You are listening to the Pop Culture Academy. On this episode, we'll think about rhythm and especially unusual rhythms. You can't always dance to them but they make music far more interesting in the long run. Remember you can always go back and check out old episodes of the show at the Pop Culture Academy YouTube page and don't forget to follow us on Twitter and to check out our homepage at popcultureacademy.com.
Greetings and salutations and welcome to season two, episode 20 of the Pop Culture Academy. Episode 20 seems like a milestone of some sort or other. Anyway, if you're a first-time listener we look at all kinds of pop culture using a slightly academic lens. The goal here is to think about your pop culture, to take it seriously.
So, what has been going on since last we spoke? Katie and I, my wife, are about mid-way through the first season of Castle Rock on Hulu. Good series. I've been looking forward to seeing this one, sort of putting it off for awhile. Does all the things that it should. Really good acting I think. Maybe we know the Stephen King story just a little too well for this one to be a "great series". Stranger Things has a lot of Stephen King in its DNA as well but it keeps humming and one of the reasons it keeps humming along and doing interesting things is I think the way it packages that source. For Stranger Things it's not just Stephen King references and even those, even the Stephen King references are there serving functions that often we don't expect; they twist in ways we're not expecting. Here, on Castle Rock, it feels a little too much like we know where all this is going and don't get me wrong, I am cheerfully along for the ride but still...Anyway, my understanding is we will not be seeing Stranger Things before 2021, in fact, we may not be seeing much of anything soon due to the pandemic. All the productions have shut down. Those that have tried to start back up have had terrible problems. This virus spreads so quickly. I'm sort of expecting a b-team of sorts to show up this fall, channels will start using series that maybe they had in the canon for whatever reason and then decided to dump and now those things are looking awfully good. So things that were recorded long before, maybe, the pandemic hit and that now will be kind of trudged out on TV. We'll see how that goes, right? What's it like to watch the b-team play professional football? You know, it's got its charms but it's also got its limitations. But we'll find out, we'll find out as the months go on. I mean, September is the traditional time (we've got the Emmy's coming up) the traditional time to trot out the new shows and, you know, I don't know that there's anything new of substance and quality to trot out.
But for this episode I wanted to think about rhythm and get into this and I can already feel something inside me already feels that this episode may get knotty and lengthy and it may be more than one episode but that's okay. We can do that. Let's start - I'm already worried about this - let's start with poetry. I want to get into rhythm as it applies to rock music, pop music, maybe jazz music (hat might be over our heads) but as a starting point let's - I think it's useful to start with poetry. And I know, I can already hear people switching me off, I mean people hate poetry don't they? I mean that's an interesting question. I don't want to dwell on this, we've got other things to do but how did that happen exactly? And I know, I'm not trying to pry you loose from your hatred of poetry, if you hate it you hate it, that's fine, we'll get to the good stuff soon enough. But just think, this is a thought experiment, 200-300 years ago even much further back, thousands of years ago, 2500,3500 years ago poetry was like the coolest thing. And now people despise it and that's an interesting turn of events. Obviously new technologies come around, they bump off old technology, but poetry is one of our oldest art forms and now we, you know, does it carry on in music, we'll get into that. But if you just talk about pure poetry, the kind you read in your high school classroom, we hate it. And I don't really know why - I mean, that's not actually true, that's not honest - I do know why - teachers teach it badly. And as someone who was a colleague of teachers who taught himself, you know, let me just apologize from the teachers around the world. English teachers teach poetry badly. It turns out, we're not going to get into a whole thing here, but it turns out English teachers teach a lot of things badly. Now I am making an enormous generalization, okay? It's not true of everybody; it's not true of me. But there's a lot of problems with English teachers. I don't really think English teachers like poetry either and I say that, I know some that genuinely and will tell you to your face they do not like poetry. Most of them, though, think that they are supposed to like it so they profess this deep and abiding love for it. It's a kind of badge of honor to be passionate about poetry if you're an English teacher and to put up with the ridicule from your students. It's just this thing you do because that's who you are. You're an English teacher, at least high school English teachers anyway. I mean they love it because they are supposed to love it. But the truth is, again, there's a lot of things English teachers have to answer for. For one thing, this is totally off topic, has nothing to do with rhythm, but I'm not completely convinced that The Great Gatsby is actually an important novel. Now, let me be clear here. I actually go back and forth. Sometimes I read that novel and I think, "wow, this is really genius." And I can identify why it is genius, I can teach the hell out of that if you would sit still for a podcast on The Great Gatsby. Other times I read it and I think, "wow, this is derivative and other people were doing this better than Fitzgerald and he was kind of a jerk anyway." So I go back and forth. I don't know whether it's good or bad, I change my mind. The one thing I do know about The Great Gatsby is that English teachers insist that it is a good novel but they don't seem to know why it is a good novel, they just don't. Somebody said to them, and English teachers (mostly high school English teachers) take what they learn from their teachers and they just accept it and move on with it. Right? That's what we've always done, that's the way we will always do it. Somebody decided The Great Gatsby was great and great it shall ever be. And Shakespeare, who - let me say this right up front because I don't want there to be any mistake - is legitimately, legitimately great. But I've known teachers who thought Shakespeare was a kind of gospel, I mean in the literal sense of that word. It was sacred, it can't be cut, it can't be paraphrased, you're not supposed to put it in a rap, you can't make cool movies about it with Julia Stiles. The words that come out of Shakespeare's pen are sacred. Except they aren't. And again, don't get me wrong, that guy was on a whole other level, one of these days maybe we'll do a countdown of the greatest artists of all time. That guy was on a whole other level; very few people who have ever gone up to that level, if any. I went through a phase where I thought it was cool to dislike Shakespeare, "what's the big deal, you know, he's just saying things that other people have said too." It is a big deal. I don't have time to explain now but it is. But parts of Shakespeare are terrible. Now, they are terrible on purpose. Polonius, character in Hamlet, stuffed shirt, completely full of nonsense. When he talks everything that comes out of his mouth is ridiculous, right? "To thine own self be true..." Now, you'll get these high school English teachers trying to get you to read one of Polonius' speeches and analyze it like it's great poetry. They'll have you write down "To thine own self be true..." and put it in your notebook and emboss it and keep it forever because what great words of wisdom. No. Shakespeare's making fun of this guy. Right? He wants us to say, "this guy is an idiot". So he writes deliberately badly which is a kind of genius in itself. If you've ever tried to write something badly it's not easy. T.S. Eliot.
Here's another - the great 20th century poet. The beginning of his poem, J. Alfred Prufrock, which again, amazing amazing poem but it's not beautiful. The words aren't beautiful, the imagery is not beautiful. Here's how it begins,
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Um, okay. Right? It's like serial killer poetry. We've got the beautiful beautiful scene, the sunset and then we reach into our bag of tricks for this beautiful metaphor because we're a poet and what we come out with is a patient unconscious on a table. That's supposed to be ugly. It's supposed to be ugly. But I do want to get into poetry, though because really poetry is at the root of rock music, pop music. I mean, there's that old thing that Elvis Costello supposedly said and which I love and I want Elvis Costello to have said, "writing about rock is like dancing about architecture." By which he apparently meant that taking a rock song apart and thinking about it in deep ways ruins it. Now it turns out Costello apparently never said that. He says he has no memory of it whatsoever so I don't know who actually said it but I kind of dig what's being said. A song, if you start poking into the corners of a song and you start taking it apart piece by piece like it's a science fair project or a lab rat dead upon a table, it loses its aliveness. And that's sort of true of poetry too. You hate it so you wouldn't know but it is, that's always been true of poetry as well, that if you take it apart too much you'll lose it. A poem or a song is total object. It'd be like trying to take one color out of the Mona Lisa and like taking it out, I don't know, digitally so that there were no more, I don't know, blue in the Mona Lisa and just looking at all the blue in that. And that's - Costello or whoever said that is right, up to a point. Up to a point. I think that's the way to enjoy a work, to get a work, to imbibe work, to understand and feel work. My very first English professor in college assigned us to read another Eliot poem, The Wasteland, his big monster of a poem, all about World War I, deep and a poem like that just isn't going to make much sense to a freshman. But my professor had the sense to say don't try to understand it, try to feel it, just hear it. And that is good advice I think; I think that is the way you approach a poem initially at least. Or a song. Just listen to it. You don't have to pick it apart; just listen to it. But I think there is something important about being able to go back and say why did that make me feel that way? This poem made me sad, I don't know why. This song made me angry, I don't know why. And if it is a good poem or a great song you'll never be able to completely pin it down, I mean that's part of its greatness. But then that discussion where you say, well how is this thing working and you say well maybe it's this instrument that's making me feel this and somebody else says, "no, that's garbage. It's not that at all. It's the rhythm that the saxophone makes." And somebody else says "no that's ridiculous, it's the imagery that the song writer uses." That kind of thing, back and forth becomes its own kind of art and it just keeps the poem or the song going and going.
I mean The Beatles wrote amazing songs, without question, but the mythology that surrounds The Beatles and all of the time we've spent taking their songs apart and thinking about why they might have said this or that or why the drums that come together seem to stir you to the roots of your being or that final chord in "A Day In The Life". What's going on with that? Why does it make us feel this way? So there's got to be - I think there's got to be this back and forth. We hear, we experience the music or the poem and then we go back and think about how it's put together. And we learn something there. And then we hear it again; we turn that analytical part off and we hear it again. And then we stop and we think and we analyze. And then we hear it again. And we get into this back and forth - you think, you feel, you think, you feel. And each one of them sort of feeds off the other and makes the other that much more satisfying.
So, here's how I talked about rock songs to my students. I started with poetry (they didn't like it either). Poetry though is a good way of thinking about a song. It's a good way of sort of, I don't know, it crystallizes a root to a song and then we can build on top of that root. So poetry is made up of layers of meaning and we communicate in lots of different modalities and each one of those modalities has its own set of tricks that help us with meaning. Now you know this - if you get a text message and someone says to you, "did you have a good time last night?" and you say, "Yeah, it was good." And if you are dating that person, if they are your significant other, you know that you have already at some point in your life argued over the use of the word "good". Right? Because when you texted good you genuinely meant good, I enjoyed that. But your significant other did not have the modality of your voice, they only have the modality of the text. They only have what the text said and they reconstructed your text with their own sound and they thought you said, "Eh, it was good." Now, I'm not going to solve your dating problems but it's an example of the different modalities. There's a textual modality, there's what the words literally mean. But there are also other modalities. The simplest one is the difference between text and talking. If you're talking to someone they've got the words but they've also got your voice and that can offer completely different meaning. Now we can get into all kinds of other modalities - there's the visuals of your face, you know, what kind of facial expressions you have as you say these things and how does that change the meaning. It's really quite complicated the way we communicate and one of these day we'll talk about why communication is essentially impossible and we shouldn't even be attempting it but it's this complicated little dance of multi modalities. And poetry has three basic modalities that it works on.
On level one there are the words, that is, what's literally said. So, let's take, I mean the old standby that I always go back to - I've done this poem on here before - "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening". So I'm not going to read you that poem or even stop and let you look it up, you'll remember it from high school or you won't. I mean, if you need to stop, please stop and look it up. But here's literally what the words say: I stopped by these woods today to watch the woods fill up with snow. Those woods actually belong to someone else but he won't mind. I'm here completely alone except for my horse - he thinks I'm a lunatic because I've stopped to do this but I wish so much (and this is where the poem gets really deep) that I could just stay here and watch the snow fall. I might even like to go into the woods, like, and this gets a little spiritual and woo woo but I might even like to go into the woods and become one with the woods and the snow and be apart of the snow falling. Now we could get into - I mean that sounds boring, nothing happens - maybe you are right. We could get into what's going on in that poem but we won't. But a poet, here's the point, a poet has other tools at his disposal to get his message across. A poet, for instance, has sound at his or her disposal. She can make us feel the wind as Frost does, make us feel the cold, make us feel the snow with the sounds that Frost uses. "Whose woods these are I think I know..." That's how the poem begins. "Whose woods these are I think I know...". There's wind there in that "w" sound and there's a kind of echo, a deep dark echo in the oooo at the end. Frost can also use rhythm, he has that modality at his disposal which is where we are headed. We'll get there eventually.
Now Frost here uses a very regular rhythm. Let's not worry about what it is called, let's just call it da-dum. Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. Whose woods these are I think I know. Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. Don't read it that way, okay, I'm exaggerating; da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. Now if you read that poem carefully, again, don't read it that way but if you read that poem you'll see that that rhythm (da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum) never ever changes, it is so steady. And that's really cool. People like to say it's the sound of the horse clopping, right? Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. I don't know if you have to go that far. It's very peaceful, right? It's not a rhythm that is jerking around and it's very smooth and rhythmical and it's designed to capture that peaceful mood of being out in the woods and watching the snow fall.
And other poems work this way, that is, other poems use the sameness of the rhythm to their advantage. Shakespeare uses, for instance, we all know this, the old Elizabethan playwrights are full of iambic pentameter. We don't need to know what that means, well, it means da-dum but five times - da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. You say, okay, what's he doing? Why has he got that particular rhythm going? Well the playwrights used this rhythm because if you listen to English, if you listen to people speak English, we speak in iambic pentameter. Our word system, our syllable system is just set up to work that way. Other languages do it differently. But if you're going to try to capture the way we talk, the best way to do it is to do iambic pentameter because that's the way we talk. We talk in iambic pentameters. Okay, fine. Here's where I think it gets cool and this is where we're going with all of this at some point if we make it there - the really cool stuff I think, I mean that's cool too. Regular rhythm shouldn't be underestimated; what Frost does with that straight-forward steady beat...you know, think of any of the songs that you like. Most of the music you listen to you want it to have a steady beat. If you like disco or if you like hip hop or if you like contemporary sort of techno, you definitely want a steady beat, you just expect that. And we should not underestimate the steady beat and there are such important drummers in the history of pop music, rock music, whose whole career is about having kept a steady, pulsing beat and having been able to do it consistently in just the right way to fit into a song just perfectly. But I'm also interested, and maybe we will get into that at some point, but I'm also interested in the times when drummers sort of vary from that, they throw in something different, and odd time signature, an odd rhythm, an odd way of phrasing things. And there are drummers out there, and we'll get into these people, whose careers were not about keeping this stable, steady, peaceful beat but whose whole careers were about violating that stability and doing something else and breaking out of the bounds of that stability. And that's what I want to get into.
Let me start by giving an example of how Shakespeare did this because just, you know, my students never quite got this I guess, but it blows me away every single time. It's Shakespeare again. I mean, we can do this a different way, we could talk about virtual reality. I think that just like television is a form of virtual reality, music, painting, all of the arts give us virtual reality in different ways. I mean I've said this on the show before; music, poetry does that by using sound and rhythm to make you feel what they are talking about. Robert Frost is setting you in a forest with the snow falling and it's chilly and the wind is blowing but it's peaceful and quiet and he is putting you there. It's like virtual reality. It's like he's taking you and putting you into a computer program so that you see the trees and the snow and the horse and you see it all and you are there, it's virtual reality. He does that with words. Okay, I don't want to overstate it, probably VR is much more realistic, but there's something really amazing about being able to do that, to take us somewhere using sound and rhythm and song do that as well. But okay, so Shakespeare, this is one of the coolest effects, so Shakespeare's poem "Sonnet 116", okay and Shakespeare as far as we know did not title his sonnets. So they get titled by the first line and this one's called "Let Me Not To The Marriage of True Minds". It's one of his more famous poems. And what he says in this poem, I'll just kind of set you up for the literal meaning, is that real love, real honest to goodness love doesn't let anything stand in its way. Right? You think about love as two people who are fused together and nothing, nothing can break them apart and he says, "Love is not love which alters when alteration finds." That is, if your significant other, if your girlfriend changes a little bit, if she grows older a little bit, love doesn't change. Just because she changes your love does not change. Real love stays the same. "Oh, no" he says, "it is an ever fixed mark that looks on tempest" and is never shaken no matter what comes down the pike, love will stand firm.
Now, it's beautiful and he uses all these in his sort of Elizabethan way and I'm not saying this is the only way to do things, it's the Elizabethan way to do things, in his Elizabethan way he begins throwing all these metaphors and crazy things but there's this little bit of rhythm that's so amazing. So, let's see if I can pick this up a little earlier, "Love's not time's fool though rosy lip and cheeks within his bending cycles compass come, Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks but bears it out even to the edge of doom." Now, I didn't emphasize that and so you might or might not have picked it up, it is subtle and poetry sometimes we don't have an ear tuned for it these days and we might miss it. "Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, love doesn't change over time but bears it out even to the edge of doom." Now let me explain what he does here - love al-ters not with his brief-hours and weeks. Okay, we're in iambic pentameter, remember I said that's how all the plays work and that's the way we talk. Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. "Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks." Here's the next line, "But bears it out even to the edge of doom." Now, did you pick up on that? Halfway through the line he stutters with his rhythm. "Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out" that's fine, da-dum, da-dum, but when we say "even" we are forced because think about that word even, even starts with a hard syllable, it's not evEN, it's EVen. So now we've got a jam up of heavy syllables, "but bears it out Even". "But bears it out E," "But bears it out E," and now we've got a switch up, "bears it out EVen to the edge of doom." Now, if you can't feel how that rhythm makes the point of the line, listen again, but the rhythm here it hangs because the point of the line is time doesn't matter to love, love just goes on and on and on. And in the line, that's what happens, right? The line goes longer than it should and we feel, we feel that love goes on, we feel that extra time.
Now, you know, I mean if you don't think rhythm makes you feel things, go back and look at Nazi Germany. Hitler knew deeply what a particular kind of drum beat could do to people, how it could stir people up, how it could get people into a patriotic mood. Other leaders have felt this as well; a certain kind of beat. And we know if you listen to any song, you know instantly when you hear a song what the mood is and why do you know instantly? I mean there's a lot of reasons but the main reason you know, you don't have to hear a word of the song, you don't have to have heard the song before, you will know what the song's mood is because of its rhythm. I mean in simplest terms, if it's faster you know it's going to be a happy song, an energetic song. If it's a slow rhythm it's more likely to be a sad song, a contemplative song. All of those things have to do with rhythm. Rhythm makes us feel.
Now, here's what I did with my students. The idea is you've got this base, right, so let's say the bottom layer is the words, the literal meaning of the poem. The next layer is, let's say, the sound, the sound of the words that they make, that creates a different meaning. The third level that you could tack onto that is rhythm. Now let's go back to Elvis Costello; you shouldn't start off tearing a poem apart like that. Right? You start off by listening to the whole thing because it works together but when you go back and look at it, that's one way of taking it apart is thinking about those three levels; what's going on in the literal level, what's going on on the sound level, what's going on on the rhythmic level. Now to song, songs have all of those components as well. You can begin then adding layers to a pop song, a rock song, you can add the layer of instrumentation, right? What instruments are being used. You can add the layer of vocal delivery, how does the singer sing this and there's a lot of things involved in there - you can talk about pitch, you could talk about harmony, you could talk about chords, you could talk about all of those aspects but then you could also talk about delivery in terms of dramatic delivery. How is the singer saying these words and how long do the notes last? Does that matter? That creates another meaning. If you hold a note for a certain amount of time that gives you certain meaning; if you do it very short and brief, that gives you a different meaning.
All right so I recognize I've been droning on and on, no pun intended, and we've gone, you know, I'm running out of time here and there's still lots more to talk about. I really do want to get into some very specific rock songs, pop songs, and specific musicians who have played with rhythm in very particular ways and we will do that in the next episode but before I leave off today I want to just talk about one more kind of rhythmic effect. That kind of genius move, now, I'm going to reference Allen Ginsberg the famous Beat poet and Ginsberg's an amazing guy biographically and in terms of his poetry - lots and lots going on with Ginsberg. We could spend a whole episode on Ginsberg but you should know that what Ginsberg's doing here, what I'm about to describe and illustrate, is actually invented by Walt Whitman a hundred years before and I've talked about this on the show before, Whitman invents, I mean literally Whitman invents free verse and it's really quite amazing as a genre of poetry. And not only is it brilliant in and of itself but it is meant to recapture the American spirit and it does. We talked about sound and rhythm and these things creating emotions and feelings; Whitman manages to find a way to capture Americanism in words and rhythm and sound. And the honest truth is, every American poet since Whitman has been trying to figure out what to do about Whitman, how to deal with Whitman because he's this - he did it. He did this thing. Now what do we do? Okay, what do we do in response? Well one of the things Ginsberg did is to sort of imitate, I guess, that's too crude a word but imitate, to go back to what Whitman did and do it himself.
Now, the fascinating thing I think Ginsberg does with it and this is what makes Ginsberg important and not just some guy who's copying Whitman is that he turns Whitman's energy and vitality and optimism into something much more negative. Ginsberg's whole career is saying to Whitman, "yeah, it was great then but look what it's turned into." Okay. And so he uses the same kinds of things that Whitman does but he turns them dark. Now, one of the things that Whitman invented - it's free verse which means there is no real rhythm or, that's what it means, no real rhythm. You know, when I said da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, there's none of that, right? Free verse does not do that. Free verse is more like someone talking. But Whitman wants it to have some rhythm and he's experimenting, you know, in the 1860s he's experimenting with different ways to achieve rhythm without rhythm. I mean how hard is that? I'm going to try to put some rhythm in this without rhythm. And he looked to some sources, very American source, the preachers in church, the evangelistic preachers and the way that they would get into a groove and find a rhythm. And it wasn't that every word was in a rhythm but there was a rhythm to the whole thing so that what he did and again, Ginsberg does this too I'm going to show you in just a minute, Ginsberg begins each line with the same word. And the line is long, right? The line is a whole sentence and the line has no rhythm but that word is important and at the end of the sentence or the phrase he comes back to the word and he gives you another long sentence and it doesn't have rhythm and it tangles and twists and goes wherever and at the end of that he goes back to the word. And over and over again he twists and turns but he always goes back to the word, always goes back to the word, but he always go back to the word. This is the beginning of his just monumental poem, "Howl".
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the
machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on
tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light
tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening
to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night
You see how it keeps coming back to who, right? Who did this, who did this, who did this, who did this, and there's a rhythm in that.
All right, that's enough for one episode, truly it is enough for one episode. I am sorry if you tuned into this and you're pissed off now because we didn't get into any songs, we will spend the next episode applying all of this to music, to rock music, to pop music, maybe a little jazz, maybe some country, who knows we might get wild. Let me say for now though, thank you so much for listening. If you like what you hear, please let us know.
Follow us on Twitter, check out our YouTube channel and visit us a popcultureacademy.com. and please tell your friends. I'll be back next Friday to finish up this dissertation, see you then.
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