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Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen
The Peabody Award-winning Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen, from PRI and WNYC, is public radio's smart and surprising guide to what's happening in pop culture and the arts. Each week, 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.
Tuesday, July 29, 2014 8:00am
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.”
Friday, July 25, 2014 12:00am
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.
Friday, July 18, 2014 12:00am
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.
Tuesday, July 15, 2014 8:00am
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.”
Friday, July 11, 2014 12:00am
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.