There are many types of geeks and most of us can find overlap within our many levels of geekiness. From music to comics to television and film we all find that special place where we spend a lot of our time and gain expertise. Kevin Fullam is a different type of geek. He goes in to the core of these mediums and talks how it relates to society as well as the personal experience. There isn’t a topic that relates to our pop culture driven society that he couldn’t get an amazing dialogue started on. He has talked about plethora of diverse issues on his long running show Under Surveillance and now brings his unique perspective to CHIRP this month in a new podcast called Split Reel where he will continue to blur the lines of sociology and pop culture. I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin and asking him some questions about media, the importance of these discussions and his hypothetical dream discussion participant.
Your new podcast Split Reel according to your website says that it is “looking at the intersection of pop culture, politics and societal attitudes”. When I think of an actual intersection I think of it as always moving and changing. How do you perceive this?
I think the relationship between mass media and societal attitudes is a symbiotic one; while film and television reflect changes in how we think and behave, they also serve to impact our beliefs as well. One example that I often like to use is how popular culture highlights what we view as problems or concerns during each particular era and how they’ve evolved over time — for instance, back in the ’70s and early ’80s, we saw lots of dystopian films that were undoubtedly influenced by global crises involving both oil and also the proliferation of nuclear weapons. (A concern about energy in general has returned, but few worry about nuclear Armageddon anymore.)
The topic of race relations is another interesting one to track throughout the years — from the un-PC character of Archie Bunker on “All in the Family” (who was still using terms like “colored”) to the well-to-do Huxtable clan in “The Cosby Show,” a program that largely avoided discussing race because of NBC’s worry that a “black” family show would be marginalized. When a “Star Trek” episode featured one of TV’s first interracial kisses in the ’60s, some southern stations wouldn’t even air the show. But I bet that the pushing of boundaries nudged the public in the direction of being more tolerant, even if it might not have been cognizant of it at the time.
One of the ideas that will be explored on Split Reel is the sorts of mass media we choose to consume and how that defines us. In a nutshell how does the types of music, film and related media define an individual? Can you give an example?
Actually, while I’m endlessly curious about this notion (which I first heard Nick Hornby introduce in “High Fidelity”), I’m not sure exactly how much I’ll address this in my interviews. The Hornby philosophy seems to be that our preferences for certain types of culture are often important in terms of compatibility with others… I tend to agree more than disagree, but feel that certain forms of “art” are more telling than others. For instance, while I doubt I’d be compatible with a female that solely listened to metal, shared preferences for narratives (esp. comedy) are probably more telling than those for music? I think you’d likely find more common consensus on the subject of “great films” vs. “great albums,” because the latter seems to be more subjective. This doesn’t really answer your question, but I’m conflicted — I would hesitate to pigeonhole anyone based on the sorts of things they like, but at the same time… tastes are indeed reflective of our personas (or in some cases, at least the ones we try to project).
By the way, there was a fantastic essay written about this general topic by Clive Thompson in the New York Times back in 2008 — the subject is the set of Netflix algorithms used to predict the sorts of films you’ll like based on what you’ve already rated. It’s called “If You Liked This, You’re Sure to Love That.”
Your show has covered many topics that are part of American culture. Are there topics that you look forward to exploring and/or topics you feel are better to avoid?
I’ve always got ideas for shows! With the recent “Inglorious Basterds” and oft-mentioned “Downfall” parodies, I’d like to look at the depictions of Nazis throughout the years — they’ve long been Hollywood’s “go-to” villain, but I also wonder whether the lampooning of the Germans (which was also done decades ago in “Hogan’s Heroes,” a startling show to watch today) has de-sensitized us re: Hitler. In addition, I’d want to look at how technology is shaping the sorts of social interactions we see on screen (we’re in an age now where kids text more than actually talk on the phone)… youth-oriented film is a good topic to continually re-visit (I’ve discussed this in the past with professor Tim Shary of Oklahoma) because trends in this genre shift incredibly quickly.
Another subject I’d want to explore is the portrayal of prison life in film — obviously, things have evolved since the days of Paul Newman’s “Cool Hand Luke.” More recent depictions that come to mind are “The Shawshank Redemption” and HBO’s “Oz,” but one of the best films I’ve ever seen on the topic is a 1979 British film called “Scum,” about nightmarish life in a British borstal (basically a juvenile detention center). The movie actually prompted a government investigation of these facilities — an example of how cinema can shine a spotlight on real-world problems. [Another unrelated example — the Oscar-winner “Braveheart” resulted in the resurrection of the concept of Scottish independence from Great Britain! Pretty heady stuff.]
Why is it important to talk about how popular culture and politics effects society? What would happen if we didn’t?
This is a very good question, and actually one that also speaks to the goal of the aforementioned class. There are two big reasons:
Film, TV, and music are excellent snapshots of life — they tell us how we lived, what we cared about during each era, and how we interacted. (Of course, much was whitewashed in the early days of TV — case in point, the difference between actual ’60s programs and a period piece like the excellent “Mad Men.”)
Narrative fiction is much more influential than many of us likely give it credit for; our guard is down, in a sense, when we’re exposed to political messages in popular culture — as opposed to our natural state of skepticism when we listen to a campaign speech or commercial.
The following quotes do a much better job of explaining the importance than I could, and although they refer to a classroom environment, they’re in fact pertinent to all of us in the viewing public:
“The question is not therefore whether film [and television] is going to appear in the classroom: it may do so directly; it will certainly do so indirectly through the experience and attitudes as well as the intellectual baggage students bring with them. Given these facts we have an obligation to help students learn to deal with this omnipresent and discriminating judgment to the study of film that we expect them to use in evaluating more traditional sources.”
— Patricia-Ann Lee, in Image As Artifact, 1990
(Responding to above) “Lee’s encouragement becomes even more pointed when one considers how television campaign ads influence emotions and perceptions through many of the same rhetorical techniques that come into play in dramatic productions for television and film. American democracy itself may be hanging in the balance of whether viewers (i.e. voters) can learn to view film and television critically.”
— Staci Beavers, in The West Wing, 2003
“Teachers should be less concerned with identifying factual mistakes on the screen and more with alerting students to the characteristic ways popular film and television productions often manipulate and trivialize historical issues… the feelings [we] get from watching a film are not coincidental.”
— John O’ Connor, in Teaching History with Film and Television, 1987
Our world and culture is made up of so many different elements it seems like there is a never ending supply of topics. How do you choose what you feel is important to discuss?
Sometimes I’ve gone with topical subjects — for instance, in the midst of the financial meltdown in early 2009, I did a show about the depiction of wealth and finance in popular culture, where we talked about everything from “The Grapes of Wrath” to “Wall Street.” I recently recorded an interview for the inaugural edition of Split Reel that focuses on the impact of 9/11 and the “War on Terror” and cinema. Whenever I’m stuck, I also check around to see what’s being published in academia — I’ll soon be talking to a professor who just authored a book about Generation X in film.
You have discussed a variety of topics with many people in different areas of expertise from Mental Health Professionals, to Political Science Professors to Pop Culture Critics. Who would you sell your soul to have a discussion with on your show? What you discuss with them and what would make it amazing or possibly anti-climatic?
I would have loved to have been able to sit down with the late David Foster Wallace (my favorite non-fiction writer, who probably was one of the sharpest dudes on the planet) — there’s a great essay that he wrote on “The Terminator” franchise called “F/X Porn” that wasn’t included in any of his collections. However, being a great writer doesn’t mean that you’ll make an entertaining radio guest, and vice versa. It’s entirely possible that he wouldn’t have been nearly as eloquent when asked to spit out insight off the top of his head, which would have been somewhat of a Major Downer.
Music is a huge part of pop culture as well as a huge part of most people’s lives. Will there be more of a focus on how music effects our culture when Split Reel premieres on CHIRP?
See, I wonder about the current impact of music on culture, specifically because tastes have become more and more splintered in the internet age. Even if you primarily listened to indie-rock in the ’80s and ’90s, you were still likely aware of Top 40 radio — whereas I don’t know how many stations even use that term today. The internet (and stations like CHIRP) are a boon for bands in that they no longer need to rely on a corporate PR machine to reach an audience. But at the same time, the fragmentation of tastes means that it will be much tougher for a particular movement in music to have a great impact, especially when compared with the likes of folk music in the early 20th century or the Woodstock-related artists of the 1960s.
If you could pick three songs that you feel have impacted popular culture the most, what would you say they are and why?
A music historian would have a much better answer to this question than I would, to be sure! Two that jump to mind within the last 30 years, though, are “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “We Are the World,” simply because they were insanely-popular tunes that attracted millions of dollars for famine relief in Africa. But I’m sure we could come up with lots of notable songs. This is just off the top of my head and post-1980:
U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (war in Northern Ireland, and put U2 on the map as a “socially conscious” band)
Jill Sobule’s “I Kissed a Girl” (much like Star Trek and the interracial kiss, some stations in rural America wouldn’t play this tune, which was a pop hit in the mid-90s)
Sinead O’ Connor — not necessarily for her tunes, but for her ripping up of the Pope’s picture on SNL — BIG news in its day;
Ozzy Osbourne’s “Suicide Solution” — not a hit at all, but prompted a parental scare about the impact of metal on malleable youth (completely overblown, of course);
Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” was a hit, of course, but few of the people listening cared enough to pay attention to the lyrics, as evidenced by the fact that many viewed it as a patriotic anthem. In fact, the song — critical of the U.S. government — was trotted out by Ronald Reagan during his re-election campaign;
As far as hip-hop goes, Body Count’s “Cop Killer” in the ’90s comes to mind because it predictably scared white folks, though I’m sure it was never played on commercial radio; sadly, I don’t know that Public Enemy was ever big enough to impact mainstream America;
Prince’s “Darling Nikki” — this song (featuring references to sex and masturbation) indirectly resulted in the introduction of “Parental Advisory Stickers” after Tipper Gore heard her daughter listening to it in the mid-‘80s;
Another tune that comes to mind is Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” — the burning crosses involved in the video certainly created a big hubbub with the Catholic Church. That’s another thing we’ve lost in 2010 — the impact of music videos! They’re still around, but pretty much only on YouTube, right? Again, the fragmentation of audiences — which probably the reason why I can’t think of any influential song in the past decade…