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Greetings and salutations and welcome to season 2, episode 15 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 and, well, let's talk a little bit about what's happened since the last time we spoke. I've been watching a new series on Netflix. Actually, I say new series, it's a new series to me. I think it was 2013 -2016 so, not a fresh new series. But these days, you know, there's so many things that we miss and you gotta constantly be going back and adding things that somehow you didn't catch the first time. This one's called Hinterland. Right up my alley. It's a British mystery series, I mean I suppose you'd say British, it's a British mystery series which is my absolute favorite genre, sort of my comfort food, if you will. Set in Wales and dark, dreary - atmosphere's dark and dreary. The crimes are extremely dark and dreary. I've actually been pleased as they've gone into the second season that they've now made - they actually now kind of - I would say two central characters. The central character is this troubled detective from Britain who has, in the beginning we don't know why but has moved out to Wales to begin working for the Wales police department. He is partnered with a woman who is local to Wales. In some ways it's very Broadchurch like, if you will. And I suppose those series were out at the same time which may mean, that could explain why this one didn't get quite the love that that one did. You know, my wife says that I've never met a troubled character that I didn't know. And, you know, I like those characters who really have emotional baggage. But my argument is that every great character in literature, film, television, all the great characters have emotional baggage. That's what makes an interesting character, right? I mean, who would Captain Ahab be if he hadn't lost his leg to a white whale? I mean, what would be the point, at that point? So, anyway, Hinterland I would definitely recommend it if you like that sort of thing - mysteries, dark, a little bit darker.
All right, so for this episode I want to talk a little bit about one of my favorite artistic forms and that is the concept album. Kind of, in some ways, a vanishing art form I would say because it's so rare for people to buy whole albums these days. People grab a song here, grab a song there, put it together in a playlist. That's the way it works. But a very refined art form, I think. Difficult to do well. And very serious when it's done well, it's done properly. I want to think today about Taylor Swift's new album, Folklore, which I am going to argue definitely qualifies as a concept album. And it's quite good as well, I should add. But before we get into that specific album let's talk a little bit more broadly about what a concept album is. You know, is it one of those things that you just say well, I'll know it when I see it. For instance, some people have argued that Frank Sinatra's album, In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, one of his classics from 1955 is a concept album despite the fact that there is no theme running through it. There's no character that keeps reappearing. But it does have a certain feeling, a certain atmosphere. But that's a question, right? Can Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, could that be seen as a concept album? It's an album that definitely has a certain feeling, a certain mood. It's also united by a particular approach to jazz music. On the other hand, some concept albums are quite clearly that. I mean you can't think of them as anything else. Everyone would agree that pretty much all of Pink Floyd's albums should be classified as concept albums. Except, you know, maybe those early ones where Syd Barrett was kind of running things. But after that, I mean, everything for them becomes a concept album.
Genesis tends to put out, it's a very prog rock thing, though it's not exclusively limited to prog rock. Simplest terms, a concept album is what the word says. It's an album whose songs are united by a concept. All right, but then that begs the question - what does concept mean here in this case? I like to talk about motifs which is - that's an idea that's borrowed from music. The motif is an idea or an image or even a word that shows up again and again in a work and sort of holds the work together. Can kind of create sometimes it's own underlying theme. And I would say concept albums tend to be united by some kind of common motif. I mean, I don't know that that necessarily - we went from defining the concept album to defining concept to defining motif.
Let's look at some examples. The Who's Tommy, right? That is clearly a concept album though they - I mean I guess a lot of people call that a rock opera. Is a rock opera beyond a concept album? But that album is united, very unified, has a single character, tells a single story. As I said, Genesis has used the concept album approach. And again sometimes a character, a story, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway certainly has that feature. Could look at something like, I don't know, Styx's "Mr. Roboto". That album (Kilroy Was Here) doesn't get much love anymore. I have fond feelings for it because it was popular in my youth. But, whether you like it or not, certainly works as a good example here of an album with a central character and a plot line. Tori Amos likes to channel certain figures, often historical figures. Like Under the Pink, for instance, Anastasia Romanov is this character - not character, a figure that she kind of thinks about throughout the album. There's an example that's not the only thing in the album. There are other things there too but that kind of gives the album that - that historical figure gives that album its character.
Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon, maybe the greatest concept album ever made. Maybe the - can make a case, greatest album ever made perhaps? I mean a lot of people prefer The Wall but Dark Side of the Moon is really - there are no flaws in that album. And, you know, what is that about? What unites that album? You know I used to teach that album and my students would say ok, you know what are we going to say this album's about, its concept? The problem to some extent is that album is about life, right? Life and death and birth and money and there's not much that they don't get into. But you can't say, I mean, that's too broad, right? You can't say well this concept album is about life. Madness is a clear motif in a lot of Roger Waters' writing. And here we get into the issue of how many concept albums can you make on the same concept or the same motif? Does it become something beyond just a concept album? A concept career, if you will.
Alan Parsons who, under appreciated. I've talked about recently his connection to Pink Floyd and Dark Side of the Moon. Very key concept album guy, particularly in the 70s, early 80s. And my favorite of his, I mean he's - people who are really into Alan Parsons love The Raven which is all about sort of Edgar Allen Poe obviously. My favorite album of his is another under appreciated. It's called On Air. Came out the mid to late 90s I want to say. And the motif there is flight, right? And so there are songs about the first air flights. You know, the Wright Brothers. There are songs about being afraid of flying. There are songs on that album about space flight. It's all kind of different angles on the idea of flight which - it's just a good album.
And then there are lots of these. From Soft Cell's Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, Gary Numan's The Pleasure Principle, Sting's The Soul Cages which deals with the death of his father. Or Lou Reed's Magic and Loss which deals with loss of a couple of his friends. There are country versions - Willie Nelson's Redheaded Stranger or Teatro. System of a Down. Green Day. Janet Jackon's Rhythm Nation. All these, this is a reasonably popular form. But not everybody can do it. And, you know, it's not to say that this is the - I mean there are plenty of albums, there are plenty of great albums that are organized around the song, right? And just - you know, Fountains of Wayne made great albums where they just made these wonderful song after song after song after song. And they're not united by anything except that they're just brilliant studies in the song form. But back to concept albums. Other than - I mean again, it's still hard to define, right? Ben Folds Five, (The Unauthorized Biography of )Reinhold Messner cd/album, is that a concept album? I mean I've had people argue to me that it certainly is and they can tell me the whole story - that it's about a character and they take me through the whole story. I don't know.
Springsteen's best album in my mind is Nebraska which I think is definitely a concept album. It has this running theme about the depression of poverty that haunts America. That album came out in the early 80s. Reagan's America. And just this - I don't know - this overarching sadness to that. It's one story after another on that album of people who have been crushed economically in one way or another and what they do as a result of being crushed. But then does Born in the USA, does that album qualify as a concept album? Is that united by something? Can the concept be just a mood or can it be an approach? You know, Gerry Mulligan the famous jazz saxophonist at one point has his groups - it was an experimental - has his groups abandon using the piano. The piano is generally used to give the root chords to an ensemble. And he didn't want a root cord, right? He wanted the instruments to simply be playing off of each other. Does that make that first album where he's experimenting with that - does that unite that album as a concept album? For that matter, are Sting's first two albums? Right? Nothing Like The Sun and (that's the second one) Dream of the Blue Turtles. He completely ditches the idea of rock musicians and hires a bunch of jazz musicians and puts together these two albums. Does that unify - are those concept albums? Certainly Paul Simon's Graceland which was recorded completely in South Africa and which was making a statement about apartheid in South Africa and musicians. The song, again, the song's are necessarily related to one another but the concept is in the album itself. The concept is in what we're going to attempt to do here. But then if you stretch it too far maybe every album is a concept album. Most albums are united by the artist who produces that album. Which means in some ways they are all the product of one mind and so they hang together in that way.
I don't know. In literature there are some comparisons. A book of poetry is often united by a theme or a concept or an approach. You see that in photography books as well. In poetry, William Blake's "Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience" which incidentally have recently become inspiration for U2's most recent albums. Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads which is trying to take a brand new approach to poetry in 1798. But I think I like to compare concept albums to the literary form called the short story cycle. And what this is is it's a collection of short stories that can all stand alone, that is you could read them by themselves as short stories they stand up as whole complete stories but they also seem to relate to one another in some important way. Really the first important one of these was Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio in the early part of the 20th century. Again, every story it's own story, it's own characters, it's own events, has a climax, it comes to an end and it works as it's own little story. But they're all set in the same town, this fictional town of Winesburg, Ohio. And so you get to sort of see the whole town as you move from story to story to story. The early 20th century, again, Hemmingway writes In Our Time again, where every story is unique and different but they're all about his experience and his shellshock, post traumatic stress, after WWI. Similarly you can go into Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried which is a short story cycle that's all about post-Vietnam.
All right, so Taylor Swift's Folklore which just came out - does it qualify as a concept album and I'd say absolutely. We get certain motifs, again, words, images, ideas that keep coming up over and over. Blood, for example, shows up over and over. High heels show up frequently. Film shows up all throughout this album. Now, let me stop at this point and confess - I am not a Taylor Swift expert. And honestly, I don't typically - this isn't a show where we do reviews of contemporary albums, contemporary shows. If something catches my eye its worth talking about as an example. You know, here we're talking about an example of a concept album. A few weeks back we talked about Bob Dylan's new album as an example of what makes Bob Dylan so important to American literature. Generally I like to do things that are a little further in the past because it gives us a chance to reflect on them rather than just sort of spouting out is this good? Is this bad? Should you listen to this? Should you not listen to this? But again, I was really captivated by this album and particularly as a concept album. But I'm not a Taylor Swift expert and I've been a little amused as I've done a little - just a bare minimum of research into this album at just how much of an industry it is deciphering her lyrics. I mean, I've always known that people like to say this song or another song of hers is about this breakup and this song's about that breakup and this guy and that guy. But geez, the way people pick her work apart. I mean, my life is about analyzing things and picking things apart but surely there's a point where it gets to be just a little much. I mean, let it go folks. But actually I think that gives me a unique take on her album. That is, I'm not really all that interested in Swift's biography. I'm just not. Right? That's just not my thing. And maybe this is a question for a whole other episode but my question is this - what can we take from this album without really knowing anything about Swift herself? Right? Does this album stand on it's own. It's not what this album tells us about Swift, but rather, what does this album tell us? Period. Question mark. What is it really about?
I mean the thing that really strikes me the most about this album is there is a certain antiqueness to it. Cardigan sweaters. The mention of the roaring 20s. There's this tale of the wealthy socialite. There are all these mentions of the cinema. Images such as high heels on cobblestones. Ghosts. Hauntings. You know, even something that's relatively recent like a t-shirt - it's vintage tees. There's a great song "Mirrorball" that connects us to the antique idea. I mean it connects, for Taylor Swift, I mean not for me, but for Taylor Swift the mirrorball is sort of an - the 70s disco is definitely an antique kind of thing. But actually the mirrorball dates back to the 1920s and the dance halls in the 1920s. It was sort of rediscovered at Studio 54. They kind of found it stuck back in some back corner and thought let's put this up and it becomes a staple of the disco era. But it goes back much further and so that's an antique as well. The word, the title is folklore. And that's a fascinating choice. She uses that in so many different senses. You know, folklore is about revisiting history but it's in a very particular way, right? It's mythical, that is, you expect folklore to be a little exaggerated, a little not true. But it's also personal. Myth tends to be about heroes and giants and - folklore is more, um, I don't know, more personal, more down to earth. Folklore, that's the stories that we invent as families or as a region. I mean I'm from the south and folklore is a big part of the south, the southern tradition. This is how we tell our tales. There's folklore about our family, our region but I think there's also folklore that we tell ourselves about ourselves. Certain folklore that we invent about us, that helps us explain who we are and our identity. We all have kind of a certain folklore about our childhood. You know, what happened in your childhood is it's a little exaggerated in our memories. It's not quite real but it is real and in our minds we shape it so that it makes a certain kind of sense for us. And I think all of that is going on in the use of this term. And there's a definite fusion here of past and present. That is, there is an antiqueness and it is about folklore in the sense of thinking about the past. But it's also about folklore and thinking about the present. Over and over in this album another of the motifs is that when you get something antique often it is fused with something from the present, something contemporary.
Maybe the most important song on the album I think is "The Last Great American Dynasty" which brings together this woman from the 20s who was seen as too wild for her times. With the speaker, who was presumably Swift. And the speaker sort of wraps herself in the mantle of "I'm going to accept the gossip and controversy as a kind of badge of honor." You know the woman from the 20s was, you know, people said terrible things about her for her time but the reason they said those terrible things about her is because she was living her life out loud and I want to do that too. Again, there's this whole biographical thing. Taylor Swift apparently bought this house - does this connect us to this actual woman? But leaving that aside it's an interesting idea of the past and the present and I'm going to try to - finding feminist heroes in the past and I'm going to try to live up to those heroes. And that mix of past and present runs through the whole album.
But of course, you know, that's all a useful turn on what Swift's already done I think for contemporary music. Her enormous contribution to contemporary music is her exploration of the situation of women in the 21st century, especially in response to the Me Too movement. Her music is so caught up in the Me Too movement I think. I mean, she's thought of by a lot of people. Her fans, but also people who don't like her. As someone who encodes all of her relationships into her music, like it's some sort of self-indulgent biography or worse, like self-pity. Or revenge. Or whatever. But it's actually much deeper than that. She turns all the varieties of romantic experience into some deeper commentary, not on relationships, although maybe there's a lot of commentary on relationships, but more on how women experience those relationships. The struggles they face to define themselves in a changing world. You know, it's like she takes this single idea, a single thing - relationships - and she turns it and she turns it and she turns it and she turns it so that we can see it from one perspective and another perspective and another perspective and another perspective. And you know we won't get into how many artists have done that but some of the great artists, that's the way they work. Henry James, for instance, comes to mind. It's this - I'm just going to take this one thing and I'm going to look at it from every possible way that I can see it. And so here Taylor Swift does that again but in this case she's sort of moves out to this broad historical perspective so that we can see how women over time...It's got contemporary relationships, it's got past relationships and how do you - all these relationships again we're turning and looking at them and thinking particularly about how women deal with these relationships. How women find their identity in the contemporary world.
All right, but that's enough for this week. Thanks so much for tuning in. If you like what you hear, please let us know. Follow us on Twitter, follow us on FaceBook, check out our YouTube channel. You can always find us at popcultureacademy.com. And if you like us at all, tell your friends. Please, tell your friends. I'll be back next week with an all new episode, see you then.
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