Sports Post * Due by 8am on October 16, 2014

Posted in Question with tags on October 14, 2014 by mlenos

Do you have a particular sport, team or athlete that you follow? Talk about it in the comments. Be sure to think carefully about WHAT it is that you like about this sport and what you think it represents, in terms of US popular culture. Does  the sport that you like have scandals associated with it?  (Hint: unfortunately ALL sports do).  What are those scandals?  Do they make you think differently about the sport?  Why or why not?

If you DON’T follow any particular sport, why don’t you?  Have you ever played a sport?  What is it particularly you find about sports to be uninteresting or not worthy of your time? Again, don’t just shrug it off if you’re not a sports fan – we’re interested in hearing WHY you’re not one.

I’ll get us started.

When I moved to Pittsburgh many many years ago, I was not really a sports fan. But I realized very quickly that Pittsburgh was not like any other city that I’d lived in before. EVERYONE followed the Steelers (Pittsburgh’s NFL team) – even people who were not what you’d think of as stereotypical “football fans.” Poets, musicians, artists, professors, authors, designers, scientists… from September through January, EVERYONE was following the games and talking about football. I realized that I could spend 15 weeks of the year feeling left out, or I could start to pay attention to football and still have a social life.

So sure, I started following football so that I wouldn’t have to give up hanging out with my friends, but I also quickly became interested in the sport and the players, and as someone who studies popular culture academically, what football represents to the US. After all, in every other country, “football” is soccer. American football is a specifically American sport.

While it’s a sport of precision (at least from the quarterback’s perspective), it’s also weirdly a sport of absolute brute force. I never realized until I went to a Steelers game in person – NFL players are ENORMOUS human beings. What does it mean, I wondered, to have an American sport that is focused so much on the physical size of the players?

Then, in 2009, the Steelers’ quarterback was accused of sexual assault. Then two more accusations came up. Then, rumors started floating around Pittsburgh that regardless of whether Roethlisberger was guilty of the specific assault charges, he was definitely a creep (friends of friends had photos of him groping women at parties around town). It became harder and harder to root for the Steelers, and even my husband (a life-long Steelers fan who grew up in Pittsburgh) started to feel strange about watching the games.

Anyway, the point is that I’d already begun to pull away from American Football when news began to spread that many players suffer terribly from brain diseases caused by repeated head trauma, and that the NFL tends to not take care of their retired players when they’re in bad health. While some might argue that NFL players make a lot of money, and therefore are compensated for the risk, I personally can’t value entertainment over a human being’s health.

Then, the Ray Rice video surfaced. And a new conversation began over the hyper-macho culture of the NFL and what it means for these men to essentially be encouraged to be as huge and tough and “masculine” as possible, the fact that powerful sports teams can cover up crimes to protect valuable players, and the fact that wealthy or famous people are seldom punished in the same ways as regular people. Finally, the Washington Redskins’ refusal to change their idiotic, racist team name…. I can barely talk about that, it’s so infuriating.

The end result? At my house last night, some friends and I were watching the Monday night game between the 49ers and the Rams, and my husband asked, “Do you guys kind of feel uncomfortable watching football these days?” After a moment of quiet, we all agreed. So we put on a movie instead.

That said, it’s worth noting that I’ve spent an irritating portion of my adult life defending the fact that my favorite poet hated women and was an anti-Semite, that one of the philosophers I most admire strangled his wife, I happen to love the work of an artist who almost certainly murdered his wife…

These are difficult acts to try to explain and understand in a world-wide culture that tends to excuse (or even promote) violence against women and minorities. TS Eliot, Luis Althusser and Carl Andre were all geniuses, so I believe that their work is worth defending in spite of their terrible flaws.

Professional football, to me, simply isn’t worth defending – its flaws are too dramatic and it does too little good in the world to offset the negative impact it currently carries. There are other things in my life more important and more valuable than an entertainment-focused sports industry. Certainly, it’s very important to other people who feel strongly about defending it, and that’s fine for them.

Unfortunately, being a “football fan” is not something that I want to be associated with any longer. I’m going to start watching more soccer, instead.


Popular Literature Post * Due by 8am on October 9, 2014

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

Review the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Identify a trope, an archetype, or a use of symbolism in the book, and describe its use in your comment.

If you’ve read the rest of the book or series, feel free to refer to the text as a whole.

Regardless of how familiar you are with the series, you might have to do a little bit of research for more information. If you use an outside source, you need to cite it properly.

There’s one other rule to this post: once someone takes a topic, name or concept, it CANNOT be repeated. So better to post early to make sure you can discuss the topic of your choice!

I’ll start.

On page 8, Dumbledore references “Madam Pomfrey.” From reading the series, I know that her first name is “Poppy” and that she’s the nurse at Hogwarts. Madam Pomfrey’s name, like many characters’ names in the series, contains etymological hints about who she is and what she does.

The poppy plant (which is used to make opium!) is a powerful painkiller that’s been used for medical purposes for many generations. Her last name stumped me, though – the Harry Potter Wiki suggests a couple of possibilities: Pomfrey rhymes with comfrey, another medicinal plant, and “pomfrey cakes” are a kind of lozenge or cough drop.

I also like the fact that the “Madam” implies a possible French background and “Pomfrey” is the pronunciation of “pomme frites.” Which is French for “french fries.” 🙂

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.