Don't have time to listen to our podcasts? Don't worry. Read our "podscripts" here.
You are listening to the Pop Culture Academy. And if you want to get more thoughtful insight on all things pop culture, don't forget to follow us on Twitter and YouTube and check out our webpage at popcultureacademy.com.
Greetings and salutations and welcome to season 2, episode 14 of the Pop Culture Academy where we do all things pop culture with just a bit of an academic slant. I'm your host, MK Adkins. What has been going on since last we spoke? Quite a lot actually. Um, of course Emmy nominations have come out this week and I'll be honest that I'm taping this show - I tape a couple of days before we put the show out - I haven't had a chance to really sit down and dig into the nominations. But, you know, everybody's saying this should be an interesting year. Some of the heavyweights have been thinned out, most particularly of course, Game of Thrones. No contender this year. Veep, gone. And that obviously that makes room for new voices for us to hear from new shows, to think about new shows. I think it's more evidence of what I keep talking about, that kind of fragmented culture. I mean there are so many great shows out there. I couldn't even begin to just start listing, more great shows right now than we've ever had before.
Are there any true, I don't know, what they used to call water cooler shows? Shows that you had to talk about the next day. And that frankly everybody was watching. What are the shows that everybody's watching? You know, what are the Twin Peaks or The X-Files or The Sopranos, or whatever, the Game of Thrones? What are those shows? I don't know if there's one out there. Maybe Killing Eve is - I mean certainly it was. Season 1 kind of had that buzz about it. Last year's Flea Bag. You know, I don't know if it had that kind of buzz going in but certainly, certainly after some nominations it comes out and people know that show. I don't know though. I don't know, you know, will we ever have a show like that again that everyone must watch. I mean the way things are going with all of these different streaming services, will we ever have a show that everybody CAN watch? You know what I mean? I mean, everybody could watch that MASH finale. Everybody. And so everybody did. It's not quite the same anymore.
Of course we lost Olivia de Havilland this week. Um, just an - I mean, she's 104. Very long and very graceful life. But it really is the end of an era, the last of the golden age. I mean, and the really golden age. For my money, my favorite film of hers will always be The Adventures of Robin Hood. My brother and I used to watch that when we were kids, every time it would come on we'd have to sit down and watch that movie. And she's acting with Errol Flynn. Think about that. She's acting with Errol Flynn and she just passed away. It's an amazing, amazing thing.
Peter Green passed away this last weekend as well. One of the original founders, and the guitarist and singer of Fleetwood Mac. I mean the heart, really, the heart and soul of Fleetwood Mac in the beginning. Obviously that band became a lot of other things over time. I mean, I don't know that that band is through evolving in some ways. I was watching interviews with Lindsey Buckingham this week from a couple years ago about being kicked out of the band. And what does that mean? But leaving all that aside, Peter Green was just this genius blues musician. Like so many British musicians of the time, really attracted to American blues, particularly had a soft spot - the same way Eric Clapton did - for Robert Johnson, a great Mississippi blues man. We need to do a show on Robert Johnson one of these days because I don't know if enough people remember the importance of Robert Johnson. I mean for awhile he was everywhere. Clapton really publicized him but anyway, Peter Green, like Clapton, did a lot of Robert Johnson's old numbers plus some amazing work of his own. And really the most amazing thing perhaps is that just as Fleetwood Mac was beginning to catch a little steam, you know, walked away from it. Decided that he wanted to do something else. Very similar story to Syd Barrett in a lot of ways. Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd's original guitarist and founder. Peter Green, the same kind of influence on Fleetwood Mac though I think the story in this case ends a lot more happily than of course Syd Barrett's story. Syd Barrett's a guy that we really should do a whole show on at some point.
Um, of course Regis Philbin also passed away over the weekend. And there's a guy that just, he just was television. You know? And that's an interesting thing and maybe we'll get into that in this episode - you know, not an actor. Not even really what you might call a celebrity, like a Paris Hilton or a Kardashian, but just someone who was there on our television. And I'm not knocking that. I think that's incredibly comforting. And it was a connection to some of those old days of tv when that's kind of what tv was. It wasn't this sort of amazing art form that it is now. But it was always comforting, soothing, friendly. It was something to have on in the background but something to make you feel good because it was on in the background. And Philbin kind of connected us to that. And so, again, it's one of those generation-spanning losses I think that we suffered over the weekend.
Really that takes us back into the topic that we got into last week. You know, the real question that we were sort of exploring and I think it's worth exploring in another episode here is in the age of pop culture, who really are the authors? Who are the artists or, is there even - you know, I was raising this question last time - is there even such a thing as an artist in the pop culture age? Philbin wasn't an artist, right? He was a personality or presence but he didn't run things. Even when he was the main attraction and maybe when you are the main attraction you have some clout and some sway in what goes on but you're still not running things. Regis Philbin never ran things. Who is, exactly, running things?
Last time we focused on music and I realized once I had that show in the tank I didn't even get into Milli Vanilli, right? Here is the height - all this stuff happens in the 80s really where you began to get music that is produced and it's not about the artist, in some cases not about the artist at all anymore. I may have said this last time - Frankie Goes to Hollywood - not an artist. No real artist behind that. That's a creation of the production studio. The Art of Noise is another I want to say group; it's not a group. Just a thing, an entity, a music production. And not an artist. And all of that kind of reaches its height with Milli Vanilli because here is a group who are absolutely, completely manufactured. They are not the artists that we think they are. But that sort of raises the question of whether any of them ever were. I mean, it was really interesting. I don't know if you date yourself back that far but when the whole Milli Vanilli thing happened, Sting said he was giving back is Grammys. He was so incensed by what was happening to Milli Vanilli - now, of course, Sting's manager Miles Copeland very quickly stepped in and said "no, no no, he didn't really mean that." But, you know, Sting's point - and I think it was a legitimate one - is how many artists out there, how many musical artists are maybe not Milli Vanilli but as much as, right? Their voices are doctored in the studio. Their songs are written by someone else. They are produced in the studio. They're not an artist. And I'm not pointing any fingers. But there were people out there like that. And Milli Vanilli was just sort of the extreme version of that and got caught. But it's still back to that question - who are the artists? And that was music - we talked last week a lot about music. I kind of want to get into other things this week.
Tv has always been that way in terms of not having an artist or an author. I mean, maybe back in the old days there were personalities who ran things. I'm thinking about Lucy and Desi and you know, they invent DesiLu Studios. And they have some power and influence on Hollywood and some control. And maybe you could say I Love Lucy was authored by them, in a way. Jackie Gleason may have had that kind of power, that kind of control with something like The Honeymooners. Milton Berle, maybe, again. I don't know. These are shows, despite what you may think, these are shows well before my time and so I don't know but my impression is that maybe those shows, those actors were the authors. Maybe even Andy Griffith. He certainly had that kind of charisma and - I mean that was his show. It had his name on it.
Let's take another show. I was looking today - certain people call this the silver age of television, right? The age that is sandwiched in between the brilliant early shows like I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show and the brilliant later shows like The X-Files and Sopranos and Game of Thrones. Is this silver age where there are The Love Boats and the - I mean there's - not to knock that period. Things like Mary Tyler Moore, The Bob Newhart Show, there's some brilliant television being made then. But it was a different age. But one of my favorite shows, The Rockford Files. It certainly seemed like to people who watched that show that that was James Garner's show. We thought of that as James Garner's show. James Garner didn't write that or direct it or produce it. Right? He was a pretty good actor. Made that character, perhaps. If you want to go that far and say he was such an amazing actor that he really shaped and invented that character. But okay. Was he the artist or the author of that show?
You know...now film, film actually - this is very interesting because film has been treated more seriously than television for a much longer time. Television has begun to be treated seriously but film studies departments have been in prestigious universities for decades. And I think because they have been working at it so long. Early on they really needed something. They needed an author to hang it all on, I think maybe almost as a competition for literature right? Film studies is very much in competition in those days with literature departments and literature departments - there are still literature departments out there who look down their noses at film studies. And film studies is trying to compete, they are trying to seem like they are valid. Trying to seem like they are worthwhile. And so, they need an author because literature has the authors. The poets and the novelists and, you know, the revered figures. They have the Shakespeares. They have the Hemmingways and the Faulkners. And film, you know, film needed that. And so you get this term that gets invented, you know, in the 50s, the 60s, the term is auteur. Andre Bazin, the french theorist, early important film theorist, comes up with the idea that a film's director - some film's directors - are so influential on the films that really they should be thought of as the author. And he called them the auteurs. The people who really stand out, probably the most obvious example would be Alfred Hitchcock. And if you go back further than that you can talk about Charlie Chaplin. You could talk about Buster Keaton. Obviously people since then, Truffaut, Spielberg, Tarantino, definitely what you would call an auteur; seemed to control everything about the film. And that kind of became, after the 60s, the way of seeing all film really. So that today when we think about a film and you know, we're trying to think about who is responsible for that film, we really - I mean in some cases you talk about the actors but you really think about the director. Who directed that? Right? Film from the director of so and so. That's how we think about it. The director is the author. The director is the person who makes things - brings things together. And so we give them that credit.
Now, if we're talking about television, I mean, there are those rare shows - and maybe this is more common in England - that are sort of written and controlled by someone. Obviously Ricky Gervais has done this. I mean, The Office really belonged to him. And so have a lot of the shows that he's done. The Afterlife which is on now, really incredible series. Sad series. You know, you have to be ready for some sadness. But that's clearly Ricky Gervais's show. He writes it. He directs it. He acts in it. He puts that together. And I'm thinking, you know in America the only comparable thing I can think of is maybe Louis which was put out by Louis C.K. and was such a brilliant series. We won't get into Louis C.K's more recent troubles but that series was brilliant. And it was a series that really was down to him. It was written, directed, produced - he, that was his baby. Now, you know, in Britain a lot of times the shows are actually - it is the writer who is given credit for the show, right? This is the person who - whoever wrote this, it's their show. It's their baby and we give them the credit. That doesn't happen in America and we don't do it with directors. We don't say that the director of a television show is the auteur. We definitely don't. I mean there are a lot of great directors and I challenge you, if you really want to - if you really like television, one of the things I would challenge you to do is pay attention when they flash those director's names across the screen. You'll be surprised at some of the names that will pop up. Andrew McCarthy, for instance, of the brat pack, one of my favorite, favorite actors, has done so much television directing. Like, lots of Orange is the New Blacks. And yet those people aren't the ones who are given credit for those shows. Partly because, at least in America, it's very rare for a television director to direct more than an episode or two in a season. That duty, direction, gets passed around and around and around.
I mean this problem of authorship is actually a serious problem for the academic community. Like a lot of my friends, I mean, the academic community - the academic community has a lot of issues and pop culture in particular has really done a number on academia in several ways over the last couple of decades. But just think about citations. Right? You remember writing papers in freshman comp class and you know, you had to do a research paper and you have to cite and you have to cite the author. You have to say, you know, who am I writing about? Am I writing about Shakespeare? Am I writing about Faulkner? And so, these days - let's say that you want to write a serious academic book about movies. I wrote a serious book once about television. How do you cite Game of Thrones in the back I mean? The bibliography. Who's the author? Whose name do you use? And the experts, they actually don't quite know what to do with it. They sort of shrug their shoulders and say, it depends. If you're writing about the film Philadelphia, maybe you list Tom Hanks as the first name, as almost the author. I mean he won the Oscar, right? If you're doing a Tarantino film obviously you start with Tarantino's name.
But even if you take something like a Tarantino film or a Cohen brothers film or Chris Nolan - Chris Nolan, very good example. Very important director. And his personality is stamped all over his films. But if you go back to The Dark Knight, to Batman, Chris Nolan doesn't give us Heath Ledger as the joker. Heath Ledger, that is a performance unto itself. And you could say Chris Nolan was a great director and maybe he helped to summon that performance out of Heath Ledger but that is all about Heath Ledger. So is Heath Ledger the author of that film? Or do you give credit for that film to Chris Nolan?
I mean and I get it, I know that the simple answer is it's a collaboration. And I guess my point in all of this is that maybe that's true of all pop culture. Maybe there is no such thing as an author anymore. Maybe everything is a collaboration. But that really, again, it seems like a simple thing to say - well you just give credit to everybody. But it's not so simple. It's not so simple, particularly for our society. I'll get into that in a minute but you know there's that great movie Wag the Dog, right? Do you know Wag the Dog with Dustin Hoffman? Where that character basically invents a war for the U.S. government to sort of help the government out of a fix he invents publicity, pr, invents a war using sort of his Hollywood skills. And Hoffman's character is a producer. He's the one, and he says this, he's the one who gets things done. Who puts everything together. Who makes sure everything is done right. And he reminds us at the end of that film, and you know ultimately he gets - spoiler alert, ultimately is killed for this. He reminds us that there are no producing oscars. Even though the producer, at least in his eyes, is doing it all. There have been some instances where I suppose directors, you might sort of give it to the director. Twin Peaks I think certainly belonged to David Lynch. That was his baby. The X-Files was definitely Chris Carter's, though he was not often a director. He wrote a lot of episodes. He produced the show. He was the creator. He ran that show. But he didn't direct.
Carter's protege Vince Gilligan gave us Breaking Bad, another show that's definitely controlled. Gilligan was the main force behind that, although again, you know, you have to think about the acting that went into that show. That was so much a part of it. And about 20 years or so ago they came up with this term, the "showrunner". And that's kind of the person who gets, at least in Hollywood circles, that's the person who gets the credit these days. And that person may or may not be a known entity for the public. And it's usually a producer. Sometimes it's a writer. But that's a pretty good way of thinking about who is running these shows.
But I mean here is the interesting question that all of this brings up - has there ever been an author or is that a kind of fantasy? And I'm talking about, even for the literature departments, right? Go back in literature for instance, think about Homer. Homer didn't write The Iliad or The Odyssey. Homer was a guy, a singer in Greece. But this was all traditional music, traditional stories that had been honed over maybe hundreds of years. And Homer's just the guy who happened to be associated with it at the moment it caught on, the moment when it got recorded so to speak. Then you jump forward a couple of thousand years to someone we know better, Shakespeare. Maybe nobody is more revered as an "author" than Shakespeare. But we have nothing other than a handful of signatures, I think maybe 4 signatures, we have nothing in Shakespeare's hand. Nothing. Meaning, we don't have plays in his handwriting that show us that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Which is one of the reasons why you get these brilliant conspiracy theories popping up all the time throughout history. Because, you know, there isn't - there's no smoking gun, so to speak, connecting Shakespeare to Shakespeare. But even if you leave that aside, even if you say okay, you know Shakespeare was Shakespeare, we know that his plays - the ones that were published were written down after the fact, mostly from memory. They weren't written, we don't have a script of any of Shakespeare's plays. We don't have anything like that. We have- someone after the fact sat down (sometimes it was a cast member, sometimes it was just somebody in the audience who went to these plays and sort of took notes) and that person would sit down and write the play up and get it published. And that was publication. And you call it Shakespeares. But how much did that person who wrote it down influence the play?
Talk about Shakespeare from another angle. Those plays were very much the product of dramatic companies, a group of players. And you had someone who you called the writer but those plays were absolutely honed and changed and altered and made into what they were by the company as a whole. Right? It wasn't one writer who said, "you've got to say this" and everybody just fell into line. It just didn't work that way. And then even if you throw all of that aside, there's the fact that so much of Shakespeare is simply plots that he stole from other people, from historical references. Romeo and Juliet wasn't - he didn't invent that story. He took that story and made it into something incredibly special. And don't get me wrong, I am not knocking Shakespeare. Don't walk away from this podcast thinking that. But there's a lot more collaboration going on than you might think.
The fantasy of the author, though, this idea that we must give credit to one person. That's a very interesting idea. Didn't really get going until the novel was invented. The novelist was supposed to be this solitary figure scribbling away.
The same time as the novel is being invented we have the romantic poets. You know the early 1800, late 1700s - Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron. Byron basically invented the idea of the tortured artist, the poet. Wandering alone across a desolate wasteland. And that became what we thought of as art. That became the template for what art was. The product of a single person. That became the dominant idea. The single person as a genius. And that idea grows and grows and actually it comes to take over all of society so that in America...I mean around the same time all of this is happening with the invention of the novel, the beginning of Romanticism, in America you've got the Neo-Classical period. You've got Benjamin Franklin and those guys roaming around and talking about the self-made man, which - whole other episode. But it's an invention, the self-made man. But it's the same kind of concept. It's one man who is a genius and who makes himself into this towering figure. That idea is so pervasive even now. Right? The idea that if you make billions and billions of dollars a year as a CEO, it's because you're some kind of special genius. And that's all a fantasy that gets invented in art so that we can tie the work to a single person.
To some extent that is connected to the idea of the book and specifically to the idea of the novel is that idea begins to become less important. The book, right? Sad to say in some ways, but if you look at the statistics, people are reading fewer and fewer and fewer books every year. The book used to - I mean when I was a kid the book held sway over all of us. The book was the most powerful form of knowledge. And that's just not true anymore. And as the book's power has faded, some of the associations with the book have also faded and so as - you know, if the book was all about - the book was several things. The book was about linear, one page at a time. We don't think that way anymore. We think in terms of a web, right? The world wide web, the internet. We don't think in terms of one thing happens and the next thing and the next thing. We look at a series - I'm getting very esoteric - you look at a series like Orange is the New Black where, you know, all the episodes - you start the episode but then you go way back in time. That's not the way books are supposed to work. Books were supposed to move forward at a steady pace.
So as pop culture comes about we start to lose the idea of the author and the artist because we don't have an author and an artist in these pop culture things. So, Roland Barthes. You gotta mention this guy. Another important French theorist and especially important to popular culture. One of Barthes very best essays is on "The Art of the Striptease". Anyway, Barthes, in 1967 Barthes write an essay called "The Death of the Author". And part of that is how are things changing but part of it is just this question about - has this always been a fantasy all along? This idea of the author? So, a little bit from the opening of Barthes's essay, Barthes writes "In this story...". He's talking about Balzac, the famous French novelist,
In his story Sarrasine, Balzac, speaking of a castrato disguised as a woman, writes this sentence: “It was Woman, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive fears, her unprovoked bravado, her daring and her delicious delicacy of feeling” Who is speaking in this way? Is it the story’s hero, concerned to ignore the castrato concealed beneath the woman? Is it the man Balzac, endowed by his personal experience with a philosophy of Woman? Is it the author Balzac, professing certain “literary” ideas of femininity? Is it universal wisdom? or romantic psychology? It will always be impossible to know, for the good reason that all writing is itself this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.
And then Barthes says, "Who is speaking in this way?" Who's that sentence supposed to be? Is it the story's hero, concerned to ignore the castrado concealed beneath the woman. Is it the man Balzac, endowed by his personal experience with a philosophy of women? Is it the author, Balzac, professing certain literary ideas of femininity? Is it universal wisdom, that is - is it the culture that is saying this about women? Is it romantic psychology? It will always be impossible to know", Barthes says. "For the good reason that all writing is itself this special voice consisting of several" - this is key - "several indiscernible voices. And that literature is precisely the invention of this voice to which we cannot assign a specific origin. Literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost beginning with the very identity of the body that writes."
There is no author. Right? When you read a novel, what you're reading, the voice that is telling that story is just beyond the authors, beyond the authors control. It's become something else, which again is a whole different subject that we gotta get into.
But all right, so let's take two incredibly influential artists. Let's go back to Shakespeare and The Beatles. In both cases you've got artists whose work literally changes the direction of things. I mean, there are other people who are writing at the time, right? We could talk about The Rolling Stones, we could talk about Elvis, we could talk about Little Richard, we could talk about Chuck Barry. We could talk about all of these artists. But these people are sort of the crystalizing moment when everything literally changes. And we think about these people - Shakespeare, The Beatles - as earth-moving, earth-shattering figures. But we've already talked about - it's not the work of any one person. And, you know, that's clear in the case of The Beatles. You've got 4 guys. You've got George Martin who is producing them. But Barthes goes further than that. He isn't just saying well, you know, these days it's a collaboration. Barthes is saying that an artist's work is the result of the culture and the society that he is in. Like, he is living in this time and he soaks up everything and he spits it out. So that it is really culture that makes that thing and not the band. So if you want to apply it to The Beatles, I mean you can do this with Shakespeare, The Beatles are condensing everybody that came before them, right? We talk about this all the time in terms of racial politics, the appropriation. The Chuck Barrys, the Little Richards, the Robert Johnsons, the people who came before The Beatles and who The Beatles, if you want to be cynical about it, you say The Beatles ripped those people off. The Beatles appropriated that and made it into white music. But it's even deeper than that. It's swimming around out there in the culture and The Beatles just happen to be the figures who pull it all in and who condense it and crystalize it and who turn out something that is greater than the sum of its parts, if you will. And you can say, that makes them brilliant. That makes them musical geniuses. They were able to condense all this down into something. But you can also say it the way Barthes is saying it which is that - does that, maybe The Beatles aren't really the authors at all. Maybe The Beatles are just a conduit and that it's society that's writing these tunes, society that's making this music.
I heard this story about Don Henley and I do not know if it's true but I want to believe it's true but I was told that the way Don Henley writes his songs is that he would , he kept like a notepad or a sticky pad and he wrote down all the little cultural sayings that he came across. So he keeps sticky pad notes of all these sayings and he puts them up on the wall in his kitchen and when his wall is full of them he sits down and he begins taking the sticky notes off the wall and fusing them into songs. And if you - the reason I like it so well, that story, is because if you go back and listen to Eagles songs, if you listen to Henley songs, that's what they sound like. Is one sort of saying after another that have just been sort of strung together. But if it's true it also is a perfect example of what Barthes is talking about. It's not Henley that is inventing all of these songs. It is Henley who is streaming together the things that society is already saying. So I don't know, maybe popular culture is dislodging that thing that we've had so long. I mean, again, there are people out there - Ricky Gervais - who, you know, who seem to control it, who seem to be the authors but it's a fading thing. It's much more about collaboration now but is that simply pointing out the fact that it's really always been about collaboration? And this idea of one person as the genius is just, is just garbage.
Anyway, enough for one episode. Thanks so much for tuning in. If you like what you hear, let us know. Follow us on Twitter, on Facebook. Check out our YouTube channel and of course visit us at popcultureacademy.com. And please, please tell your friends. I'll be back next Friday with an all new episode. See you then.
Don't have the time to listen to our podcast this week? Check out the transcript from each of our podcasts here.