Monthly Archives: November 2017

Defending Satire: Fawlty Powers

Despite the massive success of Monty Python, comedy legend John Cleese decided to leave the show in the early ‘70s. Leaving behind a legacy of wildly successful  surreal comedy, he joined his fiancé Connie Booth to work on another masterpiece, Fawlty Towers, an over-the-top satire originating from observation of an extremely rude hotel-owner in Torquay, England. The show was a smash hit, voted as the best British TV show of all time by the British Film Institute in 2000. Even so, some would take that endorsement by a large media enterprise as a condemnation—that it signifies the show’s mainstream success is due only to the peddling of the TV industry, who forced it upon the British people to establish certain roles and preserve the status quo. Yet, the farcical Fawlty Towers manages to accomplish something entirely different, not giving viewers a consolation prize for their depressing lives of work, but instead allowing for the realization that the necessity to conform exists. Fawlty Towers, at times, functions by providing enlightening hilarity, pointing out societal issues and questioning deeply-ingrained practices. Of course, the way viewers understand these social criticisms depends largely on their own environments. Nonetheless, the show ages well.

For some brief background, Basil Fawlty, played by John Cleese, and his wife, Sybil own a hotel which they run with the help of a maid named Polly, a Spanish waiter called Manuel (with comically bad English). The show centers around the interactions between the owners, workers, and their guests. Fawlty Towers does humor strikingly. So, when the plot goes wrong, it gets really absurd. Often, it is in a torrent of mistakes that laughter comes. One example comes from perhaps the most famous episode of the series, “The Germans,” in which German tourists spend a couple of nights at Fawlty Towers. Besides the usual barrage of slapstick, the episode is most remembered for Mr. Fawlty’s hilarious reminder: “Don’t mention the war!” After exclaiming this, Mr. Fawlty proceeds to mention World War II to the German guests in every sentence, causing one of them to cry. In the ensuing chaos, Mr. Fawlty retorts, “Well, they started it!” and after a denial by the guests, he responds brilliantly, “Yes you did, you invaded Poland!” Satire produces similar moments all the time, and the laughter that these scenes create is revelatory. In “The Germans,” the series makes fun of the inhibitory effects of British propriety, implicitly asking why it’s necessary to focus on what should not be said, rather than doing what is natural. Surely, if Basil hadn’t thought of the war throughout the guests’ stay, he would never have offended them about the war (although he surely would have in some other way).

To expound upon the corrective ability of satire, it’s necessary to look to writing on the form. Some look to A Handbook for Literature by William Thrall, who writes that satire is “a literary manner which blends a critical attitude with humor and wit to the end that human institutions or humanity may be improved,” and that “the true satirist is conscious of the frailty of institutions of man’s devising and attempts through laughter not so much to tear them down as to inspire a remodeling” (Harris, 1990). We can see these ideas exactly in “The Germans,” which attacks the constricting British notion of propriety. Indeed, although the goal of Fawlty Towers is not to critique the society in which it was created, Cleese’s farcical approach lends itself to social satire. One can note that Thrall insistence on remodeling, rather than tearing down, is in accord with the aforementioned episode, because the ideas that beget propriety are not attacked, but the necessity to cling to a notion of those ideas is. In other words, one can understand not mentioning World War 2 to the Germans because it would naturally cause tempers to run high; yet, the necessity to repeat to oneself not to mention the war, as a result of propriety, would be unnecessary and counterproductive to civility. The show questions a basic characteristic of the British identity with laughter.

The famous incident in “The Germans”

Laughter, though, is controversial. Instead of seeing laughter as something that can bring positive social change and alert people of their unwitting conformation, some see the natural reaction to humor as a tool of subjugation in the modern era. For example, in his 1947 polemic, “The Culture Industry,” critical theorist Theodor Adorno writes, “Wrong laughter copes with fear by defecting to the agencies which inspire it. It echoes the inescapability of power… In wrong society, laughter is a sickness, drawing [happiness] into society’s worthless totality” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2006, p. 112). Although Adorno believes that all the laughter in the 1940s (and since) United States was of the wrong variety, he does allow for an alternative: “Reconciled laughter resounds with the echo of escape from power” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2006, p. 112). Although acknowledging the presence of a good mode of laughter, he does not capture or allow for the revelatory laughter of satire, because he believes that “laughter about something is always laughter at it” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2006, p. 112). This type of thinking is not compatible with laughter of satire, because viewers laugh about and at the excessiveness of the necessity to conform, yet they laugh about their identification with that necessity, not at it. When Cleese jabs at British propriety, the viewer’s laughter comes not only from the awkwardness of the situation, but also from the realization that the situation was imposed unnecessarily by a superfluous necessity to conform to what one should not do. Adorno, and thinkers like him seem to have missed that this sort of revelatory laughter exists, which satire does a brilliant job of bringing about. It is important to note that although the nature of the laughter may be revolutionary, it may not necessarily spur a person to action.

A key point of a counter-argument—that all laughter is a modern tool of subjugation—would be that the viewers do identify with the characters. Perhaps, one could even look to the long history of English eccentrics for whom many felt nationalistic admiration. As one article puts it, “We laugh at Basil because we see ourselves in him, and if Cleese is Basil then we don’t have to admit any of the typically British uptightness is ours too” (Davidson, 1995). Thinking like this implies that viewers would feel comfortable keeping their uprightness because Mr. Fawlty is an admirable scape goat, who makes even the most intransigent person seem amenable. Yet, the same article also says, “[Fawlty Towers] was a fairly painful assessment of the character of the nation” (Davidson, 1995). Accordingly, there is another interpretation, a more probable one given the nature and character of satire: the identification with the characters and the absurdity of the entire show allows viewers to reflect upon their own propensities and question what are really their own ideas, and what ideas society has inculcated in them.

This is the essence of the revelatory laughter. To better get at what I mean by that, one can look at the structure of Fawlty Towers. The show is set such that the characters have no leisure time, which interestingly connects to Adorno, who wrote, “The only escape from the work process…is through adaption to it in leisure time” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2006, p. 109). For the characters of this show, their leisure time is literally the work process; they’ve adapted completely. Adorno and similar thinkers might argue that seeing these people who have it as bad as possible would make viewers feel better about their own horrendous work-life balances. Yet once again, the nature of satire can prevent people from feeling this way, instead drawing attention to the fact that many people’s lives have become solely about work. Fawlty Towers, with its all-out expansion of work, calls into question this social construct. In a similar vein, the show, through Basil’s ludicrous attempts to climb the social hierarchy, questions a focus on social status. Despite the fact that he already owns a hotel, Basil comes off as a petty and unhappy man. In “A Touch of Class,” for example, Lord Melbury comes to the hotel, and Basil accordingly treats him better than any other guest. By the end of the episode, though, it is revealed that Melbury is a thieving imposter. The show portrays the necessity to reach the top of the hierarchy as something futile and unworthy through a comedy of obsequiousness.

The full episode of “A Touch of Class”

Additionally, Fawlty Towers exhibits carnivalesque properties that beget revelatory laughter. So far, this essay has discussed how Fawlty Towers’ outrageousness was cause for such laughter, but there is also cause for laughter in the reversal of traditional relations, some of which are not completely overdone. Mainly, Fawlty Towers has three: the reversed power dynamic of Basil and his wife, the socially unacceptable reactions to the guests by the hosts, and the fact that the most sane person seems to be an art student. Of course in the traditional household, the man asserts dominance over the woman, but in the Fawlty’s relationship, Sybil incessantly tells Basil what to do, and Basil takes his frustration out on the guests treating them like they’re unwelcome pockets of annoyance. The show clearly portrays the art student, Polly the maid, as the most sane of any of the characters, contrasting the “impotence” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2006, p. 106) Adorno predicts for people who don’t conform to the prevailing economic system. The less pronounced reversals in the husband-wife relationship and Polly’s portrayal, especially in comparison to the complementary ridiculousness of Mr. Fawlty himself, reveal to viewers that such interactions are in fact very possible, that conforming to those traditional standards is not the only option. The show accomplishes this with a hilarious juxtaposition of moderation and ostentatiousness.

But what about the fact that Fawlty Towers was made in the ‘70s in Britain? One BBC article (“What’s the point of satire?”, 2015), which focuses on morality, says, because of the globalized nature of the modern world, satire can no longer be effective; the varying notions of morality across culture prevent satire from working as a corrective. However, the fallacy in this type of thinking comes from the following idea: “if satire aims at the moral reform of a given society it can only be effective within that particular society” (“What’s the point of satire?”, 2015). Cleese himself once said of Fawlty Towers, “The characters are in some way archetypes; they’re the types that crop up in all the different cultures” (An Interview With John Cleese – Fawlty Towers Special Features, 2014). The British idea propriety doesn’t come to an average American’s mind when an average American watches the show. Yet, the viewer can still learn from the corrective trends of the satire (which aren’t always overtly moral), and choose exactly what to take away. I hope not to make this an argument about morality, but there are some similar moral characteristics of almost all prominent cultures in the world. For example, impropriety is considered disrespectful across cultures. Yes, the definition of impropriety may change, but with satire, the area of insight remains similar, especially for those who have an idea of what is being satirized. In this specific example, of course the attack on British propriety in Fawlty Towers is pertinent to many cultures, because it makes them question their own notions of propriety. Their laughter illuminates such ideas.

The interview with Cleese about Fawlty Towers

The pinnacle of great farce, Fawlty Towers will be remembered as a hilarious English cultural product. At times, viewers were treated to hilarious displays of original slapstick. Other times, they laughed at Basil and the rest of the characters’ shortcomings. Some of that laughter was revelatory; Cleese took jabs at existing British social constructs, showing viewers their existence. Even with that focus, Brits were not the only ones to benefit from Fawlty Towers, as it became a worldwide phenomenon. Unfortunately, after the show ended, Cleese said, “I can never do better than Fawlty Towers no matter what I do. Now I very much want to teach young talent some rules of the game” (“John Cleese — minister of comedic talk”, 2006). Here’s to hoping the young talent learns.

This essay was read by Ian Pultz-Earle. It is not a first draft.

Works Cited

Adorno, T., & Horkheimer, M. (2006). Dialectic of enlightenment (pp. 94-136). Stanford, Calif: Stanford Univ. Press.

An Interview With John Cleese – Fawlty Towers Special Features. (2014). Retrieved from

Davidson, A. (1995). ARTS: TO HELL WITH BASIL. The Independent. Retrieved 13 November 2017, from

Harris, R. (1990). The Purpose and Method of Satire. VirtualSalt. Retrieved 13 November 2017, from

John Cleese — minister of comedic talk. (2006). Retrieved November 15, 2017, from

What’s the point of satire?. (2015). BBC News. Retrieved 13 November 2017, from

The Simpsons Blog Post

The 21st Century Fox logo fades to black as an Apollo spacecraft lands on the moon.  An anthropomorphic cat, Scratchy, and an anthropomorphic mouse, Itchy, emerge from the spacecraft.  Evoking another moon landing, Scratchy proclaims: “we come in peace, for cats and mice everywhere.” When the dramatic music stops playing, Itchy grabs an American flag and stabs Scratchy through the chest and beats him to near-death.  In short order, Itchy returns to earth a hero, is elected president, and, when he discovers that Scratchy survived the attack, ‘accidentally’ launches the entire nuclear arsenal.

So begins The Simpsons Movie.  Given the the traditions of Simpsons oeuvre, developed over nearly 30 years of television episodes, the choice to begin with Itchy and Scratchy is both telling and completely unsurprising.  The entire series is rife with slapstick and low humor that connects closely to a host of early cartoons.  But that first sequence also elides quickly into a scene in which Homer breaks the fourth wall, allowing Homer—and the film—to point out the ridiculousness of charging real audience members to watch a television-adapted movie, but he also points out the ridiculousness of charging audience members to watch a television-adapted movie that features a television-adapted movie:

Boring! … I can’t believe we’re paying for something we get for free on TV.  If you ask me, everybody in this theater is a giant sucker, [pointing towards us] especially you!

The gag works because of its satirical observation and because it happens while breaking the fourth wall.  And the “Itchy and Scratchy” movie, like the main series shorts, works because of its slapstick humor in the vein of Monty Python and Charlie Chapman.  Together, these comedic techniques satirize the film industry, its relationship with consumers, cartoon violence, and The Simpsons themselves—all within only a few minutes.

The  grotesquerie of the opening sequence invites the viewer to connect the Simpsons to a host of lowbrow humor and, in this way, to the “carnivalesque humor” described by Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin.  In examining the work of François Rabelais, Bakhtin draws a connection between the “grotesque and scatological” jokes of the French humorist and the antics of Medieval carnivals (Duncombe 82).  For Bakhtin, these carnivals upend social structures, placing the fool in the place of the king, and the king in the place of the fool” (88). “In this inversion and “temporary suspension … of hierarchical rank,” Bakhtin argues, participants “were considered equal during the carnival” (88).  The satisfactions of this kind of inversion, according to Bakhtin, support a kind of subversive humor, one centered around upending social dynamics and presenting “world[s] inside out” and “liberat[ed] from norms of etiquette and decency” (88).

The Simpsons clearly appears to share the sort of proclivity for subversion that Bakhtin celebrates—but the movie does not fully adopt a Bakhtinian understanding of humor.  While The Simpsons Movie does employ carnivalesque humor, it too challenges it.  In its gags, the film shows the strengths of carnivalesque humor, but the film also illustrates its limitations, particularly in relation to other comedic forms.  By looking at the ways in which carnivals and carnivalesque humor succeed and do not succeed in The Simpsons Movie, some insight can be gained on how effective Bakhtin’s argument is in its totality.

The most authentically carnivalesque moments may be those that occur in “excerpts” from the Itchy and Scratchy Show.  Consider the cold opening again.  The opening sequence only provides a few-minute segment from the “Itchy and Scratchy” movie—but those moments are memorably graphic.  In those two minutes, Itchy beats Scratchy to near death using a flag pole, leaves him to die on the moon, and—when it turns out Scratchy is still alive—launches the entire nuclear arsenal of the United States.  The “Itchy and Scratchy” shorts in The Simpsons television show are characterized by similar acts of violence.  In one short, Scratchy is fooled by a sign offering free money only to be neutered; in another, Itchy hooks up Scratchy to a cloning machine in order to kill Scratchy over and over again.  These violent, yet humorous, scenes demonstrate some of the argument made by Bakhtin.  Like Rabelais and the carnivals, The Simpsons use crass humor—in this case, through over-the-top cartoon violence—as a means of upending social dynamics and as a form of satire.

But are these moments authentically Bakhtinian?  In his chapter in Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional Culture, William Savage argues that the effectiveness of the “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoons lie in their ability to satirize [many things] in their violence.  “Itchy and Scratchy” plays off of the older Tom and Jerry, but it also critiques corporate culture, cartoon violence, in a knowing way that an informed consumer of culture would immediately recognize.  There is an obvious subversion, of course, in which mouse triumphs over cat.  But there is also a knowing confirmation in which “getting” the full joke is an affirmation of the viewer’s superior position.  Read in conjunction with Bakhtin, Savage’s argument suggests that the satirical power of the “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoons lies more with the audience member, rather than the carnivalesque elements of the gags.

Of course, pure bawdy humor and comedic violence is a cornerstone of the Simpsons history, from Dr. Nick Rivera’s disastrous medical interventions to the endless radioactive anomalies—and worker injuries—caused by the nuclear power plant.  But the most prevalent example of ‘grotesque’ humor appears in the relationship between Homer and Bart.  In an early scene from The Simpsons Movie, Homer engages Bart in a game of dare, after Bart laughs at Homer, who unintentionally hit himself with a hammer in eye while repairing their roof.  The two try to best each other by forcing the other to perform the most painful and humiliating tasks: Homer has to carry a pile of bricks on his back while Bart shoots him with a pellet gun, and Bart has to skateboard to a burger restaurant and back completely nude.  The humor of the scene rests squarely on the physical pain the two inflict on to each other—but the scene also functions by subverting the standard relationship between a father and son.  Homer and Bart are in turns overpowered by one another, in much the same way as the “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoons.  And, unlike those shorts, the funniness of the scene is not predicated upon the viewer having inside knowledge: the subverted relationship between the father and son is implicit in the scene itself.

Nonetheless, it’s clear from this scene too that grotesque and physical humor alone is unable to subvert social dynamics.  Homer remains the father figure in the film as in the television series and is responsible, ultimately, for the happy ending that keeps his family and his town intact.  He may be a fool, but he also inhabits a position of “authority” that is never seriously shaken.

A Bakhtinian reading of The Simpsons is also challenged by the film’s central narrative, which exists outside of individual gags.  In brief, the film tells the story of an averted natural disaster, one that is both caused by and ultimately resolved by everyman Homer Simpson.  After an attempt by the townspeople of Springfield to clean-up their polluted lake, Homer drops a massive silo filled with pig feces into the lake—the lake is quickly covered in a bubbling green ooze and a giant skull-and-crossbones appears in the water.  The head of EPA, Russ Cargill, decides to intervene by sealing Springfield under a glass dome.  While the scenarios and scenes surrounding the glass dome offer opportunities for exploring carnivalesque humor, it is the interactions of Cargill with other characters that more so capture a Bakhtinian argument.  Cargill gives the president—here Arnold Schwarzenegger—five sealed envelopes, asking him to choose one at random.  Later on, Cargill—after being foiled by Homer and Bart—claims that there are “two things they don’t teach you at Harvard … how to cope with defeat, and how to handle a shotgun.”  But before he can shoot Homer and Bart, Maggie pushes a boulder onto him.

In each of these instances, a government official is subverted and undermined—the president is told what to do by an EPA official; Cargill makes fun of his Harvard education; and Maggie drops a boulder onto him.  These are successfully subversive acts, surely, akin to examples that Bakhtin provides.  In “Understanding Satire with the Simpsons,” Carl-Filip Florberger specifically highlights the connection between the Simpsons subversion of officials of varying kinds across its episodes in connection with Bakhtin:

  • Bakhtin pointed out that carnivals in pre-Protestant Europe created a scenario in which “…hierarchies were temporarily suspended and even inverted, no insignificant thing in a society ruled by rigid social stratification attributed to divine will” (Bakhtin 1984b, 13). The Simpsons use this play with hierarchies to criticize the country, the government and also the company that owns them, FOX Network (Florberger and Lunborg).

There is, however, one unquestionably successful subversion in The Simpsons, executed by the character with the least power — an essentially carnivalesque moment.  It is Maggie, the speechless infant heart of the Simpsons family, who saves the day by executing the coup de grace.  It is Maggie who pushes the boulder that lands on EPA head Russ Cargill and prevents him from shooting Bart and Homer.  What this suggests is that Bakhtin was right.  While The Simpsons relies upon many kinds of humor to connect to its audience, the most powerful moments are when otherwise powerless characters—like an infant child, or a idiotic everyman—are able to do something powerful.  Or, funny.

Pokemon as Utopia

Pokémon has a certain allure to children, notably through its commercial success. In the first year alone, Pokémon merchandise accounted for one billion dollars of profit in the United States alone (Li-Vollmer 2). Today, it has expanded into one of the largest entertainment franchises in the world. Any child would be enamored by the possibility of living in a world where you could travel to your heart’s desire, befriend and control mythical creatures possessing extraordinary abilities, and live freely with few restraints barring you from your dreams. By ten years, in the Pokémon world, any child could acquire their first Pokémon and head out and explore the world and encounter new and exciting adventures. In such a world, even adults would be tempted by such an opportunity. Adults in the Pokémon world must have also set off on their own journey; it seems as if this is just a perpetuating tradition, to allow ten year olds to tour the world and figure out what they want to do with their lives. At least in the anime, a style of Japanese animation, no adults really ever seem unsatisfied with their lives. The possibilities are simply endless, as there is never any indication of a lack of ability to do whatever you want. Does this qualify Pokémon as a utopia? Everyone in the world seems to have whatever they want, so is Pokémon actually a better world with cute, supernatural creatures?

The possibilities in career and life opportunities delve into utopian aspects. Richard Dyer, author of Entertainment and Utopia, juxtaposed social tensions, inadequacies, and absences with their utopian solutions. Possibilities in the Pokémon relate to these two contrasting categories; “Energy (work and play synonymous)…Intensity (open, spontaneous, honest communications and relationships)…Transparency (open, spontaneous, honest communications…)…Community (…collective activity)” (Dyer 278). These are the utopian solutions to exhaustion, dreariness, manipulation and fragmentation respectively. In the Pokémon world, through the connection of Pokémon, everyday tasks are changed.  Work is no longer simple labor, life is no longer monotonous (especially with the always available possibility of travel), political opposition is no longer oppressive, and communities are no longer disconnected. Pokémon, as a source of entertainment, follows this analysis, which Dyer terms as, “offer[ing] some explanation of why entertainment works” (278). Although, as he also admits, and as Pokémon follows as proof, class, patriarchal, and sexual struggles are omitted and denied validity through this analysis. This is due to entertainment responding “to real needs created by society” (278). Yet, it still supports the utopian solutions that do exist for problems in today’s society.

With the freedom of choice in life paths, it would only feel obvious that the Pokémon world possessed stable economies and governments. But oddly enough, Pokémon lacks the appearance of any visible currency. Banks never appear in the television series. The economy, however it may be, cannot be determined at all; and from the knowledge given by the series, no forms of government exist either. Without such necessary constituents to a fully-functioning society, the Pokémon world has not collapsed. Instead, it has thrived into a utopic society seemingly free from major conflicts—but the truth is that the agglomeration of these utopian aspects cannot fully guarantee a perfect world.

Although major wealth gaps appear in the show, riches are minor luxuries in the world of Pokémon, where they may be easily acquirable. Affluent individuals can be distinguished from the average man. In multiple episodes of the anime, the main characters, led by Ash Ketchum, often stumble upon wealthy families with large mansions and wide plains of land owned by them. Professor Oak, a regional professor and scientist, is responsible for giving new trainers their first Pokémon. As a regional professor, he easily garners enough wealth to be considered to be one of the richest people in the region. Yet no significant social class differences appear. While some individuals remain rich and presumably powerful, never are they placed above others, which may or may not be just a consequence of utopian solutions implementing themselves to needs created by society, but defines and delimits too clearly “the legitimate needs of people in this society” (278). However, the lack of social class dynamics may also be taken as a utopian solution to social divides in society. Either way, wealth is not a determining factor in this consequence.

In the show, hard currency is never even seen. We know of the characters going out to purchase things, but never do we see a hint of a purse or credit card. The absence of currency is a statement to show that while money is present in Pokémon, it is by no means an important facet of the world. Some people may not possess as much wealth as others, but it does not diminish their own happiness and opportunities. As noted by Richard Dyer, the utopian solution to scarcity would be “abundance ([the] elimination of poverty for self and others; equal distribution of wealth)” (Dyer 277). Although wealth is not equally distributed, poverty is effectively eliminated in the show. Not a single instance occurs in the show where we can see a person stricken by poverty. By purposefully discluding any currency, Pokémon attempts to reinforce its own utopian aspects.

With the freedom granted in the Pokémon world, people have a variety of options to choose from. Close to no restrictions appear in this world, although some laws, or rules, are present throughout the regions even with the lack of a government. For example, trainers require trainer licenses in order to capture and train Pokémon. By neglecting or purposefully harming their Pokémon, these licenses may be taken away. In a perfect world, things such as these would not even need to occur. However, consequences to reckless decisions cannot be avoided. The existence of this problem does not detract from the argument that the Pokémon world is a utopia, it simply comprises another minor argument over the negative aspects in an otherwise utopian world.

Another interesting observation is the fact that healthcare is accessible to everyone without cost. Pokémon battles, the most popular sport of the Pokémon world, often end with numerous injuries to both sides as Pokémon engage in unpredictable combat although usually never ending with serious wounds. By going to the Pokémon Center, basically a Pokémon hospital, the treatment is quick, never costing any money as well.

Even though the amount of wealth an individual may possess may easily exceed another’s, not much monetary value actually exists in the show. Above all, Pokémon could be said to be more valuable than any quantity of money.

Although the Pokémon world is not home to overwhelming amounts of crime, crime is still inevitable. Pokémon poachers and crime syndicates manage to steal and cause harm to both people and Pokémon. However, there has been a lack of initiative to form larger police forces. Minor police forces exist in each town and city, but there has not been any organized force capable of stopping crime syndicates in the Pokémon world. One organization is present as a peacekeeper in the world, but its members do not engage crime unless it involves the endangerment of Legendaries, Pokémon vastly stronger than normal ones, who are also important to the natural order of the world, or the possibility of a massive loss of lives (given that they even possess the knowledge of such events). The only force who fights against these organized crime groups is Ash Ketchum, the protagonist, and his group of friends.

In every season, Ash faces off against these dangerous groups who wish to change the world through unleashing the power of Legendary Pokémon, who have the power akin to natural disasters. Although usually successful, the fate of the world rests on his shoulders time and time again. Rarely do people recognize the fact that without him, the regions would have been thrown into conflict and tragedy on multiple occasions. Arguably, the Pokémon world could be said to be a utopia for the general population. Besides having to labor to reach their goals, their lives could be said to be in paradise. However, the existence of the crime syndicates contradicts this point. These criminal groups were formed with one major goal in mind: change the world into a “better” one. Usually, this goal was just an excuse in order to mask their real purpose of taking over and becoming the ruling power. Unknowing of the difficulties in the world, the viewers are unable to figure out what major problems are present and if said goals ever had substance. Rather, only until the Unova region was the purpose clear for this specific group. At least for the other criminal groups, we could infer that the leaders possessed a strong desire for power. However, Team Plasma, the group inhabiting Unova, had a goal to “liberate” all Pokémon.

Although the relationship between people and Pokémon is harmonious for the majority of the show, the mistreatment of Pokémon is not an unfamiliar issue. In the first few episodes of the first season, we encounter a young Charmander, a reptilian-like fire Pokémon, sitting on a rock in the rain. Charmanders have flames on the tips of their tales, which signify their lives—if put out, the Charmander’s life could fade away. The Charmander that Ash and his friends found was heavily bruised and close to death because of the rain pouring on his tail. Later, after Ash rushes to the closest Pokémon Center to save its life, we find out that a trainer, those who train Pokémon to make them stronger, abandoned it because it was too weak. This reckless decision almost cost this Charmander its life. At the end, Team Plasma was corrupted and one of its leaders coveted power, thus trying to have him be the sole Pokémon master. However, its goal was not without basis. In a world where Pokémon place immense trust on their trainers, their ill-treatment is not as uncommon as it should be.

The utopia that Pokémon portrays is damaged by factors such as these. In the show, Pokémon are not just wild creatures. Some possess the ability to talk, as in speak human language, or to freely communicate with people. By terming their capture and training as enslavement, the view on this matter would be looking at it as the enslavement of an intelligent species. It is necessary, however, to look at the options of captured Pokémon as voluntary in most cases. Common knowledge in the show dictates that Pokémon acknowledge and strive for strength or companionship. Normal Pokéballs, small red-white balls used to capture Pokémon, are unable to hold a Pokémon if they truly wanted to escape. However, many choose to stay. As such, it is also necessary to acknowledge the mutual gain. The capturing and training of Pokémon actually functions as a reverse argument—both Pokémon and trainer accept this relationship in order to create a situation in which they can both benefit. This ideal can be looked upon as utopian; trainers seek to capture Pokémon to raise as strong companions to compete with others and Pokémon seek to grow stronger, a feat made possible by trainers.

Although a few occasions do occur where the idea of utopia may be challenged, for the most part, utopian aspects permeate throughout the Pokémon world. Freedom and accessibility to all paths with a general satisfaction with the state of being throughout the regions is the biggest utopian aspect of Pokémon. The reason why Pokémon was able to create such commercial success was due to the wondrous characteristics of the Pokémon world. From its release in 1996, where trading cards, manga interpretations and an anime soon followed due to the popularity of the franchise (History),  to the selling of “Diamond” and “Pearl” games in Japan reaching five million after only a few months ten years later, Pokémon has continued to be a source of entertainment offered as an immersive alternative (Bulik). Its utopian aspects have allowed it to display a world much better than our own. In this world, freedom is paramount to its citizens, health care is available to everyone, crime is not an overwhelming issue, and the general population savor their experiences as youths and later grow up to fulfill their own roles obligingly.


This essay was read by Samuel Gilman. It is not a first draft.


Beth, Snyder Bulik. “Nintendo Unleashes Full Force of Pokémon.” Advertising Age78.17 (2007): 6. ProQuest. Web. 14 Nov. 2017.

Dyer, Richard. Only Entertainment. Routledge, 1992.

“History of Pokémon.” Bulbapedia, the Community-Driven Pokémon Encyclopedia, Bulbapedia, 13 Nov. 2017, C3.A9mon.

Li-Vollmer, Meredith. “The Pokémon Phenomenon: A Case Study of Media Influence and Audience Agency in Children’s Consumer Culture.” Order No. 3053532 University of Washington, 2002. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 13 Nov. 2017.

What’s So Funny?

The Office, a mockumentary sitcom airing on NBC from 2005 to 2013, showcases and parodies the lives of normal white-collar workers in a midsize paper company. The show garnered critical praise and numerous awards, including an Emmy for best comedy series (NBC). Nearly everyone agrees that The Office is funny, but why? Why are we laughing at a show whose premise initially appears so mundane? What’s so funny?

To answer this question, let’s first consider the ideas of critical theorists—thinkers who reflect on society and culture—concerning laughter and comedy in general, and see if we can apply those theories to the show. In his essay “The Culture Industry,” Theodor Adorno, a prominent critical theorist, argues that the laughter that comes from consuming pop culture is devoid of happiness. In the context of the culture industry, he contends, we are laughing where there exists nothing to laugh about; the culture industry merely demonstrates to us how terrible our lives really are, and we laugh at our own misery. Thus, culture industry-fueled laughter for Adorno is inherently bad; it is a way of “cop[ing] with fear” by refusing to engage productively with the suffering that encompasses most of our lives and instead parodying it (Adorno, 112). According to other critical theorists and Adorno himself, however, not all laughter is “wrong;” the good laughter comes from reconciliation, from actually acknowledging our suffering and fighting it (Rada, 152). Adorno writes that this “reconciled laughter resounds with the echo of escape from power” (Adorno, 112). Laughter can actually help us escape our suffering rather than contribute to it.

Thus we have arrived at two different overarching types of laughter: the good and the bad, the wrong and the right. Where, then, does The Office fit into this spectrum? Are we laughing because The Office demonstrates to us how bad our lives really are? Or are we laughing because it helps us reconcile with and escape this suffering? Thus the question is not only why we are laughing, but also what the laughter accomplishes for us. Does it bring us more suffering or turn our suffering into happiness?

Because The Office was such a successful show, a few observers have tried to uncover where that success came from—meaning they explored the question we are now exploring. These observers mostly converged on the same one theory, though they expressed it differently. This is the theory that people like the show and find it funny because it makes them glad their lives are better than those of the characters in the show. By displaying a terrible work environment, this theory argues, the show brightened the lives of the viewers who realized their lives in comparison really weren’t that bad after all (Craft). Another phrasing of this theory is that the show is “cringe-worthy comedy,” which boils down to the same thing; people are laughing at how bad the character’s lives are because it makes them feel better about their own—they are laughing at other people’s misery (Carter). In Adornian terms, this theory exists somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of laughter; we are not laughing at our own suffering, but we are also not confronting and overcoming our own suffering. In any case, the theory, though popular, remains utterly unconvincing, given that we relate to some of the characters on the screen, which any Office fan will confirm. We cannot laugh at the relative misery of people while also relating to them, or at least not while still thinking ourselves better off than them.

So if the pervading theory explaining the humor of The Office fails to truly explain why so many people find it funny, then what is the right answer? To explore this, we must first determine which character or characters on the show viewers relate to the most. Because viewers are not laughing at the characters as in the pervading theory, they must be laughing with some of them. After all, the premise of this comedy—the modern American workspace—is far from foreign to most viewers. The most likely candidates that we as viewers would relate to are Jim and Pam, the two most normal and initially likeable of the major characters. Jim, the bored, sarcastic salesman, functions as the closest thing we have to a protagonist, with Pam, the likeable receptionist, a close second. As co-protagonists, Pam and Jim function as our stand-ins in the show as viewers. If we are laughing at how terrible their lives are, then we are just laughing about our own lives as well. So what are Jim and Pam’s lives like? Are they really terrible?

The most prominent of the other office employees—Dwight and Michael—both initially appear to be terrible coworkers, yet, despite their shortcomings, we end up becoming sympathetic to them. Dwight, Jim’s eccentric fellow salesman, bullies and belittles his fellow coworkers; at many points, he actively tries to sabotage Jim’s life by getting him in trouble or fired. Though less bluntly mean-spirited, Michael is a terrible boss, endlessly annoying his workers and making everyone thoroughly uncomfortable. To the viewers seeing through the eyes of Jim and Pam, Dwight and Michael represent their own evil coworkers and their own dumb bosses. The fact that these viewers are laughing, then, would seem to suggest—at first glance—that they are laughing at how depressing their own lives are. In this view, if we find Dwight and Michael funny—and we most certainly do—then our laughter truly is “wrong”—there is nothing to laugh about. However, there is another, more convincing view to be taken in light of more evidence. As the series progresses even just beyond the first few episodes and we as viewers—alongside Jim and Pam—learn more about Dwight and Michael, they become increasingly sympathetic characters. We do not hate them, but instead learn to love them despite their shortcomings. Yes, we laugh at those shortcomings, but only because they have become endearing, not because we are laughing at our own suffering, for we have begun to realize we aren’t only suffering. Hold on to you reservations, as I will explain this more later.

The second aspect in which this show seemingly parodies our lives—the tedious office work—also turns a negative into a positive. Jim especially struggles with the mundaneness of the work he has to do and the pointlessness of it all. When we laugh at Jim’s struggle with his dull work, in the “wrong” laughter viewpoint we are parodying ourselves by laughing at our own suffering, but in reality that’s not what we are laughing at. His need to play pranks on Dwight and his other coworkers can be taken as a depressing take on the banality of office life—that it is so boring that you must find absurd ways to amuse yourself to receive any enjoyment—and that is partially true. Yes, parts of work are terrible, but that does not mean it’s terrible in its entirety. Jim has found a way to amuse himself even in this supposedly mundane environment. By laughing along with—not at—him in his attempts to have fun, we are reminded of the things in our lives that give us pleasure, reminded of our versions of his silly pranks. Adorno in “The Culture Industry” argues that laughter is the enemy of happiness because we are laughing at our own suffering, but by laughing at The Office, we are helping to alleviate that suffering—and not by the plain act of laughing itself. By reminding ourselves that our lives are not all bad, by urging ourselves to think about the good aspects of our lives rather than dwell on the bad, we reconcile with and confront the suffering in our lives.

To further elucidate this idea, I want to examine it in the context of a classic Office scene: identity theft, one of Jim’s pranks on Dwight. Jim comes in for the workday dressed in the same manner as Dwight and then begins impersonating his speech and actions just to mess with him, and it is hilarious. Why is it so funny? Because the scene is reminding us of those small pleasures we take in life, reminding us that even in the tedious suffering of work we can have a little fun. We recognize that work is suffering, but we also recognize that overcoming that suffering is possible.

In light of this, The Office suggests that the argument that laughter is a means of cheating happiness is incorrect. We are, as that argument puts forth, still laughing at our own suffering, but in a way that recognizes that suffering and chooses to overcome it. Laughter is not a consolation prize you get for not having a life worth living, but instead helps you come to terms with the fact that, although your life is not perfect, it is worth living. Laughter in The Office helps to illuminate the good parts of your life and thus makes you a happier person.

This essay was read by Alejandro Zuleta

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, 2002.

Carter, Bill. “One Last Cringe for ‘The Office’ Finale.” The New York Times, 1 May 2013, Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.

Craft, Kevin. “The Thing That Made The Office Great Is the Same Thing That Killed It.” The Atlantic, 16 May 2013, Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.

“The Office.” NBC, Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.

Rada, Michelle. “The Illusionless: Adorno and the Afterlife of Laughter in How It Is.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 38, no. 2, Winter 2015, pp. 149-67. Project MUSE, Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.


Lil Dicky, The (Class) Clown of Carnival

Lil Dicky, The Class Clown of Carnival

By Meghan Voss

“This display of creativity strays from convention, an immediate indication that he’s here to turn the game on its head” (Fairfax). This comes from an assessment of Lil Dicky’s most recent album, as the rapper has begun gaining legitimate respect from what began as merely jokes put to a beat.

Lil Dicky was born in an upper middle class white family in the suburbs of Pennsylvania. He graduated from the University of Richmond to pursue a career at an advertising agency. A few years ago, however, he decided to take his class clown nature professionally by attempting to make a career out of his funny raps and videos. And that’s exactly what he did. In the summer of 2015, “Lil Dicky Laugh[ed] His Way to a No. 1 Rap Album” (Billboard).

Many critics, while initially quite suspicious of his actual rapping ability, have begun to join into the Lil Dicky fandom. Praised for how he is pushing the boundaries of the rap game, Lil Dicky attempts to meld the usually un-accredited anti-rap or joke-rap subculture with some actual bars accompanied by a respectable flow, as he has worked diligently on honing his rapping skills.

Not only is Lil Dicky known for having a stronger creative side than many others rappers in the industry, but he is attempting to reinvent success within the rap game. This past year he released his first full album, Professional Rapper. However, his most notable achievement so far and where his success all started came from his music videos on YouTube. His first release, “Ex-Boyfriend,” went viral, topping one million views in just the first day. Since then, he has released several more music videos which have been similar in their ability to elicit laughter as they creatively accompany and bolster the lyrics of the song itself.

Anti-rap, a subgenre of the rap industry, is typically characterized as rap that makes frequent use of comedy and other sorts of humor, especially in self-deprecating or satirical manners. And at the forefront of this new subgenre, comes Lil Dicky. Nubi Magazine praised him for “his ability to present the mundane both satirically and factually at the same time” as what really makes him stand out, as well as the way he “presents the things people think about and do in private into the public forum via hip-hop.” While some of his subject matter is typically not included in rap songs for the matter of it just being “mundane,” a lot of his subject matter seems to not typically be discussed for reasons beyond that. While it is tough to consider rap to have too much of a barrier on what can and cannot be discussed, because, let’s face it, rappers tend to be fairly unbothered by approaching crude and offensive topics, Lil Dicky seems to take that line and play jump-rope with it. Archetypally, in rap songs, these crude topics are employed merely to allow rappers to brag about their lifestyle; subjects focus on the F.B.G.M. (fuck bitches, get money) mantra to show the rest of the world how much they’re “balling out.” However, Lil Dicky appears to discuss this subject from a different angle. While he addresses the same topics in his songs quite frequently, he comes at it from a much different angle, leaving the listener with an entirely different impression of Lil Dicky than would have another rapper from discussing a similar event due to the manner in which he presents it. While incredibly degrading to women, when most rappers discuss sex, they do so in a way to effectively make their audience wish they were in the rapper’s place, hoping to have as much “game” with women as they do. Yet when Lil Dicky discusses sex, he describes it much more realistically, and while still highlighting his “conquests,” he comes off as, well, rather soft. Interestingly enough however, Lil Dicky acknowledges this about himself, and has come to embrace it, as he attempts to follow a new path within the industry. To this point, he begins to emulate the idea of carnival, as he breaks the rules of the genre and generates an aura of humor from bad taste and his approach to exploring subjects (English 117).

        In Lil Dicky’s “Lemme Freak” music video, it takes the viewer along on his journey to try to have sex with a woman he meets at the club. Yet even from the title of the song itself, a difference between Lil Dicky’s style and the average rapper can already be acknowledged. Rappers tend to act as if women are just throwing themselves at them, as if it just comes with the lifestyle. However, already from the title of the song Lil Dicky’s desperation can be noted, as he legitimately begs this girl to have sex with him. In the video, he approaches the woman with the typical rapper swagger and confidence, but she doesn’t even know who he is. Consequently, he breaks into a spiel bragging on his accomplishments, though meanwhile manages to satirize the manner in which most rappers brag, as the achievements he brings up are far from notable. He boasts, “Look, I’m athletic, girl. I’ve gotten several rec-league MVP’s. At my crib, I’ve got some pizza plus a little bit of weed. In my room, I’ve got a TV plus I recently did sheets. Girl, I even have a fridge that has the water on the door like with the crushed ice.” Even in his attempt to show off, he comes off as fairly hopeless in his chances, a large divide between most other members of the industry.

On the basis of having bad taste, some can be found in nearly every set of bars by the rapper, as he is anything but shy when it comes to stating the truth. Whether he is going into detail about sex, or commenting on a gross habit, or simply discussing everyday activities, his lyrics are brimming with examples. Take his freestyle on Tim Westwood’s show for example. He raps, “I give no fucks, I’m farting at the urinal.” Bathroom humor accompanied by just a truly disgusting habit is truly the epitome of bad taste; there aren’t many combinations worse than that which would still be found as humorous.

Nevertheless, people still enjoy Lil Dicky’s anti-rap style, debuting at Number 7 on the Billboard 200 chart. As he attempts to break the rules of the rap industry through finding success in his bad taste and breaking the stereotypes, he appears to be changing up the game. He asserts in Professional Rapper that “ain’t nobody else doing funny type rap,” and “nah that’s my niche, don’t get offended by this, but that’s the market y’all miss, that’s the target I’ll hit, I wanna do this whole thing different.” It is carnivalesque, in a sense, as he rebels against the precedent that has been upheld for years within the industry with how successful rappers should and should not behave, as well as the tried and true topics for verse that typically are most well received by the public and have the best chances of being admired.

In the music video for the title track off his most recent album, Professional Rapper, Lil Dicky presents the story of how he ended up in the position he is in, as he performs essentially a skit through verse with one of the indisputable kings of the industry, Snoop Dogg. When Lil Dicky first enters for his interview, Snoop is even portrayed sitting behind his desk atop a throne. While Snoop’s reputation typically precedes him, this introduction really blatantly spells it out for the viewer. While Lil Dicky in real life has done his production on his own, it is interesting to find that in the song he requests for Snoop Dogg to hire him and take him under his wing, as if it is impossible to succeed without his assistance. Lil Dicky seems to go against his values in this way, as he is often found making a mockery of the methods that have made the most prominent names in the industry incredibly successful. While a true champion of the carnival would continue in this form in accordance with flipping the hierarchy, Lil Dicky backtracks in this way, as he is requesting assistance from the “king” figure in order to reach new heights as an artist.

For Lil Dicky to manage to flip the hierarchy in any way, nevertheless, it would first have to be established that he is emerging from the lower levels society. While Lil Dicky presents himself as somewhat of an underdog in the rap industry, which may be partially true from a respect standpoint as he contrasts the stereotypical rapper, with all the advantages he possesses he is realistically far from that. Much of rap focuses on people struggling from nothing to make it in the rap game, whereas Lil Dicky admits in the video that he used his own Barmitzvah money to pay for the production of his first mixtape. Furthermore, he prides himself on his lyricism and clever, well-crafted use of satire in his verses. Nevertheless, he is a college graduate which equips him with a foundation of education to aid him. This is a benefit that most other rappers do not obtain.

Evidence of this could not be any more densely provided that it is in his song, “White Dude.” He audaciously acknowledges all the privilege that he was born with, as the hook sings, “Cuz the way I’m livin life, is a muthafuckin joy. On some grown man B.I., I could have been a girl, or any ethnicity up in the world, but I’m rollin with the top back. I ain’t gotta worry where the cops at. I ain’t gotta wear a fucking bra strap. Me and the crew, are really doing everything that we like to, man it’s a damn good day to be a white dude.” Writer Sam Rosen explains this quite well, as he states that, “Lil Dicky is constantly lamenting the fact that he is not Black while simultaneously celebrating the spoils of white privilege” (Rosen). Lil Dicky acts like a carnival figure, as he explores breaking the rules and stereotypes of rap music, accompanied by a large dose of what would be considered bad taste even for rap, yet his carnival is exclusive, as he would be unable to achieve this without his privilege. Further, he excludes many other minority groups from even enjoying in his carnival videos, as while he attempts to be very relatable, he only achieves this for other white males. Even though his raps are created with the understanding that he is joking, they are based in enough truth that it would be very reasonable to say that there were likely very few minorities laughing at his pretentious flaunt that he doesn’t have to “worry where the cops at.”

Further, this privilege can also be seen through how other members of society interact with him. In the $ave Dat Money music video, Lil Dicky endeavors to create a boujee rap video with all the stereotypes (Lamborghini, mansion, club, yacht, etc.) at no cost. As they stroll through Beverly Hills, he convinces an older woman to let him borrow her mansion to shoot film in for a period of time. With the racism still present in our society, it is unlikely that a minority would be trusted the same way to just lend the house over. Once again, Lil Dicky is found using his privilege as an upper-class white male to bring him his success.

It is this distinction with the mass amounts of privilege that Lil Dicky clearly possesses that distinguishes his carnival rap subgenre from being legitimately liberating, as while it provides an escape from many stereotypes of the culture industry for some, it cannot for all, as it is still fervent with racism and sexism specifically through his privilege as a white male in society. To be truly liberating the carnival must be open to all groups of people, whereas Lil Dicky seems to only target the select group like himself. Rather than ultimately flipping the hierarchy, he reasserts it, entangling his non-stereotypical brand of rap back with the same ideologies that carnival is meant to find freedom from.


English 117, Intro to Cultural Theory.

Fairfax, Jesse. “Lil Dicky – Professional Rapper.” HipHopDX, 3 Sept. 2015.

Mendizabal, Amaya. “Lil Dicky Laughs His Way to a No. 1 Rap Album.” Billboard, 12 Aug. 2015.

Millard, Drew. “Lil Dicky Isn’t a White Supremacist, He’s Just an Asshole.” Noisey, 17 Oct. 2014.

Page, Will. “The Rise of Anti-Rap.” NUBI, 11 Aug. 2015.

Rosen, Sam. “Nothing Was the Same.” The Indy, The College Hill Independent, 4 Nov. 2013.

‘Baskets’ of Utopia in 21st Century Popular Culture

There is no doubt that American society has become – and is still becoming – more equal. Specifically, the most progress has been made concerning issues of race, gender, and sexuality. And we can see real results of this in politics, such as the presidency of Barack Obama, the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, and legalization of gay marriage, respectively. But many Americans just don’t care about politics. This past week in New York City, just 22% of registered voters bothered to show up to the polls (Smith). Therefore, to better investigate the effects of changing equality and to decipher the true politics of the people, we should turn to the things that people actually like. That is, we need to look at popular culture and entertainment, for everyone enjoys doing activities such as listening to music and watching TV or movies (at least on some level).

But since mass culture is such a vast structure, for this essay I would like to focus in on one aspect of it: TV comedies. So what can TV comedies tell us about our culture? Well, right off the bat, it would appear that TV comedies have followed the increase in equality. Shows like Friends and Full House that feature exclusively white characters living joyfully in the capitalist system have become less frequent. In their place, more diverse shows have cropped up like Blackish and Modern Family. With that being said, there is another facet of America’s changing equality that I’ve neglected to point out; while social norms have improved, income equality has digressed. We often hear the term: “the rich are getting richer.” Consequently, a new populism has arisen in the form of groups like the Bernie Sanders crew. So what kind of an impact does this change have on our culture? To consider this question, let’s inspect the TV comedy Baskets.

Baskets has an oddly satisfying humor despite its frequent sadism. It stars Zach Galifianakis (who also co-created the show with Louis C.K. and Jonathan Krisel and is an executive producer) as Chip Baskets, a free-spirit who’s dream is to be a clown. Initially Chip goes to France in order to be trained as a clown. This of course goes downhill as he has little money and cannot speak French. So Chip returns to his native Bakersfield, CA, and his struggles continue. He becomes a rodeo clown at a local rodeo arena, which consists of him being gored by bulls. However at the end of Season 1 the rodeo shuts down, leaving Chip completely lost. In essence, Chip does not fit into the capitalist society. His desire to be a clown is removed enough from the norms of the system that it’s extremely difficult for him to be free. Furthermore, the consequences of Chip’s quest to be a clown generate strong Utopian elements in the show.

Now, before we jump into Baskets, I want to discuss what I take to be a fair analysis of how art and entertainment operate. The idea comes from a cultural theorist by the name of Fredric Jameson in an essay titled “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture.” Jameson does a fantastic job of assimilating the theory of Adorno, who believed that mass culture is manufactured to reproduce the ruling ideology of the capitalist system in the minds of consumers, and the theories of thinkers such as Bakhtin, who put forth that mass culture gives people an image of transcendence and brings out their yearning for a more equitable and Utopian society. He basically melds the two theories together and asserts that they both exist together, and that we must consider both aspects to get the best picture of culture: “Works of mass culture cannot be ideological without at one and the same time being implicitly or explicitly Utopian as well: they cannot manipulate unless they offer some genuine shred of content as a fantasy bribe to the public” (Reification 144). This takes on an Adornian stance as Jameson contends that the Utopian element often supports the manipulative/ideological element by fooling the audience even further by giving them hope, while actively subverting that hope as their places in society is cemented. Nevertheless, the idea that there is a continuing dialectic between the two aspects appears to be more accurate than considering a cultural item to be solely ideological, or solely Utopian. And taking this idea, I am inclined to chime in that although these two aspects coexist, there still is a spectrum wherefore every type of artwork will have one aspect more prevalent over the other (or maybe they could be in equal form). For example, Jameson thinks that art in mass culture is influenced more heavily by ideology, in fact he asserts that ideology dominates the Utopian element and puts it to use for its own purposes. But one could also think of a scenario where a work of art is characterized more strongly by its Utopian element. And such a scenario manifests itself in Baskets.

To start this analysis of Baskets, I want to consider Chip’s mom Christine Baskets, played by Louie Anderson who, to be a little blunt, is a heavy-set old man. One particularly Utopian episode is Season 2 Episode 4: “Ronald Reagan Library.” After the rodeo closes down (among other things), Chip is devastated, so he becomes a hobo and starts riding the rails. Eventually, he joins a crew of transients who end up getting arrested for trespassing. So Christine has to come and bail Chip out of jail. Okay, so, in the jail’s waiting room, she happens to hit it off with the father of one of Chip’s hobo friends. And this man, named Ken, happens to be an elderly black man. So the scene is already surprising in its embrace of freedom and equality, where we have an obese white woman (played by a man) flirting with an elderly black man. To make things more entertaining, Christine invites Ken to tour the Ronald Reagan Library, because of course Christine is a huge Reagan fan. Thus, not only are gender, age, race, and body image norms overturned, but the framework of political stance is also thrown out the window. In this instance the Utopian vision comes from the fact that it is conceivable and even normal to the audience that something like this would happen, and that it’s a good thing. It also exemplifies the shift in equality that America has experienced, for something of this nature would have been alien a few decades ago.

Often a Utopian ideal will include some aspect of anarchy; a situation where there are no rules or laws. Now, humans do not always do what is best for themselves and their communities, so anarchy can become destructive. Baskets is quick to snuff out this scenario as an element of its Utopianism. To see why, let’s dive deeper into what transpires when Chip joins the band of hobos. In short summary, Chip is initially overjoyed to have found some like-minded friends. These people turn out to share a love for performance with Chip; they each have some schtick that they perform for audiences on the street. But the joy starts to melt when Chip, along with the viewer, begins to realize that the other hobos are doing bad things. They shoplift. They trespass. This culminates when the group breaks into an empty house for a night. The members go straight to the drug cabinet and start shooting up substances and pop random pills. During this whole process, Chip is utterly frightened and the viewer gets the same feeling, the feeling of shock and stomach-dropping fear when something good turns sour. In this way, the viewer is made very uncomfortable about the idea of complete anarchy. Therefore, the Utopian aspect of Baskets is not meant to feature a dangerous sort of anarchy, but rather a type of warm freedom of equality and what we will see next as a freedom from the banality of a capitalist society.

What I want to close this study of Baskets with is an examination of how the show views our society. As I mentioned earlier, income inequality is very high here in the U.S, and while America is the land of opportunity, life isn’t fun and great for everyone. We will see that Baskets plays off of this fact. First off, there are two characters that indicate the show’s stance towards capitalism. There is Chip’s friend Martha, who has one of the most boring and trivial jobs one could conjure up: she works in the insurance division of Costco. Additionally, Martha comes across as an extremely boring person; she has a monotone voice and doesn’t do a whole lot in general. She’s just your average robotic cubicle worker. And then there is Chip’s twin brother Dale (yes Zach Galifianakis plays both roles, and yes they are named after the Disney chipmunks). Dale is the “dean” of Baskets Career College (probably not accredited) which offers classes in various disciplines such as ice cream truck management and ketchup kreation; and Dale himself actually was a student at his own college where he earned a degree in college management. So just think of it as a slightly worse Trump University. This spoofing of small businesses further parodies capitalism. Dale is also a very materialistic person, gaining pleasure from consumable goods. He also is in the middle of a divorce with his wife, and his kids are not fond of him. But the biggest break from capitalism comes in the final episode of Season 2. Christine’s mother passes away and wills all of her property, including her house, to Christine. She then proceeds to sell the house and purchase an Arby’s, because at this point Chip is working random birthday parties as a clown and Dale actually loses administrative control of his business, so both boys are in need of jobs. So she undertakes this new business operation in the hopes of bringing her family together. But she soon realizes that Chip is very depressed, for he has no opportunities to be a clown. Thus, she takes the initiative and sells the Arby’s franchise. She then proceeds to buy the old rodeo arena. In other words, Chip can finally live out his dream of being a clown on his own terms – he won’t have to be trampled by bulls or humiliated by 10-year olds any longer. On a deeper level though, Christine’s decision is a rebuke of corporatism (through the symbol of Arby’s) and the banality of that culture. Instead she chooses the happiness of her son, a happiness that could not readily be satisfied by capitalist society. These examples are all facets of Baskets’ Utopianism, for they aren’t satisfied with present condition, and want something more out of society and life. They also coincide with modern populism and disenchantment with the staggering wealth gap in America.

Generally, given the evidence, Baskets is heavily Utopian. There is of course the accompanying ideological element, for Baskets is a for-profit show produced by a firm in the culture industry and it’s setting is within the capitalist system. And surely one could argue that there are aspects of Baskets that reinforce societal norms and the power of the ruling ideology. I am of the impression however, that Baskets has enough pro-equality, anti-capitalist, and other Utopian elements to outweigh any argument to the contrary. In other words, Baskets is on the Utopian side of the spectrum, not the ideological side. Now I would like to make a bit of educated speculation: mass culture is shifting Utopian, and its creators are lessening the domineering grasp of the culture industry upon the people. Backing up this assertion is the growing equality of many societal facets, the backlash of certain populist groups against growing income inequality, and, importantly, shows like Baskets. Of course, this hypothesis must be tested upon many more cultural items to lift it out of being a speculative theory, and I do stress that it is speculative. But it’s also a logical assertion, for it holds with the evidence that has been presented. Then again, the situation is undoubtedly more complex, so more study is needed.


Works Cited

Jameson, Fredric. “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture.” Social Text, no. 1, 1979, pp. 130–148. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Smith, Greg B. “NYC’s Dwindling Voter Turnout Hits New Low.” NY Daily News, 9 Nov. 2017,


Let’s Find Out: Utopia as Means to Despair

BoJack Horseman is a sad show. Its characters are unhappy with their lives; its viewers are often dejected upon seeing an episode’s downer conclusion, which is the kind of ending the series prefers. It actively punishes the audience for rooting for its characters. Most critics identify the despairing mood: Ian Crouch of the New Yorker describes the show as “incessantly bleak”1. But the reasons they give for this despair – the depression of the main character, the cruelty of some of his decisions – do not fully capture why the show is so emotionally powerful. BoJack Horseman succeeds at making the viewer miserable by offering a sincere vision of happiness and rejecting it. Twenty-five minutes watching a depressed anthropomorphic cartoon horse win a game show will convince you that glimpses of utopia can make you sad.

Heavy stuff, particularly for a show with a premise as silly as BoJack Horseman’s. The show’s eponymous protagonist is a large cartoon horse who walks, talks, and feels like a human. He is a former sitcom actor who, having made more money than he knows what to do with, mostly spends his time drinking to abuse while watching episodes of his old TV show. He is severely depressed. The first season chronicles his attempt to return to cultural relevance by writing a best-selling book, an endeavor he undertakes because he believes becoming famous again would make him happy. He is unsuccessful in his attempt at happiness, but does manage to re-enter the public eye; he is cast to star in a biopic about Secretariat, which is where the second season begins. The eighth episode of the second season, titled “Let’s Find Out”, finds BoJack on a trivia game show for celebrities hosted by his cheerful rival, Mr. Peanutbutter. (Mr. Peanutbutter is a yellow lab who also acts like a human; in the world of the show, all animals act like people.) The show is on a network run by BoJack’s girlfriend, an owl named Wanda.

Image result for bojack horseman let's find out

“Let’s Find Out” makes BoJack into an anti-hero, someone who, despite being constantly embarrassed and defeated, is able to show surprising resilience. Anti-heroes are “weak”, “ineffectual”, and “inept”, which certainly describes BoJack during the first segment of the game show2. He gives a series of wrong answers to astoundingly difficult and trivial questions (“what is the average rainfall in Bora Bora?”), for which he is mocked mercilessly by Mr. Peanutbutter. He has his alcoholism exposed on national television. When he attempts a witty rejoinder to some of Mr. Peanutbutter’s abuse, he is booed loudly by the studio audience. The ultimate embarrassment comes in the form of a surprise: the show is joined by a second, “big” celebrity, the actor Daniel Radcliffe, relegating BoJack to the status of “little” celebrity. When BoJack tries to greet Radcliffe, whom he’s met before, as equals, he is snubbed – the “big celebrity” has forgotten they’ve ever been introduced. It’s this sense of slight, of injustice, that provokes empathy. The viewer roots for BoJack because of his perseverance in defiance of humiliation.

But BoJack is not depicted as stupid or weak, no matter how many questions he answers incorrectly. Instead, he is presented as a smart victim of an unfair system, which allows the show to shift its critique from its character to the society he exists in. The absurdity is apparent from the game show’s first segment, a “small talk round” during which BoJack is punished for his correct descriptions of his activities the night before, and continues through the trivia questions, as when he incorrectly selects “D, all of the above” for a question whose answer is “A and B, with C also being acceptable”. Daniel Radcliffe, his adversary, gets to answer questions about colors (“blue and yellow combined makes green”) and snatch cash out of the air while BoJack is given a minute to write an essay on European history. His thesis statement is strong and reveals a surprising amount of knowledge about the causes of the French Revolution, but this doesn’t matter: his essay is tossed in the trash and his humiliation continues. His intelligence is irrelevant; there is seemingly no way for him to win. In ensuring its protagonist is a victim of circumstance instead of his own personal failings, the show uses the anti-hero as a way to gain identification from the audience, who can empathize with the experience of unfair treatment despite adequate qualifications.

This identified injustice sets the show up for a utopian solution. Utopian moments in film address inadequacies in society with an idealized remedy, an example of what a better world would look like3. In “Let’s Find Out”, Bojack is informed of Mr. Peanutbutter’s “tell”: whenever the dog gets excited, his ears flop upwards, giving away the correct response to the trivia questions. It allows for a montage of Bojack shouting zany answers while Daniel Radcliffe and Mr. Peanutbutter look on incredulously. The show works here on a utopian level, BoJack’s mistreatment in an absurd system corrected by the cleverness that had been previously stifled. It imagines, briefly, an ideal world where a competition of knowledge is won by the smarter person.

But the show rejects this notion of utopia almost as soon as it appears and replaces it with a different one. During a commercial break, BoJack’s girlfriend Wanda approaches him to ask for a favor: she needs him to throw the game. In coming dangerously close to winning, he has upset the game show’s viewers, who are rooting for Daniel Radcliffe and whom she needs to satisfy as part of her job at the network. This request might seem narrative interrupting the ideal world, a betrayal of the previously-extended utopian vision; that’s because it is. It’s explicitly a return to the unjust former state, where the game is rigged to favor the undeserving. A different form of utopia is offered in its place, one that could be described as dealing with “representations of interpersonal relationships”4. This kind of utopian scene imagines what relationships would look like in a freer, better world, unconstrained by patriarchal or capitalist notions of self-interest. Wanda’s asking allows BoJack the opportunity to deepen their relationship by performing a selfless act. The utopian dimensions are clear: the viewer watches the character they identify with ameliorate his isolation by incurring a cost to himself to move close to another person, a decision that addresses real alienation by showing them a better world, one in which someone will sacrifice for you. Before BoJack flubs the final question on purpose, sentimental music plays as BoJack glances at Wanda. His selfless act will presumably be rewarded.

Image result for bojack horseman let's find out wanda

It is not. The show refuses to honor its utopian promise. The question BoJack intentionally blunders away is about Secretariat, the horse he is playing in an upcoming movie. For this mistake he is ridiculed endlessly by Mr. Peanutbutter and laughed at by Daniel Radcliffe and the audience, a humiliation that is too much for BoJack to endure. While he at first protests meekly, asking Mr. Peanutbutter to quickly move on, the continued mockery turns him cruel, leading him attack Mr. Peanutbutter by saying the dog’s wife took a job in a war-torn country just to escape their awful marriage. It’s petty and harsh. Whatever benefit he got from his utopian moment is shown to pale in comparison to the pain of the mockery he had to endure after it.

This can be seen as narrative intruding on utopian moments, a circumstance that, in Dyer’s writing on the subject, did not diminish the importance of the utopian scene itself5. To the contrary, such disruptions throw the moment of utopian solution into stark relief: this is how much it stands out when compared to the world we live in today. But “Let’s Find Out” denies the viewer the comfort of this interpretation. At the end of the episode, BoJack is offered an opportunity to redeem himself for his bitterness. If he answers a question correctly, the game show will donate a million dollars to charity; if he gets it wrong, the show will set ablaze the half-million it had already pledged. The question is an easy one: who played the titular role in the Harry Potter films? It’s clear that BoJack knows the answer, but pretends to be confused, mirroring Daniel Radcliffe’s earlier ignorance of his name. The answer he gives, over dramatic music, shocks everyone: “Elijah Wood?”. The sheer cruelty of the decision to burn a half-million dollars for charity to make a point in a petty feud is astounding, and would be depressing enough on its own. But the fact that the decision is clearly made to parallel the previous moment of utopia makes it especially devastating. When BoJack answers a question wrong to make Wanda happy, it is about a movie he is starring in; when BoJack answers a question wrong to spite Daniel Radcliffe, it is about a movie Radcliffe starred in. In both circumstances, the camera cuts, accompanied by music, to Wanda looking expectantly in the tunnel before focusing back on BoJack’s face as he answers. The parallels are the show’s way of equating the two decisions. The fleeting moment of utopia cannot last, and the vulnerability it required exposed BoJack to abuse harsh enough to engender intense spite. The decision to give an incorrect answer can be seen as a dark utopian moment, a fantasy for the viewer where they have the power to take out their justifiable frustrations in the most destructive way possible. This fantasy is never corrected; it is the note on which episode ends. The utopian moment of interpersonal happiness is snatched away and replaced by cruelty.

“Let’s Find Out” complies with the notion that art works by giving its audience an idea of a massively better world, but does not use its utopian vision to the same effect. In most entertainment, the utopia is meant to be savored, shown in contrast to the inadequacies of the society they inhabit. BoJack Horseman provides a glimpse of a freer, more intimate society only to crush it viciously. It complicates  the utopian theory of culture by proving utopian visions can be used to make people sad. Some art argues that better world is only possible in your imagination, and that your fantasies only deepen your inevitable despair upon being crushed by the society you actually inhabit. When a huge pile of cash is dropped into a roaring fire, the audience’s utopian hopes drop with it. The world offers to give money to charity and burns it out of spite.

Image result for bojack horseman let's find out burning cash

From Homelessness to Stardom: The Ed Sheeran Phenomenon

Music is a powerful element of popular culture that not only influences what we do with our spare time but the way we talk, associate, and relate to each other. It generates a feeling of unity by reminding us that all phases of life such as heartbreak, happiness, and love are universal experiences. How then could it be possible to believe that music comes solely from the elite?  Our ancestors and the humans from decades ago have long communicated, celebrated and fought through life accompanied by musical hymns. Music is incredibly human. Examining more contemporary popular music, we see a transformation in music through a music industry that focuses on producing a hit a song that will contain a melody catchy enough for the radios and the online streaming programs to play it over and over again. This version of music is frankly depressing as strips away the creative humanity of music.  There is hope, however, at the end of the tunnel through underground artists and singer-songwriters. The most successful story which has resulted in the #1 most listened to artist on Spotify and arguably one of the most popular artists on this planet, Ed Sheeran.

Edward Christopher Sheeran was born in Halifax, England in 1991. Since his childhood he had always felt like an outsider in his “preppy, sporty, competitive private primary school” due to his humble background with his father being an art curator and his mother being a jewelry designer.(Chesterton) Additionally he was bullied for his weird-looks and strange behaviors (though not diagnosed, it was most likely ADD). (Chesterton) While there were many difficult aspects of his infancy as he recalls that he had never won at anything, he began to learn how to play the guitar and learned to sing in the local church choir discovering music as a natural vehicle for happiness.(The Famous People)

Image result for young ed sheeranAs soon as Ed reached adolescence his hardships were only amplified by teenage angst and rebellion. His father John Sheeran, the no-nonsense son of Irish immigrants, grew tired of his son’s attitude having always pushed his children to be academically driven. He played the biggest role in influencing Ed to take initiative and work hard at the one thing he truly loved the most; music. (Chesterton) Rather than getting in trouble, Ed was driven to musical gigs of artists like Bob Dylan so that he could gain inspiration from those that made a career in music. (Chesterton) Validating his father’s determined efforts, Ed has dreamed about becoming a pop superstar since he was 13 and has never taken a day off in accomplishing this dream. (Chesterton)

Rather than turning to the entertainment industry as what could provide knowledge and guidance on making it big, Ed began to study music with the organization ‘Access to Music’ and the National Youth Theater. (The Famous People) While studying music he began to produce his own music with the sole focus of making enough to live from his passion. In his own words his first dream was “to make enough money from music to pay the rent and sell 100 CDs.”(Chesterton) By the time Sheeran was 14 years old he had already released two CDs ‘Spinning Man’ and ‘The Orange Room’ independently. (The Famous People)

Although it had been his father’s aspiration for Sheeran to get a proper education, he dropped out of high school at sixteen and began to move from place to place until 2008 when he finally decided to move to London.(Chesterton) As soon as he arrived at London his life was governed by  his search for “gigs, attention and somewhere to spend the night.” (Chesterton) While searching for recognition of his own lyrics and melodies he was homeless for two and a half years famously having slept a couple of nights outside an arch of Buckingham Palace. (Her) Rather than giving up and retreating to Hallifax, Ed made it work by making important connections, “I knew where I could get a bed at a certain time of night and I knew who I could call at any time to get a floor to sleep on. Being sociable helped.” (Her) Furthermore, he formed a precise sleeping schedule allowing him to sleep on Circle Line trains after gigs waiting until around 5 am to be able to sleep on the line until 12 pm to then go to another session. (Her) While this lifestyle was incredibly troublesome it also taught him invaluable skills of determination and the ability to associate with others in an organic “human” manner. He stated that one of the keys to this was drinking at bars to socialize a technique that could potentially conflict with what any PR manager would recommend but allowed Ed to navigate the London gig circuits as an independent musician. (Her)

Image result for young ed sheeran londonYet Ed Sheeran did not only involve himself in musical gigs but also auditioned for “Britannia High” a British musical drama television series hoping to find some money. (The Famous People) Furthermore in 2009 he was accepted into the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford. (Chesterton) The key here is that while he could have received a proper music education he dismissed the opportunity contending that he could teach them a lot more about music than they could teach him, most likely due to his real life experience with performing in gigs and songwriting abilities. It was through this refusal from academies and educational institutions that he became recognizable figure in London’s gigging circuits allowing him to form relationships with artists in Hip-hop and other entertainment acts.  (Chesterton) However, one of the most important steps that he made in his career was uploading his music online. It was through one of these videos that he was able to establish an invaluable connection with Example, a british rapper, singer,and songwriter. ( Example was able to discover Ed Sheeran through online media and granting him the opportunity of performing as his opening act which drove his musical fan base and inspired him to write more songs. (

Nonetheless, despite his hard work and passion for music Sheeran was still without a music contract. Thus, he took another bold step in his career by moving to Los Angeles with no contacts in 2010. (Chesterton) Through his performances and musical self-promotion, Sheeran landed a gig at an all-black R&B open mic night in Los Angeles. (Chesterton) It was there, as the ginger outsider, where Sheeran was spotted by Jamie Foxx’s manager who introduced him to Foxx letting him stay in Foxx’s home but also letting him make use of his recording studio. (Chesterton) With a new fan, Sheeran was invited to make an appearance on Foxx’s Siriusxm Radio Show gaining more international recognition.(  The following year he released his last independent EP which reached No. 2 on the iTunes Chart even though it had not been advertised for in any way. ( This drew attention from many record companies and with that he was signed onto Atlantic Records that same month. ( When the 2012 Brits Awards came around Sheeran won the Best British Male Solon Artist and British Breakthrough Act of the Year awards crowning him as a key player in the British music business. (The Famous People)

Image result for ed sheeran

Getting back to the point, however, what is fascinating is identifying what is truly the key to Ed Sheeran’s success in popular music and its importance particularly in context to his story having been a partially homeless singer-songwriter. Now that the background is established, it is important to emphasize what distinguishes Sheeran from other popular music artists. Yes, he did not move to Hollywood with hopes of being manufactured in a particular way so that he could satisfy a particular target audience in the entertainment industry, in fact, it is much more than that.  Ed Sheeran has quickly become the voice of the Millennial generation having collaborated with mega-artists like Taylor Swift, Pharrell Williams, The Weeknd,and Harry Styles. (Beaumont) Moreover, he has written hit songs for Justin Bieber, One Direction and the X Factor all while being the most streamed artists online in the entire world through his own music. (Beaumont)  What’s exciting here is that he has taken the music industry by storm through his authenticity and sincerity with music reflecting his identity and his own truths.

One of the ways that Ed Sheeran does this is by writing about the mundane; utilizing lyrics that mention sex, drinking and love all which are incredibly real and human. (Chesterton) Take for example one of his most recent hits “Thinking out Loud ” where he sings “When your legs don’t work like they used to before/And i can’t sweep you off of your feet/Will your mouth still remember the taste of my love?/ Will your eyes still smile from your cheeks.” In this song he writes about the great but also ordinary fear of ageing and living through it all while in love. Many of us have seen this through the lenses of our grandparents, parents or maybe are even beginning to see it through our own relationships, regardless, it is a mundane topic that is incredibly touching and relatable–Ed Sheeran’s magic.

Furthermore, the specificity of Ed Sheeran’s lyrics, specifically in mentioning day-to-day products, allows for the listeners to embody themselves in Sheeran’s situations through relatable emotions all while legitimizing his stories and lyrics. (Chesterton) In the song “Don’t” which talks about a celebrity love-triangle between Ellie Goulding, Niall Horan and Ed Sheeran, he mentions eating a takeaway pizza singing “And for a couple weeks I only wanna see her /We drink away the days with a takeaway pizza/ Before a text message was the only way to reach her/ Now she’s staying at my place and loves the way I treat her”. In own of his newer songs “Galway Girl” the same technique was used; “I walked her home then she took me inside to finish some Doritos and another bottle of wine.”

But criticism coexists with every successful act and one of the biggest critics of Sheeran happens to be Noel Gallagher, the lead guitarist from Oasis, who has declared that Ed Sheeran has essentially killed Rock and Roll music. (Hodgkinson) His reasoning behind this theatrical declaration you might ask? He argues that this new generation of singer-songwriters are unlike any other musicians before them having never struggled with their own music.(Hodgkinson)  These new musicians tend to have middle class or upper class privilege that has granted them the resources to support their music dreams resulting in shutting down of major music studios.(Hodgkinson) Additionally, he critiques the millennial generation contending that, “No fucker wants to be in a band anymore because it’s too much of a struggle. So we have a generation who all studied music at college, they all had media training, and the head of PR at the major label they’re signed to told them all what to do. The generation I came were never afforded that luxury, which is why we were scallywags. We were coming up against the system rather than being a product of it.” (Hodgkinson) His argument, however compelling is completely unfounded when looking at Ed Sheeran’s life story. While his family did do their best to support him, his father was also an alcoholic and one of the main reasons why Ed decided to flee his home at age 16. From this time he was essentially on his own resulting in various encounters with homelessness all while struggling to supporting himself with his music.  This story does not radiate privilege in fact it screams hard work, preparation and the seizing of opportunities. In defiance of musical institutions Sheeran himself never graduated from high school nor a musical institution in fact he picked up most of his skills through experience and mentorship.His ability to reach the top 10 of iTunes charts without a record label is the complete defiance of being a product of the music industry.

In the meantime Ed Sheeran makes sure to emphasize his authenticity not only through his lyrics but through his personality and presentation as a pop artist. As Christ Williman from Billboard states, “That’s his way: He’s the scruffy guy who doesn’t care what he wears, but turns up on the red carpet of the Vanity Fair Oscar party; the open-mic songwriter who has come up with the biggest hooker-themed radio hit since Sting sang about Roxanne. And, let’s face it, being the only guy onstage is a smart business.” (Willman) He was GQ’s Worst Dressed Man of the year in 2013 because he “still wear(s) skater hoodies, jeans and skater shoes.”(Chesterton) Now this is not a marketing ploy it just signals that he wants others to focus on what truly matters; his honest and pure well-written music.

Image result for ed sheeran wembley

Works Cited:


Beaumont, M. (2017). 50 Things You Didn’t Know About Ed Sheeran – NME. NME. Retrieved 15 November 2017, from

Chesterton, G. (2017). How Ed Sheeran became the biggest male popstar on the planet. Retrieved 15 November 2017, from

Ed Sheeran. (2017). Retrieved 15 November 2017, from


Her. (2017). Ed Sheeran Reveals He Was Homeless for Two and a Half Years | Retrieved 15 November 2017, from


Hodgkinson, W. (2017). Ed Sheeran is killing music | Little Atoms. Retrieved 15 November 2017, from


Who is Ed Sheeran? Everything You Need to Know. (2017). Retrieved 15 November 2017, from


Willman, Chris. “ED SHEERAN UN-ZIPPED.” Billboard – The International Newsweekly of Music, Video and Home Entertainment Apr 12 2014: 24-9. ProQuest. Web. 12 Nov. 2017

Tom’s Diner: An Exploration in Popular Music

Pop music takes a lot of grief. “It’s too loud”. “Too much autotune”. “There’s no skill”. “It’s all the same”. Many, specifically those of an older generation, are quite up-in-arms about what music has come to in the modern era. They say today’s brand of music isn’t nearly reminiscent of what theirs is or used to be. To some, today’s popular music resides at a lower level of sophistication, quality and value than the beloved music of yesteryear. Conversely, modern popular music is not something to be deduced to good or bad, or even confined by the title ‘genre’. There’s a quality to modern popular music that makes it obviously discernable from genres like folk, country, metal and jazz to anyone remotely familiar with modern music. It’s difficult for many to put a finger on, but this difference has important implications in our impression and interpretation of today’s popular music. The identity of pop music, its implications and its value in our current society can be readily investigated through Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner.

Vega’s 1989 single found success among indie and alternative circles throughout the 90’s, featuring solely her vocals without the support of instruments. Her voice rhythmically runs over a spoken beat as she recalls a morning in a local diner in New York City. Vega’s voice registers more like talking than singing as she rarely abandons a moderate tone and pitch. Vega’s piece was a well made song and was beloved by many listeners, but anyone could tell you that it wasn’t pop music. Its subdued stylistic techniques along with an emphasis on storytelling compel us to categorize this work as alternative or indie. Many likely appreciated the artistic aspect of this song rather than its aptitude for mutual enjoyment and listenership.

Moving forward, Tom’s Diner’s intersection with pop music comes not at the hand of Vega, but through the work of two British music producers, who refer to themselves as DNA. This duo produced a remix of Vega’s piece a year later, taking the original’s ad-libbed outro and transforming this beat into the song’s driving hook. Employing digital music production to morph her 5 seconds of spoken beat into an incredibly catchy remix, they overlayed thumping bass, building synthesizers and a snappy snare to send Vega’s niche, indie work atop the pop charts. Their piece peaked at the second spot in the UK charts and the fifth spot in the US Billboard charts in addition to reaching the top spot in 3 European countries. Billboard tagged this new take on her work as pop music and few would stand to argue with this categorization as the song’s listenership changed and appeal grew. Now, the question is this: What changed? If Vega’s original work was ‘un-pop’ and this new version was received with open arms into pop music’s upper rankings, the changes made by DNA must be close to what defines pop music.

So now, pop music seems to be nothing but the electronically produced version of acoustically made songs. But it can’t just be that. Songs can’t be all layered with identical features to create hits. Similar additions to other folk songs along the same vein of Vega, like those by Tori Amos and Sinead O’Connor, and many of Vega’s own songs would sound wrong and jumbled with additions similar to these. The changes that DNA enacted on Vega’s original work are a reflection of an inherent quality of certain works referred to by popular music scholar Motti Regev as the ‘rock aesthetic’. Regev defines this as production “based on the use of electric and electronic sound textures, amplification, sophisticated audio craftsmanship, and ‘untrained’ and spontaneous techniques of vocal delivery”(Pop-rockization of Popular Music). While not a fully fleshed out description of this quality in my mind, as I would propose the addition of a characteristic that works back towards some of the blues/swing qualities within modern music, this ‘rock aesthetic’ serves as a valuable tool when talking about what defines pop music.

Furthermore, when we look into the elements of the ‘rock aesthetic’ we can draw back on the history of what we now define as pop. Regev’s comment on ‘untrained’ vocal technique as a characteristic of rock music is a loaded statement. What he classifies as ‘trained’ vocals would be classically trained, as in opera skills, vocal range and consistent pronunciation across notes. What is classified as ‘untrained’ would be much of what we now see as rap, blues, scat, jazz and rock, as these styles are far from his definition of traditional. Now, when looking at his ‘untrained’ vocal categories, we can see that this is associated with forms of music rooted in African-American tradition. Amplification and electronic music also have roots in the work of black pioneers like Jimi Hendrix as well as in big band jazz. And, when Regev notes on sophisticated audio craftsmanship, he refers to sounds that, although now associated with electronic music and DJ’s, share associations with the blues in their focus on bass-central rhythm and non-traditional sounds, thus pegging this definition to the start of blues music in the post-emancipation south, another inherently African American quality.

Additionally, the history of the rock aesthetic can be traced parallel to the history of the rock and roll genre. Obviously, the rock aesthetic sort of defines what we interpret as rock and roll, but looking into the history of rock and roll allows us much more depth and clarity on the actual roots of both. Rock historians, although finding conflict in some minutia of the growth of this genre, reach a general consensus on the basic origins of rock music. Rock music’s roots can be traced back to the blues movement in the post emancipation south and the birth of jazz music in early 19th century New Orleans along with the growth of swing and soul music. These styles morphed, mixed and worked with European-American styles of music like country and folk music to create the sound we now recognize as rock and roll. Many people, though, have serious grievances with the fusion of black and white music and accuse early white musicians like Elvis Presley of ‘stealing black music’. Although many white artists did in fact remake versions of earlier black songs, the integration of black and white music was more of mutualistic than parasitic. In his essay “The Church of the Sonic Guitar”, music writer and professor of American Music at the University of Mississippi, Robert Palmer argues for the positive, mutually beneficial relationship between black and white music during the dawn of rock and roll through the detailed history of the electric guitar. He argues, “Rock ‘n’ roll was an inevitable outgrowth of the social and musical interactions between blacks and whites in the South and Southwest. Its roots are a complex tangle … but the single most important process was the influence of black music on white.”(Present Tense). Palmer argues that the outgrowth of rock music was a positive result of black music transforming white music. He elaborates further in his piece saying that many of the defining characteristics of rock music noted in the aforementioned rock aesthetic are inherently black characteristics. Palmers argument allows us to concretely peg both rock and the rock aesthetic as the influences of black music.

Image result for blues

Now, looking back to the earlier topic of Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner and its subsequent ‘popification’. This would often be seen as a bad progression. To take a song that was so beautiful on its own right and turn it into mainstream, consumable pop would be heresy for many listeners. But, as we just broke down, the transformation of Vega’s piece wasn’t the commercialization of her work. The elements added to Vega’s work were inherently black features of music. What we initially interpreted as ‘popification’ was actually the ‘blackification’ of her work, but not in a manner that cheaply appeals to black listeners or those with tastes for black music, but in a sense that channels the roots of african american musical culture. In this way, the pop culture appears to not be a cheap channel for reproduced, identical music, but rather a place for integrated music to flourish without the title of black or integrated.

Furthermore, pop music serves an immensely beneficial purpose for society. Popular music, which we can now mark as music featuring the fusion of black and white musical elements, presents integration of the races in an incredibly positive light. This normalizes diversity in all aspects as it allows the product of racial integration to bring simple joy to the listener in a catchy beat or a hook that makes you get up and dance. When the mainstream listenership is exposed to versions of racial integration that positively reinforce diversity’s role in society, society is likely to benefit from decreased racial tension and increased acceptance of more diverse forms of culture.

Finally, what we saw in Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner is able to inform, define and evaluate pop music. DNA’s recreation of her work allowed us to concretely identify what separates pop music from other genres with the assistance of Motti Regev’s rock aesthetic. After looking further into the history of rock and roll music along with breaking down Regev’s claim, it became relatively obvious that what we interpret as pop and rock music leans heavily on African-American musical styles, revealed by Palmer’s take on the development of rock and roll. Now, it’s easy to see that despite the common gripes that today’s pop music is cheap and lacks skill, pop music remains a solid example of how popular culture should function as it positively associates racially integrated works to the listener. What popular music already does can be applied to other areas of popular culture. Movies can depict comical characters of color to follow a similar vein, allowing the viewer to enjoy integration subconsciously, or a television show can build lovable, diverse characters, relatable to the viewer on a basic level. Pop music’s, and further pop culture’s, role isn’t and hopefully will never be one that lacks substance, but one that attempts to depict and promote a more accepting culture.

Passivity or Creativity? Your choice.


We’re all consumers of the same culture here in the big USA. Whether you live in New York City, or on the farms of Nebraska we all watch the same movies, hear the same songs, and read the same books. But how many of us really take it in and become obsessed with it? Geek culture, as in Trekkies/Jedis/Potterheads/etc., definitely does.  If you watch a documentary about the conventions that the superfans of these movies attend, you’ll realize why you fell out of your love for Star Trek in the 7th grade–these people are crazy! Most Trekkies have watched all of the episodes and movies, and know the language of the characters, Klingon, and can tell you exactly what every outfit should look like. So, why is it important to be a superfan when it seems dorky and outlandish?

Fan fiction is a way for Star Trekkies, and other sci-fi fan bases, to express themselves. There are many different genres of fanfiction that allows for many opportunities to simply create. Slash fiction takes two characters from the movie, often male, and explicitly illustrates the relationship between the two. This relationship never actually occurs in the movie, but is completely fabricated by the viewers. In Star Trek, the authors of slash fiction describe the intimacy between James T. Kirk and Spock. Although the writers and its audience are mostly female, there has been an increasing number of male viewers. Authors are allowed to do whatever they want with Kirk/Spock, whether it be an extremely pornographic short story or an abstract poem. Within the confines of the stories having something to do with Star Trek, fans are able to invent something completely new.

Conventions, on the other hand, attracts a different kind of fan. While the authors of fanfiction can hide behind a screen and express their devotion anonymously, conventions require you to be present. At these conventions fans dress up as Klingons, Vulcans, Andorians, and all of the other characters in the movie. The meticulous detail that these hand-made costumes have is close to lunacy. Their costumes are exact replicas of the costumes from the original movie down to the stitch. This may seem as though the culture industry has them wrapped around its finger because they’re so invested, but in reality, they often make their costumes their own at these conventions. Geek culture “prompted cross-pollination across geek interests; for example, at the Dragon*Con parade you might find a zombie stormtrooper, mixing Star Wars and Zombie genres” (McCain). Even at these conventions that seem like the people cannot get more culturally brainwashed, you see them making the movies they watched their own.

A common thought is that Star Trekkies are too indulged in culture. According to Henry Jenkins, a professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at USC, “fans are routinely cast as excessive, over-enthusiastic consumers, too heavily identified with and invested in the media texts they build their fandom around” (Bray). The NBC Saturday Night Live episode called “Get a Life!” expresses the view that “fans don’t have enough critical distance, that they are too immersed, too removed from reality” (Bray). Being removed from reality isn’t always a bad thing. If it means having a mind of your own that doesn’t let everything you watch go right past you, then I want to be removed from reality as well. As weirdas the people at these conventions may seem, their community is one of very few that are able to let their guards down and embrace culture. This community can write fanfiction in their own forms, reflecting their personal tastes and fantasies of the movies we watch so passively.

I’ve been talking a lot about sci-fi movies, and how the fans of this culture are far from passive, but what about the majority of us normal people? Are we passive? On the surface, it may seem so. Yes, there are the Star Trekkies who make their own slash fiction, but the majority of people aren’t a part of this “geek culture”. How many of your friends call themselves a Trekkie, a Potterhead, or anything of that vein? Now, how many of them admit to liking just about any other movie like Ferris Bueller’s Day off or Forrest Gump? I assume most would be on board with the latter simply because a.) they aren’t associated with comic cons and b.) there are so many genres besides sci-fi that people are into. It’s hard to have an incredibly devoted fan culture that Star Trek has with the fan base for Forrest Gump because the consumers of Forrest Gump aren’t dressing up for conventions. This does not mean, though, that they have to be passive because it isn’t a sci-fi movie. If you search, “Forrest Gump fanfiction” on google, hundreds of fanfiction websites will pop up (this works for just about any movie). Even though they aren’t dressing up for conventions, consumers of these other movies are creating their own piece of culture. Mainstream culture provides a medium for self expression, and allows us to xpress how we view any media thrown at us.

But what happens when this culture becomes mainstream? If fans are creating their own form of the culture given to them, isn’t it possible for that form to become the new mainstream culture? Pop culture is, in fact, steered by the tastes of the masses. Take Fifty Shades of Grey for example; this movie was based off of fan fiction from the movie Twilight and is now one of the most popular films. I’m sure this isn’t the only time new movies were made off of fan writing. Even though the consumers aren’t being passive, they are creating the new mainstream. Something about that feels wrong, like we’re being tricked into thinking we’re doing our own thing when we’re actually just creating more of the same.

Catherine Tosenberger mitigates this thought. She, along with other fanfiction writers, wonders why stories like Fifty Shades of Grey are the ones that get their debut when there are so many other stories much better than them. She says that, “many of the best fan stories (as well as many of the mediocre and the worst) are completely unpublishable for reasons that have nothing to do with nebulous assessments of literary quality, and everything to do with the fact that fanfiction is often so deeply embedded within a specific community that it is practically incomprehensible to those who don’t share exactly the same set of references” (Tosenberger). This shows that there is a sort of sacred bubble around fan fiction that cannot be touched that belongs uniquely to the members of that community. Even though there are cases where a story makes it out, for the most part it’s totally their own and can’t be touched.

Popular culture can be constricting, but it can also be freeing at the same time. If you use your creativity to write fanfiction and attend conventions then it gives us a way to be creative. But if we just let it go right through us and keep consuming without making it our own, then it will forever control us. It’s your choice which you want to pick.



Bray, John Patrick. “‘There’s Too Many of Them!’: Off-Off-Broadway’s Performance of Geek Culture.” Theatre Symposium. University of Alabama. Oct 2014.


McCain, Jessica; Gentile, Brittany; Campbell, W Keith. “A Psychological Exploration of Engagement in Geek Culture: e0142200.” Public Library of Science. Nov 2015.

Tosenberger, Catherine. “Mature Poets Steal: Children’s Literature and the Unpublishability of Fanfiction.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly. Johns Hopkins University. Spring 2014. Page 4-27.