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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.
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