Punk, Disco, PornThe Deuce ’77—Part 3
Matthew Tchepikova-Treon / The University of Minnesota


The Deuce Season 2 Cover Image

The Deuce Season 2 Cover Image

Porn. “What am I watching? What the fuck are we doing here? Come on, so now we’re making art?” Rip-and-run porn producer Harvey Wasserman, in the lap of a churning 16mm Steenbeck, examines the climax sequence from Candy’s latest film: close-up images of a woman and two men with cutaways to a ceiling fan, wild life, juiced fruit, etc. Candy responds: “It’s cut the way an orgasm feels… So some of it’s in her head. Some of it’s real. Some of it’s somewhere in between.” Harvey responds with a string of sardonicisms, applauding the “ethereal Warholian fashion” with which Candy has attempted to visually represent “the female mind for the final stampede to nirvana.” In a way it’s a genuine, if still patronizingly veiled, recognition of aesthetic ingenuity. Nonetheless, Harvey cedes to an industrial imperative—“Keep the focus on the fucking”—that demands phallic fantasy production. Candy responds with a dissatisfied summation: “Porn.”

Candy's Film Clip from Season 2

Candy’s laborious rough cut and Harvey’s I can’t sell this reaction, expressing hard-core cinema’s historical straddling of art, exploitation, and commerce.

Aural Pleasure & Acousmatic Women

Concerning sexual penetration, “proof” of orgasm, and conventional filmic displays of female pleasure, this scene practically stages Linda Williams’ well-worn dictum that hard-core pornography “seeks maximum visibility in its representation but encounters the limits of visibility of its particular form.”[ (( Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 94.))] In mainstream heterosexual porn production, where the industry-standard “money shot” serves as visual confirmation of male satisfaction, conversely, women’s overdubbed voices do the work of sonically signifying orgasmic bliss, becoming “aural fetishes of the female pleasure we cannot see,”[ ((ibid, 123.))] while also further revealing “the inability of a phallic visual economy to imagine female pleasure as anything but insufficiency or excess.”[ ((ibid,109.))] Additionally, Eithne Johnson argues that, “at the site of the female body,” this disembodied sonic excess is “displaced onto the ‘body’ of the film, where it functions as surplus semiotic material.”[ ((Eithne Johnson, “Excess and Ecstasy: Constructing Female Pleasure in Porn Movies,” Velvet Light Trap, 1993, 31. ))] As an immediate example, listen to the overdubbed vocal work of a female performer added by Candy after recutting the aforementioned climax sequence and how The Deuce crosscuts Candy examining her film with a sex scene of its own:

Crosscutting Overdubbed Sounds from Matthew Tchepikova-Treon on Vimeo.

Given HBO’s own scopophilic tendencies concerning the objectification of women in many of the network’s premier shows,[ ((For a keen take on “the evolution of prostitution and the birth of large-scale porn production in a medium—on a specific network, even—that’s been criticized for its gratuitous and sometimes violent sexual content,” as well as an interview with season one pilot director, Michelle MacLaren, about the ways she and the show’s production team worked to address this, see: Alison Herman, “How Michelle MacLaren Brought The Deuce to Life,” The Ringer, September 6, 2017.))] as with punk and disco, we again find an attempt at both sonic historiography and immanent critique in The Deuce’s aesthetic engagement with female vocal performers’ affective labor.

We hear the electric hum of Candy’s 16mm projector running film, its monophonic speaker emitting the thin sound of a woman moaning, her voice unmoored from any image, from any sense of corporeal verisimilitude,[ ((Such an effect often resulted from technical limitations as well as recording techniques that sacrificed spatial realism for a sense of aural presence.))] then the far more convincing sex sounds of Abby and Vincent in bed with heavy breathing and Abby’s own voice coming out in arhythmic fits of pleasure. Then back, the overdubbed voice in Candy’s film becoming almost laughable while also sounding more like ecstatic whimpering or even cries of pain.[ ((For more on this aural slippage between pain and pleasure, see: Clarice Butkis, “Depraved Desire: Sadomasochism, Sexuality and Sound in mid-1970s Cinema,” Earogenous Zones: Sound, Sexuality and Cinema, ed. Bruce Johnson (Sheffield: Equinox) 2010, 66-88.))] Comparatively, Abby and Vincent finish, yet with a notable lack of spectacularized pomp or circumstance, but then Abby intones a deep “mmhmmm” between breaths, suggesting satisfaction. The film likewise finishes and we hear the sound of leader tape slapping the take-up reel as it spins out, clicking rhythmically with every pass as Candy lights a cigarette—we’ve just seen Vincent reach for his—then exhales. Notably, her own satisfaction seems uncertain.

Red Hot Clip from Season 2

Lori Madison and Larry Brown starring in Candy’s first feature-length porn production Red Hot, an X-rated retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” shot mostly on the Deuce.

Invoking a lineage of women filmmakers from Doris Wishman to Candida Royalle,[ ((See: Elena Gorfinkel, “Sex and the Materiality of Adult Media,” Feminist Media Histories, Vol. 5 No. 2, Spring 2019: 1-18.))] in season two of The Deuce, Candy works to make alternative filmic representations of sex available.[ ((Beyond the aesthetic economy of mainstream heterosexual porn production, for a fantastic analysis of the political potential of sound and the voice in gay male pornography, as well as particular techno-erotic affiliations with the phone sex industry during the 1980s, see John Paul Stadler’s recent article “Vocalizing Queer Desire: Phone Sex, Radio Smut, and the AIDS Epidemic,” Feminist Media Histories 5, no. 2 (2019): 181-210. And for more on the phone sex industry, listen to Sexing History’s podcast episode “Sex Over the Phone.”))] Nevertheless, as her opening exchange with Harvey attests, we are reminded again and again that she finds herself doing so within a restrictive audiovisual regime of erotic cultural production, a regime shot through with regulatory powers that extend far beyond porn.

Within a simultaneously emergent audio culture outside the production of moving-image pornography, the female voice as a fetishized sonic object flows between myriad forms of media while repeatedly servicing the same phallic order of hard-core porn’s visual economy. In the broader context of Seventies sexology, Jacob Smith demonstrates how erotic LPs marketed as “instructional” records routinely featured women vocalizing orgasms in order to “sonically index” particular sex practices while also arousing listeners.[ ((Jacob Smith, “33 1/3 Sexual Revolutions Per Minute,” Sex Scene: Media and the Sexual Revolution, ed. Eric Schaefer (Durham: Duke University Press), 2014, 179-206.))] Likewise, John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis track technologically mediated acousmatic women through a multitude of pop songs that further work to reproduce these “aural codes of sexuality.”[ ((John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis, “Aural Sex: The Female Orgasm in Popular Sound,” TDR 40, no. 3 (1996): 102-11.))] “Do it to me again and again,” Donna Summer moans on her disco classic “Love to Love You, Baby.” In Moroder’s extended mix, she performs a “marathon of 22 orgasms”—a writer at Time magazine apparently counted them back in 1975.

As evidenced here, I am inclined to follow Eric Schaefer’s argument that, throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, “a rapidly and radically sexualized media accounts for what we now think of as the sexual revolution.”[ ((Eric Schaefer, Sex Scene: Media and the Sexual Revolution, 3.))] However, this media revolution was likewise accompanied by a censorious scientism that, as if attempting to re-suture the audible excess of female pleasure back onto women’s bodies, worked to reinforce staid representations of ‘tasteful’ sexuality.

Exposed Legs & the Legibility of Excess

In my previous column on The Deuce and disco, I gestured toward the fact that, throughout the 1970s, urban sound, acoustic research, and the politics of cultural production converged within a revised discourse of noise pollution where familiar sexist visual tropes of female promiscuity emerged in politically motivated projects aimed at ‘cleaning up’ U.S. cities in the name of sexual sanitization. Recall the acoustician who cited a New York discotheque as the loudest source of noise in the city, writing that “the miracle of electronics allowed performers to create a sound level as astonishingly elevated as the dancers’ hemlines.” And while analogizing short skirts and noise during this time was by no means exceptional, as with The Deuce’s second season, we can move from New York to LA to find a most extreme instance.

Dr. Knudsen & 10 Women

Newspaper rendering of physicist Vern O. Knudsen measuring reverberation from the sound of a .22 caliber pistol.

“Dr. Knudsen fired a pistol in a room with 10 miniskirted girls,” reads an account of this famed acoustician discharging a blank cartridge in a UCLA physics department’s reverberation chamber along with ten women in short skirts to measure the level of sound reflection off their exposed legs.[ ((Popular Science, October 1969: 20.))] Using an acoustical unit of measurement for sound absorption, Knudsen recorded a sabine count of 2.5 that he compared to a test conducted back in 1964 with more thoroughly clothed subjects where reverberations from the gunshot had registered 4.6 sabines.[ ((These details were publicized in the University of California’s University Bulletin, Volume 18, January 12, 1970.))] In conclusion: Knudsen used his gun to prove (an already well established fact, mind you) that “as skirts go up, sound absorption goes down.” Associated Press science writer Ralph Dighton’s descriptions of the “experiment” received notable traction in trade journals and city newspapers, with headlines ranging from the pedantic, “Acoustical Test Shows Miniskirts Affect Sound,”[ ((ibid.))] and the epigrammatic, “Miniskirted Girls Long On Sound,”[ ((Tucson Daily Citizen, October 30, 1969: 14.))] to the prolix, “Honey, Your Miniskirt Looks Great, But It Sounds Awful,”[ ((The Miami News, October 29, 1969: 2.))] and the prognostic, “Miniskirts Bound To Be On Way Out.”[ (( In this last article, one Clayton Rand of The Jackson Sun foretold of the miniskirt’s imminent falling out of fashion, then claimed, “There are also stock market experts who believe that lengthening skirts usually herald a depressed economy.” He cites no evidence. November 30, 1969: 4.))]

While Knudsen’s ostensible concern involved modern methods of concert hall design utilizing sound-absorption coefficients that accounted for heavily clothed audiences—coefficients reportedly threatened by women’s skin—my reason for comparing his “experiment” (and the rhetorical trope of the miniskirt at large) with that of moving-image pornography’s aural fetishization of female pleasure is to highlight a certain epistemological affinity between ways of seeing and ways of hearing where shared vectors of power, difference, and knowledge converge through science, aesthetics, and cultural politics alike. “Modern fashions are fine for rock and roll concerts,” Knudsen claimed, “people who go to them like loud noise.”[ ((Quoted in “Honey, Your Miniskirt Looks Great, But It Sounds Awful.”))] But for classical music, he suggested “seat cushions so absorptive it doesn’t matter what the audience wears. With the trend to nudity, audiences will welcome additional padding anyway.”[ ((There are two unmistakable ironies: First, the unit of measurement used by Knudsen takes its name from physicist Wallace Sabine who, as Emily Thompson’s work shows us, once threw out thousands of measurements while evaluating the duration of residual sound “after determining that the clothing worn by the observer (himself) had a small but measurable effect upon the outcome of his experiments.”Second, as early as 1900, Sabine had developed a quantitative analysis of various absorption powers with precise focus on seat cushions as a remedy to unwanted sound reflection. Knudsen, undoubtedly aware of this, proved nothing. For more on Wallace Sabine, see: Emily Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933 (Cambridge: MIT Press), 2002, 36.))] Thus, in Knudsen’s spectacularized stunt, exposed legs became both source and synecdoche of unwanted sound when acoustical engineering attempted to take an aurally perceived (and culturally determined) excess and make it visibly legible on women’s bodies.

Muybridge and Candy

Photographs of nude women by Eadweard Muybridge and a porn production sequence from season one of The Deuce with Candy and Harvey.

Accordingly, where Linda Williams recognizes in the protocinematic photography of Muybridge a “scientific impulse to record the ‘truth’ of the body”’ that constructed “women as the objects rather than subjects of vision,”[ ((Linda Williams, Hard Core, 38-45.))] by attending to sound as a culturally contested mode of knowledge production concerning human bodies, convergent bodies of knowledge, and the sonic production of social space, we find a similarly motived acoustical discourse where old prurient fears of an unruly eros have been quite literally re-envisioned in sonic terms. And from the porn industry’s frenzy of the audible to an industrious scientism that sought to elide undesirable sounds, in the 1970s, as the tagline for The Deuce Season Two tells us, “pleasure was a business, and business was booming.”

Image Credits:
1. The Deuce Season Two Poster Art (color altered by author).
2. Shots from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 1, “Our Raison d’Etre” (transferred to GIF format by author).
3. Sound from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 1, “Our Raison d’Etre” (excerpted as audio by author).
4. Shots from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 9, “Inside the Pretend” (transferred to GIF format by author).
5. Newspaper clipping from The Joplin Globe, October 29, 1969, front page.
6. Eadweard Muybridge photographs taken from the cover of Linda Williams’ 1999 edition of Hard Core and a still image from The Deuce, Season One, Episode 8, “My Name Is Ruby.”

Please feel free to comment.




Punk, Disco, Porn—The Deuce ’77—Part 2
Matthew Tchepikova-Treon / University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

The Deuce Season Two Poster Art

The Deuce Season Two Poster Art

Disco. The sound of a revved engine opens season two of The Deuce, followed by a car horn and scattered voices in the distance, along with a mid-tempo hi-hat over distressed white text against a black screen that reads 1977. These sounds all belong to Barry White’s classic “Let the Music Play,” but the show supplements sonic detail with additional street noise before we see its establishing shot: well-worn concrete. Then a lovelorn White delivers his peripatetic exegesis on loneliness, music, and the redemptive power of a discotheque at night.


With sonic verisimilitude representing a hallmark of David Simon & Co.’s audiovisual world-building techniques,[ (( Outside opening titles and season-closing montages, music is always diegetically sourced. See: Linda Williams, On The Wire (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 111-114, for the narrative effects of this steadfast aesthetic choice. ))] this moment stands out as a rare instance of extradiegetic music in The Deuce. What’s more, through this song’s transformation into diegetic sound in this opening scene, we hear the historical conditions of disco’s transmogrification from physical space to musical form and back again. The camera tilts up to Candy—former streetwalker turned pornographic film director—walking down 42nd Street, draped in style, embodying the song’s strengthening groove. She opens an inconspicuous door marked 366 and we hear the song’s monologist enter a nightclub. Candy waves at a security camera for admittance, then the music tumefies, while also taking on new acoustic properties, as her strut picks up the driving four-on-the-floor beat. Barry White’s voiceover suddenly soars—“Let the music play / I just want to dance the night away”—as the music folds back on itself, filling the room, while also fulfilling its gimmicky premise, and the sonic space of the song and this opening sequence fully collapse.[ ((Following this moment is the second season’s get-the-gang-back-together scene, with intricate tracking, sound design, and choreography that immediately calls up the iconic opening of P.T. Anderson’s porno-chic Boogie Nights, also set in 1977.))]

the deuce season 2 opening 1

season 2 opening 2

season 2 opening 3

Candy walks the Deuce, enters Club 366, then cuts across the dance floor with no little amount of grace.

As with punk, The Deuce engages disco music as a means of both historiography and immanent critique, and this sequence makes legible the coterminous relationship between its genre-fication and the gentrification of downtown New York City through the 1970s.

From Empire to Underground

Rewind to 1971 (Season 1, Ep. 5). Paul attends the invite-only party Love Saves the Day in a warehouse at 645-647 Broadway. Known as “the Loft,” David Mancuso established this preeminent dance space in NYC’s former manufacturing district where the city had utilized the low-wage workforce of its immigrant population after WWII before both work and half a million laborers relocated a quarter-century later.[ ((For precise employment numbers in particular manufacturing sectors, see: “New York City’s Decline in Manufacturing Gained Momentum in 1980,” New York Times, March 22, 1981. And for a fine history of NYC’s urban decay and renewal programs during the global political drama of the Cold War leading up to the 1970s, when Manhattan became a symbol of American power, see: Samuel Zipp, Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).))] Out of these post-industrial ruins, Mancuso’s indie-discotheque emerged as underground dance music’s bleeding edge.

Tim Lawrence’s study of the Loft—a sociologically rich text with a slight hagiographic slant—demonstrates how Mancuso’s audiophilic approach to music prioritized electric sound amplification as a means of producing social space—and altered subjectivities therein—by treating listening as a full-bodied haptic experience.[ ((Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 88.))] Drawing on Jamaican dance hall culture, emergent turntable techniques, and state-of-the-art technologies, Mancuso worked with sound specialist Alex Rosner to customize the Loft’s system, adding an array of tweeters that hung chandelier-like from the ceiling, and additional subwoofers for intense bass propagation, which Mancuso considered the new beating heart of his perception-altering playlists.

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The Loft’s inaugural party, David Mancuso spinning through the night, and the only instance (to date) where The Deuce employs time-shifting visuals or temporal disjunction between sound and image, underscoring Paul’s affective response to Mancuso’s curated sensorium.

However, sound amplification also served as a threat. Throughout the 1970s, Kai Fikentscher tells us, “many city agencies sought to limit nightclubs, or at least subject them to a higher level of scrutiny,” [ ((Kai Fikentscher, “You Better Work!”: Underground Dance Music in New York City (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 70.))] and NYPD often did so under the guise of regulating the sale of liquor or illegal dancing. At this time, New York state law still prohibited all-male dancing and mandated a ratio of at least one woman for every three men in a public venue.[ (( Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day, 31. The relationship between Seventies New York’s underground dance scene and gay culture, as well as the historical links to the Harlem Renaissance, are well documented. In addition to Fikentscher and Lawrence, see: Alice Echols, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), Vince Aletti, The Disco Files 1973-78: New York’s Underground, Week by Week (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2018), and Richard Dyer’s classic essay, “In Defense of Disco,” published by the socialist journal Gay Left, 1979, 20-23: “Both in how it is produced and in what it expresses, disco is held to be irredeemably capitalistic [but] this mode of cultural production has produced a commodity [that] has subversive potential as well as reactionary impulses.” ))] But noise control offered NYPD yet another means of surveillance and suppression. Plainclothes police raided the Loft for the first time in 1972.[ ((Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day, 83. NYPD arrested Mancuso and charged him with running an unlicensed cabaret, but a judge threw the case out on account of Mancuso not selling liquor on the premises.))]

That same year, following extensive politically-charged acoustical research, Mayor John Lindsay put into effect comprehensive noise-control legislation aimed at abatement throughout the city.[ ((“The New York City Noise Control Code: Not with a Bang, but a Whisper,” Fordham Urban Law Journal, Vol. 1, No. 3, Article 4 (1973).))] Largely a revamping of laws from 1936, the updated ordinances—part of Lindsay’s ongoing, multifaceted efforts to “clean up” Manhattan, but also in anticipation of running for president—coincided with large-scale focus on noise pollution in urban areas.[ ((Including Nixon’s federal Noise Control Act of 1972.))] Electronically reproduced music and discos were of interest. One trade article published that year details potential health risks associated with excessive noise with a list of decibel readings from various street construction instruments (96 dB), subway trains (98 dB), and other “unpleasant—even inhuman” sounds, citing a particular discotheque that created “a sound level as astonishingly high as the dancers’ hemlines” as the loudest source of noise in the city. The disco measured 103-105 decibels. The following year, commercial music in excess of 103 dB was deemed illegal.[ ((“Noise Code,” New York City Department of Environmental Protection.))]

Mayor Giuliani’s “quality of life” campaign during the 1990s was based on many of these same ordinances, though enforced with increased vigor. And if disco’s quietus in The Deuce heralded the death knell of Times Square’s gentrification in the 1970s, Giuliani orchestrated its coda.

The Deuce & Disco’s Aesthetic Economy

As an extension of the Loft’s post-industrial origins, when disco began flowing through the circuits of late-capitalism’s culture industries, many anxieties surrounding the postindustrial obsolescence of labor[ ((I’m borrowing this term from Joel Burges’ Out of Sync & Out of Work: History and the Obsolescence of Labor in Contemporary Culture, wherein Burges explores automation, labor, and obsolescence through complex representations of historical time.))] in the U.S. and other global cities were mapped onto the music and its attendant amalgam of styles and aesthetic sensibilities. Comparing disco music and the repetitive marketing techniques found everywhere in post-1950s mass-mediated consumer society, Robert Fink identifies a relentless rhythm that underlies what he calls “the ‘Empire of the Beat,’ where communal consumption and solipsistic desire, rigid control and apocalyptic excess are simultaneously, dialectically in tension.”[ ((Robert Fink, Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) 30. Fink further compares disco and Seventies “pulse-pattern” minimalism (distinct from drone and microtonal minimalism à la La Monte Young et al.), the decade’s other paradigmatic musical shift epitomized by the music of Philip Glass.))] We hear this in the sequenced rhythms, synthesized sounds, and vocoder-fused voices employed in the machine music of Germany’s Kraftwerk and especially Italo disco’s Giorgio Moroder (whose “From Here to Eternity” plays when The Deuce S2 finds Paul now operating his own bar).[ ((Both Kraftwerk and Moroder released iconic electro-dance albums in 1977.))] Critics heard in this sound and its assembly-line production an analog to machine automation and the deskilling of labor responsible for emptying NYC’s factories. As the work of Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld shows, these critiques were well rehearsed—from player pianos and analog synths, mechanical instrument innovations have long been linked to anxieties over work displacement.[ ((Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld, “Instruments and Innovation,” eds. John Shepherd and Kyle Devine, The Routledge Reader on the Sociology of Music (New York, NY: Routledge, 2015), 301-308.))] Nonetheless, disco’s aesthetic economy shored the music industry’s financial success against global economic decline.

Disco Stu from The Simpsons with steadfast 1976 verve

Then the levees broke. Disco collapsed and between 1977 and 1980 the city lost another 40,000 manufacturing jobs while seeing steady gains in finance and real estate.

However, recalling The Deuce’s rendering of Love Saves the Day, we see Paul dance to Booker T. & the M.G.’s “Melting Pot,” showcasing underground dance music’s roots in 1960s soul as much as the synth-heavy “jet-propelled paganism of disco,” as critic Kristine McKenna put it.[ ((McKenna’s inspired description comes from an interview she conducted with Philip Glass originally published in Rolling Stone (March 8, 1979: 19) comparing the sounds and musical techniques shared between disco, “technorock,” and Seventies minimalism.))] Likewise, the secular spiritualism of Dorothy Morrison’s gospel-tinged “Rain” points to even deeper musical traditions while also invoking early Loft regular Frankie Knuckles’ eventual description of the Warehouse (est. 1977, Chicago) “as a church for the children fallen from grace.”[ ((Richard Smith, “The House that Frankie Built,” Seduced and Abandoned: Essays on Gay Men and Popular Music (London: Cassell, 1995), 92-99, originally published in Gay Times, August 1992. For more on the vernacular use of “children” as a common term for gay black men and “the discotheque as church,” see: William G. Hawkeswood, One of the Children: Gay Black Men in Harlem (Berkeley: University of California Press), 1996, and Kai Fikentscher, “You Better Work!” 93-106.))] Yet 1977 also saw the musical innovations put on offer by underground dance music’s subcultural base further reified in the Brooklyn-strut machismo of Saturday Night Fever’s Tony Manero and the libidinal glitz-economy of Studio 54’s Midtown glitterati. And in typical postlapsarian fashion, The Deuce’s second season finale closes by mirroring its opening scene, with Vincent gazing out over the electric glamour of the 366 with a What hath god wrought? look on his face, his club’s posing and pulsing bodies now dancing to the reified sounds of a different politics of ephemerality—one night amidst one-thousand just like it with a custom soundtrack on repeat.

season 2 closing 1

season 2 closing 2

season 2 closing 3

On the eve of disco’s funeral rites leading into 1979, Paul’s LSD-gaze of transformative potential almost a decade prior is rendered mute through Vincent’s eyes. Such is the sum and substance of The Deuce and the cultural work it performs.

Image Credits:
1. The Deuce Season Two Poster Art (color altered by author).

2-4. Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 1, “Our Raison d’Etre” (transferred to GIF format by author).

5-7. Scene from The Deuce, Season One, Episode 5, “What Kind of Bad?” (transferred to GIF format by author).

8-10. Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 9, “Inside the Pretend” (transferred to GIF format by author).

Please feel free to comment.




Soundtrack Album Fandom and Unofficial Releases
Paul N. Reinsch / Texas Tech University

Fan-made cover art for audio cassette transfer of “Space Seed”

I am a fan of soundtrack albums. I like score albums, compilation albums, and albums that feature both score and popular music. I own, and enjoy, the soundtrack album for (at least) one film I have never seen. Some of my earliest and most powerful music-related memories involve soundtrack albums. To my pre-teen brain, the backseat of a 1981 Honda Civic wagon, especially at night when the only light came from the dashboard, could be almost anything. For example, James Horner’s Star Trek II soundtrack album could make it feel like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. That cassette (and others) eventually became a series of squeaks.

In my previous Flow columns, I have argued that soundtrack albums are worthy of more sustained attention. That analysis of soundtrack albums requires an address of their visual and textual information: covers, marketing materials, liner notes, and credits. [ (( And this area is as complex as anything having to do with soundtrack albums. For example: The packaging for Nero’s Welcome Reality gives every indication that the work is tied to a film. But there is no film. The packaging misleads at least some folks. The album was in the “soundtracks” section of Ralph’s Records in Lubbock, Texas in late 2017 until I bought it (having enjoyed the use of “Doomsday” to promote Borderlands 2). ))] Having already claimed that soundtrack album audiences are not consumer dupes, I want to use this third column to consider unofficial soundtrack albums and fandom. To analyze soundtrack albums is to think about who makes them and the reasons for creation.

Fan-made cover art for audio cassette transfer of “Space Seed”

In my youth, I was also fortunate to witness the audio preservation of television. Much like those who created audio documents of Doctor Who episodes (whose work has now become the sonic spine for an animated episode), my brother Karl created his own version of Star Trek. My family did not own a VCR in the early 80s, and as children we did not have access to our own television, but we did have cassette players. Study of the TV schedule allowed decisions about which episodes to preserve. He placed a microphone in front of the TV speaker to transform (ephemeral) television into a (permanent) sonic Star Trek. Then he used a typewriter, a Xerox machine, a Star Trek: The Motion Picture poster, a library book and his terrific creativity to create artwork (above). This is a Star Trek he could control (and less scary than some official audio versions). This is a Star Trek that he co-authored. He did not do all this work for glory or profit. He did it all because he was a fan of Star Trek.

If we define a soundtrack album as one featuring at least 51% music [ ((This distinguishes the soundtrack album from radio dramas, audiobooks, and sound effects collections.))] and with overtly signaled ties to another text (audio-visual or not), audio transfers of Star Trek and Doctor Who do not fit within these parameters. These recordings, like the programs they remediate, favor dialogue over music. They are transfers of a text’s complete audio contents. Importantly, they also follow an industrial practice, albeit a less common one, of releasing albums of the full sonic material from films, plays, and films based on plays. And here is the holy grail for some soundtrack fans: absolute sonic fidelity to the other “primary” text.

But even if we exclude my brother’s Star Trek from the category of soundtrack album, it does not mean it should be excluded from conversations about soundtrack albums. This text also highlights the fact that soundtrack albums remain under-examined in both fan studies and studies of audio piracy.

Probably not actually from Romania, and certainly not official

It seems reasonable to state that movie and TV fans buy soundtrack albums. I would also claim that many fans, when the market does not meet their needs, access bootleg soundtrack albums. Furthermore, some fans create soundtrack albums. By this I do not mean to suggest that fandom should ever be conflated with the illegal exchange of media. I do, however, want to argue that fandom drives the creation of soundtrack albums by corporations and individuals.

On the amateur side, soundtrack fandom pursues two frequently overlapping goals: 1) to create something that does not already exist, or 2) to “correct” the official release(s). The various albums associated with Blade Runner (1982) readily demonstrate both goals. Some facts: there are as many official soundtrack albums (three) as theatrically released versions of the film (three, not counting the “workprint”). But there are far more (official and unofficial) soundtrack albums than versions of this famously unstable text. Another installment of “spot the soundtrack (album)” on these albums could encompass far more than my allotted word count. But here is a greatly condensed account.

There have been Blade Runner soundtrack albums circulating since 1982. Though the film’s end credits promise a Polydor soundtrack album of Vangelis’s music, that album did not, and has never, appeared for reasons that remain murky. That year did include the first soundtrack bootleg (on cassette), and an official album of others playing the film’s music. The latter release, and the inclusion of some of the film’s music on a Vangelis compilation a few years later, did not nothing to stem the rapidly rising tide of unofficial releases. An official album of Vangelis’s film music belatedly arrived in 1994, featuring dialogue, sound effects and new music. It concludes with “Tears in Rain” rather than “End Titles.” This too, did not meet the needs of fans, who continued creating music-only albums like the one pictured above. [ (( The inside cover of the CD booklet features an image of Deckard visiting Holden in the hospital, though the image is not labeled. The image is enticing. It reminded me of the bottom of my Star Wars lunch box (red handle version) which showed a Stormtrooper on a big lizard. I could not remember seeing such a creature in a film that I thought I knew very well. The bottom of my lunchbox promised a larger and deeper world. But while this was an official promise, the images on my Blade Runner album were unofficial, illicit, and apparently illegal. ))]

The most famous, and best-loved, release is the two-disc “Esper Edition.” (it even has a “follow-up” release). More than one webpage features comments that purport to be from “(THE REAL) ESPER PRODUCTIONS.” The authors object to how the term has been used by others for profit, and emphatically state: “let us stress that our intention was always to make this a project by fans for fans. It was created out of love for Vangelis’ music‚ not money.” [ ((https://www.discogs.com/Vangelis-Blade-Runner/release/3708848 and http://www.vangelis-rarities.com/index.php?methode=methode1&id=25 See YouTube for the proliferation of “Esper” versions that, at least there, are not for sale.))] The 2007 Blade Runner Trilogy is the most recent official release (other than subsequent re-issues). It includes the 1994 soundtrack album, another disc of music from the film, and a third disc of new music with vocal work from Edward James Olmos and Roman Polanski. On the second disc of “previously unreleased” material, Vangelis names a cue “Dr. Tyrell’s Death” that since 1982 fans have called “The Prodigal Son Brings Death.” The “official” name is unlikely to catch on. More importantly, despite the promise of “The ground-breaking soundtrack in its complete form” (see the sticker below), this release is not a complete offering of the music from (any version of) the film. [ ((News of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s rejected score for Blade Runner 2049 made me immediately wonder when (not if) I can hear that music. And another composer’s unused work for that film is already being put to use.))]

Three discs of official material. But still not the “complete form”

Blade Runner invites, and receives, devotion. Yet why does the scholarly literature on the film’s fandom have so little to say about the albums? [ ((Insightful volumes such as Will Brooker’s edited collection The Blade Runner Experience: The Legacy of a Science Fiction Classic (2005) and Matt Hills’s monograph (2012) for the “Cultographies” series neglect the albums (and say little about the film’s score). Media analysis, in large part, favors the image track over the soundtrack. But studies of media fandom do not have to follow this same path.))] More generally, why do fan studies scholars—who surely access legal and illegal soundtrack albums—overlook them? Is the labor of creating Blade Runner bootlegs categorically different from the labor of fans in creating filk songs, vidding, or composing fiction? The “Esper” curators, and others, create (fake) record label names, song titles, album art, and choose not only what sonic and visual material to include but how to arrange that material. All of these decisions create meaning.

Soundtrack album creators often profess, and fans request, fidelity to the film or TV program. Clinton Heylin, in his history of bootleg recordings, argues that fans wanted “original film soundtracks on record,” rather than re-recordings of the music. [ ((Clinton Heylin, Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994), 37.))] Providing the exact audio material from a film may not appear to offer a “creative transformation” in the same way as other forms of fan labor. And their work is often associated with a vacuum in the market. But note that bootleg soundtracks have circulated through the same channels as other fan productions: conventions, tape trading and file sharing systems. Fans have created pirate recordings for themselves and other fans.

Expanding our sense of film music, fans can also impact our sense of their labor. As Nancy Baym recently noted: “Nearly, if not all, musicians are fans. Many fans make music.” [ ((Nancy Baym, Daniel Cavicchi, and Norma Coates, “Music Fandom in the Digital Age: A Conversation,” in The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom, Eds. Melissa A. Click and Suzanne Scott (New York: Routledge, 2018), 151. ))] To this I would add that composers are also fans. Elmer Bernstein is responsible for the first album of Bernard Herrmann’s rejected score for Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966). Bernstein was a fan of his peer, and his Film Music Collection series (1974-79) created recordings of music he admired but was not readily (or legally) available. [ ((See Gergely Hubai, “Mending the Torn Curtain: A Rejected Score’s Place in a Discography” in Partners in Suspense: Critical Essays on Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock, Eds. Steven Rawle and K. J. Donnelly (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2017): 165-173.))] In the following years, labels such as Varèse Sarabande and Intrada appeared in the U.S. market to help officially meet the desires of film music fans. These are small entities catering to a niche market, and take on the production risks that major media corporations deem unworthy of their time.

John Hughes once asked a silly question: “[W]ould kids want ‘Dankeschöen’ and ‘Oh Yeah’ on the same record?”

The Blade Runner releases are typically described as “score” albums, though nearly all include the 1930s pastiche “One More Kiss, Dear” (or the Ink Spots’ “If I Didn’t Care”). And while the soundtrack market favors score albums like those created by Bernstein, compilation albums are a staple of amateur production. Some, like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, eventually become official releases. The La-La Land Records’ album pictured above was released in 2016, “following 30 years of cobbled-together mix-tapes, YouTube playlists, Japanese bootlegs, and awkward negotiations with Swiss synthpop musicians.” [ ((Sean O’Neal, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off soundtrack arrives after skipping the past 30 years,” The A.V. Club, https://news.avclub.com/ferris-bueller-s-day-off-soundtrack-arrives-after-skipp-1798251533.))] Unlike most other John Hughes productions, the film never had an official soundtrack release, in part because the writer-director explained: “I just didn’t think anybody would like it.” [ ((William Ham, “John Hughes: Straight Outta Sherman,” Lollipop, http://www.lollipop.com/issue47/47-02-03.html.))] Hughes was wrong, as the numerous (never only Japanese) bootlegs demonstrated over the years (though these releases seldom include Newborn’s music). The film’s use of particular mixes of (somewhat) obscure songs created a welcome challenge for fans to create their own albums. The belated official release is, unsurprisingly, incomplete [ ((The official description includes this disclaimer: “Due to licensing restrictions, a few of the film’s songs could not be included on this CD, but they are available elsewhere.” Of course, the “elsewhere” includes unofficial releases of the album. http://lalalandrecords.com/Site/Ferris.html))] and so keeps alive the conversation between industrial and amateur production.

The BEST songs from the WORST Movies
Or: some fascinating songs from some fascinating films

As long as films have featured music, audiences have enjoyed experiencing that music outside movie theatres. One music critic in 1986 wrote of soundtrack albums: “the record summons up once again the memorable scenes from the movie and sometimes even stirs the same emotions you felt in the theater.” [ ((Tom Popson, “At Last, A Soundtrack Album for People Who Enjoy Bad Movies,” Chicago Tribune, January 10, 1986: np. ))] This remark opens a review of The Golden Turkey Album: The Best Songs from the Worst Movies, which, he argues, caters to the “bad-movie brigade,” an audience heretofore neglected by soundtrack releases. This same audience is one that scholars such as J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum in Midnight Movies (1983) were already lauding for their active responses to films.

This “brigade” is a creative, and active, audience: individual fans and clusters of fans who talk about and sing along with films. A group including audience members, artists, musicians and composers. Fans who record television, create art, crate-dig (literally or virtually) for specific versions of songs, and curate albums. There is more to be understood about the intersections of fandom and soundtrack albums, whether operating legally or illegally, whether creating or sharing, whether copying or buying.

Image credits:
1. Cover art and scan of art provided by Karl W. Reinsch. Included here with the artist’s permission. Permission to repost not granted.
2. Cover art and scan of art provided by Karl W. Reinsch. Included here with the artist’s permission. Permission to repost not granted.
3. Author’s scan of CD booklet.
4. Blade Runner Trilogy
5. Official release of the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off soundtrack album
6. The Golden Turkey Album: The Best Songs from the Worst Movies

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.”

description of imagedescription of image
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.




Listening—Finally—to Soundtrack Albums
Paul N. Reinsch / Texas Tech University

A list of important cultural moments from Captain America: The Winter Soldier

This is a list, or, more accurately stated, the image of a list, of perhaps the most important texts and cultural developments between World War II and the first decade of the 21st century. It appears on screen a few minutes into Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). Each item here is worth considering, and we might question each item’s place here in lieu of other events, texts and signifiers.

My interest is in the final item: the Marvin Gaye soundtrack album Trouble Man (1972). In this first column I want to assert that the soundtrack album, can, and should, be thoughtfully considered by any scholar who will admit to owning, or listening regularly, to one. That likely means anyone reading this, and many of your friends.

Though many films and television shows promote their own ancillary products — action figures, t-shirts, soundtrack albums, plush toys, sippy cups — it is unusual for one film to promote the soundtrack album of another. And though the “Trouble Man” single appears on the Captain America: The Winter Soldier soundtrack album, Disney does not stand to profit from Trouble Man album sales.

In this moment, a Disney film does more to promote the idea of soundtrack albums as significant cultural objects than most works of media scholarship of the last several decades. In this scene, a summer blockbuster acknowledges the importance of one of the most ubiquitous, but least analyzed of all media paratexts, despite its apparently matching Jonathan Gray’s welcome call for an “off-screen” studies. [ (( Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (New York: NYU Press, 2010). ))] Here, within a superhero film, is at least the suggestion that soundtrack albums are meaningful. Almost 20 years ago, Jeff Smith asked: “What do fans derive from listening to soundtracks? Is it merely the chance to relive a pleasurable cinematic experience or does a film’s music relate to fans on some other extratextual level?” [ (( Jeff Smith, Sounds of Commerce: Marketing Popular Film Music (New York: Columbia UP, 1998): 233. ))] Though some popular writing has recently considered soundtrack albums, Smith’s important questions have largely gone unanswered. [ (( The A.V. Club series, “Soundtrack of Our Lives” https://www.avclub.com/c/soundtracks-of-our-lives; Clare Nina Norelli, Angelo Badalamenti’s Soundtrack from Twin Peaks (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017). ))] But let’s back up.

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) meet while jogging on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Wilson knows that Rogers is also Captain America and was encased in ice for decades (awaking at the end of the previous Captain America: The First Avenger [2011]). Wilson wants to give Rogers guidance that goes beyond what he might learn from searching the Internet for information about the missed decades.

Captain America catches up on the twentieth century

This is also clearly a gesture that a number of other well-meaning folks have undertaken. Rogers immediately replies, “I’ll put it on the list,” and documents the recommendation. Possibly others have made strong endorsements of particular items or ideas, but Wilson’s “Everything you missed jammed into one album” is a bold statement.

Please look again at the list Rogers is creating (scroll up if necessary). Admittedly, the list may cover multiple pages that remain unseen. But what we can see is striking: the list is dominated by pop culture material. The only items of a “historic” nature (the moon landing and the Berlin Wall) will almost certainly be experienced by Rogers not as history but instead as media events. Beyond these topics, the culinary arts are included, television is represented by I Love Lucy, Star Wars and Star Trek remain locked in their eternal struggle, and disco and Nirvana cover the music Rogers has missed. The presence of Trouble Man just below Rocky (1976) and Rocky II (1979) perhaps signals that the album will act as a corrective to the racial politics offered by those films. Rogers has mistakenly written “Troubleman” as a single word, but his awareness of Steve Jobs and Apple will, we can hope, allow him to find the album via iTunes.

Most importantly, Rogers has correctly labeled the item a “soundtrack,” just as Wilson carefully stated. Note that Wilson makes no effort to recommend the film which Gaye’s album would conventionally be said to “accompany.” The album, and not the film Trouble Man, is the text which is promised to contain “everything.” [ (( Wilson could equally have advocated for the 2012 two-disc 40th anniversary edition, which might contain even more of “everything.” ))] Trouble Man is, not surprisingly, the only soundtrack album on the list. But it stands in pretty well as the single representative of this media type, not simply because of its quality as popular music, but also for the way it mixes instrumental tracks with songs foregrounding Gaye’s voice and lyrics.

Main theme from Trouble Man on YouTube

Trouble Man might not explain decades of American culture, or even the single year of its release. It may not do any better in orienting Rogers—or the audience—than any of the other texts and topics in the list. But the idea that a soundtrack album has this potential is provocative. And perhaps even radical.

In media and popular culture studies it often (thankfully) is a given that television programs, films, music videos, comic books, gifs, and video games merit close analysis. Yet soundtrack albums are all too often dismissed as cynical attempts by massive corporations to extract more money from a duped public. Dazzled by a film’s logo and poster image on an album cover, the film-drunk teen buys the 8-track, LP, or CD and is saddled with music that is not even featured within the film itself. The horror. But media fans are not, and have never been, victims.

I would argue that Rogers’s list should include more soundtrack albums. Among other reasons, some of the best-selling albums in history are film soundtrack albums. The Saturday Night Fever (1977) album can help with disco and the 1970s more generally, everyone should hear Whitney Houston covering “I Will Always Love You” from The Bodyguard (1992), and Purple Rain (1984) is, well, Purple Rain.

The Soundtrack Albums for Saturday Night Fever (1977), The Bodyguard (1992), and Purple Rain (1984)

These albums, Gaye’s Trouble Man, and countless others, do not merely support or promote the films listed on their covers. To suggest they do is to dismiss their contents as music, to disregard this cluster of audio texts as a (potentially) coherent whole, and doubt the seemingly simple notion that soundtrack albums create meaning whether or not the user has “seen” the film.

Though the record industry reports annually that album sales are “down” in the face of streaming services and YouTube postings, soundtrack albums continue to circulate. And soundtrack albums are still quite capable of being the top seller in a given year, with High School Musical (2006), High School Musical 2 (2007) and Frozen (2014) topping sales in their year of release. To study soundtrack albums is certainly to study synergy, marketing, and mass culture, but these texts invite analysis that crosses disciplines.

Film soundtrack albums are ubiquitous, and hiding in plain sight. We pull them up on YouTube, select them from streaming services, play them on turntables, cassette decks, and 8-track players, use them as workout music, allow them to engulf us in aural nostalgia, use them to set a variety of moods, and take advantage of their ability to provide access to a diverse range of artists in manageable servings as though Wim Wenders has made us a personal mixtape.

With these columns, composed in response to Flow’s invitation to explore media and culture, I hope to begin a conversation about soundtrack albums. I am also, with my colleague Laurel Westrup, editing a collection of new essays on soundtrack albums. This work has put me in contact with scholars trained in a range of disciplines who agree that studying soundtrack albums, and analyzing them as albums, is a good use of intellectual labor. My work here and elsewhere intends to build on and expand the foundation laid by a number of scholars and suggest new avenues, and texts, that we might explore. [ (( Smith has partially responded to his own questions with essays such as “Selling My Heart: Music and Cross-Promotion in Titanic” in Titanic: Anatomy of a Blockbuster, eds. Kevin S. Sandler and Gaylyn Studlar (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999) 46-63. Other important discussions of soundtrack albums include K. J. Donnelly’s The Spectre of Sound: Music in Film and Television (London: BFI, 2005), especially chapter 8, “Soundtracks without Films,” and Lee Barron’s “‘Music Inspired By. . .’: The Curious Case of the Missing Soundtrack” in Popular Music and Film, ed. Ian Inglis (London: Wallflower, 2003): 148-161. ))] It is time to listen, finally, carefully, to soundtrack albums.

Image and Video Credits:
1. Author’s screen grab
2. Author’s screen grab
3. Author’s screen grab
4. Main Theme from Trouble Man on YouTube
5. Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack
6. Purple Rain Soundtrack
7. The Bodyguard Soundtrack

Please feel free to comment.




Sonic Cute: An Overview
Anthony P. McIntyre / University College Dublin

chipmunks

Alvin and the Chipmunks’ “The Chipmunk Song”

In this my final column on the theme of cuteness for Flow, I’m going to give a brief overview and sketch out some possible avenues for further research in an area relatively neglected by scholars of the aesthetic: cuteness and popular music. Even a cursory consideration of pop music reveals how intrinsic cute aesthetics are in terms of both sound and image. Sonic cute, as I term it, has exerted a considerable influence on popular music and its associated visual texts for some time in ways that index complex questions of gender, power and representation.

A useful study by David Huron, in an analysis clearly influenced by the ethological roots of cuteness scholarship (notably the work of Konrad Lorenz), foregrounds how the high–pitched sonic emissions of young animals are liable to elicit “parenting behavior” and music or sounds that emulate this elicit a similar response from the listener.[ ((David Huron. “The Plural Pleasures of Music.” Proceedings of the 2004 Music and Music Science Conference. Ed. Johan Sundberg and William Brunson. Stockholm: Kungliga Musikhögskolan & KTH (Royal Institute of Technology), 2005. 1-13. Print.))] As the author notes: “auditory cuteness appears to be a particular combination of acoustical features involving high spectral resonances and low amplitude. But the distal cause of auditory cuteness is the promoting of parenting behaviors — presumed to be directed at human infants.” In our recent volume, The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness, my co-editors and I have sought to consolidate existing scholarship and push the understanding of cuteness beyond one that is predominantly centred on the notion of parental response (not to say that this is not sometimes the case) and open up critical analyses to elements such as the assymetrical power relations (Ngai), invocations to play (Sherman and Haidt), as well as the vast array of sexual and racial connotations that cohere in a wide variety of cute texts. It is this set of conceptual concerns that I briefly seek to position in regard to cute pop music and its associated set of visual texts in this article.

If we return to Huron’s description of cute sound, we see its value in tracing a history of sonic cute in popular music. Taking as a prime example Alvin and The Chipmunks, a pop cultural phenomenon that began in 1958 when Ross Bagdasarian Sr. recorded and released “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late),” we can see the “high spectral resonances” Huron identifies are in this case manifest in Bagdasarian’s pioneering usage of the “varispeed” recording technique that produced the distinctive high-pitched “Chipmunk sound”[ ((Carpenter, Susan. “‘Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel’ Soundtrack Scores.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 23 Dec. 2009. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))]. The hit record spawned a franchise featuring the anthropomorphic cute rodents that thrives to this day with current animated television series Alvinnn!!! And the Chipmunks (2015–) and the recent feature Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip (2015) just the latest in a long line of Chipmunk media texts. I’ve previously written of cuteness’s connection to anthropomorphized animated animals, and the longevity and transmedia success of The Chipmunks are indicative of the commercial logics identified as key features of the aesthetic.

Bagdasarian’s creation also suggests that cuteness is a viable aesthetic strategy in the creation of fluid identity positions that reject standard markers of rock and pop authenticity. Bagdasarian, U.S. born and of Armenian heritage, voiced not only the three chipmunks (Alvin, Simon and Theodore), but also their companion, David Saville (the producer’s long-standing stage name). In this way, we can see how the Chipmunks with their cute-ified vocals were a precursor to many of the experimental and often critically lauded developments in pop music in recent years. Indeed, composer and musicologist Nick Collins accords the Chipmunks a seminal position in an article tracing a genealogy of “virtual musicians,” seeing the high-pitched children’s favorites as precursors of contemporary post-human pop entities such as Gorillaz (the fusion of animation and collaborative music perhaps best-known as a side-project of Blur frontman Damon Albarn) and the “virtual idols“ who top the music charts in Japan.[ ((Collins, Nick. “Trading Faures: Virtual Musicians and Machine Ethics.” Leonardo Music Journal 21.21 (2011): 35-39. Web.))]

qt

QT of PC Music

This confluence of technological development and cute-ified pop cultural aesthetics is also evident in the self-consciously artificial audio-visual style of artists associated with British music label PC Music. “Hey QT” by QT, for instance, an underground hit from 2014, clearly has Bagdasarian’s varispeed vocals in its sonic DNA, and is representative of a whole host of artists on the label whose common denominator seems to be pushing cute aesthetics to their limits. Artists such as GFOTY (Girlfriend of the Year), Hannah Diamond, and the producer largely responsible for “Hey QT,” SOPHIE (who despite the female-gendered name is a London-based male) all use high-pitched vocals and channel a plethora of influences such as J-Pop, happy hardcore and UK garage into their music and for a while polarized opinion as to whether they constituted, in the title of one article, “the future of pop or [a] contemptuous prank?” This polarity of response, is perhaps to be expected, given the centrality of cute to PC Music’s sound. Sianne Ngai, for instance, categorized cuteness as an aesthetic that transparently manipulates our responses, leading as much to aggression on the part of the perceiving subject (squishing the cute frog face of a sponge in her example) as a positive care-giving response.[ ((Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.))] While this aesthetic judgement occurs within reason (as Joshua Paul Dale wittily puts it, “the world is not knee-deep in dead babies and puppies” [ ((Dale, Joshua Paul, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre, and Diane Negra, eds. The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness. New York: Routledge. 2017. Print.))]), it does go some way to explaining the extreme love-hate positioning much of the music press took toward PC Music’s roster of artists, or even why Alvin and the Chipmunks are commercially successful but, for the most part, critically held in contempt, an attitude that might account for the dearth of scholarship on the band/brand.

“Hey QT” was initially posited as a song about a fictional energy drink, evident in the website set up to promote the track, with an added twist being that its eventual underground success enabled the production of the canned drink (albeit in a limited and high-priced run). This development led some to suggest that the whole enterprise was a marketing stunt by Redbull, the energy drink brand who sponsored some subsequent PC music events, an interpretation denied by the label. [ ((Vozick-Levinson, Simon. “PC Music Are for Real: A. G. Cook & Sophie Talk Twisted Pop.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, 22 May 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))] With QT, whose real name the website credits as “Quinn Thomas, Founder of QT,” discerning truth from fiction seems to be part of the attraction, with one journalist describing her as “an artist who seems halfway between a product and a prank.” [ ((Wolfson, Sam. “PC Music: The Future of Pop or ‘contemptuous Parody’?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 02 May 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))] While it might be overstating the case to label the song subversive, it does seem to be particularly timely, suggesting through the construct of QT that, in accordance with Sarah Banet-Weiser’s assessment of contemporary postfeminist media cultures, cultural participation is “increasingly only legible in the language of business.” [ ((Banet-Weiser, Sarah. Authentic TM: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture New York: NYU Press, 2012. Print.))] The song’s overtly manipulated vocal track, borrowing heavily from the kawaii conventions of J-pop (see Keith and Hughes [ ((Keith, Sarah, and Diane Hughes. “Embodied Kawaii: Girls’ Voices in J-pop.” Journal of Popular Music Studies 28.4 (2016): 474-87. Web.))], for a detailed analysis of vocal styles in this pop genre) combined with the strangely flattened affect of the central performance in the video, denoting artificiality through the virtual reality space within which QT seemingly exists, foreground the ambivalent positioning of the piece, a quality that further corroborated interpretations of the song and QT as a thinly veiled critique of contemporary consumer society.

The final artist I consider speaks to the ambivalence of cuteness and how this aspect of the aesthetic can resonate with the star text of a recording artist, becoming central to both image and sound and in the process recalibrating existing gender scripts. While the artists associated with the PC Music label have their own ambivalent positioning within the realm of gender politics, Shamir, the recording name of Las Vegas singer and performer Shamir Bailey was for a time around the release of his 2015 debut album, Ratchet, fêted both for the fresh pop sound on his record, but also the “post-gender” cultural trend the young singer supposedly seemed to encompass. The title of a prominent feature in The Advocate, for instance, asked, “Is Shamir the Post-Gender Pop Star for Our Time?” while many other features on the young musician quoted an emoji-ed tweet he posted reading, “To those who keep asking, I have no gender, no sexuality and no fucks to give.”[ ((Vivinetto, Gina. “Is Shamir the Post-Gender Pop Star for Our Time?” ADVOCATE. N.p., 14 May 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))]

Perhaps most notable in this coverage of the musician was the sustained emphasis on how well-adjusted this genderqueer artist was, a discourse discursively linked in most pieces with his generational status as a millennial. An article in the Guardian, for instance, described Shamir as “a post-gender, androgyne angel of a millennial” and commented on how he hadn’t been bullied in school, was voted “best dressed”, “most likely to appear on the cover of Vogue”, and even nominated for “Prom King” in his final year in high school[ ((Hoby, Hermione. “Shamir : ‘I Never Felt like a Boy or a Girl, That I Should Dress like This or That’.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 11 May 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.))]: All seemingly indicators of the balanced and likable nature of the young performer. Likewise, a Pitchfork article on Shamir opines, “image work is easy for millennials, who can often seem omnivorous and guided less by the dividing lines of politics than the universal high of being really into stuff. Shamir knows who he needs to be for the camera and transforms without suffering” (final emphasis mine)[ ((Powell, Mike. “The Charmed (and Charming) Life of Shamir Bailey.” Pitchfork. N.p., 11 May 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.))]. Perhaps implicit in this commentary seems to be an acknowledgement of the distance between Shamir’s poppy sound and upbeat attitude and that of genderqueer performers of an earlier generation such as Anohni, from Antony and the Johnsons, whose melancholic records such as 2005’s I am a Bird Now circled themes of transformation and duality.

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Shamir, in the music video for “On the Regular”

This discursive construction of Shamir as well-adjusted and fluidly transformative, is closely imbricated, I would argue, with the qualities of sonic cute evident in his recorded music of this era and also in the surrounding texts that matched image to sound. Just as in the examples of Alvin and the Chipmunks and QT detailed earlier, vocal timbre is a key factor in this aural iteration of cute aesthetics. Shamir ‘s voice is often termed “androgynous falsetto” and while not as high pitched as the two earlier examples, it is often multi-tracked (layered) to give it a girlish quality, as in “On the Regular”. If we consider the screenshot from the music video for On The Regular (above) we see how in keeping with the rest of the video, bright colors are used to complement the song, an arrangement that makes ample usage of the “high spectral ranges” Huron previously noted as common to sonic cute. Similarly, the use of a Fisher-Price toy fits with a lyric in the song, but also connotes an invocation to play, a feature that psychologists Gary D. Sherman and Jonathan Haidt posit as a more accurate representation of cuteness’s power over a perceiving subject than the “parental instincts” suggested by early ethologists. [ ((Sherman, Gary D., and Jonathan Haidt. “Cuteness and Disgust: The Humanizing and Dehumanizing Effects of Emotion.” Emotion Review 3.3 (2011): 245–51.))]

This quality of cuteness is foregrounded even more in the video (above) for “Call It Off,” where the artist is literally cute-ified over the course of the video, transformed into a puppet, or more specifically a Muppet as it was Jim Henson’s workshop responsible for the manufacturing. Again, the video’s aesthetics rely on the use of day-glo and primary colors in its later sections, matching the high-range foregrounded in this recording and the cumulative effect of these initial songs and videos created a cute star image for the young singer.

Perhaps, however, the color-saturated extremes of cuteness as exemplified in much of the artist’s work of this time were too blunt to fully encapsulate the complexity of Shamir’s vision, or overwhelmed other aspects of the artist’s oeuvre. A feature-writer for music website Pitchfork certainly picked up on this, and the imposition of this image on a neophyte artist by older professionals in the industry, when on location for the filming of “Call It Off”.

“I see the puppet and suddenly the video shoot seems farcical and weird, an expensive ordeal orchestrated by a bunch of market-savvy people in their 30s and 40s trying to harness the natural charisma of a 20-year-old kid who is grateful for the fairytale his life has become and yet who at times seems supremely bored by it, or at least confused as to what the fuss is about.” [ ((Powell, 2015))]

Certainly, Powell’s analysis seems poignant and insightful given the fact that, as I was writing this article Shamir, dropped from British label XL, self-released a free album, Hope, along with a message suggesting a discomfort with how his image had previously been presented. The artist relates how he recorded the present album over the course of the week after a period where he almost quit making music as “the wear of staying polished with how im presented and how my music was presented took a huge toll on me mentally. I started to hate music, the thing i loved the most!” While as I suggest, cute aesthetics, may, in a pop setting, enable a certain conceptual latitude that stretches the acceptable bounds of pop authenticity, in Shamir’s case it arguably presented an overwhelming, playful public persona that failed to tally with a heterogenous output that was intrinsic to the artist’s sense of artistic integrity.

Conclusion
While it is tempting to see in the manifestations of sonic cute charted in the case studies above evidence of cuteness’s ability to push the boundaries of notions of identity and gender (and species) performativity, this highly ambivalent aesthetic also displays an ability to flatten out expression so that it perhaps lacks nuance and can in its own way be restrictive and reinforce prescriptive social scripts. So, while some commentators have found the artists associated with the PC Music label as turning “the macho culture of so much dance and house music on its head”[ ((Ellis-Petersen, Hannah. “PC Music at SXSW Review – Good Taste Goes out the Window in Pop Makeover.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.))] others see the label as yet another instance of Svengali male producers’ appropriation of female artists and aesthetics [ ((Kretowicz, Steph. “You’re Too Cute: Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, SOPHIE, PC Music and the Aesthetic of Excess.” The FADER. The FADER, 01 Aug. 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))], a phenomenon that has a sonic cute antecedent in Ron Bargdasian’s ability to technologically innovate and self-voice a set of anthropomorphized rodents and in the process instigate a family business and pop cultural phenomenon. Shamir’s initial records channeled a zetitgeist appetite for cute-inflected “post-gender” optimism that arguably restricted the artist’s own vision. It is perhaps this ambivalent power and the proximate aesthetic corollaries that are generated that mark sonic cute out as a topic worthy of further academic explication.

Image Credits
1: The Los Angeles Times
2: The Guardian
3: ADVOCATE

Please feel free to comment.




Hallelujah Apocalypse: From Gorillaz to Post-Humanz
Theodore Yurevitch / Florida State University

Yurevitch image 1

The Gorillaz’s 2017 album, Humanz.

January 19th, 2017 was the end of many things. The end of a presidency. Almost the end of the Year of the Rooster. Notions of “post-truth” circulated on televised news tickers and Twitter alike. It’s not too hard to imagine one closing her eyes and seeing a vision of fire spurting from geysers; clouds of fallout dust enveloping homesteads; maniacal clowns wielding war hammers; or a man in a hyena mask, bounding over a sun beaten hillock; pigs with orange faces pointing their cloven hoofs, accusing; a processional of white robed figures with black holes punched into their conical heads; Clint Eastwood’s unforgiving squint; an anonymous, pupil-less face with mouth agape; a pyramid with the all-seeing eye flashing technicolor; the liberty bell swinging into a rainbow of starbursts; and a gold gilded elevator, the doors closing on the world, but not before the words ring forth: “Hallelujah money.” You don’t have to imagine this, though. It all happens in the virtual band Gorillaz’s most recent music video: “Hallelujah Money:” a vision of the apocalyptic implications of hyper-mediation and how life might still go on in an increasingly post-human world.

The song and video, “Hallelujah Money,” mark the Gorillaz’s first piece of new music since 2011, but that’s not to say that they haven’t been talked about since then. Following a number of (at times conflicting) announcements, buzz has been steadily building over the last few months for the music/art project in anticipation for a new album, what’s now been slated for release in late April—and aptly titled Humanz. Starting in September, 2016, the experimental band has been releasing digital story books through Twitter narrating the lives of the four “band members” since their last album over half-a-decade prior. Of course, none of these stories are true: since the project’s beginning, the music has always been released under the guise of cartoon characters. A “virtual” band: characters created by Jamie Hewlett complete with fictional backstories. In reality, the music is composed by Damon Albarn and a plethora of collaborators: Snoop Dog, Lou Reed, the Syrian National Orchestra, et cetera. Album to album, the music breaks genre conventions, weaving between electronica, hip hop, folk, minimalist, metal, and more—at times in the same song. Some of their numbers follow the structure of classical western music, others use instruments and artists from the Far East. It’s an eclectic project that has spent the last decade unfolding across various media, telling stories through songs, music videos, animated short films, their own interactive website, spots on television (there was an animated segment on MTV Cribs), and now explicitly through Twitter and, with their new music video’s exclusive release platform, YouTube. Not only are their narratives and themes spread across various media, but the style of the sound itself is predicated by a listener’s ability to access music from across genres and the globe. Here is a group that has made a project out of the “dynamic browsing experience” of spreadable media, packing everything it can into a single brand. [ (( Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, Spreadable Media: creating value and meaning in a networked culture (New York, NY: New York U Press, 2013), 5. ))]

Yurevitch image 3

Gorillaz’s creator-composers, Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn.

But if, as Marshall McLuhan asserts, “the medium is the message;” what does one make of Gorillaz’s premeditated effort to spread throughout digital spaces and across multi-modal geographies? By building its brand and reputation around deconstructing genre, the group’s work intentionally feels both fragmentary and wholly unified, not unlike what Adorno makes the case for as emblematic of “serious music” where “the detail virtually contains the whole and leads to the exposition of the whole.” [ (( Theodor Adorno, “On Popular Music,” in Cultural theory and popular culture: A reader (1941): 76. ))] While Adorno claims that this dialectical construction in music makes it more complex, his argument doesn’t wholly follow through to see what the value of this complexity might truly be. Gorillaz, on the other hand, makes this dialectical nature not just their conceit, but (in a McLuhanish sense) their whole message. Their work up until this point in time has been invariably concerned with charting a brand of dialectical materialism and entropy (“O Green World,” and “Kids With Guns” are two of many explicit examples), using fictional conceits as a façade for visions of material dereliction, decay and the apocalypse, which have now culminated in their latest work, “Hallelujah Money.”

“Hallelujah Money” music video by The Gorillaz.

It is undeniable that the song and video are meant to be read in historical context: they were released on UPROXX’s YouTube channel on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration and contain explicit reference to Trump’s highly mediated personage. Not only do the lyrics directly recall to mind things that Trump has publicly said/tweeted with lines like: “And I thought the best way to protect our trees / was by building walls,” but the visual imagery, too, directly alludes to Trump: the gilded elevator that serves as the opening shot and setting of much of the music video is intentionally a replication of the Trump Tower elevator that was so highly mediated in Trump’s transitional period. While much of the lyrics appear initially oblique, the refrain, “Hallelujah money,” makes clear what this song is satirizing. All this is bolstered by the explicitly American imagery of the video’s visuals—the liberty bell, the “eye of providence” found on the dollar bill—as well as sampled clips from such sources as the animated version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm; another clip is meant to resemble the Klu Klux Klan (it’s technically footage from a ceremony of the La Candelaria Brotherhood, but the familiar garb and conflation seems entirely intentional); and there is a repeated scene of notable conservative and Trump supporter, Clint Eastwood (funnily enough, his name is the title of one of Gorillaz’s most popular songs from their first album). The imagery is highly political, but this song is more than just the kind of critique that John Storey provides as one of the definitions of political pop. [ (( John Storey, Cultural Studies and the Study of Popular Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh U Press, 2014), 109. ))]

Yurevitch image 2

A gilded elevator serves as the opening shot and setting of much of the music video.

The fact that the subject is Trump yields an even more self-referential reading than McLuhan might have supposed. Trump himself, through all his various holdings, television personalities and social media profiles, is as much a product of convergence culture and spreadable media as Gorillaz are. It’s hard to recognize Trump as a human being; rather, he is more aptly read as a Meme in Dawkins’s sense. [ (( Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford U Press, 1999), 192. ))] And while these multiplying layers of self-referentiality (having a metafictional band take on an entirely self-referential, largely content-less personage) might otherwise deride real meaning—circumscribing any sort of take-away for viewers and listeners—the song asks the question necessary to elevate its own commentary in the second refrain: “How will we know / when the morning comes / we are still human?”

There is, of course, the topical element of survival in the age of Trump and policy changes that have many groups rightfully frightened, but there is also the question of how we hold on to our sense of humanity in this ever-increasingly mediated world—one that figures like Trump are so clearly capitalizing on. The Gorillaz project, culminating in their most recent work, suggests that an apocalypse, if not already here, is well on its way; technological determinism through hyper-mediation, the internet, and other digital spheres are the progenitors of something purely constructed, something post-human. These fictions, then, aren’t something subordinated; they have real meaning. What began as a bunch of cartoon characters drawn to vaguely resemble primates are now Humanz, and are as important as the artists behind the fiction; who are still there, and will be for the foreseeable future. It’s up to them, and up to all of us, to determine how we navigate our way through these dialectics, the now no-longer extant line between fact and fiction that mediation has obscured. To the question, “How will we know / we are still human?” perhaps the answer is this: to listen to the song; to realize that you, the listener, exist; and it is your responsibility to listen.

Image Credits:
1. The Gorillaz’s 2017 album, Humanz.
2. Gorillaz’s creator-composers, Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn.
3. A gilded elevator serves as the opening shot and setting of much of the music video.

Please feel free to comment.




Audiovisuality and the Media Swirl: Campaign 2016
Carol Vernallis / Stanford University

Donald Trump Supporters Interviewed by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog

Why hasn’t this presidential campaign given us much in the way of music? Where are the short videos with lively soundtracks—things we’d want to share on Facebook or Twitter? Where’s the “Yes We Can” of 2016? Where are the Rick Rolls and Obama’s sung speech of “Never Letting Us Down,” or the musical ad with Romney’s “47% no income tax?” Through all the dim moments of this cycle we could use something uplifting or inspirational, a 2016 election song or video that not only moves us but encourages us to share something with others and participate more actively.

For many reasons this election cycle has felt like a lost cause. Not that Trump seemed likely to win. It’s been a track-the-clickbait nail-biter. The issues are so serious—climate change, economic inequality and insecurity, racism and police violence, the Supreme Court, the surveillance state—and the political discourse has barely touched them. Not music but comedy may be this season’s best antidote, from Triumph the Insult Dog’s harangues to Samantha Bee’s “Pussy Riot.”

Nevertheless, this campaign’s audiovisual clips reveal something about ourselves and the media swirl. It also gives us materials we may not have come upon, worth sharing over the next three weeks, spurring a few more of us to get out and vote.

“America”

The primaries were audiovisually richer than the general. Bernie Sanders’s clips were the most moving. His “America,” using the eponymous Simon and Garfunkel song, opens with establishing shots that marry new and old tech: wind farms and family farms, small-town coffee shops with Wi-Fi. These images crossfade into an unusual progression of protagonists, from young people, young couples both straight and gay, to older couples: when Paul Simon sings “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together,” a middle-aged couple dances at a Sanders rally. As the video progresses, older-styled gestures and dance-forms appear, suddenly both modern and historical, partly for the fresh-eyed cinematography, and partly for the ways these images coincide with musical articulations, as in a music video. Lines of activists share high-fives, a country-dance promenade of Sanders and his wife unfolds, a farmer and family throw hay bales to the beat, and the camera glides over a rally while Sanders sways his arm like a conductor’s from the podium. (The tenor helps us think back to fields of wheat and forward to masses of people joined together, as sensitive to one another as in a community choir.) These processes and audiovisual rhymes make possible the ways that the ad builds, gradually incorporating people and communities, dissolving them into a graph of a checkerboard nation (with people as icons), and changing them back into fully articulated crowds. Rolling Stone and The New York Times raved, with others calling it “magnificent,” and “so full of love, enthusiasm and patriotic uplift (complete with flag-waving) that it’s downright goosebumps-inducing.” As the song and ad claims, the people have all come to “look for America.” This ad creates an exquisite relation between the small and the vast.

But on the whole the primary season matched what we’ve been seeing in the general. My fellow media scholars and I have been asking why there’s little musically or audiovisually rich content this cycle. We’ve identified several possible causes. This fractious season may resemble reality television or a sporting event; in the heat of the fray, music may not be needed. Our collective feelings of dread, disgust, and anxiety may fail to provide good musical material for ads: to tap into them risks disengaging other segments of the electorate. What would such musical or audiovisual content sound and look like? There aren’t many musical correlatives for disgust, even in splatter films. And even if there were, you couldn’t use it in an ad—especially in the depths of our both-sides-do-it era.

The types of and scale of materials have shifted, too. An incendiary tweet or a racist image moves with greater intensity and speed than a song or musical accompaniment. And for the left, paradoxically, the lack of audiovisual competition may play a role: Trump and his superpacs haven’t produced big-budget, well-distributed commercials. Clinton’s advertisements can thus remain understated. There’s no true audiovisual conversation.

Clinton may also have been reticent to draw on music because it has served her so poorly in the past. In 2008, musical choices like Celine Dion’s “You and I” highlighted her age and lack of cool. (And of course Trump too is, among other things, an uncool septuagenarian.)

The Original and Official Hillary Clinton (2008) Campaign Song Video

Perhaps both camps have heeded recent research asserting that political ads are largely ineffective (including their soundtracks): campaign resources should be devoted to the ground game—operatives knocking door to door in get-out-the-vote efforts. But this may be the wrong approach. This research may already be outmoded. Its data don’t account for onslaughts of outrageous Twitter posts, or Facebook’s silos of like-minded friends.

Trump has also been a destabilizing force. His erratic behavior makes it hard to gauge how to respond, audiovisually or otherwise. (Should you fight bullying with bullying?) His constant threats to sue or have people shot also carry weight, especially in an age of surveillance that could quickly turn into something like a Stasi state.

The reasons for the muting of music seem deeper, however. If you feel frozen, you’ll have difficulty singing or performing music (think of Doris Day in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Gwen Welles in Altman’s Nashville). You may feel incapable of stirring someone with music. The constantly shifting political landscape might also paralyze musicians and directors: campaigns haven’t typically lurched from scandal to scandal, producing and destroying memes that can render a musical ad instantly obsolete.

As we enter the homestretch, more striking musical moments have been happening—right at the moment when the race seems to have stabilized. Journalists have finally summed up Trump (“that yellow troll fascist dwarf”); Sean Penn also quipped that “voting for Trump is like masturbating your way to hell.” Perhaps in some ways we’re coming together.

Hillary Clinton Pantsuit Flashmob

The best recent musical moments so far remain understated, like Mary J. Blige’s acapella singing while directly facing Clinton. I like this recent flashmob clip celebrating Hillary’s pantsuits, shot in Washington Square; it’s enjoyable even if it seems a bit too well funded for its own good. It couldn’t possibly be a Trump promo. Compare it to the Trump rally clip with the USA Freedom Kids (three young girls, who according to their father were bilked by Trump); viewers on social media likened their performance to something you’d see for Kim Jong-un.

USA Freedom Kids

The biggest political ads of this season haven’t carried much aesthetic weight. (I wonder what later studies targeting effectiveness will show.) The music in Clinton’s ads suggest a stay-the-course approach, often drawing directly on minimalism, with stripped-down piano accompaniment. Sometimes something humorously sinister sneaks in, a là Danny Elfman. The soundtrack is usually complemented by footage processed to drain Trump of physical magnetism, and the overall scene is often tinted an unnatural blueish-gray, more dystopian than The Bourne Ultimatum. The bulky sans-serif font suggests overcompensated clarity (shouting) and bargain-basement utility. Why project limited resources for the public, I wonder, when the campaign has likely been so well-funded? (In fairness, Clinton’s ad agency has a house style: “Google it/The Briefing” looks sharp.) A subset of these ads, especially targeting military vets, feel more traditional, with their sensitive strings and subjects looking into the distance. Ads of girls and women listening to or re-voicing Trump’s misogynistic assertions, and others supportive of African American and LGBT communities, are more moving. (The music often softly percolates underneath, and the LGBT-themed “Equal” nicely pivots into a fuller arrangement.) Two Hillary campaign videos worth mentioning include a Trump University infomercial’s spoof (with a faux Ivanka voice-over promising to take all your money), and an immigration ink blot series comprised of morphing black forms accompanied by a melancholic string quartet (both bloom momentarily into trains and shackled people).

Trump’s ads have almost always looked shoddier. (Was he not only tweeting late at night but also editing on free software?) One on Hillary’s coughing seemed particularly embarrassing. Trump’s first ad intimates that Clinton literally has trouble with her eyes (cloudy); once it’s finished with Mexico and ISIS, the music and image sweetens and clarifies. One of Ivanka Trump saying publicly donated money will be matched by her father feels like a late-night acne-treatment commercial. Cheap and plentiful, these were mostly distributed on Facebook.

Most of the user-generated clips circulating now seem like tired retreads of earlier YouTube campaign genres, even though they may have been funded by superpacs. Given their low view-counts we may not need to worry about them. I like a cover of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” with Trump’s lines with the tweaked hook line (“how many times can you [I] sing sorry?’”); a “Batman v Trump: Official Trailer” with Trump CGI’d in; a dance battle with the candidates heads photoshopped in; a mashed-up speech (Trump singing about Pokémon); a sung meme showcasing a single gesture, Clinton’s Debate 1 shimmy; and of course the Gregory Brothers’ songified debates. Both Trump and Sanders also appeared for SNL cameos, green-screened into Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” but only Sanders seemed to embrace all the characters.

SNL‘s “Hotline Bling” Parody

One idiom I’m particularly fond of, deriving from folk music and stand-and-deliver stars, is will.i.am’s “Yes We Can,” (2008) directed by Jesse Dylan. I now see this video as connecting with Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” There’s Joss Whedon’s “Save the Day,” a tongue-in-cheek video quickly hijacked by the alt-right. The production company Anonymous Content has just made a clip with 1,000 stars too. The promise of a tiny bit of sex (Mark Ruffalo agreeing to appear full monte) might hope to provide what stirring music once did. will.i.am has just done an amusing sendup of a debate—but it turns the music down.

Campaign-rally and convention music has also felt déjà vu. I could give a shoutout to Katy Perry for participating in Clinton’s campaign (“Roar” and “Fight Song”), and note that Trump, always engaged in the scam, used a rash of songs without the artists’ blessings (the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Queen), reminding us how Bruce Springsteen chided Reagan for misusing “Born in the USA” in an earlier race-baiting campaign. But the response to Trump’s sloppiness, the music video “Stop Playing Our Song,” with Usher and Sheryl Crow, was enervated. The original song’s intensity has been diminished, the perpetrator (Trump) remains unnamed, and no course of action is offered.

But some new turns have delighted me. During the first debate Tecate beer placed an anti-Trump commercial spoofing his “wall.” We might complain about the ad’s Eurocentrism, noting that Tecate is owned by Heineken. Primarily white men cross over a long, snaking, mini-wall at coffee-table height—good for smashing down beer cans—to another group of possibly more Latino men, whom we might assume are on the border’s southern side. The ad begins like recent film trailers, with a swiftly rising glissando, and a camera soaring above a vast, desert flanking an eagle. (Trump has been pushing that eagle.) Then we have Anglo-sounding guitar-based rock. Still, though the commercial’s weighted North, I’ve seldom seen a big corporation take this kind of political stand: it feels like we’re possibly moving into a new era, with new genres. Not only might a corporation outsource their production and merchandising, they might share out their politics.

During this election cycle, finding, sourcing, and making connections among clips can prove challenging. One sweet clip is of a mariachi band performing in the Oval Office possibly chimes with a 2008 one. (The Dems produced one mariachi tape that upset a community because the musicians weren’t in an appropriate neighborhood. Might this one help make good on an earlier oversight?) Might the YouTube-based “Fuck Trump” hip hop videos also have been funded by a Democratic superpac? (A Macklemore video is particularly wonderful.) On Trump’s side, the mashed up documentary footage accompanying his official music video with “C’Mon Ride the Train” by Quad City DJs incongruously suggests racial inclusiveness with a proletarian flare (and supposedly a prosumer created the initial cut). The singer so expressively effuses about “getting on the choo-choo” that we can imagine she’s doing the arm gestures, but Trump almost never mingles with the crowds. Perhaps some of the ad’s pleasure comes from latent content: Trump promises “It’ll be beautiful,” but we don’t know how; perhaps the singer can fill in a bit? Somehow we’ll whirl our way into the White House. Or perhaps there’s even more latent content: that Trump plane forcibly inserts itself 27 times into the crowd, perhaps foreshadowing the new revelations of his sexual assaults.

Like many academics I tend to look for political content outside of traditional or official discourse. One of the most influential videos for reading this election season may be Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Trump got into it with Beyoncé over “Formation,” and Trump surrogates have falsely accused Beyoncé of speaking vulgarly about genitalia—in one case misquoting the lines from a remix of “Flawless,” a song she performed with Nikki Minaj, in which Minaj touts her own genitalia (and doesn’t seize someone else’s without consent). SNL just spoofed Lemonade’s “Sorry” substituting in Ivanka, Kellyanne, Tiffany, and Omarosa.

Beyoncé’s Lemonade, a 50-minute audiovisual film comprised of music videos and interstitial poetry, not only confronts common marital difficulties but also provides a means to hold the American past, present, and future together. It develops historical strands about Africa, the Middle Passage, slavery, reconstruction, lynching, neo-liberalism and the disinvestment in black neighborhoods of the 70s, Hurricane Katrina, and the police murders of African-Americans. It often takes place below ground, or in confined quarters, with palpably poor air quality. As such it could be seen as existing in direct conversation with Trump’s rallies, with his circling helicopters overhead and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” (After Trump menaced Hillary during the second debate, this spatial relationship seems more strongly etched.) Lemonade expands out as Beyoncé, at the Video Music Awards, brought police-shooting victims’ mothers to the red carpet. Expanding further, some fans (including me) heard “Fuck Donald Trump” emerging in the mix during Beyoncé’s Formation tour.

My academic training also encourages me to see our culture as in need of conversation about what we’re frightened of, or have pushed aside, and to expect that these issues will bubble forth somehow, transmuted or veiled. Music video has long been a place to find the underdiscussed: shot quickly and less susceptible to some forms of censorship, tied to youth and rebellion, and relatively free from narrative demands, it can thereby allow a freer play of desires and thoughts. In recent heavily digitally processed, mind-twisting videos, artists like Rihanna, Lana Del Rey, and Allie X and Allie X often slide toward some indeterminate abyss (just beyond the frame). We watch moment-by-moment to see if they’ll endure. These clips capture the ever-present anxiety of our contemporary moment, life without a banister, caught within what Berlant has identified as the biopolitical production of precarity under post-Fordism.

Another thread in today’s music videos leads elsewhere. Empowering videos by musicians of color like Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” link directly to Black Lives Matter. Women of color (Beyoncé, Rihanna, Jill Scott, J-Lo, and FKA Twigs) also seem to have been pulling out the stops—sometimes through topic, sometimes purely through self-presentation and delivery. They may sense they’re the most capable of helping us imagine a transition from Obama to Clinton. (Perhaps even European American female musicians like Sky Ferreira and Miley Cyrus have been backing away a bit to create more space for them.)

Two recent clips, Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair” (directed by Alan Ferguson), fall within this last group. Solange says she wanted to show the video’s subjects, African-Americans, as regal and proud. The figures in the images simultaneously project a sense of firmness as well as telegraph an awareness of the larger cultural moment. Like Sanders’ “America” these two clips find a way to create a fit between the micro and macro. The music and image are so in sync that they project an image of our dream of democracy itself. I can’t quite say how the videos do this. Perhaps the image captures something about the music. There’s a sensitivity to fine details (the single thread pulled back from Solange’s dress), the mid-ground (the water-stained patterns on white cloth), and the largest scale (the many figures in the frame who all move in concert).

Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair”

I hope Hillary’s team is planning a final audiovisual spectacular for its get-out-the-vote effort. Perhaps they’re holding out, responding to studies that show music succeeds best as an end-game? (There’s the just released 30 Days, 30 Songs, a project delivering a new protest message every day leading up to the election.) Maybe now that Trump is imploding we’ll hear new voices sing louder. But so far one of the most moving ads is a silent video with a man using sign language. “We Shall Overcome” still feels very far away, but I’ll use some of these clips to help me make it to the 8th (not the 35th).

Please feel free to comment.




Miniskirts and Wigs: The Gender Politics of Cross-Dressing on Lip Sync Battle
Britta Hanson / University of Texas at Austin

Channing Tatum breaks out his version of Beyoncé for his rendition of "Run the World (Girls)."

Channing Tatum breaks out his Beyoncé to perform “Run the World (Girls)” on Spike’s Lip Sync Battle.

On January 7, 2016, Channing Tatum blew up the internet. He strutted onto Lip Sync Battle’s stage wearing a voluminous blonde wig and a tight black mini-skirt to faux-sing “Run the World (Girls),” with Beyoncé herself joining in at the number’s end. The performance became a viral sensation, and the episode itself an all-time ratings high for Spike. (( Rick Kissell, “‘Lip Sync Battle’ Sets Spike Network Ratings Record,” Variety, January 12, 2016, http://variety.com/2016/tv/news/lip-sync-battle-sets-spike-ratings-record-1201678032/ )) This overwhelming popularity was not because of the excellence of Tatum’s dancing, but because of its gender-bending presentation.

Tatum’s performance is only one of many times that Lip Sync Battle has blurred traditional gender roles; in fact, the majority of LSB’s episodes contain some form of gender-bending, and the performers who do so almost always win. Judith Butler taught us years ago that gender is inherently performative, and that drag in its many forms has a powerful subversive potential. (( See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1990). Granted, Lip Sync Battle does not embrace drag culture, only allowing cross-dressing in a comical way, but I argue that even the mild form of cross-dressing LSB hosts is still potentially subversive. )) Yet LSB presents an intriguing paradox: while it hosts a plethora of non-normative performances, the show ultimately reifies gender binaries, and places its stars squarely back in their “original” gender. (( Notably, the show’s attitude mirrors what Chris Straayer identifies as the “temporary transvestite” genre, which depicts constant transgression while constantly reminding the audience of the character’s “original” gender. See Chris Straayer, Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-Orientation in Film and Video (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 46-50. ))

The show’s structure is simple. Two stars (usually of TV-based fame, but sometimes musicians or film actors) lip sync to two songs each, with the winner decided by the in-studio audience’s applause. Because the music is always a prerecorded, familiar pop hit, the star’s responsibilities are limited to mouthing the words and, more importantly, presenting the most outlandish physical display possible.

The measure of this outlandishness is directly related to the subversion of the star’s image. The sweet, demure Anne Hathaway won her battle by clamoring onto a life-size wrecking ball in her underwear to perform Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball.” Cross-dressing is treated as another method of going all the way for the competition. Justin Bieber, after performing Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry” while affecting femininity, including comically swaying his hips and even stroking competitor Deion Sanders’ chin, explained afterward that “I just totally committed! Full commitment.” Occasionally stars embrace the subversive nature of their performance: former NFL player Terry Crews, after dancing to Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” half-naked accompanied by baton twirlers, said he found inspiration in his wife and four daughters: “sometimes you just need to access your feminine side,” he exclaimed to wild cheers from the audience.

Terry Crews accessing his "feminine side" during his performance of Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles."

Terry Crews accessing his “feminine side” during his performance of Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles.”

But LSB as a whole does not foster such open-mindedness: instead, the program carefully positions its performances as temporary aberrances in the stars’ lives. Stars must constantly reestablish their personas, as Richard Dyer explains, and LSB allows them to act out who they are, or are not. (( See Richard Dyer, Stars (London: BFI, 1979), 20. )) So while the most popular performances involve macho men – professional athletes, rappers, action movie stars – wearing dresses and wigs, the show works hard to show that the stars’ costume and dance choices have no bearing on their “real life,” which means demonstrating that the stars are irrefutably heterosexual and cis-gendered.

LSB employs several strategies to corroborate its stars’ straightness. Most simply, host LL Cool J will ask the star to discuss how unusual this was for them, such as when comedian Gabriel Iglesias told Cool J that dressing as Donna Summer required him to shave for the first time in five years. Other times, the spouse of the performer also appears on the show, with their shocked reaction to their partner’s gender-bent performance serving as an external guarantee of heteronormativity. (( For example, when Iggy Azalea performed Silk’s “Freak Me,” complete with grabbing her crotch and miming sexual intercourse, her then-fiancé Nick Young stated adamantly that “She don’t do that…she don’t do that to me!” )) Throughout, Cool J and color commentator Chrissy Teigen model the acceptable reaction to these antics. Cool J, a rapper, is often quietly disapproving, while Teigen, a model, spends most of her time evaluating how sexy (or more often unsexy) the performers are in their adopted garb. (( And that garb itself is often intentionally ridiculous, with Deion Sanders’ wig for “Like a Virgin” more closely resembling Einstein than Madonna. The few occasions when such costumes are not ridiculous, as in Jim Rash’s form-fitting P!nk costume, often leave the hosts unsure how to react. )) These strategies taken together are meant to signal that these performances cannot possibly be taken seriously. (( While the length of this piece restricts me from discussing male versus female cross-dressers in detail, female cross-dressers on LSB often work even harder than the men to reestablish their gender identity, with their second, non-drag number usually being hyper-feminine: see Jenna Dewan-Tatum’s “Pony” and “Cold-Hearted” or Kaley Cuoco’s “Move Bitch” and “I’m a Slave 4 U.” ))

Jim Rash's "seduction" of Joel McHale to "Something He Can Feel."

Jim Rash’s “seduction” of Joel McHale to En Vogue’s “Something He Can Feel.”

When a performance breaks these careful restrictions, the show is thrown into chaos. One of LSB’s lowest-rated episodes featured three total gender-bent performances by competitors Jim Rash and Joe McHale. The most notable of these was Rash’s self-described “seduction” of McHale to En Vogue’s “Something He Can Feel,” during which he straddled McHale’s chair and proceeded to caress and shimmy all around him, while McHale grimaced horribly. Despite his scowling, McHale commented afterward that “someone is going to need to wipe off” his seat, and that this sort of thing happens “all the time” on Community, the show both men act in. Cool J and Teigen seemed flabbergasted. Teigen asked Rash if he had ever done “all of that” before, to which Rash replied, “don’t worry about it.” In this way, Rash, who has refused to comment publicly on his sexuality, indirectly linked himself to homoerotic practices in his own life, and McHale, who is heterosexual, indicated that his active participation not only in their on-stage interaction, but in similar events in their professional lives. Thus both performers actively embraced a subversive gender position, although McHale, after his own performance in drag, acknowledged that their actions were outside the norm: “thank you for letting me shorten my career in front of you,” he shouted to the audience.

Group Shot

Chrissy Teigen, Jim Rash, LL Cool J, and Joel McHale pose after Rash and McHale’s final, cross-dressing performances.

What then, is the ultimate effect of all this gender confusion? For the stars, very little. As long as they carefully delineate their performance from their star persona, this exercise merely signals to casting directors that the star is capable of playing many (gender) roles outside of their normal type. The most immediate benefit is to the network. LSB airs on Spike, a channel which has recently attempted to expand viewership from an exclusively macho-male demographic to one that includes female viewers and attracts co-viewing as well. (( See the original description of their brand when the channel relaunched under that name in 2003: “TNN network can call itself Spike TV,” USA Today, July 7, 2003, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/television/2003-07-07-spike_x.htm )) Network president Kevin Kay commented that LSB was picked up because “it felt like the perfect show to help launch that rebrand.” (( L.A. Ross, How Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Lip Sync Battle’ Launched SpikeTV’s Rebrand: ‘Right Swing at Right Moment’, TheWrap.com, April 16, 2015,
http://www.thewrap.com/how-jimmy-fallons-lip-sync-battle-launched-spiketvs-rebrand-right-swing-at-right-moment/ )) For the network, too, LSB is meant to be a step outside of its box, but not a complete leap.

David Greven argues that our “new queerly-inflected mainstream movie practices” have the potential to open up “safe zones of polyvalent pleasures.” (( David Greven, Manhood in Hollywood from Bush to Bush (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009), 17. )) This is far too utopic a vision to extend to Lip Sync Battle. There is certainly potential for breaking the strict boundary between male and female in the show’s constant cross-dressing. But as we have seen, the show shuts down any subversive possibility as effectively as Tatum wore his wig.

Image Credits:
1. Promotional image for Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 1, originally aired January 7, 2016.
2. Author’s screen grab from Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 5, originally aired April 23, 2015.
3. Author’s screen grab from Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 13, originally aired April 28, 2016.
4. Promotional image from Spike’s Lip Sync Battle, Season 2, Episode 13, originally aired April 28, 2016.
Please feel free to comment.




Looking at Rock Stars Thomas Swiss / University of Minnesota and John Barner / University of Georgia

Psycho Shower 1

Psycho Shower 2

Fig. 1: Marianne Faithfull; Janet Leigh, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (Paramount Pictures, 1960)

I take photographs to see what something looks like as a photograph.
—Garry Winogrand, photographer

These days, people only know my name. They don’t know what I do. I’m just a name.
—Marianne Faithfull

In Part One of this Flow column, we discussed how the modern portrait can be many things—a commodity, a canvas, or a confession. Portraits reflect larger archetypes that progress through the ages and reveal themselves to us in similar poses and themes. In this part, we examine how these similarities present a unique mirror to the psyche and the myth-making that occurs in the iconography of popular culture and its objects: photographs of actors, models, politicians and rock stars. As in Part One, we have assembled photographs and their stylistic antecedents and examined them as if they were parts of a contiguous whole.

Haunted

Portraits partake of the artificial nature of masks because they always impersonate the subject with some degree of conviction. Personhood, strongly attached to names, faces, bodies, and roles, can be understood as a metaphor for a particular intersection of social relations. What is left to the individual or to the artist portraying them is a matter of choice, perhaps an attempt to foster the pleasing deception that either of them is free. This alerts us to a problem in how we understand a photograph; the shifting distinction between its function as an image and its assumed value. In many ways those photographs deemed to have the most value are the least functional, and vice-versa.

Photographs are placed in categories (or genres) that codify their terms of reference and status. An ‘art’ photograph involves an entirely different set of assumptions from a ‘documentary’ photograph; all part of the complex web of interrelationships within which any photograph is suspended. The extent to which so much photographic practice has been haunted in its development by what has been termed ‘the ghost of painting’ is crucial, for photography established, from the outset, genres and hierarchies of significance related to painting. It institutionalized the artistic and professional aspects of its meaning in terms of an academic tradition.

Someone for ‘Something’

To take someone for a ‘something’—a great artist, ‘beauty’, leader or scientist—is to place that person within categories established by consensus to locate members of a society in familiar roles by which they are presentable and knowable. The denotation of someone as ‘the person who is something’ adopts the meta-language of the social act in defining identity, equivalent in its value to the person’s name. Like all ‘portraits’, images remain framed within a context that asserts simultaneously individual significance and attendant myths. They promise access as they declare privilege. And consistently, the ‘portrait’ hovers between extremes: on one hand the passport image, an identity card which stamps itself as an authoritative image; and on the other the studio portrait, which is offered as the realization of the photographer’s definitive attempt to reveal an interior and enigmatic personality that exists solely within the imagination of the viewer.

The Imagined Subject

David Crosby

Fig. 2: David Crosby

The imagined subject in rock photography is displayed as caught up in narcissistic fascination with the mirror image that, with its connections to curiosity and desire, draws the viewer further in, placing themselves in the role of the musician-as-object. One example can be seen in Figure 2, a portrait of David Crosby, then with the Byrds. Crosby is looking over his shoulder into a mirror at his reflection. His eyes are fixed on the image of himself, dressed in the dandy-style clothing the band wore at the time, sporting a satisfied, confident expression. Since the angle obscures Crosby’s “real” face, the viewer is drawn into the reflected image to glean the details of the photograph. We can compare this with Caravaggio’s famous painting Narcissus (see Figure 3), illustrating the egotistic satisfaction and longing present in both the classical Greek myth and the myth of the ever-confident rock star “attitude.” In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the mirror’s reflection and its recognition are a metaphor for ego formation—considering not only the self as it is but also an ideal self—what we most want to be. The point of the ego ideal, for Lacan,

Narcissus

Fig. 3: Narcissus by Caravaggio (1597-1599), Image courtesy of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome

is that “the subject will see himself, as one says, as others see him—which will enable him to support himself.” ((Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans., Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991., 268. Emphasis in original.))

Larry Rivers’s Double Portrait of Frank O’Hara (1955) presents a “doubled” portrait—a simultaneous self and ideal. Through subtle movements of the head and the visual angle of the painting, O’Hara is seen as placid and composed in the right hand panel (see Figure 4) and, with arched eyebrows and a penetrating gaze, much more sinister in the left hand panel. These differences in tone and mood continue in repeated viewings of the portraits, where one begins to show a hint of a smile, the other betrays a downturned countenance, almost a frown. Where the eyes of one are calm, the others seem to burn with inarticulate rage. These two images (which are facets of one image, one subject, one “self”) portray two disparate and irreconcilable aspects of the same personality, indicative of Lacan’s transformative anxiety of the uncanny double experience.

Frank OHara

Fig. 4: Double Portrait of Frank O’ Hara by Larry Rivers (1955)

We call the Rivers portrait “uncanny” in that it captures this dichotomy, whereas other exemplars of Pop Art style, such as Warhol’s duplicated portraits of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, seem to, by the very nature of their photorealistic duplicative process, create vacuous space, and rendered devoid of the vaguest possibility of viewer identification. ((Cf. Steven Shaviro, “The Life, After Death, of Postmodern Emotions” Criticism 46, (2004): 125-141.)) That their difference is so subtle, and may not even be evident upon every viewing, is precisely what makes the doubled image an uncanny image of binary opposition.

Often, the cultural industry of popular music exists to both beckon and keep apart divergent elements away from the “rock icon” ego ideal, as is seen by the dual portrait of Bob Dylan (see Figure 5). In the Dylan portrait, the difference between each is exaggerated and heightened where the previous double portrait of O’Hara is more subtle. Dylan is seen, on the right, as peaceful and calm, with softly closed eyes, with his head tilted slightly and lips puckered as if in a kiss. On the left, Dylan is seen as if in either orgasmic ecstasy or anguished pain, with mouth open, eyes tightly closed, head held

Bob Dylan

Fig. 5: Double Portrait of Bob Dylan

rigidly stiff. The viewer’s attention may seem unable to stay fixed on just one of the images, and indeed the viewer may not be able to reconcile the two images as one, thus increasing the anxiety and tension that are characteristic of the moment of displaced, uncanny identification. As Roland Barthes notes, the moment of identification with a photograph is always split and never reconciled, the moment frozen in time at a point of pivotal “catastrophe”—a catastrophe which has always, already occurred, and always will occur. ((Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981., 96.))

Image Credits:

1. Marianne Faithfull
2. Janet Leigh
3. David Crosby (1966), photograph by Philip Townsend, from author
4. Narcissus, by Carvaggio
5. Frank O’Hara
6. Bob Dylan (1976), photograph by Lynn Goldsmith, from author

Please feel free to comment.




Beyond DRM

by: John McMurria / DePaul University

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

When Steve Jobs posted his “Thoughts on Music” on February 6, 2007, calling for the eradication of digital rights management so that downloaded mp3 music files could be played on any listening devise, growing consumer dissatisfaction with DRM regimes had come to a head. The event was significant given the market dominance of Apple’s iPod and their success in getting the big five music labels to make their songs available for download on iTunes for 99 cents per song. But the manifesto was less than magnanimous as Apple faced opposition across Europe for tying its download service to its proprietary mobile mp3 player using its proprietary FairPlay DRM software. During the summer of 2006 consumer rights agencies in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Germany claimed that Apple’s DRM violated copyright law. In August 2006 France passed a law giving regulators the authority to require Apple to license FairPlay to other makers of MP3 players, which Apple called “state-sponsored piracy.” The Dutch consumer protection agency joined the opposition in January 2007 and advised consumers to stop buying iPods and quit downloading music from iTunes, and instead buy generic mp3 players and download music from DRM-free services such as eMusic, which does not carry the big five’s labels but offers a range of independent music. Recently Norway ruled that Apple’s DRM strategy was illegal and the Norwegian consumer protection agency called for Apple to make FairPlay available to competitors by October 1. Microsoft and Sony were not intimidated by this and created their own proprietary DRM-protected music services tied to their own music players. In his statement, Jobs said DRM licensing would be untenable because its secrets for protection would be leaked, though critics have pointed out that Microsoft has been successful in licensing its DRM system. The internet content innovator ZDNET, a network of CNET, produced a much watched video that lambasted all of these DRM strategies as CRAP, or Content Restriction, Annulment and Protection.

In addition to pressure from consumer advocates, Apple had incentive to scrap DRM because after nearly four years of selling songs on iTunes, only 3% of the music on users’ iPods was downloaded from iTunes. An independent study found that iTunes sells only 20 songs per iPod sold. Apple is therefore less dependent on iTunes to attract iPod buyers than the music conglomerates are in finding successful models for profiting from music downloads to offset losses in DVD sales. Research at Yahoo suggests that consumers would pay 20 percent more for music downloads if there were no DRM restrictions, indicating that DRM curtails demand for pay per downloads. In a different strategy, last year Microsoft agreed to share a portion of the sales price of its new Zune mp3 player with Universal Music. Warner is looking to cell phones as a potentially more secure network for copy protected music downloads. Ad-supported music downloading sites including Spiralfrog and Qtrax are developing new revenue models and have attracted the major labels. But the promises of these services were put in doubt at the recent Midemnet industry trade show in Cannes when these two services failed to announce launch dates and a panel of young music fans unanimously agreed that audio ads sucked.

Zune Squeeze

Zune Squeeze

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a legal advocate for “internet freedom,” has proposed “Voluntary Collective Licensing” for music distribution. This entails the music industry forming a collecting society that would allow music file-sharing for those who volunteer to pay $5 per month. These funds are then distributed proportionally to music artists based on the volume of downloads. Since 1914 similar licensing arrangements have been formed by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), and the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC) for radio and television broadcasts. Unlike “compulsory licensing” which legally enforces the universal collection of fees, such as those that cable and satellite carriers pay to carry over-the-air broadcast programs, the government-weary EFF counts on “market forces” and voluntary good citizenship on the part of file-sharers and corporate music labels. A more far reaching proposal came from the French parliament in December 2005 when it introduced a bill for compulsory licensing for music and video over the internet that included an 8 to12 Euro added fee to broadband service. While receiving strong support from the left, the Green Party, the center right UDF and consumer groups, the French government bowed to intense opposition from the powerful music labels and killed the bill. The Universal Music Group vigorously opposed the legislation, as one commentator explained, “When you’ve reached 30 per cent market share, when you’ve pulled off the last big merger, when you’ve built up the barriers, there’s not a lot of benefit from equalizing access.” Meanwhile, the International Intellectual Property Alliance, an association that represents Hollywood and the US software and publishing industries, has lobbied the US government to eliminate compulsory licensing in countries around the world.

Universal Music Group CEO Doug Morris

Universal Music Group CEO Doug Morris

Despite Apple’s support for a DRM-free internet, the big music labels and Hollywood are not likely to dispense with DRM and their legal enforcement teams anytime soon. Yet the prospects for a post-DRM audiovisual economy and culture present a challenge to the neo-liberal frameworks that have largely guided internet regulation to date. Less an electronic frontier of market competition and consumer choice, DRM regimes expose the failed attempts of oligopoly capital to maintain market leverage over artists and consumers in an online environment. It is not the ethics of market competition and consumer choice that provides alternatives, but an ethics of collective bargaining where laboring artists and consumers share collective interests that require agreed upon mechanisms for user payments, creative compensation and electronic distribution. Collective societies in the US such as ASCAP provide precedents for collectively compensating creative content makers through blanket licensing agreements. The state consumer rights agencies in Europe demonstrate that internet music consumers benefit when collectively represented by independent government authorities. When consumers and laborers have organized representation through compulsory licensing arrangements they can negotiate with market players to develop innovative mechanisms and business plans for circulating audiovisual culture unencumbered by restrictive DRM regimes. This is far from the market evangelism and rugged individualism of the internet enthusiasts of Wired magazine or the cyber utopianism which grew out of a counter cultural movement that prognosticated the withering of corporate and government bureaucracies. Compulsory licensing requires representative organizations from the corporate, government and user sectors to set rates, apportion compensation and enforce compliance. Messy and bureaucratic? Perhaps, yes. A potential future for a more vibrant and just audiovisual internet culture? Perhaps, if we organize.

Image Credits:
1. Steve Jobs
2. Zune Squeeze
3. Universal Music Group CEO Doug Morris

Please feel free to comment.




Let’s Get Small: The Year When the Record Industry Broke and Listeners Became Crazy, Mixed Up, Downloading, File-Sharing Freaks

EMusic

EMusic

Like so many teachers, the end of the year for me is a time to catch up. Many of you may be catching up with unviewed programming, unopened letters or unread books you started in September but had to put down once the midterms, students and committee obligations rolled in for the next 10 to 16 weeks. For me, that means looking at end-of-the-year best of lists, particularly for popular music. Compared to film and television, trends in popular music move at light speed. The relatively low amount of investment capital it takes to produce a quality set of recordings has meant that significant aesthetic movements like local music scenes and subgenres can rise and fall without making an impact on the charts or popular consciousness. What this means for someone like me, someone who doesn’t get out to live music as often as they once did or has the free time to simply explore pop music with friends and music lovers alike, is that I play catch up when I can and my month-long holiday break truly becomes that most wonderful time of the year.

And Lord knows I need that time to catch up. To paraphrase Robert Christgau, unless you are obscenely wealthy or a professional music critic you probably aren’t going to have enough time and money to follow the vast set of genres and artists that constitute contemporary popular music. Furthermore, because social networks tend to depreciate and/or stagnate in terms of variety and numbers as one ages, an inverse relationship between your age and you’re your knowledge of contemporary popular music quickly develops. Put simply, the older you are, the less likely you will know or care to know who Young Jeezy is and why he is a “Soul Survivor.” So, in finding the time to read my issues of Spin, troll the web and have some old-fashioned discussions with my local hip baristas about “what I should be listening to”, a number of issues arose. While I finally had the time to listen to those Antony and the Johnsons, Bloc Party and Clipse records that had piled up, the story of 2005 lied not so much in what one listened to, or even in the fact that there was as much good music in 2005 as I can remember. The story of 2005 didn’t even reside in how one listened to music, but in how the listeners got those recordings. In other words, as I went about my days of reading, writing and grading, the kids had not only bought new music, but there were new ways of buying music. As illegal file sharing sources such as Kazaa and WinAmp were effectively slowed down, more and more legitimate distribution networks were established. In 2004 iTunes could claim a million song catalogue and by 2005 emusic, which specializes in independent music distribution, also met the million song mark. As one Major Label A&R person told me late in the year, “We finally plugged the holes in the system.” Furthermore, not only did those iPods get smaller and smaller, more and more listeners had gone from being curious about iPods in 2004 to finding them absolutely essential only one year later. But the most important story of the year wasn’t the iPod Nano, it was that an effective infrastructure of legal file distribution was finally in place. As a result, the music industry can put a stake in the heart of disk distribution. The combination of legal networks and a significant portion of the audience walking around with 60GB hard drives meant that, sometime in the last 12 months, both audiences and industry alike uttered a collective “iacta alea est” and crossed a “technological” Rubicon.

Just like any gamble, what exactly the outcome of all of these new organizations and their effects will be on listening and production is not clear. What is clear are the numbers. And the numbers tell us that audiences are buying significantly fewer and fewer pre-recorded discs. As the radio industry website fmqb.com noted in an end-of-the-year article (December 30, 2005):

“While there’s still two more days for cash registers to ring in 2005, sales of albums in the U.S. should come in around seven percent behind last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan, however, digital downloads have more than doubled in the past twelve months.”

There was even more bad news for the disk-oriented portion of the industry, which was already in a slow, but steady decline. With the exception of the less-than-outstanding 1.9% rise in number of CD units shipped in 2004, according to the RIAA the years of 2001 (-6.4%), 2002 (-8.9%) and 2003 (-7.1%) confirm the diminishing importance of pre-recorded music. Compare this to the rise of legal downloads skyrocketing between 2004 and 2005 and one certainly does not need a crystal ball to notice that the 148% upward trend (134.2 million to 332.7 million) speaks volumes. And less than 10 days into 2006, Billboard reports that, “In the seven-day stretch between Christmas and the new year, millions of consumers armed with new MP3 players (primarily iPods) and stacks of gift cards gobbled up almost 20 million tracks from iTunes and other download retailers.”

Again, the key is not to confuse consumption with distribution. Despite what Ken Tucker claimed on a December 20th, 2005 interview on Fresh Air, it isn’t consumption that changed. People may not be buying discs, but they are buying laptops and digital music players. Lest we forget, an iPod is little more than a small but powerful record and playback device. And while “podcasting” and “TIVOing” of television may be a radical change for television and radio, concern about “time shifting” performances began to dominate the music industry beginning in the 1930s. By the late 1940s, when long play and magnetic tape recordings began to outstrip sheet music in terms of sales and industry importance, time shifting had effectively become the rule of thumb for musicians and listeners alike. This isn’t to say that the musicians thought that time shifting was good idea. In fact, they vehemently resisted in the form of two national recording bans, but that’s another story (Anderson 2004).

Myspace Music

Myspace Music

What is interesting is that artists such as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Annie may be the first two critically revered pop music acts to rely more so on the distribution capabilities of the internet not simply to outflank broadcast radio, but in a direct-to-listener micro fashion that effectively grants music and bands a “personalized” aura. In fact, while major labels still aim for the distributive potency of radio airplay (it’s still the only way to move a million units or more), more and more artists are utilizing various computer and Internet networking techniques for viral marketing opportunity. And these techniques are effective. For example, while my students rarely speak about radio stations, they do talk about the songs they hear through their peers online playlists and personal sites such as those found on MySpace.com. And just like a virus that you can catch simply because you briefly connected with a fellow traveler, popular music is no longer something that we need to go some specific place to hear or purchase.

(a) Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (b) Annie

What this has meant for someone like myself is that assignments I used to give in popular music classes regarding music purchasing no longer have the pedagogical impact that they once did even 5 years ago. Because more and more of us no longer go to record stores (or even frequencies on the dial), a specific musical geography is dissolving around us as the music industry has adjusted to make bricks and mortar. Over 18 months have passed since Virgin shut down a number of its US-based megastores, leaving my city of Columbus, Ohio with second tier acts such as FYE to fill the bill as a local catalogue store. At the end of December part of that second tier began to fall as Media Play, a chain associated with FYE through the holdings of Trans World, announced it would, close the doors to all 61 of its stores, including the four in the Columbus area. If poor fourth quarter reports slammed the doors of the chain shut, the poor Christmas season of 2005 was the equivalent of Snidely Whiplash throwing the chain’s possessions into the cold with one hand while changing the locks with his other. And while this Christmas season was bad for many retailers, for many music retailers it was simply beyond the pale. According to the same article,

“The biggest drop during the season was in music sales, which were down 15 percent. However, sales of electronics and other equipment were up 3 percent, he said.
The soft season comes at a time when many entertainment retailers are struggling. And the trade newspaper Billboard reported that U.S. album sales were down 10 percent in 2005, although digital sales tripled in the 53-week comparison.
Rocky Roy, owner of Music Shack in Colonie, can empathize. He said the CD and music store saw holiday-season sales decline 15 percent in December from a year ago.
I get the feeling, based on the sale of iPods, that’s going to continue,” he said.”

Indeed, that loss will continue and we should recognize that we are at the beginning of one of those unique cultural moments, a moment where we end one mode of distribution and begin another, a moment that cuts both ways. I assume I will miss my catalogue stores, look forward to my trips to San Francisco, Phoenix and New York so I can visit Amoeba, Zias and Towers, and continue to frequent a number of smaller used and specialty shops. But I can’t say this kind of longing for a media space has any place in my student’s lives. While the extinction of the large, well-stocked, colorful, multi-genre record store is inevitable in all but the most hip, urban American centers does not exactly signal the demise of a overly centralized system of control, it does make it clear that many of the centralizing forces of geography have been effectively removed. And while I may mourn the loss of the record store as an element central to the popular music experience, it is something that I hope artists and producers will continue to organize around. If we no longer have to press as many physical discs let alone pieces of cover art, then maybe our investments can get so low that we won’t have to worry so much about making a video or paying for the airplay that is so persuasive that when we see or hear it we are forced to get up, leave our houses, drive to our local Sam Goody and plunk down $15 to $19 on a CD with only two good songs. Maybe this will be one of those moments when the music industry can become, for lack of a better phrase, “fun” again, something it hasn’t been in years. And as bottom line excessive as capitalism wants us to become, perhaps we can find some time at the beginning of the post-disk era to explore what it would mean to live in a pop music world where artists and producers need not deal with those excesses that so many of us believed had become part and parcel of the music industry. Maybe we will get a chance to, like punks in the late 1970s and hip hop of the early 1980s, once again see what it means to get really small together.

Work Cited:
Anderson, Tim J., “Buried Under the Fecundity of His Own Creations: Rethinking The Stockpile, The Standing Reserve and the Recording Bans of the American Federation of Musician, 1942 to 1944 and 1948,” American Music, Summer 2004.

Image Credits:

1. EMusic

2. Myspace Music

3a. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

3b. Annie

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