Synchronizing Song and (Diegetic) Sound in Music Videos
Laurel Westrup / University of California, Los Angeles

Thao Nguyen of Thao & The Get Down Stay Down enables computer audio in the group’s recent Zoom-inspired music video, “Phenom.”

What happens to music videos during a global pandemic? Some have taken to music video parodies and remixes to express their COVID-19 lockdown triumphs and tribulations. Others have taken the virus as inspiration for new music. Detroit rapper Gmac Cash, known for his comedic raps, brings both levity and a serious public service message to his “Coronavirus” music video. Still others have found creative workarounds. Thao & The Get Down Stay Down’s recent music video for “Phenom” took to Zoom (like so many of us) after their video shoot was cancelled. These videos are products of a remarkable time, and they certainly provide us some much needed entertainment. The Gmac Cash and Thao videos appeal to us not only through their timely content, though—they also use diegetic sound to get our attention. While the term “music video” implies the centrality of the song, diegetic sound is a typical, though understudied, component of music videos.

In my first Flow column, I suggested that the audio-visual synchronization that characterizes music videos extends beyond the presumed function of videos as advertisements for popular songs. Here, I will return to that assertion from a different angle. If music videos are expected to sell a song, then the song is what we should hear, right? While his own analyses often refuse this simplistic reading, music video scholar Mathias Bonde Korsgaard initially suggests that one of the defining qualities of a music video is that “no incisions are made in the song’s structure—the song’s length determines the video’s length.”[ (( Mathias Bonde Korsgaard, Music Video After MTV: Audiovisual Studies, New Media, and Popular Music (New York, Routledge, 2017), 26. ))] This implies that song and soundtrack are one-and-the-same, and that the song must not be altered nor non-song diegetic sounds added that might extend or interrupt the soundtrack provided by the song. In practice, though, this is almost never the case.

Music video scholars have long noted outliers that move beyond song-as-soundtrack. To take a classic example, Michael Jackson and John Landis’s Thriller (1983) incorporates multiple musical cues and diegetic sound effects, and it also rearranges the album version of the song to better center both Jackson’s dancing ability and the video’s narrative.[ (( I have previously argued that Thriller’s sound design plays a key role in claims for its consideration as a short film (rather than a music video), though I think it functions as both. In keeping with Landis’s and Jackson’s framing of the project as film, I have italicized it here. See my “The Long and the Short of Music Video,” The Projector: A Journal on Film, Media, and Culture 16, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 19–35, ))] The 6-minute album version of “Thriller” incorporates some sound effects, but the 14-minute Thriller video is much more sonically complex. Relatively few music videos rework the original song and sound design as extensively as Thriller. But by treating Thriller as an outlier, we risk suggesting that most music videos simply import a pop song as soundtrack. Nearly all music videos use a song (or sometimes multiple songs) as a starting point, true, but they frequently add to and/or alter the song(s) in their sound design.

While Thriller (1983) incorporates non-song score and diegetic sound effects, it’s neither the first music video to broaden the music video soundtrack nor particularly unique in this regard.

Sound design that extends beyond the commodity version of the song often serves a music video’s narrative, which may or may not extend from the song’s lyrics. For instance, while the lyrics of Logic’s “1-800-273-8255” (titled after the American suicide prevention hotline) already suggest the narrative progression of a teen protagonist from suicidal thoughts—“I just want to die today”—to hope—“I don’t even want to die today”—the video extends and deepens this narrative, in part by adding additional sound elements and rearranging the song. In “1-800,” Director Andy Hines bookends the opening and closing of the song, itself stretched well beyond its original 4 minutes, with the cooing sounds of a baby and a man singing a lullaby. In the first scene, a father (Don Cheadle) comforts his baby son. Over the course of the music video, his son (Coy Stewart), now a teenager, struggles with his sexuality and almost commits suicide, in part because of his father’s rejection. The last scene sees father and son reconciled, and we hear the adult son singing to his own child. The cooing and lullaby sounds are integral to the video’s narrative structure as the main character’s near-tragic story comes full circle.[ (( For a more extensive analysis of this video, see my “Listen Again: Music Video’s Cinematic Soundscapes,” in The Oxford Handbook of Cinematic Listening, ed. Carlo Cenciarelli (forthcoming, Oxford University Press). ))] These additional sounds deepen our engagement with the video’s diegetic world beyond the basic narrative of the song’s lyrics.

In Logic’s “1-800-273-8255,” director Andy Hines extends and rearranges several elements of the original song as well as incorporating additional diegetic sound to tell the story of a troubled teen.

Throughout “1-800,” Hines finds transitional moments in the song (i.e. between verse and chorus) where musical elements can be extended, reworked, or muted to make space for narrative expansion. We see and hear a similar, though perhaps less seamless example of this in Hayley Kiyoko’s “Girls Like Girls” music video, where at a natural break in the original song a little before 3:00, the song becomes muted for the dramatic climax of the video, where the two girls consummate their attraction in a kiss and one of the girls fights the other’s abusive boyfriend. In this case, while the lyrics of the song suggest an attraction between female friends, and perhaps even a boyfriend who’s in the way, the video elaborates on this narrative, and the additional dialogue and diegetic sound during the muted segment of the song provide space for this extension.[ (( While we might assume that an artist would not want the integrity of their song disturbed by the type of sound design I describe here, Hines was encouraged by Logic to develop the video for “1-800” in the way he did, and Kiyoko is listed as co-director on “Girls Like Girls.” For more on working relationships between musicians and directors, see my previous Flow column. ))]

Diegetic sound need not be focused on narrative development, though. It can also be musicalized so that it augments both the story world and the song. Unlike “1-800” or “Girls Like Girls,” Lil Nas X’s “Panini” includes only the faintest whiff of narrative. Nonetheless, the futuristic world of the video is vivid, both visually and aurally. Throughout the video, diegetic sounds like Lil Nas X’s rocket boots landing on an airplane wing and the crackle of a hologram screen add sonic punctuation to the song. As in Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” video (released 30 years prior), diegetic sound also conveys the embodied experience of dance, in this case rendering the robot dancers more “real,” as we hear the sounds of their bodies in motion.

In Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” (1989) and Lil Nas X’s “Panini” (2019) musicalized diegetic sounds render bodies in motion more real.

In all of the videos I’ve discussed thus far, the diegetic sounds are quite noticeable. But sound design can play a more subtle role in integrating song and story in music videos. Take the example of “Phenom.” Like “Panini,” “Phenom” is not explicitly a narrative music video. It does have a narrative frame, though: Thao is at her computer, connecting with friends via Zoom. We not only see her screen at the beginning of the video, but we also hear her click on “new meeting” and then “join with computer audio.” These quotidian sounds might seem unremarkable, but they do a couple things for us as listeners. First, they give us a moment to take in the video’s context, and to recognize the visual Zoom interface. Second, these clicks give the song, once it starts, a sense of intimacy. In listening to the song, we seem to be listening to the track along with Thao on her computer. She’s sharing her sound with us as well as with her friends. This is important since, as Thao told The Verge, “At first we didn’t know if we would even release the song [during the Coronavirus pandemic] because it’s about people unifying.”[ (( Qtd. in Dani Deahl, “How Thao & The Get Down Stay Down Made a Music Video on Zoom” The Verge, April 8, 2020. ))] The sense of connection so central to the song is signaled not only lyrically or through the cleverly choreographed Zoom dance routine, but also through the simple clicks through which Thao shares her audio with us.

The clicking we hear at the beginning of “Phenom” prepares us for the Zoom spectacular that ensues and lends the video a sense of intimacy.

The use of additional—non-song—sound in “Phenom” is not as obviously about story-telling as are some of the other examples I’ve discussed, and yet the clicking we hear can clearly be considered diegetic sound. It is part of the video’s simple story world, in which friends get together on Zoom to commune and create art. This sound is subtle, but effective. In a time where so much is changing by the minute, I find this simple gesture—to music video conventions as well as our shared story of isolation and connection—comforting.

Image Credits:

  1. Thao Nguyen of Thao & The Get Down Stay Down enables computer audio in the group’s recent Zoom-inspired music video, “Phenom.” (author’s screengrab)
  2. While Thriller (1983) incorporates non-song score and diegetic sound effects, it’s neither the first music video to broaden the music video soundtrack nor particularly unique in this regard. (author’s screengrab)
  3. In Logic’s “1-800-273-8255,” director Andy Hines extends and rearranges several elements of the original song as well as incorporating additional diegetic sound to tell the story of a troubled teen. (author’s screengrab)
  4. In Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” (1989) and Lil Nas X’s “Panini” (2019) musicalized diegetic sounds render bodies in motion more real. (author’s screengrab)


Synchronizing Creatives in Music Video Production
Laurel Westrup / University of California, Los Angeles

Ryan Staake cleverly outlines the absent artist (Young Thug) in “Wyclef Jean” (2017)
Ryan Staake cleverly outlines the absent artist (Young Thug) in “Wyclef Jean” (2017).

Imagine you’ve created a successful music video treatment, gotten the go ahead from the label, planned a shoot… and the artist doesn’t show. This is a fairly common scenario, often resulting in cumbersome costs and delays.[ ((See Staake’s interview with Rolling Stone: Eric Ducker, “Young Thug ‘Wyclef Jean’ Director on How He Saved His Nightmare Shoot,” Rolling Stone, January 17, 2017, As Staake discusses, this project was somewhat anomalous from the scenario I paint above from the beginning. Staake was actually the second director on the project, and it wasn’t really his treatment driving the project (until after the shoot went south and he came up with the alternative idea that we ultimately see in the video). ))] But Ryan Staake and Young Thug’s 2017 “Wyclef Jean” video makes light of just such a disastrous shoot. Using title cards, subtitles, and minimal footage of Young Thug, Staake wittily narrates a music video that should by all rights have been an utter disaster. On the one hand, “Wyclef Jean” is a case where a music video’s director and its featured artist are wildly out of synch: as Staake narrates, “we never met each other.” And yet the video’s unique charm relies on the creative vision of both director and artist. Young Thug’s preposterous ideas and footage (video vixens in children’s hot wheels cars, the artist eating Cheetos) provide the perfect foil for Staake’s wry sense of humor. And in the end, both Staake and “Thugger” (as Staake refers to him in the video) benefitted from this unusual collaboration: Staake won an MTV Video Music Award for best editing (albeit without his “co-director’s” knowledge), and Young Thug gained additional notoriety (the video currently has over 36 million views). 

Staake tells the story of his failed shoot with title cards (and some footage from Young Thug). Four screenshots taken by author and arranged in block per request.
Staake tells the story of his failed shoot with title cards (and some footage from Young Thug).

Despite its silliness, “Wyclef Jean” raises some serious questions regarding the work of music videomaking. In my previous column, I discussed audio-visual synchronization as a key aesthetic feature of music videos. But we can think about synchronization in a more industrial sense too. How do music video productions reconcile music and image, and the work of creative personnel from varying backgrounds, in the creative process?

Some musicians reject music videos as a waste of their time, while others have taken a more active role in their creation. Noel Gallagher of Oasis reportedly hated the time and energy he had to expend on music videos in his band’s heyday. In one of his characteristic rants, he denigrated the work of music video directors, painting them as pompous and overly serious about their work: “I fucking hate videos,” he railed, not least because, “I don’t like the fact that the people who’re making them think they’re making Apocalypse Now.”

Other artists, however, have found that taking an active role in the creation of music videos gives them another means of creative expression and control over their image. Cyndi Lauper, for instance, famously oversaw and participated in every aspect of her “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” music video. Drawing on Michael Shore’s “making of” account for Rolling Stone, Lisa A. Lewis wrote, “Lauper’s name appears over and over as a contributor at virtually every stage of production. It is ‘Cyndi’ who picks the video’s producer Ken Walz, and director Ed Griles…[She] suggests the video’s concept, picks location sites in New York City, brings in choreographer Mary Ellen Strom and finds extras to appear in the video.”[ ((Lisa A. Lewis, “Being Discovered: The Emergence of Female Address on MTV,” in Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader, ed. Simon Frith, Andrew Goodwin, and Lawrence Grossberg (London ; New York: Routledge, 1993), 133. Thanks to Paul N. Reinsch for reminding me of this important example, and as always for his feedback on my work. ))]

Lauper even did some of the set design and oversaw the editing and effects. As Lewis pointed out, this level of control was rare for a female artist at the time, and consequently Lauper’s contributions were all the more important. As she put it herself, “I know what I want and don’t want—I don’t want to be portrayed as just another sex symbol.”[ ((Qtd. in Ibid. ))]

Cyndi Lauper made many of the creative decisions for her music video “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (1984).

In other cases, music videos are the result of true collaboration between musicians and mediamakers. Take, for instance, the high profile partnership between Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) and Hiro Murai. The pair have not only made five music videos together, including the much discussed “This is America,” but also several other projects, including the acclaimed TV show Atlanta (FX, 2016-). Murai told Deadline, “Regularly in music videos, I’ll write the pitch and convince the artists that this is a good idea, and then I’m having to make concessions to meet in the middle. With Donald, I always feel like we’re facing in the same direction. Of course, he’s a writer and he writes a lot of the concepts for the music videos, as well. So, I don’t know. There was something about it that felt very easy for me.” The extent of Glover and Murai’s partnership is unusual: as Murai notes, after all, Glover is not “just” a musician but also a writer and actor. Nonetheless, their collaboration points toward the fluidity between artists’ ideas and directors’ ideas in music video production.

“This is America” (2018) showcases the productive (and frequent) collaboration between Childish Gambino (Donald Glover), director Hiro Murai, and DP Larkin Seiple.

But to talk only about collaboration between directors and musicians is also reductive. Much has been made of Glover and Murai’s partnership, but the popular press has not focused on Larkin Seiple, the DP who not only shot “This is America,” but several of the duo’s other music videos. Key to “This is America’s” success has been the open-endedness of its imagery, which invites viewer-listeners to speculate and interpret. This openness is partly attributable to Seiple’s cinematography. As he discusses in an interview with American Cinematographer, he and Murai worked to develop an “accidental tableau” approach. He says, “we realized the camera should really be moving … so the audience can focus on the spectacle and the dance, letting the surreal elements drift in and out of frame. It’s more about the audience finding each piece.”

Collaboration is important to making music videos work financially as well as creatively. Director Isaac Ravishankara’s work with the group LANY demonstrates this. Ravishankara shot two videos for the group, “Thick and Thin” and “Malibu Nights,” on the same day in 2018. He recently told me that the concept for “Thick and Thin,” which consists of a long tracking shot where Paul Klein sings while sitting on the trunk of a car in motion, was based on an idea he had wanted to make for a long time. While Klein liked the idea, and was up for it, the label was skeptical, in part because of the costs: the video involved closing down a stretch of Southern California’s Pacific Coast Highway, in addition to renting a special rig to keep Klein on the car. Ravishankara consequently had the idea of shooting another video in the same location so that the label would get two videos for essentially the same cost.

LANY’s Paul Klein in two 2018 videos by Isaac Ravishankara. “Thick and Thin” (left) is based on Ravishankara’s concept and “Malibu Nights” (right) on Klein’s.
LANY’s Paul Klein in two 2018 videos by Isaac Ravishankara. “Thick and Thin” (left) is based on Ravishankara’s concept and “Malibu Nights” (right) on Klein’s.

The second video, “Malibu Nights” was based on an idea from Klein, who had acquired a transparent lucite piano and wanted to play it on the beach as waves crashed around him. Both videos are striking, and both play with stasis and motion, albeit in different ways. They speak to the creativity of both Ravishankara and Klein, not only in terms of aesthetics but also in terms of navigating the practicalities of music video production: label concerns, budgets, shooting schedules, etc.

I don’t mean to suggest that collaboration is somehow unique to music video production. Media Studies boasts an increasingly robust scholarship on the many forms of labor required to produce a project, from the work of executive producers to below-the-line personnel. However, I do think that music video’s characteristic integration of music and moving images requires a different kind of collaboration and creative balancing act. Music video directors, DPs, and editors are required to think musically much more than they would in other projects, and musicians are required to think visually. This kind of creative synchronization doesn’t always happen, but when it does, as in the examples featured here, the results are memorable.

Image Credits:

  1. Ryan Staake cleverly outlines the absent artist (Young Thug) in “Wyclef Jean” (2017). (author’s screen grab)
  2. Staake tells the story of his failed shoot with title cards (and some footage from Young Thug). (author’s screen grab)
  3. Cyndi Lauper made many of the creative decisions for her music video “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (1984).
  4. “This is America” (2018) showcases the productive (and frequent) collaboration between Childish Gambino (Donald Glover), director Hiro Murai, and DP Larkin Seiple.
  5. LANY’s Paul Klein in two 2018 videos by Isaac Ravishankara. “Thick and Thin” (left) is based on Ravishankara’s concept and “Malibu Nights” (right) on Klein’s. (author’s screen grab)

Advocating on Behalf of Independent Musicians: Copyright Reform and Corporate Consolidation
Brian Fauteux / University of Alberta

Spotify banner outside NYSE on opening day
People walk by the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on the morning that the music streaming service Spotify begins trading shares at the NYSE on April 3, 2018 in New York City.

Corporate streaming music services have brought forth few benefits for independent musicians. Meagre payouts, limited catalogues, and predictable algorithms combine to reward a shrinking number of bestselling popstars. Despite these issues, streaming services are often characterized by narratives of progress and superiority (infinite choices, new avenues of “discovery,” low prices). 

This narrative routinely makes its way into popular writing on streaming music. A recent Pitchfork column about the fusion of indie and pop in the 2010s describes streaming music listening as “detached, fully and finally, from the Earth. Recorded music simply materializes around us whenever we need it.” This recalls the concept of remediation, made evident by these popular assessments of our digital-musical-ecosystem whereby new media are “presenting themselves as refashioned and improved versions of other media” (Bolter and Grusin 1999, pp. 14-15). In a more blunt and messianic expression, Spotify is “the savior” of the music business.

In this introductory column (the first of three on issues of equity in the streaming music industry), I describe the process of participating in Canada’s copyright review process. In September of last year, Brianne Selman (University of Winnipeg) and I appeared before The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage: Remuneration Models for Artists and Creative Industries on behalf of The Cultural Capital Project, a collaborative research project that investigates issues of fair payment for creators (which also includes Andrew deWaard, UCSD). The purpose of our appearance, and subsequent written brief, was to argue that in an industry characterized by market consolidation, an imbalance of power between creators and big businesses is one of the largest factors that prevents fair remuneration for artists.

Members of the Cultural Capital Project, Brianne Selman and the author, speak to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage during the hearing “Reumneration Models for Artists in Creative Industries.” More info at

Canadian musicians are at the mercy of non-Canadian media and tech companies. In 2015, Billboard reported that Universal, Sony, and Warner control roughly 86% of the North American recording and publishing market. LiveNation and AEG monopolize the live concert and ticketing business; SiriusXM dictates the satellite radio market and has purchased Pandora; and the digital streaming media sector has come to be dominated by Apple, Google, Amazon, Netflix, and Spotify. Further, the top 1% of artists account for 77% of recorded music income (Thompson 2014), and radio playlists and Billboard charts are dominated by just a handful of the record industry’s biggest superstars (Craven McGinty 2018). 

In light of these trends, our submission advanced recommendations that sought to rethink copyright and the role of the public domain in the Canadian music industries. A few of these recommendations include: an increase of public funding dedicated to independent artists; to recognize that user rights and the creative commons have value for Canadian creativity and that these should be protected; and to consider automatic rights reversions as a way to mitigate the ill effects of copyright term extensions. At this time, Canada had signed on to the USMCA, which includes a copyright term extension from 50 years after the author’s death to 70 years, an extension that industry representatives were collectively in favor of.

More specifically, we suggest that the federal government should prioritize relationships with provincial and municipal governments, particularly when it comes to policies and initiatives that fund and support live music venues, small record labels, do-it-yourself and artist-run spaces, and campus and community radio stations. Our submission argues that a more thorough consideration of public domain principles in our thinking around the digital music industries and copyright/cultural policies is essential if we are to take issues of equity and sustainability in the music industries seriously. This is an issue made all the more pertinent as conservative provincial governments in Canada have been slashing funding to their investment to arts and culture. In Ontario, funding for the Ontario Music Fund was reduced from $15 million to $7 million by the province’s Progressive Conservative government budget. More recently in Alberta, a budget rife with cuts to essential public services projects that over 50% of the province’s Arts and Creative Industries budget will be gone by the year 2023. 

With respect to rights reversions, we argue that copyright term extensions do not hold up to scrutiny in cultural economic theory (Giblin 2018) and that most of the commercial value of a sound recording is extracted in the first 10 years; so a 70 years after death term provides no real additional incentive for creators (Gowers Review of Intellectual Property 2018, p. 52). To mitigate the ill effects of the term extension we encourage a careful consideration of automatic rights reversions, with rights reverting back to authors after a period of no greater than 25 years. This echoes other arguments that have been put forth, including Bryan Adams (yes, that Bryan Adams) advocating for rights reversions with the ability of creators to reclaim ownership of creations 25 years after they have been given away (see also Rebecca Giblin’s Conversation post on Adams’s appearance). This recommendation offers some balance to the historically imbalanced relationship between artists and record labels, where creators are often pressured to sign away their rights for life.

Musician Bryan Adams before standing committee on Canadian Heritage
Canadian rock star Bryan Adams appears as a witness at a Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage in Ottawa on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.

Reflecting on this process, it felt as though our ideas were heard and that the Committee was in support of initiatives to improve the livelihoods of Canadian musicians. However, the report published by the Committee that followed the meetings and briefs, “Shifting Paradigms,” advanced a status quo narrative of continued copyright protection that was pushed by industry representatives.

Music industry representatives and lobbyists were collectively in favor of extending the copyright term (these can be read in our summaries of their briefs and presentations). On a positive note, the report did make recommendations that urge tech companies and streaming companies to support the work of Canadian creators, but there is very little in the way of tangible policy suggestions that provide an indication that these corporations will comply. Much of this discussion fell within an emphasis on the “Value Gap” in Canada’s music industries. 

Music Canada, a non-profit “trade association that promotes and protects the value of music and advocates on behalf of its creators,” defines the Value Gap as “the result of the marked disparity between the value returned to those artists creating and developing artistic content, and the online sources and telecommunications corporations who benefit greatly from the distribution of said content” (Bambrick 2019). Further, “Shifting Paradigms” did indicate support for an artist protection provision (in its Recommendation 14) and this is one area in which our submission and brief is represented. However, we recommended a Copyright Act amendment that would make a rights reversion automatic, so it will remain to be seen how this recommendation is applied. We are concerned that if the rights reversion is not properly enforced, the situation will be one in which artist contracts are restructured to avoid this protection provision.  

Just as there are issues with concentration in the telecommunications and broadcasting industry, as the “Value Gap” report indicates, the same can be said for the record industry (Music Canada lists its three members as the Canadian subsidiaries of the Big 3 record labels: Sony Music Entertainment Canada Inc., Universal Music Canada Inc., and Warner Music Canada Co.). More substantial copyright reform would advance a digital-musical ecosystem that provides fair compensation to artists and acknowledges listening norms and practices of everyday users.

Streaming music services are now the dominant music providers in Canada as in much of the world, and at the same time, the record industry’s increasing concentration has meant the continued persistence of a power dynamic that marginalizes independent musicians. Our hope is that our research may help to protect a vibrant and diverse Canadian music industry and that more space can be occupied by artists and non-industry representatives in the policy-making process as well as in the reporting on issues of equity in the music industries. 

Notes: “The Cultural Capital Project: Digital Stewardship and Sustainable Monetization for Canadian Independent Musicians” is a SSHRC-funded research project led by Brian Fauteux, Brianne Selman, and Andrew deWaard, with research assistance from Dan Colussi, Anna Dundas-Richter, and William Northlich.

Media Credits:

  1. People walk by the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on the morning that the music streaming service Spotify begins trading shares at the NYSE on April 3, 2018 in New York City.
  2. Members of the Cultural Capital Project, Brianne Selman and the author, speak to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage during the hearing “Remuneration Models for Artists in Creative Industries.” More info at
  3. Canadian rock star Bryan Adams appears as a witness at a Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage in Ottawa on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.


Bambrick, H. (2019). Foreward. Closing the value gap: How to fix safe harbours and save the creative middle class. Music Canada. Retrieved from

Bolter, J., & Grusin, R. (1999). Remediation: Understanding new media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Giblin, R. (2018). A new copyright bargain? Reclaiming lost culture and getting authors paid. Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts, 41, 369-411.

Gowers Review of Intellectual Property. (2006). December. Retrieved from 

Craven McGinty, J. (2018). Superstars are hogging Billboard’s Hot 100. The Wall Street Journal. 14 December. Retrieved from

Thompson, D. (2014). The Shazam effect. The Atlantic. December. Retrieved from 

Getting in Synch with Music Videos
Laurel Westrup / University of California, Los angeles

Gloria Screen Grab from Author
Music video gets serious. Anna Cordell in “Gloria.”

On September 8, 2019, The Lumineers’ III[ (( Album: Dualtone Records and Decca Records, 2019. ))] premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Directed by Kevin Phillips, the film is comprised of ten music videos—one for each track on the album—and like the album, it tells the dark, multi-generational tale of a family destroyed by addiction. As such, we might call III a visual album, though each of the videos has also been released online in a standalone capacity.[ (( All ten videos are available, along with a trailer for the project, on The Lumineers’ YouTube channel. ))] One of the lead videos released on YouTube, “Gloria” is especially grim. It introduces us to alcoholic mother Gloria Sparks, who loves her baby but wreaks havoc on her family. The sad, elliptical story in this installment of III culminates in a horrible car crash with uncertain repercussions. “Gloria” features the type of loosely sketched, socially conscious narrative that is on trend in current music videos but is by no means new.[ (( Aerosmith’s 1989 video for “Janie’s Got a Gun” would be right at home in the #MeToo era, though its rape-revenge narrative might feel regressive. Recent examples that I’ll return to in a later column are Logic’s “1-800-273-8255” and Hayley Kiyoko’s “Girls Like Girls.” ))] A far cry from the glitz and glam of some pop videos, “Gloria” is both moving and serious (as signaled by a plug for Alcoholics Anonymous in the credits below the video). This kind of seriousness (not to mention film festival premieres) sometimes earns music videos a “cinematic” label, but I would argue that “Gloria” is still a music video at heart, and that its music video qualities are as compelling as its narrative.

What are these qualities, though? Defining music video has proven an elusive task. Recent scholars have often dodged the question, settling on something like Steven Shaviro’s “I know it when I see it.”[ (( Steven Shaviro, Digital Music Videos (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017), 4. The quotation is a nod to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous non-definition of pornography. ))] Carol Vernallis suggests that the radical expansion of music videos, now no longer tethered to MTV or televisual limitations, means that we can no longer rely on the definition we once had, which was something like “a product of the record company in which images are put to a recorded pop song in order to sell the song.”[ (( Carol Vernallis, Unruly Media: YouTube, Music Video, and the New Digital Cinema (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 208. ))] This definition certainly feels dated to us now, but its emphasis on commerce was always too limiting. Think of Bruce Conner’s experimental films inspired by Ray Charles and Devo,[ (( Conner is often referred to as the grandfather of music videos, and J. Hoberman has elsewhere called his music films “art-world music videos.” ))] or Kenneth Anger’s Kustom Kar Kommandos. Can’t we recognize something music video-esque in these non-commercial (or anti-commercial) works? Perhaps we don’t need a definition that delimits music video according to promotional function, medium (film, video, digital), or means of exhibition. Rather than policing the boundaries, can we ask what’s quintessential to this form?

The Paris Sisters’ rendition of “Dream Lover” drives Kenneth Anger’s Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965).

If it’s true that we know a music video when we see it (and, importantly, hear it), how do we recognize it? When I ask students in my music video seminars this question, they usually begin by articulating a relationship between music and moving images, and ultimately clarify that music must drive the images in order for us to call this relationship music video.[ (( A big thanks to the students in my music video seminars past, present, and future. They have inspired many of my insights and examples here and elsewhere. Thanks also to Paul N. Reinsch, fellow music video aficionado and generous interlocutor. ))] This doesn’t mean that the images are merely supplemental, though, students point out. Nor does it foreclose the possibility of dialogue, sound effects, silence, or other music.

Giulia Gabrielli suggests that one of the constitutive ways that music and images “get in touch with each other” in music videos is through “synchronization points,” a term she draws from Michel Chion’s extensive work on audiovisual relations.[ (( Giulia Gabrielli, “An Analysis of the Relation between Music and Image: The Contribution of Michel Gondry,” in Rewind, Play, Fast Forward: The Past, Present and Future of the Music Video, ed. Henry Keazor and Thorsten Wübbena (Piscataway, NJ: Transcript, 2010), 96. ))] Synch points provide consonance between musical and visual qualities. They can arise when editing, camera movement, or on screen movement matches a rhythm, or when a lyric is visualized, to give just a couple examples. Gabrielli valorizes the kind of tight synchronization we find in Michel Gondry’s video for Daft Punk’s “Around the World,” where each of five character types is tightly choreographed to match one musical “voice” (bass, guitar, drums, synthesizers, or vocoder).

Each set of characters corresponds to a musical voice in Daft Punk’s “Around the World.”

This emphasis on audiovisual synchronization is not new, of course. It features regularly in the long history of artworks loosely labeled visual music. Purists will tell you that visual music is not a sound art—rather, it is visual art that draws upon musical structures, feelings, or languages.[ (( See, for instance, the work of visual music scholar William Moritz. ))] But visual music artists as diverse as Oskar Fischinger and John Whitney have paired their visual compositions with music to form compositions that we might recognize as music videos. There is clear continuity between this work and more recent music videos such as Shugo Tokumaru’s “Katachi,” Half•alive’s “still feel,” and Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” These videos, like their visual music predecessors, translate musical qualities into colors, shapes, and movements.

Oskar Fischinger’s “An Optical Poem” (1938) and Shugo Tokumaru’s
Visual music then and now: Oskar Fischinger’s An Optical Poem (1938) and Shugo Tokumaru’s “Katachi” (2013).

If the tradition of visual music opens various avenues of audio-to-visual translation, though, it also raises questions about how tightly image should be synchronized to music. Fischinger told fellow filmmaker Hans Richter, who was critical of his work, “I never tried to translate sound into visual expressions.”[ (( Quoted in Cindy Keefer, “Optical Expression: Oskar Fischinger, William Moritz and Visual Music: An Edited Guide to the Key Concerns,” in Oskar Fischinger 1900-1967: Experiments in Cinematic Abstraction, ed. Cindy Keefer and Jaap Guldemond (Amsterdam: EYE Filmmuseum; Los Angeles: Center for Visual Music, 2012), 165. ))] Rather, Fischinger saw the kind of tight synchronization implied by translation as just one of many resources available to visual music artists. Using the metaphor of a river as the music and a person strolling along that river as the images, he suggests that “The film is in some parts perfectly synchronized with the music, but in other parts it runs free … sometimes we even go a little bit away from the river and later come back to it and love it so much more—because we were away from it.”[ (( Quoted in Keefer, “Optical Expression,” 166. Whitney similarly avoided exact translation of music to image. Bill Alves writes, “Although Whitney wrote of musical harmony being ‘matched’ in the visual domain, he resisted automatically mapping one characteristic to another across media, instead referring to this connection as a ‘complementarity.’” Bill Alves, “Consonance and Dissonance in Visual Music,” Organised Sound 17, no. 02 (August 2012): 116, ))] Audiovisual synchronization in music videos often works this way.

Take “Gloria,” for instance. During significant stretches of the video, the image track attends more closely to the story than the music, and we could easily be watching a short film with musical score. But the video also includes many moments where images reinforce musical elements. The video begins with a ticking sound from a watch, which is quickly echoed on the guitar, and this sound is matched not only by several images of a watch, but by a visual ticking as we cut back and forth between the watch and a bottle cap being unscrewed. From there, long zooming takes of Gloria tilting a bottle to drink correspond with four consecutive bass drum kicks, which usher in the first lyrics. These shots introduce the character and her addiction, but just as importantly, they match the agitated quality of the music. Throughout the video, the images stray some from the river of music, but they always return to translate a lyric (“found you on the floor”) or accentuate a musical element (the collision of drumsticks becomes a bottle glancing off of logs). Synchronization points remind us that both music and image are integral to our experience, and it’s this delicate audiovisual dance that makes “Gloria” a music video.

“Gloria” opens with a series of audiovisual synch points that accentuate musical features.

Not all music videos strike this balance, though. Carol Vernallis proposes that in music videos, music and image function like a couple who must constantly negotiate each other’s needs. “We can assume,” she says, “there are issues of dominance and subservience, passivity and aggression.”[ (( Vernallis, Unruly Media, 210. ))] The same might be said of the artistic and industrial forces at play in the making of music videos. What happens, for instance, when a musician’s vision and a director’s vision are not in synch? Can music and image still “get in touch”? In my next column, I’ll turn to the question of how music videos work.

Image Credits:

  1. Music video gets serious. Anna Cordell in “Gloria.” (author’s screen grab)
  2. The Paris Sisters’ rendition of “Dream Lover” drivers Kenneth Anger’s Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965).
  3. Each set of characters corresponds to a musical voice in Daft Punk’s “Around the World.”
  4. Visual music then and now: Oskar Fischinger’s “An Optical Poem” (1938) and Shugo Tokumaru’s “Katachi” (2013). (author’s screen grabs)
  5. “Gloria” opens with a series of audiovisual synch points that accentuate musical features.


The Sound of Queer Masculinity in Dorian Electra’s Flamboyant
Paxton Haven / University of Texas at Austin

Dorian Electra's Flamboyant Album Cover
Partial Album Cover of Dorian Electra’s Flamboyant

Last week, “unapologetically outrageous” and “whimsically self-aware” underground Pop sensation Dorian Electra released their debut album Flamboyant (2019). [ ((Erica Russell, “How Dorian Electra Channels Camp & Queer Culture On Their ‘Whimsically Self-Aware’ Debut Album,” Billboard, July 17, 2019,] Electra’s music first gained mainstream visibility during their time at women’s lifestyle publication Refinery29, where their quippy music videos covered topics such as the history of vibrators, a musical ode to the clitoris, and the dark past of high heels. These videos exhibit Electra’s dynamic mix of humor, intellect, and discursive gender performance that would soon establish their signature satirical appropriation and subversive deconstruction of masculine archetypes such as the Wall Street businessman (“Career Boy”), the sugar daddy (“Daddy Like”), the cowboy (“Jackpot”), and the parade of bikers, boxers, and knights in “Man to Man” (see below).

Music video for Dorian Electra’s “Man to Man”

Assigned female at birth, the gender-fluid and non-binary musical artist told The Guardian‘s Ben Beaumont-Thomas, “I’m not a woman dressing as a man, it’s so much more complex than that.” [ ((Ben Beaumont-Thomas, “Pop Sensation Dorian Electra: ‘I’m Not a Woman Dressing as a Man. It’s More Complex,” The Guardian, July 12, 2019,] Whereas the visual and lyrical complexity of Dorian Electra’s work is thoroughly covered by music publications such as Billboard and Dazed, I want to explore the way Electra’s electro-pop sonic aesthetic and vocal distortion operates as the discursive backbone of which their visual and lyrical axes of performance rely. In doing so, I draw a trajectory of Electra’s contemporary work to transgressive artists of the past who use the affordances of their respective genres to articulate a queered masculinity through vocal performance.

To understand the role of vocal distortion within listening practices and sonic experiences of Electra’s music, I turn to the discipline of sound studies. In his article, “Glitch/Failure: Constructing a Queer Politics of Listening,” Andrew Brooks works “to ‘queer’ the field of sound studies” through an analysis of glitch artists [ ((See: Yasunao Tone’s “Solo for Wounded”))] and glitch musicians [ ((See: James Hoff’s “Blaster”))]. [ ((Andrew Brooks, “Glitch/Failure: Constructing a Queer Politics of Listening,” Leonardo Music Journal, Vol.25, December 2015, 37.))] Brooks conceptualizes a glitch as “both an error and intrusion into a system” which foregrounds the failure of technologies and its systems; an artistic practice that “highlight[s] the limits of media technologies and the productivity of aberration, malfunction and error.” [ ((Ibid, 37.))] It is through this foregrounded failure of the glitch in which Brooks draws theoretical parallels to queer theory’s “reclaimed failure as a site of resistance to normative modes of existence.” [ ((Ibid, 37.))] Or, for the purpose of my analysis of Electra, normative modes of gendered vocal performance.

It is not my objective to align Dorian Electra’s work with glitch artists or to draw overly simplistic trajectories of glitch’s recent popularization in mainstream pop music, but to employ glitch as “a theoretical framework for understanding how disruption, deviation and disorder are productive in [musical] systems.” [ ((Ibid, 40.))] I argue that Dorian Electra’s technological vocal modulation is a form of glitch aesthetic that disrupts, breaks, and transforms the high and low pitches of voice that often accompany normative signals of feminine and masculine vocal tones.

In glitching, or queering, the voice through technological intervention, Dorian forces the listener to consider the “experience as one that is mediated by technology and the environment.” [ ((Ibid, 40.))] Electra therefore exposes the artifice of their voice as funneled through process of technology, metaphorically signaling the artifice of gender and conventional understandings of gendered vocal performance. As Brooks points out, this disruption is inherently queer and produces a queer listening practice which “highlights the contextual nature of the listening event … [or] a tuning into the sound of the [gendered] relations” of voice. [ ((Ibid, 40.))]

On “Emasculate Me” (see below), Dorian Electra confronts the inescapable expectations and the subsequently damaging byproducts of hyper-masculinity with these lyrics:

Too much man for my own good
Need to Kill my own manhood
Lend me a knife, tonight
To cut me down to size and to help me realize that the
Man that is inside is a demon that needs to be exorcised [ ((Dorian Electra, “Emasculate Me,” Flamboyant, 2019, (0:57-1:16).))]

Music video for Dorian Electra’s “Emasculate Me”

Reconciling their love of masculine characters and the complicated feelings of power and strength experienced in their performance of masculinity, Dorian often mediates on their own internalized misogyny. [ ((Ben Beaumont-Thomas, “Pop Sensation Dorian Electra: ‘I’m Not a Woman Dressing as a Man. It’s More Complex,” The Guardian, July 12, 2019,] This song articulates the dynamic cycles of pleasure and pain that define the perpetually ongoing process of gender identification. The vocalization of the repeated phrase “emasculate me” within the song alternates readings; at once a pleasurable domination of self-identity and gender expression, at other times anguish over the confines and privileges of masculine presentation.

Following a typical pop song structure, Electra and their team of producers use the bridge (1:16-1:38) to provide a sonic deviation from the two verses and multiple repetitions of the chorus. This bridge is unique, however, in the hyper-autotuned distortion of Electra’s voice as the song reaches its climax. As Dorian begs to be free from the inevitable cycles of pleasure and pain felt by the enforced repetition of gender performance, to be momentarily emasculated (1:34), the frequency produced by the electronic distortion of Electra’s voice leaves the listener with no recognizable categories of human pitch of which to classify the vocal tone and subsequent auditory signals of masculinity and femininity. This vocal glitch, or failure of this distorted frequency to adhere to the listener’s normative expectations of gendered vocal pitch and tone, simultaneously emphasizes the artifice of gender performativity as well as the very real emotional implications of gender performance.

Dorian Electra’s playful fluctuation of masculine and feminine vocality is a part of a long history of musical artists who employ vocal innovation to inform their queerly gendered performances of masculinity. In “Queer Voices and Musical Genders,” Jack Halberstam writes about blues singer Big Mama Thornton and disco diva Sylvester to “forge an alternative genealogy of music” not determined by genre or time, but by similar articulations of queer masculinity through vocal performance. [ ((J. Halberstam, “Queer Voices and Musical Genders,” in Oh Boy! Masculinities and Popular Music (Routledge, 2007), 183. Known most as the original performer of the hit song “Hound Dog,” before Elvis recorded the same song three years later, Halberstam credits Willie Mae Thornton (Big Mama) as the creator of the distinct form of masculine performance that built Elvis’s celebrity persona. The distinctly racialized nature of this cultural appropriation of this performance of masculinity and musical styling is discussed at length in Halberstam’s chapter but is not within the scope of this short piece.))] In constructing this genealogy of very different performances of queer masculinities, Halberstam centralizes analysis through the way these artists’ voices operate within the tonal expectations and musical stylings of their respective genres. Framed as counterpoints, Halberstam argues while “Thornton turned [blues] songs of loss and disaffection into the location for gender reinvention, Sylvester reveled in the opportunities that disco afforded to occupy the feminine role of diva while queering gay masculinities.” [ ((Ibid, 190.))] In a similarly subcultural way, the technological affordances of auto-tune and the networked community of queer artists within Dorian Electra’s subgenre of electro-pop provides the musical space to explore different forms of queer vocalization.

Through this framing of genre and queer voice, Halberstam connects these contrasting performances of queered masculinity “within a network of lost legacies.” [ ((Ibid, 194. Halberstam gives much credit to Roach’s “methodology for the construction of contrary genealogies for subcultural activity.” See: Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).))] Often times subcultural music artists are dismissed due to structural inequalities or discriminatory hierarchies of taste and quality. In connecting Electra’s work to this trajectory of queerly gendered performance I want to reiterate the weight of their discursive presence within contemporary pop music culture, while also honoring the previous struggles and successes of those who paved the way.

Dorian Electra’s vocal distortion, or glitch of voice, presents not a new phenomenon of queer vocalization, but illustrates one of the ways that technology continues to alter these musical practices and modes of performance. Just as technology evolves, so do society’s understandings and expectations of gender performance. Whether it be Thornton’s defiant butch blues, Sylvester’s discursively feminine falsetto, or Electra’s flamboyant transgression of pitch and tone, subcultural queer artists of all genres continue to push the normative boundaries of gender and performance of culture writ large through popular music.

Here is Dorian Electra’s latest music video for the title track of their album Flamboyant just for fun!

Image Credits:
1. Rendered Album Cover by Paper Magazine of Dorian Electra’s Flamboyant

Please feel free to comment.

Not a Cross-Over Act: The Pop Stardom of Camila Cabello
Nathan Rossi / University of Texas at Austin

Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes’ recent duet “Señorita” has been inescapable all summer.

In summer 2019, Cuban-Mexican American pop star Camila Cabello has released two collaborations that have relied on tropical imagery. [ ((Here, I use “tropical” in reference to what Frances Aparacio and Susana Chávez-Silverman (1997) have conceptualized as tropicalism, or the “system of ideological fictions with which the dominant (Anglo and European) cultures trope Latin American and U.S. Latino/a identities and cultures.” See Aparicio, Frances and Susana Chávez-Silverman. “Introduction.” In Tropicalizations: Transcultural Representations of Latinidad, edited by Frances Aparicio and Susana Chávez-Silverman. Hanover: Dartmouth/University Press of New England, 1997, pg. 1))] The stronger of the two releases is “Señorita” with Shawn Mendes, which tells the story of a passionate summer fling in Miami. She also joined Ed Sheeran and Cardi B on his track “South of the Border,” in which Sheeran (in white male gaze mode) sings of lusting after the “caramel thighs” of a Latina lover in a locale outside of Buenos Aires. Cabello’s embrace of cliché Latinidad signifiers act as a performance of what Myra Mendible has called “unambiguous self-tropicalization,” or the binding of a Latina femininity to an exotic otherness that can result in “imbuing Latinidad with a fixed set of traits, values, and images.” [ ((Mendible, Myra. “Introduction: Embodying Latinidad.” In From Bananas to Buttocks: The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture, edited by Myra Mendible. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007, pg 3.))] However, as Mendible notes, self-tropicalization can potentially be subversive. Indeed, Cabello’s use of tropical imagery can be seen as a strategic tactic to differentiate herself in the pop landscape, while also enabling her to build a platform to politically embrace her Latina and immigrant identity in a particularly heated moment of anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S.

Cabello’s debut single “Crying in the Club,” co-written by Sia, [ ((“Crying” perhaps sounded too similar to Sia’s own past Billboard Hot 100 #1 hit “Cheap Thrills” featuring Sean Paul))] was released in April 2017. The single underperformed and failed to match the success of her initial collaborations as a solo artist. Cabello’s next two singles were released simultaneously on August 3, 2017: “OMG” featuring Quavo and “Havana” featuring Young Thug. Each distinctive in sound, the release acted as an A/B test, leaving fans and potential new listeners to choose which version of Cabello they liked best. Critics were quick to point out the differences in the tracks. Billboard thought the later radiated a “Latin flare,” MTV UK noted the “sultry Latin” influence of “Havana,” and Idolator went so far as to name it the stand out track of the two thanks to its “sultry Cuban rhythms.” Based on streaming counts, “OMG” debuted higher on the charts, only to be quickly outpaced by “Havana.” Cabello has noted in interviews, she had to fight for her record label to release the song after they initially wanted to push trap inspired “OMG” as her next single after the failure of “Crying in the Club.”

“Havana” became Cabello’s breakout single as a lead artist.

“Havana” relies on what producer Frank Dukes describes as a “seesawing, Latin-inspired piano loop” that he created after Cabello stressed the importance of bringing her Cuban-American identity into the music. The resulting single, worked on by 10 songwriters, is simple, yet catchy. Other than the use of the word “malo” and the theme of Cabello being in love with a man from East Atlanta, while her heart is in Havana, the song relies on the singer’s charismatic vocal performance, rather than any deep lyrical insights to Cubana, Latina or immigrant identity. As songwriter Ali Tamposi has suggested, after the loop had been constructed the songwriting team wrote the chorus quickly and used East Atlanta as a counter destination simply because it rhymed with Havana and opened an obvious opportunity to invite a guest rapper onto the track.

Camila Cabello previews Havana the Movie on Instagram
Camila Cabello previews “Havana the Movie” on her Instagram feed.

The packaging of “Havana” from its countdown to being released, to the debut of its music video, presented as “Havana the Movie,” combined the imagery of the Good Neighbor Policy era of apolitical classical Hollywood films set in Latin America with the tropes of a telenovela. In other words, they presented the audience with familiar signifiers of Latinidad. Put another way, while “Havana” might invoke specific romanticized images of the Cuban capital, the music video also uses more general imagery of Latinidad to make the song and visuals more accessible to a larger audience. Either way, Cabello’s producers, management team, and friends have suggested the performance and packaging of the song lend authenticity to her Latina identity.

So far peaking at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, “Señorita” similarly capitalizes on the use of vague tropicalism in its lyrics and video. Mendes sings about his instant attraction to a Latina love interest whom he dances with under a “tequila sunrise” in Miami, with its “hot air from summer rain.” The song’s more important allure, however, may be how it fuels rumors of a relationship between the young pop stars. Indeed, Cabello’s verse and the duo’s chemistry in the music video suggest that the two are dating in real life. Consequently, like “Havana,” her latest single presents a Latinidad that exudes tropical signifiers as the background to a sensual romance.

Cabello’s commercial Latinidad might signal to some an example of how media industries package safe non-threatening panethnic Latina images to U.S. and international audiences, but it also signals a greater acceptance of Latinas in the U.S. pop music landscape. Although Cabello has what Arlene Dávila has described as the Latin Look most desired by media executives: dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin, and European facial features, [ ((Dávila, Arlene. Latinos Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.))] one of the most significant qualities of her rise to stardom is that, unlike the generation of Latinx and Latin American stars in the late 1990s and early 2000s that scholars Mary Beltrán and María Elena Cepeda have chronicled and that had their success measured by their ability to “cross-over” to the U.S. market [ ((See Beltrán, Mary. “The Hollywood Latina Body as Site of Social Struggle: Media Constructions of Stardom and Jennifer Lopez’s ‘Cross-Over Butt.'” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 19 (1), 2002, pgs.71-86. and Cepeda, María Elena. Musical ImagiNation: U.S.-Colombian Identity and the Latin Music Boom. New York: New York University Press, 2010.))], Cabello has never been marketed as a cross-over act and has, instead, been embraced as a U.S. Latina pop star. Further, unlike the generation of pop singers before her, like Mexican American stars Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato who have historically refrained from centering their Latin roots, Cabello has always embraced her Cuban-Mexican heritage. Indeed, the chart success of “Havana” and “Señorita” suggests that audiences and fans have welcomed her performance of Latinidad.

While part of this is due to the fact that Cabello was a known entity before her solo career as a member of girl group, Fifth Harmony, her success as a solo star was never guaranteed. It did, however, open up different ways for the media to characterize Cabello’s success. Cover stories and newspaper articles have most commonly characterized the release of “Havana” and her subsequent debut album Camila, as Cabello “finding her voice,” “creating herself,” and becoming pop’s latest “breakthrough.” If Fifth Harmony was manufactured pop, Cabello the solo artist is authentic and real. While part of the authenticity narrative centered Cabello’s Latina identity, it also centered her story as uniquely American.

Camila shares her Rolling Stone Cover Story on Instagram
Camila Cabello shares her Rolling Stone Cover Story on Instagram.

A June 2018 feature story in Rolling Stone titled “Camila Cabello’s American Dream” is indicative of how the star and mainstream press have constructed her narrative as a rags to riches story of how hard work pays off. Profiles such as these emphasize her family’s immigrant and working-class background and allude to dominant understandings of Latinx cultural values, such as deep family ties and a strong work ethic. While these narrative elements can be constituted as what Dávila has called “Latino Spin,” or the circulation and production of sanitized images of Latinx immigrants as an apolitical unthreatening body [ ((Dávila, Arlene. Latino Spin: Public Image and the Whitewashing of Race. New York: New York University Press, 2009.))], I argue that Cabello’s narrative begins to contest the image of the depoliticized immigrant. In particular, Cabello has acknowledged the past mixed-status of her family and the effect it had on her upbringing. In her interview with Rolling Stone and an earlier post on POPSUGAR Latina, Cabello is open about how her father physically risked his life crossing the Rio Grande to be with her and her mother in their new home of Miami. On the one hand, this narrative helps normalize the lived experiences of Latinx immigrants in a political climate shaped by nativist sentiment. On the other hand, aside from her occasional social media post or the dedication of her “Havana” video to the Dreamers, Cabello’s pop star text is still most heavily shaped by her performance of a safe familiar Latinidad, rather than a radical or even political identity.

Still early in her career and currently recording her sophomore album, it will be interesting to see how Cabello continues to balance the demands of the music industry’s need to create globally consumable images of Latinidad with the vulnerability she has already demonstrated as a pop artist, Latina, and immigrant.

Image Credits:

1. Camila Cabello previews “Havana the Movie” on her Instagram feed.
2. Camila Cabello shares her Rolling Stone Cover Story on Instagram.

Please feel free to comment.

Punk, Disco, Porn—The Deuce ’77—Part 1
Matthew Tchepikova-Treon / the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities


The Deuce Season Two Poster Art
The Deuce Season Two Poster Art

Beginning in 1977, five years on, Season Two of The Deuce extends the show’s thoroughgoing investigation of the sex industry in porno-chic New York City. HBO first advertised the new season with an image of late-1970s 42nd Street under a caption that read: “Punk, disco and porn.” Beyond signaling a certain pop culture milieu, these three words signify a sort of cipher for the show’s complex audiovisual world-building techniques. Because, from punk shows to ad hoc discos to female-directed arthouse porn to a cabaret-styled gay bar battling “noise complaint”-based zoning restrictions, The Deuce continues to present a story largely focussed on the labor of (sub)cultural production, the sonic production of social spaces, and the power dynamics of an exploitative capitalist logic working to absorb or silence them.

Similar to the invocation of Curtis Mayfield’s aestheticized sociological critique during the first season’s title sequence,[ (( Matthew Tchepikova-Treon, “What Kind of Bad?: Curtis Mayfield and The Deuce,” Jump Cut, no. 58 (2018). ))] The Deuce S2 similarly applies “This Year’s Girl” (1978) by Elvis Costello & The Attractions—a satirical number criticizing the commodification of women’s bodies through the circuits of mass media—with singer Natalie Bergman’s voice added into the multitrack master tapes from the song’s original recording for heightened tension.

Punk. The word itself reaches back centuries and even carries with it an etymological link to prostitution. In Shakespeare’s 1603 play Measure for Measure, a young woman engaging in a bed-trick[ (( A common plot device in the playwright’s early tragicomedies, see: Julia Briggs, “Shakespeare’s Bed-Tricks,” Essays in Criticism, Volume XLIV, Issue 4, 1 (October 1994): 293–314. ))] tells an inquiring duke that she is neither a wife, widow, nor maid. The duke replies, “Why are you nothing then?” Another man then follows the duke’s misogyny-whisked grouse with: “My Lord, she might be a Puncke.”[ ((William Shakespeare, Neil Freeman, and Paul Sugarman, The Applause First Folio of Shakespeare in Modern Type (New York: Applause, 2001), 81. ))] Centuries of varied utterances transformed the word from prostitute into a verb denoting the act of sodomy, then referent for a male homosexual, and eventually a general signifier for social ‘trash’ and debauched street youths, etc.[ ((Also see: Tricia Henry Young, Break All Rules!: Punk Rock and the Making of a Style (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989), 7. ))] Seventies punk culture, with its embrace of aesthetic excess, social transgressions, and explicit gender reformations, embodied all aspects of the word, including its attendant ideological contradictions. But further still, as Adam Krims argues in his study of music and cities transformed by “post-Fordist” modes of capital accumulation, Seventies punk and new wave also “announced different perceptions of city life, in which squalor and class-based rage could no longer be denied or contained.”

Abby’s Jukebox

The Deuce set up its engagement with punk’s historical future back in 1972, through a scene in Season One involving NYC musician Garland Jeffreys at the Hi-Hat performing the Continental organ-driven classic “96 Tears,” a song written and originally recorded in 1966 by ? and the Mysterians, whose sound and style motivated Creem magazine’s Dave Marsh to first use the term “punk rock” (in popular print) while describing the band in 1971, years after hearing them live.[ ((Creem, Vol. 3, No. 2 (May 1971). For Marsh, the value of the band’s “new sound” paradoxically came from its return to a street-inspired form of rock before the age of arena-sized spectacles. Charlie Gillett makes the anachronistic suggestion that “96 Tears” might have been “the last pure punk record,” probably on account of Marsh’s original claim. See: The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll (New York: Da Capo Press, 1996), 35. ))] During the scene, Abby mentions to Vincent that she first heard Jeffreys and his band playing a rent party down at St. Marks Place. Along with calling up the origins of “punk” in early rock criticism, this pop culture citation looks ahead to the first wave of punk bands who would soon populate the East Village, while also nodding back to 1920s Harlem and the city’s long tradition of underclass tenants organizing early blues and jazz apartment shows to battle slumlording tactics and help pay rent.[ ((See: Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 89-125. ))] Such a moment demonstrates not only The Deuce’s intricate use of music-history-cum-urban-geography, but also works to identify the social stakes involved for the show’s characters.

In 1977, with the music’s antibourgeois teeth now on full display, Season Two finds Abby managing the Hi-Hat and operating the bar as a material nexus of NYC punk’s “subcultural capital” now flowing through Manhattan alongside political influence and boffo profits from prostitution and porn. As Sarah Thornton reminds us, subcultural capital always emerges from particular social spaces,[ ((Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1996). ))] and in this season’s first episode, Abby uses the bar before opening hours to meet with a young self-described “feminist dancer”[ ((The show’s writers here artfully gesture toward second-wave feminism’s important debates between anti-pornography activists and anti-censorship feminists concerning the cultural forms and social functions of porn. For a detailed account of this history and a thorough analysis of these debates, see: Linda Williams, Hardcore, 16-30. ))] experiencing “labor hassles”—which Vincent dismisses as “Chairman Mao bullshit”—after organizing strippers at the Metropole Cafe near Times Square to stage a three-day walkout. Abby suggests that they “book a band, do a fundraiser” at the bar and donate cover charges to the dancers for lost wages during the strike. After their meeting, Abby goes to the jukebox, now stocked with period-perfect records, and plays “Prove It” (1977) by Television, Richard Hell’s band forever associated with the forging of New York punk at CBGB. Throughout the season, we additionally hear The Runaways (“Born To Be Bad”), Iggy Pop (“Sister Midnight”), Wire (“1 2 X U”), Siouxsie and the Banshees (“Hong Kong Garden”), T. Rex (“The Slider”), Wyldlife (“The Right!”), The Patti Smith Group (“Ask the Angels”), the Ramones (“You’re Gonna Kill That Girl”), X (“Adult Books”), etc. Later in the same episode, recalling the Hi-Hat’s early punk permutation by way of “96 Tears,” we similarly hear a band perform the 1976 underground hit “New Rose” by The Damned.[ ((In a 1982 Rolling Stone interview with Greil Marcus, Elvis Costello, when asked about his cultural and discursive associations with punk music, said, “The Damned were the best punk group, because they had no art to them… They were just—nasty.” ))] The first of the London punk bands to tour the U.S., The Damned did in fact perform at CBGB in 1977, but the scene’s effectiveness comes in part from the (unanswered) question whether or not this is The Damned or another band covering their song.

A punk band at the Hi-Hat performing “New Rose” during a labor strike fundraiser show.
A punk band at the Hi-Hat performing “New Rose” during a labor strike fundraiser show.

Photo by Ebet Roberts.
The Damned playing at CBGB in 1977.

On the level of formal aesthetics, Abby’s jukebox and Hi-Hat concerts underscore how, through deeply informed diegetic sound design, The Deuce uses punk music as a means of sonic verisimilitude that remains attuned to the labor involved in punk’s radical cultural production writ large. However, this is no utopian enterprise. The Deuce effectively utilizes punk culture by aligning the music’s inherent contradictory impulses with, rather than against, the hierarchical forces of capitalism at work throughout the show. After all, the same 1970s media coverage that originally hyped punk’s moral panic to sell newspapers not only likewise helped sell records, but Dick Hebdige, in his classic subcultural study of punk style and society, even dates the commencement of this coverage to a particular incident in 1976, when a young woman was “partially blinded by a flying beer glass” during a punk show in London’s own red-light district.[ ((Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Methuen, 1979), 142. ))] The Damned performed at that same show.

Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 5, “All You’ll Be Eating Is Cannibals.” (author’s screen grab)
The Deuce addresses punk’s vexed relationship with commerce in comedic terms at one point when Candy, in need of further funding for her porn feature, Red Hot, asks Abby, “All your friends, with their music and their film, and their gallery shows—where do they come up with the money?” Behind a side-eyed smile, Abby replies, “Most of them get it from their parents.”

Eating Cannibals

In a 1979 Village Voice column examining the shared aesthetic between NYC art-punk bands and “new wave” filmmakers (who also often shared exhibition spaces), J. Hoberman observed: “Drifting across the Bowery, fallout from the 1977 punk ‘explosion’ continues to spawn art-world mutations.”[ ((J. Hoberman, “No Wavelength: The Para-Punk Underground,” Village Voice, May 21, 1979. ))] And part of what Hoberman identified was a politically powerful style “shot through with fantasies of punishment and revenge” and sexual violence he compared to “the aestheticized violence of 42nd Street,” referencing both the Deuce proper and the fast-burning exploitation films of the era that circulated through its so-called grindhouse theaters. By the end of the piece, Hoberman concludes that punk’s shared cultural project, predicated on shock-and-awe absurdity, had perhaps unintentionally produced a form of social realism instead. We hear a sonic representation of Hoberman’s suspicion during a particularly affective scene late in The Deuce Season Two.

Working with former prostitute, Dorothy, to address the dangerous conditions of sex work on the streets, Abby decides reluctantly to use payout money from Vincent’s mob-backed sex parlor to fund free health clinics for the women. In due time, however, a group of pimps murder Dorothy once her work becomes bad for business. Soon after, another prostitute walks into the Hi-Hat and through tear-glassed eyes silently communicates Dorothy’s death to Abby behind the bar, the camera trained on these women’s faces. In this moment, we hear only the erratic fits of electric feedback and metallic dissonance from a punk band checking their sound off screen.

Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 9, “Inside the Pretend.” (author’s screen grab)
During Season Two’s closing montage, after Dorothy’s murder, Abby sits with envelops of cash as Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders sings, “Mystery achievement, you’re so unreal.”

Image Credits:
1. The Deuce Season Two Poster Art.
2. Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 1, “Our Raison d’Etre.” (author’s screen grab)
3. The Damned playing at CBGB in 1977. Photo by Ebet Roberts.
4. Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 5, “All You’ll Be Eating Is Cannibals.” (author’s screen grab)
5. Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 9, “Inside the Pretend.” (author’s screen grab)

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.” [ (( and 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,] 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,] 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.] 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.

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”; 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.