Rank #1: Videomate: Men
Videomate: Men is a VHS tape released in 1987 featuring 60 single men pitching themselves as dates to women on the other side of the TV screen, who could connect to these eligible bachelors from the comfort of their homes. In retrospect, Videomate: Men is bizarre and hilarious, but at the time it was one of many manifestations of what was known as video dating. To find out how anyone thought this was a good idea, Decoder Ring examines the weird and forgotten world of video dating in the 1970's, 80's, and 90's to find out why video dating once seemed like the future, and if that future is still yet to come.
Rank #2: Truck Nutz
Truck Nutz are a brand name for the dangling plastic testicles some people affix to the bumper or hitch of their vehicle. Also known as Bull’s Balls, Your Nutz, and other brand names, these plastic novelties have a powerful symbolic charge and are often associated with a crass, macho, red state audience. But Truck Nutz are a surprisingly complicated signifier, one whose symbolic power is increasingly divorced from their real-world usage.
Rank #3: Baby Shark
Baby Shark is an megaviral YouTube video, an unstoppable earworm, a top 40 hit, a Eurodance smash, a decades old campfire song, and the center of an international copyright dispute. This month on Decoder Ring we explore the strange history and conflicted future of the song, what makes it so catchy, and how it came to be.
Rank #4: The Grifter
Brett Johnson was a career criminal: a fraudster, a con man, a cyber criminal, but now he’s a legal person operating on the right side of the law, helping companies stop people like he used to be. His story is the stuff of a movie like Catch Me iI You Can, it involves wild scams, narrow escapes, redemption, and even a trip to Disney World. Throughout his criminal career he defrauded people on the street, on eBay, on criminal web forums, within the justice system, and even inside the United States Secret Service. There’s great entertainment value in Brett’s story, but there’s also a great deal of complication to it, too. Real life isn’t as neat and tidy as a movie, and the ending is yet to be written. Today we explore Brett’s story, first by letting you enjoy it, and then we deconstruct it, to decide if we should.
Rank #5: Sad Jennifer Aniston
Jennifer Aniston’s story had it all: Heartbreak, secrecy, sex, betrayal. But what it also had was a new kind of tabloid: Us Weekly and its copycats. Brad Pitt leaving Jennifer Aniston for Angelina Jolie would have been a huge Hollywood scandal no matter when it happened, but it became an even bigger one because it was turbocharged by these tabloids. Almost 15 years later, the tabloid In Touch ran an issue with the headline “Brad Stuns Jen! Marry Me again!” What is going on? How is it still going on? Why is it still going on? This is the last episode of Decoder Ring for 2018. See you in the new year.
Rank #6: The Incunabula Papers
Ong's Hat, or The Incunabula Papers, is a conspiracy theory that arose on the early internet. Combining cutting edge science, mysticism, and obvious hokum, it intrigued thousands of people who tried to find out what it all meant. Today we uncover the secrets of Ong's Hat, the man behind it, and the new art form it inadvertently birthed. Check out our showpage at slate.com/culture/decoder-ringThis episode is brought to you by the following advertisers: Aleph Mattresses, a handmade mattress experience: TrustAleph.com②
Rank #7: Hotel Art
Hotel Art used to be one of the ultimate symbols of bad taste, it was often ugly, kitschy, and strange. Today, the art you find in a hotel is far less likely to be the result of one individual's poor taste, and much more likely to have passed through an entire industry designed to help place art into hotels. Hotel art is now almost universally pleasant, if anodyne. How did this happen?
Rank #8: The Paper Doll Club
Paper dolls were a ubiquitous part of children’s lives for decades, and then mostly disappeared. David Wolfe was a boy growing up in the 1950’s, with paper dolls as his primary means of accessing a world of glamour and beauty that he didn’t see at home in Ohio. He’d go on to a career in fashion, guided by his paper dolls, just as paper dolls were falling out of fashion themselves, replaced by Barbies and other plastic dolls. This episode is about paper dolls, and their surprising connections to fashion, nostalgia, queerness, and David’s extraordinary career. Producer Benjamin Frisch co-hosts the show to explore the story.
Rank #9: The Basement Affair
What are the real reasons people go on reality TV? This episode follows the story of Ann Hirsch and Cathy Nardone, two women cast on VH1’s “Frank the Entertainer...In a Basement Affair”, a show about an adult man looking for love—while living in his parent’s basement. How did one performance artist and one accidental performance artist make it onto the show? And how did they behave once they made it there? Their story highlights the ways that reality television distorts narratives, obscures intentions and stereotypes women, yet is still irresistible to audiences and performers alike.
Rank #10: Clown Panic
Decoder Ring is a podcast about cracking cultural mysteries. Every month host Willa Paskin,Slate’s TV critic, takes on a cultural question, object, idea, or habit and speak with experts,historians and obsessives to try and figure out where it comes from, what it means and why it Matters.Today: The clown has existed in various forms for thousands of years, what changed and made us suspect and fear them? The modern birthday clown is a very recent invention, by going back into the history of clowns and clowning we see that clowns are far more complex and capable of far more expression than the kids entertainment of Bozo and Ronald McDonald. How those complex figures transformed into obligatorily sunny commercial mascots may also explain why they are increasingly seen as sinister today.