Micah Tillman is a Core Division instructor at Stanford Online High School, teaching philosophy of science courses to 9th and 10th graders. He is also the creator and host of the Top 40 Philosophy podcast, and I spoke with Micah about it here.
Can you tell me the story of your podcast? How did it come about?
I always used song references and music videos in class, both as a way of helping students connect with the material and as a way of keeping them awake. I think it’s important to meet students where they are, to teach philosophy in their language. I also think it’s important not to be boring.
I had so much fun with that, that I decided to try it out on the broader public. So, I started a blog series called “Top 40 Philosophy,” focused mainly on songs from the current charts.
When I took a year off from teaching, however, I found I really missed getting to talk about philosophy. It turns out that “life is so unnerving for a [teacher] who’s not [teaching].” So, I decided to shift from blogging into podcasting.
Why is it called “Top 40 Philosophy”?
I always think of pop radio stations as “Top 40” stations. But nobody uses the term “Top 40” anymore, do they? In any event, I hope the name conveys a little bit of what I’m trying to do: I want to help people see that the musical fabric of contemporary life is chock full of philosophical threads.
Can you talk about the relationship between philosophy and music? And what does A-ha have to do with Zeno?
The great gift of popular music—for a philosopher—is that songs often make explicit philosophical claims. “All you need is love.” “You gotta fight for your right to party.” John Mayer even insists that, “‘Everything happens for a reason’, is no reason not to ask myself if I’m living it right.”
More often, however, the lyrics of a song rely on implicit philosophical assumptions. Chuck Berry wonders why Maybellene can’t be true. But that means he agrees with the Scholastic belief that things other than propositions can be true. Such lyrical claims and assumptions are in our heads—in everyone’s heads—because pop music is everywhere. So, it’s worth investigating where they come from and how much support they have.
Beyond the lyrics, furthermore, the music itself is often at least an occasion for philosophical reflection. Pharrell’s “Happy,” for example, is in a minor key; it has the most serious-sounding harmonies in the world. So, why does it still seem happy? Can emotional attributes even be ascribed to non-living objects? And like “Happy,” a-ha’s “Take on Me” is a “fast” song. Both tunes apparently have a “speed,” even though they’re not going anywhere. How can a song have a speed if it doesn’t move? And can anything move, in light of Zeno’s paradoxes?
How is your podcast different to the other philosophical podcasts out there?
It’s the only philosophy podcast I know of that focuses on popular music. Barry Lam did a fantastic episode on popular music for Hi-Phi Nation, but Top 40 Philosophy spends all its time wallowing around in the stuff.
Top 40 Philosophy also tends to be both quirkier and more confessional than other philosophy podcasts. I know Peter Adamson has several running jokes in The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, and Robert Talisse’s interviews for New Books in Philosophy always include a lot of laughter. But when I’m not talking about How Contemporary Politics Makes Me Feel™, my episodes tend to be slightly more… zany (perhaps?) than the average philosophy podcast.
Also, there are no interviews with scholars. You just get my nasally voice and the music.
Can you tell me about why you say it’s impossible to make it to the end of an episode?!
The intro to each episode is scripted. In it, I introduce myself and the podcast by saying one thing that is true, and then two or more silly things that are false. I often use the silly things as hints about what philosophical theme the episode will explore, since the title of each episode is just the song or songs to be discussed.
Anyway, the claim that you can’t get to the end of an episode comes from the episode on “Take on Me,” by a-ha. The philosophical themes for that episode were Zeno’s paradoxes of motion and the problem of divine foreknowledge. If Zeno is right, nobody can get to the end of anything. And if certain theologians are right, whether you can get to the end of an episode depends on whether God knows ahead of time that you won’t.
What are your goals for the podcast? Who do you hope to reach and what do you hope it will it achieve?
I want to help normal people—non-philosophers and non-academics—come to appreciate philosophy. I want to show them that philosophy is relevant to everything and that doing philosophy makes everything more awesome. I hope I can contribute to creating a culture where majoring in philosophy is seen as a relevant and not-weird thing to do.
But I also want to help philosophers connect with popular culture in a way that we academic types often find difficult. That way we can be more effective teachers.
Who is your audience? What do you know about their interests? Are they philosophers, musicians, or general audiences?
I get the most downloads from the US and Ireland, interestingly, then the UK—mainly London—and Japan. In the US, I get the most downloads from California and New York, with Texas coming in third. You might read something political into that, but I suspect it’s just to do with population sizes.
The most downloaded episode—ignoring episode 1, where most people will start—is the one on “California Love,” by Tupac and Dr. Dre. That’s followed closely by the episodes on “In Da Club,” by 50 Cent, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” by Nirvana, and “Gangsta’s Paradise,” by Coolio. So, I would guess the core of my audience is currently people in their 30s and 40s who like 90s rap and rock.
I can’t help but throw in newer songs now and again, however, so I hope I don’t scare off the 30-somethings while I’m talking to Kids These Days about how philosophically-interesting their music is. Eventually, I hope that high school and college students will be listening, and that their teachers will also tune in for ideas about how to explain particular topics in terms that will be relevant to their students.
How do you decide on the topics?
To decide on the songs, I started with Billboard. They have lists of the top songs of the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, as well as lists of the top songs in the histories of their alternative, rap, and country charts. I then picked the songs I liked best from each of those lists, and mixed them together, trying to keep the genres rotating relatively regularly.
To decide on the philosophical topics for each episode, I try to familiarize—or refamiliarize—myself with the next song on my list, and see what jumps out at me. I look for explicit or implicit philosophical claims in the lyrics, and think about whether the music itself has anything worth discussing philosophically. (I minored in music as an undergrad, so I often also have music theory and music history thoughts about the music.)
Can you tell me about your process of researching and creating the podcast?
The internet is key to everything. I track down the lyrics, background, and chart history of the song. If there are lines I don’t understand, I search around to see what interpretations are out there. In the process of all this, I almost always find something that resonates with a particular philosopher or philosophy that I’ve studied—or at least heard of. That then can require a little further research.
Once I’ve decided what I want to talk about, I create an outline for the episode. I script the intro and chart history section, but leave the rest in outline form. My hope is that speaking extemporaneously will make the episode more dynamic. I then transfer the outline to my tablet so I can refer to it while recording, plug my fancy mic into my ordinary laptop, and fire up Audacity (a free-but-fancy-enough audio recording program).
Recording an episode usually takes about an hour, I would guess, since I often don’t like how I’ve said something and have to do another take. Then I spend hours editing, cutting out the bad takes, getting rid of annoying noises, throwing out entire sections that didn’t work, recording new takes, splicing in the music, whittling down the song clips (to try to stay within the bounds of Fair Use), adjusting levels, and so on.
In the end, a single episode is usually a weekend’s worth of work. Recently, furthermore, I’ve been writing incidental music for episodes, which requires even more time.
Best song ever from a philosophical perspective? And your personal perspective?
The best song ever, from a philosophical perspective, would have to be, “Imagine,” by John Lennon. As a pop song and cultural artifact, it’s a huge achievement. Combine that with how questionable some of its central claims are and you’ve got a paradoxical mix that is perfect fodder for philosophical reflection.
Runners up would have to be “Holding Onto You,” by Twenty One Pilots, “Pursuit of Happiness,” by Kid Cudi, and “Material Girl,” by Madonna. “Holding Onto You,” is not only musically excellent, but it’s lyrically powerful, and the video is next-level good. “Pursuit of Happiness” and “Material Girl” are lyrically-questionable, but in philosophically-interesting ways. And their music videos complicate their meanings in fascinating ways.
That’s from the philosophical—and especially the philosophy teacher’s—perspective. From my perspective as a music fan, the best song ever is “Take on Me,” with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” a close second (tied with Sting’s entire 57th & 9th album), and “In Your Eyes,” by Peter Gabriel.
Favorite episode? Why?
I think my favorite episode is #25, on “Zombie,” by the Cranberries. That was the first episode I released after the 2016 US presidential election, and it seems to have marked a turning point for the podcast in terms of listener numbers. “Zombie” was the perfect song for the moment, and putting together the episode helped me personally stave off despair. I hope it helped others as well.
How do you see your podcast fitting into the world of public philosophy?
My role, through the podcast, is that of evangelist or popularizer. I hope I’m helping people see that if philosophy is relevant to pop music, it can be relevant to anything. Furthermore, I hope that I’m able to convince my listeners that thinking about pop music philosophically actually makes your experience of the music better. I want being philosophical about everything to start seeming like an attractive option for people.
In doing this, I hope that I’m contributing to a culture where philosophy is seen as important, where funding philosophy programs at the college level is the Done Thing, and where people are teaching philosophy classes to high school students and younger (like we are at Stanford Online High School).
What are your main challenges?
Finding the time to research, record, and edit each episode is my main challenge, so episodes end up being much more spaced out than I would like. I’m also no good at marketing, so I think that’s my second big challenge. Maybe I should put together a grant proposal so I can hire a social media team . . .
What’s surprised you about your podcast?
That anyone who isn’t already my friend listens to it! I’m convinced that I’m a total weirdo, and that being philosophical about pop music is maybe the most bizarre thing you could ask anyone to do. But people do, and that is so delightful.
What are your plans for the future?
I want to write a systematic, Top 40 Philosophy-style introduction to philosophy: a book that explains the primary branches of (and debates in) philosophy using the language of pop music. I’ve got a rough outline and have done some initial writing, so we shall see!
And, of course, I want to keep finding the time to put out new episodes. There are so many great songs just waiting to be explored that we have enough material to keep us occupied for a few centuries at least.