The Camden Ostrander Interview
Dissecting the boy behind season 7 of one of music’s biggest podcasts
The bond between Camden and I goes deeper than music. From working together in high school film class to holding down the track 4x800 team (undefeated, in our opinion), we’ve clicked on so many levels dating back to the 9th grade. One of those levels was our shared love of Childish Gambino and in particular his 2013 album Because the Internet (BTI). The album itself, along with the script Gambino wrote and world that he built around the album (both online, in videos, and in real life interviews/performances) captivated us. Camden went on to continue exploring the world of BTI to its fullest extent, culminating with a thesis project that analyzed the project’s themes and world building. After graduating college, he returned to our public school system and began teaching high school english. On top of that work (and a part time job at REI), Camden was hired to co-write the latest season of the podcast Dissect. Each season, the podcast selects one album and does a deep analysis of every single track. Believe it or not, Camden’s season is on Because the Internet. Dissect is backed by Spotify Studios and racks up hundreds of thousands of listeners each season. We caught up recently to talk about the podcast, the album, and what it all means.
Brian Harrington: You’re credited with co-writing this season with Cole (the host and creator of Dissect). What was the workflow like between you two?
Camden Ostrander: The way that the writing works is, we had a schedule, and I did not follow it laughs. I’d write an outline, write the whole script, send it to Cole, and the production section would mostly be notes, but everything else would be written out in a full ready to go script with links and sources and everything. Then he would take a look at it, make a lot of comments, he would send me these comments and questions, and I would answer them. It would be like “do we need this section? And if we do you need to make a better case for why we need it” or “can we reorganize” or “your writing needs to be a lot better here, this sounds ridiculous, no one’s gonna want to hear me say this” so he would do a lot of revision. We had a nice back and forth I think. After that first round of revision I would make some edits, and then after that, it would depend on the episode, but he would make the final call to say “ok I think we’re good on this one, let’s move on.” Then he would start recording it, and he has producers and music people that would also be looking at it, which was nice.
Has Cole ever worked with another writer before or is this the first season he’s done that?
Yeah, the first time he did another writer was the season on DAMN, season 5, he worked with Femi Olutade. He had been writing about Kendrick Lamar on his own website, so Cole found him, and the thing that Femi did was he has a lot of spiritual and biblical knowledge. Their whole season about DAMN was about allusions to the Bible, which Cole knew nothing about, so that’s why he went to another writer for that one. Season 6, that was Lemonade, he technically had two co-writers for that season. One was Maggie Lacy who had written about it, and the other was the co-host Dr. Titi Shodiya, who hosts Dope Labs. And I think they also had a researcher too, but this season was just me and him.
Cole mentioned that he wasn’t sold on BTI for Dissect until he read your work. What part of your work do you think sold him on the album?
I don’t know! He really was not sold on BTI laughs. A lot of people had asked for a BTI season of Dissect for a very long time, including myself. But as Cole told me, I don’t think he liked it, he didn’t have a real appreciation for it. One of the things he mentioned was he thinks there’s a generational difference because he’s in his 30s. He didn’t like the album, but he saw that people kept wanting it. So when he asked for pitches a year and a half ago, I sent him my website that I had made a while ago where I tried to write down the fact that Donald Glover made a world. This is not an album, this is a world, there is so much more we have to talk about that nobody really took seriously or cared enough to dive into. I had that website, and he liked it, he told me “ok yeah this is great, I will get back to you” and he never got back to me for a very long time. Then the pandemic started and I had free time off my two jobs, so I made the content guide for BTI and I sent it to Cole like “hey just in case you want to do the BTI season, this would be really helpful for you.” And he’s like “Oh! Right! this would be great, can you please pitch this now?” So we worked together on a pitch, I had to outline the whole season. At that point I start to outline how BTI is very important for right now, and what we’re about to go through. At the time, Glover would often say “we are more connected than ever before, but I feel more alone than I ever have” and that phrase “alone together” kept coming up at the start of the pandemic. We’re really facing these massive struggles together, but we’re feeling these divisive influences, and we’ve got to remember that we’re all in this together. I think when I started to breakdown and show the fact that the work was expansive and that all the other parts of the world you could dive into just as much as you can dive into the music, I think that’s what sold it because it offered Dissect a chance to do the online content like the web guides we’ve made, as well as the video that we made for 3005. There were some preliminary ideas about doing more videos, but we ended up deciding to just test and see if they’ll be successful at all. I think it’s been wildly successful, which is very nice. But I think once I broke down the whole world, that’s what really got him to buy in.
Plus the spec script I wrote for the song Worldstar was an important part of breaking down and showing that everything he did matters. Like the live performance when a quarter of the way through the song, he goes out to the audience and reaches out for connection, and has them turn their phone properly. He’s basically saying “let’s use our phones right. I am literally reaching out to my audience and saying please use your phone correctly. Please can we use technology correctly.” And so once you realize that “holy crap, everything this man does was based on these ideas, everything ties in thematically,” I think that’s what sold it.
You’ve already dedicated so much time into dissecting BTI before Cole wanted to do it for the podcast. Did you feel like your work was already done and you were just converting it to podcast form, or did you learn a lot more through this process?
No, it was so much more. The first website I made and the first real paper that I wrote I think clocked in around 5,000 words, and I think it did a really good job of summarizing and outlining the whole world and how many other things were going on. But each episode… the initial estimate was that each episode would be 5,000 words. That did not happen, they were all around 10,000 words, each episode was double that estimate. So it was way more laughs. Also, I honestly never really had the chance to break down each song the way I did for Dissect. Like before this, I knew No Exit was incredible, I thought “wow this song is amazing,” but when I really dove into it, I don’t know if you’ve seen the web guide, the two verses, and this is what I only realized because I was breaking down every lyric: the verses are like dark reflections of each other. The last thing he says in verse one mirrors exactly the first thing he says in verse two, and then so forth like a palindrome. Like exactly. It’s scary how well structured that is. And it’s crazy because in the script at that moment, the boy is looking at a dark reflection of himself, and the verses match that and you go “WOAAHHHH OH MY GOD” it’s shocking. And there were so many moments like that writing this season where I was mind blown. The Worldstar “put shrooms in my roommates coffee” thing blew my brain apart. Telegraph Ave., when he says married and buried at the same time, blew my brain. Sweatpants, Sweatpants does a good job too with the verse structure where everything he says, he one ups it again. In the script he talks about deja vu, stunting, and continuously what’s the ramification of the fact that we keep one-upping ourselves and each other. The verses and the lines do the same thing. If he says something, later on he’s going to up that boast. Also all the Charlie Sheen stuff in that is crazy. There’s so many Sheen lyrics with the “winning” and then the Fisker thing, when we finally broke that down, that the Fisker came up in Two and a Half Men. Oh, and he’s Childish Gambino, Donald Glover, and The Boy. He’s two and a half men. So like a lot of these insane things only happened because I was able to take the time, and feel adequately compensated for taking the time, to break them all down for this season.
What resources were the most helpful to you when constructing your analysis?
The content guide and the website I had made were really helpful, I made the content guide keeping in mind “ok if this Dissect thing doesn’t happen, I’m going to try to work on something myself. It’s going to take forever but I’ll use this as my notes.” So I did end up using the content guide that breaks down every piece of Because the Internet, I used that a lot. I used Genius.com for the lyrics and for some ideas. Some of the songs, the Genius annotations are garbage. You know, I like valid opinions that aren’t my own, but there are some that are just not helpful. I forget what song it is but all the annotations are like “the boy is dealing with this lost love,” but they’re misidentifying the girl from the script and misidentifying I think the entire point of the whole song. I think it was Flight of the Navigator like “the whole dream is about this girl” and I’m like… nooooo… it’s not. So Genius.com, the content guide I made. A little bit of Reddit, I did for every song go into the subreddit and try to figure out everything that had been said about it. Sometimes there were some good ideas, or somebody had produced a sample or figured out what noise was happening, but that was just me going a little overboard with the research. Which was good.
Was there an episode in particular that was most challenging to write?
The No Exit episode is the one that I am the most proud of and personally was the most difficult to write. I cried writing the No Exit episode. And I think it comes out on the page and in the audio, as I was writing it I was dealing with it. I also ended up writing that one late at night just because of the work schedule I had, and so when you’re writing about the dark reflections of a person at 3 AM and you look at the clock and it is 3 AM, it’s very tough laughs maybe it added to it, I don’t know. Then the Flight of the Navigator episode also felt very difficult to write, just because of how cerebral that is. I felt like there was a lot of weight on that one because people always say “Oh Flight of the Navigator is the best song ever!!!” and you know, it might be. But because there’s so much opinion about it, I did not want to mess it up. And I think the script that I first produced for that was not very good. It was ok. I think Cole saved it to be quite honest. I had a lot of ideas, and after revision I think it turned out well. The Finale was a menace because that was the longest script, it was 16,000 words, and it’s not now, but when I first turned it in I was like “I have to touch everything! I can’t miss a single thing!”
About the single 3005, you went very in depth with two episodes and a video covering both the song and the secret version of the track, but obviously you can’t touch on everything. You emphasized this season how Gambino would say the album doesn’t make sense without the live show. While I didn’t see the live show, one of my favorite pictures from the tour that he posted on the Deep Web Blog, he’s looking to the backdrop of the stage and it says the lyrics “I’ll be right by your side until 3005” but then the numbers just continue infinitely like a series of code. You probably know what picture I’m talking about
I know, I love that photo. I feel like it was Deep Web Blog week 2.
How does that image alter or give new meaning to the lyrics of the song?
We should have included this in the episodes, because it’s a great tidbit that I do love. I think it reinforces the notion of 3005 as infinity. The number keeps going on and I think it has a dot dot dot at the end of the number in the photo, yeah, the ellipsis is about infinity. It’s a different representation of this idea of 3005 is the infinite future and we’re never gonna get there, but we’re gonna be together. Like us, as a universal we, have to be there for each other throughout as much as we can. I think that photo, it feels like a note because it’s his handwriting, so it feels like him opening up his notebook to us for a moment and being like “this is what I was thinking when I wrote down that number. I know I had to put it into the song and make it finite, but it is limitless, it is infinity.” I think it’s a really cool aspect, every single moment of the world matters and the photo really represents that.
It’s been my computer background for years
Mine is the one of him, it’s black and white, and he’s sitting at the piano playing it. It’s from the third week of the Deep Web Blog, and Ibra took it. It’s black and white and the piano is black on the right side, and there’s white on the left side, and he’s in the middle, he’s both colors because of his sweatshirt and the greyscale. It’s so good.
Was there anything else that you wish could have been covered in the podcast, but had to get left out because of time?
I went off on a lot of tangents I think laughs. I think that Because the Internet is revolutionary in its thinking in a lot of ways, or can be thought of in that way. Because it is a foundation of knowledge, if we take it, we start to learn things about the systems we have. There were many diatribes that I wrote about anti-capitalism and the sexual spectrum as Glover is expressing it here on the album that were not included in the episodes. In many cases, probably for the best because we did have to try to keep everything as close to the work as we could, even if I strongly believe that this is the right way to think and it is what Glover is promoting, there’s also the idea that all of these ideas are valuable. Urn for instance, on its own I wrote enough for an episode’s worth, but we combined it with Pink Toes. There’s a lot of Urn that I think if you tie it up with the exploration of sexuality on Because the Internet, it is a central piece of Glover being like “we have had these ideas of gay or straight, we’ve also had these ideas of one is right or wrong, but what if you aren’t either and what if we can’t define ourselves with a sexual label? What if these ideas that we’ve had are holding us back because we’re trying to label a thing which is at its core an experience, it is transient and ephemeral, and it is not something that we can tie down and label.” Urn feels like trying to move on from that in many ways. It works as a moment where I was trying to pull a bunch of stuff from the whole world, and then pull it into the central moment, and it did not pan out for us to include in the episode. Even if I strongly believe it and will make something that discusses it further. It’s there, but we couldn’t include it in the episode. I did get to put the anti-capitalism stuff into Pink Toes though!
What does your family think of your work, has your BTI love rubbed off on any of them? Or your students?
My family, they think it’s fun that I get to do this? I don’t know, they don't care very much laughs. When I got hired they were like “What? People care? No way!” they thought it was a joke or they thought it was silly. They did not realize that it was real. When the 3005 video came out, and they saw the views that it got, that was a realization moment I think of them seeing a tangible number and audience that made an impact. I’ve talked about Gambino all the time with my students, I don’t know right now because I don’t get to teach them in person. So I do not really know if any of them know about Dissect. I did have one ex-student from my student teaching days hit me on twitter and say “wow congratulations!” and I was like “oh this is weird, oh no!” But as far as Because the Internet, it always comes out when I’m teaching that that’s my favorite thing in the world so my students usually know that. Some try to test me by saying Gambino sucks, but usually they’re J. Cole fans so I make fun of them back.
If you could pick the brain of anyone involved with any part of BTI, outside of the obvious answer being Glover himself, who would you most be interested in connecting with and what would you want to ask them?
There’s a lot that I would want to talk about with a lot of these people. I have a google document, I’m not ashamed to admit this, with questions for every member of Royalty in case I could ever interview them. I have big plans of what I want to do, and I’ve been outlining this for a long time.
Ludwig or Hiro, Hiro Murai would be the one I want to talk to the most. The thing I’d want to talk to him the most about is Clapping for the Wrong Reasons or the video for Sweatpants because there were supposed to be two, and his label Glassnote messed it up. There’s behind the scenes footage of a Sweatpants music video that’s never been seen. It’s directed by this other guy, and it’s also in a diner, and it also has multiple Donald Glovers in it, and there’s very many of the same things happening. Here’s where it gets interesting, if you remember when I talked about the verse structure, everything he does he takes it and he one-ups it. And at this point in the script he says “I’m having deja vu right now, I feel like I’ve been here before.” And when Sweatpants was released, the music video came out with the first Deep Web Blog, Donald Glover was so mad about the release of the music video, and he was so furious that he said “buy me out of my contract, I hate my label,” he went on a rant on twitter when this happened. Because we only got one music video.
Because we have the behind the scenes footage of this other video that doesn’t exist, I think we can tell he was going to release two. He was going to release one video and then later release the second one and it would be like deja vu, and it would be like one upping himself with another video, and it would be a reflection of everything that was in the scene and in the song, but I think Glassnote thought “oh that would be too confusing for people.” So I want to ask Hiro about it because he directed the one we saw and I think he has to know about the other one. This is one of my burning questions, what’s up with this other video, how did they mess that up? Because it got messed up! How good would it have been to see that? I think it would have helped people get a lot of what Because the Internet was doing, but Glassnote messed it up, and I think Hiro would be able to talk about that. It’s also something that no one talks about or thinks about. There’s so many questions that interviewers do not ask any of these guys that I’m like “come on….”
Are there any other missing pieces in the BTI world you still need answers for?
There are these loading sounds three times in the album, at the end of Death by Numbers, the end of Urn, and the end of Crawl. Weird loading/flashing noises, I wish we knew what made the noise, I wish somebody would talk about it. We have an idea in the Dissect finale, but we literally don’t know what the noise is, so it’s very hard to talk about. I do wish we could talk about the Sweatpants videos. The alien plot line in the music videos, I don’t think any interviewer ever asked Donald about it, so we have no statements from him about the aliens. I wish we could get to know more. There’s ideas, there’s a really good article that points to the alien subplot being an extended metaphor for being black in America, and it’s really good, but I wish we had more knowledge to back up some of the statements, I wish we could explore more of that. Also the whole STN MTN / Kauai follow up. I tried a bit to say “can we please do this on Dissect, can we please,” but no. I do wish we could do more stuff like that. The other mystery is, Cole and I have talked about this, we need to know: where are the notes he wrote down? Did he throw them away? Or are they saved? And we need to know: Where is the Hawaiian shirt? Where is the coat? Can we have them, can we hang them up?
When you’re curating the Because the Internet instillation in the MOMA
We can recreate the Boy’s room! The boy’s room exhibit is so cool! That’s who I would also want to talk to, is the designer for that, because he designed the CD and the room. That guy is so good. Brian Roettinger, he’s amazing
Do you have a favorite song?
Ok, I think Worldstar is probably it just because the song works as the blueprint, it contains the whole album, which is incredible. One thing we didn’t get to talk about in the episode which I realized later was - I was trying to think about why is he putting the Jazz Club scene in the script with the song Worldstar, and Fam in the script looks around and says “why are all these James Blake people at the jazz club, is this who listens to jazz now?” Fam is pointing out that it’s a bunch of white people looking at this black musician, and there’s a long history of jazz, white audiences, and the way that it affected black artistry. Worldstarhiphop.com, who goes on worldstarhiphop? Who is watching these highly racialized, stereotyped images? It’s white people. So are we doing the same thing again? I was thinking about that juxtaposition after like “damn! We did not even touch on that in the episode!" That’s why it’s my favorite song, there’s so much to it, I could go forever. Also the ideas of a worldstar, and the celestial bodies throughout BTI, and the universe imagery he uses like the space imagery. I think we could talk about that a lot more which would be great. That’s my favorite. Act III isn’t a song but I think all of Act III is like an artistic masterpiece. I would wanna know this, do you have a favorite song?
I was really drawn to No Exit when it first came out, the griminess of the beat balanced with the cleaner chorus. And now learning even more about what the song means through the show, it still blows my mind years later
So good! And they never did it live! No Exit and Life: the Biggest Troll have never been performed live. I don’t think you can, he couldn’t do it because of that moment in the script like you can’t perform that. But the songs are incredible.
But now, even though it’s a basic answer I’d probably pick 3005
It has everything! It has the pop hook, the catchy chorus, the sad existential lyrics, it fits in the album but you can play it on the radio, it draws people in who might not have been interested otherwise without selling out on the themes or his sound at all. It’s all there.
There’s obvious influence that this album has had. Off the top of my head, I can point to Tyler, the Creator and The Weeknd with Igor and After Hours. They wore the same costume and were in character for all their interviews and performances with those respective albums. Is there any other modern music or world building around albums that you can point to as being influenced by Because the Internet?
The Tyler and The Weeknd examples are perfect. I need to point out the fact that Tyler did a performance art meet and greet where he brought a statue of Igor to Washington Square Park in New York City so that fans could meet the character, and he could talk to them. That’s the exact same thing Donald Glover did, the exact same park, like come on! And nobody cared, and nobody pointed it out. I did on twitter and nobody cared because nobody listened to me back then, so god damn it! laughs.
Also, there’s an article Fam wrote in 2014 about being on tour with Gambino. Essentially he talks about how Donald is such an easy person to criticize, how he got overshadowed by Drake, and all this stuff. Then he tells a story of the Weeknd:
And now the Weeknd seems to be doing the same thing that Gambino did. Hmmm, interesting! Interesting. It’s fine, Donald Glover did this in 2013, and people are now mad that The Weeknd didn’t get a Grammy nomination in 2020. It’s ridiculous. Anyways, there’s a lot of people you can point to as clear influences. Jaden Smith is a huge one, not only because Jaden Smith was on STN MTN / Kauai, but Jaden Smith and the SYRE character, that is totally pulled out of Gambino’s world building playbook. All the performance art aspects, like his show when he’s on a car, all the stuff he’s doing with his live performances, that seemed really tied to world building. Shia LaBeouf is kind of a contemporary, it seems like he’s doing a lot of the same things performance art wise. Janelle Monáe is a contemporary, I wouldn’t say it’s because of Glover that she did Dirty Computer, but there are very similar ideas. Kevin Abstract wrote an article saying Gambino made it easier for me to do what I want to do. I don’t think Kevin has done everything he can do, I think he’s been failing interestingly enough as far as world building goes. We’ve seen Helmet Boy, and we’ve seen all these big ideas from Kevin, like Saturation with the blue paint and the live shows with uniforms, but we haven’t gotten a narrative world yet from him or BROCKHAMPTON. I feel like that’s going to come and that’s going to be the best thing. I think you can point to all those people as clearly influenced by Gambino and Because the Internet.
If you could put this much time and effort into analyzing another album, what are some you’d want to do?
The two other Gambino albums, Awaken My Love! or 3.15.20 I think would be great. I get very nervous about picking them now because there’s so many people who I think, whatever they do next will be it. Cole has mentioned, he did Flower Boy for Dissect and now says “that was great, but I wish I had waited for Igor.” So I now get a little nervous about “do I want to do this, or do I want to wait for what’s next?” I think a Mac Miller season, Swimming is ripe for this, I think that would be great. I think Dirty Computer would be a great album to do. But really I think I’m focused on whatever’s next from Tierra Whack or Noname. Whatever that is, I know that’s going to be good for Dissect.
I’ve seen you tweet about the difference between meaning and intent. What’s your response to people that think you’re reaching with interpretations on this album?
It happens a lot laughs. It’s interesting because it’s sort of the point of Because the Internet. The meaning of anything is not intrinsic to the thing itself. A word does not mean something on its own. If we didn’t have things to attach to a word, if we didn’t have our own personal lenses, words would mean nothing. If you’ve never heard of a fox, you don’t know what a fox is, as is conveyed in the script when we have the What Does The Fox Say? guy show up and say “the whole continent found out what a fox was because of me!” That’s the way all language works. That’s also the way all art works, art is a space for conversation, and Donald Glover has talked about this, especially with This is America. One interviewer was like “it’s amazing, I just want to thank you for making this space for us to all have this nationwide conversation” to which Donald said “wow, thank you for saying that.” And I thought “ah, that’s it! That’s the point.” Art is a space for conversation. Again, things mean the connections you make. Any meaning of a word or art is because of the internet, because of the interconnections we all make with the thing. If somebody says we are reaching, they’re just not reaching their hand out to meet us. Which is ok! People don’t want to do that all the time, but you have to. You have to make a certain leap of faith, you have to stretch out to things or you’re not going to make meaning of anything. It makes me sad when somebody says that what we’re talking about is a reach. It’s ok and I get it, I’m just hoping that by reaching out and trying to make connections with audiences that they reach back. I don’t see much criticism of Dissect, but this is one of the things that pops up. Glover also talked about that with yoga. He does yoga because it requires you to stretch and be uncomfortable. We have to do that, we have to make reaches and we have to try and connect over things, even if it might feel uncomfortable. So when somebody says it’s a reach, and then they use that to not think about something anymore, I’m like, come on. Try. Why else are you here?
Audiences reaching back and creating connection is part of the theme of BTI. Has this album created connection for you?
Yes. You and I are talking right now, because the internet. Which is wonderful! It’s really nice to see the way that this season has landed, appreciation I think is growing, I’ve been very conscious about trying to go out onto the internet and spread it to make connections with folks. I’ve had dozens of conversations with people who’ve sent me DMs or messages like “hey this episode really hit me, I want to talk about why” or “this season has really impacted me.” I’ve had people reach out and want to talk about personal issues and real crises, real feelings that they’ve had because of the work we’ve done and conversations we’ve started. Which has been incredible, it’s very rewarding to be able to have these conversations and to make these connections with folks. Also, this is my first writing job. Because the Internet got me to Dissect, this is now the start of something which I’m super excited about on a work basis. Because the discussion that we had about Because the Internet is the beginning of better conversations about this work and all of Glover’s work. I think this illuminates a lot of so much of what he’s done since. If someone listens to Dissect, they will have a better perspective on how to talk about anything Donald Glover does from now on. And personally, I now have been able to reach a certain platform of people, and been able to start down a line of work, which hopefully will lend itself to more opportunities to do more projects like this.
What are some of those projects you’re planning after Dissect?
I think from your questions we’ve seen, there’s a lot more we can talk about with Because the Internet than what we have on Dissect. I have plenty of ideas. If Royalty ever wants to talk to me or reach out, they should definitely hit my line because I have a lot of ideas for things that we could do. There’s more Dissect in the future, I plan to continue to be involved with Dissect, which is great. But also, personally, I have projects now setup, I have outlines, I have ideas that now have an audience and there’s a foundation now for “ok, Cam, me, can do something with this, Cam has something to say.” I have tons of outlines like “here’s a ten episode docuseries. Here are all the questions I want to ask every member of Royalty, can I please interview them.” I think Donald Glover needs an autobiography. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, huge important book, it was born from him talking to somebody. I would love to be Alex Haley, I would love to be the guy Donald talks to. I don’t think he will or that will happen, but I want that to happen. Plus, this will hopefully set up me getting a PhD, and I can be a Donald Glover professor. That’s the ultimate goal, to be able to teach and have these conversations over and over and over again, and to continue experiencing the art with new people. That would be a dream.