About Studio 360
Studio 360 is public radio's smart and surprising guide to what's happening in pop culture and the arts. Each week, host Kurt Andersen introduces you to the people who are creating and shaping our culture. Life is busy, so let Studio 360 steer you to the must-see movie this weekend, the next book for your nightstand, or the song that will change your life.
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Linda Ronstadt’s career spanned decades and musical styles from country-rock to operetta. Parkinson’s disease has taken away her ability to sing, but she explains that she’s not ready to leave music behind yet. And Herb Alpert became famous by turning the sounds of a Mexican bullfight into mainstream pop. But his career in music far outlasted the Tijuana Brass sound. Also, novelist and jazz musician James McBride explains how he turned John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry into kind of a funny story.
A few weeks ago, “Rude” by the band Magic! managed to unseat Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” as the #1 song in the United States. While most songs of the summer have a honeymoon period before they face mass eye-rolling, “Rude” seems to have skipped right to divorce court. Slate scolded the entire country: “America, we need to talk about our taste in reggae music.” But no criticism has been quite as cutting as Jia Tolentino's. In a screed titled “Why I Have to Be So Rude” on The Hairpin, she wrote:
Rude is a reggae song the way a gas station taquito is a formal expression of Mexican cuisine. It’s a pop object with no content and only as much form as is necessary to deliver brief chemical gratification.
The song’s plotline isn’t doing it any favors: the singer begs his girlfriend’s father for her hand in marriage without ever asking the bride herself. But Tolentino’s biggest problem with “Rude” is its lack of irony. “The great thing about pop music is that it’s not self-serious. It’s conscious of itself as a performance, and it’s fun,” she says. “’Rude’ violates all three of those tenets.” Case in point: the band’s lazy and cliché-ridden music video plucked straight out of the late 90s. In a bad way.
Yet even Tolentino has to admit that “Rude” has a highly infectious melody. Magic!’s frontman, Nasri, has been a one-man, one-name hit factory, writing hugely successful songs for Pitbull, Justin Bieber, Shakira, and others. Tolentino sees that as part of the problem. She suggests that Nasri’s ability to adapt to different pop stars’ styles has left his own songwriting soul hollow. “If the thing that makes you famous isn’t the thing you care about most deeply, there’s nothing behind it.”
Patricia Lockwood, one of poetry’s brightest young stars, combines her funny Twitter persona with serious poetry to create surreal, text message-sized verse. She became internet famous for a poem called “Rape Joke” that managed to be both hilarious and devastating. We hear from Taylor Mac, the avant-drag performer who’s working on a decade-by-decade revue of American popular music, beginning all the way back in the 1770s. Plus, a punk rock teen, pierced to the hilt, discovers something even more hardcore — opera.
Rufus Wainwright was born into folk royalty, the son of Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle. But he discovered his greatest influence in an unexpected place: Verdi’s Requiem. And now, as a veteran performer himself and a father, he’s learned a thing or two about surviving in the business. Plus, we hear from the man who designed some of the most arresting book covers on the shelf. And the art critic for The New Yorker explains why art may have gotten too popular for its own good.
There’s one item you can find in most restaurants from New York to California: a poster telling you how to save someone who’s choking. Though required by law in many states, those simple instructions tend to fade into the wallpaper. New York City’s official poster was designed by Steve Duenes, the graphics director of The New York Times. It clearly lists the steps of how to perform the Heimlich maneuver next to greyscale illustrations of a couple going through the motions.
But in the past few years, New York City restaurant owners have started replacing Duenes’ poster with new ones designed by local artists, illustrators, and graphic designers. “So many restaurants are so aesthetically focused,” says Sonja Sharp, a reporter who recently wrote about these new posters for the The Wall Street Journal. “When you have those posters from the Department of Health, it really sticks out."
The new posters run the gamut in theme and style. There’s Alex Holden’s Cuban cocktail lounge version in pen and ink and Lara Antal’s graphic novel-style romance. The posters are eye-catching, funny ways teach people what to do in an emergency. The catch: they’re not entirely legal.
And Bea Arthur giving the Heimlich to a unicorn? Justin O'Malley's crazy version may be a step too far. “Having worked in a restaurant, [the poster] is important to have because you panic,” says Lara Antal. “It would be nice if you look at something and it doesn’t induce more panic.”
Duenes isn’t sold on the more adventurous interpretations, either. “I haven’t conducted any research,” he admits, “but it seems unlikely that people would be so engaged by a comic-style choking poster that they will make their way through the whole thing and know what to do in an emergency.” Still, even Duenes’ official version features a little joke. That choking victim is a friend of his – just don’t ask him to reveal who it is.
Hunter S. Thompson pioneered Gonzo journalism — but there would be no Gonzo without the artist Ralph Steadman, Thompson’s longtime friend and co-conspirator. Steadman’s illustrations for stories like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas defined their freaked-out feel. Kurt Andersen also talks with author-illustrator Shaun Tan, whose beautiful picture books have a vaguely menacing undercurrent. Plus, the journalist Ron Suskind explains how Disney characters helped him communicate with his autistic son.
“Weird Al” Yankovic has parodied generations of pop stars — and outlasted most of them. Now he’s scored his first Billboard #1 with Mandatory Fun. He plays his first hit, “Eat It,” live, mashing up Michael Jackson and Eric Clapton. Kurt talks with actor Tony Hale, who name playing desperately co-dependent man-children on Arrested Development and now on Veep. And a live performance from tUnE-yArDs.
(Segments in this week's show aired previously.)
Pogo might be one of the most popular musicians in the world, but there’s a fair chance you’ve never heard of him. He doesn’t drop surprise albums like Beyoncé or fill stadiums like the Boss, but he rules on YouTube. His channel has well over 300,000 subscribers, and his pop culture mash-up music videos have been viewed more than 100 million times.
Pogo’s real name is Nick Bertke. Where some mash-up artists stun with clever technique or surreal juxtapositions, Pogo is first and foremost a fan, passionate and careful with his sources. He grew up in New Zealand immersed in American culture – Back to the Future, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, all things Disney. Even as a child, he was fascinated by the small sounds that made up the bigger pictures he would watch over and over. As an adult, he found a way to make music with them: “What if you made this kind of collage of all of these sounds and voices?” Bertke wondered. “So that you’re actually using a film and the essence of that film to make a song?”
His first attempt was posted in 2007, when YouTube was a toddler. He dismantled Disney’s Alice in Wonderland and put it back together in under three minutes:
“Alice” won Pogo millions of views and a letter from Disney – not a takedown notice, but an invitation to Pixar’s California headquarters. He left with a copy of Up before it was released and sent back “Upular.” Since then he’s made a career out of commissioned videos, with original work for Warner Brothers, Showtime, and a number of car companies.
But Pogo makes pop music, and his white whale is the live show, which he says he has yet to perfect. He dreams of costumed dancers and remixing his work live. In the meantime, he confronts “a terrible bucket of stress, having to go on that show with this dinky laptop,” he says. “On the other hand, it is immensely invigorating and inspiring as well.”
Holler If Ya Hear Me, the Broadway musical based on the work of Tupac Shakur, closed after just one month of performances. Reviews were lackluster and ticket sales disappointing. But the show’s star, poet and actor Saul Williams, says Broadway audiences need to get over recycled shows like Rocky and start dealing with real stories. And we take a serious look at Mad Magazine, the goofy, bawdy, sarcastic kids’ magazine that made America snarky. Also, a live performance from Lydia Loveless, the 23-year-old country belter who has to choke back tears when she sings about losing her family’s farm.
What does today’s sci-fi mean for our real-life future? Cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson argues that it’s time to get over our love of dystopia. A class at MIT searches sci-fi classics for technologies they can invent right now, although maybe they shouldn’t. Geoengineers take a tip from Carl Sagan – who saw a green future for Mars – to see if we can save Earth. And we meet some scientists who think that if we ever want to see the stars, we’d better start building the starship.