What A Fool Believes" which is, again, it's a Michael McDonald tune. At some point in their career with Michael McDonald The Doobie Brothers were essentially just a backing band for him. And I think this is one of those kinds of songs. So it's really a Michael McDonald tune. All right, so let me say a couple of things first because there are other little gems that festoon Michael McDonald beyond just this one song. You know how I said last week that The Cars were in the dictionary under new wave band? Like, they are the definition of new wave band? Well Michael McDonald is in the dictionary under whiskey tenor. There's nobody, nobody that has a voice quite like his. And he found something special as a keyboard player that I don't really hear in anyone else except there's kind of a similarity to Stevie Wonder, though they're not really the same. It's some sort of syncopation, beats on the offbeat. But not like one or two beats on the - like he keeps the whole beat with chords on the offbeat. And I'll probably get in trouble for playing this but I can't say that without giving an example. So, let me just throw this example out here. <music example>
All right, so that's from The Doobie Brothers' song "You Belong To Me" but you can hear the same thing in other songs like "Minute by Minute", for example. And I'll add this - I think, this is going to sound really, you know, is this really important but I kind of feel like it is, I think he did something special in the 70s and 80s with the word "fool". And he uses it a lot. Like it becomes this sort of go-to word for him. And it means what fool means; I mean if you look up the definition it means what fool means but it means something slightly different too, in his music. In a way that I don't know how I can completely explain. If I had more time to focus on this I would but the word fool is somehow wrapped up in one of his major themes which is this sort of desperation as a lover. The lover that will do anything for you and who you'll probably walk away from anyway but he would give you anything. And for that reason he is a fool. And it's got all sorts of meanings that go into that. But, so anyway I think that's pretty cool.
So there's a lot worth talking about. But it's the story and the emotion that comes with the story, that's what gets me every time. And I mean every time, no matter how many times I listen to it, I can listen to it two or three times in a row, it still just gets me every time. All right, so here are the lyrics to "What A Fool Believes": He came from somewhere back in her long ago, the sentimental fool don't see, trying hard to recreate what had yet to be created. Once in her life she musters a smile, for his nostalgic tale. Never coming near what he wanted to say. Only to realize it never really was. She has a place in his life. He never made her think twice. As he rises to her apology, anybody else would surely know he's watching her go.
So, so here's the story. Guy runs into girl he knew in high school. I mean, it doesn't say high school but that he knew before, knew whenever. And he was so in love with her, right? She, as the song said, she had a place in his life. And as soon as he sees her he's sentimental, thinking back on that time. And so he tries to say something vaguely romantic to take her back to that time too but here's the thing, the song also says "he never made her think twice". So, she manages to rise to the occasion, she gives him a little smile, you know, she's indulgent of his nostalgia. But in that moment when she does that he realizes his mistake. That all this time it was just him that had a crush on her. And I don't know if you know that feeling but I know, I know exactly what he's talking about. Just precisely. I've been there. You know, there were those girls in high school that I idolized in some way but that I, and I fancied to myself that we were. You know, we weren't - I wasn't a stalker. I didn't think we were romantically involved but I fancied to myself that we were friends. And that maybe if I had made the effort we could have been involved. But that's not true. Right? That's a nostalgic fantasy. But whether you've been there or not, here's the thing. Who imagines that scene? If you're, think about pop music that you know and what kinds of scenes you're given.Who imagines that scene? Who captures that precise moment as the subject of a pop song? Most songs are like, right, I love you and you don't love me. Or, you love me and I don't love you. Or, you're gone and boy do I miss you. This is so much more complex than that. The emotion that we're trying to get at here is so much more subtle and so much harder to capture. And yet he totally pulls it off. And this is the best example, but it's not the only time that he does that. There's something in the song "Minute By Minute" where it's a relationship that has gone bad but they're trying to hold onto it minute by minute. But there's a lot of their past that helps them hold on to it but you can't hold onto the past, minute by minute. That's a contradiction in terms. There's some very complicated emotions.
In "You Belong To Me" is another relationship that seems to be going south. The woman has begun sort of dressing provocatively, dressing sensually, sexually so that men will notice her. And the speaker says, "You don't have to do that. I notice you." It's some complicated adult emotions. It's not just a typical teeny bopper love song. And in both these songs and "What A Fool Believes", the speaker Michael McDonald, I guess you'd say, he's the loser. He's the fool. Right? And he plays that part. Only he's not exactly the loser. Because Sting does this thing and maybe we'll talk about him one of these days, he does this thing where he's lost around women. Just utter - the character that he plays is just completely lost. And in song after song after song he writes about this guy who just can't, just can't get it together. And that's not what this is. This guy's sophisticated. In McDonald's songs. He's like smooth 70s sophisticated. But he's just a touch out of his league.
In fact it reminds me of that Lionel Richie song, the one with The Commodores, "Sail On". Another of my all-time favorite songs. You know, I'm pretty damn cool but you know she's still just too much for me. And I find that theme in a world where the go-to pose is "look how cool I am", to be able to say, I am cool but I'm just not up to your level. And the subtle way that McDonald captures it, I don't know. I'd call that Literature. And you know my point here, and I deliberately didn't give you someone like Bob Dylan, you know someone who - Bob Dylan won a Nobel prize for literature, though that's a discussion we ought to - so many of my colleagues so unhappy with that decision. But that's a different - that's another different episode. But I didn't give you Bob Dylan. I didn't give you The Beatles. Or even The Police or Peter Gabriel or Tupac or whoever. It's just Michael McDonald. Right? The guy that you may not even remember. And a couple of songs that he did with The Doobie Brothers.
But first off, you know, my point - one of my points is maybe we should be paying more attention to Michael McDonald. Maybe he's cool enough that he deserves a little more love than he typically gets. But beyond that, the point is even if this guy, this guy that you don't listen to anymore and that not many people really even remember much anymore, even that guy has this amazing literary quality in his music. And if that guy has it, that should tell you just how much is going on in pop culture. It is worth talking about in a deeper perspective. I mean and from both sides of the equation. Right? If you're a casual listener and you tend to just let the music wash over you and you don't think about what's being said or you don't think about how it's being said or how the music's being presented to you, if you're that person, I think it's important to sort of revise your thinking. To think about it in what we call, a slightly academic way. To think about the depth that's going on there and not just let it wash over you. Because there are some amazing themes and ideas and feelings and emotions that are being sort of put together in these songs. But then from the opposite perspective if you're one of those sort of literary elites or academic elites who think that pop culture is beneath notice, well, you know, I also have a message for you. That's just not true. There are some incredibly deep things going on in popular culture and that makes it worth talking about.
Katie Adkins co-produces this podcast and manages Pop Culture Academy's social media presence including our website. Also a special thanks to our east coast correspondent, Dr. J. Lundquist who contributes news items and story ideas and generally keeps me on track. And remember, you can turn on your TV, you can turn on your radio, turn on your PS4, your Xbox but that doesn't mean you should turn off your brain.
Don't have the time to listen to our podcast this week? Check out the transcript from each of our podcasts here.