“Never Too Late to Live Your Authentic Life”: Later-in-Life FTM Trans YouTube Narratives
Ash Kinney d’Harcourt / University of Texas at Austin

Mainstream media trans characters over the last few decades:
Mainstream media trans characters over the last few decades: “Buffalo Bill” in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (1999), and Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black (Netflix, 2013-2019).

The growing visibility of transgender and other gender expansive identities has resulted in an increased surveillance and regulation of trans bodies,[ ((Fischer, Mia. 2019. Terrorizing Gender: Transgender Visibility and the Surveillance Practices of the U.S. Security State. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.))] and media representations have followed in this example. Mainstream depictions often stereotype and objectify trans individuals[ ((Serano, Julia. 2007. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Berkeley: Seal Press.))] or treat them as outcasts and spectacles. In addition, these media tend to depict trans people through binary and transnormative constructs of gender.[ ((Glover, Julian Kevon. 2016. “Redefining Realness?: On Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, TS Madison, and the Representation of Transgender Women of Color in Media.” Souls, 18(2-4): 338-357.))] With a few contemporary exceptions, the complexity of trans lives is often flattened in what are predominantly white, cisgender-produced media. In contrast, YouTube has provided the ability to construct trans identities online with more trans-specific values. José Esteban Muñoz (2009) considers queer cultural production “both an acknowledgement of the lack that is endemic to any heteronormative rendering of the world and a building, a ‘world making,’ in the face of that lack.”[ ((Muñoz, José Esteban. 2009. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press, 118.))] Trans YouTube vlogs are cultural archives and sites of lived experience that embody new ways of trans being and doing that reflect this notion of world making. In my viewing of female-to-male (FTM) transition videos in particular, vloggers self-narrate their life stories and experiences, collectively comprising a more varied and complex representation of trans life that “contrary to mainstream representations of trans people, are directed toward likeminded others, offering a user-created trans male visual culture.”[ ((Raun, Tobias. 2016. Out Online: Trans Self-Representation and Community Building on YouTube. New York: Routledge, 69.))]

There is an abundant and insightful body of work on the psychological and educational benefits, community building and archival aspects of FTM trans YouTube. In particular, Avery Dame (2013) has explored these videos and their producers’ status as “experts” that give advice to and educate viewers.[ ((Dame, Avery. 2013. “‘I’m Your Hero? Like Me?’: The Role of ‘Expert’ in the Trans Male Vlog.” Journal of Language and Sexuality, 2(1): 40–69.))] Tobias Raun (2016) has written prolifically about the use of these vlogs for journaling, therapeutic self-disclosure, and as communal archives.[ ((Raun, Tobias. 2016. Out Online: Trans Self-Representation and Community Building on YouTube. New York: Routledge.))] Jordan Miller (2019) expanded on this archive with an analysis on the counter narratives of trans and non-binary vloggers of color.[ ((Miller, Jordan F. 2019. “YouTube as a Site of Counternarratives to Transnormativity.” Journal of Homosexuality, 66(6): 815-837.))] The majority of these videos are created and shared by YouTubers that transition during adolescence and early adulthood which is reflected in this research that is focused primarily on the experiences of trans youth. Yet, YouTube has also been a site for documenting transition stories, sharing support and building community for those transitioning during middle age and beyond.

Jack Halberstam (2005) observes that individuals whose lives do not conform to the conventional understanding of time as linear and stable are often pathologized; however, conventional notions of maturity can be disrupted by the queer temporalities and counterpublics of subcultural practices.[ ((Halberstam, Jack. 2005. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University Press, 2-5.))] The subcultural practice of producing FTM trans videos, particularly by “late bloomers,” challenges conceptions of normative temporalities. I watched the vlogs of trans men who transitioned in their 40s, 50s, and 60s to better understand the personal and social impact of the trans cultural production in this demographic. An ethnographic approach with qualitative interviews would help bridge the non-consensual nature of the textual analysis of these videos with the individuals who share them online; until that time, I refer to these vloggers by initials rather than full names or handles.

Screen grab of the YouTube video of a vlogger sharing fashion ideas.
YouTube video of a vlogger sharing fashion ideas.

Similar to trans youth vlogs, individuals who transition later in life also share tips on how to dress and pass, communicate the happiness and sense of relief they feel, and speak about the importance (or lack of) familial support in their vlogs. The vlogs of late bloomers also differ from the majority of those shared on YouTube; most noticeably, their transition narratives fall outside the conventional timeline of growth and maturity, especially as puberty arrives after decades of adulthood. These vloggers identify the age they discovered their trans identity and began transitioning in the title of their videos, for example, “Life begins at 40 | 10 Months On Testosterone (FTM)” and “FtM@50+ – an Introduction.” E.N. shares his experience with a “mid-life transition” and the process of discovering his “authentic self” in his early forties. F.T.I. also describes his life as “just beginning” at 40 years of age, contemplating his developmental timeline as a man from adolescence and straight into middle age. Like E.N., T.L., who began transitioning at 50 years of age, contextualizes the theme of inner truth in his own timeline: it’s “never too late to live your authentic life [emphasis added].” This online culture operates along a temporality that literally “disrupts conventional accounts of youth culture, adulthood, and maturity.”[ ((Ibid., 2.))]

It is common for FTM trans videos on social media to depict the joyful discovery of wearing a binder for the first time or—for those that have the resources and choose to have top surgery—their post-surgery chest reveal. While the majority of later-in-life trans narratives on YouTube follow “hormone time,”[ ((Horak, Laura. 2014. “Trans on YouTube: Intimacy, Visibility, Temporality.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1(7): 572-585.))] they often focus on the development of the individual’s internal self-image over the physical changes associated with their medical transition. In one video, E.N. shares a written narrative of his discovery of being transgender followed by the process of delving “deep within my soul by peeling off many layers of my life so that I could rebuild my sense of inner self.” After briefly addressing facial hair growth and muscle mass at the beginning of a video, S.M., who began transitioning in his 50s, “wax[es] philosophical” about his career and cautions viewers about some of the language used in the community. Specifically, he rejects the wrong body narrative: “I don’t feel like I was born in the wrong body. I understand it, like I understand in some ways it’s the simplest way to share that information with other people, but… it seems a shame for me to classify my body as wrong, because it’s not.”

Screen grab of the written text from a trans YouTube video: This discovery forced me to go deep within my soul by peeling off many layers of my life so that I could rebuild my sense of inner self.
Written text from a YouTube video, “My Transgender Story.”

F.T.I. also describes coming to terms with his new “internal self image,” highlighting a sometimes less visible part of the process of transitioning—that of loss and grief—for a life lost and a life never lived. Though now in a place of acceptance, he acknowledges the pain and regret of not having experienced his 20s as a young man, explaining that he had only allowed himself to believe he was male prior to transitioning in his 40s. Many of these vloggers have also built decades-long careers, formed relationships and had children which are impacted in different ways by their transition. In Q&A videos, E.N. eschews questions about his medical transition to instead address questions about how the process affected his relationships with his wife and other family members, and T.L.’s videos include his child’s first-person perspectives on their parent’s transition. Overall, the non-linear temporalities, focus on development of internal gender identity and acknowledgment of loss and grief in these vlogs convey many of the complexities of trans life.

The narratives of late bloomers, and trans elders more broadly, are significant beyond their contributions to a growing online trans archive. Last month we commemorated Stonewall and other early protests led by queer, trans and gender non-conforming people, mostly Black and brown, against LGBTQ+ discrimination, harassment and police brutality. Yet three days before a win for LGBTQ+ rights that protect queer and trans workers, the current administration overturned Obamacare regulation prohibiting discrimination against trans patients the midst of a pandemic. At a time when trans futures are uncertain, the potentiality in the world making of these online cultural productions is essential in helping us to envision a trans future beyond survival.

Image Credits:

  1. Mainstream media trans characters over the last few decades: “Buffalo Bill” in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (1999), and Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black (2013-2019). (author’s screen grabs)
  2. YouTube video of a vlogger sharing fashion ideas. (author’s screen grab; the editors have honored the author’s request not to cite the image source in advance of obtaining the creator’s permission)
  3. Written text from a YouTube video, “My Transgender Story.” (author’s screen grab; the editors have honored the author’s request not to cite the image source in advance of obtaining the creator’s permission)


“You Can Still Do It”: Apple Watch Activity Notifications During COVID-19
Andy Fischer Wright / University of Texas At Austin

An ominous graphic from the Apple Watch Activity website that reads 'Close Your Rings'.
The rather ominous opening words on Apple’s webpage detailing the Apple Watch’s Activity app and features. It is immediately replaced by a graphic of the Activity app above the following text: “Three rings: Move, Exercise, Stand. One goal: Close them every day. It’s such a simple and fun way to live a healthier day that you’ll want to do it all the time. That’s the idea behind the Activity app on Apple Watch.”

The wristwatch is at its base level an intimate machine situated at the end of the arm and designed with the explicit purpose of keeping the user aware of a regimented system of ‘time.’ Like many people operating in capitalism I have used watches and clocks to regulate my labor and personal life, whether this was to coordinate beer deliveries for my former employer or simply to make sure I didn’t burn muffins at home. From a critical angle, timepieces are interesting because of how infrequently I interrogate their ubiquitous presence in my daily life; per Vincent Mosco, the “social impact” of technology is greatest when devices and systems become “banal” and “withdraw into the woodwork.”[ (( Mosco, Vincent. The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004: 19.))] As I found myself beginning to work on a thesis project that critiqued push notifications in my daily life last year, I decided to invest in an Apple Watch Series 3 linked to my iPhone in order to see if a ‘smart watch’ that reached out to me would change the way I used this familiar machine to structure parts of my life. After an unsurprising period of collision as the rhythms of my daily life met the disruptive methodology of the Apple Watch, I soon found that the chimes on my wrist folded themselves into the fabric of life just as the vibrations in my pocket had after acquiring my first cell phone.

The most distinct new flavor that the Watch added beyond even my phone was notifications about my body. Stevens and Wernimont wrote in 2018 that wearable technologies in the 21st century first gained momentum from the ‘Quantified Self’ movement, whose adherents use smart devices like heart rate monitors “with the objective of noticing trends over time and optimizing based on their personal observations.”[ (( Stevens, Nikki, and Jacqueline Wernimont. “Seeing 21st Century Data Bleed through the 15th Century Wound Man.” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 37, no. 4 (December 2018): 47. https://doi.org/10.1109/MTS.2018.2876214.))] While the motivation for this movement was based on a utopic cyborg dream of perfectly optimized biology, the researchers note that “[wearable] digital technologies situate the body not as a self-contained, sovereign subject but as a leaking, commodified data-producing body.” [ (( Stevens, Nikki, and Jacqueline Wernimont. “Seeing 21st Century Data Bleed through the 15th Century Wound Man.” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 37, no. 4 (December 2018): 47. https://doi.org/10.1109/MTS.2018.2876214.))] Moreover, the notion of a device that appears to record bodily activity for my benefit is complicated by our ‘appified’ society where mobile apps are “embedded into the everyday routines and rituals of users” [ (( Morris, Jeremy Wade, and Sarah Murray, eds. Appified: Culture in the Age of Apps. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2018: 7. ))] and large technology companies continually strive for what Couldry & Mejias call “the capitalization of life without limit.”[ (( Couldry, Nick, and Ulises A. Mejias. The Costs Of Connection: How Data Is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019: 1-35. ))] So while Apple Watches seem to provide a consumer service of measuring and analyzing my body and fitness growth, a second look makes it clear that the data about how I live and move is a clear asset for information technology companies wishing to go from delivery of service to urban infrastructure control. A device that quantifies bodily function sutures (sometimes quite literally) external interest to my body, reducing my physiology to a numeric performance with each method of measurement determined by its potentiality to produce data.[ (( When these biometric data are sold to or shared with police organizations, the Watch presents some frightening possibilities. For a personal example, my ‘outdoor walk’ activity on 6/7/20 that corresponds with the timing of a protest march in Austin potentially marks me as ‘suspicious’ even before GPS data ‘puts me at the scene.’))]

The notification settings for my Activity app.
The screen on my iPhone’s Watch companion app showing settings for my Watch’s Activity notifications.

It is at this point an open secret that my Apple Watch is a surveillance tool with neat features, but what if we consider the media produced by the Watch alongside the data harvested by it? The Activity app on my Watch is particularly insistent on reminding me of three daily goals: stand once an hour[ (( It should be noted that Apple Watches have the functionality to replace these with ‘Time to roll’ notifications for wheelchair users.))] for twelve separate hours (‘Stand’), elevate my heartrate for thirty separate minutes (‘Exercise’), and burn a user-determined number of calories (‘Move’). In the companion app on my iPhone (above) I am able to set which notifications are sent from the Activity app to my Watch face: Stand Reminders, Daily Coaching, Goal Completions, Special Challenges, and Activity Sharing Notifications. Though Special Challenges and Activity Sharing are rarer, I receive notifications from each other category on at least a daily basis. Each of these notifications lights up the screen, vibrates the Watch body, and emits an audible chime if I have the volume turned on; the fact that the Facebook Messenger, Gmail, and Activity apps all produce a similar sequence[ (( Though there is a difference in vibration by default, it is subtle.))] erases the sensory difference between a message from my partner, an email from my employer, and a reminder to stand up again.

The Activity app appears to ‘just work’ following the model of opaque computing, but anyone who owns an Apple Watch will tell you that in reality their Watch’s notificatory flow is not fused perfectly with the motions of their body. In my time with this device, I have had Stand Reminders regularly occur while standing, had my Move Ring nearly double my average on a day I spent fourteen hours driving across the country, and been commended for my exercise and elevated heartrate during an anxiety attack.[ (( The Move Ring is particularly nebulous to the point of my Watch recording anywhere between roughly 200 and 400 calories during my (previously) daily walking commute from my apartment to campus (a distance of 1.7 miles.) I have noticed that this number seems to be particularly affected by whether I have registered this as an “Outdoor Walk” in the Exercise app.))] It is also worth noting that a Goal Completion notification is symbolically simple and positive. In the middle of screen, a diagram of all the progress I have made on my various goals (represented by completed ‘rings’) that day is visible directly over bold text reading “Goal Achieved,” with smaller capitalized text underneath identifying that this message arrived courtesy of the “ACTIVITY” app. Taking this form both codifies and incentivizes the particular type of activity quantification that the Apple Watch is capable of, deigning all activity that what is essentially a wrist-mounted accelerometer and heartrate monitor cannot measure as both non-conforming and unrewardable. Given the tendency for surveillance technology more generally to mark as Other “virtually anything that aberrates from the norm,” this should be perhaps not be surprising.

A machine whose notifications rewarded ‘proper’ measurement of my body’s movement became especially problematic during the “Stay Home- Work Safe Order” that my county first implemented in mid-March of this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when further restrictions “requiring individuals to stay at home or their place of residence” except in the case of essential work or activities were deemed necessary in mid-April. Unsurprisingly, it is difficult to do things that will register as Activity for my Apple Watch while I am under a legal order and moral imperative to stay inside of my small shared apartment whenever possible without access to gym equipment. Though it would be out of character for Apple to release hard data on their Activity users, a March 23rd blog post from rival smartwatch company and recent Alphabet acquisition Fitbit documented a global reduction in measured weekly step count from 2019-20, including peaks of -38% and -25% from heavily effected Spain and Italy respectively while the US averaged -12% with higher reductions in most metropoles. Though I have not been able to find any more recent studies or relevant external data, I can personally attest to the chilling effect of a pandemic on exercise; even after I lowered the threshold for my ‘Move’ goal, I completed all of the daily goals my Watch put before me twenty-six times in February, eighteen times in March, and nine combined times between April and May.

And yet, the frequency of notifications from the Activity app into my life as mediated by my Watch remain unchanged. Messages like “Keep it going” (documented 5/24, 5/26, 5/31, 6/3, 6/9, 6/10, 6/11, 6/14, 6/16) in the morning, “You can still do it” (documented 5/24, 5/26, 5/31, 6/10, 6/11) in the evening, and “[Check/Close] your rings” (documented 6/10,6/11, 6/12) on slow days continually drop into my daily life, encouraging behavior that is either logistically impractical or potentially hazardous to public health. My Watch asks me to return to the type of activity it can measure, and when I refuse to comply, it withholds praise and chides me. In encouraging data collection under the guise of exercise the Watch notifications discourage ‘safe'[ (( It is also impossible to ignore the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the rare times it is ‘unsafe’ for a young able-bodied white man like myself to be outside of my home, especially in a city like Austin, TX. Gentrification, redlining, white supremacy, and their intersections with the police state can potentially make outdoors exercise a dangerous activity for people of color, especially in the recent case of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder while jogging this February.))] behavior and assigns notifiable value to breaking quarantine during a global pandemic. More simply, these notifications operate in daily life without taking into account its context.

Compiled tweets about Activity notifications during a pandemic.
Two screenshots showing the results of a search on Twitter for the latest tweets containing the words “apple watch notifications activity” conducted 6/12/20 (chronologically read bottom to top.) Results on the left range from 3/19/20-3/20/20 relatively near the beginning of major American cities reacting to the pandemic, and the results on the right range from 4/17/20-4/22/20, before most reopening plans began to take place.

I have been continually asked in the course of my academic work with notifications, “why don’t you just turn them off?” While this is a valid question, just telling people to turn off a default feature is not an adequate fix especially when they are designed as “a simple and fun way to live a healthier day.” Though notifications are usually easy to opt out of, to set the expectation that individual users are the only party responsible for moderating the messages that arrive on their screens without taking into account the entities that generate notifications and the software that delivers them sets a dangerous precedent when these media are designed to give input in daily life. It is the duty of users, developers, and designers to hold the notification accountable for its potential societal repercussions, especially in these times.

Image Credits:

  1. The rather ominous opening words on Apple’s webpage detailing the Apple Watch’s Activity app and features. It is immediately replaced by a graphic of the Activity app above the following text: “Three rings: Move, Exercise, Stand. One goal: Close them every day. It’s such a simple and fun way to live a healthier day that you’ll want to do it all the time. That’s the idea behind the Activity app on Apple Watch.” (author’s screen grab)
  2. The screen on my iPhone’s Watch companion app showing settings for my Watch’s Activity notifications (author’s screen grab)
  3. Two screenshots showing the results of a search on Twitter for the latest tweets containing the words “apple watch notifications activity” conducted 6/12/20 (chronologically read bottom to top.) Results on the left range from 3/19/20-3/20/20 relatively near the beginning of major American cities reacting to the pandemic, and the results on the right range from 4/17/20-4/22/20, before most reopening plans began to take place. (author’s screen grabs)


A Tale of Two Catalogues: The Celestial Jukebox and Campus Radio Library
Brian Fauteux / University of Alberta

Jukebox in the sky
The Celestial Jukebox.

There’s a persistent idea that every song you could ever want to listen to is only a few clicks away. News stories about streaming music services, and the tech companies behind them, regularly advance claims about revolutionary attributes, including their extensive and comprehensive catalogues.

In June 2006, Wired proclaimed that the celestial jukebox, “the ability to access all content ever created, from anywhere, at any time,” was becoming a reality, “at least as far as music goes.” The article followed the launch of Spotify in Europe but was years shy of its entry into North America. The concept of the Long Tail also entered the digital-musical vernacular around this time. According to Chris Anderson in 2004, you “can find everything out there on the Long Tail.” Niche selections, liberated from the limits of shelf space in bricks and mortar stores and from hit-driven economics would find an audience online.

There is no disputing the fact that there are more titles available on major streaming music services like Spotify and Apple Music than at your average record store. But an imbalance of power in the music industries, in favor of big labels and big tech companies, have perpetuated a hit-driven economy. “Superstars are capturing the vast majority of music revenues and their share is increasing—not decreasing—because of the rise of digital services like iTunes and Spotify” [paywalled].

Limits to the infinite online catalogue are apparent to me whenever I wish to listen to certain albums by bands from in and around Toronto during the late-90s and early 2000s. This is a time during which music organized much of my social life: I played in bands and spent time at shows. I have a decent CD collection from this particular time and place, but it’s one absent from the major music streaming services. I can listen to these albums on a CD player, if I can find one, but with streaming music as our dominant mode of listening, it’s imperative to ask questions about catalogues and their variety. 

image description
CiTR DJ Nardwuar at the station’s music library.

An alternative example I’d like to discuss is that of the campus radio music library. It’s a library that often includes material objects like vinyl records and CDs but also digital files. When I spoke with the Station Manager of CHMA in Sackville, New Brunswick (a town with a population of around 5,000) while doing research for my book on campus radio, he told me that the libraries were full with 13,000 vinyl albums and well over 25,000 CDs. They were undergoing a digitization project with CDs moving onto harddrives (a process he said expects to take “another 700 years”). 

Campus stations fall under the community radio sector in Canada and are licensed to program music that complements commercial or public stations. The Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) first licensed campus radio in 1975, and the sector grew considerably in the decades that followed (although there are many rich station histories that predate licensing). Despite centralized regulation, campus stations are shaped by the localities they serve, and a station’s history is often reflective of its surrounding region. The campus radio music library encourages us to reflect on taken-for-granted assumptions about the abundance of choice within the streaming music catalogue. 

Albums that receive a lot of airplay on Canadian campus stations are included on the !earshot charts. The charts skew heavily toward Canadian artists but this isn’t exclusive (Fiona Apple and Thundercat are currently charting). Weekly Top 50 albums are aggregated nationally across 50 reporting stations, and there are charts generated by individual stations. One can also view monthly charts that account for the top 200 albums nationally. 

The logo for !earshot
The !earshot logo.

For the years between 2019 and 2014, our research team searched the top 100 albums on the monthly !earshot charts on Spotify to get a sense of what gaps might exist between campus radio programming and Spotify’s catalogue. Are the sector’s most frequently programmed albums available on one of the most commonly used music streaming services? Albums that are played by multiple stations rise to the top and are the ones likely to turn up on Spotify. That said, a notable number are missing (or are potentially too difficult to locate through the search function). 

From all the monthly top 100 charts in 2019, a total of 19 albums are not available on Spotify. This number increases significantly as one works backwards. In 2018, 28 albums are not available; in 2017, 38 albums; in 2016, 58 albums; in 2015, 65 albums; and in 2014, 77 albums. The older the charts, the more albums are unavailable on Spotify.

By looking at an individual station’s charts, we get a better sense of what albums resonate within a given city or town. CJSW’s charts (a station in Calgary, Alberta) include only the top 30 albums per month. In 2019, 33 albums from the year’s top 30 charts are not available on Spotify. On a local level, there is a greater disparity between the !earshot and Spotify catalogues.   

The top two campus radio albums across the sector in December 2019 are available on Spotify but have low play counts. Common Holly’s When I say to you Black Lightning, the number one album that month, currently has play counts ranging from 10,000 to 84,000 per song. The number two album, Woolworm’s Awe (one of my favorites of 2019, for the record), has play counts ranging from around 5,000 to 10,000 per song. CJSW’s top album that month, the self-released Mes Amis by BLVD Noir, has less than 1,000 plays for each song. 

The cover of Woolworm's Awe (2019)
Woolworm’s Awe (2019).

Many of the albums on the !earshot top 100 that are not available on Spotify are self-released. In 2019, 32% were self-released; in 2018, 54%; in 2017, 61%; in 2016, 53%; in 2015, 57%; and in 2014, 45%. And the albums with label representation are, for the most part, released on independent Canadian labels with small rosters.

2019’s percentage is comparatively low because Spotify introduced a beta program that allowed artists to directly upload their own music in 2018 (as opposed to needing to go through a label or a third-party service). In summer 2019, Spotify decided to end the program. It would make sense that more self-released albums would turn up on the service in 2019 given that independent artists were able to upload albums on their own without paying for an aggregator.   

Campus stations are evidently vital outlets for local and diverse music. The campus radio music library can be thought of as a “DIY popular music institution,” one with cultural, social, and affective functions (Baker and Huber 2013). Campus radio music libraries are rooted in place, they are decentralized, and they can be fairly comprehensive with respect to a diversity of artists. Still, collections are informal and incomplete, and no one station takes the same approach to music programming and storage.

Because campus stations maintain intimate connections with local music cultures in ways that are not driven by an exclusively profit-centric motive (licenses limit advertising revenue and funds often come from listeners and a fee levy), their sense of what matters in terms of collecting and showcasing is quite varied and diverse. These collections can tell us much about the musical histories of localities across the country. 

In the campus music library, we might evade the gated-in listening that corporate streaming music algorithms facilitate, or what Kate Lacey (2013) calls “listening in.” People maintain these libraries, and voices bring forth songs to listeners. This is a different listening experience than letting the algorithm do its work. If a major virtue of streaming music service is that it can easily bring a vast selection of songs to a listener across space and time, we would be wise to critically interrogate the depth of its catalogue and listen carefully for the sounds and songs that do not easily reach our ears. 

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, Maria Khaner, and William Northlich.

Image Credits:

  1. The Celestial Jukebox.
  2. CiTR DJ Nardwuar at the station’s music library.
  3. The !earshot logo.
  4. Woolworm’s Awe (2019).


Baker, S., & Huber, A. (2013). Notes towards a typology of the DIY institution: Identifying do-it-yourself places of popular music preservation. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 16.5, 513-530.

Lacey, K. (2013). Listening in the digital age. In J. Loviglio & M. Hilmes (Eds.), Radio’s new wave: Global sound in the digital era (pp. 9-23). New York, NY: Routledge.

In Praise of the Bad Transgender Object: The Silence of the Lambs
Cáel M. Keegan / Grand Valley State University

Buffalo Bill performs for the camera.
Buffalo Bill performs for the camera.

Author’s Note: This column is the second in a three-part series examining instances of “bad” transgender popular culture. In this series, I explore how the demand for “good” transgender representation is shifting the history and aesthetics of transgender media. The first installment discusses The Rocky Horror Picture Show

It was bad from the start.

Unlike other films that contain sensationalist representations of transgender people, The Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991) has always been considered a “bad” text—having met with vocal queer resistance immediately upon its release (Bloomer). While other bad transgender media objects have become “bad” because they have not aged well under the pressure of recent trans politics, Silence’s badness has shifted: A text that originally seemed to rely on the stigmatization of effeminate queer masculinity today appears to rely on the pathologization of transgender women. This evolution of the film’s perceived “badness”—from homophobic to transmisogynistic—has been driven by the growing separation of sexuality from gender as cultural phenomena, a process that has made transgender identities more clearly distinct from gay and lesbian ones. Today, Silence is understood by many transgender people to be one of the most “significant and impactful examples of pop culture transmisogyny” (Truitt). In a moment saturated with calls for better transgender representation, why bother examining such a banished text at all?

In my first column in this series, I noted how recent “positive” forms of transgender media representation do not seem to be improving political or social outcomes for all transgender people (Keegan). As transgender scholars and artists have pointed out, the rising media visibility of transgender identity appears to be linked with increased policing of and violence against transgender people, especially poor transgender people of color (Stanley). When ACT-UP and Queer Nation protested Silence at the 1992 Academy Awards, they did so on the premise that positive media representations would lead to positive social treatment of queer people. But what if that visibility story is true for some of us, precisely at the expense of others? What if The Silence of the Lambs isn’t simply a story of transmisogynistic violence, but a story about how that violence figured in the process through which gay and lesbian identities secured national belonging?

The Silence of the Lambs follows a young FBI recruit, Clarice Starling (Jodi Foster) as she tracks down Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine)—a murderer who has been kidnapping and flaying women to make a suit of female skin. Starling is tasked with interviewing the psychoanalyst Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) about Bill’s psychological profile. From Lecter, we learn that Bill “believes he is a transsexual” and has likely been denied access to medical transition. Following clues provided by Lecter, Starling locates and kills Bill, earning her place in the FBI. Silence is at once the story of a cop beating a criminal, a Reaganite hangover film championing the FBI, and a feminist tale about a woman rising within the patriarchal structures of the U.S. federal government. The film remains a cultural juggernaut and a mainstay of American horror cinema. 

Given its intensely stigmatizing depiction of trans femininity, The Silence of the Lambs is indeed a very bad transgender object. And yet, it has always also been a story about how one type of queer subject was welcomed into the arms of the state through the sacrifice of another, far less acceptable kind: Starling is the ostensibly working-class lesbian feminist hero who finds and destroys the transgender monster. Silence helps us understand how representations of transgender psychosis were a foil against which late-20th century gay and lesbian normalcy was culturally produced. In a period when queer politics increasingly demanded outness, gay and lesbian identities—including Foster’s—were under intense pressure to exteriorize themselves as representational (Turque). Out gay identity was to have no interiority in which “perversion” could hide. In Silence, we see that perverse interiority transferred to the transgender figure, who replaces gay and lesbian identities as the dark, queer corner of the national imaginary. 

Starling and Bill are a pair: Both desire mobility, but only one is pointed in a direction the state can tolerate. Starling, who is “not more than one generation from poor white trash,” desires upward class mobility through identification with her deceased police father and therefore with the patriarchal law. Bill, her negation, desires downward gender mobility but has been denied institutional access and therefore directly seeks out female flesh. The difference is that while Starling is permitted to abstract her desire, Bill must literalize. If there is one horror at the center of all horror cinema, it is the literalization of white patriarchal capitalism’s actual relations, which is the turning of bodies into objects. Starling must therefore do away with Bill. For such doing, she will be rewarded.

Our first view of Starling.
Our first view of Starling.

Starling wants to fly. Our first image of Starling is of her climbing, rope in hand, up out of the mud—training in her FBI sweatshirt to become an agent of the state. In a later training sequence, she’ll make a fatal error, forgetting to “check the corner” of her field of vision. This is precisely the dark corner from which, later in the film, Bill will emerge. If Starling checked the corners of her desire, she would notice that she and Bill share a connection: Bill is an inverse reflection of her own ambition to cross social categories, to move her body into new meaning. But while Starling goes up, Bill goes down—setting up a filthy basement workshop at the lip of a dry well, a dark reservoir where excess flesh is stored, to be transformed. 

Starling forgets to check the corners.
Starling forgets to check the corners.

The value of Silence today, then, isn’t simply in the importance of Starling as a feminist icon (Marshall), or in the example of Bill as an expression of transphobia (Truitt): It is instead their relation to one another as a formal exploration of which kinds of queerness would be welcomed into national belonging and which would be marked as irredeemable. Silence demonstrates this lesson at the level of both character and montage: Close to the end of the film, Starling follows her own clues to Bill’s location while the FBI races to what we discover is a different address. For a moment, clever parallel editing lets us believe that these exteriors lead to the same interior space. But we are mistaken. Only Starling has gone to the right place.

The incorrect exterior.
The incorrect exterior.

The real transgender horror of Silence is, ultimately, that the inside does not match the outside. Starling enters the house, draws her gun, and begins to descend. In the basement, in pitch blackness, she and Bill will almost touch. Bill will emerge from the unchecked corner and reach out a hand. We will expect Bill to simply kill Starling, but instead there will be a hesitation, a strange gesture from Bill that is almost loving, as if to say: in just this short moment, before one of us is destroyed by the other—be here with me in the dark.  

Bill reaches for Starling.
Bill reaches for Starling.

Image Credits:

  1. Buffalo Bill performs for the camera. (author’s screen grab)
  2. Our first view of Starling. (author’s screen grab)
  3. Starling forgets to check the corners. (author’s screen grab)
  4. The incorrect exterior. (author’s screen grab)
  5. Bill reaches for Starling. (author’s screen grab)


Bloomer, Jeffrey. “When Gays Decried Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme Became an Early Student of Modern Backlash.” Slate, 28 April, 2017. https://slate.com/human-interest/2017/04/director-jonathan-demme-faced-down-silence-of-the-lambs-gay-backlash.html

Keegan, Cáel M. “In Praise of the Bad Transgender Object: Rocky Horror. FLOW, 28 November, 2019. https://www.flowjournal.org/2019/11/in-praise-of-the-bad/

Marshall, Sarah. “Over 25 Years, Clarice Starling’s Impact on Film Heroines Still Resonates.” Bitch Media, 2 March, 2016. https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/over-25-years-clarice-starlings-impact-film-heroines-still-resonates-hearken

Stanley, Eric. “Unrecognizable: On Transgender Recognition in 2017.” South Atlantic Quarterly, 116.3, July 2017. 605-611. 

Truitt, Jos. “My Auntie Buffalo Bill: The Unavoidable Transmisogyny of Silence of the Lambs.” Feministing, 10 March, 2016. http://feministing.com/2016/03/10/my-auntie-buffalo-bill-the-unavoidable-transmisogyny-of-silence-of-the-lambs/

Turque, Bill. “The Age of Outing.” Newsweek, 11 August, 1991. https://www.newsweek.com/age-outing-202878

Fatherhood and Franchise Revivals: The Curious Case of Harrison Ford
Kathleen Loock / Europa-Universität Flensburg

Harrison Ford in Blade Runner 2049
Harrison Ford reprises his role of Rick Deckard in Blade Runner 2049. Ford’s return to this and to the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises see his characters becoming fathers.

Having played and repeatedly reprised the role of charismatic rogue, Harrison Ford counts as one of Hollywood’s most popular franchise actors. His iconic characters Han Solo, Indiana Jones, and Rick Deckard have defined the Star Wars and Indiana Jones film franchises as well as two Blade Runner movies. Ford first portrayed these heroes in the late 1970s and early 1980s—the opportunistic smuggler Solo in Star Wars (Lucas, 1977), the adventurous professor of archaeology in Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981), and replicant-hunting Deckard in Blade Runner (Scott, 1982). Until the late 1980s, he returned to play the roles in the Star Wars sequels The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980) and Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983), and in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Spielberg, 1984) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Spielberg, 1989). Several decades later, Ford brought the characters that made him famous back onto the big screen in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Spielberg, 2008) (and a fifth installment that is currently scheduled for release in 2022), in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, Abrams), and in Blade Runner 2049 (Villeneuve, 2017). In these franchise revivals, Ford’s characters return visibly aged, and, more importantly, they return as fathers.

Discussing the comebacks of aging white male actors such as Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Harrison Ford in the new millennium, Philippa Gates identifies fatherhood as a common theme of franchise revivals. By resurrecting their most beloved characters from the 1980s—Rocky, Rambo, John McClane, and Indiana Jones—Gates argues, Stallone, Willis, and Ford managed to sustain their flagging careers. During the 1990s, the middle-aged, muscled action heroes these actors embodied had gradually disappeared from the box-office blockbusters, where a new generation of “smaller, slimmer, younger, and more sensitive action hero[es]” took their place (Gates 276). Gates speaks of a “shift to more vulnerable heroes in a retrospective apology for the ‘masculinity’ of the preceding decade” (276). Stallone, Willis, and Ford’s most recent movies accommodate this move away from the hard-bodied hypermasculinity of the 1980s at the intersection of aging and fatherhood. The films “explore the problems that arise when the will is strong but the flesh is not so, when fathers have grown apart from their children, and when lone heroes can no longer fight evil on their own” (277). In her book Postfeminism and Paternity in Contemporary U.S. Film (2014), Hannah Hamad suggests that fatherhood not only “enables the staging of credible reentries into the star landscape” (71). Fatherhood also “negotiates an otherwise abject process of physical decline and social obsolescence, instead recasting it as a boon for heretofore derogated aging masculinities” (27). And fatherhood, one could add, makes perfect sense because it fuels the storytelling engine of Hollywood’s decades-spanning franchise cinema.

Hypermasculine action heroes of the 1980s, such as Rambo, began to disappear in the 1990s in favor of more sensitive action heroes.

Hollywood’s model of cultural reproduction is defined by a serial logic of repetition, continuation, and renewal. The enduring popularity and profitability of long-running film franchises hence depend on the return of familiar characters and actors, while the passing of time simultaneously introduces an element of generational renewal into ongoing narratives (see Loock, “Reproductive Futurism”). Unless, of course, filmmakers opt for a remake, prequel, or reboot, i.e., forms of innovative reproduction that break with narrative continuity and the franchise’s linear understanding of time (or, if they rely on digital de-aging technologies). The serial unfolding of individual installments over many years and decades, however, must address temporal constraints and account for the aging of stars. This, too, explains how fatherhood and the theme of generational succession have emerged as key elements in the resurrection of 1980s action heroes. Their purpose is to keep the story going: son-figures (or substitute sons) serve as sidekicks that attract younger audiences, while the older action heroes (who tend to be acutely aware of their aging bodies) speak to the earlier movies’ original audiences and exert cross-generational appeal.

In the case of Harrison Ford’s franchise characters, I argue, fatherhood presents an unexpected narrative twist that leads to comic, awkward, or simply weird encounters with their respective franchise offspring. Unlike Rocky, whose son Robert Balboa, Jr. is born in Rocky II (Stallone, 1979) and can be seen in every sequel after that, or John McClane, whose children Jack and Lucy make their first appearance in Die Hard (McTiernan, 1988) and take on prominent roles in the two latest installments Live Free or Die Hard (Wiseman, 2007) and A Good Day to Die Hard (Moore, 2013), neither Indiana Jones nor Han Solo nor Deckard have been family men in the earlier movies. Their returns as fathers in franchise revivals are therefore puzzling—for audiences and, to a certain degree, for the characters themselves. Indiana Jones is completely unaware that he has a kid, Han Solo is estranged from his son, and Deckard believes that he must be absent as a father in order to protect his child.

Bruce Willis and Jai Courtney in A Good Day to Die Hard
John McClane’s children, who originally appear as young children in Die Hard, are adults and central to the plots of later films in the franchise.

In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Indy first discovers that his young sidekick Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) is the son of Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), his love interest from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and is shocked when he later finds out that he is, in fact, Mutt’s father. Marion tells Indy about his son while they are both sinking into a dry sand pit. Once they escape from the life-threatening situation, Indy immediately takes on the responsibilities of fatherhood. Following traditional gender scripts and nostalgic ideas of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction, he insists that Mutt goes back to school (although he had previously encouraged Mutt’s free lifestyle) and marries Marion at the end of the movie. The Force Awakens presents Han Solo and Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) as failed parents of their already adult son Ben Solo, who now calls himself Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Trained to be a Jedi by his uncle Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Ben is seduced by the Dark Side and eventually murders his father Han when Han tries to convince him to renounce the Dark Side. In Blade Runner 2049, Deckard knows he has a daughter with replicant Rachael (Sean Young)—the first (and only) replicant-born baby. Rachael dies during childbirth, and Deckard keeps his distance from Ana (Carla Juri), who grows up in an orphanage and with foster parents to become a memory designer for the Wallace Foundation. Deckard is convinced that “[s]ometimes to love someone … you gotta be a stranger,” and only reconnects with the adult Ana at the very end of the movie.

For Harrison Ford’s characters, fatherhood doesn’t involve any actual parenting but instead sidesteps the paternal premises of postfeminist fatherhood in contemporary media culture (e.g., the men’s presence in the lives of their children and active involvement in taking care of them). Here, it serves as a narrative device that enables Ford’s comeback and ensures the continued existence of his franchises and their cultural and economic viability. The kids stand for the continuity and generational renewal of the franchises, and yet these revivals do not necessarily function as ‘legacyquel’—a “very specific kind of sequel […] in which beloved aging stars reprise classic roles and pass the torch to younger successors” (Singer; see also Albarrán-Torres and Golding; Loock, “Reboot”). When Mutt picks up his father’s iconic fedora and wants to put it on at the end of the movie, Indy makes sure that it stays on his own head “in a labored refusal,” as Hamad writes, “to cast Jones’ aging masculinity in terms of obsolescence” (77). Han Solo reappears in The Rise of Skywalker (Abrams, 2019), and Deckard’s reunion with his daughter Ana at the end of Blade Runner 2049 leaves ample room for further installments. These franchise revivals rely on the increased visibility of fatherhood and its reconfiguration as ideal masculinity in a postfeminist mediascape, but their representations of father figures seem to contradict related paradigms of involved fatherhood for the sake of franchise logic.

Image Credits:

  1. Harrison Ford reprises his role of Rick Deckard in Blade Runner 2049. Ford’s return to this and to the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises see his characters becoming fathers.
  2. Hypermasculine action heroes of the 1980s, such as Rambo, began to disappear in the 1990s in favor of more sensitive action heroes.
  3. John McClane’s children, who originally appear as young children in Die Hard, are adults and central to the plots of later films in the franchise.


Albarrán-Torres, César
Alberto, and Dan Golding. “Creed:
Legacy Franchising, Race and Masculinity in Contemporary Boxing Films.” Continuum, Doi:

Gates, Philippa.
“Acting His Age? The Resurrection of the 80s Action Heroes and Their Aging
Stars.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 27 (2010): 276-289.

Hamad, Hannah. Postfeminism
and Paternity in Contemporary U.S. Film: Framing Fatherhood
. New York:
Routledge, 2014.

Loock, Kathleen. “Reboot,
Requel, Legacyquel: Jurassic World and the Nostalgia
Franchise.” Film Reboots. Ed. Daniel Herbert and Constantine
Verevis. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP (forthcoming, 2020).

Loock, Kathleen. “Reproductive Futurism and the Politics of the Sequel.” [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies 6.3 (2019): http://mediacommons.org/intransition/reproductive-futurism-and-politics-sequel.

Singer, Matt. “Welcome to the Age of the Legacyquel.” ScreenCrush 23 Nov. 2015: http://screencrush.com/the-age-of-legacyquels/.

Over*Flow: It’s a F***ing Lockdown: The Branding Responses of the UK’s Public Service Broadcasters
Melissa Morton / University of Edinburgh

User created videos
BBC One’s “Oneness” Campaign showcases audiences’ social distancing activities.

Over the past two months, the UK’s population—the vast majority at home under lockdown—have increasingly been relying on television for trustworthy news and escapist entertainment. During a time of social isolation, television has become crucial for our sense of connection with the outside world and with each other. Despite the increasingly crowded television landscape with an expanding array of online platforms—Amazon Prime, Netflix and Disney+, to mention a few—many viewers are looking to trusted public service channels (BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5) to be “informed, educated and entertained” during a period of crisis. At the start of the lockdown, 64 percent of people were watching more live TV than before the pandemic.[ ((Havas Media Group. 2020. “Havas Media Group study reveals swing to trusted media brands and live TV in response to COVID-19,” March 23, 2020. Available at: <https://havasmedia.com/havas-media-group-study-reveals-swing-to-trusted-media-brands-and-live-tv-in-response-to-covid-19/>))] In response, the UK’s public service broadcasters adapted their branding communications to reflect the drastic transformation of their viewers’ daily lives. Audiences have felt an increased need for connection and inspiration; accordingly, the promotions created by the UK’s main public service broadcasters particularly focus on themes of connection, laughter, and community.

On-screen branding, consisting of the “bits in-between” the programs such as station identifications, trailers, and promos, provide the UK’s broadcasters with an opportunity to articulate a distinct brand identity and the roles the broadcasters hope to play for audience members imagined as a diverse national community. The recent on-screen branding provides an interesting commentary on changing societal perceptions of the role of national broadcasters during a global crisis. Viewership data suggests a “swing towards trusted and meaningful media channels and brands,” including a reliance on the BBC as “the most trustworthy source of information.” What might increased dependence and trust mean for our relationship with public service broadcasters in the future?

BBC: Cups of Tea and Dua Lipa

At the end of March, BBC Creative produced a promotion for the BBC iPlayer which encourages people to stay at home by featuring excerpts from archival BBC comedies. These include Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) and his iconic “It’s a f***ing lockdown” meltdown from the The Thick of It (2005) and Miranda Hart’s vegetable orchestra from Miranda (2009).

BBC Creative’s promotions use excerpts from archival BBC comedies to encourage Brits to stay home.

BBC One, meanwhile, has recently introduced new on-screen branding featuring multiple videos captured on smartphones, including cups of tea and an “isolation disco.” Many argue that these changes have been long overdue; throughout late March and April, BBC One had continued to use a series of station idents named “Oneness,” which showcase groups of people across the country engaging in activities ranging from dog-walking and swimming to Bhangra dancing and aerobics. Some disgruntled viewers expressed their confusion that the channel has continued to use these idents at a time when social distancing measures, including maintaining a two-meter distance from others, have been declared mandatory. In replacing the previous “Oneness” idents with home-videos, BBC One has maintained its core values of “unity and togetherness,” while reflecting its viewers’ current socially distanced realities.[ ((Red Bee Creative. 2007. “BBC One.” Available at: < http://www.redbeecreative.com/work/bbc-one-channel-rebrand>))]

Non-social distancing BBC One brand ident
Non-social distancing BBC One brand ident

image description
Safer at home BBC One brand ident

BBC One has transitioned from showing pre-social distancing brand indents to home videos of Brits staying at home.

BBC News 24, meanwhile has encouraged its viewers to experiment with its music theme composed in 1999 by David Lowe. One influencer, Rachel Leary, propelled a BBC News dance craze when her version went “viral” on social media platform TikTok. Dressed as a DJ in shades and headphones, Leary dramatically turns “dials” and presses “buttons” on a makeshift turntable and mixer made of aerosols and cleaning products. Another remix trend was led by Owain Wyn Evans, now known as “the drumming weatherman,” of BBC North West Tonight. As part of “Owain’s Big House Band,” viewers recorded and submitted variations of the BBC News theme, ranging from trumpets, banjos, and tap dancing. Lastly, Glaswegian musician Ben Howell created a remix of the News theme with Dua Lipa’s “Hallucinate,” which, after going viral on Twitter, was showcased in a BBC News interview, the headline reading: “New News theme meme: Latest mash of corporate theme is musical smash.”

Musician Ben Howell’s BBC News Theme remixed with pop star Dua Lipa’s “Hallucinate.”

The increased involvement of young people in “remixing” the theme is a promising sign for the BBC after Ofcom raised concerns last year that the BBC was “losing a generation of viewers.” The Havas Covid Media report showed that the BBC was the most trustworthy source of information on Covid-19, particularly among 18-24 year olds. Moreover, these younger viewers are not only relying on the BBC as a source of news but actively and irreverently engaging with it through remixes and viral dance crazes.

Channel 4: Buttocks and Personalities

Channel 4 also introduced new on-screen branding, adapting its irreverent and creative brand values and claiming to “innovate and take bold creative risks.” Bumpers between shows feature the channel’s stars accompanied by peaceful birdsong, including John Snow ironing a tie and Katherine Ryan painting a glamorous self-portrait. In a longer promotion, Matt Berry theatrically addresses the nation, accompanied by heroic trumpet fanfare, cymbal crashes, and harp glissandi, as images of wiggling buttocks are superimposed onto a spinning globe. Berry asks us:

Britain: When was the last time you did something that really mattered with your arse?… We need your buttocks—clench together on the sofa: stay at home; save lives.

UK’s Channel 4 encourages Brits to stay home through cheeky ads.

ITV: Outsourcing Graphic Design to the Nation’s Schoolchildren

ITV’s approach has centred on user-generated content, aspiring to create a sense of a community among its viewers. On Monday, April 6th, ITV introduced “ITV Kids Create,” enabling children to re-design the on-screen logo; parents can post their children’s designs on Twitter for the chance to have them shown on TV. ITV also re-introduced its “Get Britain Talking” campaign, which allows viewers to share a message with the nation on Twitter, spearheaded by the channel’s spokespeople, Ant and Dec.

ITV’s “crowdsourced” branding approaches accords with the BBC’s, exemplified by the BBC One idents and their decidedly “home-made” aesthetic. In sum, the branding approaches by BBC, ITV, and Channel 4 display an attempt to connect and interact with viewers, the emphasis on user-generated content and light-hearted comedy providing a sorely needed sense of connection, inspiration, and fun.

ITV logo
ITV’s “Kids Create” campaign encourages children to redesign the channel’s on-screen logo.

What Does this Mean for Public Service Broadcasting?

Initially, when the BBC was established by Royal Charter in 1927, its public service remit was conceived in terms of General-Director John Reith’s paternalistic definition of broadcasters as the nation’s “moral and cultural leaders”:

It is occasionally indicated to us that we are apparently setting out to give the public what we think they need—and not what they want—but few know what they want and very few what they need.[ ((Reith, J. C. W. 1924. Broadcast Over Britain. London, Hodder and Stoughton Ltd. Pg. 34))]

Now, nearly one-hundred years later, consumers have an overwhelming array of terrestrial, satellite, digital, and online channels to choose from, and can access content from anywhere in the world. The BBC is funded by a license fee—roughly £150 per year to be paid by every household receiving broadcasts. Although ITV, Channel 4, S4C, and Channel 5 are commercially funded through advertisers, these broadcasters also have to fulfill certain public service obligations in their programming. Throughout the changes in the media landscape, beginning with the introduction of commercial competition with the establishment of Channel 4 in 1982, the BBC has been transformed. Dispensing with the implicitly elitist aim to elevate the tastes of the masses, the BBC had to be more in tune with the needs and wants of its diverse target audience and formulate its television and radio stations as distinct brands. In particular, the on-screen branding designed by BBC, ITV,  and Channel 4 during the Covid-19 crisis demonstrates a marked effort to form a connection with their individual audience members as well as evoking a sense of community, evident in Matt Berry’s address to the nation (“Britain: we need your buttocks”), and the attempts by ITV and BBC to encourage user-generated content.

The brand responses raise questions about the role of public service broadcasting today, particularly that of the BBC. Since its inception, the BBC has increasingly had to justify its existence to those who consider the license fee as “unnecessary, elitist and anticompetitive.”[ ((Born, G. and Prosser, D., (2001). “Culture and Consumerism: Citizenship, Public Service Broadcasting and the BBC’s Fair Trading Obligations.” Modern Law Review. 64: 5 pp. 657-687.))] Perhaps the BBC’s most precarious time was under Margaret Thatcher, who was strongly in favour of scrapping the license fee and replacing it with advertising. Although the BBC managed to maintain its public funding model, the debate has continued. As recently as February, Dominic Cummings controversially suggested that the government could scrap the license fee and replace it with a subscription model when the Charter comes up for renewal in December 2027.

However, increased viewership numbers and surveys carried out by the Havas Media Report suggest that the UK’s population largely trusts public service broadcasters in a time of crisis, not just for accurate news but also for irreverent escapism and laughter. There is still a long way to go until the BBC’s charter renewal in 2027. Will the BBC maintain its current status as the “most trustworthy source of information” and stay relevant among younger viewers? As broadcasters and their audiences both attempt to adapt to a “new normal,” the nature of the longer-term impact on public attitudes and government policy towards public service broadcasting is not yet clear.

Image Credits:

  1. BBC One’s “Oneness” Campaign showcases audiences social distancing activities.
  2. Non-social distancing BBC One brand ident.
  3. Safer at home BBC One brand ident.
  4. ITV’s “Kids Create” campaign encourages children to redesign the channel’s on-screen logo.


Making the Cut & Amazon: The Perfect Entertainment & E-commerce Collaboration
Danielle Williams / Georgia Gwinnett College

Heidi Klum kissing Tim Gunn
Making the Cut hosts, Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn

On March 27th, 2020, Amazon Prime entered the world of fashion reality programming with Making the Cut (Amazon Prime, 2020-present). Making the Cut is the second fashion design competition to debut in 2020 following the January 29th premiere of Netflix’s Next in Fashion (Netflix, 2020-present). Both shows have been compared to the long-standing gold star of fashion shows: Project Runway (Bravo 2004-2008; Lifetime 2009-2017; Bravo 2019-Present), which just wrapped its 18th season in March. In both series, contestants use their design skills to win their big break in the fashion industry. For Next in Fashion participants, Queer Eye’s (Netflix 2018-present) fashion expert Tan France and model/designer Alexa Chung serve as the show’s hosts and mentors. The winner receives $250,000 as well as the opportunity for their collection to be sold via online fashion retailer Net-a-porter.

Making the Cut has two hosts that are familiar to Project Runway fans: Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn. Klum and Gunn were part of the first 16 seasons of Project Runway but left the show in September 2018 to create a new series for Amazon Prime. According to Klum and Gunn, Making the Cut takes the fashion competition series to the next level. The hosts claim their series is not a “sewing competition,” as compared to Project Runway, where contestants had to design as well as show their apparel. While the contestants are responsible for the designs, they have assistance from seamstresses in Making the Cut

The show’s objective is to find the next global brand. Contestants are not trying to break into the world of fashion; they have their own labels and stores. For example, Ji Won Choi designed a collection for Adidas Originals and Esther Perbandt is an award-winning designer from Germany who has shown multiple times during Berlin’s Fashion Week. Moreover, the winner will receive a $1,000,000 prize to expand their brand and the opportunity to design an exclusive line for Amazon.

Trailer for Making the Cut

Critical reviews of Making the Cut focus on how the series cannot compare to Project Runway. USA Today called it a copycat and that it “can’t make it work like the original,” referring to a popular catchphrase used by Gunn during his Project Runway tenure.[ (( Lawler, Kelly. “Why Amazon and Netflix’s ‘Project Runway’ Copycats Can’t Make It Work like the Original.” USA TODAY, https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/tv/2020/04/03/making-cut-and-next-fashion-pale-next-project-runway/5096792002/. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020. ))] Entertainment Weekly described it as a reboot that “plays like Project Runway if its rich aunt died and left the show her millions.”[ (( Baldwin, Kristen. “‘Making the Cut’ Is ‘Project Runway’ with Amazon Money.” EW.Com, https://ew.com/tv/tv-reviews/making-the-cut-on-amazon-review/. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020. ))] Yet, what makes Making the Cut different from its competitors is Amazon. Each week contestants design two looks. One is for the world of high fashion while the other is more accessible. Both looks appear on the runway in a weekly fashion show. In each episode, the judges determine a winner and the losing designer goes home. The winning accessible looks appears in the Making the Cut store on Amazon, and each look is priced at $100 or less.

Making the Cut is Amazon’s version of livestream shopping. With livestream shopping retailers interact in real time with customers to sell products. In China, livestream shopping is a billion dollar industry; in 2018, the industry had $4.4 billion in sales.[ (( Chitrakorn, Kati. “H&M’s Millennial Brand Bets on Livestream Shopping.” Vogue Business. www.voguebusiness.com, https://www.voguebusiness.com/technology/h-and-m-millennial-brand-bets-on-livestream-shopping. Accessed 12 Apr. 2020. ))] Not only does Klum verbally remind contestants (and viewers) several times each week that the winning accessible look will be for sale in the “Making the Cut” store on Amazon, but also the show cuts to images of the online site.

Amazon Prime releases two episodes a week on Friday. As of this writing, six episodes have aired and all of the winning looks have sold out. However, fans can still make purchases in the store. Fans can buy clothing from the judges such as Heidi Klum’s Intimates line, Nicole Ritchie’s House of Harlow, or Joseph Altuzarra’s Altuzarra line. The store also includes a section of “Tim’s Closet Staples,” which include trench coats, blazers, day dresses, go-anywhere tops, little black dresses, and sweat suit alternatives.

Screenshot of Amazon’s Making the Cut online store featuring the first episode’s winning look and designer, Esther Perbandt

The creation of Making the Cut also helps Amazon. Even though the company is the top apparel retailer in the United States, the company has struggled with getting into the high end, luxury fashion. Making the Cut introduces viewers to the world of fashion with looks priced under $100. Moreover, viewers/consumers have a personal connection to the designers as they learn about the designers’ personal stories in each episode. For example, Ji Won Choi shares her struggle with her Korean identity when her family moved from Seoul to Oklahoma when she was 6. Feeling like an outsider, Ji Won rejected her Korean identity and had people call her “Rachel.”  Once she left Oklahoma to attend Parsons Design School of Design in New York, Choi embraced her identity and made it part of her brand.

The Making the Cut store also has a section called “Standout Styles” which contains looks inspired by the show’s judges, Heidi Klum, Nicole Ritchie, Joseph Altuzarra, supermodel Naomi Campbell, fashion influencer and designer Chiara Ferragni, and fashion editor Carine Roitfeld. The clothes range from $47-$995 and include fashion labels such as Marchesa and Halston.

In addition to the e-commerce element, what makes Making the Cut stand out from the competition is its production. The show’s first episode starts with the contestants meeting Klum and Gunn in New York City. After telling contestants about the competition and prize money, Klum announces that their first show will occur in Paris in front of the Eiffel Tower. In Paris, contestants work in an atelier and explore the city for artistic inspiration. The second runway show occurs at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. While the designers are working, Klum and Gunn explore the city. In one episode, they go to the Moulin Rouge. At the end of episode 4, Klum tells contestants to pack their bags because they are going to Tokyo. Once there, contestants explore the city such as the Harajuku District for inspiration for the Japanese Streetwear challenge. Designers bring their artistic visions to life at the Amazon Fashion Tokyo Studio.

Making the Cut judges, Naomi Campbell and Nicole Ritchie looking closely at a dress
Making the Cut judges, Naomi Campbell and Nicole Ritchie

Making the Cut combines entertainment and e-commerce. Other reality shows as well as scripted programs could follow in its footsteps. Viewers have immediate access to products seen onscreen and with Amazon Prime shipping, these looks can be delivered in two days. The contestants, the return of Tim Gunn as fashion mentor, and addition of Naomi Campbell as a judge make the show a much-needed escape. Gunn continues to provide supportive yet constructive criticism via “Tim Talks.” Campbell does not hold back in her role as judge; during one runway show, she tells the other judges that she wouldn’t even put her mother in one particular designer’s accessible outfit. During the haute couture challenge, Campbell tells a designer that she was not impressed with the designs and describes the accessible look as something that she would wear when she goes to the hairdresser. 

While confined in their homes, viewers can buy the winning looks as they enjoy the visual imagery of Paris and Tokyo played out using slick programming and editing. By maintaining the joie de vivre of Project Runway and building upon its credibility with consumer consciousness, the producers of Making the Cut have created a new pattern, which will undoubtedly shape the future of fashion and reality television.

Image Credits:

  1. Making the Cut hosts, Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn
  2. Trailer for Making the Cut
  3. Screenshot of Amazon’s Making the Cut online store featuring the first episode’s winning look and designer, Esther Perbandt
  4. Making the Cut judges, Naomi Campbell and Nicole Ritchie


Syndication 203: A Waxy Queer Buildup
Taylor Cole Miller / University of Georgia

The title character of 'Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman' sits at her kitchen table writing in her journal

This column is part of an ongoing series. The previous installment of this series can be viewed here.

Mary Hartman sits at her kitchen table grasping a notebook of pink paper. She dons her iconic prairie minidress with its Peter Pan collar and optimistic shoulders, but her hair falls unraveled from its signature braids offering hints that something is undone. “Dear Journal: What I’ve been thinking about lately is being bisexual. Bi, as in bicentennial, only, a little dirtier.” Probably the most common refrain conjured for TV historians and journalists about Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman is that the 1976-77 syndicated serial was ahead of its time. But its star Louise Lasser always echoes the same retort: “Mary Hartman wasn’t ahead of its time; it was its time.” And perhaps the show never proves that sentiment better than by inviting us to join her at the kitchen table as she records these thoughts on culture, feminism, and sexuality in the 1970s.[ (( Mary is writing these journal entries for a memoir by Gore Vidal, no less. ))]

In this installment of my series, I discuss the potential that television syndication has offered queerness over the years through a case study of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Whereas the TV history canon we tend to cling to emphasizes the networks and their practice of least objectionable programming, a turn toward histories of local or first-run syndication exposes a very different picture of television’s past. And while there are plenty of decidedly normative syndie shows, queer sexuality, gender, and genre often epitomized the practice of first-run syndication like in hit daytime talk shows where queer people first spoke for themselves as well as in queer darlings like Xena, He-Man, and Jem. While scholars have written sporadically about the queerness of such TV, the unexamined element throughout each that I bridge here is an introduction to how the syndicatedness of those shows encouraged their queerest aspects.

San Antonio Express review of Mary Hartman
San Antonio Express‘s review of Mary Hartman notes how the syndie serial skirted traditional network censorship.

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman focuses on the eponymous blue-collar housewife, a mother enduring a reality of failed promises—everything from the floor polish that accretes a waxy yellow buildup beneath her feet to a lifetime of unrequited sexual desire and unfulfilled happiness. Piercing through her continuous struggle to reproduce the perfectly gendered life she watches on her kitchen television set, Mary’s ennui bubbles up in involuntary vocalized gasps so heartbreaking and familiar to me as a queer person, it feels like they expose my darkest secrets while shredding me down to the bone. She’s at odds with everything, yet trying not to be.

Author’s Instagram compilation video of Mary Hartman’s gasps

Mary Hartman started life as a failure. At the time he pitched the show, creator Norman Lear was producing five of the top ten highest-rated network shows on television. Despite his recorded successes, however, all three networks passed because Mary Hartman was “too weird” with its unstable genre that mixed conventions of the sitcom, drama, and soap opera with Lear’s frank depictions of social issues, specifically here, those related to sexuality. So Lear took it to television’s last refuge of failure, syndication, and there it became a phenomenal success for the mostly independent stations that picked it up. Newsweek called it a “sort of video Rorschach test for the mass audience”[ (( Waters and Kasindorf, “The Mary Hartman Craze.” Newsweek, May 3, 1976. ))] while Ms. Magazine’s review said that its “melodramatic pileup of calamities is outrageous.”[ (( Harrington, Stephanie.“Mary Hartman: The Unedited, All-American Unconscious.” Ms. Magazine, May 1976. ))]

Lear’s network shows like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and Maude certainly pushed the cultural boundaries of television with “very special episodes,” but his syndicated shows serialized taboo stories into more comprehensive characterizations. Whereas “very special episodes” engender a patriarchal tradition of capturing and restraining potentially subversive content that could challenge a heteronormative order, the serial rarely finishes and a return to sitcom stasis is indefinitely deferred. Mary Hartman’s director Joan Darling once hilariously described this delayed gratification and extended queer time saying “it’s like screwing forever and never being able to come.”[ (( McCormack, Ed.“BB Shot Wounds, Whiplash, Storms of Weeping, Traumas That Shouldn’t Happen to a Dog! They’re All Part of the Real-Life Story of Mary Hartman’s Secret Recipe for Mock Cornball Surprise.” Rolling Stone, March 25, 1976. ))] Without network brass to contend with, in syndication Lear and his writers could really explore experimentation, genre, and identity play.

Magazine cover with Linda Murkland
After Mary Hartman’s quick success in first-run syndication, Norman Lear and Ann Marcus created a new show called All That Glitters in which the cultural power of the sexes was always already inverted and women ruled the world. It featured Linda Gray in the role of Linda Murkland, a trans woman and model for the diegetic ultra-feminine Wilmington Woman Ale campaign, the show’s upside down version of our ultra-masculine Marlboro Man.

Over the course of dozens of episodes, Mary Hartman alone serializes the coming-out stories of a gay couple, a throuple, and at least three different bisexual characters all eventually leading up to a same-sex kiss shared by Mary and another woman—17 years before Roseanne did it with great fanfare in a “very special episode” on ABC. Lear’s second syndie serial All That Glitters (most often paired with Mary Hartman), meanwhile, featured a trans character in a leading role—an achievement American television would not reproduce for nearly 40 years—granting her 15 episodes to serialize her struggles against the cultural norms of gender identity and sexual liberation in the 1970s with an additional 36 episodes dedicated to her subsequent relationship and eventual marriage.

But for Lear, going for it was as much about strategic programming as it was creative expression. Like the syndie tabloid talk shows before him learned, the easiest way to compete with network budgets was to venture into the kind of programming they never would. Headwriter Ann Marcus even recorded in her autobiography that Lear’s most common direction for them was to “be as outrageous as possible.”[ (( Marcus, Ann. Whistling Girl: A Memoir. Los Angeles: Mulholland Pacific Publishing. 1998. ))] Mary Kay Place, who plays Loretta Haggers on the show, had previously worked with Lear in the writers’ room of his network shows and was struck by the difference between the productions. “Because we were syndicated, we didn’t have the box of Standards and Practices that the networks had … We had freedom to create. We were bad. We were good. But we did amazing stuff.”[ (( Wszalek, Arlene. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman: Inside the Funhouse Mirror. Documentary. Authorized Pictures, 2008. ))]

Out from under the watchful eye of a centralized network, its stifling censors, and typical S&P advertisers (as a syndie show filled by local commercial time), the writers answered only to themselves and the syndicating stations, which both Lear and Lasser told me only requested one edit in a 325-episode run. Queer issues and explicit stories about feminism and sexuality became dependable go-tos for garnering more viewers in the 1970s, be they fans or hate-watchers. One station manager reportedly called Lear to cheerfully report, “I’ve got 75 people marching on my station this afternoon to protest Mary Hartman. I love it!” [ (( O’Hallaren, Bill. “A Cute Tomato, A Couple Slices of Baloney, Some Sour Grapes, A Few Nuts …” TV Guide, June 19, 1976. ))]

Every bit as much as the show flourishes in the liminal spaces between traditional television genres, its syndicatedness freed producers and station managers from bearing the network burden of audience ubiquity in television’s famously gendered programming line-up. Although Mary Hartman is typically described as a late-night show, its original local listings don’t exactly bear that out and illustrate how different stations experimented with different kinds of audiences in a television schedule that has always been highly gendered.

Syndicated TV listings for the show
Syndicated TV listings for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

In many markets, it counter-programmed the news or late-night talk shows. But in New Hampshire and San Francisco, it ran opposite Porky Pig, in North Carolina opposite Sesame Street, in Orlando against reruns of Hopalong Cassidy, and in Des Moines it originally took The Mickey Mouse Club’s spot. Mostly missing primetime, syndicated programming like Mary Hartman has to be flexible enough to succeed in a variety of time slots—to function both as narrowcasting and as broader-casting—which make it prime for queer audiences and latchkey kids watching television without parental supervision. As a result, producers of syndie programming commonly explore different kinds of identities and genres for their shows and characters. Xena: Warrior Princess, for instance (which I watched as a teenager on Saturdays after Soul Train) featured a silly parody of the movie Clue in one episode and in the following week, Romans crucified Xena and her ambiguously lesbian partner Gabrielle. Battle on, Xena![ (( Xena: Warrior Princess parodies many different films besides Clue, like Footloose, Groundhog Day, and Indiana Jones). It plays with various genres (dramas, serials, westerns, Kung Fu films, screwball comedies, talk shows, religious, and musicals) and subversively revises important cultural events such that Xena becomes their central figure, including David’s defeat of Goliath, the fall of Julius Caesar, the Trojan War, the wild west, the unchaining of Prometheus, the story of Pandora, the discovery of electricity, the rise of Christianity, and the events of A Christmas Carol, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Odyssey. ))]

image description
Xena: Warrior Princess is mostly an episodic series, but it serializes a storyline of the characters’ growing relationship as subtextual lovers. Pictured is their child, immaculately conceived by Xena and a female angel.

In serving the marginalized schedule and the oddball audience, syndication itself has been analogous to queerness in many ways. It is liminal, flexible, on the outskirts, in between, bordering, surrounding, apart from, and peripheral. It can seem silly, forgettable, unworthy, but also scandalizing and debased. It can and does transgress or subvert ideologies and intervene in cultural discourses. It can defy categories even as it can also cement them. While neither Mary Hartman nor All That Glitters were the first scripted syndies, they did beget a number of genre-bending, glittery, and excessively provocative programming that characterized much of the syndie offerings proliferating in the 1980s and early ‘90s. And while we are quick to herald the queer pioneering of streaming television today, a cultural history of syndication reveals a kind of synergy between syndication and queerness that streamers are really borrowing—from their numerous reboots to pick-ups of network rejects and even based-ons like Glow. Syndie TV was not so much ahead of its time but of its time and like regular television, only, “a little dirtier.”

Image Credits:

  1. “Episode 177” from DVD boxset of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (author’s screengrab)
  2. San Antonio Express’ review of Mary Hartman notes how the syndie serial skirted traditional network censorship. (author’s personal collection)
  3. Author’s Instagram compilation video of Mary Hartman’s gasps
  4. After Mary Hartman’s quick success in first-run syndication, Norman Lear and Ann Marcus created a new show called All That Glitters in which the cultural power of the sexes was always already inverted and women ruled the world. It featured Linda Gray in the role of Linda Murkland, a trans woman and model for the diegetic ultra-feminine Wilmington Woman Ale campaign, the show’s upside down version of our ultra-masculine Marlboro Man. Cover of the author’s copy of TV Showtime from The Cleveland Press, Apr. 29-May 6, 1977. (author’s personal collection)
  5. Syndicated TV listings for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (author’s graphic)
  6. Xena: Warrior Princess is mostly an episodic series, but it serializes a storyline of the characters’ growing relationship as subtextual lovers. Pictured is their child, immaculately conceived by Xena and a female angel. Picture from https://xenagateguard.tumblr.com/post/75102795836/xena-gabrielle-baby-eve


COVID-19: Teaching Solidarity
Kit Hughes / Colorado State University

Black frame with SOLIDARITY written in white text

This column was supposed to be about life insurance. It was meant to be a short introduction to an early-stage project looking at how the life insurance industry used varied media to make life insurance meaningful to prospective dealers and their potential customers over the course of the 20th century. Analyzing my chosen film—a sleepy training film called “Human Life Values” produced by the Institute of Insurance Marketing, c1960s—relied on archival materials held by the Hagley Museum and Library in Delaware some 1,700 miles away. Given the nature of the research and questions of expense, I chose to hire an independent researcher to pull the records that interested me. On March 14th, she emailed me to let me know that the Hagley was closed due to COVID-19. As the evidence I hoped to use for my column is no longer available, I see two choices before me. Of course, I could still write about “Human Life Values,” offering a less-developed analysis. This would allow me to finish my series on “teaching” media as a vector of institutional power and governmentality. I think this is important work, and the question of how we quantify life has rarely had more currency than it does in the time of COVID-19.

My other option is to take this opportunity to think differently about my scholarly commitments. While I’ve enjoyed using this column to think about institutional pedagogies, the heart of my research agenda pursues questions about how work becomes meaningful and, in turn, how it structures our lives. My book examines 20th century private industry; the events above have made it impossible to ignore 21st century academia.

As Francis Eanes and Eleni Schirmer point out in a recent Jacobin article, academia was in crisis well before COVID-19 struck. Decades of public defunding have resulted in a wholesale turn to precarious working conditions for faculty, staff, and students as well as ballooning tuition costs and a concomitant student loan crisis. Faculty research is sold by private publishers at exorbitant rates, even to the very institutions that pay those researchers’ salaries. Anemic budgets at major granting institutions like the NIH invite private interests to fund and even at times shape academic research priorities. Athletics programs subsidize the billion-dollar profits of the NCAA almost exclusively at a loss to university budgets while student athletes receive no pay for sometimes life-threatening work.

We might think of this laundry list as a set of “higher
education” problems. We should think of them as labor problems.

Who is “essential”?

The battle over determining what industries and job descriptions count as “essential” has revealed the extent to which our society is built on the backs of low-wage, taxing labor: people in the service sector, retail, logistics, cleaning, and delivery (not to mention childcare, K-12 teaching, nursing and elder care). However, the overdue recognition bestowed by the label “essential” is ultimately cruel—a means of legitimizing life-threatening demands that people report to work whatever their personal risk of infection. It has become yet another way to treat working-class members of our society, many of them women and people of color, as disposable.

In the university, the language of essential is also being
used to describe certain types of research. Fortunately, this is being used to
make sure that participants in human trials are not adversely harmed by
disruption. Moving forward, however, we might reimagine our understanding of
who and what is essential to research, and even what essential research looks
like and does.

When I inventory those my own research relies on, the list
is long: librarians, archivists, mentors, freelance researchers, graduate
students, peer reviewers, journal editors, and the central office staff of
several institutions. While I (like many) tried to use my book’s acknowledgements
to signal the profound debt my work owes to these people, I’m embarrassed to
admit that I’ve only recently understood the many I left out. The same
“essential” employees who enable our basic survival also enable our work: mail
carriers provide access to scholarly monographs (whether through ILL or private
purchase) while facilities personnel ensure clean and healthy work

This recognition is not, in and of itself, enough. Nor is
gratitude. Maybe I’m a bit of a curmudgeon, but I’m tired of being thanked by
bosses, trade magazine articles, and form letters sent by textbook presses and
private learning management software companies. As I write in Television at Work, precarity and
worsening working conditions are often accompanied by superficial praise and
efforts to boost morale without changing material conditions.

Meme depicting the uselessness of meaningless gestures from employers who refuse to give actual help to their struggling employees
Author Note: If I had known about this Pizza Party version of Gudim’s “Drowning High Five” meme before the book went to press, I wouldn’t have had to write Chapter 5…

Gratitude is literally useless. We can do nothing with it. Worse, it puts the receiver in a position to say “you’re welcome,” an implicit confirmation that things are ok and that any service given is freely rendered rather than coerced. We don’t need gratitude. What we need is solidarity.

If we think on a solidarity model, we can begin to truly
reimagine what work looks like and how to make good on our ethical commitments
to each other—from our immediate colleagues to the staff who sustain
universities’ daily operation. Writing from within cultural studies, this
mutual recognition and fight for justice is ultimately the point. However, I’ve
been thinking too much about what the end product—the book, the article—can
accomplish and too little about how the research process itself should be
designed to meet these ends.

An example. The recent push towards “slow scholarship” speaks to academics’ recognition that the acceleration of work demands is unmanageable and unnecessary, feeding neoliberal emphases on market competition and easily quantifiable productivity. These concerns over employers’ control of employees’ time is not new. It is one of the chief emphases of the labor movement, expressed in the fight for the 8-hour day and its attendant slogan: “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what we will.” This makes it an ideal locus of collective action.

Today, 40 hours is largely inaccessible, no matter where you get your check. For white collar workers (including faculty and graduate students), email and other connectivity technologies stretch the workday into the evening and weekends (a strategy, as I note in my book, pursued by employers with videotape some 40 years ago). Others (including many adjuncts) find themselves cobbling together two or more part-time jobs due to employers’ desires to avoid the cost of providing legally-mandated benefits for full-time employees. Not that 40 hours is the acme of work arrangements (we might ask whether it is reasonable to relinquish half of our waking time to an employer), however working hours is a potential rallying point across industries and job titles. Recognizing that everyone’s time is equally valuable—no matter how capitalist systems of pay suggest the opposite—is a means to securing more humane working conditions for all.

Human life values redefined

Solidarity enables us to recognize our shared
positionality as wage laborers (whatever white/blue/pink collar distinctions
attempt to divide us) as well as the debt we owe those who help make the world
we inhabit (mail carriers, facilities workers, childcare and eldercare workers,
not to mention student athletes, science R&D researchers, and the many others
invoked above). Solidarity would ask us to respond to the crises before us
(both COVID-19 and the pre-existing troubles in academia) by committing to
aiding all of those who are essential
to our research (which turns out to be, well, everyone)—both in its basic undertaking
and, for those of us who claim cultural studies as home, in its political

While the latter part of this equation will be as diverse
as researcher interest allows, the former demands collective action along a
number of avenues, for example:

  • The fight for a living wage, both for TAs and contingent faculty, as well as the many others this crisis has declared ‘essential’ to our leisure and work worlds.
  • Disarticulating healthcare from employment. We are human beings who exist outside of work, and work should not define our access to health.
  • Refusing to acquire research materials from companies like Amazon that disregard worker health and safety.
  • Lowering productivity expectations as part of the fight to reclaim personal time. The path to this in the academy is especially murky. One of the locations of this acceleration is in graduate school where faculty, myself included, coach students to perform at an early assistant prof level out of (what at least feels like) compassion and a desire to see them succeed on a tight market. Working against increased productivity demands would require rethinking the organization of graduate education on a system level.
  • Returning to the matter of time, fighting for paid medical and parental leave, as well as paid vacation—again, for all workers.
  • Working across job titles, across institutions, and with students to ensure that the response to the budgetary crises exacerbated by COVID-19 equitably balances everyone’s livelihoods (with emphasis on the term’s invocation of work, health, and survival). There is no way forward that doesn’t start with restoring public funding for education to pre-austerity levels. The false scarcity established by current tax codes and the consumer model of education are twin poisons that rely on dividing theses groups to stave off structural change.

I completed my graduate education at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison and now teach at Colorado State. Both universities are land
grants, a public commitment invoked most eloquently by the Wisconsin Idea: “the
boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.” Reconsidering
our debt to our communities demands a better understanding of how labor—paid
and unpaid—unites us. Many of the things that cultural studies and television
studies are devoted to—understanding identity, power, culture; pushing for
inclusion, for pleasure, for information, for justice—cannot be realized if we
don’t also pursue working class

Nothing I’ve written here is particularly original. It won’t
count toward my research profile. And maybe we don’t need more COVID reflection
pieces. But, as any student of ideology knows, repetition naturalizes. Workers
of the world, unite.  

Image Credits:

  1. Solidarity (author’s graphic)
  2. Author Note: If I had known about this Pizza Party version of Gudim’s “Drowning High Five” meme before the book went to press, I wouldn’t have had to write Chapter 5…

The Future of the Ratings Panel
Jennifer Hessler / Bucknell University

At stake in Nielsen and comScore’s rivalry is the very future of the ratings panel.

A defining feature of the Nielsen ratings has always been that they derive from a statistically sampled panel of real viewers. In his 1966 promotional speech titled “If Not the People…Who?” A.C. Nielsen Jr. described audience measurement as akin to a democratic election, the ratings constituting “the voice of the people” and a “mirror of public taste.”[ (( Arthur C. Nielsen Jr., “If Not the People…Who?” An Address to the Oklahoma City Advertising Club. A.C Nielsen Company. Chicago, 1966. (Edgar Kobak papers, Library of Congress) ))] Eileen Meehan argues that in its early days Nielsen strategically employed this rhetoric to characterize the ratings as quintessentially American and good for free market economic prosperity, while also absolving itself of any responsibility for the ratings’ negative affect on program quality.[ (( Eileen Meehan analyzes this speech to demonstrate how Nielsen drew on Cold War rhetoric to characterize the ratings as quintessentially American and good for economic prosperity; the implication being that to critique the ratings methodology or their results was unpatriotic. Why TV Is Not Our Fault: Television Programming, Viewers, and Who’s Really in Control (Oxford, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 16. ))] Even though media scholars have debunked the idea that television ratings are an accurate reflection of public taste,[ (( Scholars like Eileen Meehan, Robert McChesney, Ien Ang, and Todd Gitlin have debunked this idea that TV ratings are a mirrored reflection of public taste by pointing out that, on the one hand, audiences are choosing among a relative narrow selection of commercially motivated choices in the first place, and on the other hand, sampling practices tend to over-represent some viewing groups and underrepresent others. Eileen Meehan, Why TV Is Not Our Fault: Television Programming, Viewers, and Who’s Really in Control (Oxford, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005); Robert W. McChesney, “The Market Uber Alles,” The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), 175-209; Ien Ang, Desperately Seeking the Audience (London: Routledge, 1991); Todd Gitlin, “By the Numbers,” Inside Prime Time (London: University of California Press,1983), 41-48. ))] the ratings’ reliance on a viewer panel has still shaped their epistemological value: one the one hand, making them (somewhat problematically) dependent on panelists’ cooperation, and on the other hand, accruing them the credential of direct “audience intelligence.”

BC cover new world of audience measurement
A central part of evolving digital markets, audience measurement has been reconceptualized through the capabilities of big data.

As the age of big data reimagines audience analytics, the ratings panel is at the center of industry debates about how to define audience intelligence. Nielsen itself is turning toward new forms of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to create and interpret viewing data. Essentially machine learning and AI endeavor to “objectify” audience data while also supposedly “individualizing” it at large scales. For proponents, these mechanisms beg the question: if machines can supposedly replicate human decision-making processes, is the direct input of real viewers necessary for the production of “audience intelligence”? But on the other hand, Nielsen also argues that their ratings being derived from a panel of real viewers has advantages over their competitors’ data sets. In the disarray that currently characterizes the digital data market, Nielsen says that their viewer panel gives them the ability to bind and re-embody data, resulting in a more accurate capture of real media engagement.

ComScore HQ
ComScore Headquarters

The ratings panel has been at the
center of the methodological rivalry between Nielsen and one of its main competitors,
comScore. ComScore was founded in 1999 by Gian Fulgoni and Magid Abraham,
formerly of Information Resources Inc. (IRI), an integrated big data and
predictive analytics firm. In 2002 comScore partnered with Media Metrix, which
utilized a PC meter to measure internet traffic, somewhat similar to the method
used by Net Ratings (acquired by Nielsen in 2007). And in September 2015, comScore
acquired Rentrak, a company that specialized in box office data and in
aggregating television audience data from set-top boxes and Digital Video
Recorders. With the merger, comScore became an industry leader in digital
audience metrics.

Being born of the digital age, everything from comScore’s tracking technologies to their panel recruitment practices are created for an online environment. ComScore places beacons and trackable tags throughout the online content they monitor. When internet users/viewers visit the tagged websites, the beacons store a tracking cookie in the user’s computer memory. Meanwhile, comScore also has a panel of around two million people, who they recruit through a combination of randomized digital dialing and volunteer surveys. Panelists agree to run comScore’s background monitoring software package on their devices, which tracks everything they do online. ComScore then compares the data it collects on total web traffic to the tracking data from its panel to decipher more specific demographic information. In an interview with Digiday, former CEO Bryan Wiener stated, “We believe in panels. The biggest difference between us and [Nielsen] is we believe that we’re data-first and the panel is used to inform the data set versus the panel being at the crux and using the data at the outskirts.” Rather than being the source of its data (like it is for Nielsen), comScore’s panel serves a secondary referential function.

While often thought of as Nielsen’s more digitally competent brother, comScore has its own shortcomings. Privacy advocacy groups criticize the firm’s practice of storing tracking cookies in the computers of users who have not agreed to be a part of their panel, many of which are likely incognizant of their involvement. ComScore’s panel is also criticized for not being demographically representative, and the obscurity around its sampling means it’s difficult to know how fairly the firm is measuring underrepresented populations. And lastly, comScore’s metrics emphasize viewing that occurs through the internet or connected devices; the only audience data they collect for broadcasting comes from set-top-boxes, which makes it unrepresentative of the linear audience as a whole.

Nielsen promo
Nielsen’s ratings panel, a remnant of broadcast history, is still the foundation of Nielsen’s metrics.

On the other hand, Nielsen’s ratings, remnant of the broadcast era, use the live broadcast as the base of their viewing metric before adding on digital viewing, and they rely more centrally on a panel of real viewers. Nielsen argues that this “tried and true” method allows them to more productively ground the disarray of digital data, to connect the gaps that code and algorithms leave in understanding viewers’ engagement with media. In an interview, former Nielsen Senior VP Jessica Hogue explained, “As Nielsen continues to move into cross-platform measurement, working with a greater abundance of data, the panel will become increasingly important. Large sets of household data make the panel an invaluable tool for personification.”[ (( Jessica Hogue, Nielsen Senior Vice President of Digital Client Sales and Services, Personal interview with the author, 27 April 2018. ))] The term “personification” alludes to a unique epistemological value in the subjectivity of the viewer panel. Nielsen’s former Executive VP Megan Clarken elaborates on this when she says that set-top boxes and web-trackers are, to a certain degree, dumb devices that represent the machine’s footprint, not necessarily the viewer’s engagement. She says, “Until a [set-top box or smart TV] can identify itself and give you a data set that identifies its relationship to everybody in the home,” it will not provide the same value as a ratings panel.[ (( Jon Lafayette, “7 Things You Need to Know About Nielsen’s New Tool,” Broadcasting & Cable, 16 March 2018. ))]

Nielsen continually emphasizes the advantages of panel-based measurement over big-data sets for understanding demographic differences. In a study focusing on Fox’s Empire (2015-), Nielsen found that while Empire ranked 16th in viewership using data from Nielsen’s nationally representative panel, in which “there’s a focus on race and ethnicity as well as making sure that we’re representing across the geography,” when using return path data or the big data sets from the same period (December 2018), Empire moved down to 38th in viewership. Nielsen’s Senior VP, Kelly Abcarian further explains that 75% of Empire’s audience is multicultural, and those audiences drive the show’s ratings. She argues, “If you’re not ensuring that the representation is there, it can drastically change the on-screen talent, it can change the programming lineup, and it can change the way advertisers think about that content.”[ (( Discussed (at 29:00) in “The Database: How Addressable Advertising is Personalizing the TV Experience,” Nielsen podcast episode 31, October 8, 2019, https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/podcast/2019/the-database-how-addressable-advertising-is-personalizing-the-tv-experience/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=organicsocial&utm_content=nielsen&utm_campaign=Global+Media. ))] While one must be weary of the bias of Nielsen’s own study, it nonetheless demonstrates the stakes of how the industry conceptualizes audience intelligence for the future of diverse representation.[ (( Michael LaSardo, Vice President of Katz Television’s Station Solutions, offers an in-depth explanation of how Nielsen and comScore account for viewer demographics in local markets. Nielsen’s ability to supplement census-level data with demographic information provided by their viewing panels enables them to account for the demographics of individuals, opposed to comScore’s practice of placing whole households into single demographics groups. “Spot the Differences: Nielsen and Comscore,” Katz Media Group, 6 January 2020, https://blog.katzmedia.com/on-measurement/nielsen-comscore-spot-the-differences-series1. ))]

At the Coalition for Innovative Media Management’s 5th Annual Cross-platform Media Measurement & Data Summit, the final day’s discussion ended on the topic of the ratings panel, with comScore Chief Product Officer, Manish Bhatia, and Nielsen’s Abcarian each summarizing their firm’s stance. ComScore’s Bhatia argued, “As good as a panel is, there is a limit to how finely you can slice that panel… There’s only so much juice you can take out of a lemon.” And Abcarian countered: “While comScore’s tunnel vision is scale, Nielsen’s focus is also on quality.”[ (( “Summary of 2.7.19 CIMM Cross-Platform Video Measurement & Data Summit,” Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement, 9 April 2016. ))]

The vastly different logics underpinning Nielsen’s and comScore’s methods is perhaps why so many media companies have found value in subscribing to both firms during this period of digital transition. Currently, the companies are each working to address their metrics’ limitations. As reporter Tim Peterson characterizes it, “Both companies are racing to establish strengths in each other’s domain. ComScore is pressed to provide the in-depth person-based measurement that Nielsen’s panels provide, while Nielsen must aggregate more data to augment its panels and provide more minute measurement at the device level.”[ (( Tim Peterson, “Comscore and Nielsen are Racing to become the One True Cross-platform Measurement Provider,” Digiday 2 January 2019, digiday.com/marketing/comscore-nielsen-racing-become-one-true-cross-platform-measurement-provider/. ))] As the two companies work from different directions, toward cross-platform measurement, it is likely that they will collide in the middle, and it will be left to the industry to decide which audience metric suits their needs. But beyond industry utility, how the digital television market comes to conceptualize the scientific notion of audience intelligence will have lasting implications for the future of audience surveillance, demographic representation, and television programming.

Image Credits:

  1. At stake in Nielsen and comScore’s rivalry is the very future of the ratings panel.
  2. A central part of evolving digital markets, audience measurement has been reconceptualized through the capabilities of big data.
  3. ComScore Headquarters
  4. Nielsen’s ratings panel, a remnant of broadcast history, is still the foundation of Nielsen’s metrics.


A/B Storytelling: Interactive Television, Audience Labor, and the Audience Commodity
Ryan Stoldt / University of Iowa

Puss in Book Cover Art for Netflix
Puss in Boots: Trapped in an Epic Tale is Netflix’s first interactive television program.

Interactive television programs like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (Netflix, 2018), Bear Gryll’s You Vs. Wild (Netflix, 2019), and Puss in Boots: Trapped in an Epic Tale (Netflix, 2017) let audiences partially choose how they would like stories to unfold. These interactions empower audiences by making each individual a fully active participant in the storytelling process of television. Yet, as interactive television lets audiences pursue the stories and cultural interests that appeal to them, the interactivity also provides data to platforms about how audiences engage with stories. This essay argues that interactive television programming expands on concerns about exploited audience labor in television through their interactions with stories.

Political economy of communications scholar Dallas Smythe argued that television audiences serve as commodities that can be sold by television networks to advertisers.[ (( Smythe, D. W. (1981). On the audience commodity and its work. Media and cultural studies: Keyworks, 230, 256. ))] Smythe believed the primary value of television programming for the industry was that programming served as a “free lunch” to make audiences available to advertisers. The audiences’ labor of watching shows served the financial interests of the corporations. Services like Netflix, who are investing heavily in interactive television, do not sell to advertisers though, which raises questions about if and how audience labor is exploited by subscription-based services.

I’ve previously argued that data formed through audiences’ consumption of film and television content on internet-distributed film and television services still exploits audience labor.[ ((Stoldt, R. (Forthcoming). Just One More Episode: Binge-Watching Poetics and Big Data in Non-Linear Television Portals.))] Because audiences actively engage in making choices through interactive television, these interactive programs offer additional data to platforms beyond the data gathered with audiences’ viewing of traditional television programming.

Interactive television programs algorithmically distribute content based on a computational system that offers two story options for audiences to choose between. Each audience choice opens up new choices for the audience member to make as the narrative unfolds. From the platforms’ perspective, these technological and narrative choices match many of the data-gathering goals of marketing and computing’s A/B testing.

A/B testing compares performance rates of two competing messages within and across audience segments. In both marketing and computing, A/B testing shows two messages to a small segment of an audience population before the better performing message is sent to the full audience population. Because interactive television offers two choices to audiences repeatedly throughout a program, the format offers a useful tool for the creation of data on audience preference and difference. While the interactive shows do not become actualized with a definite ending determined by the more popular choice, like how most A/B testing concludes, this data in audiences’ tastes provides value both internally and externally to the platforms. To date, the former has been the focus of services like Netflix because their economic model is based around subscriptions instead of advertisements.

Data can be used internally by internet-distributed video platforms as information that can offer insights into future decisions about programming. Through this formulation of the value of data, the value of the audience commodity shifts from Smythe’s externally focused commodity to be sold to advertisers to an internally focused commodity used as informational capital for future decisions. This data offers insight into what types of stories to tell, how to tell them, and who is interested in which programs to platforms.

House of Cards poster for final season
House of Cards was one of Netflix’s first original productions, and The New York Times reported that the show was created based on data.

In 2013, New York Times columnist David Carr reported that Netflix created their show House of Cards (2013-2018) specifically to be a hit by looking at where data overlapped between genre, director, and actor.[ (( Carr, D. (2013). Giving viewers what they want. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/25/business/media/for-house-of-cards-using-big-data-to-guarantee-its-popularity.html ))] By using data on David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, and the British version of House of Cards, Netflix claimed to create their most watched show at the time. Television studies scholar Tim Havens has usefully noted that these categories of data are not new to internet-distributed television platforms despite being discursively promoted as new.[ (( Havens, T. (2014). Media programming in an era of big data. Media Industries Journal, 1(2). ))] Data on the popularity of directors, actors, and genres have long been accessible to media industries. However, the continued use of data based on audience consumption to make programming decisions remains exploitative of audience labor, and internet-distributed television platforms continue to use this data in ways the industry long has. Interactive television offers direct ways to see what genres of stories audiences might be more interested in.

Other popular writings have suggested new ways of using audience data. Writer, director, and producer Cary Fukunaga provided further insight into how internet-distributed television services use audience data in an interview for GQ.[ (( Baron, Z. (2018). Cary Fukunaga doesn’t mind taking notes from Netflix’s algorithm. GQ. Retrieved from https://www.gq.com/story/cary-fukunaga-netflix-maniac ))] While Fukunaga was creating Maniac (2018), Netflix provided data to him about how audiences prefer to see stories unfold. Fukunaga said, “Because Netflix is a data company, they know exactly how their viewers watch things. …So they can look at something you’re writing and say, We know based on our data that if you do this, we will lose this many viewers. So it’s a different kind of note-giving. It’s not like, Let’s discuss this and maybe I’m gonna win. The algorithm’s argument is gonna win at the end of the day. So the question is do we want to make a creative decision at the risk of losing people” (Italics original). This article suggests that Fukunaga used Netflix’s data to change how his story would be told in order to better engage audiences. This type of narrative change through engagement with data is ripe for the A/B storytelling logic of interactive television. Interactive television provides data about what types of stories are more interesting to audiences than other types of stories. This narrative function goes further down that data about genre that can be gleamed broadly by what types of programs are popular or what type of story people choose in interactive programming.

The A/B logic also usefully denotes differences between different audiences’ tastes. I’ve previously written about how cultural difference affects audiences’ choices in interactive television according to Netflix, noting how British audiences were more likely to choose a storyline based around tea. Because Netflix publicly recognized that different cultures select stories differently on Twitter, they indicated that they gather data about difference in cultural tastes surrounding stories. This data can easily be used to program shows, narratives, or culturally specific moments that might appeal to specific audiences globally.

Finally, interactive television directly provides platforms with data that could be used externally to appeal to advertisers. Although this has rarely been the case to date, analysts have questioned whether product placement offers a way to expand revenue sources for streaming services without compromising their resolve to not have traditional advertisements.[ (( Graham, M. (2019). Netflix partnerships could become more attractive to marketers in a down economy, analysts predict. CNBC. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/29/netflix-product-placement-could-increase-with-downturn-forrester.html ))] Regardless, the data gathered through interactive television is ripe for external use.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch's interactive choices provide data directly on audience preference between commodities.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch‘s interactive choices provide data directly on audience preference between commodities.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch begins with users having the choice between two different breakfast cereals: Sugar Puffs and Frosties.  The next choice allows audiences to choose to listen to music by either The Thompson Twins or Now 2. While these choices do not matter for the story’s narrative, but instead teach viewers the rules of the interactions, the choices do matter for streaming services’ potential relationship to advertisers. These choices inform platforms about audiences’ interests in some commodities over others, which is the background of large amounts of marketing and sponsorship research. Sponsorship research often asks current customers about their interests to inform clients what types of advertising and sponsorship deals they should be pursuing. Through this data, services could easily approach advertisers and pitch future product placement deals based on the data of audiences’ indicated preferences.

Regardless of whether data is used internally or externally by internet-distributed television services, the audience commodity remains valuable for these services. While the labor of audiences remains largely the same, the production of data for a primarily internal usage serves a different but still valuable purpose to the television industry. Interactive television is not only a formative change in the way audience tell stories but in the way industries gather data.

Image Credits:

  1. Puss in Boots: Trapped in an Epic Tale is Netflix’s first interactive television program.
  2. House of Cards was one of Netflix’s first original productions, and The New York Times reported that the show was created based on data.
  3. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch‘s interactive choices provide data directly on audience preference between commodities.


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, https://www.theprojectorjournal.com/past-issues. ))] 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. https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/8/21213608/coronavirus-zoom-music-video-thao-and-the-get-down-stay-down. ))] 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)