Conversation with a Swiftie: Pretty Much Pop #58 Addresses the Taylor Swift Phenomenon

Prompted by the release of new album Folklore and the 2020 documentary Miss Americana, your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt speak with guest Amber Padgett about her love of Taylor, ranking the albums/eras, Taylor as songwriter/puppetmaster, why the hate, weird levels of fan engagement, double standards in expectations for female artists, and more. Like all of our discussions, this one is should be interesting to fans, haters, and folks who’re just curious as to what all the fuss is about.

A few of the sources we scanned to prepare:

Amber recommends Taylor’s Tiny Desk Concert. Watch Erica and Drew cover “Exile.” Here’s that album of Ryan Adams’ 1989 covers that Erica mentions. And yes, we’re open to a comparable Beyoncé episode if we can find a guest super-fan and listeners want more of this kind of thing.

Learn more at This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at 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.

The Massive Harrods Catalogue from 1912 Gets Digitized: Before Amazon, Harrods Offered “Everything for Everyone, Everywhere”

A couple years ago, obituaries began appearing online for the department store Sears after the 130-year-old American company announced its bankruptcy. Many of the tributes focused on Sears, Roebuck & Co’s catalog, and for good reason. Their massive mail-order business, the Amazon of its day, transformed the U.S., selling guitars to Delta blues and rock and roll musicians and shipping thousands of build-it-yourself houses to rural homesteaders and suburbanites. The sheer reach and scope of the Sears’ catalog can seem overwhelming…. That is, until we turn to the 1912 Harrods for Everything.

This 1,525-page catalogue from London’s world-famous department store, Harrods, does seem to mean everything, with over 15,000 products available for purchase at the store’s location, by mail, or by phone (“anything, at any time, day or night”).

You can see the enormous monument to commerce for yourself at Project Gutenberg. The catalogue took 13 years to scan. “Some idea of the vast quantity of items that Harrods stocked or had available can be taken from the general index,” notes Eric Hutton, one of the volunteer editors on the project, “which runs for 68 pages, five columns to a page.”

Men and women could order custom-tailored clothing, fine jewelry, clocks, watches, furniture. Naturalists and hunters could have their trophies dressed and mounted. Policemen and, well, anyone, could order pistols, “knuckle dusters,” and handcuffs. “You could also hire bands or musicians, plus tents or marquees for outdoor gatherings. You could rent steam, electric, or petrol launches to go down a river, or, if you set your sights further afield, there were ‘exploring, scientific and shooting expeditions… completely equipped and provisioned for any part of the world”… perhaps the Edwardian British version of the Sears House.

A MetaFilter user points out how much globalization and empire play into the marketing. These are “not just luxury goods but commodities. I noticed wheat could come from at least three continents…. Over and over it explains how Harrods will outfit anyone abroad who needs a social or military or exploratory uniform: telegraph Harrods for shoe buckles appropriate to your stations.” Harrods also repeatedly emphasizes they will ship anywhere in the world. Colonial officials in India or Uganda could live like kings. We must confess, we doubt this merchandise was truly meant for everyone.

This was also a time when miracle cures and various unscientific treatments abounded. “You could buy things like chloroform or throat pastilles in dozens of varieties,” notes Hutton, “even those containing cocaine!”

A few of the commodities featured in Harrods for Everything are a lot harder to come by these days. Some of them, like the pages of guns, are easy to get in the US but not so readily available in the UK and many of its former colonies. (Though you can find catalogues for just about anything if you look hard enough.)

But aside from certain obvious historical differences, the catalogue isn’t that much different from the pages of online retailers who will also sell you almost anything, at any time of day, and ship it to you anywhere in the world. What we thought of as unprecedented innovation was commonplace in the days of Queen Victoria, only shipping took a lot longer. Harrods’ universalizing Latin motto even sounds particularly modern, in English, at least: Omnia Omnibus Ubique, or “everything for everyone, everywhere.” Yet much, too, has changed. Harrods, outfitter of the British Empire, is now owned by the state of Qatar.

See the fully scanned 1,525-page Harrods for Everything catalogue at Project Gutenberg.

Related Content:

Sears Sold 75,000 DIY Mail Order Homes Between 1908 and 1939, and Transformed American Life

How the Sears Catalog Disrupted the Jim Crow South and Helped Give Birth to the Delta Blues & Rock and Roll

What It Cost to Shop at the Grocery Store in 1836, and What Goods You Could Buy

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

Take a Virtual Tour of Frida Kahlo’s Blue House Free Online

No first trip to Mexico City is complete without a visit to the Frida Kahlo Museum. Located in the village-turned-borough of Coyoacán south of the city’s center, it requires a short trip-within-a-trip to get there. But even for travelers who know nothing of Kahlo’s art, it’s worth the effort — especially since they’ll come away knowing quite a bit about not just Kahlo’s art and life but the culturally rich place and time she inhabited. For the building occupied by the Frida Kahlo Museum was, in fact, the home in which the artist was born and spent most of her life, making her one of Coyoacán’s many notable residents. (Others include writer Octavio Paz, iconic comic actor Mario “Cantinflas” Moreno, and actress-singer Dolores del Río.)

Though I’ve long wanted to return to the Blue House, as the Frida Kahlo Museum is colloquially known, I somehow haven’t made it back again on any of my subsequent trips to Mexico City. And given the state of world travel at the moment, I doubt I’ll get the chance to make another visit any time soon.

Fortunately, the Museum has become virtually explorable online, with 360-degree views of all its rooms as well as its grounds. Even virtually, writes Vogue‘s Manon Garrigues, “Frida’s spirit can be felt everywhere. In her atelier are carefully arranged pigments facing her easel, while in the kitchen, which once welcomed the couple’s friends to the house, including their renowned neighbor, Trotsky, who lived next door with his wife, are playful ceramics.”

For those with compatible headsets, all of this is also viewable in WebVR mode —  even Kahlo’s bedroom, where “an urn in the form of her face lies on her bed, holding her ashes. Beside is the mirror in which Frida, bedridden, observed herself to paint her famous self-portraits, such as The Two Fridas and Frida y la cesarea, now on display in the villa.”

The home-turned-museum’s ten rooms display a great deal of Kahlo’s art, of course, but also works by her husband, the painter Diego Rivera, as well as the couple’s clothing and personal effects. You’ll find paintings by other artists of Kahlo’s day like Paul Klee and José María Velasco, and also handcrafted items from other regions of Mexico. The only thing missing in the virtual Frida Kahlo Museum experience is the requisite cafe de olla enjoyed afterward, back out on the streets of Coyoacán. Enter the virtual tour here.

via Messy Nessy

Related Content:

A Brief Animated Introduction to the Life and Work of Frida Kahlo

Watch Moving Short Films of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at the “Blue House”

Artists Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera Visit Leon Trotsky in Mexico: Vintage Footage from 1938

Discover Frida Kahlo’s Wildly-Illustrated Diary: It Chronicled the Last 10 Years of Her Life, and Then Got Locked Away for Decades

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.

Sylvia Beach Tells the Story of Founding Shakespeare and Company, Publishing Joyce’s Ulysses, Selling Copies of Hemingway’s First Book & More (1962)

Revisiting Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast a couple of decades after I read it last, I notice a few things right away: I am still moved by the prose and think it’s as impressive as ever; I am less moved by the machismo and alcoholism and more interested in characters like Sylvia Beach, founder of Shakespeare and Company, the bookstore that served as a base of operations for the famed Lost Generation of writers in Paris.

“Sylvia had a lively, sharply sculptured face, brown eyes that were as alive as a small animal’s and as gay as a young girl’s,” Hemingway wrote of her in his memoir. “She was kind, cheerful and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.” Indeed, Hemingway also “recounts being given access to the whole of Sylvia Beach’s library at Shakespeare and Company for free after his first visit,” notes writer RJ Smith.

Beach founded the shop in 1919, encouraged (and funded) by her partner Adrienne Monnier, who owned a French-language bookstore. Beach’s mostly English-language Shakespeare and Company would become a lending-library, post office, bank, and even hotel for authors who congregated there. She supported the great expatriate modernists and hosted French writers like André Gide and Paul Valéry. She also published James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922 when no one else would, after earlier published excerpts were deemed “obscene.”

Joyce was shaped by Paris, and owed a huge debt of gratitude to Beach, just as readers of Ulysses do almost 100 years later. Forty years after the novel’s publication, Beach traveled to Ireland to celebrate and sat down for the long interview above in which she remembers those heady times. She also tells the story of how a Presbyterian minister’s daughter—who went to church in Princeton, NJ with Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson—became a pioneering out lesbian modernist bookseller in Paris.

Beach remembers meeting “all the French writers” at Monnier’s shop after her time studying at the Sorbonne and how American writers all came to Paris to escape prohibition at home. “For Hemingway and his most of his friends,” says Harvard historian Patrice Higonnet, “Paris was one long binge, all the more enjoyable because it wasn’t very expensive.” For Beach, Paris became home, and Shakespeare and Company a home away from home for waves of expats until the Nazis shut it down in 1941. (Ten years later, a different Shakespeare and Company was opened by bookseller George Whitman.)

“They were disgusted in America because they couldn’t get a drink,” Beach says, “and they couldn’t get Ulysses. I used to think those were the two great causes of their discontent.” Her interviews, letters, and her own memoir, Shakespeare and Company, tell the story of the Lost Generation from her point of view, one animated by an absolute devotion to literature, and in particular, to Joyce, who did not reciprocate. When Ulysses sold to Random House in 1932, he offered her no share of his very large advance.

Beach was forgiving. “I understood from the first,” she said, “that working with or for Mr. Joyce, the pleasure was mine—an infinite pleasure: the profits were for him.” She was doing something other than running a business. She was “cross-fertilizing,” as French writer Andre Chamson put it. “She did more to link England, the United States, Ireland, and France than four great ambassadors combined.” She did so by giving writers what they needed to make the work she knew they could, at a very rare time and place in which such a thing was briefly possible.

Related Content:

Beginnings Profiles Shakespeare and Company’s Sylvia Beach Whitman

The Shakespeare and Company Project Digitizes the Records of the Famous Bookstore, Showing the Reading Habits of the Lost Generation

F. Scott Fitzgerald Has a Strange Dinner with James Joyce & Draws a Cute Sketch of It (1928)

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

How Stevie Nicks Wrote “Rhiannon” & Embodied the Medieval Witch Character Onstage

It seems as inevitable as bell bottoms and shoulder-wide collars that Stevie Nicks would transform into the New Age priestess who greeted the 70s with a wave of a billowy, shawl-draped arm. “It makes sense,” Bill DeMain writes at Classic Rock, that her “signature song was inspired by a kind of ancient magic” of the kind that everybody was getting into. That song, “Rhiannon,” takes its name from “an old Welsh witch,” as Nicks would often announce onstage. During Fleetwood Mac’s Nicks/Buckingham heyday, Nicks embodied the character as though possessed, her performances of the song “like an exorcism,” Mick Fleetwood recalled.

The story of how “Rhiannon” came to be, however, is not as straightforward as Nicks’ reaching into the pages of the Mabinogion, the Welsh prose cycle in which Rhiannon first appears. The name came to her several steps removed from its mythical origins, from a novel by Mary Leader called Triad.

“It was just a stupid little paperback that I found somewhere at somebody’s house,” she recalls of the uncanny 1974 composition. “And it was all about this girl who becomes possessed by a spirit named Rhiannon. I read the book, but I was so taken with that name that I thought: ‘I’ve got to write something about this.’ So I sat down at the piano and started this song about a woman that was all involved with these birds and magic.”

“I come to find out,” she says, “after I’ve written the song, that in fact Rhiannon was the goddess of steeds, maker of birds.” The perfect anthem for a singer on the threshold of turning the already famous Fleetwood Mac into one of the biggest rock bands in the world. They were in a kind of wilderness period, having fired longtime guitarist and musical linchpin Danny Kirwan and lost guitarist Bob Welch. When Lindsay Buckingham, his replacement, insisted that Nicks join with him, she brought the song “about an old Welsh witch” along with the pair’s collection of shawls, capes, and kimonos.

You can learn more about the myths of the Mabinogion, the oldest known prose stories in Britain, in the Polyphonic video above. The collection inspired the epic fantasies of J.R.R. Tolkien, and by proxy the epic fantasies of Led Zeppelin and every heavy metal band thereafter. It also features in Lloyd Alexander’s 1960’s fantasy series Chronicles of Prydain (later poorly adapted in Disney’s The Black Cauldron). The pop culture of the 70s had been infused with ancient Welsh before Rhiannon came along, but the goddess herself seemed to belong exclusively to Stevie Nicks, who intuited a deep magic in the music of her ancient name.

Related Content:

How Fleetwood Mac Makes A Song: A Video Essay Exploring the “Sonic Paintings” on the Classic Album, Rumours

Stevie Nicks “Shows Us How to Kick Ass in High-Heeled Boots” in a 1983 Women’s Self Defense Manual

When Lucy Lawless Impersonated Stevie Nicks & Imagined Her as the Owner of a Bad Tex-Mex Restaurant: A Cult Classic SNL Skit

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

Documentaries on the Groundbreaking Work & Life of Ursula K. Le Guin & Four Other Trailblazing Artists, Streaming Free this Week

What sort of art will emerge from this unprecedented moment in history, when the global coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement grew exponentially, and synchronously.

And not to presume, but to hope, what will humans think of that literature in 50 or 100 years’ time?

Over the course of a not quite hour-long American Masters episode devoted to author Ursula LeGuin, flux emerges as a major theme of the science fiction pioneer’s life and work.

The youngest child of A.L. Kroeber, the founder of academic anthropology, LeGuin, who died in 2018, criticized herself for having been slow to open her eyes to the injustice around her.

It became a preoccupation in stories like The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, a thought experiment in which the reader must consider the ethics of a prosperous happy society, whose good fortune depends on the suffering of a captive child.

The Dispossessed arose from her curiosity as to what “a genuine, working anarchist society (would) be like.”

(Answer: flawed, like every other human society.)

One of her best known books, The Left Hand of Darkness, published in 1969, prefigured the coming battle for gender equality, and so much more, by creating a truly gender fluid world in which the androgynous inhabitants’ monthly periods of sexual activity conferred temporarily male or female biological status at random.

It was hailed as a feminist groundbreaker, but as time went on, LeGuin found herself in hot water for having gone with the masculine pronoun as a default way of referring to her androgynous characters:

At first, I felt a little bit defensive, but, as I thought about it, I began to see my critics were right. I was coming up against how I write about gender equality.

My job is not to arrive at a final answer and just deliver it.

I see my job as holding doors open or opening windows, but who comes in and out the doors? What do you see out the window? How do I know?

The book is still in print, should new generation of readers feel compelled to plumb the text for problematic passages. Why should the many reflections, essays, and think pieces that marked the 50th anniversary of its publication be the last word?

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin is available to stream for free on PBS through Monday August 31, along with four other American Masters episodes featuring artists who, like Le Guin, broke the existing molds:

Terrence McNally: Every Act of Life

Over a six-decade career, four-time Tony-winner and outspoken LGBTQ activist Terrence McNally wrote dozens of trailblazing plays, musicals, operas and screenplays about sexuality, homophobia, faith, and the power of art.

Raúl Juliá: The World’s a Stage

The charismatic actor from Puerto Rico was celebrated for the range and versatility he brought to roles on stage and screen, from Shakespearean plays to the “The Addams Family.” Though his career was cut short by his death at age 54, he paved the way for generations of Latinx actors.

Rothko: Pictures Must be Miraculous

One of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Mark Rothko’s signature style helped define Abstract Expressionism. The celebrated painter’s luminous paintings now set records at auction, and are seen by millions in London, Washington, D.C. and at the famous Rothko Chapel in Houston.

Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear

A formative voice of the Native American Renaissance in art and literature, author and poet N. Scott Momaday was the first Native American to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Here’s to ever-evolving worlds, and acknowledging the contributions of those who helped make this change possible.

Stream the five PBS American Masters episodes mentioned above for free through the end of August here.

Related Content: 

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Daily Routine: The Discipline That Fueled Her Imagination

Ursula K. Le Guin Names the Books She Likes and Wants You to Read

Hear Neil Gaiman Read a Beautiful, Profound Poem by Ursula K. Le Guin to His Cousin on Her 100th Birthday

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Hear 10 of Bach’s Pieces Played on Original Baroque Instruments

We could say that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach transcends instrumentation. Wendy Carlos did a great deal to prove that with her 1968 album Switched-On Bach, composed entirely (and laboriously) on an early Moog synthesizer. Despite its controversial union of long-revered compositions with practically untested musical technology, that project won high praise, not least from as famed an interpreter of Bach as Glenn Gould. Here at Open Culture we’ve featured many of Gould’s own performances of Bach: of the Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor in his 1960 U.S. television debut, of the cantata BWV 54 on a 1962 CBC special, of The Art of Fugue and the Goldberg Variations as played toward the end of his life in the early 1980s.

Going back to 1959, we find a 27-year-old Gould playing Bach in a National Film Board of Canada documentary, and on “the piano he favors above all others for practicing: a 70-year-old Chickering with a resonant, harpsichord quality recalling the instruments of the time of Bach.” But to truly hear Bach’s music as Bach himself would have heard it, you need to bring out those very same instruments.

That’s the mandate of San Francisco’s Voices of Music, an ensemble dedicated to “renaissance and baroque music, drawing upon the many and varied sources for historical performance practice.” We’ve previously featured their performances of Pachelbel’s Canon and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons on original instruments; more recently they’ve put together a Youtube playlist of their original-instrument performances of Bach.

The ten selections on Voices of Music’s Bach playlist include the Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor BWV 1008, Allemande and Courante played on the baroque cello by Eva Lymenstull; the Arioso from Cantata 156 (Sinfonia) with Marc Schachman on the baroque oboe; the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B Flat Major BWV 1051 played by Kati Kyme and Elizabeth Blumenstock on baroque viola (viole da braccio), Elisabeth Reed and William Skeen on the viola da gamba, Tanya Tomkins on the baroque cello, Farley Pearce on the violone, and Hanneke van Proosdij on the harpsichord; and the Sonata No. 3 in C Major for baroque violin BWV 1005 interpreted by August and Georgina McKay Lodge, the former playing the baroque violin and the latter reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s poem “Hymn to Time.”

This isn’t the first time the work of Le Guin, now remembered as an influential author of science fiction and fantasy literature, has been set to music. Just after her death in 2018 we featured Rigel 9, the space rock opera she created in collaboration with avant-garde composer David Bedford in 1985. If Le Guin’s words suited a tale of the future told with high-tech New Wave sounds, they suit an acoustic return to the eighteenth century just as well.

This is a versatility much like Bach’s own, which has guaranteed that, more than 250 years after his death, his music retains its power and depth whether expressed through a piano, a synthesizer, or indeed the instruments of his day — not that the players of percussion tubes or wine glasses have done him great injustice either.

Related Content:

Watch J.S. Bach’s “Air on the G String” Played on the Actual Instruments from His Time

Musicians Play Bach on the Octobass, the Gargantuan String Instrument Invented in 1850

Hear the Sounds of the Actual Instruments for Which Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, and Handel Originally Composed Their Music

The Authentic Pachelbel’s Canon: Watch a Performance Based on the Original Manuscript & Played with Original 17th-Century Instruments

The Authentic Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons: Watch a Performance Based on Original Manuscripts & Played with 18th-Century Instruments

All of Bach for Free! New Site Will Put Performances of 1080 Bach Compositions Online

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.

Hear Musicians Play the Only Playable Stradivarius Guitar in the World: The “Sabionari”

What makes one artisan stand out in a field of highly skilled competitors? When we think of classical instruments, we think of the Stradivari family, famed makers of violins, violas, cellos, and other instruments. But the Stradivarius’ success may owe as much to chance as to superior craftsmanship. A Texas A&M professor emeritus of biochemistry, Joseph Nagyvary (also a violinist and violin maker), discovered that Stradivarius instruments were soaked in chemicals “to protect them from a worm infestation that was sweeping through Italy in the 1700s.”

“By pure accident,” this method of pest control, Texas A&M Today writes, had “the unintended result of producing the unique sounds that have been almost impossible to duplicate in the past 400 years.”

So, there you have it, the secret of the Stradivarius sound: borax and brine. There’s more to it than that, of course, but the chemical bath advantage makes for a fascinating bit of trivia. To the ear, it matters little whether a sound is the result of accident, intention, or some measure of the two.

If it sounds sweet, it is, and Stradivarius instruments (in playable condition, anyway) sound like the voices of angels. Happily, the Stradivarius experiment was repeatable hundreds of times, and not only for the famed orchestral instruments with which we’re familiar, if only by reputation. The family made around 1000 instruments, 960 of which are violins. They also made a couple handfuls of guitars, five of which exist in complete form. These are:

The first, and earliest of these instruments, the so-called Sabionari, was made by Antonio Stradivari himself and happens to be the only playable guitar of the five, due to a restoration by three master luthiers. All of the Stradivari guitars are ten-string (five-course) instruments, with doubled notes like a modern 12-string guitar. But, “as with all Stradivari instruments,” The Strad points out, “the ‘Sabionari’ was modernized,” converted to six-string in a process that sounds especially violent in relation to what we now view as a precious museum piece (especially as Andrés Segovia signed the guitar in 1948).

In the early 19th century, Italian luthier Giuseppe Marconcini “changed the neck, peghead and bridge, and added new linings and braces.” The original parts he removed were long gone, so restorers had to fit new ones to the body. Curiously, Marconcini’s 150-year-old parts were “infested by woodworm,” but “the insects spared the original soundboard and bracing wood by Stradivari.” Effective pest control not only preserved the wood; it also contributed to the sound we hear above in these many videos featuring the Sabionari, with players Krishnasol Jimenéz, Ugo Nasrucci, and Rolf Lislevand, who plays a lively Tarantella below and gives us a taste of how the instrument was likely used to accompany dances.

Where it was once “extremely rare” to hear the sound of a Baroque guitar, we can now all, thanks to the internet, enjoy Stradivarius guitar performances. You can see many more here, and learn much more about the 1679 guitar itself, here.

Related Content:

Musician Plays the Last Stradivarius Guitar in the World, the “Sabionari” Made in 1679

What Makes the Stradivarius Special? It Was Designed to Sound Like a Female Soprano Voice, With Notes Sounding Like Vowels, Says Researcher

Why Stradivarius Violins Are Worth Millions

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

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