Geography Department Talk TOMORROW: Geography and Popular Culture (DOW 270)

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For anybody who is either around the Dow Science Complex on the Central Michigan campus tomorrow (Friday 11/1) or enjoys eating gratis lunch, I’ll be giving a talk at Noon! Join me and my colleagues in DOW 270 to learn about my research, the overlap between Geography and Pop Culture, and see me break down what I mean by Symbolic Gentrification. I look forward to seeing you.

Those details again:

Friday, November 1,  12pm – 1pm
Central Michigan University 
Dow Science Complex Room 270

There will be lunch. And cookies, probably.

 

“13” Turns Twenty

13_28blur_album_-_cover_art29Happy Friday, everyone. I recently noticed that Blur’s everything-falls-apart masterpiece “13” came out twenty years ago today (March 30 in the States, to split hairs). I’d be remiss if I let that landmark slip by without mention here, because I completely missed the anniversary of their self-titled album (my entry point as a fan) two years ago.

Blur’s mid-90’s rivalry with Oasis (manufactured as it was to sell copies of NME), formulates one of my favorite lectures I include in my European Geography (GEOG 371) course. Popular culture reinforces geographic assumptions, especially the sense of place that permeates any discussion of “the North” and “the South” in England. Not since The Beatles vs. The Kinks had there been such a raw encapsulation of that dichotomy. For the record, I do prefer The Kinks, too (and not because of any predilection for Southern England; I just enjoy their music more than most bands in the first place).

Anyway, in 1997, Blur were shedding their Britpop skin and embracing Graham Coxon’s love of American indie rock, perhaps best manifested as the wonderful “You’re So Great.” As I said, Blur was my entry point as a fan, so I didn’t fall in love with the band’s foppish (in a self-aware way) era. Like many of my friends who were listening in this era, I remember being less enthused at 13 when it landed in 1999. “Coffee & TV” felt like the only marginally accessible song on the album, which didn’t matter much to critics, but to a teenage American, it felt like a bit of an affront. I recall putting the CD on at some friends’ house in Syracuse while we sat around as a party dwindled; by the time “1992” got to it’s third-level of noise, walked over to the boombox and turned to me and said “I’m, uh, gonna change it.” If you want to get a decent impression, feast your brain on this:

Knowing what we know now, though, makes the accomplishments of 13 all that more remarkable. Namely, the band had long since shed any sonic accouterments of what had ostensibly made them huge, defied every music writer in the UK, and more or less entered into the worst collective period of their lives. Again, I was too young and under-educated in life to recognize half of this album as a heady mix of cries for help and the other half as gleeful conflagration of their rental castle-mansions. I’ll never forget reading a story on Blur in SPIN in the wake of the trans-Atlantic success of “Song 2” that really harped on how much the members hated one another. It seemed pretty sensationalized (because it was), but I can only imagine how much resolve it took the four of them to remain a band. In 1997, Graham Coxon sang that “DT’s [delirium tremens] and coffee helps to start the day,” and in 1999 he sang “sociability is hard enough for me” to chronicle a years-long battle to overcome alcoholism. “Coffee & TV” sounded convincing enough, and one of the all-time great videos to dramatize his ‘coming home’ certainly helped this case. Stateside, it remains in contention against “Girls and Boys” for the vaunted title of ‘Blur’s most successful single that doesn’t go “WOO-HOO.”‘

Anyway, since it’s 2019, there are a multitude of ways to hear 13 in its entirety if you’re interested in doing that today. Twenty years ago, Blur played most of the album live at the Hippodrome Theater in London, and a fan named Claire Welles taped the gig off the radio. A little over a year ago, she digitized it on YouTube. Considering the teeming oceans of Blur material on the site, it’s only accrued 556 views so far. I’ll embed it here if you’d like to add to that count.

One dynamic that I can’t get out of my head while listening to this was how so many of those cheering fans, like so much of Britain on BBC1, were hearing songs like “Trailerpark” and “Battle” for the first time ever. I believe that Napster, Limewire, and Kazaa were all active by this point, which had fundamentally changed the lifespan of anticipated music’s release. Gone were the days of that hot new single arriving at the BBC on a CD encased in some briefcase with a combination lock.

Damon Albarn, right on brand, didn’t sound too enthused to be performing these songs, but again, the fact that the band still existed in 1999 was remarkable. Considering the worldwide success Albarn had waiting in the rafters with James Hewlett at this point, it’s even more understandable that it feels like he’s punching the clock here. Still, you can’t help but imagine he begrudgingly knew how insane and special this new album was. And no matter what your feelings are on Albarn, he headlined Glastonbury two years back-to-back (2009-2010) with two different bands.

Alright, I’ve said enough. Happy 20th anniversary to 13, hope you all have a great weekend, and if you’re anywhere near Oak Ridge tomorrow night (Saturday 3.16) come see me and Nina Fefferman (UTK Evolutionary Biology) talking science with comedians Shane Mauss and Dave Waite at the Grove Theater. It’s close to selling out, but there may be tickets for sale at the door!  More info in my previous entry or at Shane Mauss’ site here.

Teaching Cultural Geography with the Kids in the Hall

girl_drink_drunkLast week, my Cultural Geography: Core Concepts class tackled the relationship between gender and space. Many of my students volunteered personal experiences when their movement through space reminded them (some harshly) of their gender performance. One student mentioned a male friend of hers who specially requested cocktail drinks in a brandy glass in order to mitigate any ridicule he may receive for having a “girl drink.” So, being me, I decided this would be a good excuse to show this classic 1991 sketch from Kids in the Hall.

For a quick overview, the Kids in the Hall were a Canadian sketch troupe with a hit TV series that ran between 1989 and 1995. They released their motion picture Brain Candy in 1996 and have reunited on multiple occasions. All five members – Scott Thompson, Mark McKinney, Bruce McCullough, Dave Foley, and Kevin McDonald (the latter two co-star in this sketch) – are still working regularly on television today.

I had the opportunity to interview Kevin McDonald at a live show last summer, and I asked him about the changes he’d observed in sketch comedy over his decades in the industry. Though the satire and humor holds up, this sketch is reflective of a major shift he had noticed in how comedy was written, produced, and presented since the KITH show was on the air.

“One thing we were lucky about was that there was no YouTube. We couldn’t film stuff, so we had to do it the old Vaudeville way. We had to get our stage legs, and we performed all the time… It forced us to strengthen muscles that aren’t strengthened [as much today]. People on YouTube – they strengthen different muscles. They know how to be filmic. They know how to write for film; they understand “cut-to:” right away.”

Watching this sketch on YouTube in 2019, it’s easy to notice how much space they gave this short film to breathe. The dialogue is just as important as the visual gags, and the story builds slowly over a handful of scenes. Though memes (in the internet sense) did not exist at the time, the characters and cinematography lend themselves surprisingly well to that medium today. When I asked McDonald about what he thinks has contributed to the characters’ cult longevity (even early-era spots like The Eradicator, a Bruce McCullough character with a recent punk band themed after him), his answer was pretty simple: “I think that we found a rhythm in the troupe that was halfway between absurdism and real…”

The concept of what is and isn’t a “girl drink” brings a focus to that interaction of gender and place via multiple dynamics: namely, bodily comportment and subconscious “gendering” of flavor and decoration as ‘feminine.’ As they did in their strongest moments, the Kids in the Hall blended the real/tragic (a guy falling off the wagon and losing his job) with the absurd (needing some fruit and a tiny parasol in his booze). The sketch could easily be distilled (heh) down to one joke at its core, but playing to their strengths, McDonald and Foley inject masterful character work and subtle jabs. Though Foley and McDonald are hardly the punching-down type of comedians, having Scott Thompson in the writing process certainly provided a valuable voice in modulating their humor about sexuality and masculinity to avoid reinforcing gay tropes (unlike some other sketch comedy of that era … Buddy Cole, martini at his side, always dominated that conversation, anyway).

In general, alcohol plays a crucial role in geography, and vice versa. Obviously, site characteristics inform how and why brewers decide to open up shop, and local tastes often determine how certain brands of alcohol are marketed and distributed. A number of geographers, including my mentor Tom Bell, have published studies about regional dynamics in alcohol marketing, and the latest issue of the Journal of Cultural Geography contains an overview of brewing in New England. My friends Dave and Steph spoke to me and Bret Hartt about the relationship between beer and place on Episode 6 of The Casual Geographer back in 2011. I also include a case study/focus on alcohol and localism in my American Popular Culture course, especially the imagined geographies of Eastern TN and the legalized moonshine trade.

This is just one of many classic comedy sketches I use to teach cultural geography. I’ve previously written about how I introduce my Popular Culture lecture on Minstrelsy with my favorite SNL sketch of all time. I’d love to hear any examples of sketches and scenes you’ve found useful in your classes.

Nick Huinker (Central Cinema) Pays a Visit to the Geography of Popular Culture

My friend Nick Huinker, a co-founder of Central Cinema, came by my American Popular Culture class (AMST/GEOG 423) yesterday. We had a great discussion about how independent theaters have been reintroducing a distinct local flavor and sense of ownership to the moviegoing experience. As you can tell from how companies like Regal have been adopting practices held for generations by locally owned theaters (alcohol, personalization, fundraising events, screenings by homegrown directors and producers, etc.), it’s a pretty great idea.

As I’ve often discussed in the class, art-house theaters have been purposefully resetting film to its classic context, in many respects: produced for a communal, interactive experience. For the first half-century of film, it was considered a low-brow art, something that true thespians would never touch. In other words, it was a wonderful cauldron of innovative, thought-provoking, and genre-transcending/defining art. Unfortunately, a lot of this has been lost to history. Central Cinema and theaters of their ilk are doing great work in bringing it all back to the nickelodeon era (as well as the Nickelodeon era, screening Good Burger soon).

Thanks again to Nick for taking the time to come through! Stay tuned to this blog for more updates on new projects in the Geography of American Popular Culture, and if you haven’t yet, take a dive into the wonderful rabbit hole that is Cinema Treasures. You’ll be glad you did.