Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Wednesday, Aug 11, 2010
While Eno’s reputation is certainly secure, the true measure of pop culture relevance is being linked by six degrees or less to that other bastion of prolificacy, Kevin Bacon.

Being one of the most eclectic, innovative, and all-around brilliant musicians in the world, Brian Eno’s list of collaborators is a who’s who of art rock luminaries. He is a founding member of Roxy Music, a pioneering composer of ambient music, and the producer of records with John Cale, Robert Fripp, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Devo, U2, and many more. But while Eno’s reputation is certainly secure, the true measure of pop culture relevance is being linked by six degrees or less to that other bastion of prolificacy, Kevin Bacon. (Personally, I think Michael Caine is a much better choice for the Six Degrees game, or even Donald Sutherland, but no one asked me.)


Okay, let’s see…  1) In their most recent album Congratulations, MGMT name-drops Eno with a song entitled, appropriately enough, “Brian Eno”. That album also contains a track named “Song for Dan Treacy,” a reference to the lead singer and songwriter for the legendary punk rock band 2) The Television Personalities. That band’s repertoire includes a whimsical cover of the Syd Barrett-penned “Bike,” probably the most widely-known tune from Barrett’s run with Pink Floyd. “Bike” was also performed by punk outfit 3) the Vindictives on their album, Partytime for Assholes, an album that included the 4) Burt Bacharach/Hal David standard, “Magic Moments.” Bacharach wrote the music for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which starred 5) Katharine Ross. Ross was in The Graduate with 6) Dustin Hoffman, who was in Sleepers with 7) Kevin Bacon. Okay, so not quite six degrees. Wait… Wasn’t Kevin Bacon in Arthur 2: On the Rocks? Whatever.


Seven is the best I can do, but this being the internet I’m sure someone will rise to the challenge. The important part is that Brian Eno IS a genius and, judging from his last album with David Byrne, isn’t going anywhere any time soon. And let’s not kid ourselves. This exercise was really just an excuse to dig up that Vindictives cover of “Bike”.



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Tuesday, Aug 10, 2010

The premise of the cartoon Super Chicken is deceptively simple.  A send-up of the comic-book superheroes also found on the small screen and large, the cartoon aired on Jay Ward’s George of the Jungle in 1967, and fit nicely with the show’s simple silliness, also found in other Ward shows like The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.


But as with much of Ward’s output, there was something more sophisticated lurking beneath. Put aside the thematic correlations between Super Chicken and the war in South Vietnam. On a less politicized level, the parody of superheroes often times (and certainly in this case) is as much a jab at the source as it is at the recipient. The intended audience for much superhero fare tends to be the young, the unathletic. The ineffectual. The weaklings who, despite the astronomical odds against them, want so desperately to be heroic, to be seen as heroic. It is precisely because he is neither the brightest nor the most admirable that Super Chicken is a true hero for the disenfranchised.


In the insanely catchy opening theme, we can see two very quick shots that strengthen this claim. First, within the opening seconds, during the lyric “When you’re threatened by a stranger”, an elderly woman is pounding on an over-sized thug with her purse. Simple reversal of fortunes equals a quick laugh. But pause the YouTube video here and think about it: do we know this “thug” was at all threatening this woman? What if he had been offering her assistance across the street? Asking for directions to the local charity hospital so he could volunteer? That ever-present polarization between the elderly and the young was probably never more at the forefront of the American mind than it was during the late 1960s, and here Jay Ward has, however briefly, captured that. Who else to save a “thug” from a “granny” than Super Chicken?


This notion of the generation gap is reinforced with the very next lyric/image (“When it looks like you will take a lickin’”). A young man is about to be spanked. We know not his dastardly crime, but we all know that position, that feeling of terror: “An authority figure is punishing me!”  Ineffectual.  Weak.  It hits an immediate emotional core, and that extended caaaaaall for rescue reverberates from within.


Even if it is for a chicken and a lion in an egg-shaped flying car.



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Thursday, May 27, 2010

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Oddly, a lot of things that happened 20 years ago this week are either similar to or have connections to current events.


On TV, Newhart aired one of the most memorable series finales, a fact that many publications have mentioned this week. Airing their series finales this week were Ghost Whisperer, Melrose Place, and Lost, among others. Family dramedy Life Goes On was renewed for a second season, just as current family dramedy Parenthood has.


At the movies this week is MacGruber, based on Saturday Night Live’s parody of the MacGyverTV series. In 1990, it was in its fifth season.


The #1 song was “Vogue” from Madonna’s Like a Prayer album. Not only was its music video recently parodied on FOX’s Glee, but the cast’s album of Madonna covers is currently selling well.


This is probably just a coincidence, but it is still a little eerie. Are there any more connections to 1990 going on this week that I missed? If so, comment about it below!



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Tuesday, May 18, 2010
In honor of Ian Curtis' legacy, here are a pair of videos that showcase his indomitable stage presence in life, followed by Anton Corbijn's 1988 music video for the Joy Division song "Atmosphere"

Early on the morning of May 18, 1980, Joy Division singer Ian Curtis committed suicide by hanging himself in the kitchen of his Macclesfield, England home. Despite the short body of work he produced (one full-length album plus a clutch of singles and EPs by the time of his death at age 23, soon followed by a second album and other posthumous releases), Ian Curtis’ music with Joy Division has gained a legendary stature in the subsequent decades. Noted for his frenzied performance style, his dark, literate lyrics, and his doomy proto-goth baritone, in death Curtis has become an icon of the post-punk movement in particular and underground rock music in general, continuing to influence scores of artists to this day.


In honor of Curtis’ legacy, here are a pair of videos that showcase his indomitable stage presence in life, followed by Anton Corbijn’s 1988 music video for the Joy Division song “Atmosphere”, quite possibly the most exquisite and beautifully-crafted posthumous tribute the medium has ever produced. As a bonus, also included is Radiohead’s cover of “Ceremony” (originally released as the debut single by Joy Division’s successor group New Order), one of the last songs Curtis ever wrote.


Tagged as: joy division
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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Volumes could be written about You Can’t Do That on Television, the Canadian kids’ show which ran in the States on the cable channel Nickelodeon all through the 1980s and into the ‘90s.  Subversive in its silliness as great comedy often is, YCDTOTV offered a brand of children’s sketch comedy that has yet to be duplicated to this writer’s knowledge. And the intro to the show fairly neatly captures all that makes the show itself great. 


The theme music is bizarrely catchy, an odd marching-band arrangement punctuated by screams. This gives a very definite Monty Python feel to the intro, as does the use of cut-out animation. Then, there is the cutting imagery of the “Children’s Television Sausage Factory”, mechanically cranking out “product” of child actors on an automated assembly line. This ought to resonate with anyone who has ever noticed how insultingly bland and rote a lot of children’s televison can be. Then, the kids are loaded onto a bus and cut loose in a TV studio. The face of Les Lye, the actor who played all of the adult male roles on the show, in various costumes and with various voices, is stamped with the show’s title. This is a fairly empowering image for the young viewer, a sort of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” for the Romper Room set.


One often wishes to take care to not tread down the glittery lane towards nostalgia, lest one gets stuck living in the past. So it is nice to see that something one grew up watching turned out to be far more layered and interesting than one could have articulated at the time.


Just watch for the green slime.



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