Archive for September, 2014

Movies Post * Due by 8am on September 25, 2014

Posted in Question with tags on September 23, 2014 by mlenos

A quick reminder: we won’t be meeting in the classroom on 9/25 – go to the Event Center!!!

Choose a popular film – one that either made a lot of money, or received a lot of critical acclaim (or both). It doesn’t have to be recent, but it should be Hollywood (meaning, large-scale, mass market, produced for the largest possible audience) and begin working through a semiotic analysis of the film.

What archetypes or metaphors did you notice in the film?  Does the film seem particularly postmodern to you in any way?  Were you able to recognize any double-coding?  Does the success (critically, box office-wise, or both) seem overdetermined to you?  Why or why not?

The most successful film of 2014, so far, has been Guardians of the Galaxy. The movie has already made $632 million and has received a surprising amount of critical acclaim for a science fiction film that is a comic book adaptation – these types of films tend to do okay in terms of box office, but almost never receive the level of critical praise Guardians has gotten.

In terms of archetypes, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is not the typical action hero, but he fulfills another type of common contemporary movie hero – the website TV Tropes (incredibly useful for TV and film semiotic analysis) calls the type “Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass” – Quill seems like a foolish idiot at first, but turns out to be a very effective superhero by the end of the film.

Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is another popular contemporary film archetype – the gorgeous woman who also happens to be an incredible fighter – think about all the women in the X-Men film series. Almost all the characters in the film are archetypes, but I’ll stop here before this post becomes longer than the film.

This movie is crazy-postmodern. It literally couldn’t exist without all of the films it references, from Footloose to Saturday Night Fever to the Star Wars and Star Trek series, as well as Battlestar Galactica – and those are just the references I caught off the top of my head.  This creates a nearly constant space for double-coding, as anyone who recognizes the references is having a different movie-watching experience from someone who doesn’t.

I definitely find the success of Guardians of the Galaxy to be overdetermined.  We’re at a sort of high point of comic book adaptations and whenever we reach a crest for any kind of film genre, there’s often a snap-back – either parodies of the genre (think Scream or Not Another Teen Movie or any other number of parodies) or there’s a lighter, more self-referential (more postmodern!) response like Guardians.  Finally, the dorky anti-hero is very popular with today’s movie audiences, plus the film appeals to the largest money-holding, movie attending market (the tail end of Generation X and the beginning of the Millennials) by dropping in heavy references to their childhood: the movie’s constant references to the 1970s and 80s and the pop music of that time.


Pop Music Review

Posted in Reading with tags on September 23, 2014 by mlenos

We did a TON of work in class this past week, so here are some links and review notes to help you prepare for the midterm.

Remember – pop music isn’t just “popular.”  It’s also a way of describing music that features these core elements:

  • short (often under three minutes)
  • verse-chorus-verse structure
  • repeated chorus
  • melodic tunes
  • often use “hooks” (that catchy part that gets stuck in your head)
  • usually use drum, guitar and bass (often other instruments too, but almost always that core)
  • unconcerned with artistic depth
  • the goal is mass appeal – pleasurable to the largest number of people – in order to make money
  • they tend to be ephemeral
  • accessible content

Here are some of the key moments we discussed. I’m not embedding the videos because it would make this post pretty much impossible to load.

1930s & 1940s

We started with talking about the birth of US pop music, and the influences of the crooners and their swoony ballads, along with jazz and big band influence.  Sinatra had all this, plus fan girls called Bobby Soxers.  Here’s some Frank Sinatra.

We also talked briefly about the Andrews Sisters, because this song was part of a film – bringing up that idea of cross-promotion – the film was popular because the song was such a hit and vice-versa.


We had the domination of Elvis Presley, the invention of the contemporary idea of the US “teenager” and televisions in more and more US homes… meaning a chance for pop stars to strut their stuff on TV.  As long as they’re shot from the chest up, since the sexy-dancing is dangerous for our innocent eyes!!!!


Phil Spector and his Wrecking Crew graced us with the “Wall of Sound” recording effect, with its many layers and channels, echo-chambers, and it is so, so, so good, you guys; in class we listened to The Ronettes.

And just to drive home how influential it was, we listened to a contemporary song by Florence and the Machine that uses the same tricks and features.

Speaking of influences… we talked about how the Beatles dominated pop music for a long time – nearly ten years.  While they led the British Invasion, they also used the Wall of Sound recording methods, appeared on television, had crazed fans and short, easy-to-like songs with repeated refrains.

In the meantime, while the Beatles were burning up the charts and selling out shows, proto-punk bands like Paul Revere & the Raiders (but not just men! – we listened to the Chymes in class) were making raw, unfinished sounding rock in their garages.

It’s hard to believe, but even in the late 60s and early 70s, Michael Jackson was influencing popular music. Here he is with his brothers in the Jackson 5.

Finally, in the late 1960s, US American recording companies tried to counter the popularity of the British Invasion by creating a fake pop band based on the Beatles. No one expected the Monkees to actually become popular… but they did – very popular indeed.  While we often think of contemporary bands as launching the idea of “over-produced” pop music, the Monkees were a marketed brand and product long before the Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls or Ke$ha.

The 1970s

…were an odd time for music, with disco acts like ABBA…

And glam acts like T-Rex…

And Elton John dominating the popular radio waves…

While punk bands like the Ramones were popular among smaller groups but didn’t hit mass-market popularity until the 1980s.

In the meantime, hip hop and rap were starting to skirt the edges of mainstream pop music as early as the late 1970s… here’s the Sugarhill Gang with “Rapper’s Delight,” and here’s Kurtis Blow on Soul Train  and the magnificent weirdness that is Blondie’s “Rapture.”


The main change of the 1980s is MTV changing the music industry forever, creating a 24-hour, music-video only channel…

But the problem? No one’s really created any music videos yet.  As a result, we had some truly interesting, cinematic, and LONG music videos!  Like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and some very interesting, artsy videos from small, international groups who probably wouldn’t have been noticed otherwise, like “Take on Me” by A-Ha.

But whatever else happened – remember that the 1980s were a truly, truly strange time in music.


Grunge hits the US hard from the Pacific Northwest with bands like Nirvana… and wasn’t limited to male acts (here’s Alanis Morissette.)

We also had the beginning of the popular festivals of the 1990s, like Lollapalooza and Lilith Fair.

Electronic music gained popularity and moved into the mainstream with artists like Moby…. as did some country-pop acts like Shania Twain.


We have CONVERGENCE – meaning a breaking down of genre barriers and mass media cross-influencing all over the place – music inspired by video games, tv shows inspired by music… we’ll talk more about convergence later this semester.  For the time being, consider the full integration of pop and hip hop with artists like Lily Allen and Wiz Khalifa… and consider Santigold’s hybrid rock/hip hop/reggaeton blend.

We’ve also become more okay with manufactured artists like Kesha.

And we’re happy to have greater diversity in our pop superstars and a growing interest in international pop stars. Even if we can’t always understand what they’re singing about…  Here’s Girls Generation (heavily influenced by 90s pop-hip hop, video game aesthetics and new jazz) and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu singing PON PON PON.

We ended by coming full circle, back to movie-music cross promotion. 

Which is perfect, since we’re going to talk about Hollywood movies next week.

Also!!!! After last week’s class, I heard a radio piece on the lasting appeal of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.” And then a day later I saw this Gawker post ranking Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson’s singles. 

Pop Music Post * Due by 8am on September 18, 2014

Posted in Question with tags on September 12, 2014 by mlenos

Link to (or embed) two pop songs you like in the comments.  What is “pop music”? That’s partly up to you – and definitely mention in your post why you think the songs you posted qualify as “pop.”

Here’s the twist: ONE of the songs has to have been released before you were born – because part of what we’ll be talking about this week is the history of pop.

I was pretty ambivalent about Beyonce’s 2013 album (I know, I know), but I think “Flawless” is interesting mostly for its use of a clip from a lecture by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, who is one of my favorite contemporary authors. The clip includes Adiche discussing her definition of the idea of “feminism,” which is an interesting thing to drop into a pop song.  And yes – Beyonce is “pop” in the sense of the word referring to “popular” (which is ONE definition of pop music).  Beyonce sold  over 600,000 copies in its first WEEK with absolutely no pre-promotion.  This was completely unheard of in the music industry, and as we’ll discuss next week, there’s probably not another artist alive who could get away with dropping an album online-only with no promotion.

The second song is from 1941 – a version of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” Besides being a great song, I love this version because it’s an early version of “cross-promotion” – the song appears in the film, so people who see the movie hear the song, and the song itself promotes the film Buck Privates, plus of course the entire combo is a tie-in to awareness of WWII and support of the troops.  In spite of its heavy blues influence, I think this still qualifies as pop music – it’s short, catchy, and uses a verse-chorus-verse structure; it has mass appeal and is pleasurable to listen to… at least, I think so.

A Handy Intro to Net Neutrality

Posted in Reading with tags on September 12, 2014 by mlenos

A giant thank you to Tyler for passing this video along. I’ts a VERY useful introduction to what “net neutrality” means.



Television Post * Due by 8am on September 11, 2014

Posted in Question with tags on September 7, 2014 by mlenos

Which television shows do you watch regularly? Do you find yourself drawn to shows about “ordinary” people, or the “extreme lifestyles” described in this week’s reading?  What kinds of signs and representations do you feel yourself drawn to on television – and why do you think you’re drawn to them?


I have several shows that I watch pretty religiously, including Game of Thrones and Mad Men (and, before it ended, Breaking Bad) – and all of these fall under the “extreme lifestyle” heading but I think it’s more interesting that they’re also all cable shows.  This means that they have a lot more freedom in terms of content (they tend to have more graphic sex and violence) and more freedom in terms of format – they can be longer than the standard 30 or 60 minute time slot; they can explore longer, more complicated story arcs and they aren’t as mass market advertisement-driven.

Probably the strangest show that I follow, though, is Adventure Time.  It’s supposedly a cartoon for children, but each ten minute episode is packed with the kinds of depth, wisdom and often very dark humor that’s typically associated with adult programming.  The show explores issues like solitude, outgrowing one’s family and gender roles in some of the most experimental ways I’ve ever seen on television.  It’s way smarter than it has any right to be.

Online Culture Post * Due by 8am on 9/4/14

Posted in Question with tags on September 1, 2014 by mlenos

Here’s another handy summary of the idea of viral content:

After you’ve read the assigned texts for this week, think about virality and memes… what is your favorite viral video or meme?  What is it that you like about it?  Have you shared this content with your friends? Why or why not?  Be sure to give yourself enough time to comment on your classmates’ posts. 

My favorite is still “Trololo” also known as the Russian Rickroll – I don’t like it as a bait and switch video, though. I like it on its own merits of just being completely strange and happily so.