What makes for a “cult band”? Not just a small audience, because Grateful Dead fans are an archetypical cult. Not just a devoted, emotionally invested audience; no volume of Swifties make Taylor Swift qualify as a cult act. Does the music have to be somehow inaccessible, or the fans snobby?
This week’s Nakedly Examined Music podcast features a discussion of songwriting and social protest with Jerry Casale, the co-frontman of Devo since its formation in 1973.
Jerry developed the idea of “devolution” with his friend Bob Lewis in the late ’60s when attending Kent State University, and by his own account was radicalized to political action by the Kent State shootings in 1970. This took the form of what was originally a partnership with Mark Mothersbaugh to create visual art, but this quickly became a musical partnership as well. Mark had used his synthesizer skills to ape British progressive rock, while Jerry was more influenced by blues, having played bass in The Numbers Band and other outfits. The two started recording independently, bringing in Mark’s brother Bob (“Bob 1”) to play lead guitar and later adding Jerry’s brother Bob (“Bob 2”) to play rhythm guitar and more keyboards as well as drummer Alan Myers. Buoyed by heralded live shows in Ohio that included a particularly idiosyncratic and catchy take on The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” Devo was signed to a major label and released seven albums before coming to a gradual stop in after their album sales declined in the late ’80s given that Mark was doing more and more music for TV and film.
In reaction to the falsehoods that launched the 2003 Iraq War, Jerry recorded a limited-release solo album under the name “Jihad Jerry and the Evildoers.” This work has now been repackaged to accompany the release of a brand new single (attributed to “DEVO’s Gerald V. Casale”) called “I’m Gonna Pay U Back,” written with current Devo drummer Josh Freese and featuring guitars by Oingo Boingo’s Steve Bartek. As Jerry has always thought of his videos as integral to his musical output, this new song features an elaborately storyboarded and textured video co-directed with Davy Force of Force! Extreme Ani-Mation.
This revival of the Jihad Jerry character created to criticize America’s paranoid post-9/11 mindset allowed Jerry to visualize a conflict between Jihad Jerry and DEVO Jerry, in the Nakedly Examined Music interview, host Mark Linsenmayer engages Jerry about what these characters amount to and how exactly irony does (or does not) play into them. It was both a blessing and a curse for Devo that their various militaristic and/or robotic personas were so funny. The humor (and fun danceability) involved in songs like “Whip It,” “Mongoloid,” and “Freedom of Choice” meant they could gain an enduring foothold in popular culture, but on the other hand, they’ve been dismissed as merely jokes. Including themselves in the critique, acknowledging themselves as subject to the same human foibles, allowed them to create minimalist, anthemic songs that had a self-conscious stupidity and lampooned the pretensions of art rock. There was a clear connection between the musical styles that Devo sported and the message of this critique: They could all chant in unison that we are all degenerate conformists and use synthesizers and jerky rhythms to act out our dehumanization.
Jihad Jerry, i.e. Jerry wearing a theatrical turban and sunglasses, was given a specific backstory involving escaping Iranian theocracy, determined to use music as a weapon to fight prejudice and ignorance everywhere. Whatever the virtues of this character as a narrative device, it was a marketing disaster, raising ire both with American conservatives and with Muslims who felt they were being mocked, and so the character was retired in 2007. Jerry’s Nakedly Examined Music interview discusses “The Owl,” a track written during Jihad Jerry’s initial run, which confusingly has Jihad Jerry (a character) speaking narratively through the voice of a superhero character “The Owl,” who threatens physical violence on all boorish, selfish American evildoers. Now, given that there’s a character named Nite Owl in Alan Moore’s comic Watchmen, which is explicitly about the mental instability of those who appoint themselves the moral and physical guardians of society, it would be natural to think that irony is playing ask thickly in this new portrayal as it was for the Devo “smart patrol” characters, but in this interview, Jerry urges us to take the critique at face value, as a straightforward condemnation of American arrogance. Does the critique land better without the explicit self-incrimination? Or is the fact that Jihad Jerry is obviously a joke, the Owl as a superhero is obviously a joke, and the fact that we’re talking about characters talking through characters give Jerry Casale enough of a framework to be able to launch very direct attacks without being dismissed as shrill or condescending?
The latter portion of the interview turns to a lesser known Devo track “Fountain of Filth,” which Jerry says he wrote with his brother Bob Casale (who passed away in early 2014) during the recording sessions for Devo’s most famous album, 1980s Freedom of Choice. The song (in the form presented in the podcast) was included in the Hardcore Devo: Volume Two CD in 1991, and was performed live for the first time as part of the 2014 Hardcore Devo Live! tour. In Jerry’s introduction to the song in that concert and in this interview, he describes the “fountain” as all the misinformation and other commercial garbage that makes up much of American media. However, the lyrics of the song are ambiguous: “I’ve got a hunger that makes me want things… Nowhere are we safe… from the appeal of the eternal fountain of filth.” Like one of Devo’s well-known songs “Uncontrollable Urge” (written by Mark without Jerry), this could be a song not actually condemning the temptations, but laughing at prurient hysteria about temptation, i.e. a firmly ironic missive. The technique here is most likely irony that cuts in all directions: One can condemn the overreaction while still condemning the thing it was a reaction to, and a prudish fear of sexuality and full immersion in it are two sides of the same degenerate (i.e. “de-evolved”) coin.
The interview concludes with a 2016 single attributed to Jerry Casale with Italy’s Phunk Investigation that explicitly states this totalizing condemnation/celebration: “It’s All Devo.” Again, the song was released with an elaborate, evocative video, in this case using the art of Max Papeschi and direction by Maurizio Temporin.
How does the existence of YouTube, social media, and virtual spaces changed the way comedians construct a set, relate to their fans, and make a living? We talk about story-telling vs. one-liners, repping your hometown, comedy cliques, surviving negativity, and more.
Some articles that go into these issues further include:
Writers Sarahlyn Bruck and Kayla Dreysse join your host Mark Linsenmayer to discuss how this once very popular TV show type has simultaneously become niche, yet has had a tremendous influence on current prestige TV as well as reality shows. We talk about soaps’ story and structure conventions, the demands on soap actors and writers, and how changing market forces and technology have affected the genre. How much of a role does sexism play in the critical dismissal of soaps?
In addition to the daytime soaps like General Hospital and The Bold and the Beautiful, we touch on nighttime soaps like Dallas, teen soaps like Beverly Hills 90210, Downton Abbey, White Orchid, Breaking Bad, 24, Gray’s Anatomy, and more.
With the recent theatrical release of The Green Knight, your Pretty Much Pop host Mark Linsenmayer, returning host Brian Hirt, plus Den of Geek’s David Crow and the very British Al Baker consider the range of cinematic Arthuriana, including Excalibur (1981), Camelot (1967), King Arthur (2004), King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017), First Knight (1995), Sword of the Valiant (1983), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1973), and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).
Arthuriana encompasses numerous (sometimes contradicting) stories that accrued and evolved for nearly 1000 years after the probable existence of the unknown person who was the historical source for the character before the 14th century poem (author unknown) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and then in the 15th century Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur, which provided the template for well-known modern retellings like T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958).
The length and complexity of this mythology makes a single film problematic, with most settling on the love triangle between Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere leading to Camelot’s downfall. Multiple TV treatments have tried to do it justice, and if Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword had been a box office success, then we’d currently be seeing multiple films in an Arthurian cinematic universe. By picking a smaller story and not trying too hard to tie it to King Arthur (who appears but is not named), The Green Knight is able to be more creative in painting and updating the strange story of Sir Gawain, who in previous cinematic outings (including Sword of the Valiant where Sean Connery played The Green Knight) involved Gawain involved in a series of nonsensical adventures far removed from the events told in the original poem.
We talk through characterization in a mythic story, stylizing the epic (how much violence? how weird?), its status as public domain material (like Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes), and the moral lesson of the original Gawain poem and what director David Lowery did with that for the new film. Is the new film actually enjoyable, or just carefully thought through and artfully shot? Note that we don’t spoil anything significant about The Green Knight until the last ten minutes, so it’s fine if you haven’t seen it (Al hadn’t either).
Here are song articles by David Crow on our topic:
While LGBTQ+ representation in video games has been improving (as with other media), Naomi Clark (who designed games for LEGO, Gamelab, Fresh Planet, Rebel Monkey, et al) has something more disruptive in mind when arguing for game “queerification.” The prototypical video game includes a more-or-less linear progression through a pre-defined story to a defined win condition, and anything that challenges that tradition to allow more self-expression is a step in the direction of queering. Many popular games now include a sandbox aspect that allows players to make their own decisions, and this gestures at a continuum of freedom in player-game relations, with the extreme being a game that just provides a platform for players to create their own games.
Your host Mark Linsenmayer and guest co-host Tyler Hislop engage Naomi about topics like how games train us, character creation, glitches, speed runs, gamifying tasks, and economic and industry pressures in game design. Some games we touch on include The Sims, The Last of Us, Cyberpunk, and Mass Effect.
However, interactive conversations about texts you probably haven’t read can be difficult to follow no matter how much we try to make them accessible, and a decade of history means that many names that might be dropped that those newly checking in may or may not be familiar with.
I’m one of the hosts of that podcast, and while I’m very happy with the format and thrilled to have reached so many people with it, I also appreciate the dynamic of a one-on-one tutoring interchange, and I stand firmly behind one of the original rules of The Partially Examined Life: No name-dropping.
As we read more complicated texts, our interest becomes figuring out what the philosopher meant, and only secondarily whether that meaning actually relates to something in people’s actual lives. Yes, we are critical (some say too critical) of the subject-matter, but we’re also big fans; we could bask in the literary glow of Hegel or Plato or Simone de Beauvoir or Hannah Arendt all day, and have often done so.
My newest podcast, Philosophy vs. Improv, is reciprocal tutoring realized as comedy (or at least performance art?). As someone who studied philosophy for many years in school and has then been hosting The Partially Examined Life for so long, I’m in a good position to come up with particular philosophical points worth teaching to a new learner.
My Philosophy vs. Improv co-host is Bill Arnett, founder of the Chicago Improv Studio, author of The Complete Improviser, and the former training director at Chicago’s famed iO Theater. He has appeared repeatedly on the Hello From the Magic Tavern improv comedy podcast as a character named Metamore who leads the show’s hosts (who are all fantasy characters a la Tolkein or Narnia) in a table-top role-playing game called Offices and Bosses. This and other shows ignited in me an urge to learn the fundamentals of improv comedy, and so each Philosophy vs. Improv episode, Bill comes up with some trick of the trade to try to teach me.
There are two rules of engagement: First, we can’t just state up front what the lesson is. We can ask each other questions, go through exercises, and otherwise discuss the material, but the lesson should emerge naturally. Second, we don’t take turns in trying to teach each other. As he’s making me act out scenes, I’m trying to set up those scenes or have my character react in such a way to exemplify my philosophical point. As we’re discussing philosophy, Bill is relating it to comparable points about improv. Of course, we’re both interested in learning as well as teaching, so the “vs.” in the show’s title is not so much competition between us as between which lesson ends up more nearly producing its intended effect in the other person.
It is surprising how smoothly these dueling lessons often fit together, as lessens about ethics in particular, about the art of living, are very much relevant to the improvisational skills of being present, presenting yourself, discovering the reality of a situation, and exploring truths of character. Fiction is often a very effective vehicle for addressing philosophy, whether the characters themselves are talking philosophically (even if they’re animals, cave men, or otherwise in a non-typical situation for discussion), or perhaps we’re embodying some political situation or thought experiment that we’re subjecting to philosophical analysis.
Likewise, back to the days of Plato, a dose of irony in discussing philosophy can be useful, and this format allows us to not just be ourselves on a podcast discussing philosophy, but at any point to launch into some comedy bit, and in this way show the absurdity of views we’re arguing against or just play with the ideas in a manner that I think enhances mental flexibility, which is essential both for improvisation and for philosophical creativity.
Listen to the latest episode (#7), entitled “Meritocracy Now!”
After 101 episodes and a bit over two years, OpenCulture’s first podcast offering is moving into a new phase. Here your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian hirt reflect on what we’ve learned and set a course for the future.
Our overarching concern with this podcast has been how and why we consume. We may not have learned a great deal about this issue in a general sense, but we’ve certainly been shown the appeal of many forms that we might not have considered before, and we’ve theorized about why people like drama or horror, or what makes for compelling sci-fi or gaming, etc.
We’ve stretched over these episodes into some unexpected areas for a pop culture podcast, like the philosophy of photography and why people obsess over conspiracy theories. The current discussion takes this on through a re-consideration of what pop culture is. Of course, the title of the podcast has “pretty much” in it, which allows a certain amount of leeway, but the source of that ambiguity is not just that I want the freedom to bring in any topic that interests me, but because of two points covered in this episode:
Functionally, individuals entertain themselves with a variety of things; they are our cultural food, and can include many obsessions that have nothing to do with manufactured media at all. If such fascinations are also used by multiple people to bond over, then that’s culture, and insofar as bonding over that object is common, then it’s pop culture.
There’s a continuum between creation and spectating. Creators are first of all consumers and create largely through imitating and tweaking past works. Though this podcast focuses largely on the consumer side of the equation, some of audience appreciation is a matter of respect for the craft, which increases through understanding and (at least vicarious) participation in the activity. Though it’s not always the case that we get enjoyment through sympathy with the artistic choices a creator makes (sometimes we just marvel uncomprehendingly), this is a significant dynamic in fandom. Viewers who liked Game of Thrones had many ideas about how it should have ended even if they had no opportunity or even talent to really provide an alternative.
It all comes down to the dimensions of mimesis, which means reflection. We enjoy storytelling largely because it reflects us, either how we are, how we might like to be, or how we fear we could be. We get some of our ideas about who we are from these media reflections. Marketers guess at who they think we are (again, in part based on media) and create products to market at us. Artists create works reflected from other works which attempt to reflect us (or distort us based on knowledge of a reflection). Who we are as a culture may be very much storytelling all the way down. So political myths are an essential part of this, as are sexual mores, ideas about what leisure activities (and jobs, for that matter) are respectable, manners taken more generally, how we deal with our legacies of racism and sexism, what we find funny and how that changes over time, and much much more.
Thanks, all, for listening. We’ll be back in a few weeks.
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