Chris Matheson, “Bill & Ted” Writer, Talks Cosmic Satire with Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #65

Chris Matheson has written a bunch of comic movies including the new Bill & Ted Face the Music, and he’s converted religious texts into funnier books on three occasions, most recently with The Buddha’s Story. Your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt talk with him about what unifies these projects: Why the big ideas of science fiction, fantasy, religion, and philosophy are begging in a similar way to be made fun of.

We get into the big questions: How does humor relate to fear? Would a society based on Bill and Ted (or Keanu Reeves) actually be desirable? How bad is the evident literal absurdity of many religious texts? Plus, the B & T joke that has not aged well, and much more!

A few articles that we found but didn’t really draw on included:

Learn more at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

Tom Lehrer Releases His All of Catchy and Savage Musical Satire Into the Public Domain

If the age of American musical satire is behind us, Tom Lehrer may have ended it simply by being unsurpassably good at it. No less a comedy-song master than “Weird Al” Yankovic still walks among us, of course, but he specializes in broad parody rather than biting irony. Despite having retired from public life, Lehrer too lives on, and at 92 has taken action to assure his work a longer existence by releasing it into the public domain. On his official site you’ll see a statement from the man himself: “All the lyrics on this website, whether published or unpublished, copyrighted or uncopyrighted, may be downloaded and used in any manner whatsoever.”

Directly below his message you’ll find a list of nearly 100 of Lehrer’s songs, which when clicked lead to downloadable PDFs of their lyrics, and in some cases their sheet music as well. Ready for you to repurpose are such signature numbers as “The Masochism Tango,” “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” and “The Elements,” a version of the “Major-General’s Song” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance that name-checks each and every one of the physical elements known in 1959.




That Lehrer has also included the “Aristotle version” of “Elements” — in full, “There’s earth and air and fire and water” — just hints at the many playful touches to be found in this collection of materials.

Not just a singer-songwriter but a mathematician who worked at both the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory and the National Security Agency during the Cold War, Lehrer didn’t shy away from addressing the technical, the political, and the topical in his music. “Wernher von Braun” sends up the rocket scientist secretly recruited by the United States from defeated Nazi Germany (“Don’t say that he’s hypocritical / Say rather that he’s apolitical”). “New Math” gives a similar treatment to the Sputnik-spooked U.S.’s ill-advised scramble to reform mathematics education, and I got a laugh out of the song in childhood despite growing up long after the retrenchment of New Math itself.

Whether hearing or reading Lehrer’s lyrics today, one marvels at both how they’ve retained their bite, and how widely they were considered too edgy for airplay in the 1950s. The BBC, for example, banned ten of the twelve songs on his debut album, including “Be Prepared,” which spins the Boy Scout’s motto into an ode to misbehavior (“Be prepared to hold your liquor pretty well / Don’t write naughty words on walls if you can’t spell”). But now we’re free to craft new contexts to make them troubling again, and with the holidays coming up, this assures us very Lehrer ThanksgivingsChristmases (“Mix the punch, drag out the Dickens / Even though the prospect sickens”) and Hanukkahs (“Here’s to Judas Maccabeus / Boy, if he could only see us / Spending Hanukkah in Santa Monica”) to come. Enter his site here.

Related Content:

Hear Tom Lehrer Sing the Names of 102 Chemical Elements to the Tune of Gilbert & Sullivan

Tom Lehrer’s Mathematically and Scientifically Inclined Singing and Songwriting, Animated

Celebrate Harry Potter’s Birthday with Song. Daniel Radcliffe Sings Tom Lehrer’s Tune “The Elements”

We’re All Doomed!: Weird Al Yankovic Tries to Make Sense of the Disastrous Trump vs. Biden “Debate”

The Music, Books & Films Liberated into the Public Domain in 2020: Rhapsody in Blue, The Magic Mountain, Sherlock, Jr., and More

Every Possible Melody Has Been Copyrighted, and They’re Now Released into the Public Domain

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

How the Doors Got Banned from The Ed Sullivan Show (1967)

Getting banned from a venue can hurt a band’s career, but in most every case I’ve heard about, it’s a cloud with a golden lining. Hardcore band Bad Brains built a legacy on getting banned in all of D.C.’s clubs. Elvis Costello’s career didn’t seem to suffer much when he was banned from Saturday Night Live in 1977. Jimi Hendrix’s banning from the BBC didn’t hurt his image any. Then there’s the Doors….

The band earned the distinction of being the first to have a member arrested live onstage in the infamous “New Haven incident” of 1967. Three months earlier, they performed live, no miming, on The Ed Sullivan Show. Things did not go as smoothly as the producers may have hoped,” writes Ultimate Classic Rock. No, Jim Morrison didn’t expose himself or antagonize the audience.




On the contrary, given the Doors’ other notorious “incidents,” the offense is as mild as it gets—Morrison simply sang the lyrics to “Light My Fire” as written, defying producers’ request that he change “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher” since it sounded like a drug reference. Not only did they ask Morrison to change the lyric, but they also apparently asked him to sing “Girl, we couldn’t get much better,” which doesn’t even rhyme.

One can see why he would have resisted.

“Band members have given varying accounts of whether they ever agreed to change the line or not,” UCR notes. According to The Ed Sullivan Show site, a producer came into the dressing room, told the band they should smile more, and told them the line was “inappropriate for a family show on national television.” As soon as he left the room, Morrison said, “We’re not changing a word.”

The band went on after Rodney Dangerfield, a last-minute replacement for another comic. They played “People Are Strange,” then the offending song. Dangerfield became a regular on the Sullivan show. The Doors–booked for six more appearances–never went on again, though they had plenty of other TV bookings and wild, disastrous stage shows to keep them busy.

When informed after the show that they’d been banned, Morrison reportedly said a most Jim Morrison thing: “Hey, man, we just did the Sullivan show.”

Watch a clip of the performance just above.

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The Stunt That Got Elvis Costello Banned From Saturday Night Live (1977)

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Jimi Hendrix Wreaks Havoc on the Lulu Show, Gets Banned From the BBC (1969)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch Cornel West’s Course on W.E.B. Du Bois, the Great 20th Century Public Intellectual

A giant of 20th century scholarship, W.E.B. Du Bois’ career spanned six decades, two World Wars, and several waves of civil rights and decolonial movements; he saw the twentieth century with more clarity than perhaps anyone of his generation through the lens of “double consciousness”;  he wrote presciently about geopolitics, political economy, institutional racism, imperialism, and the culture and history of both black and white Americans; we find in nearly all of his work piercing observations that seem to look directly at our present conditions, while analyzing the conditions of his time with radical rigor.

“An activist and a journalist, a historian and a sociologist, a novelist, a critic, and a philosopher,” notes the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Du Bois “examined the race problem in its many aspects more profoundly, extensively, and subtly” than “anyone, at any time.” And there is no one more fluent in the vernaculars, literatures, and philosophies Du Bois mastered than Cornel West, who lays out for us what this means:

Du Bois, like Plato, like Shakespeare, like Toni Morrison, like Thomas Pynchon, like Virginia Woolf…. What do they do? They push you against a wall: heart, mind, soul. Structures and institutions, vicious forms of subordination, but also joyful and heroic forms of critique and resistance.

West begins his course on Du Bois—delivered in the summer of 2017 at Dartmouth—with this description (things get going in the first lecture at 3:15 after the course intro), which gestures toward the comparative, “call and response,” discussion to come. All nine lectures from “The Historical Philosophy of W.E.B. Du Bois” (plus an additional public talk West delivered at the university) are available at Dartmouth’s Department of English and Creative Writing site, as well as this YouTube playlist.

The course follows the movement of Du Bois’ complex historical philosophy and pioneering use of scholarly autobiography—(what West calls the “cultivation” of a “critical self”)—through a number of themes, from “Du Bois and the Catastrophic 20th Century” to, in the final lecture, “Revolution, Race, and American Empire.” It begins with 1903’s The Souls of Black Folk, in which Du Bois first wrote of double consciousness and penned the famous line, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.”

West puts close readings of that seminal work next to “subsequent essays in [Du Bois’] magisterial corpus, especially his classic autobiography Dusk of Dawn (1940),” the course description reads. The latter text is not only a Bildung, a “spiritual autobiography,” Du Bois called it, but also a critical analysis of science and empire, whiteness, propaganda, world war, revolution, and a conceptualization of race that sees the idea’s arbitrary illogic, in the “continuous change in the proofs and arguments advanced.” These ideas became formative for anti-colonial, anti-imperial, and Pan-African movements.

Du Bois’ first formed his “radical cosmopolitanism,” as Gunter Lenz writes in The Journal of Transnational American Studies, during his studies in Germany, where he arrived in 1892 and found himself, he wrote, “on the outside of the American world, looking in.” He returned to Germany over the decades and, in a 1936 visit, was one of the few public intellectuals who predicted a “world war on Jews” and “all non-Nordic races.” But Du Bois not only confronted the genocidal wars and helped lead the liberatory movements of the 20th century; he also, with uncanny perspicacity, both anticipated and shaped the struggles of the 21st. Access West’s full lecture course here.

West’s course, “The Historical Philosophy of W.E.B. Du Bois,” will be added to our collection, 1,500 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Related Content: 

W.E.B. Du Bois Creates Revolutionary, Artistic Data Visualizations Showing the Economic Plight of African-Americans (1900)

W.E.B. Du Bois Devastates Apologists for Confederate Monuments and Robert E. Lee (1931)

Daniel Dennett and Cornel West Decode the Philosophy of The Matrix

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How to De-Stress with Niksen, the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing

Stressed out? Overwhelmed? If you said no, I’d worry whether you have a functioning nervous system. For those of us who don’t get out much now because of the pandemic, even staying home has become a source of stress. We’re isolated or being driven up the wall by beloved family members. We’re grasping at every stress-relief tool we can find. For those who have to leave for work, especially in medicine, reading the headlines before masking up for a shift must make for higher than average blood pressure, at least. Every major health agency has issued mental health guidelines for coping during the coronavirus. Not many governments, however, are forthcoming with funding for mental health support. That’s not even to mention, well…. name your super-colliding global crises….

So, we meditate, or squirm in our seats and hate every second of trying to meditate. Maybe it’s not for everyone. Even as a longtime meditator, I wouldn’t go around proclaiming the practice a cure-all. There are hundreds of traditions around the world that can bring people into a state of calm relaxation and push worries into the background. For reasons of cold, and maybe generous parental leave, certain Northern European countries have turned staying home into a formal tradition. There’s IKEA, of course (not the assembly part, but the shopping and sitting in a newly assembled IKEA chair with satisfaction part). Then there’s lagom, the Swedish practice of “approaching life with an ‘everything in moderation,’ mindset” as Sophia Gottfried writes at TIME.




Hygge, “the Danish concept that made staying in and getting cozy cool” may not be a path to greater awareness, but it can make sheltering in place much less upsetting. A few years back, it was “Move Over, Marie Kondo: Make Room for the Hygge Hordes,” in The New York Times’ winter fashion section. As winter approaches once more (and I hate to tell you, but it’s probably gonna be a stressful one), Hygge is making way in stress relief circles for niksen, a Dutch word that “literally means to do nothing, to be idle or doing something without any use,” says Carolien Hamming, managing director of a Dutch destressing center, CSR Centrum.

Niksen is not doomscrolling through social media or streaming whole seasons of shows. Niksen is intentional purposelessness, the opposite of distraction, like meditation but without the postures and instructions and classes and retreats and so forth. Anyone can do it, though it might be harder than it looks. Gottfried quotes Ruut Veenhoven, sociologist and professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam, who says niksen can be as simple as “sitting in a chair or looking out the window,” just letting your mind wander. If your mind wanders to unsettling places, you can try an absorbing, repetitive task to keep it busy. “We should have moments of relaxation, and relaxation can be combined with easy, semi-automatic activity, such as knitting.”

“One aspect of the ‘art of living,’” says Veenhoven, “is to find out what ways of relaxing fit you best.” If you’re thinking you might have found yours in niksen, you can get started right away, even if you aren’t at home. “You can niks in a café, too,” says Olga Mecking—author of Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing—when cafes are safe to niks in. (You can also use “niks” as a verb.) It may not strictly be a mindfulness practice like the many descended from Buddhism, but it is mindfulness adjacent, Nicole Spector points out at NBC News. Niks-ing (?) can soothe burnout by giving our brain time to process the massive amounts of information we take in every day, “which in turn can boost one’s creativity,” Gottfried writes, by making space for new ideas. Or as Brut America, producer of the short niksen explainer above, writes, “doing nothing isn’t lazy—it’s an art.”

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How Information Overload Robs Us of Our Creativity: What the Scientific Research Shows

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Phone Relief: The Ultimate Hands-Free Headset (1993)

We have featured some great acts of imagination when it comes to telephone technology–from the worlds’ first mobile phone shown in this 1922 British Pathé newsreel, to when Fritz Lang “invented” the video phone in Metropolis in 1927. “Phone Relief,” the ultimate hands-free headset marketed in 1993, will never qualify as a great act of imagination. But it does make for a great kitschy ad.

via @moodvintage

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Take a Digital Drive Along Ed Ruscha’s Sunset Boulevard, the Famous Strip That the Artist Photographed from 1965 to 2007

Ed Ruscha has lived nearly 65 years in Los Angeles, but he insists that he has no particular fascination with the place. Not everyone believes him: is disinterest among the many possible feelings that could motivate a painting like The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire? Nevertheless, the plainspoken Oklahoma-born artist has long stuck to his story, perhaps in order to let his often cryptic work speak for itself. Originally trained in commercial art, Ruscha has painted, printed, drawn, and taken photographs, the most celebrated fruit of that last pursuit being 1966’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip, a book that stitches his countless photographs of that famous boulevard — both sides of it — onto one long, continuous page.

Whatever you think of such a project, you can’t accuse it of a mismatch between form and substance. Nor can you call it a cynical one-off: between 1967 and 2007, Ruscha drove Sunset Boulevard with his camera no fewer than twelve times in order to photograph most or all of its buildings.




These include gas stations (an architectural form to which Ruscha has made the subject of its own photo book as well as one of his most famous paintings), drugstores, appliance dealers, Central American restaurants, karate schools, travel agencies, car washes, Modernist office towers, and two of the most characteristic structures of Los Angeles: low-rise, kitschily named “dingbat” apartment blocks and L-shaped “La Mancha” strip malls.

The mix of the built environment varies greatly, of course, depending on where you choose to go on this 22-mile-long boulevard, only a short stretch of which constitutes the “Sunset Strip.” It also depends on when you choose to go: not which time of day, but which era, a choice put at your fingertips by the Getty Research Institute’s Ed Ruscha Streets of Los Angeles Project, and specifically its interactive feature 12 Sunsets. In it you can use your left and right arrow keys to “drive” east or west (in your choice between a van, a VW Beetle, or Ruscha’s own trusty Datsun pickup), and your up and down button to flip between the year of the photo shoots that make up the boulevard around you.

Many longtime Angelenos (or enthusiasts of Los Angeles culture) will motor straight to the intersection with Horn Avenue, location of the much-mythologized Sunset Strip Tower Records from which the very American musical zeitgeist once seemed to emanate. The Sacramento-founded store was actually a latecomer to Los Angeles compared to Ruscha himself, and the building first appears in his third photo shoot, of 1973. The next year the ever-changing posters on its exterior walls includes Billy Joel’s Piano Man. About a decade later appear the one-hit likes of Loverboy, and in the twilight of the 1990s the street elevation touts the Beastie Boys and Rob Zombie. In 2007, Tower’s signature red and yellow are all that remain, the chain itself having gone under (at least outside Japan) the year before.

12 Sunsets’ interface provides two different methods to get straight from one point to another: you can either type a specific place name into the “location search” box on the upper right, or click the map icon on the middle left to open up the line of the whole street clickable anywhere from downtown Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean. This is a much easier way of making your way along Sunset Boulevard than actually driving it, even in the comparatively nonexistent traffic of 1965. Nevertheless, Ruscha continues to photographically document it and other Los Angeles streets, using the very same method he did 55 years ago. The buildings keep changing, but the city has never stopped exuding its characteristic normality so intensely as to become eccentricity (and vice versa). What artist worthy of the title wouldn’t be fascinated?

Explore the Getty Research Institute’s Ed Ruscha Streets of Los Angeles Project here.

via Austin Kleon

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Watch Randy Newman’s Tour of Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard, and You’ll Love L.A. Too

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Dorothea Lange Digital Archive: Explore 600+ Photographs by the Influential Photographer (Plus Negatives, Contact Sheets & More)

Shortly before her death in 1965, one of the New Deal’s most famous photographers, Dorothea Lange, spoke at UC Berkeley. “Someone showed me photos of migrant farmworkers they had just taken,” she said. “They look just like what I made in the ‘30s.” We can see the same conditions Lange documented almost 60 years later, from the poverty of the Depression to the internment and demonization of immigrants. Only the clothing and the architecture has changed. “Her work could not be more relevant to what’s happening today,” says Lange biographer Linda Gordon.

As an American, it can feel as if the country is stuck in arrested development, unable to imagine a future that isn’t a retread of the past. Yet activists, historians, and therapists seem to agree: in order to move forward, we have to go back—to an honest accounting of how Americans have suffered and suffered unequally from economic hardship and oppression. These were Lange’s great themes: poverty and inequality, and she “believed in the power of photography to make change,” says Erin O’Toole, associate curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art




Among famous Bay Area colleagues like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, Lange is unique in that “her archive and all that material,” says O’Toole, “stayed in the Bay Area,” held in the possession of the Oakland Museum of California. Now, more than 600 high-resolution scans are available online at the OMCA’s new Dorothea Lange Digital Archive, which also “contains contact sheets, film negatives and links related to materials as additional resources for the many curators, scholars and general audiences accessing Lange’s body of work,” Emily Mendel writes at The Oaklandside

The digital archive will likely expand in coming years as the digitization process—funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation—continues. The physical archive is vast, including some “40,000 negatives and 6,000 prints, plus other memorabilia.” These were inaccessible to anyone who couldn’t make the “huge trek to OMCA,” Lange’s goddaughter Elizabeth Partridge—author of Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning (2013)—remarks. The project is “the most important thing,” says Partridge, “that has happened to her work since it was given to the museum decades ago” by her second husband Paul Taylor. 

The online archive-slash-exhibit divides Lange’s work in four sections: “The Depression,” “World War II at Home,” “Post-War Projects,” and “Early Work/Personal Work.” The first of these contains some of her most famous photographs, including versions and adaptations of Migrant Mother, the posed portrait of Florence Thompson that “became a famous symbol of white motherhood” (though Thompson was Native American) and “moved many Americans to support relief efforts.” We can see how the iconic photo was taken up and used by the Cuban journal Bohemia, the Black Panther Party newspaper, and The Nation, who imagined Thompson in 2005 as a Walmart employee.

In the second category are Lange’s photographs of Japanese internment camps, unseen until relatively recently. “When she finally gave these photos to the Army who hired her,” Gordon notes, “they fired her and impounded the photos.” Lange’s skilled portraiture, her uncanny ability to humanize and universalize her subjects, could not suit the purposes of the U.S. military. “She used photography,” O’Toole says, “as a tool to uncover injustices, discrimination, to call attention to poverty, the destruction of the environment, immigration…. The protests that are happening today would be something she’d be photographing in the streets.”

Maybe in a digital age, when we are overwhelmed by visual stimuli, photography has lost much of the influence it once had. But Lange’s images still inspire equal amounts of compassion and curiosity. As Americans contend with the very same issues, we could do with a lot more of both. Enter the Dorothea Lange Digital Archive here

via Austin Kleon

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How Dorothea Lange Shot, Migrant Mother, Perhaps the Most Iconic Photo in American History

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch Ridley Scott’s Controversial Nissan Sports Car Ad That Aired Only Once, During the Super Bowl (1990)

Every commercial is a fantasy, but car commercials are more fantastical than most. Just look at the settings, with their roads, whether remote or urban, completely empty of not just other cars but obstacles of any kind: stop signs, street-crossers, speed traps. This leaves the heroic everyman behind the wheel free to take on the straightaways and curves alike just as he sees fit. But what the standard car commercial offers in driver wish fulfillment, it lacks in drama: how to tell a story, after all, about a featureless character who faces no obstacles, subject to no desires beyond those for comfort and speed? Commissioned to direct a commercial for Nissan’s 300ZX Turbo, Ridley Scott found a way.

“I’m in a Turbo Z,” says the narrator of the resulting spot “Turbo Dream,” first broadcast during Super Bowl XXIV in 1990. “These guys are after me, but they can’t catch me.” These mysterious pursuers first chase him on motorcycles, then in an F1 race car, and then in an experimental-looking jet. (We’re a long way indeed from Hovis bread.)




But “just as they’re about to catch me, the twin turbos kick in.” Those twin turbochargers constitute only one of the cornucopia of features available for the 300ZX, then the latest model of Nissan’s “Z-cars,” a series acclaimed for its combination of sports-car performance, luxury-car features, and high technology. The lineage goes all the way back to 1969, when the company introduced its Japanese Fairlady Z in the U.S. as the 240Z.

For most of the 1960s, “Japanese sports car” would have sounded like a contradiction in terms. But by the 1990s many once-loyal American drivers had been enticed to defect, not least by the promise of the Z-car. Taken by surprise, the colossal U.S. auto industry did not react charitably to its foreign competitors, and the 1980s wave of economic anti-Japanese sentiment swept America. Hollywood wasted no time capitalizing on these feelings: countless action movies began featuring corporate-raiding Japanese villains, and one of the least shoddy among them was Black Rain — directed by a certain Ridley Scott, who in Blade Runner had already realized one vision of a thoroughly Japanified America.

Black Rain had come out just four months before the broadcast of “Turbo Dream,” and anyone who’d seen the film would surely be reminded of its opening motorcycle race. The spot did draw a backlash, but the anger had nothing to do with Japan: “The commercial was protested by groups like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of Governors’ Highway Safety Representatives and others,” writes Jalopnik’s Jason Torchinsky. “The issue was that the ad was thought to glorify speeding,” and the commercial never aired again. The 300ZX itself would go on for a few more years, until the American SUV trend and the rising yen-to-dollar ratio temporarily retired it in 1997. When they bring the newly unveiled Z Proto to market, Nissan could do worse than enlisting Scott to come up with another turbocharged fantasy.

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Bob Dylan’s Controversial 2004 Victoria’s Secret Ad: His First & Last Appearance in a Commercial

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The 100 Most Influential Photographs: Watch TIME’s Video Essays on Photos That Changed the World

We live in a culture oversaturated with images. Videos of violence and death circulate with disturbing regularity, only rarely rising to the level of mass public outrage. Social media and news feeds bombard us not only with distressing headlines but with photograph after photograph–doctored, memed, repeated, then discarded and forgotten. It’s impossible to do otherwise than to forget: the sheer volume of visual information most of us take in daily overwhelms the brain’s ability to sort and process.

As if insisting that we look and really see, the judges of the Pulitzer Prize have given the award for feature photography almost exclusively to images of tragedy in recent years. In most cases, the conflicts and disasters they depict have not gone away, they have only disappeared from headline news. Whether we can say that photography is losing its power to move and shock us in the overwhelming sea of visual noise is a subject for a much longer meditation. But I can think of few recent images comparable to those in the TIME 100 Photographs series.

Of course the saying “time will tell” isn’t just a pun here: we can only know if a photo will have historic impact in hindsight, but in nearly all of the 100 photos featured—which have been given their own mini-documentaries—the impact was immediate and galvanizing, inspiring action, activism, widespread, sorrow, anger, appreciation, or awe. The emotional resonance, in many cases, has only deepened over the decades.




The image of Emmett Till’s face, battered into unrecognizability, has not lost its power to shock and appall one bit. Although the specific context may now elude us, its details still mysterious, we can still be moved by Jeff Widener’s photograph of a defiant Chinese citizen facing down the tanks in Tiananmen Square. Alberto Korda’s 1960 portrait of Che Guevarra became not only iconic but a literal icon.

What will we see fifty, or 100, years from now, on the other hand, in “Oscars Selfie” (2014), by Bradley Cooper? The photo seems to me an eerily cheerful portent from the point-of-view of 2020, just a handful of years later, with its well-groomed, smiling, mask-less faces and lack of social distancing. It is an image of a genuinely simpler, or at least a profoundly more oblivious, time. And it was also just yesterday in the scale of TIME’s list, whose earliest photo dates to almost 200 years ago and happens to be the “first known permanent photograph.”

TIME itself, once a standard bearer for photojournalism, shows us how much our interaction with photography has changed. The so-called “turn to video” may have been mostly hype—we continue to read, listen to podcasts, and yes, pour over striking photographs obsessively. But hardly anything these days, it seems, can pass by without a mini-YouTube documentary. We may not need them to be emotionally moved by these photographs, yet taken altogether, these short videos offer “an unprecedented exploration,” writes TIME, of how “each spectacular image… changed the course of history.”

Watch all of the 21 short documentary videos currently available at TIME‘s YouTube channel, with more, it seems, likely to come.

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The Story Behind the Iconic Photograph of 11 Construction Workers Lunching 840 Feet Above New York City (1932)

The First Photograph Ever Taken (1826)

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness





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