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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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.
The greatest interview ever recorded won’t get as many hits on YouTube as a cat giving a high five. The people behind Blank on Blank want to make audio go viral. They take audio gems that fell on the cutting-room floor, or low-fi cassette tapes that were never aired, and create original animations of two to five minutes. Producer David Gerlach selects the audio (everyone from Fidel Castro to Meryl Streep to 2Pac), and gives it to animator Patrick Smith, who visualizes the words in charming lo-fi videos. Blank on Blank is now drawing millions of views, and Sean Rameswaram talked with Smith talk about tricking people into watching audio.
“Me and David are a packaging element,” Smith says. “We take something that someone may not have noticed before and put some eye candy on there that really lifts it up.” The animation isn’t terribly flashy. Each video is comprised of 40 or so compositions. You see David Bowie pensively reflecting on his career, his animated words bouncing around the frame, and scarecrow-like shadows of his previous personas surrounding him. Smith says he most often tries to steer away from literal interpretations, using as much symbolism and “weird” imagery as possible. “It’s very fulfilling to have these wonderful pieces of audio from these brilliant people and actually get a chance to define their words visually.”
Blank on Blank’s most popular videos have featured dead artists: Kurt Cobain, David Foster Wallace, Philip Seymour-Hoffman, and Janis Joplin, to name a few. It’s a daunting challenge for an animator. “You know [Hoffman] is dead. You know he’s brilliant. And you’re in charge of visualizing these words. It’s scary.” He finds that the hardest recordings to animate often yield the best results, forcing him to think past the obvious. Smith’s animations – sketchy, vibrant, and witty, like the best New Yorker cartoons come to life – are unquestionably the secret to Blank on Blank’s success, but he defers to the strength of his creative partnership with Gerlach. “I’m an animator who needs a producer who can push me,” he says. “All artists are lazy. Left to our own devices, we make the worst decisions.”
Are young people getting less creative? New research suggests teens’ fiction is a lot less interesting than it was in the 1990s. Performance artists tell what they really think of Shia LaBeouf and James Franco muscling in on their turf. A new trend in stripped-down, minimal motorcycle design harkens back to classic British bikes without all the baggage. And Andrew Bird and the Hands of Glory sing about what really scares them.
From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to George Orwell’s 1984 to Spike Jonze’s Oscar-winning Her, artists have imagined what the future will look like. In this week’s episode, Kurt Andersen explores how science fiction has shaped the world we’re living in right now. The inventor of the cell phone gives credit to Star Trek’s communicator; International Space Station superstar Chris Hadfield explains the ups and downs of space; and science writer Carl Zimmer says the giant sandworms of Dune got him interested in life on Earth. And we answer the age old question: where’s my flying car?
(Originally aired: January 24, 2014)
This episode of Sideshow features explicit language.
The internet was supposed to kill TV, but the two have become BFFs. Superfans turn to entertainment sites, YouTube, and podcasts to sustain the experience of their favorite shows. Episode recaps have been driving traffic to Entertainment Weekly, Slate, and Rolling Stone for years, but the form has evolved from a plot summary to an art. Leading the charge is Gay of Thrones, hosted by Los Angeles hair stylist Jonathan Van Ness.
Warning: this video contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 4, Episode 10
Jonathan’s comedy career began with a haircut. He was coiffing comedian Erin Gibson’s while summarizing a recent Game of Thrones episode. She didn’t watch the show, but she fell out of her chair laughing, and insisted they pitch the concept to Funny or Die. “Very loud hairdressing queen chatting about Game of Thrones, it’s just a very yummy cocktail,” Van Ness says.
Since launching last year, Gay of Thrones episodes have featured Margret Cho, Alfie Allen (a.k.a. Theon Greyjoy), and George R. R. Martin (who seems to have declined the haircut). Jonathan has racked up hundreds of thousands of views and made fans who don’t even watch Game of Thrones. “I also hear a lot, ‘I never watched Game of Thrones until I saw Gay of Thrones,’” Van Ness says. “This I think is amazing.”
Margaret Lyons writes about TV for Vulture. She’s been reading recaps since 1997, when she had to seek them out on questionable early-internet outlets like “Ken Hart’s Melrose Place Recaps.” She’s unsurprised by the huge audience for recaps. “TV is with you all the time,” she says. “I see these people every week. I’m not tired of thinking about that, or talking about that, or listening to what other people have to say about that.”
This week, Studio 360 is broadcasting from 1914, covering the cultural happenings of a remarkable year. Charlie Chaplin debuted the Tramp, the character who defines the silent film era, in that year; one of America’s great newspaper cartoonists invented the first animated character, Gertie the dinosaur; and George Bernard Shaw opened a front in the war between the sexes with Pygmalion. Tarzan debuted in 1914, and Jack Handey reimagines him trading the trees for the urban jungle. Plus, the assassination in Sarajevo that sparked the Great War is recalled by writer Aleksandar Hemon, whose forebear was in the crowd that fateful day.
Live from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a show devoted to the theme of fear — the kind that that can motivate us, and the kind that can stop us in our tracks. Andrew Bird and the Hands of Glory join us for a song about escape; comedian Hari Kondabolu riffs on fears of change; and Jennifer Egan talks about what it was like to tweet a short story — after her account had been hacked.
In the early 2000s, Jensen Karp almost made it as a rapper, under the name Hot Karl. Interscope gave him a huge advance, EMI gave him a publishing deal, but the debut album never materialized. “Back in the day, any white rapper had an effect on their voice that made them sound like other rappers,” Karp says. “I sound like a Muppet.” He eventually asked to be released from his contract. His recording career was coming to an end, but with the advance he never used, he was about to build an empire.
Along with a partner who had worked in the art business, Karp founded Gallery 1988, an art gallery in Los Angeles that exclusively shows pop culture fan art. Since 2004, the gallery has drawn rabid crowds with its prints, portraits, and sculptures dedicated to everything from Ghostbusters to Beastie Boys to Breaking Bad. And nearly every show is a hit online.
Fan art is not a new phenomenon, but Karp and his partner, Katie Cromwell, founded the gallery before anyone had created a business model for it. They tracked down talented artists online and at established galleries and asked if they would make art focused on pop culture. “We knew that we had imagery that people would like to see,” Karp says. “But neither of us predicted the success we would have.”
Before opening 1988 (they picked a good year for Los Angeles sports teams, he explains, and for rap records), Karp struggled to find space for fan art. He’s undeterred by snubs from people in the art world. “I love it when people tell us we’re not art. They’re the reason we created what we did. I’m stoked when people doubt the ability of pop culture to be hung in people’s homes.”