50 Songs from a Single Year, Mixed Together Into One 3-Minute Song (1979-89)

The concept of generations, as we currently use the term, would have made no sense to people living throughout most of human history. “Before the 19th century,” writes Sarah Leskow at The Atlantic, “generations were thought of as (generally male) biological relationships within families—grandfathers, sons, grandchildren and so forth.” The word did not describe common traits shared by, “as one lexicographer put it in 1863, ‘all men living more or less at the same time.’”

The theory was thoroughly ingested into mass culture, as anyone can tell from social media wars and the fixations of newspaper columnists. One such correspondent weighed in a few years ago with a contrarian take: “Your generational identity is a lie,” wrote Philip Bump at The Washington Post in 2015. (He makes an exception for Baby Boomers, for reasons you’ll have to read in his column.)

All this debunking is to the good. While scholars routinely investigate the origins of contemporary ideas, too often the rest of us take for granted that our present ways of seeing the world are timeless and eternal.

Yet, whether generations are a real phenomenon or a cultural construction, globalized mass media of the past several decades ensures that no matter where we come from, most people born around the same time will share some set of near-identical experiences—of listening to the same music, watching the same films, TV shows, etc. Given the way our thinking can be shaped by formative moments in pop culture, we’re bound to have a few things in common if we had access to Hollywood film and MTV. Maybe what most defines generations as we know them now is culture as commodity.

Take the video series featured here. Each one cuts together 50 songs released in a single year, beginning in 1979, along with video montages of some of the year’s most popular artists. Created by The Hood Internet, “a DJ and production duo from Chicago, known for their expertise in mashups and remixes,” the series could serve as a lab experiment to test the emotional reactions of people born at different times. We may have all heard these songs by now. But only those who heard them in their youth will have the nostalgic reactions we associate with generational memory, since music, as David Toop  writes at The Quietus, is "a memory machine."

Everyone else could stand to learn something about what the 80s looked and sounded like. As a historical period, it tends to get cast in a fairly narrow mold, with synthpop and hair metal defining the extent of 80s music. The pop music of the decade was fabulously diverse, with genres cross-pollinating in what turn out to be surprisingly harmonious ways in these mashup videos. The creators of the series worked their way up to 1987, and we get to see some dramatic shifts along the way that further complicate the idea of 80s music, even for those who heard these songs when they came out, and who have nine years of formative moments to go with them. See all of the videos on The Hood Internet's YouTube channel.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Humphrey Bogart Became an Icon: A Video Essay

According to film theorist David Bordwell, there was a major change in acting styles in the 1940s. Gone was the “behavioral acting” style of the 1930s (the first full decade of sound film), where mental states were demonstrated not just through the face, but through body movement, and how actors just held themselves. Instead, in the 1940s there is a “new interiority, a kind of neutralization, of the acting performance, that’s intense, almost silent film-style.”

Part of this is due to increasingly convoluted, psychological narratives, including lots of voice-overs. Some of it was also due to studios hoping to achieve the psychological depth of novel writing.

In short, whatever the reasons in the 1940s, we got to watch characters think.

In Nerdwriter’s latest video essay, Evan Puschak examines the icon of 1940s male acting: Humphrey Bogart, whose skill and opportunity placed him at the right place and the right time for such a shift in styles. Think of Bogart and you think of his eyes and yes, the many moments where the camera lingers on his face and...we watch him think.

In hindsight it feels like he was waiting for this moment. Puschak picks up the tale with 1939’s The Return of Dr. X, which features a badly miscast Bogart as a mad scientist. But the actor had spent most of the 1930s playing a selection of bad guys, mostly gangsters. He was good at it. He was also a bit tired of the typecasting.

Also tired of of playing gangsters was George Raft, and that turned out to be good thing, because Raft turned down the lead role in the John Huston-written, Raoul Walsh-directed High Sierra. Huston and Bogart were friends and drinking buddies, and it was their friendship, plus Bogart convincing both Raft to turn down the role and Walsh to hire him instead, that led to a career breakthrough.

As Puschak points out, though Bogart was playing a gangster again, he brought to the character of Mad Dog Roy Earl a world-weariness and a vulnerable interior, and we see it in his eyes more than through his dialog.

In the same year Bogart played private detective Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, also a role that George Raft turned down. Bogart brought over to the character the cynicism and coolness of his gangster roles; it feels repetitive to say it was an iconic role, but it’s true—it’s a performance that ripples across time to every actor playing a private detective, who are either borrowing from it or riffing on it or turning it on its head. You wouldn’t have Columbo. You wouldn’t have Breathless either.

Did George Raft ever realize he was a sort of guardian angel for Bogart? Because for a third time, a role he turned down became a Bogart classic: Rick Blain in Casablanca (1942). As Puschak points out, it’s a difficult role as Rick is decidedly passive and casually mean for the first half, leaving people to their fate. It only works because we can see every decision Rick makes roiling behind Bogart’s eyes, and we know that eventually he will break and do the right thing.

As he got older and the 40’s turned into the ‘50s, Bogart began to play with these kind of characters. His prospector in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre turns wild-eyed with greed and madness; his writer in In a Lonely Place is suspected of murder, and Bogart plays him ever so slightly mad that we wonder if he might even be a killer. It is one of Bogart’s most uncomfortable performances, taking what had become familiar and friendly in his screen persona and twisting it.

He died in 1957, age 57, from the cancerous effects of a lifetime of smoking. What kind of roles might he have done if he had made it through the 60s and the 70s? Would the French New Wave directors have hired him? Would Scorsese or Altman or Coppola? Again, we can only wonder.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

Albert Einstein Explains Why We Need to Read the Classics

Two pieces of reading advice I’ve carried throughout my life came from two early favorite writers, Herman Melville and C.S. Lewis. In one of the myriad pearls he tosses out as asides in his prose, Melville asks in Moby Dick, “why read widely when you can read deeply?” Why spread our minds thin? Rather than agonize over what we don’t know, we can dig into the relatively few things we do until we’ve mastered them, then move on to the next thing.

Melville’s counsel may not suit every temperament, depending on whether one is a fox or a hedgehog (or an Ahab). But Lewis’ advice might just be indispensable for developing an outlook as broad-minded as it is deep. “It is a good rule,” he wrote, “after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”

Many other famous readers have left behind similar pieces of reading advice, like Edward Bulwer-Lytton, author of notorious opener “It was a dark and stormy night." As though refining Lewis’ suggestion, he proposed, “In science, read, by preference, the newest works; in literature, the oldest. The classic literature is always modern. New books revive and redecorate old ideas; old books suggest and invigorate new ideas.”

Albert Einstein shared neither Lewis’ religion nor Bulwar-Lytton’s love of semicolons, but he did share both their outlook on reading the ancients. Einstein approached the subject in terms of modern arrogance and ignorance and the bias of presentism, writing in a 1952 journal article:

Somebody who only reads newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else. And what a person thinks on his own without being stimulated by the thoughts and experiences of other people is even in the best case rather paltry and monotonous.

There are only a few enlightened people with a lucid mind and style and with good taste within a century. What has been preserved of their work belongs among the most precious possessions of mankind. We owe it to a few writers of antiquity (Plato, Aristotle, etc.) that the people in the Middle Ages could slowly extricate themselves from the superstitions and ignorance that had darkened life for more than half a millennium.

Nothing is more needed to overcome the modernist's snobbishness.

Einstein himself read both widely and deeply, so much so that he “became a literary motif for some writers,” as Dr. Antonia Moreno González notes, not only because of his paradigm-shattering theories but because of his generally well-rounded public genius. He was frequently asked, and happy to volunteer, his “ideas and opinions”—as the title of a collection of his writing calls his non-scientific work, becoming a public philosopher as well as a scientist.

We might credit Einstein's liberal attitude towards reading and education—in the classical sense of the word "liberal"— as a driving force behind his endless intellectual curiosity, humility, and lack of prejudice. His diagnosis of the problem of modern ignorance may strike us as grossly understated in our current political circumstances. As for what constitutes a "classic," I like Italo Calvino's expansive definition: "A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say."

via Mental Floss

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Is It Rude to Talk Over a Film? MST3K’s Mary Jo Pehl on Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #45

We live in a commentary culture with much appreciation for camp and snark, but something special happened in the early '90s when Mystery Science Theater 3000 popularized this additive form of comedy, where jokes are made during a full-length or short film. Mary Jo Pehl was a writer and performer on MST3K and has since riffed with fellow MST3K alums for Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic.

Mark, Erica, and Brian briefly debate the ethics of talking over someone else's art and then interview Mary Jo about how riffs get written, developing a riffing style and a character that the audience can connect with (do you need to include skits to establish a premise for why riffing is happening?), riffing films you love vs. old garbage, the degree to which riffing has gone beyond just MST3K-associated comedians, VH-1's Pop-Up Video, and more.

Follow Mary Jo @MaryJoPehl.

Here are a some links to get you watching riffing:

Different teams have different styles of riffing, so if you hate MST3K, you might want to see if you just hate those guys or hate the art form as a whole. The alums themselves currently work as:

Here are a few relevant articles:

Also, PROJECT: RIFF is the website/database we talk about where a guy named Andrew figured out how many riffs per minute are in each MST3K episode, which character made the joke, and other stuff.

Learn more at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

The Expansive Vocal Range of Joni Mitchell: From the Early to Later Years

It’s quite a testament to Joni Mitchell’s musicianship that her “voice is arguably the most underrated aspect of her music.” So writes a contributor to The Range Place, an online project that analyzes the vocal ranges of popular singers. This is not to say that Mitchell’s voice is underrated—far from it—but her adventurous, deeply personal lyricism and experimental songwriting are how she is most often distinguished from the cohort of 60s singer-songwriters who emerged from the folk scene. (She first became known as the writer of Judy Collins’ hit, “Both Sides, Now.”)

That said, there’s no mistaking her for any other singer. “With very wide vibrato, she would frequently reach into her upper register comfortably with a blissful falsetto while still being able to reach some smooth lower notes with ease.” You can hear examples of her vocal range above, in excerpts from dozens of songs, both studio and live versions, recorded throughout her career. “She was a mezzo-soprano through the late sixties and seventies, with her voice standing out among other singer-songwriters due to its unusual comfort in the fifth octave.”

There are many other qualities that set Mitchell’s voice apart, including her incredible sense of pitch and rhythm. As session singer and vocal coach Jaime Babbitt writes, “singers who study singing and play instruments that make chords are better than all the rest. Joni Mitchell played many: dulcimer, guitar, piano, and flute, even ukulele as a child.” Mitchell’s instrumental skill gave her precise vocal timing, “a critical and often overlooked singer-skill,” and one that contributes hugely to a vocal performance.

Her love of jazz infuses even her folkiest songs with rhythmic vocal patterns that run up and down the scale. (Hear an example in the isolated vocals from 1971’s “River,” just above.) Just as every singer’s voice will do, Mitchell’s range narrowed with age. “Her voice nowadays,” writes The Range Place (though she no longer performs), “is closer to that of a contralto than to that of a mezzo-soprano, having lowered substantially more than other singers from the seventies”—a likely outcome of her lifelong smoking habit.

It’s common to say of an older singer that “she can’t hit the high notes anymore,” but this judgment misses out on the richness of a mature voice. Mitchell’s “indomitable technique” never wavered in her later years, Paul Taylor argues at The Independent. Her later voice was “stunning (bereft, bewildered, stoical),” transformed from the ambitious, piercing falsetto to “radiant/rueful” and wise.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

J.K. Rowling Is Publishing Her New Children’s Novel Free Online, One Chapter Per Day

Image via Wikimedia Commons

J.K. Rowling may be the queen of children's literature, but how many of her fans have noticed she hasn't published a book for children in nearly thirteen years? Today's twentysomethings will recall fondly the summer of 2007, when they descended upon bookstores for their copy, or copies, of the concluding volume of the Harry Potter series. Thereafter Rowling, no doubt eager to write for an audience closer to her own age, put out the bleak social comedy The Casual Vacancy and a series of crime thrillers under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Rowling's latest Galbraith novel Troubled Blood is scheduled for publication in the fall of this year, but the current generation of young readers can enjoy her new fairy tale The Ickabog online now as she serializes it for free over the next two months.

"The idea for The Ickabog came to me while I was still writing Harry Potter," says Rowling in an introductory post on her own web site. Having written "most of a first draft in fits and starts between Potter books," she ended up shelving it for nearly a decade. "Over time I came to think of it as a story that belonged to my two younger children, because I’d read it to them in the evenings when they were little, which has always been a happy family memory."

The unfinished manuscript came back to mind more recently as a possible entertainment for children in coronavirus lockdown all over the world. "As I worked to finish the book, I started reading chapters nightly to the family again. This was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my writing life."

With the work now complete, Rowling will "be posting a chapter (or two, or three) every weekday between 26th May and 10th July on The Ickabog website." The first chapter, which is available now, begins as follows:

Once upon a time, there was a tiny country called Cornucopia, which had been ruled for centuries by a long line of fair-haired kings. The king at the time of which I write was called King Fred the Fearless. He’d announced the ‘Fearless’ bit himself, on the morning of his coronation, partly because it sounded nice with ‘Fred’, but also because he’d once managed to catch and kill a wasp all by himself, if you didn’t count five footmen and the boot boy.

This prose will feel familiar to parents who grew up reading Harry Potter themselves, and who will surely be pleased to see Rowling's signature sense of humo(u)r still in effect. These parents can read The Ickabog's weekly installments to their own children, as well as encourage those artistically inclined to contribute their own visuals to the story by participating in the Ickabog illustration competition. "Creativity, inventiveness and effort are the most important things," Rowling notes. "We aren’t necessarily looking for the most technical skill!" She also emphasizes, as regards the story itself, that though its themes include "truth and the abuse of power," it "isn’t intended to be read as a response to anything that’s happening in the world right now." Many factors have contributed to Rowling's great success, but her preference for the timeless over the topical surely isn't a minor one. Read her story here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

This Is What an 1869 MIT Entrance Exam Looks Like: Could You Have Passed the Test?

The late 19th Century was the time of Charles Darwin and James Clerk Maxwell, of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. It was a golden age of science and technology. So you might wonder how hard it was to get into one of the top technical universities in that era.

The answer, according to this video? Not very hard.

At least that was the case in 1869 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT,  as the young Australian science and math teacher Toby Hendy explains on her excellent YouTube channel, Tibees. MIT was brand new and desperate for tuition revenue in 1869, so the object of the test wasn't to whittle a massive field of applicants down to a manageable size. It was simply to make sure that incoming students could handle the work.

MIT opened in 1865, just after the end of the Civil War. The idea was to create a European-style polytechnic university to meet the demands of an increasingly industrial economy. The original campus was in Boston, across the Charles River from its current location in Cambridge. Only 15 students signed up in 1865. Tuition was $100 for the whole year. There was no formal entrance test. According to an article from the school's Archives and Special Collections,

The "conditions for admission" section of MIT's catalogue for 1865-66 indicates that candidates for admission as first year students must be at least sixteen years old and must give satisfactory evidence "by examination or otherwise" of a competent training in arithmetic, geometry, English grammar, geography, and the "rudiments of French." Rapid and legible handwriting was also stressed as being "particularly important." By 1869 the handwriting requirement and French had been dropped, but algebra had been added and students needed to pass a qualifying exam in the required subject areas. An ancillary effect was to protect unqualified students from disappointment and professors from wasting their time.

A couple of years earlier, in 1867, the MIT Executive Committee reported that faculty members had felt it necessary to ask parents of "some incompetent and inattentive students to withdraw them from the school, wishing to spare them the mortification of an examination which it was certain they could not pass."

Nowadays, the students who make it into MIT have average SAT and ACT scores in the 99th percentile. Of 21,312 first-year applicants hoping to join the Class of 2023, only 1,427 made it. That's an admission rate of 6.7 percent. What a difference 150 years can make!

To take the 1869 entrance examination in English, Algebra, Geometry and Arithmetic, and to see the correct answers, visit this cached article from the MIT website.

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