The PyeongChang Winter Olympics and Korea’s Musical Modernities
Patty Ahn / UC San Diego



Team Korea enters the PyeongChang Olympics
Team Korea enters the PyeongChang Olympics

This year’s Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea featured two strikingly different soundtracks. On one hand, the sounds of K-Pop flooded the mediascape as A-list idols performed nightly at the Olympic headliner show, took the stage for numerous promotional concerts held in lead-up to the Games, and closed out the entire Olympic event with show-stopping performances. During the opening ceremony, the industry’s most famous anthems played in the background as delegations from Chile, France, the U.S., and many others marched in the ritual “Parade of Nations.” The score was meant to offer a curation of South Korea’s most popular songs from past to present with K-Pop serving as the pinnacle of this sonic progression.

U.S. delegation marches to Psy’s “Gangnam Style”

These celebratory sounds, however, were met with a more somber tune. As Trump’s escalating aggression toward the DPRK [ ((North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). South Korea is officially titled the Republic of Korea (ROK). ))] led many to fear that a preemptive strike by the U.S. loomed on the horizon, leaders from North and South Korea announced that they would form a unified women’s ice hockey team and march as one delegation in the opening ceremony. In a historic and much anticipated moment, athletes from both countries entered the “Parade of Nations” together, waving white flags emblazoned with a solid blue silhouette of the peninsula while the melancholic melody of “Arirang,” Korea’s national folk song, wailed in the background. The message of this profoundly symbolic gesture was resoundingly clear: the DPRK and ROK were unified in their call for peace and shared dream of reunification.

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Unified Korean delegation marches to “Arirang” (see video here)

The languid and pastoral notes of “Arirang,” which served as the unified team’s official anthem, could be heard across the Games, offering a striking counterpoint to K-Pop’s more futuristic reverberations. I bring attention to these two scores because of the very different feelings they inspire about Korea. In this post, I gesture toward some of the affective structures at work within these musical registers. The dichotomous feelings captured in K-Pop and “Arirang” in many ways speak to a fundamental crisis in South Korea’s identity as a nation and the global image it projects, but I believe an important story also lies in their dissonance.

K-Pop’s trademark melange of electronic dance beats, robotic vocals, neon-laden music videos, and razor sharp choreographies has served as the defining visual soundtrack for South Korea’s postmillennial reinvention. The unexpected success that Korean pop music and television dramas found in the Asian market in the late-1990s buoyed the country’s economic recovery in the wake of the IMF Crisis of 1997. Since then, it has played a central role in supporting the government’s agenda of remaking the country’s reputation as a global leader in cultural and technological innovation.

The opening ceremony at this year’s Olympics reinforced this technological narrative. The artistic segment of the program used a mix of live action performance and virtual reality animations to depict the journey of five children as they travel through Korea’s past, present, and eventual future. Their story begins in pre-modern Korea, where holograms of ancient cultural artifacts and mythologies come to life around them, and concludes at the “gates of the future” where they learn that their careers as K-Pop star, artificial intelligence specialist, urban simulation expert, hologram specialist, and doctor await them. They watch in wonder as a virtual screen appears before them playing a montage in which their future selves excitedly perform their jobs inside an illuminated grid.

Olympic Montage
Artistic segment featuring montage of future K-Pop star performing in illuminated grid

International sporting events like the Olympics and World Cup have provided their host countries with a critical opportunity to re-make their image in the world. This year’s Winter Games in PyeongChang clearly sought to re-orient our imagination about South Korea as a hyper-technologized modernity soaring into its future and solidify the integral role that K-Pop has and will continue to play in shaping this narrative.

K-Pop has already begun to reshape South Korea’s place within the American imaginary in profound ways. Seoul and Busan have become Hollywood’s latest “techno-Orientalist” backdrop with visual motifs taken right out of a K-Pop music video.[ ((David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu, Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media (Rutgers University Press, n.d.).
))] Meanwhile, countless media stories dedicate themselves to unlocking the mystery behind Korean culture’s recent spate of success in the global market. At the same time, K-Pop has also performed the work of creating a historical amnesia around Korea as it pivots us toward a futurist vision of the country.

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Clockwise, from top left: Cloud Atlas (Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski, 2012); Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017); Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018)

The U.S. by and large has lacked a historical framework for how to speak about Korea in spite of its commanding role in manufacturing and maintaining its division. Mainstream media rarely acknowledge North Korea’s existence, except through the occasional caricatured depiction of an erratic and hostile leader. Otherwise, the dominant story told about the U.S’s relationship to South Korea is of “an enduring and equal partnership in the face of a shared enemy,” [ ((https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/02/09/south-korea-straying-off-the-leash/ ))] Yet, Washington has systematically thwarted numerous peace and reunification efforts in the peninsula. In addition to imposing devastating sanctions on North Korea—which have only resulted in humanitarian crises, the U.S. has backed three brutal anti-communist military dictatorships (1961-1992) and continues to maintain a military presence across the south.

Official state narratives about the Korean War (1950-present), known in the U.S. as “the Forgotten War,” has suppressed our historical memory about the nature of the U.S.’s involvement in Korea. The U.S. Cold War in Asia began in Korea, which it saw as key to maintaining a capitalist stronghold and military power in the region. However, the military campaign there, which resulted in the loss of more than 4 million Korean lives (70% of which were civilian), was perceived by and large as a failure. The signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953 installed a temporary cease-fire until a “peaceful settlement” between the north and south could be reached, but this accord has yet to be fulfilled, leaving intact a militarized border that continues to separate ten million families.

The sounds of “Arirang” at this year’s Winter Games haunted K-Pop’s technology-driven vision of Korea’s future with the ghosts of an unresolved past. The song has been sung across the peninsula for hundreds of years—long before Korea’s division into two rival nations—and has come to represent an idea and feeling of an ethnically unified Korean people. It became a rallying cry for independence under Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945). Commonly associated with a sense of sorrow, longing, and separation, it has come to serve as an expression of grief over Korea’s ongoing division and unfulfilled dream of liberation.

This year’s Olympic Games did not mark the first time the two countries appeared at an international sporting event as a unified delegation. However, it did seem to signal an important shift in mainstream American discourse about Korea. Although NBC commentators more or less universalized the message of peace at this year’s games, as Korean historian and peace activist Ramsay Liem notes, the two Korea’s unified departure from Trump’s military aggression began to destabilize the idea of the U.S. as “equal partner.”

Although we still face an uncertain future with respect to Korea, , we might continue to hold onto “Arirang” as a way of listening to these rare moments of dissonance in Korea’s soundtrack. Unlike K-Pops’s highly rationalized and vertically-integrated system of song production, “Arirang” has never been defined by a standardized set of lyrics or melodic structure. A song is called “Arirang” so long as it contains this passage, “Arirang, Arirang, Arariyo/ Arirang gogaero neomeoganda,” which simply translates as “Arirang, Arirang, Arariyo/ Crossing over Arirang pass.” More than 8,000 variations of the song exist with countless regional variations and thousands of known lyrics. Even the word “Arirang” itself possesses no stable meaning—it is simply an imagined place or feeling.

In many ways, “Arirang” is more than a song or even a feeling. It offers us a capacious and historically messy way of knowing–an entry point into those stories of Korea which might not conform to official narratives. “Arirang”‘s recall of the past pleaded for an alternative vision of Krea’s future–one oriented toward peaceful reunification, liberation, and sovereignty from foreign rule.

Image Credits:
Author’s screengrabs

Please feel free to comment!




IPTV Piracy and Global Television Distribution
Ramon Lobato / RMIT University

The TV Pad

The TV Pad – until recently, one of the most popular Chinese IPTV streaming boxes

From apps and portals to streaming sticks and smart TVs, the world of television distribution grows more complex every day. The advent of internet-distributed television – and the associated phenomenon of cord-cutting – has significantly changed the way people access, discover and experience content.

This distribution revolution is not confined to the formal sector. Television piracy has also been evolving rapidly, producing new technologies, viewing practices and business models that are shaping global television culture in their own particular ways.

Take the example of IPTV (internet protocol television) piracy – a new form of subscription television piracy. IPTV piracy involves paid subscriptions to unauthorized channel providers that charge around US$10-$30 per month for access to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of international channels, delivered over the internet.

IPTV subscription advertisement

A typical IPTV subscription advertisement on eBay

Users receive these channels in a number of ways. One popular option is an open-source media player like Kodi or Perfect Player. Another option is an Android TV box. Higher-end boxes often come bundled with a customised OS and a built-in subscription to a pirate IPTV provider, costing around US$150-$250 for the whole package.

Here is an example of how a pirate IPTV subscription service works:

IPTV piracy is different from earlier forms of subscription TV piracy, such as smart-card hacking. Pirate IPTV providers do not just redistribute one particular pay-TV service; they aggregate feeds from different providers around the world. In this way, most pirate IPTV services are able to offer a very diverse range of international channels in one package – from Hong Kong, Japan, Turkey, Greece, UK, US, Canada, India, Pakistan, and almost anywhere else you can think of.

IPTV piracy is also unlike peer-to-peer downloading/torrenting. Torrents are free and open-source, whereas IPTV piracy is a commercial enterprise operating through closed, managed networks. The kind of content being distributed is also different. As Evan Elkins notes, “live piracy” is for those who want to watch real-time channel feeds (especially sports and news), rather than on-demand movies and TV series.

International Take-up and Crackdown

It is impossible to gauge the scale of IPTV piracy with any accuracy, given its informal nature. However, recent research gives us some clues as to the take-up in particular parts of the world.

The network analytics company Sandvine estimates that 6.5% of North American households are streaming content from “known subscription television piracy services.”

Sandvine identifies demand for four kinds of content – sports, news, premium and diasporic TV – as being the main drivers of this activity, based on their analysis of network traffic.

This seems like an accurate reading based on my observation of the IPTV scene. The thriving IPTV community on Reddit includes sports fans (who want cheap access to sports events normally restricted to pay-TV), news junkies (who want international news channels not available in their local cable/satellite systems), and expats seeking television from home.

Nonetheless, there are noticeable differences between countries when it comes to IPTV use.

For example, in the United Kingdom IPTV is especially popular among soccer fans seeking cut-price access to live broadcasts. Pirate subscriptions and boxes offering access to English Premier League matches are widely advertised on social media.

In response, the EPL has been actively cracking down on TV box vendors in the UK, and in key overseas markets such as Singapore and Thailand.

In the United States, the satellite TV provider Dish Network has also been waging its own enforcement campaign, launching a series of lawsuits against pirate IPTV operators. In its sights are box providers such as Spider TV, Tiger Star and Loolbox that offer Arabic channels exclusively licensed to Dish in the US.

Tiger Star TV – a popular Android TV box

There is also a long history of rights-holder enforcement actions against Chinese IPTV operators, stretching back to at least 2012. These cases often relate to the illegal rebroadcast of Hong Kong-based channels through set-top boxes sold in overseas Chinese communities.

Indeed, China appears to have an unusually dense and complex ecology of informal IPTV services. As Michael Keane has noted, “the set-top box is now the default technology for accessing Chinese programming overseas.” [ (( Michael Keane, “Disconnecting, Connecting, and Reconnecting: How Chinese Television Found Its Way Out of the Box,” International Journal of Communication, vol. 10 (2016), p. 5439. ))] Elaine Zhao has described how jailbroken Xiaomi Mi Boxes are a popular choice for app-based TV piracy in China. [ ((Elaine Zhao, “The Bumpy Road Towards Network Convergence in China: The Case of Over-the-Top Streaming Services,” Global Media and China, vol. 2 (1), pp. 28-42. ))]

A New Kind of Global Television?

As these observations suggest, IPTV piracy has a cultural history embedded in diasporic media – with elements of geek culture and commercial pay-TV piracy thrown in.

Notwithstanding their clearly illegal nature, these IPTV services are of interest to media scholars seeking to understand changes in global television flows. What does the growth of streaming piracy in general – and IPTV piracy in particular – mean for the distribution of international television channels? And what might it mean for how we study and theorise “global television”?

It is too early to tell, but I for one will be monitoring the world of IPTV for answers to these questions.

Image Credits:

1. The TV Pad – until recently, one of the most popular Chinese IPTV streaming boxes
2. A typical IPTV subscription advertisement on eBay
3. Tiger Star TV – a popular Android TV box

Please feel free to comment.




They’re Just Like Us: Celebrity Civilianizing on Social Media
Elizabeth Affuso / Pitzer College

Taylor Swift posing with her cat
Taylor Swift posing with her cat Doctor Meredith Grey named after the character on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy

With the proliferation of new media, stars are expected to engage with their fans on a near 24/7 basis via social media spaces like Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram. These spaces provide a perceived access never before seen in the fan/star relationship. Using social media, stars—or their anonymous assistants—showcase the day-to-day aspects of their lives. These spaces are used to post pictures of their pets, their breakfast, their friends, and their opinions about current events. All of this material is designed to make stars seem relatable to the public, while maintaining the rarified nature of celebrity. This desire for relatability is especially pervasive for young female celebrities who utilize their social media to position themselves within girl culture to emphasize the “stars are just like us” narrative of contemporary celebrity. This column will be invested in interrogating how female stars use iconographies of girlhood to emphasize how normal, and by extension relatable, they are on Instagram. For the sake of space, it will focus on Taylor Swift’s Instagram primarily in the era immediately after the release of her album 1989 (2014).

Many of the images circulating Instagram fall into the category that Yasmin Ibrahim has termed “banal imaging.”[ ((Yasmin Ibrahim, “Instagramming life: banal imaging and the poetics of the everyday,” Journal of Media Practice 16:1 (2015): 42-54, 43.))] The images are what might previously have been termed candids and represent new forms of digital recording of the banal or quotidian enabled by the pervasiveness of cameras and the quantities of memory on smartphones. These forms of “banal imaging” have been codified around images of healthy meals, vacations, bathroom mirror selfies, cute pets, fun nails, throwback Thursdays, and inspirational quotes as the aspirational goals of a certain specific form of girlfriendship in post-recession era digital culture. Stars utilize these same tropes in order to play into the language of girly-ness and make themselves seem relatable to their followers, while at the same time maintaining a rarefied star-like quality to their images. Of this symbiotic relationship, Alice Marwick has noted, “’regular’ selfies often emulate celebrity-related media.”[ ((Alice Marwick. “Instafame: Luxury Selfies in the Attention Economy.” Public Culture 27:1 (2015): 137-160, 142.))] This idea can be extended to say that celebrity selfies often also emulate regular selfies. The visual and technological language of these images works from the same vein enabled by the shared functionalities of technology across smartphones.

Childhood photo of Taylor Swift dressed as a Teletubby
Throwback to Taylor Swift dressed up as a teletubby before they were cool

In recent years, Taylor Swift has been strongly associated with girl fandom and with the popularization of the idea of the girl squad—and its related hashtag #squadgoals. Of Swift, Megan Garber has written, “Swift is a performer not just of music, but of friendship. She takes the clichés of female camaraderie … and commercializes them.”[ ((Megan Garber, “The Summer of the #Squad,” The Atlantic, July 23, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/07/the-summer-of-the-squad/399308/))] The move toward girl friendship relates to Swift’s own shift in branding away from the hapless, heartbroken romantic into a star who uses feminism and girl friendship as a tool of branding. This shift was centered on the launch of Swift’s well-received 1989 album with its anti-shaming anthem “Shake it off.” At the time, her social media was structured to mimic this shift in branding, positioning her best friendships with women such as Karlie Kloss and Selena Gomez front and center. This move towards girl friendship reflects a certain brand of celebrity feminism that is currently popular, with Beyoncé blaring feminism in lights and stars walking around in t-shirts proclaiming “The Future is Female.”

Taylor Swift and other celebrities on the beach
Happy 4th of July from Taylor Swift and her squad

This performance of friendship is not just depicted in images of friendship—though there are plenty of those—but also in the types of images that she chooses to share with her followers. The mixture of celebrity images of Swift performing and doing other labor coded as professional with banal images allows for Swift’s photos to circulate seamlessly with those of “regular” users. In the temporality and structure of the Instagram feed, Swift’s images integrate seamlessly with those of real friends and give off the impression of Taylor Swift as regular girl, sharing videos of her cats—the ultimate embodiment of the “stars are just like us” discourse of celebrity circa 2018.

We know that cats drive the Internet and Swift’s cats are no exception, maintaining their position as stalwarts on her Instagram through her wipe and rebrand in advance of the release of 2017’s Reputation. Swift’s cats, Det. Olivia Benson and Dr. Meredith Grey, position Swift herself as a fan with the cat’s names as references to the female protagonists of Law and Order: SVU and Grey’s Anatomy respectively. Swift is deliberately branding herself as a fan or even a super fan, but what sets Swift apart is that her fandom does not require the same distance from the actual object as regular fans are subject to. When regular fans encounter celebrities like Swift, it’s primarily at events designed for fan engagement such as concerts or talk shows, but Swift now counts Mariska Hargitay, the actress who plays Det. Olivia Benson, as a member of her girl squad. Images of the feline Olivia Benson and Meredith Grey embody the limitations of the “stars are just like us” narrative in that “stars are just like us,” they have cats named after characters that they love, except that their cats fly private and use MTV awards as chew toys.

Taylor Swift's cat sleeps on a private jet

Taylor Swift’s cats Doctor Meredith Grey lounging while flying private (top) and Detective Olivia Benson chewing on the real Mariska Hargitay’s MTV award (bottom)

This alignment with fandom is something that Swift does again and again in her Instagram and it speaks to the cultural position of fandom in contemporary culture. No longer the province of nerds or geeks, fandom is mainstream enough that the queen bee of the ultimate girl clique, Swift’s squad, is happy to identify herself with it and to use it as a tool of relatability and the sanctioning of a certain kind of life. One that includes the markers of a luxurious version of girlhood complete with foodie 4th of July BBQs, Caribbean vacations, nail art, and boutique workouts. These forms of aspirational images pervade Instagram, driving the staging of images to meet these goals and encouraging the aestheticization of everyday life not just for celebrities, but for everyone.

This interest in banal imaging speaks to larger questions about labor and participation in digital culture. As with many banal images, these candids are not positioned as part of Swift’s work life, but rather as leisure images. This divide is complicated by Swift’s position as a celebrity where every part of public self is essentially work, including the images that are designed to explicitly not seem like work. Contemporary celebrity culture is full of images of celebrities seemingly living their real lives, from the paparazzi images of stars at Starbucks and the gym that fill up tabloids and gossip blogs, to the pet photos, domestic still lifes, and selfies shared on Instagram. Of these social media images, Alice Marwick has written that stars, “provide snapshots of their lives and interactions with followers that give the impression of candid, unfettered access.”[ ((Marwick. “Instafame,” 139.))] Thus, the appeal of these images is that they seem to be not part of public life, but rather a glimpse into the private lives of stars in their off work time, as if they are ever off work. And indeed, in the 24/7 affective network of contemporary culture, it raises questions about whether anyone is ever off work, celebrity or otherwise. As critic Rebecca Solnit has written, like TV shows, “life now had ratings.”[ ((Rebecca Solnit, “We’re Breaking Up: Noncommunications in the Silicon Age.” in The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, (Hartford, CT: Trinity University Press, 2014): 256-263, 257.))] The tools of celebrity are no more rarefied, but rather ordinary tools of making and consumption.

Image Credits:
1. Taylor Swift’s Instagram account (author’s screengrab)
2. Taylor Swift’s Instagram account (author’s screengrab)
3. Taylor Swift’s Instagram account (author’s screengrab)
4. Taylor Swift’s Instagram account (author’s screengrab)
5. Taylor Swift’s Instagram account (author’s screengrab)

Please feel free to comment.




What is a Soundtrack Album? Or, Spot the Soundtrack Album
Paul N. Reinsch / Texas Tech University

If It Comes with a Soundtrack Album, Is It Innovative? Or Threatening?

Soundtrack albums are having a moment. A member of indie rock royalty has admitted to being a soundtrack album devotee. An article analyzed a 2002 iPod as a time capsule featuring the era’s soundtrack albums. 2017 saw soundtrack albums drive vinyl and cassette sales. The Black Panther soundtrack albums are receiving extensive praise (and some of this mentions Prince’s earlier interventions). Moulin Rouge! (2001) was the sound(track) of Olympic figure skating. Variety has declared a “soundtrack renaissance.” And a media analyst, while noting the robust sales of soundtrack albums, wrote: “Video kills radio stars, but it may well be the film industry that leads the way in preserving the album as an artistic medium.” [ (( Zach Fuller, “With Black Panther: The Album At Number One In The US, Are We Witnessing A Soundtrack Renaissance?” , February 20, 2018. ))]

If the soundtrack album can preserve anything, it is fair to ask: What is a soundtrack album? Last year the sacred definitions of “film” and “television” were under assault from scholars, critics and upstart media providers. SCMS moved to change the name of its journal (causing some bemusement). A TV show was called a (great) film. And a (less-than-great) made-for-TV movie threatened the very idea of cinema. Yet through it all, soundtrack albums continued to refuse to acknowledge any difference between “film” and “TV.”

Second Verse, Same as the First

At the end of 2017, major film journals anointed Twin Peaks: The Return among the best, if not the best, film of the year. [ (( Of course, the Twin Peaks property, long before it was rebooted / revived / picked-up by Showtime, already bridged the porous divide between film and television since it consisted of a TV series and a prequel film. Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) is also a hybrid text of material made for television and material made for cinema theaters. ))] And there was much gnashing of teeth. Rather than celebrating the text’s ascension to the mountaintop of transmedia [ (( Just when you thought The Matrix texts required homework, welcome to Twin Peaks. To process The Return apparently required reading The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer and Twin Peaks: An Access Guide to the Town, screening Fire Walk with Me (1992) and studying that film’s extensive deleted scenes, and of course reading the two new David Frost books (The Secret History and The Final Dossier). The nostalgia for Twin Peaks season 1 is not unlike the nostalgia for the first Matrix film. Neither is an unreasonable response. ))], scholars fought over the text’s “home.” Twin Peakscute marketing wisely taps into the work’s always fascinating internet presence and embraces the era of streaming media. There are also two distinct soundtrack albums (including a Target “exclusive”). Whatever the preferred label—auteur TV, “peak” TV, or film—Twin Peaks pedaled music using conventional methods.

The Netflix movie Bright was also a flashpoint in media circles. The critical drubbing at times felt like a defense of traditional (theater-based) cinema. Bright first entered popular culture through “innovative” marketing, and unsurprisingly, with the release of singles and an album. Netflix clearly regards soundtrack albums as a useful, even essential, tool in their empire. Like Amazon, Netflix is in the music business, but we knew that already. Bright, like Twin Peaks, is an (expensive) advertisement for music.

Spot the Soundtrack (Album)

Soundtrack albums ignore and extend well beyond the film-TV binary. And if soundtrack albums are at, or near, the heart of audio-visual media, the parameters of the category should be defined. We might, therefore, play a brief game of “spot the soundtrack album.”

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Spot the Soundtrack Album #1 (Answer: the left)

I use the term “soundtrack album” here, as in my first Flow column, to designate a grouping of songs, whether collected on a physical medium or not. This phrase risks redundancy because the term “soundtrack” is often used to describe these objects. But “soundtrack” is used just as often to describe the audio portion of audio-visual media.

On the left is (one) soundtrack album for Disney’s Fantasia (1940), a film that strove to bring “classical” music to the masses by turning movie theatres into concert halls (that still showcased Mickey Mouse). On the right is the character “soundtrack” within the film, described as “shy” and at times looking very much like an optical soundtrack. Both of these can be called a soundtrack, but only one is a soundtrack album. The advantage of “soundtrack album” is to formally—but not permanently—separate these texts from the audio address of audio-visual media.

Spot the Soundtrack Album #2 (Answer: the right?)

The 1978 Robert Stigwood production Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and its soundtrack album, directly feed into the belief that the Beatles’ 1967 album of the same name is the first “concept” record, or even itself a soundtrack album, rather than (merely) an intricately produced collection of songs without a unifying idea or sound. An essay accompanying the fiftieth anniversary edition of the album states: “If Revolver is like a photo album—fourteen exquisite, self-contained vignettes showcasing the talents of each Beatle in under three minutes each—Sgt. Pepper is like a film: not a passive record of life, but a moving picture of it.” [ (( Howard Goodall, “Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band 50th Anniversary Box Set (2017): 97-98. ))]

The album on the right is clearly a soundtrack album. And a doozy. But might the film retroactively turn the Beatles’ release into a soundtrack album too?

Spot the Soundtrack Album #3 (Answer: both)

On the left is the West Side Story (1961) film soundtrack album, while on the right is the play’s 1957 soundtrack album, more commonly called the “original cast recording.” Both of these are soundtrack albums, and both sold very well. The latter allows us to acknowledge the importance of theatre soundtrack albums and their importance to the growth of the long-playing album as a format. Soundtrack albums helped create the medium they are now asked to preserve.

By some accounts, cast albums—first Oklahoma! (as a set of 78 rpm discs and later an LP) and then My Fair Lady—dominated early album sales. These audio versions of Broadway shows allowed audiences physically and/or temporally separated from the New York City run to experience these works. When South Pacific (1958) and The Sound of Music (1965) each became the top-selling album a few years after release, the film soundtrack album symbolically and economically replaced the Broadway album as the default soundtrack album. Of course, Broadway soundtrack albums continue to deliver sound outside theatres.

The Twin Peaks Visual Soundtrack (from LaserDisc)

There is one, or two, more variations on the term and concept of soundtrack album that deserve some brief discussion. The phrase “visual album” has seen a recent resurgence, most obviously in connection with work by Beyoncé, JAY-Z and Fergie. Using this term rejects the subordinate position that “soundtrack album” tends to impose on audio material vis-à-vis audio-visual media. This effort to rethink, and reframe, the relationship between these texts is fair and justified (if not exactly new). But “visual album” flirts with redundancy just as much as “soundtrack album” (see above where Revolver is labeled a photo album). And rather than signaling a different relationship between texts, it might simply reverse the hierarchy between audio-visual media and soundtrack album. At least it encourages a conscious address of terminology.

The “visual soundtrack” above is a fascinating iteration. Created for Japanese audiences (the subtitles are a feature and not a bug), the LaserDisc release joins new images with the show’s famous music. It is official but not undertaken by Twin Peaks’ creators. Unlike other “visual albums,” it appeared after, rather than alongside, the audio text. The work (re)visualizes the music, surveys the show’s locations, and functions as TV tourism (even revealing the inside of a certain train car).

What is a Soundtrack Album?

A workable definition of “soundtrack album” must encompass works connected to film, television, streaming content, video games, books, and perhaps even the diverse range of texts circulating as “visual albums.” A soundtrack album is not an adjunct text; a soundtrack album is a text whose relationship to one or more other texts is fluid and where meaning flows in all directions. These relationships are never simple.

For example, there are three Don Johnson texts called “Heartbeat”: a song, an album, and an album-length video. Which is the center? Johnny Thunders would likely vote for the song. [ (( Cheetah Chrome, A Dead Boy’s Tale from the Front Lines of Punk Rock (Minneapolis, MN: Voyageur Press, 2010): 307. ))] Others would probably favor whichever text they encountered first (a frequent concern in adaptation studies). [ (( Peter Brooker, “Postmodern Adaptation: Pastiche, Intertextuality and Re-functioning,” in The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen, Eds. Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge UP, 2007): 107-120. ))]

Are these texts the soundtrack of Johnson’s career? (Kerouac may have one). Is the video a “visual album” or “visual soundtrack”? And does calling the album a soundtrack stifle Johnson’s vision or restrict our interpretive options? Not if we view soundtrack albums as always the center of their own universe of texts and whose meanings and relationships await consideration.

Image credits:
1. Twin Peaks: The Return soundtrack
2. Bright: The Album
3. Fantasia soundtrack
4. Author’s screengrab
5. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
6. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band soundtrack
7. West Side Story soundtrack
8. West Side Story (Original Broadway Cast)
9. Playlist for The Twin Peaks Visual Soundtrack

Please feel free to comment.




Broad City’s Affable Critique & the Racial Discourses of Girlfriendship
Jorie Lagerwey / University College Dublin
Taylor Nygaard / University of Denver

Abbi & Ilana Smile
Abbi & Ilana’s “smile”

In our last column, we introduced our concept of Horrible White People shows: bleak comedies or satires that feature middle-class, self-professed liberal white people, most often women. These characters’ self-obsession, we argue, contributes to a cultural milieu that re-emphasizes the complicity of white liberal cultural products in supporting and maintaining white supremacy. That column addressed mental illness as one representational trend in this cycle. Using Broad City as a case study, this column illustrates how the close, supportive, sometimes even joyful female friendships and self-aware humor in Horrible White People shows are an expression of emerging feminism, but also let white women off the hook for participating in and benefitting from white supremacy.

Broad City (2014- ) – the Comedy Central sitcom produced by Amy Poehler and written by stars Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer – has become one of contemporary television’s new feminist critical darlings. The show has been praised for its casting diversity, where Abbi and Ilana’s circle of friends and hookups include people of color and various sexual identities; and in the writer’s room, where six out of its nine writers are women, two of them women of color. Like many shows in this cycle, Broad City wears its liberal politics on its sleeve, featuring episodes where Abbi and Ilana volunteer for Hilary Clinton’s campaign, advocate for Planned Parenthood, and frequently articulate progressive political discourse about economic inequality, immigration, and gun control. The whole fourth season features explicit anger at the election of Donald Trump, including an episode where Ilana discovers she can no longer orgasm because of her anxiety over Trump’s political policies, and the season-long joke of bleeping out Trump’s name like a profanity.

Abbi and Ilana’s open, unconditionally supportive friendship is also central to both the pleasurable appeal and liberal feminist politics of the show as the girls [ ((We use the term “girls” here to describe these 20-something young women because over the past 10 years the term has been utilized more flexibly to describe women of all ages who aspire to a more youthful, liberal or even feminist lifestyle or sensibility. In the larger project we also trace how the term is used across the cycle in particular and media discourses in general to signal a liberal feminist politics that re-appropriates the traditionally more negative connotations of the term (“throw like a girl” for example) to more powerful, less traditionally feminine connotations. ))] see each other through job losses and transitions, medical emergencies, sexual firsts and a slew of other life events. Through all of these crises or adventures, the show centralizes and celebrates platonic female relationships, thus bucking the representational norms of the female-centered sitcom’s traditional focus on heterosexual coupling and romance. One exemplary opening sequence, depicted in a split-screen with Abbi’s bathroom on the left and Ilana’s on the right, reveals the intimacy of their friendship as they share the often-hidden bodily truths of women’s lives and experiences with each other on the phone and through the shots’ parallel compositions.

Abbi & Ilana Split Screen
Abbi & Ilana’s split screen

Throughout the sequence, each in their own bathroom (although they appear together in each other’s most intimate domestic space occasionally too), the girls repeat similar actions like reading Hilary Clinton’s book and taking a pregnancy test. They enact a variety of sexualities across the spectrum and talk on the phone in various emotional states. They expose the rituals of feminine upkeep and performance (hair waxing and plucking) and desexualize the female body and its maintenance (defecating and performing breast self-examinations). The scene’s montage of often-hidden feminine intimacies answers Adrienne Rich’s call for an amplification of women’s affections for each other that acknowledge women’s experiences on the lesbian continuum, foretell a more woman-centered life for women, and lay the foundations for a collective feminist movement. [ ((Rich, Adrienne. 1980. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs. Vol. 5, No. 4, Women: Sex and Sexuality (Summer), pp. 631-660.))]

Broad City, like several other shows in this cycle, thus highlights how building close connections with fellow women is a powerful feminist act: together Abbi and Ilana have the support they need to visually and vocally critique societal expectations of women, and the comfort to cope with those expectations until they change. Yet however progressive and refreshing their relationship seems, the girls’ friendship, like many of those in this cycle (Gretchen and Lindsay on You’re the Worst; Rebecca and Paula on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; and the women of Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, for example), is insular, and that isolation supports problematic racial politics through its celebration of a particularly narrow type of white [ ((Both Abbi and Ilana are secular Jews, coded throughout the show as white, although our larger project unpacks Broad City‘s reliance on the traditions of Jewish humor and the centrality of their identification as Jewish to these racial dynamics.))], liberal, colorblind worldview. Despite the show’s careful attention to gender politics, and even its occasionally explicit discussion of racial inequality, the girls’ friendship reinforces many elements of the White Fragility that Robin DiAngelo argues perpetuate the representational complicity of the contemporary white supremacist system: segregation, racial belonging, and psychic freedom. [ ((DiAngelo, Robin. 2011. “White Fragility.” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3 (2011): 62.))] Often rendered racially exclusive in Horrible White People shows, friendships like Abbi and Ilana’s thus repeat the critiques [ ((Bates, Karen Grigsby. 2017. “Race And Feminism: Women’s March Recalls The Touchy History.” NPR. January 21. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/01/21/510859909/race-and-feminism-womens-march-recalls-the-touchy-history))] leveled at white feminists for their failures to fully understand or enact intersectional politics.

Throughout the series, for example, Ilana generally espouses the type of liberal multiculturalist rhetoric of a cross-race ally. Specifically, though, she tends to espouse the post-racial ideology of millennial liberal whites. She says matter-of-factly in one episode: “In three generations, gentrification is gonna be a non-issue because statistically, we’re headed toward an age where everybody’s gonna be like caramel and queer.” On the surface, the joke has the sheen of inclusivity, but Ilana is espousing the colorblind ideology of post-racial “sameness,” which Sarah Turner and Sarah Nilsen (2014) describe as enabling the continuation of racial apathy: if we are all the same, no action towards racial equality is needed now. [ ((Nilsen, Sarah and Sarah E. Turner. 2014. The Colorblind Screen: Television in Post-Racial America. New York: NYU Press.))] Alison Herman astutely points out the complicated representational politics of the series: “Broad City was a simultaneous parody and embodiment of the well-intentioned white-girl mind-set, a complicated dynamic The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum expertly pinned down in her review of Season 3. It’s a show that contains the perfect zinger (‘Sometimes you’re so anti-racist that you’re actually, like, really racist’); it is also a show that has become synonymous with the semi-appropriative catchphrase ‘yas, kween.'” [ ((Herman, Alison. 2017. “Broad City Grows Up in Season 4.” The Ringer. September 12. https://www.theringer.com/tv/2017/9/12/16290476/broad-city-season-4-review))] Both of these revealing moments of racist speech, and several others within the show, emerge from the loving, supportive rapport between the girls, where Abbi might raise a questioning eyebrow to Ilana’s behavior or make a subtle critical comment but ultimately allows Ilana to simply shrug them off. Their dynamic represents how Abbi continually fails to fully confront Ilana’s post-racial racism. In her unwavering support as the BFF who understands Ilana ultimately means well, Abbi becomes crucial to validating Ilana’s views and is thus complicit in the institutionalized racism that allows ‘well-meaning’ liberal white people to crack wise about race and racial inequality while retaining the privilege of not explicitly engaging with their position of power within a white supremacist racial system.

Season four’s seventh episode, “Florida,” trades in more of the problematic dynamics of White Fragility that are buttressed by the girls’ insular friendship and that plague both the series in particular and Horrible White People shows in general. The episode’s premise is that Abbi and Ilana take a trip to Florida to clean out Ilana’s Grandma Esther’s apartment after she passes away.

The episode mocks Florida throughout, with jokes about it being “America’s droopy dick” and a series of gags rendering the normalization of gun ownership absurd and dangerous. Nevertheless, the tropical climate, vacation setting, and clichéd but happy pastel color palette are represented as a respite from the harsh grey winter of New York, which frames the rest of the season and serves as a visualization of the characters’ despair over the divisive political climate under Donald Trump. Abbi and Ilana both revel in the sunshine, commenting, “Man, this place is so magical; it has everything: sunshine, warmth, greenery.” Their sense of peace in their new environment makes them question why they are living in New York, with constant “danger and anxiety grinding them down.” Thus, when they stumble upon an open house for a spacious apartment at $425 a month in the retirement community, they simultaneously proclaim, “We’ll take it!”

Mise en Scene's Whiteness
An example of the whiteness in mise-en-scene

What Abbi and Ilana don’t seem to notice about this idyllic community is its blinding whiteness. There are subtle cues to the whiteness surrounding them in the casting of extras and supporting characters, as well as the muted costumes, abundance of white hair and micro-aggressions of some of the community residents, including one character’s description of Ilana’s African American ex-boyfriend as “a gangster dentist.” But the girls’ pleasure in the community exemplifies white people’s privilege of not seeing their own racial identity, and not bearing the social burden of race given America’s continued segregation. DiAngelo explains, “Whites consistently choose and enjoy racial segregation. Living, working, and playing in racial segregation is unremarkable as long as it is not named or made explicitly intentional” (62). Despite the girls’ obliviousness, their racial privilege is indicated when the apartment rental agent admits that residents usually have to be over 55. He nevertheless encourages them to apply, surreptitiously nodding toward an elderly upper-middle-class African American couple interested in the apartment as well.

What follows is a montage portraying the girls winning over the community members in a series of trials in affluent whiteness: playing tennis, judging expensive clothing as a sign of power in the community, dancing conservatively to American standards, and understanding traditional white suburban cuisine like cocktail pickles and white fish dip. Throughout the episode, the girls remain blissfully unaware of their whiteness and the privileges it’s granting them, instead proudly focusing on their ability to charm the community’s residents. The girls’ eye-opening moment finally occurs when the community board unanimously accepts the girls’ rental application and explains, “We’d rather have a couple of Jewish dykes than a couple of niggers.”

Only this explicit racism triggers the climax of Abbi and Ilana’s White Fragility as they run away from the meeting proclaiming, “We’ve got to get the hell outta here. What a bunch of monsters!” The whole episode illustrates how Abbi and Ilana live in an insulated environment of racial protection, thus building their expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering their ability to tolerate racial stress (see DiAngelo). The centrality of racially segregated friendships on these shows exasperates this insulation while encouraging liberal viewers to be charmed by the funny, seemingly feminist characters. Fleeing the scene of racial stress in this example becomes a joke that supports a reading of Abbi and Ilana as “woke” white girls horrified by racism. But that inevitable response (the show’s structure demands a return to New York) enacts the privilege of liberal whites to not cope with or even see more consistent structural racism by which the girls have been surrounded the entire episode.

Similar to Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis’ analysis of the The Cosby Show before it, this cycle of programming, then, tends to represent and legitimate a new, more enlightened-but no less insidious-form of racism that continues to not question the characters’ white supremacy and ultimately centralizes empathetic White Fragility along with the narrative and structural factors that enable it. Many of these shows can be read as parodies that move between honest loving homages and exaggerated critiques, allowing for multiple pleasures or interpretations by audience members. We argue, however, that given the celebratory, liberal, quality discourses that surround shows like Broad City, the insidious dynamics of White Fragility in the narratives and characterizations are less interrogated.

Image Credits:
1. Season 2, episode 10: “St. Marks” (author’s screen grab)
2. Season 3, episode 1: “Two Chainz” (author’s screen grab)
3. Season 4, episode 7: “Florida” (author’s screen grab)

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