Sinéad O’Connor Makes Her First US Television Appearance: Watch Her Sing “Mandinka” on Late Night with David Letterman (1988)

On September 7, 1988, a skinny, near bald, 21-year-old mother took the mic midway through Late Night with David Letterman and blew the socks off both the live studio audience and the folks viewing at home.

She also appeared as an unwilling participant in a cheesy greenroom sketch with fellow guests comedian Robert Klein, crooner Jerry Vale, and a female day player costumed as a sexy cigarette girl from another era.

It’s a stupid, retrograde bit that’s become even worse with age, but young Sinead O’Connor’s refusal to play along with the problematic premise was as true to form as her howling performance of Mandinka off her first album, The Lion and the Cobra.

Performing in a studded jean jacket and Claddagh ring, she made her live US television debut with eyes mostly closed.

Letterman introduced her as a “remarkable, young singer and writer from Ireland.”

It’s fun to see the truth of that canned line hitting the house band as the song progresses. Bandleader Paul Shaffer looks especially tickled by the ferocity of O’Connor’s performance and her confident musicianship.

In her memoir Rememberings, O’Connor explains that the song was inspired by the 1977 television adaptation of Alex Haley’s semi-autobiographical historical novel Roots:

I was a young girl when I saw it, and it moved something so deeply in me, I had a visceral response. I came to emotionally identify with the civil rights movement and slavery, especially given the theocracy I lived in and the oppression in my own home.

She reprised Mandinka several months later at the Grammy Awards. She may have lost Best Female Rock Vocal Performance to established legend Tina Turner, but the LA Times waggishly declared her “black halter top, bare midriff, torn, faded blue jeans and large black work shoes” the “outfit of the evening”:

The latest addition to her shaved-head look is a tattoo of militant rap group Public Enemy’s insignia–a view through a telescopic gun sight–over her left ear. None of which detracted from her electrifying performance of her song “Mandinka.”

“I thought it was a little odd that they asked me to perform, because of the way I look,” a nervous-looking O’Connor told the press backstage. “But I find it encouraging that they asked, because it’s an acknowledgment that they are prepared not to be so safe about the music and push forward with people slightly off the wall.”

Two years later, her cover of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U, abetted by her defiant appearance, made her a household name. Nominated for four Grammys, she declined an invitation to perform at the ceremony. She also declined her award for Best Alternative Music Performance.

In a letter to the sponsoring organization, the Recording Academy of the United States, she argued against the music industry’s priorities, its overt tendency to rank artists based on their commercial success:

As artists I believe our function is to express the feelings of the human race–to always speak the truth and never keep it hidden even though we are operating in a world which does not like the sound of the truth. I believe that our purpose is to inspire and, in some way, guide and heal the human race, of which we are all equal members.

Those looking for early-90s examples of man-splaining might appreciate Recording Academy President Michael Greene’s response, in which he overlooked the Letterman appearance, claiming the Grammys provided O’Connor with her first nationally televised exposure in the States:

We applaud that Sinead feels so strongly about these issues and believe that her convictions only add to the seriousness of her work. But she may be misguided. We respect her immensely as an artist… But I’m afraid that Sinead may not be properly informed about the difference between the overtly commercial aspects of popularity contests as opposed to the Grammys, which are voted on by the creative community.

O’Connor doubled down, attempting to rally her fellow musicians to shine a light on society’s ills, telling the LA Times that “It’s not enough any more to just sit in your chair and say, ‘Yeah, it’s terrible.’:”

Musicians are in a position to help heal this sickness, but I’d say 90% of the artists in the music business fail in that responsibility. You must acknowledge if you are an artist that you are a role model for young people, whether you like it or not. If you don’t want to accept that responsibility, you shouldn’t be an artist. With power comes responsibility.

The industry, including awards shows, sends out the message that selling more records is good rather than telling the truth.

Honoring commercial success is the obvious purpose of the American Music Awards telecast, but it’s also the intent of the Grammys as well.

I think if artists were to be awarded for what they had achieved in so far as telling the truth . . . as far as healing the human race, then I’d say Van Morrison or Ice Cube, people like that should be honored.

That statement lends an extra poignancy to our viewing of O’Connor and Morrison’s 1995 Letterman appearance, when, backed by the Chieftans, they duetted on Have I Told You Lately?

In the wake of O’Connor’s death at 56 last week, the media reminded us of the time she ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live as a way of drawing attention to the Catholic church’s coverup of sexual abuse by the clergy.

They reminded us of the time Frank Sinatra claimed he’d like to “kick her ass” when she wouldn’t submit to singing the National Anthem before a concert.

They reminded us of her correspondence with Miley Cyrus, wherein she warned the younger singer not to “obscure (her) talent by allowing (her)self to be pimped” either consciously or unconsciously.

Meanwhile, Letterman bassist Will Lee reacted to the news by revisiting that 1987 appearance on his Instagram:

Sinead O’Connor RIP – I always felt her pain, but now I don’t have to. She is free. Her death comes as a shock to the system because I always hoped she would find resolve, but she went too soon….

– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Behold A Grammar of Japanese Ornament and Design: The 19th Century Book That Introduced Western Audiences to Japanese Art (1880)

In 1880, architect Thomas W. Cutler endeavored to introduce his fellow Brits to Japanese art and design, a subject that remained novel for many Westerners of the time, given how recently the Tokugawa shogunate had “kept themselves aloof from all foreign intercourse, and their country jealously closed against strangers.”

Having written positively of China’s influence on Japanese artists, Cutler hoped that access to Western art would not prove a corrupting factor:

The fear that a bastard art of a very debased kind may arise in Japan, is not without foundation…The European artist, who will study the decorative art of Japan carefully and reverently, will not be in any haste to disturb, still less to uproot, the thought and feeling from which it has sprung; it is perhaps the ripest and richest fruit of a tree cultivated for many ages with the utmost solicitude and skill, under conditions of society peculiarly favorable to its growth.

Having never visited Japan himself, Cutler relied on previously published works, as well as numerous friends who were able to furnish him with “reliable information upon many subjects,” given their “long residence in the country.”

Accordingly, expect a bit of bias in A Grammar of Japanese Ornament and Design (1880).

That said, Cutler emerges as a robust admirer of Japan’s painting, lacquerware, ceramics, calligraphy, textiles, metalwork, enamelwork and netsuke carvings, the latter of which are “are often marvelous in their humor, detail, and even dignity.”

Only Japan’s wooden architecture, which he confidently pooh poohed as little more than “artistic carpentry, decoration, and gardening”, cleverly designed to withstand earthquakes, get shown less respect.

Cutler’s renderings of Japanese design motifs, undertaken in his free time, are the lasting legacy of his book, particularly for those on the prowl for copyright-free graphics.


Cutler observed that the “most characteristic” element of Japanese decoration was its close ties to the natural world, adding that unlike Western designers, a Japanese artist “would throw his design a little out of the center, and cleverly balance the composition by a butterfly, a leaf, or even a spot of color.”

The below plant studies are drawn from the work  of the great ukiyo-e master Hokusai, a “man of the people” who ushered in a period of “vitality and freshness” in Japanese art.

A sampler of curved lines made with single brush strokes can be used to create clouds or the intricate scrollwork that inspired Western artists and designers of the Aesthetic Movement.

While Cutler might not have thought much of Japanese architecture, it’s worth noting that his book shows up in the footnotes of Frank Lloyd Wright and Japan: The Role of Traditional Japanese Art and Architecture in the Work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Take a peek at some Japanese-inspired wallpaper of Cutler’s own design, then explore A Grammar of Japanese Ornament and Design by Thomas W. Cutler here.

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Christopher Nolan Visits a Paris Video Store & Talks with Cillian Murphy About the Films That Influenced Him

Christopher Nolan has by now inspired at least a couple generations of young viewers to dream of becoming filmmakers. For my own age cohort, the touchstone work was his breakout picture Memento, with its reverse-ordered story featuring a protagonist unable to create new memories. Others may have felt a greater impact from the reality-bending Inception or the dystopian sci-fi vision of Interstellar (to say nothing of all those Batman movies). But whether at the turn of the millennium or today, with Nolan’s latest feature Oppenheimer riding high at the box office, the best advice for such aspirants is the same: watch as many movies as possible.

‘The problem with Chris,” says Oppenheimer star Cillian Murphy in the video above, “is that he’s seen every film ever made.” “Not every film,” Nolan replies, a hand-waving denial that only bolsters the accusation. This takes place amid the shelves of JM Vidéo, one of the last two video stores still standing in the cinephile capital of Paris.

Nolan and Murphy paid a visit there to shoot an episode of Konbini Video Club, a Youtube series that has also brought on such auteurs as Wes Anderson, David Cronenberg, and Terry Gilliam. JM Vidéo feels like an especially suitable space for Nolan, given his advocacy of physical media. On the definitive Blu-Ray and 4k versions of his films, he explains, “there’s much less compression,” and “we control the color and the picture and the brightness,” whereas streaming is “like broadcasting a film: we don’t have much control over how it goes out.”

Nolan pulls off the shelves There Will Be Blood and Punch-Drunk Love, the work of his contemporary Paul Thomas Anderson, as well as classics that shaped his own directorial choices: Citizen Kane, Foreign Correspondent, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Strangelove. That last was forbidden viewing during the development of Oppenheimer: “I’m a big fan of Strangelove, but I stopped watching it for a couple of years while we were making the film, because it’s too daunting” — and because its blackly satirical take on how the men in control of the bomb decide the fate of the world couldn’t possibly have been improved upon. “I’m glad you didn’t mention it,” adds Murphy, who may not have seen as many movies as Nolan, but whose range of reference nevertheless demonstrates his own cinephile credentials. “No fighting in the war room.”

Related content:

The Films of Christopher Nolan Explored in a Sweeping 4-Hour Video Essay: Memento, The Dark Knight, Interstellar & More

Wes Anderson Visits a Paris Video Store and Highlights the Films He Loves: Kurosawa, Truffaut, Buñuel & More

David Cronenberg Visits a Video Store & Talks About His Favorite Movies

Terry Gilliam Visits a Video Store & Talks About His Favorite Movies and Actors

Hear 9 Hours of Hans Zimmer Soundtracks: Dunkirk, Interstellar, Inception, The Dark Knight & Much More

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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 or on Facebook.

1000+ Barbie Commercials Provides Context for This Summer’s Pinkest Blockbuster (1959-2023)

The Barbie movie has captured the popular imagination in a big way.

The New York Times can’t get enough of the recently opened summer blockbuster. Between reviews, fashion round ups, interviews, box office reports and op eds, it has published over two dozen pieces tied to this massive cultural moment.

Even those who don’t feel a burning need to catch Barbie at the multiplex are likely aware of the Barbenheimer phenom.

But what about those who grew up in feminist homes, or sisterless cis-males of a certain age?

Will a lack of hands-on experience diminish the cinematic pleasures of Barbie?

Not if you immerse yourself in BarbieCollectors’ chronological playlist of Barbie commercials before ticketing up. That’s over a thousand ads, spanning more than six decades.

The 1959 ad, above, that introduced the glamorous “teen age fashion doll” to the public clears up the misperception that pink has always been Barbie’s de facto color. It’s black-and-white, but so is the diagonal striped swimsuit the film’s star, Margot Robbie models in the film’s opener, a tongue in cheek homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

(Astute observers may note the similarities between some of the sophisticated ensembles original flavor Barbie sports here and the outfits Robbie donned for the pink carpet prior to the Screen Actors Guild strike.)

In the battle between pink and historical record, pink is destined to come out on top in the Barbie movie. Director Greta Gerwig and her design team punch up Barbie’s early 80’s Western look with a wide pink brush, lowering the neckline but keeping the wink.

The doll came with a working autograph stamp Robbie may consider adopting, should Barbie mania continue on into fall.

One of the most thrilling design elements of the movie is the human scale Dreamhouses occupied by Barbie and her friends, the majority of whom are also named Barbie.

The Dreamhouse has taken many architectural forms over the years – townhouse, cottage, mansion – but it always comes without a fourth wall.

Another cinematic treat is the roll call of vehicles Barbie commandeers on her journey to the real world with her hapless boyfriend, Ken.

Some of the film’s deeper cuts are jokes at the expense of misguided releases, Barbie sidekicks so ill-conceived that they were quickly discontinued, although 1993’s Earring Magic Ken became a bestseller, thanks to his popularity in the gay community.

Look for Barbie’s pregnant pal, Midge, her yellow Labrador retriever, Tanner (whose scoopable excrement was quickly deemed a choking hazard) and Growing up Skipper, the little sister who goes through puberty with a twist of the arm … “which is something you can’t do,” the commercial’s narrator taunts in a rare reversal of the “girls can be anything” ethos Mattel insists is part of the brand.

Of course, one can only cram so many knowingly-placed products into one feature-length film.

Are those of you who grew up with Barbie hurting from any glaring omissions? (Asking as a child of the Malibu Barbie era…)

Those who didn’t grow up with Barbie can play along too by sampling from BarbieCollectors’ massive chronological commercial playlist, then nominating your favorites in the comments.

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Oppenheimer’s Secret City: The Story Behind the Stealthy Creation of Los Alamos, New Mexico

We think of the atomic bomb as a destroyer of cities, namely Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But its development also produced a city: Los Alamos, New Mexico, an officially non-existent community in which the necessary research could be conducted in secret. More recently, it became a major shooting location for Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s new movie about the titular theoretical physicist remembered as the father (or one of the fathers) of the atomic bomb based on his work as the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory. You can learn more about that laboratory, and the town of 6,000 constructed to support it, in the new Vox video above.

Los Alamos was necessary to the Manhattan Project, as the R&D of the world’s first nuclear weapon was code-named, but it wasn’t sufficient: other secret sites involved included “a nuclear reactor under a University of Chicago football field”; “the Alabama Ordinance Works, for producing heavy water”; “a large plant for the enrichment of uranium and production of some plutonium” in Oak Ridge, Tennessee”; and the Hanford Engineer Works in Washington State, which produced even more plutonium.

But the bomb itself was created in Los Alamos, into whose isolation Oppenheimer recruited the likes of Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, Richard Feynman, and other powerful scientific minds — who brought their wives and children along.

As a 1944 Medical Corp memo warned, the “intellectuals” at Los Alamos would “seek more medical care than the average person”; at the same time, one-fifth of the married women there were pregnant, so up went maternity wards as well. The population of Los Alamos grew so rapidly that “hutments were a common form of accommodation,” though “apartment buildings were also available.” The housing sat alongside “facilities for graphite fabrication, and the cyclotron and Van de Graaff machines.” Less than 250 miles south lay what, in the summer of 1945, would become the site of the Trinity test. It was there, gazing upon the explosion of the unprecedented nuclear weapon whose development he’d overseen, that Oppenheimer saw not merely a destroyer of cities, but a destroyer of worlds.

Related content:

Oppenheimer: The Man Behind the Bomb

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J. Robert Oppenheimer Explains How, Upon Witnessing the First Nuclear Explosion, He Recited a Line from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I Am Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds”

See Every Nuclear Explosion in History: 2153 Blasts from 1945-2015

Learn How Richard Feynman Cracked the Safes with Atomic Secrets at Los Alamos

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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 or on Facebook.

How a 1930s Architectural Masterpiece Harnesses the Sun to Keep Warm in the Winter & Cool in the Summer

Keeping the summer sun out and the winter sun in has figured prominently among the tasks of architecture ever since antiquity. As Aeschylus said, “only primitives and barbarians lack knowledge of houses turned to face the winter sun,” and he’d never even lived through a Chicago winter. Two and a half millennia later, in the suburb of Schaumburg, Illinois, the architect Paul Schweikher built a house not just turned to face the winter sun, but ingeniously and elegantly designed naturally to stay warm in the cold months and cool in the hot months. Architectural design educator Stewart Hicks explains how in the video above, an introduction to what’s now known as the Paul Schweikher House and Studio.

What will strike most visitors to the Schweikher House, which now operates as a museum, has less to do with its comfortable temperatures than with its look and feel. “The house doesn’t give all its secrets away at once,” says the site of design and furnishing company Trystcraft.

“Instead, the visitor is teased with hints that lead you under and past a carport, along a long board and batten wall around the perimeter of a lush courtyard with a magnificent tree — providing a wonderful contrast to the linearity of the structures surrounding it.” This “entry sequence” also introduces the house’s main materials: brick, most visibly, but also redwood now weathered to “a range of beautiful dark browns and grays.”

Schweikher used these materials and others to construct what Hicks calls a “direct gain passive solar system,” whose openings and overhangs are “positioned so that it lets in winter sun, while blocking the summer sun,” which beats down at a slightly different angle. “Elevated, operable openings on the other side of the building allow warm air to rise, and draw in air from outside,” in addition to other features that maintain a temperate interior climate without the use of any electrical or even mechanical apparatus. Having designed this residence for himself and his wife in 1937 put him on the vanguard of what would later be recognized as the American interpretation of mid-century modernism, as well as what’s now called “solar home” building technology. Arguably, Schweikher’s techniques are even more valuable today: the climate may change, after all, but the sun’s seasonal angles stay the same.

Related content:

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What Is the House of the Rising Sun?: An Introduction to the Origins of the Classic Song

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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 or on Facebook.

How the Ancient Greeks Invented the First Computer: An Introduction to the Antikythera Mechanism (Circa 87 BC)

At the center of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is a device quite like the real ancient Greek artifact known as the Antikythera mechanism, which has been called the world’s oldest computer. “Every Indiana Jones adventure needs an exotic MacGuffin,” writes’s Meilan Solly, and in this latest and presumably last installment in its series, “the hero chases after the Archimedes Dial, a fictionalized version of the Antikythera mechanism that predicts the location of naturally occurring fissures in time.” After undergoing Indiana Jonesification, in other words, the Antikythera mechanism becomes a time machine, a function presumably not included in even the least responsible archaeological speculations about its still-unclear set of functions.

But according to Jo Marchant, author of Decoding the Heavens: Solving the Mystery of the World’s First Computer, the Antikythera mechanism really is “a time machine in a sense. When you turn the handle on the side, you are moving backward in time, you’re controlling time. You’re seeing the universe either being fast-forwarded or reversed, and you’re choosing the speed and can set it to any moment in history that you want.”

She refers to the fact that a handle on the side of the mechanism controls gears within it, which engage to compute and display “the positions of celestial bodies, the date, the timing of athletic games. There’s a calendar, there’s an eclipse prediction dial, and there are inscriptions giving you information about what the stars are doing.”

It seems that the Antikythera mechanism could tell you “everything you need to know about the state and workings of the cosmos,” at least if you’re an ancient Greek. But it also tells us something important about the ancient Greeks themselves: specifically, that they’d developed much more sophisticated mechanical engineering than we’d known before the early twentieth century, when the device was discovered in a shipwreck. According to the BBC video above on the details of the Antikythera mechanism’s known capabilities, Arthur C. Clarke thought that “if the ancient Greeks had understood the capabilities of the technology, then they would have reached the moon within 300 years.” A grand old civilization that turns out to have been on a course for outer space: now there’s a viable premise for the next big architectural adventure film franchise.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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 or on Facebook.

A Collection of Hokusai’s Drawings Are Being Carved Onto Woodblocks & Printed for the First Time Ever

If you know anything about the ukiyo-e masters of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Japan like Kitagawa Utamaro, Utagawa Hiroshige, and Katsushika Hokusai, you know that they became renowned through woodblock prints. But in almost all cases, a woodblock print begins in another medium: the medium of the drawing, where the artist works out the image before committing (or having it committed) to a block of wood for printing. This process, as Tokyo-based Canadian printmaker David Bull explains in the video above, entailed the destruction of the original drawing — or at least it did a couple of centuries ago, before the advent of copy machines, let alone high-resolution digital scanners.

Our time has not only these technologically advanced tools, but also, as previously featured here on Open Culture, a wealth of rediscovered drawings by Hokusai himself. “The existence of these exquisite small drawings had been forgotten,” says the site of the British Museum. “Last publicly recorded at a Parisian auction in 1948, they are said to have been in a private collection in France before resurfacing in 2019.”

Having acquired the 103 images that constitute this Great Picture Book of Everything, the British Museum has entered into a collaboration with Bull, whose workshop Mokuhankan is taking a selection of these drawings — never printed in Hokusai’s day — and carving them into woodblocks for the first time ever.

You can enjoy this project, called Hokusai Reborn, by following its progress on Bull’s Youtube channel; the first two episodes of the series appear just above. You can also purchase a subscription to receive copies of the actual prints now being made from Hokusai’s drawings at Mokuhankan. “The prints will be 13.5 x 18.5 cm in format (slightly larger than 5 x 7 inches),” says the page at the studio’s site with more information on that, “and will be made on a thin version of our usual hosho washi, made in the workshop of Iwano Ichibei,” one of Japan’s officially designated Living National Treasures. This sales model is in keeping with the commercial model of ukiyo-e in the Edo period of the seventeenth through the nineteenth century, when a burgeoning merchant class formed a robust customer base for its artisans. Here we have an unexpected opportunity to become one of those customers — and, perhaps, to own the next Great Wave Off Kanagawa.

via Metafilter

Related content:

View 103 Discovered Drawings by Famed Japanese Woodcut Artist Katsushika Hokusai

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The Evolution of The Great Wave off Kanagawa: See Four Versions That Hokusai Painted Over Nearly 40 Years

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Get Free Drawing Lessons from Katsushika Hokusai, Who Famously Painted The Great Wave of Kanagawa: Read His How-To Book, Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawings

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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 or on Facebook.

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