A Tale of Two Catalogues: The Celestial Jukebox and Campus Radio Library Brian Fauteux / University of Alberta
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.
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.
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-television and Telecommunications 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 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 !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 out of 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.
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.
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.
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.
Locked Down Listening / Communal Re-imagination Holly Rogers / Goldsmiths, University of London
Singing from the balconies in Spain.
Today we are listening harder than ever. But to what? Social distancing and isolation have reduced the noise of everyday life. As cities retreat indoors and transport comes to a standstill, the world has become a quieter place. But while a hush has settled over the outside world, our virtual spaces have exploded into a cacophony of communal and participatory noisemaking as the sounds of quarantine have been circulated and used creatively online by musicians eager to understand and engage with recent events.
The Rotterdam Philharmonic give a Skype performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
As the world retreats indoors during Covid-19, cyberculture has become a significant tool for creative expression, collaboration and inclusion. During lockdown, online music has become a vital tool for maintaining and developing community, visible in the numerous clips of apartment block singsongs and singing doctors.
Chris Mann’s parody of Adele.
While these forms have allowed locked-down residents to join together and to transmit their sonic communality to the world, other forms have embraced the online opportunities for live collaborations—from Lady Gaga’s One World: Together at Home concert to the Rotterdam Philharmonic’s performance of Beethoven’s 9th—and pedagogy—with many university music classes moving online and opening access to the public. Other musical opportunities have seen a relay of sonic re-imaginings from remediations in the form of parody songs (like Chris Mann’s “Hello (From the Inside)”), to remixable content found on TikTok and Instagram’s “pass-it-on” covers game. Such collaborative events have harnessed the participatory potential of cybermedia to create and develop new forms of communal musicmaking and expression.
Calm Office: An interactive sound generator that simulates a typical office soundscape.
Unplugged versions, duets, parodies, games. Although these forms existed before, our currently isolated lives have made the interactive opportunities of new media more important than ever. But one form of interactive musicmaking that has become vitally significant is the creative manipulation of real-world sounds. As quarantined life has seen cities and workplaces become increasingly quiet, there has been a surge of hits on websites that provide natural sounds and background noise generating apps have emerged that pipe in familiar sounds of office life into your home to help form a productive working environment. These common sounds fill the silence of isolation with some normalcy, helping to reduce the anxiety of sonic omission.
Cities And Memories collect and remix sounds.
Other online events that have embraced the new sonic ambiences of quarantine in more creative ways. Although there have been examples of musical produsage and democratised creativity in the past, the current pandemic has given sonic experimentation a peculiar resonance. Electronic musicians Matmos, for example, have asked people from all over the world to “sit together from afar” by recording their “ambient sounds of isolation” to be used as compositional material for a new work. Such crowd-sourced soundscapes enable cybercommunities to bridge geographical and cultural distances through distributed creativity. This process—which I call sonic elongation—allows participants to not only document our current sonic landscapes, but also to use cyberspace to imagine ways in which they can be shared, challenged and interpreted. The result is a simultaneous snapshot and remediation of our current auditory worlds and a glimpse into the possibilities of online creativity and its increasing entanglement with real-life.
Manufacturing Consent in the Digital Music Industries Brian Fauteux / University of Alberta
Logo for The Creative Independent.
Forbes recently published an interview with Spotify’s Head of Music Jeremy Erlich on the subject of how artists can get their music on playlists. Given the interviewee, it’s not surprising that the article frames the streaming music service in terms not unlike a public relations narrative. According to Erlich, Spotify is democratizing the music industry. As he convincingly explains, “I think we show it through songs that have gone to #1, whether it’s Arizona Zervas or Tones and I. No one was pushing those songs. They organically raised their hand and rose to the top. It’s just a testament to the democratization of playlisting.” With further conviction, he claims that “everyone who has functioning ears” will be streaming in 20 years’ time” and “artists who couldn’t make a living before will be able to. That’s the ambition.” An interview featured in a major American business magazine has the strong potential to convince the public of the corporate streaming service’s self-proclaimed virtues.
In my previous Flow column, I indicated that an imbalance of power between creators and big businesses is one of the largest factors that prevents fair remuneration for artists. Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall recently shared (via Twitter) a breakdown of how many streams it takes to earn a dollar on a variety of platforms. Her post was in response to news that Spotify, Google, Pandora, and Amazon were appearing before the U.S. Court of Appeals to argue against a songwriter streaming royalty rate hike of 44%. The chart indicates that it takes 229 streams on Spotify to earn a dollar and 336,842 to earn a monthly minimum wage in the U.S.
In coverage of the pressing issues facing artists in the streaming music economy, news media perpetuate this imbalance of power through privileging industry perspectives over that of artists. What readers most regularly encounter are articles and interviews on or about the digital music industries that quote from industry representatives.
Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model argues that “the societal purpose of the media is to manufacture consent for elite policies and decisions” (MacLeod 3). In part, this is accomplished through a reliance on information provided by government, business, and “‘experts’ funded by the powerful.” In an era of digital and social media, according to Chomsky, sources of news and information are still largely controlled by major media institutions (MacLeod and Chomsky 14).
Erlich’s account of his own company is a common one; “new” digital media services or companies “revolutionize” or “disrupt” the status quo to the benefit of all. An emphasis on and fascination with the new has been described, as Charles Acland does in the introduction to Residual Media, as tied to the production (or overproduction) of material goods and market forces. “An economic and cultural orientation toward novelty and innovation…helps sustain a gargantuan accumulation of materials” (xv).
Overwhelmingly positive narratives of industry and technological trends persistently encourage ears and eyes to flock to where development and investment are most pronounced. Of course, new media companies benefit from convincing the public of the perceived superiority and dominance of their products and services. However, in this dire moment of pandemic and isolation that has disrupted live music industries across the globe, it becomes all too clear all too quickly that the minimal per-stream rate paid by Spotify is in no ways revolutionizing an artist’s ability to make a living.
Sean Parker, Lars Ulrich, and Spotify CEO, Daniel Ek.
As part of The Cultural Capital Project (introduced in my first column), we set out to compile a list of news articles that profile issues facing artists in the streaming music era. The initial focus was on taking note of the number of times that artists were mentioned in news coverage. However, it became our priority to get a sense of how often news articles include an artist’s perspective. We also made note of each time an article included a quote by an industry representative (an executive, a record label employee, a tech worker, and so forth).
The resulting spreadsheet includes 359 news articles between the years 2009 and 2019 (with most falling after 2014, when Spotify launched in Canada and as streaming became a dominant mode of listening). The number of bands and artists referenced by these articles totals 1072 (this includes artists who are mentioned multiple times across the selection). From Canadian sources like The Globe and Mail, the CBC, and Winnipeg Free Press, to others like Forbes, Music Business Worldwide, Variety,and Billboard, a range of issues facing artists are apparent, including topics like “playola” and questions about how Canadian musicians are making money on streaming services.
Out of the 359 articles, 88 feature a quote from an artist, or 24.5% of total articles. This number includes articles that use quotes from outside sources, like press conferences or earlier interviews. Artists such as Taylor Swift, Thom Yorke, and Zoe Keating are featured multiple times. These are artists who made notable statements about streaming services that provided easy quotables, such as Yorke proclaiming that Spotfy is the “last desperate fart of a dying corpse” in 2013 or Keating being open and public about the royalties she receives from various streaming services. More striking is the fact that just over 50 articles include an interview or quote that was directly sourced for the article in question (15% of the total).
By comparison to the number of times an artist is quoted or interviewed, 194 articles (54% of the total) include a quote from an industry representative. Some of the most frequently featured perspectives are from high-ranking executives like Spotify founder and CEO Daniel Ek. Evidently, there is a significant divide between the percentage of articles that feature an artist’s perspective. While our selection of articles includes many that critically evaluate the status of an artist’s livelihood within the streaming music era, the prominent inclusion of industry voices has the tendency to weather any resistance to an imbalance of power between artists and big businesses.
Caribou’s recent album, Suddenly.
So why might it be important to feature artist perspectives in news coverage of the music industries in the streaming era? In Playing to the Crowd (2018), Nancy K. Baym explains that musicians are being asked to do more work that involves relational and entrepreneurial skills, but musicians are not being asked about what these relationships and interactions involve or mean for them (6-7). Musicians hold valuable insight into the intricacies of work and labour because, as Baym says, “Musicians are cultural forerunners…the strategies they devise to manage these tensions, have implications for workers in countless fields as they strive to build and maintain markets for their work” (7).
In other words, how do we understand the full picture of significant shifts in the music industries without hearing from the musicians working within them? Outside of mainstream journalism, some sources have become excellent and accessible resources for hearing the perspectives of artists. One great example is The Creative Independent, published ad-free by Kickstarter, which regularly shares interviews with a variety of musicians. Lately, I’ve been listening to and loving the new Caribou album, Suddenly. I enjoyed reading an extensive interview with Dan Snaith about the album, one that sheds light on the creative process. On the subject of age, inspiration, and creativity, Snaith explains, “‘I’ve made music for 20 years…have I run out of ideas?…I’m always enjoying it, but I think the drive to not be complacent or to meet my own standards is really the thing that drives me on and on.” Or, take this great quote from interdisciplinary artist, YATTA, who says that “Just because a person or an institution takes an interest in you, it doesn’t mean that you have just become interesting. You’re interesting, period, and they are not, which is why they are seeking you out.”
Featuring the perspectives of artists helps to bring listeners and readers into the mechanisms and machinery behind the songs we hear and love and which become an integral part of our everyday lives.
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.
Acland, C. R. (2007). Introduction. In C. R. Acland (Ed.), Residual Media (pp. xiii-xxvii). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Baym, N.K. (2018). Playing to the Crowd: Musicians, audiences, and the intimate work of connection. New York, NY: New York University Press.
MacLeod, A. (2019). Introduction: Propaganda in the information age. In A. MacLeod (Ed.), Propaganda in the information age (pp. 1-11). New York, NY: Routledge.
MacLeod, A., & Chomsky, N. (2019). Still manufacturing consent: An interview with Noam Chomsky. In A. MacLeod (Ed.), Propaganda in the information age (pp. 12-22). New York, NY: Routledge.
Advocating on Behalf of Independent Musicians: Copyright Reform and Corporate Consolidation Brian Fauteux / University of Alberta
People walk by the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on the morning that the music streaming service Spotify begins trading shares at the NYSE on April 3, 2018 in New York City.
Corporate streaming music services have brought forth few benefits for independent musicians. Meagre payouts, limited catalogues, and predictable algorithms combine to reward a shrinking number of bestselling popstars. Despite these issues, streaming services are often characterized by narratives of progress and superiority (infinite choices, new avenues of “discovery,” low prices).
This narrative routinely makes its way into popular writing on streaming music. A recent Pitchfork column about the fusion of indie and pop in the 2010s describes streaming music listening as “detached, fully and finally, from the Earth. Recorded music simply materializes around us whenever we need it.” This recalls the concept of remediation, made evident by these popular assessments of our digital-musical-ecosystem whereby new media are “presenting themselves as refashioned and improved versions of other media” (Bolter and Grusin 1999, pp. 14-15). In a more blunt and messianic expression, Spotify is “the savior” of the music business.
In this introductory column (the first of three on issues of equity in the streaming music industry), I describe the process of participating in Canada’s copyright review process. In September of last year, Brianne Selman (University of Winnipeg) and I appeared before The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage: Remuneration Models for Artists and Creative Industries on behalf of The Cultural Capital Project, a collaborative research project that investigates issues of fair payment for creators (which also includes Andrew deWaard, UCSD). The purpose of our appearance, and subsequent written brief, was to argue that in an industry characterized by market consolidation, an imbalance of power between creators and big businesses is one of the largest factors that prevents fair remuneration for artists.
Members of the Cultural Capital Project, Brianne Selman and the author, speak to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage during the hearing “Reumneration Models for Artists in Creative Industries.” More info at cultcap.org.
Canadian musicians are at the mercy of non-Canadian media and tech companies. In 2015, Billboard reported that Universal, Sony, and Warner control roughly 86% of the North American recording and publishing market. LiveNation and AEG monopolize the live concert and ticketing business; SiriusXM dictates the satellite radio market and has purchased Pandora; and the digital streaming media sector has come to be dominated by Apple, Google, Amazon, Netflix, and Spotify. Further, the top 1% of artists account for 77% of recorded music income (Thompson 2014), and radio playlists and Billboard charts are dominated by just a handful of the record industry’s biggest superstars (Craven McGinty 2018).
In light of these trends, our submission advanced recommendations that sought to rethink copyright and the role of the public domain in the Canadian music industries. A few of these recommendations include: an increase of public funding dedicated to independent artists; to recognize that user rights and the creative commons have value for Canadian creativity and that these should be protected; and to consider automatic rights reversions as a way to mitigate the ill effects of copyright term extensions. At this time, Canada had signed on to the USMCA, which includes a copyright term extension from 50 years after the author’s death to 70 years, an extension that industry representatives were collectively in favor of.
More specifically, we suggest that the federal government should prioritize relationships with provincial and municipal governments, particularly when it comes to policies and initiatives that fund and support live music venues, small record labels, do-it-yourself and artist-run spaces, and campus and community radio stations. Our submission argues that a more thorough consideration of public domain principles in our thinking around the digital music industries and copyright/cultural policies is essential if we are to take issues of equity and sustainability in the music industries seriously. This is an issue made all the more pertinent as conservative provincial governments in Canada have been slashing funding to their investment to arts and culture. In Ontario, funding for the Ontario Music Fund was reduced from $15 million to $7 million by the province’s Progressive Conservative government budget. More recently in Alberta, a budget rife with cuts to essential public services projects that over 50% of the province’s Arts and Creative Industries budget will be gone by the year 2023.
With respect to rights reversions, we argue that copyright term extensions do not hold up to scrutiny in cultural economic theory (Giblin 2018) and that most of the commercial value of a sound recording is extracted in the first 10 years; so a 70 years after death term provides no real additional incentive for creators (Gowers Review of Intellectual Property 2018, p. 52). To mitigate the ill effects of the term extension we encourage a careful consideration of automatic rights reversions, with rights reverting back to authors after a period of no greater than 25 years. This echoes other arguments that have been put forth, including Bryan Adams (yes, thatBryanAdams) advocating for rights reversions with the ability of creators to reclaim ownership of creations 25 years after they have been given away (see also Rebecca Giblin’s Conversationpost on Adams’s appearance). This recommendation offers some balance to the historically imbalanced relationship between artists and record labels, where creators are often pressured to sign away their rights for life.
Canadian rock star Bryan Adams appears as a witness at a Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage in Ottawa on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.
Reflecting on this process, it felt as though our ideas were heard and that the Committee was in support of initiatives to improve the livelihoods of Canadian musicians. However, the report published by the Committee that followed the meetings and briefs, “Shifting Paradigms,” advanced a status quo narrative of continued copyright protection that was pushed by industry representatives.
Music industry representatives and lobbyists were collectively in favor of extending the copyright term (these can be read in our summaries of their briefs and presentations). On a positive note, the report did make recommendations that urge tech companies and streaming companies to support the work of Canadian creators, but there is very little in the way of tangible policy suggestions that provide an indication that these corporations will comply. Much of this discussion fell within an emphasis on the “Value Gap” in Canada’s music industries.
Music Canada, a non-profit “trade association that promotes and protects the value of music and advocates on behalf of its creators,” defines the Value Gap as “the result of the marked disparity between the value returned to those artists creating and developing artistic content, and the online sources and telecommunications corporations who benefit greatly from the distribution of said content” (Bambrick 2019). Further, “Shifting Paradigms” did indicate support for an artist protection provision (in its Recommendation 14) and this is one area in which our submission and brief is represented. However, we recommended a Copyright Act amendment that would make a rights reversion automatic, so it will remain to be seen how this recommendation is applied. We are concerned that if the rights reversion is not properly enforced, the situation will be one in which artist contracts are restructured to avoid this protection provision.
Just as there are issues with concentration in the telecommunications and broadcasting industry, as the “Value Gap” report indicates, the same can be said for the record industry (Music Canada lists its three members as the Canadian subsidiaries of the Big 3 record labels: Sony Music Entertainment Canada Inc., Universal Music Canada Inc., and Warner Music Canada Co.). More substantial copyright reform would advance a digital-musical ecosystem that provides fair compensation to artists and acknowledges listening norms and practices of everyday users.
Streaming music services are now the dominant music providers in Canada as in much of the world, and at the same time, the record industry’s increasing concentration has meant the continued persistence of a power dynamic that marginalizes independent musicians. Our hope is that our research may help to protect a vibrant and diverse Canadian music industry and that more space can be occupied by artists and non-industry representatives in the policy-making process as well as in the reporting on issues of equity in the music industries.
Notes: “The Cultural Capital Project: Digital Stewardship and Sustainable Monetization for Canadian Independent Musicians” is a SSHRC-funded research project led by Brian Fauteux, Brianne Selman, and Andrew deWaard, with research assistance from Dan Colussi, Anna Dundas-Richter, and William Northlich.
Punk, Disco, Porn—The Deuce ’77—Part 3 Matthew Tchepikova-Treon / The University of Minnesota
The Deuce Season 2 Cover Image
Porn. “What am I watching? What the fuck are we doing here? Come on, so now we’re making art?” Rip-and-run porn producer Harvey Wasserman, in the lap of a churning 16mm Steenbeck, examines the climax sequence from Candy’s latest film: close-up images of a woman and two men with cutaways to a ceiling fan, wild life, juiced fruit, etc. Candy responds: “It’s cut the way an orgasm feels… So some of it’s in her head. Some of it’s real. Some of it’s somewhere in between.” Harvey responds with a string of sardonicisms, applauding the “ethereal Warholian fashion” with which Candy has attempted to visually represent “the female mind for the final stampede to nirvana.” In a way it’s a genuine, if still patronizingly veiled, recognition of aesthetic ingenuity. Nonetheless, Harvey cedes to an industrial imperative—“Keep the focus on the fucking”—that demands phallic fantasy production. Candy responds with a dissatisfied summation: “Porn.”
Candy’s laborious rough cut and Harvey’s I can’t sell this reaction, expressing hard-core cinema’s historical straddling of art, exploitation, and commerce.
Aural Pleasure & Acousmatic Women
Concerning sexual penetration, “proof” of orgasm, and conventional filmic displays of female pleasure, this scene practically stages Linda Williams’ well-worn dictum that hard-core pornography “seeks maximum visibility in its representation but encounters the limits of visibility of its particular form.”[ (( Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 94.))] In mainstream heterosexual porn production, where the industry-standard “money shot” serves as visual confirmation of male satisfaction, conversely, women’s overdubbed voices do the work of sonically signifying orgasmic bliss, becoming “aural fetishes of the female pleasure we cannot see,”[ ((ibid, 123.))] while also further revealing “the inability of a phallic visual economy to imagine female pleasure as anything but insufficiency or excess.”[ ((ibid,109.))] Additionally, Eithne Johnson argues that, “at the site of the female body,” this disembodied sonic excess is “displaced onto the ‘body’ of the film, where it functions as surplus semiotic material.”[ ((Eithne Johnson, “Excess and Ecstasy: Constructing Female Pleasure in Porn Movies,” Velvet Light Trap, 1993, 31. ))] As an immediate example, listen to the overdubbed vocal work of a female performer added by Candy after recutting the aforementioned climax sequence and how The Deuce crosscuts Candy examining her film with a sex scene of its own:
Given HBO’s own scopophilic tendencies concerning the objectification of women in many of the network’s premier shows,[ ((For a keen take on “the evolution of prostitution and the birth of large-scale porn production in a medium—on a specific network, even—that’s been criticized for its gratuitous and sometimes violent sexual content,” as well as an interview with season one pilot director, Michelle MacLaren, about the ways she and the show’s production team worked to address this, see: Alison Herman, “How Michelle MacLaren Brought The Deuce to Life,”The Ringer, September 6, 2017.))] as with punk and disco, we again find an attempt at both sonic historiography and immanent critique in The Deuce’s aesthetic engagement with female vocal performers’ affective labor.
We hear the electric hum of Candy’s 16mm projector running film, its monophonic speaker emitting the thin sound of a woman moaning, her voice unmoored from any image, from any sense of corporeal verisimilitude,[ ((Such an effect often resulted from technical limitations as well as recording techniques that sacrificed spatial realism for a sense of aural presence.))] then the far more convincing sex sounds of Abby and Vincent in bed with heavy breathing and Abby’s own voice coming out in arhythmic fits of pleasure. Then back, the overdubbed voice in Candy’s film becoming almost laughable while also sounding more like ecstatic whimpering or even cries of pain.[ ((For more on this aural slippage between pain and pleasure, see: Clarice Butkis, “Depraved Desire: Sadomasochism, Sexuality and Sound in mid-1970s Cinema,” Earogenous Zones: Sound, Sexuality and Cinema, ed. Bruce Johnson (Sheffield: Equinox) 2010, 66-88.))] Comparatively, Abby and Vincent finish, yet with a notable lack of spectacularized pomp or circumstance, but then Abby intones a deep “mmhmmm” between breaths, suggesting satisfaction. The film likewise finishes and we hear the sound of leader tape slapping the take-up reel as it spins out, clicking rhythmically with every pass as Candy lights a cigarette—we’ve just seen Vincent reach for his—then exhales. Notably, her own satisfaction seems uncertain.
Lori Madison and Larry Brown starring in Candy’s first feature-length porn production Red Hot, an X-rated retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” shot mostly on the Deuce.
Invoking a lineage of women filmmakers from Doris Wishman to Candida Royalle,[ ((See: Elena Gorfinkel, “Sex and the Materiality of Adult Media,” Feminist Media Histories, Vol. 5 No. 2, Spring 2019: 1-18.))] in season two of The Deuce, Candy works to make alternative filmic representations of sex available.[ ((Beyond the aesthetic economy of mainstream heterosexual porn production, for a fantastic analysis of the political potential of sound and the voice in gay male pornography, as well as particular techno-erotic affiliations with the phone sex industry during the 1980s, see John Paul Stadler’s recent article “Vocalizing Queer Desire: Phone Sex, Radio Smut, and the AIDS Epidemic,” Feminist Media Histories 5, no. 2 (2019): 181-210. And for more on the phone sex industry, listen to Sexing History’s podcast episode “Sex Over the Phone.”))] Nevertheless, as her opening exchange with Harvey attests, we are reminded again and again that she finds herself doing so within a restrictive audiovisual regime of erotic cultural production, a regime shot through with regulatory powers that extend far beyond porn.
Within a simultaneously emergent audio culture outside the production of moving-image pornography, the female voice as a fetishized sonic object flows between myriad forms of media while repeatedly servicing the same phallic order of hard-core porn’s visual economy. In the broader context of Seventies sexology, Jacob Smith demonstrates how erotic LPs marketed as “instructional” records routinely featured women vocalizing orgasms in order to “sonically index” particular sex practices while also arousing listeners.[ ((Jacob Smith, “33 1/3 Sexual Revolutions Per Minute,” Sex Scene: Media and the Sexual Revolution, ed. Eric Schaefer (Durham: Duke University Press), 2014, 179-206.))] Likewise, John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis track technologically mediated acousmatic women through a multitude of pop songs that further work to reproduce these “aural codes of sexuality.”[ ((John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis, “Aural Sex: The Female Orgasm in Popular Sound,” TDR 40, no. 3 (1996): 102-11.))] “Do it to me again and again,” Donna Summer moans on her disco classic “Love to Love You, Baby.” In Moroder’s extended mix, she performs a “marathon of 22 orgasms”—a writer at Time magazine apparently counted them back in 1975.
As evidenced here, I am inclined to follow Eric Schaefer’s argument that, throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, “a rapidly and radically sexualized media accounts for what we now think of as the sexual revolution.”[ ((Eric Schaefer, Sex Scene: Media and the Sexual Revolution, 3.))] However, this media revolution was likewise accompanied by a censorious scientism that, as if attempting to re-suture the audible excess of female pleasure back onto women’s bodies, worked to reinforce staid representations of ‘tasteful’ sexuality.
Exposed Legs & the Legibility of Excess
In my previous column on The Deuce and disco, I gestured toward the fact that, throughout the 1970s, urban sound, acoustic research, and the politics of cultural production converged within a revised discourse of noise pollution where familiar sexist visual tropes of female promiscuity emerged in politically motivated projects aimed at ‘cleaning up’ U.S. cities in the name of sexual sanitization. Recall the acoustician who cited a New York discotheque as the loudest source of noise in the city, writing that “the miracle of electronics allowed performers to create a sound level as astonishingly elevated as the dancers’ hemlines.” And while analogizing short skirts and noise during this time was by no means exceptional, as with The Deuce’s second season, we can move from New York to LA to find a most extreme instance.
Newspaper rendering of physicist Vern O. Knudsen measuring reverberation from the sound of a .22 caliber pistol.
“Dr. Knudsen fired a pistol in a room with 10 miniskirted girls,” reads an account of this famed acoustician discharging a blank cartridge in a UCLA physics department’s reverberation chamber along with ten women in short skirts to measure the level of sound reflection off their exposed legs.[ ((Popular Science, October 1969: 20.))] Using an acoustical unit of measurement for sound absorption, Knudsen recorded a sabine count of 2.5 that he compared to a test conducted back in 1964 with more thoroughly clothed subjects where reverberations from the gunshot had registered 4.6 sabines.[ ((These details were publicized in the University of California’s University Bulletin, Volume 18, January 12, 1970.))] In conclusion: Knudsen used his gun to prove (an already well established fact, mind you) that “as skirts go up, sound absorption goes down.” Associated Press science writer Ralph Dighton’s descriptions of the “experiment” received notable traction in trade journals and city newspapers, with headlines ranging from the pedantic, “Acoustical Test Shows Miniskirts Affect Sound,”[ ((ibid.))] and the epigrammatic, “Miniskirted Girls Long On Sound,”[ ((Tucson Daily Citizen, October 30, 1969: 14.))] to the prolix, “Honey, Your Miniskirt Looks Great, But It Sounds Awful,”[ ((The Miami News, October 29, 1969: 2.))] and the prognostic, “Miniskirts Bound To Be On Way Out.”[ (( In this last article, one Clayton Rand of The Jackson Sun foretold of the miniskirt’s imminent falling out of fashion, then claimed, “There are also stock market experts who believe that lengthening skirts usually herald a depressed economy.” He cites no evidence. November 30, 1969: 4.))]
While Knudsen’s ostensible concern involved modern methods of concert hall design utilizing sound-absorption coefficients that accounted for heavily clothed audiences—coefficients reportedly threatened by women’s skin—my reason for comparing his “experiment” (and the rhetorical trope of the miniskirt at large) with that of moving-image pornography’s aural fetishization of female pleasure is to highlight a certain epistemological affinity between ways of seeing and ways of hearing where shared vectors of power, difference, and knowledge converge through science, aesthetics, and cultural politics alike. “Modern fashions are fine for rock and roll concerts,” Knudsen claimed, “people who go to them like loud noise.”[ ((Quoted in “Honey, Your Miniskirt Looks Great, But It Sounds Awful.”))] But for classical music, he suggested “seat cushions so absorptive it doesn’t matter what the audience wears. With the trend to nudity, audiences will welcome additional padding anyway.”[ ((There are two unmistakable ironies: First, the unit of measurement used by Knudsen takes its name from physicist Wallace Sabine who, as Emily Thompson’s work shows us, once threw out thousands of measurements while evaluating the duration of residual sound “after determining that the clothing worn by the observer (himself) had a small but measurable effect upon the outcome of his experiments.”Second, as early as 1900, Sabine had developed a quantitative analysis of various absorption powers with precise focus on seat cushions as a remedy to unwanted sound reflection. Knudsen, undoubtedly aware of this, proved nothing. For more on Wallace Sabine, see: Emily Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933 (Cambridge: MIT Press), 2002, 36.))] Thus, in Knudsen’s spectacularized stunt, exposed legs became both source and synecdoche of unwanted sound when acoustical engineering attempted to take an aurally perceived (and culturally determined) excess and make it visibly legible on women’s bodies.
Photographs of nude women by Eadweard Muybridge and a porn production sequence from season one of The Deuce with Candy and Harvey.
Accordingly, where Linda Williams recognizes in the protocinematic photography of Muybridge a “scientific impulse to record the ‘truth’ of the body”’ that constructed “women as the objects rather than subjects of vision,”[ ((Linda Williams, Hard Core, 38-45.))] by attending to sound as a culturally contested mode of knowledge production concerning human bodies, convergent bodies of knowledge, and the sonic production of social space, we find a similarly motived acoustical discourse where old prurient fears of an unruly eros have been quite literally re-envisioned in sonic terms. And from the porn industry’s frenzy of the audible to an industrious scientism that sought to elide undesirable sounds, in the 1970s, as the tagline for The Deuce Season Two tells us, “pleasure was a business, and business was booming.”
1. The Deuce Season Two Poster Art (color altered by author).
2. Shots from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 1, “Our Raison d’Etre” (transferred to GIF format by author).
3. Sound from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 1, “Our Raison d’Etre” (excerpted as audio by author).
4. Shots from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 9, “Inside the Pretend” (transferred to GIF format by author).
5. Newspaper clipping from The Joplin Globe, October 29, 1969, front page.
6. Eadweard Muybridge photographs taken from the cover of Linda Williams’ 1999 edition of Hard Core and a still image from The Deuce, Season One, Episode 8, “My Name Is Ruby.”
Please feel free to comment.
Punk, Disco, Porn—The Deuce ’77—Part 2 Matthew Tchepikova-Treon / University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
The Deuce Season Two Poster Art
Disco. The sound of a revved engine opens season two of The Deuce, followed by a car horn and scattered voices in the distance, along with a mid-tempo hi-hat over distressed white text against a black screen that reads 1977. These sounds all belong to Barry White’s classic “Let the Music Play,” but the show supplements sonic detail with additional street noise before we see its establishing shot: well-worn concrete. Then a lovelorn White delivers his peripatetic exegesis on loneliness, music, and the redemptive power of a discotheque at night.
With sonic verisimilitude representing a hallmark of David Simon & Co.’s audiovisual world-building techniques,[ (( Outside opening titles and season-closing montages, music is always diegetically sourced. See: Linda Williams, On The Wire (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 111-114, for the narrative effects of this steadfast aesthetic choice. ))] this moment stands out as a rare instance of extradiegetic music in The Deuce. What’s more, through this song’s transformation into diegetic sound in this opening scene, we hear the historical conditions of disco’s transmogrification from physical space to musical form and back again. The camera tilts up to Candy—former streetwalker turned pornographic film director—walking down 42nd Street, draped in style, embodying the song’s strengthening groove. She opens an inconspicuous door marked 366 and we hear the song’s monologist enter a nightclub. Candy waves at a security camera for admittance, then the music tumefies, while also taking on new acoustic properties, as her strut picks up the driving four-on-the-floor beat. Barry White’s voiceover suddenly soars—“Let the music play / I just want to dance the night away”—as the music folds back on itself, filling the room, while also fulfilling its gimmicky premise, and the sonic space of the song and this opening sequence fully collapse.[ ((Following this moment is the second season’s get-the-gang-back-together scene, with intricate tracking, sound design, and choreography that immediately calls up the iconic opening of P.T. Anderson’s porno-chic Boogie Nights, also set in 1977.))]
Candy walks the Deuce, enters Club 366, then cuts across the dance floor with no little amount of grace.
As with punk, The Deuce engages disco music as a means of both historiography and immanent critique, and this sequence makes legible the coterminous relationship between its genre-fication and the gentrification of downtown New York City through the 1970s.
From Empire to Underground
Rewind to 1971 (Season 1, Ep. 5). Paul attends the invite-only party Love Saves the Day in a warehouse at 645-647 Broadway. Known as “the Loft,” David Mancuso established this preeminent dance space in NYC’s former manufacturing district where the city had utilized the low-wage workforce of its immigrant population after WWII before both work and half a million laborers relocated a quarter-century later.[ ((For precise employment numbers in particular manufacturing sectors, see: “New York City’s Decline in Manufacturing Gained Momentum in 1980,” New York Times, March 22, 1981. And for a fine history of NYC’s urban decay and renewal programs during the global political drama of the Cold War leading up to the 1970s, when Manhattan became a symbol of American power, see: Samuel Zipp, Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).))] Out of these post-industrial ruins, Mancuso’s indie-discotheque emerged as underground dance music’s bleeding edge.
Tim Lawrence’s study of the Loft—a sociologically rich text with a slight hagiographic slant—demonstrates how Mancuso’s audiophilic approach to music prioritized electric sound amplification as a means of producing social space—and altered subjectivities therein—by treating listening as a full-bodied haptic experience.[ ((Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 88.))] Drawing on Jamaican dance hall culture, emergent turntable techniques, and state-of-the-art technologies, Mancuso worked with sound specialist Alex Rosner to customize the Loft’s system, adding an array of tweeters that hung chandelier-like from the ceiling, and additional subwoofers for intense bass propagation, which Mancuso considered the new beating heart of his perception-altering playlists.
The Loft’s inaugural party, David Mancuso spinning through the night, and the only instance (to date) where The Deuce employs time-shifting visuals or temporal disjunction between sound and image, underscoring Paul’s affective response to Mancuso’s curated sensorium.
However, sound amplification also served as a threat. Throughout the 1970s, Kai Fikentscher tells us, “many city agencies sought to limit nightclubs, or at least subject them to a higher level of scrutiny,” [ ((Kai Fikentscher, “You Better Work!”: Underground Dance Music in New York City (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 70.))] and NYPD often did so under the guise of regulating the sale of liquor or illegal dancing. At this time, New York state law still prohibited all-male dancing and mandated a ratio of at least one woman for every three men in a public venue.[ (( Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day, 31. The relationship between Seventies New York’s underground dance scene and gay culture, as well as the historical links to the Harlem Renaissance, are well documented. In addition to Fikentscher and Lawrence, see: Alice Echols, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), Vince Aletti, The Disco Files 1973-78: New York’s Underground, Week by Week (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2018), and Richard Dyer’s classic essay, “In Defense of Disco,” published by the socialist journal Gay Left, 1979, 20-23: “Both in how it is produced and in what it expresses, disco is held to be irredeemably capitalistic [but] this mode of cultural production has produced a commodity [that] has subversive potential as well as reactionary impulses.” ))] But noise control offered NYPD yet another means of surveillance and suppression. Plainclothes police raided the Loft for the first time in 1972.[ ((Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day, 83. NYPD arrested Mancuso and charged him with running an unlicensed cabaret, but a judge threw the case out on account of Mancuso not selling liquor on the premises.))]
That same year, following extensive politically-charged acoustical research, Mayor John Lindsay put into effect comprehensive noise-control legislation aimed at abatement throughout the city.[ ((“The New York City Noise Control Code: Not with a Bang, but a Whisper,” Fordham Urban Law Journal, Vol. 1, No. 3, Article 4 (1973).))] Largely a revamping of laws from 1936, the updated ordinances—part of Lindsay’s ongoing, multifaceted efforts to “clean up” Manhattan, but also in anticipation of running for president—coincided with large-scale focus on noise pollution in urban areas.[ ((Including Nixon’s federal Noise Control Act of 1972.))] Electronically reproduced music and discos were of interest. One trade article published that year details potential health risks associated with excessive noise with a list of decibel readings from various street construction instruments (96 dB), subway trains (98 dB), and other “unpleasant—even inhuman” sounds, citing a particular discotheque that created “a sound level as astonishingly high as the dancers’ hemlines” as the loudest source of noise in the city. The disco measured 103-105 decibels. The following year, commercial music in excess of 103 dB was deemed illegal.[ ((“Noise Code,” New York City Department of Environmental Protection.))]
Mayor Giuliani’s “quality of life” campaign during the 1990s was based on many of these same ordinances, though enforced with increased vigor. And if disco’s quietus in The Deuce heralded the death knell of Times Square’s gentrification in the 1970s, Giuliani orchestrated its coda.
The Deuce & Disco’s Aesthetic Economy
As an extension of the Loft’s post-industrial origins, when disco began flowing through the circuits of late-capitalism’s culture industries, many anxieties surrounding the postindustrial obsolescence of labor[ ((I’m borrowing this term from Joel Burges’ Out of Sync & Out of Work: History and the Obsolescence of Labor in Contemporary Culture, wherein Burges explores automation, labor, and obsolescence through complex representations of historical time.))] in the U.S. and other global cities were mapped onto the music and its attendant amalgam of styles and aesthetic sensibilities. Comparing disco music and the repetitive marketing techniques found everywhere in post-1950s mass-mediated consumer society, Robert Fink identifies a relentless rhythm that underlies what he calls “the ‘Empire of the Beat,’ where communal consumption and solipsistic desire, rigid control and apocalyptic excess are simultaneously, dialectically in tension.”[ ((Robert Fink, Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) 30. Fink further compares disco and Seventies “pulse-pattern” minimalism (distinct from drone and microtonal minimalism à la La Monte Young et al.), the decade’s other paradigmatic musical shift epitomized by the music of Philip Glass.))] We hear this in the sequenced rhythms, synthesized sounds, and vocoder-fused voices employed in the machine music of Germany’s Kraftwerk and especially Italo disco’s Giorgio Moroder (whose “From Here to Eternity” plays when The Deuce S2 finds Paul now operating his own bar).[ ((Both Kraftwerk and Moroder released iconic electro-dance albums in 1977.))] Critics heard in this sound and its assembly-line production an analog to machine automation and the deskilling of labor responsible for emptying NYC’s factories. As the work of Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld shows, these critiques were well rehearsed—from player pianos and analog synths, mechanical instrument innovations have long been linked to anxieties over work displacement.[ ((Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld, “Instruments and Innovation,” eds. John Shepherd and Kyle Devine, The Routledge Reader on the Sociology of Music (New York, NY: Routledge, 2015), 301-308.))] Nonetheless, disco’s aesthetic economy shored the music industry’s financial success against global economic decline.
Disco Stu from The Simpsons with steadfast 1976 verve
Then the levees broke. Disco collapsed and between 1977 and 1980 the city lost another 40,000 manufacturing jobs while seeing steady gains in finance and real estate.
However, recalling The Deuce’s rendering of Love Saves the Day, we see Paul dance to Booker T. & the M.G.’s “Melting Pot,” showcasing underground dance music’s roots in 1960s soul as much as the synth-heavy “jet-propelled paganism of disco,” as critic Kristine McKenna put it.[ ((McKenna’s inspired description comes from an interview she conducted with Philip Glass originally published in Rolling Stone (March 8, 1979: 19) comparing the sounds and musical techniques shared between disco, “technorock,” and Seventies minimalism.))] Likewise, the secular spiritualism of Dorothy Morrison’s gospel-tinged “Rain” points to even deeper musical traditions while also invoking early Loft regular Frankie Knuckles’ eventual description of the Warehouse (est. 1977, Chicago) “as a church for the children fallen from grace.”[ ((Richard Smith, “The House that Frankie Built,” Seduced and Abandoned: Essays on Gay Men and Popular Music (London: Cassell, 1995), 92-99, originally published in Gay Times, August 1992. For more on the vernacular use of “children” as a common term for gay black men and “the discotheque as church,” see: William G. Hawkeswood, One of the Children: Gay Black Men in Harlem (Berkeley: University of California Press), 1996, and Kai Fikentscher, “You Better Work!” 93-106.))] Yet 1977 also saw the musical innovations put on offer by underground dance music’s subcultural base further reified in the Brooklyn-strut machismo of Saturday Night Fever’s Tony Manero and the libidinal glitz-economy of Studio 54’s Midtown glitterati. And in typical postlapsarian fashion, The Deuce’s second season finale closes by mirroring its opening scene, with Vincent gazing out over the electric glamour of the 366 with a What hath god wrought? look on his face, his club’s posing and pulsing bodies now dancing to the reified sounds of a different politics of ephemerality—one night amidst one-thousand just like it with a custom soundtrack on repeat.
On the eve of disco’s funeral rites leading into 1979, Paul’s LSD-gaze of transformative potential almost a decade prior is rendered mute through Vincent’s eyes. Such is the sum and substance of The Deuce and the cultural work it performs.
1. The Deuce Season Two Poster Art (color altered by author).
2-4. Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 1, “Our Raison d’Etre” (transferred to GIF format by author).
5-7. Scene from The Deuce, Season One, Episode 5, “What Kind of Bad?” (transferred to GIF format by author).
8-10. Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 9, “Inside the Pretend” (transferred to GIF format by author).
Please feel free to comment.
Soundtrack Album Fandom and Unofficial Releases Paul N. Reinsch / Texas Tech University
Fan-made cover art for audio cassette transfer of “Space Seed”
In my previous Flow columns, I have argued that soundtrack albums are worthy of more sustained attention. That analysis of soundtrack albums requires an address of their visual and textual information: covers, marketing materials, liner notes, and credits. [ (( And this area is as complex as anything having to do with soundtrack albums. For example: The packaging for Nero’s Welcome Reality gives every indication that the work is tied to a film. But there is no film. The packaging misleads at least some folks. The album was in the “soundtracks” section of Ralph’s Records in Lubbock, Texas in late 2017 until I bought it (having enjoyed the use of “Doomsday” to promote Borderlands 2). ))] Having already claimed that soundtrack album audiences are not consumer dupes, I want to use this third column to consider unofficial soundtrack albums and fandom. To analyze soundtrack albums is to think about who makes them and the reasons for creation.
Fan-made cover art for audio cassette transfer of “Space Seed”
If we define a soundtrack album as one featuring at least 51% music [ ((This distinguishes the soundtrack album from radio dramas, audiobooks, and sound effects collections.))] and with overtly signaled ties to another text (audio-visual or not), audio transfers of Star Trek and Doctor Who do not fit within these parameters. These recordings, like the programs they remediate, favor dialogue over music. They are transfers of a text’s complete audio contents. Importantly, they also follow an industrial practice, albeit a less common one, of releasing albums of the full sonic material from films, plays, and films based on plays. And here is the holy grail for some soundtrack fans: absolute sonic fidelity to the other “primary” text.
But even if we exclude my brother’s Star Trek from the category of soundtrack album, it does not mean it should be excluded from conversations about soundtrack albums. This text also highlights the fact that soundtrack albums remain under-examined in both fan studies and studies of audio piracy.
Probably not actually from Romania, and certainly not official
It seems reasonable to state that movie and TV fans buy soundtrack albums. I would also claim that many fans, when the market does not meet their needs, access bootleg soundtrack albums. Furthermore, some fans create soundtrack albums. By this I do not mean to suggest that fandom should ever be conflated with the illegal exchange of media. I do, however, want to argue that fandom drives the creation of soundtrack albums by corporations and individuals.
On the amateur side, soundtrack fandom pursues two frequently overlapping goals: 1) to create something that does not already exist, or 2) to “correct” the official release(s). The various albums associated with Blade Runner (1982) readily demonstrate both goals. Some facts: there are as many official soundtrack albums (three) as theatrically released versions of the film (three, not counting the “workprint”). But there are far more (official and unofficial) soundtrack albums than versions of this famously unstable text. Another installment of “spot the soundtrack (album)” on these albums could encompass far more than my allotted word count. But here is a greatly condensed account.
There have been Blade Runner soundtrack albums circulating since 1982. Though the film’s end credits promise a Polydor soundtrack album of Vangelis’s music, that album did not, and has never, appeared for reasons that remain murky. That year did include the first soundtrack bootleg (on cassette), and an official album of others playing the film’s music. The latter release, and the inclusion of some of the film’s music on a Vangelis compilation a few years later, did not nothing to stem the rapidly rising tide of unofficial releases. An official album of Vangelis’s film music belatedly arrived in 1994, featuring dialogue, sound effects and new music. It concludes with “Tears in Rain” rather than “End Titles.” This too, did not meet the needs of fans, who continued creating music-only albums like the one pictured above. [ (( The inside cover of the CD booklet features an image of Deckard visiting Holden in the hospital, though the image is not labeled. The image is enticing. It reminded me of the bottom of my Star Wars lunch box (red handle version) which showed a Stormtrooper on a big lizard. I could not remember seeing such a creature in a film that I thought I knew very well. The bottom of my lunchbox promised a larger and deeper world. But while this was an official promise, the images on my Blade Runner album were unofficial, illicit, and apparently illegal. ))]
The most famous, and best-loved, release is the two-disc “Esper Edition.” (it even has a “follow-up” release). More than one webpage features comments that purport to be from “(THE REAL) ESPER PRODUCTIONS.” The authors object to how the term has been used by others for profit, and emphatically state: “let us stress that our intention was always to make this a project by fans for fans. It was created out of love for Vangelis’ music‚ not money.” [ ((https://www.discogs.com/Vangelis-Blade-Runner/release/3708848 and http://www.vangelis-rarities.com/index.php?methode=methode1&id=25 See YouTube for the proliferation of “Esper” versions that, at least there, are not for sale.))] The 2007 Blade Runner Trilogy is the most recent official release (other than subsequent re-issues). It includes the 1994 soundtrack album, another disc of music from the film, and a third disc of new music with vocal work from Edward James Olmos and Roman Polanski. On the second disc of “previously unreleased” material, Vangelis names a cue “Dr. Tyrell’s Death” that since 1982 fans have called “The Prodigal Son Brings Death.” The “official” name is unlikely to catch on. More importantly, despite the promise of “The ground-breaking soundtrack in its complete form” (see the sticker below), this release is not a complete offering of the music from (any version of) the film. [ ((News of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s rejected score for Blade Runner 2049 made me immediately wonder when (not if) I can hear that music. And another composer’s unused work for that film is already being put to use.))]
Three discs of official material. But still not the “complete form”
Blade Runner invites, and receives, devotion. Yet why does the scholarly literature on the film’s fandom have so little to say about the albums? [ ((Insightful volumes such as Will Brooker’s edited collection The Blade Runner Experience: The Legacy of a Science Fiction Classic (2005) and Matt Hills’s monograph (2012) for the “Cultographies” series neglect the albums (and say little about the film’s score). Media analysis, in large part, favors the image track over the soundtrack. But studies of media fandom do not have to follow this same path.))] More generally, why do fan studies scholars—who surely access legal and illegal soundtrack albums—overlook them? Is the labor of creating Blade Runner bootlegs categorically different from the labor of fans in creating filk songs, vidding, or composing fiction? The “Esper” curators, and others, create (fake) record label names, song titles, album art, and choose not only what sonic and visual material to include but how to arrange that material. All of these decisions create meaning.
Soundtrack album creators often profess, and fans request, fidelity to the film or TV program. Clinton Heylin, in his history of bootleg recordings, argues that fans wanted “original film soundtracks on record,” rather than re-recordings of the music. [ ((Clinton Heylin, Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994), 37.))] Providing the exact audio material from a film may not appear to offer a “creative transformation” in the same way as other forms of fan labor. And their work is often associated with a vacuum in the market. But note that bootleg soundtracks have circulated through the same channels as other fan productions: conventions, tape trading and file sharing systems. Fans have created pirate recordings for themselves and other fans.
Expanding our sense of film music, fans can also impact our sense of their labor. As Nancy Baym recently noted: “Nearly, if not all, musicians are fans. Many fans make music.” [ ((Nancy Baym, Daniel Cavicchi, and Norma Coates, “Music Fandom in the Digital Age: A Conversation,” in The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom, Eds. Melissa A. Click and Suzanne Scott (New York: Routledge, 2018), 151. ))] To this I would add that composers are also fans. Elmer Bernstein is responsible for the first album of Bernard Herrmann’s rejected score for Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966). Bernstein was a fan of his peer, and his Film Music Collection series (1974-79) created recordings of music he admired but was not readily (or legally) available. [ ((See Gergely Hubai, “Mending the Torn Curtain: A Rejected Score’s Place in a Discography” in Partners in Suspense: Critical Essays on Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock, Eds. Steven Rawle and K. J. Donnelly (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2017): 165-173.))] In the following years, labels such as Varèse Sarabande and Intrada appeared in the U.S. market to help officially meet the desires of film music fans. These are small entities catering to a niche market, and take on the production risks that major media corporations deem unworthy of their time.
John Hughes once asked a silly question: “[W]ould kids want ‘Dankeschöen’ and ‘Oh Yeah’ on the same record?”
The Blade Runner releases are typically described as “score” albums, though nearly all include the 1930s pastiche “One More Kiss, Dear” (or the Ink Spots’ “If I Didn’t Care”). And while the soundtrack market favors score albums like those created by Bernstein, compilation albums are a staple of amateur production. Some, like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, eventually become official releases. The La-La Land Records’ album pictured above was released in 2016, “following 30 years of cobbled-together mix-tapes, YouTube playlists, Japanese bootlegs, and awkward negotiations with Swiss synthpop musicians.” [ ((Sean O’Neal, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off soundtrack arrives after skipping the past 30 years,” The A.V. Club, https://news.avclub.com/ferris-bueller-s-day-off-soundtrack-arrives-after-skipp-1798251533.))] Unlike most other John Hughes productions, the film never had an official soundtrack release, in part because the writer-director explained: “I just didn’t think anybody would like it.” [ ((William Ham, “John Hughes: Straight Outta Sherman,” Lollipop, http://www.lollipop.com/issue47/47-02-03.html.))] Hughes was wrong, as the numerous (never only Japanese) bootlegs demonstrated over the years (though these releases seldom include Newborn’s music). The film’s use of particular mixes of (somewhat) obscure songs created a welcome challenge for fans to create their own albums. The belated official release is, unsurprisingly, incomplete [ ((The official description includes this disclaimer: “Due to licensing restrictions, a few of the film’s songs could not be included on this CD, but they are available elsewhere.” Of course, the “elsewhere” includes unofficial releases of the album. http://lalalandrecords.com/Site/Ferris.html))] and so keeps alive the conversation between industrial and amateur production.
The BEST songs from the WORST Movies Or: some fascinating songs from some fascinating films
As long as films have featured music, audiences have enjoyed experiencing that music outside movie theatres. One music critic in 1986 wrote of soundtrack albums: “the record summons up once again the memorable scenes from the movie and sometimes even stirs the same emotions you felt in the theater.” [ ((Tom Popson, “At Last, A Soundtrack Album for People Who Enjoy Bad Movies,” Chicago Tribune, January 10, 1986: np. ))] This remark opens a review of The Golden Turkey Album: The Best Songs from the Worst Movies, which, he argues, caters to the “bad-movie brigade,” an audience heretofore neglected by soundtrack releases. This same audience is one that scholars such as J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum in Midnight Movies (1983) were already lauding for their active responses to films.
This “brigade” is a creative, and active, audience: individual fans and clusters of fans who talk about and sing along with films. A group including audience members, artists, musicians and composers. Fans who record television, create art, crate-dig (literally or virtually) for specific versions of songs, and curate albums. There is more to be understood about the intersections of fandom and soundtrack albums, whether operating legally or illegally, whether creating or sharing, whether copying or buying.
If the soundtrack album can preserve anything, it is fair to ask: What is a soundtrack album? Last year the sacred definitions of “film” and “television” were under assault from scholars, critics and upstart media providers. SCMS moved to change the name of its journal (causing some bemusement). A TV show was called a (great) film. And a (less-than-great) made-for-TV movie threatened the very idea of cinema. Yet through it all, soundtrack albums continued to refuse to acknowledge any difference between “film” and “TV.”
Second Verse, Same as the First
At the end of 2017, major filmjournals anointed Twin Peaks: The Return among the best, if not the best, film of the year. [ (( Of course, the Twin Peaks property, long before it was rebooted / revived / picked-up by Showtime, already bridged the porous divide between film and television since it consisted of a TV series and a prequel film. Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) is also a hybrid text of material made for television and material made for cinema theaters. ))] And there was muchgnashing of teeth. Rather than celebrating the text’s ascension to the mountaintop of transmedia [ (( Just when you thought The Matrix texts required homework, welcome to Twin Peaks. To process The Return apparently required reading The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer and Twin Peaks: An Access Guide to the Town, screening Fire Walk with Me (1992) and studying that film’s extensive deleted scenes, and of course reading the two new David Frost books (The Secret History and The Final Dossier). The nostalgia for Twin Peaks season 1 is not unlike the nostalgia for the first Matrix film. Neither is an unreasonable response. ))], scholars fought over the text’s “home.” Twin Peaks’ cute marketing wisely taps into the work’s always fascinating internet presence and embraces the era of streaming media. There are also two distinct soundtrackalbums (including a Target “exclusive”). Whatever the preferred label—auteur TV, “peak” TV, or film—Twin Peaks pedaled music using conventional methods.
Soundtrack albums ignore and extend well beyond the film-TV binary. And if soundtrack albums are at, or near, the heart of audio-visual media, the parameters of the category should be defined. We might, therefore, play a brief game of “spot the soundtrack album.”
Spot the Soundtrack Album #1 (Answer: the left)
I use the term “soundtrack album” here, as in my first Flow column, to designate a grouping of songs, whether collected on a physical medium or not. This phrase risks redundancy because the term “soundtrack” is often used to describe these objects. But “soundtrack” is used just as often to describe the audio portion of audio-visual media.
On the left is (one) soundtrack album for Disney’s Fantasia (1940), a film that strove to bring “classical” music to the masses by turning movie theatres into concert halls (that still showcased Mickey Mouse). On the right is the character “soundtrack” within the film, described as “shy” and at times looking very much like an optical soundtrack. Both of these can be called a soundtrack, but only one is a soundtrack album. The advantage of “soundtrack album” is to formally—but not permanently—separate these texts from the audio address of audio-visual media.
Spot the Soundtrack Album #2 (Answer: the right?)
The 1978 Robert Stigwood production Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and its soundtrack album, directly feed into the belief that the Beatles’ 1967 album of the same name is the first “concept” record, or even itself a soundtrack album, rather than (merely) an intricately produced collection of songs without a unifying idea or sound. An essay accompanying the fiftieth anniversary edition of the album states: “If Revolver is like a photo album—fourteen exquisite, self-contained vignettes showcasing the talents of each Beatle in under three minutes each—Sgt. Pepper is like a film: not a passive record of life, but a moving picture of it.” [ (( Howard Goodall, “Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band 50th Anniversary Box Set (2017): 97-98. ))]
The album on the right is clearly a soundtrack album. And a doozy. But might the film retroactively turn the Beatles’ release into a soundtrack album too?
Spot the Soundtrack Album #3 (Answer: both)
On the left is the West Side Story (1961) film soundtrack album, while on the right is the play’s 1957 soundtrack album, more commonly called the “original cast recording.” Both of these are soundtrack albums, and both sold very well. The latter allows us to acknowledge the importance of theatre soundtrack albums and their importance to the growth of the long-playing album as a format. Soundtrack albums helped create the medium they are now asked to preserve.
By some accounts, cast albums—first Oklahoma! (as a set of 78 rpm discs and later an LP) and then My Fair Lady—dominated early album sales. These audio versions of Broadway shows allowed audiences physically and/or temporally separated from the New York City run to experience these works. When South Pacific(1958) and The Sound of Music (1965) each became the top-selling album a few years after release, the film soundtrack album symbolically and economically replaced the Broadway album as the default soundtrack album. Of course, Broadway soundtrack albums continue to deliver sound outside theatres.
The Twin Peaks Visual Soundtrack (from LaserDisc)
There is one, or two, more variations on the term and concept of soundtrack album that deserve some brief discussion. The phrase “visual album” has seen a recent resurgence, most obviously in connection with work by Beyoncé, JAY-Z and Fergie. Using this term rejects the subordinate position that “soundtrack album” tends to impose on audio material vis-à-vis audio-visual media. This effort to rethink, and reframe, the relationship between these texts is fair and justified (if not exactly new). But “visual album” flirts with redundancy just as much as “soundtrack album” (see above where Revolver is labeled a photo album). And rather than signaling a different relationship between texts, it might simply reverse the hierarchy between audio-visual media and soundtrack album. At least it encourages a conscious address of terminology.
The “visual soundtrack” above is a fascinating iteration. Created for Japanese audiences (the subtitles are a feature and not a bug), the LaserDisc release joins new images with the show’s famous music. It is official but not undertaken by Twin Peaks’ creators. Unlike other “visual albums,” it appeared after, rather than alongside, the audio text. The work (re)visualizes the music, surveys the show’slocations, and functions as TV tourism (even revealing the inside of a certain train car).
What is a Soundtrack Album?
A workable definition of “soundtrack album” must encompass works connected to film, television, streaming content, videogames, books, and perhaps even the diverse range of texts circulating as “visual albums.” A soundtrack album is not an adjunct text; a soundtrack album is a text whose relationship to one or more other texts is fluid and where meaning flows in all directions. These relationships are never simple.
For example, there are three Don Johnson texts called “Heartbeat”: a song, an album, and an album-length video. Which is the center? Johnny Thunders would likely vote for the song. [ (( Cheetah Chrome, A Dead Boy’s Tale from the Front Lines of Punk Rock (Minneapolis, MN: Voyageur Press, 2010): 307. ))] Others would probably favor whichever text they encountered first (a frequent concern in adaptation studies). [ (( Peter Brooker, “Postmodern Adaptation: Pastiche, Intertextuality and Re-functioning,” in The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen, Eds. Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge UP, 2007): 107-120. ))]
Are these texts the soundtrack of Johnson’s career? (Kerouac may have one). Is the video a “visual album” or “visual soundtrack”? And does calling the album a soundtrack stifle Johnson’s vision or restrict our interpretive options? Not if we view soundtrack albums as always the center of their own universe of texts and whose meanings and relationships await consideration.
Listening—Finally—to Soundtrack Albums Paul N. Reinsch / Texas Tech University
A list of important cultural moments from Captain America: The Winter Soldier
This is a list, or, more accurately stated, the image of a list, of perhaps the most important texts and cultural developments between World War II and the first decade of the 21st century. It appears on screen a few minutes into Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). Each item here is worth considering, and we might question each item’s place here in lieu of other events, texts and signifiers.
My interest is in the final item: the Marvin Gaye soundtrack album Trouble Man (1972). In this first column I want to assert that the soundtrack album, can, and should, be thoughtfully considered by any scholar who will admit to owning, or listening regularly, to one. That likely means anyone reading this, and many of your friends.
Though many films and television shows promote their own ancillary products — action figures, t-shirts, soundtrack albums, plush toys, sippy cups — it is unusual for one film to promote the soundtrack album of another. And though the “Trouble Man” single appears on the Captain America: The Winter Soldiersoundtrack album, Disney does not stand to profit from Trouble Man album sales.
In this moment, a Disney film does more to promote the idea of soundtrack albums as significant cultural objects than most works of media scholarship of the last several decades. In this scene, a summer blockbuster acknowledges the importance of one of the most ubiquitous, but least analyzed of all media paratexts, despite its apparently matching Jonathan Gray’s welcome call for an “off-screen” studies. [ (( Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (New York: NYU Press, 2010). ))] Here, within a superhero film, is at least the suggestion that soundtrack albums are meaningful. Almost 20 years ago, Jeff Smith asked: “What do fans derive from listening to soundtracks? Is it merely the chance to relive a pleasurable cinematic experience or does a film’s music relate to fans on some other extratextual level?” [ (( Jeff Smith, Sounds of Commerce: Marketing Popular Film Music (New York: Columbia UP, 1998): 233. ))] Though some popular writing has recently considered soundtrack albums, Smith’s important questions have largely gone unanswered. [ (( The A.V. Club series, “Soundtrack of Our Lives” https://www.avclub.com/c/soundtracks-of-our-lives; Clare Nina Norelli, Angelo Badalamenti’s Soundtrack from Twin Peaks (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017). ))] But let’s back up.
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) meet while jogging on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Wilson knows that Rogers is also Captain America and was encased in ice for decades (awaking at the end of the previous Captain America: The First Avenger ). Wilson wants to give Rogers guidance that goes beyond what he might learn from searching the Internet for information about the missed decades.
Captain America catches up on the twentieth century
This is also clearly a gesture that a number of other well-meaning folks have undertaken. Rogers immediately replies, “I’ll put it on the list,” and documents the recommendation. Possibly others have made strong endorsements of particular items or ideas, but Wilson’s “Everything you missed jammed into one album” is a bold statement.
Please look again at the list Rogers is creating (scroll up if necessary). Admittedly, the list may cover multiple pages that remain unseen. But what we can see is striking: the list is dominated by pop culture material. The only items of a “historic” nature (the moon landing and the Berlin Wall) will almost certainly be experienced by Rogers not as history but instead as media events. Beyond these topics, the culinary arts are included, television is represented by I Love Lucy, Star Wars and Star Trek remain locked in their eternal struggle, and disco and Nirvana cover the music Rogers has missed. The presence of Trouble Man just below Rocky (1976) and Rocky II (1979) perhaps signals that the album will act as a corrective to the racial politics offered by those films. Rogers has mistakenly written “Troubleman” as a single word, but his awareness of Steve Jobs and Apple will, we can hope, allow him to find the album via iTunes.
Most importantly, Rogers has correctly labeled the item a “soundtrack,” just as Wilson carefully stated. Note that Wilson makes no effort to recommend the film which Gaye’s album would conventionally be said to “accompany.” The album, and not the film Trouble Man, is the text which is promised to contain “everything.” [ (( Wilson could equally have advocated for the 2012 two-disc 40th anniversary edition, which might contain even more of “everything.” ))] Trouble Man is, not surprisingly, the only soundtrack album on the list. But it stands in pretty well as the single representative of this media type, not simply because of its quality as popular music, but also for the way it mixes instrumental tracks with songs foregrounding Gaye’s voice and lyrics.
Main theme from Trouble Man on YouTube
Trouble Man might not explain decades of American culture, or even the single year of its release. It may not do any better in orienting Rogers—or the audience—than any of the other texts and topics in the list. But the idea that a soundtrack album has this potential is provocative. And perhaps even radical.
In media and popular culture studies it often (thankfully) is a given that television programs, films, music videos, comic books, gifs, and video games merit close analysis. Yet soundtrack albums are all too often dismissed as cynical attempts by massive corporations to extract more money from a duped public. Dazzled by a film’s logo and poster image on an album cover, the film-drunk teen buys the 8-track, LP, or CD and is saddled with music that is not even featured within the film itself. The horror. But media fans are not, and have never been, victims.
I would argue that Rogers’s list should include more soundtrack albums. Among other reasons, some of the best-selling albums in history are film soundtrack albums. The Saturday Night Fever (1977) album can help with disco and the 1970s more generally, everyone should hear Whitney Houston covering “I Will Always Love You” from The Bodyguard (1992), and Purple Rain (1984) is, well, Purple Rain.
The Soundtrack Albums for Saturday Night Fever (1977), The Bodyguard (1992), and Purple Rain (1984)
These albums, Gaye’s Trouble Man, and countless others, do not merely support or promote the films listed on their covers. To suggest they do is to dismiss their contents as music, to disregard this cluster of audio texts as a (potentially) coherent whole, and doubt the seemingly simple notion that soundtrack albums create meaning whether or not the user has “seen” the film.
Though the record industry reports annually that album sales are “down” in the face of streaming services and YouTube postings, soundtrack albums continue to circulate. And soundtrack albums are still quite capable of being the top seller in a given year, with High School Musical (2006), High School Musical 2 (2007) and Frozen (2014) topping sales in their year of release. To study soundtrack albums is certainly to study synergy, marketing, and mass culture, but these texts invite analysis that crosses disciplines.
Film soundtrack albums are ubiquitous, and hiding in plain sight. We pull them up on YouTube, select them from streaming services, play them on turntables, cassette decks, and 8-track players, use them as workout music, allow them to engulf us in auralnostalgia, use them to set a variety of moods, and take advantage of their ability to provide access to a diverse range of artists in manageable servings as though Wim Wenders has made us a personal mixtape.
With these columns, composed in response to Flow’s invitation to explore media and culture, I hope to begin a conversation about soundtrack albums. I am also, with my colleague Laurel Westrup, editing a collection of new essays on soundtrack albums. This work has put me in contact with scholars trained in a range of disciplines who agree that studying soundtrack albums, and analyzing them as albums, is a good use of intellectual labor. My work here and elsewhere intends to build on and expand the foundation laid by a number of scholars and suggest new avenues, and texts, that we might explore. [ (( Smith has partially responded to his own questions with essays such as “Selling My Heart: Music and Cross-Promotion in Titanic” in Titanic: Anatomy of a Blockbuster, eds. Kevin S. Sandler and Gaylyn Studlar (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999) 46-63. Other important discussions of soundtrack albums include K. J. Donnelly’s The Spectre of Sound: Music in Film and Television (London: BFI, 2005), especially chapter 8, “Soundtracks without Films,” and Lee Barron’s “‘Music Inspired By. . .’: The Curious Case of the Missing Soundtrack” in Popular Music and Film, ed. Ian Inglis (London: Wallflower, 2003): 148-161. ))] It is time to listen, finally, carefully, to soundtrack albums.
Sonic Cute: An Overview Anthony P. McIntyre / University College Dublin
Alvin and the Chipmunks’ “The Chipmunk Song”
In this my final column on the theme of cuteness for Flow, I’m going to give a brief overview and sketch out some possible avenues for further research in an area relatively neglected by scholars of the aesthetic: cuteness and popular music. Even a cursory consideration of pop music reveals how intrinsic cute aesthetics are in terms of both sound and image. Sonic cute, as I term it, has exerted a considerable influence on popular music and its associated visual texts for some time in ways that index complex questions of gender, power and representation.
A useful study by David Huron, in an analysis clearly influenced by the ethological roots of cuteness scholarship (notably the work of Konrad Lorenz), foregrounds how the high–pitched sonic emissions of young animals are liable to elicit “parenting behavior” and music or sounds that emulate this elicit a similar response from the listener.[ ((David Huron. “The Plural Pleasures of Music.” Proceedings of the 2004 Music and Music Science Conference. Ed. Johan Sundberg and William Brunson. Stockholm: Kungliga Musikhögskolan & KTH (Royal Institute of Technology), 2005. 1-13. Print.))] As the author notes: “auditory cuteness appears to be a particular combination of acoustical features involving high spectral resonances and low amplitude. But the distal cause of auditory cuteness is the promoting of parenting behaviors — presumed to be directed at human infants.” In our recent volume, The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness, my co-editors and I have sought to consolidate existing scholarship and push the understanding of cuteness beyond one that is predominantly centred on the notion of parental response (not to say that this is not sometimes the case) and open up critical analyses to elements such as the assymetrical power relations (Ngai), invocations to play (Sherman and Haidt), as well as the vast array of sexual and racial connotations that cohere in a wide variety of cute texts. It is this set of conceptual concerns that I briefly seek to position in regard to cute pop music and its associated set of visual texts in this article.
If we return to Huron’s description of cute sound, we see its value in tracing a history of sonic cute in popular music. Taking as a prime example Alvin and The Chipmunks, a pop cultural phenomenon that began in 1958 when Ross Bagdasarian Sr. recorded and released “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late),” we can see the “high spectral resonances” Huron identifies are in this case manifest in Bagdasarian’s pioneering usage of the “varispeed” recording technique that produced the distinctive high-pitched “Chipmunk sound”[ ((Carpenter, Susan. “‘Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel’ Soundtrack Scores.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 23 Dec. 2009. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))]. The hit record spawned a franchise featuring the anthropomorphic cute rodents that thrives to this day with current animated television series Alvinnn!!! And the Chipmunks (2015–) and the recent feature Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip (2015) just the latest in a long line of Chipmunk media texts. I’ve previously written of cuteness’s connection to anthropomorphized animated animals, and the longevity and transmedia success of The Chipmunks are indicative of the commercial logics identified as key features of the aesthetic.
Bagdasarian’s creation also suggests that cuteness is a viable aesthetic strategy in the creation of fluid identity positions that reject standard markers of rock and pop authenticity. Bagdasarian, U.S. born and of Armenian heritage, voiced not only the three chipmunks (Alvin, Simon and Theodore), but also their companion, David Saville (the producer’s long-standing stage name). In this way, we can see how the Chipmunks with their cute-ified vocals were a precursor to many of the experimental and often critically lauded developments in pop music in recent years. Indeed, composer and musicologist Nick Collins accords the Chipmunks a seminal position in an article tracing a genealogy of “virtual musicians,” seeing the high-pitched children’s favorites as precursors of contemporary post-human pop entities such as Gorillaz (the fusion of animation and collaborative music perhaps best-known as a side-project of Blur frontman Damon Albarn) and the “virtual idols“ who top the music charts in Japan.[ ((Collins, Nick. “Trading Faures: Virtual Musicians and Machine Ethics.” Leonardo Music Journal 21.21 (2011): 35-39. Web.))]
QT of PC Music
This confluence of technological development and cute-ified pop cultural aesthetics is also evident in the self-consciously artificial audio-visual style of artists associated with British music label PC Music. “Hey QT” by QT, for instance, an underground hit from 2014, clearly has Bagdasarian’s varispeed vocals in its sonic DNA, and is representative of a whole host of artists on the label whose common denominator seems to be pushing cute aesthetics to their limits. Artists such as GFOTY (Girlfriend of the Year), Hannah Diamond, and the producer largely responsible for “Hey QT,” SOPHIE (who despite the female-gendered name is a London-based male) all use high-pitched vocals and channel a plethora of influences such as J-Pop, happy hardcore and UK garage into their music and for a while polarized opinion as to whether they constituted, in the title of one article, “the future of pop or [a] contemptuous prank?” This polarity of response, is perhaps to be expected, given the centrality of cute to PC Music’s sound. Sianne Ngai, for instance, categorized cuteness as an aesthetic that transparently manipulates our responses, leading as much to aggression on the part of the perceiving subject (squishing the cute frog face of a sponge in her example) as a positive care-giving response.[ ((Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.))] While this aesthetic judgement occurs within reason (as Joshua Paul Dale wittily puts it, “the world is not knee-deep in dead babies and puppies” [ ((Dale, Joshua Paul, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre, and Diane Negra, eds. The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness. New York: Routledge. 2017. Print.))]), it does go some way to explaining the extreme love-hate positioning much of the music press took toward PC Music’s roster of artists, or even why Alvin and the Chipmunks are commercially successful but, for the most part, critically held in contempt, an attitude that might account for the dearth of scholarship on the band/brand.
“Hey QT” was initially posited as a song about a fictional energy drink, evident in the website set up to promote the track, with an added twist being that its eventual underground success enabled the production of the canned drink (albeit in a limited and high-priced run). This development led some to suggest that the whole enterprise was a marketing stunt by Redbull, the energy drink brand who sponsored some subsequent PC music events, an interpretation denied by the label. [ ((Vozick-Levinson, Simon. “PC Music Are for Real: A. G. Cook & Sophie Talk Twisted Pop.”Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, 22 May 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))] With QT, whose real name the website credits as “Quinn Thomas, Founder of QT,” discerning truth from fiction seems to be part of the attraction, with one journalist describing her as “an artist who seems halfway between a product and a prank.” [ ((Wolfson, Sam. “PC Music: The Future of Pop or ‘contemptuous Parody’?”The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 02 May 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))] While it might be overstating the case to label the song subversive, it does seem to be particularly timely, suggesting through the construct of QT that, in accordance with Sarah Banet-Weiser’s assessment of contemporary postfeminist media cultures, cultural participation is “increasingly only legible in the language of business.” [ ((Banet-Weiser, Sarah. Authentic TM: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture New York: NYU Press, 2012. Print.))] The song’s overtly manipulated vocal track, borrowing heavily from the kawaii conventions of J-pop (see Keith and Hughes [ ((Keith, Sarah, and Diane Hughes. “Embodied Kawaii: Girls’ Voices in J-pop.” Journal of Popular Music Studies 28.4 (2016): 474-87. Web.))], for a detailed analysis of vocal styles in this pop genre) combined with the strangely flattened affect of the central performance in the video, denoting artificiality through the virtual reality space within which QT seemingly exists, foreground the ambivalent positioning of the piece, a quality that further corroborated interpretations of the song and QT as a thinly veiled critique of contemporary consumer society.
The final artist I consider speaks to the ambivalence of cuteness and how this aspect of the aesthetic can resonate with the star text of a recording artist, becoming central to both image and sound and in the process recalibrating existing gender scripts. While the artists associated with the PC Music label have their own ambivalent positioning within the realm of gender politics, Shamir, the recording name of Las Vegas singer and performer Shamir Bailey was for a time around the release of his 2015 debut album, Ratchet, fêted both for the fresh pop sound on his record, but also the “post-gender” cultural trend the young singer supposedly seemed to encompass. The title of a prominent feature in The Advocate, for instance, asked, “Is Shamir the Post-Gender Pop Star for Our Time?” while many other features on the young musician quoted an emoji-ed tweet he posted reading, “To those who keep asking, I have no gender, no sexuality and no fucks to give.”[ ((Vivinetto, Gina. “Is Shamir the Post-Gender Pop Star for Our Time?”ADVOCATE. N.p., 14 May 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))]
Perhaps most notable in this coverage of the musician was the sustained emphasis on how well-adjusted this genderqueer artist was, a discourse discursively linked in most pieces with his generational status as a millennial. An article in the Guardian, for instance, described Shamir as “a post-gender, androgyne angel of a millennial” and commented on how he hadn’t been bullied in school, was voted “best dressed”, “most likely to appear on the cover of Vogue”, and even nominated for “Prom King” in his final year in high school[ ((Hoby, Hermione. “Shamir : ‘I Never Felt like a Boy or a Girl, That I Should Dress like This or That’.”The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 11 May 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.))]: All seemingly indicators of the balanced and likable nature of the young performer. Likewise, a Pitchfork article on Shamir opines, “image work is easy for millennials, who can often seem omnivorous and guided less by the dividing lines of politics than the universal high of being really into stuff. Shamir knows who he needs to be for the camera and transforms without suffering” (final emphasis mine)[ ((Powell, Mike. “The Charmed (and Charming) Life of Shamir Bailey.”Pitchfork. N.p., 11 May 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.))]. Perhaps implicit in this commentary seems to be an acknowledgement of the distance between Shamir’s poppy sound and upbeat attitude and that of genderqueer performers of an earlier generation such as Anohni, from Antony and the Johnsons, whose melancholic records such as 2005’s I am a Bird Now circled themes of transformation and duality.
Shamir, in the music video for “On the Regular”
This discursive construction of Shamir as well-adjusted and fluidly transformative, is closely imbricated, I would argue, with the qualities of sonic cute evident in his recorded music of this era and also in the surrounding texts that matched image to sound. Just as in the examples of Alvin and the Chipmunks and QT detailed earlier, vocal timbre is a key factor in this aural iteration of cute aesthetics. Shamir ‘s voice is often termed “androgynous falsetto” and while not as high pitched as the two earlier examples, it is often multi-tracked (layered) to give it a girlish quality, as in “On the Regular”. If we consider the screenshot from the music video for On The Regular (above) we see how in keeping with the rest of the video, bright colors are used to complement the song, an arrangement that makes ample usage of the “high spectral ranges” Huron previously noted as common to sonic cute. Similarly, the use of a Fisher-Price toy fits with a lyric in the song, but also connotes an invocation to play, a feature that psychologists Gary D. Sherman and Jonathan Haidt posit as a more accurate representation of cuteness’s power over a perceiving subject than the “parental instincts” suggested by early ethologists. [ ((Sherman, Gary D., and Jonathan Haidt. “Cuteness and Disgust: The Humanizing and Dehumanizing Effects of Emotion.” Emotion Review 3.3 (2011): 245–51.))]
This quality of cuteness is foregrounded even more in the video (above) for “Call It Off,” where the artist is literally cute-ified over the course of the video, transformed into a puppet, or more specifically a Muppet as it was Jim Henson’s workshop responsible for the manufacturing. Again, the video’s aesthetics rely on the use of day-glo and primary colors in its later sections, matching the high-range foregrounded in this recording and the cumulative effect of these initial songs and videos created a cute star image for the young singer.
Perhaps, however, the color-saturated extremes of cuteness as exemplified in much of the artist’s work of this time were too blunt to fully encapsulate the complexity of Shamir’s vision, or overwhelmed other aspects of the artist’s oeuvre. A feature-writer for music website Pitchfork certainly picked up on this, and the imposition of this image on a neophyte artist by older professionals in the industry, when on location for the filming of “Call It Off”.
“I see the puppet and suddenly the video shoot seems farcical and weird, an expensive ordeal orchestrated by a bunch of market-savvy people in their 30s and 40s trying to harness the natural charisma of a 20-year-old kid who is grateful for the fairytale his life has become and yet who at times seems supremely bored by it, or at least confused as to what the fuss is about.” [ ((Powell, 2015))]
Certainly, Powell’s analysis seems poignant and insightful given the fact that, as I was writing this article Shamir, dropped from British label XL, self-released a free album, Hope, along with a message suggesting a discomfort with how his image had previously been presented. The artist relates how he recorded the present album over the course of the week after a period where he almost quit making music as “the wear of staying polished with how im presented and how my music was presented took a huge toll on me mentally. I started to hate music, the thing i loved the most!” While as I suggest, cute aesthetics, may, in a pop setting, enable a certain conceptual latitude that stretches the acceptable bounds of pop authenticity, in Shamir’s case it arguably presented an overwhelming, playful public persona that failed to tally with a heterogenous output that was intrinsic to the artist’s sense of artistic integrity.
While it is tempting to see in the manifestations of sonic cute charted in the case studies above evidence of cuteness’s ability to push the boundaries of notions of identity and gender (and species) performativity, this highly ambivalent aesthetic also displays an ability to flatten out expression so that it perhaps lacks nuance and can in its own way be restrictive and reinforce prescriptive social scripts. So, while some commentators have found the artists associated with the PC Music label as turning “the macho culture of so much dance and house music on its head”[ ((Ellis-Petersen, Hannah. “PC Music at SXSW Review – Good Taste Goes out the Window in Pop Makeover.”The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.))] others see the label as yet another instance of Svengali male producers’ appropriation of female artists and aesthetics [ ((Kretowicz, Steph. “You’re Too Cute: Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, SOPHIE, PC Music and the Aesthetic of Excess.”The FADER. The FADER, 01 Aug. 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.))], a phenomenon that has a sonic cute antecedent in Ron Bargdasian’s ability to technologically innovate and self-voice a set of anthropomorphized rodents and in the process instigate a family business and pop cultural phenomenon. Shamir’s initial records channeled a zetitgeist appetite for cute-inflected “post-gender” optimism that arguably restricted the artist’s own vision. It is perhaps this ambivalent power and the proximate aesthetic corollaries that are generated that mark sonic cute out as a topic worthy of further academic explication.
Hallelujah Apocalypse: From Gorillaz to Post-Humanz Theodore Yurevitch / Florida State University
The Gorillaz’s 2017 album, Humanz.
January 19th, 2017 was the end of many things. The end of a presidency. Almost the end of the Year of the Rooster. Notions of “post-truth” circulated on televised news tickers and Twitter alike. It’s not too hard to imagine one closing her eyes and seeing a vision of fire spurting from geysers; clouds of fallout dust enveloping homesteads; maniacal clowns wielding war hammers; or a man in a hyena mask, bounding over a sun beaten hillock; pigs with orange faces pointing their cloven hoofs, accusing; a processional of white robed figures with black holes punched into their conical heads; Clint Eastwood’s unforgiving squint; an anonymous, pupil-less face with mouth agape; a pyramid with the all-seeing eye flashing technicolor; the liberty bell swinging into a rainbow of starbursts; and a gold gilded elevator, the doors closing on the world, but not before the words ring forth: “Hallelujah money.” You don’t have to imagine this, though. It all happens in the virtual band Gorillaz’s most recent music video: “Hallelujah Money:” a vision of the apocalyptic implications of hyper-mediation and how life might still go on in an increasingly post-human world.
The song and video, “Hallelujah Money,” mark the Gorillaz’s first piece of new music since 2011, but that’s not to say that they haven’t been talked about since then. Following a number of (at times conflicting) announcements, buzz has been steadily building over the last few months for the music/art project in anticipation for a new album, what’s now been slated for release in late April—and aptly titled Humanz. Starting in September, 2016, the experimental band has been releasing digital story books through Twitter narrating the lives of the four “band members” since their last album over half-a-decade prior. Of course, none of these stories are true: since the project’s beginning, the music has always been released under the guise of cartoon characters. A “virtual” band: characters created by Jamie Hewlett complete with fictional backstories. In reality, the music is composed by Damon Albarn and a plethora of collaborators: Snoop Dog, Lou Reed, the Syrian National Orchestra, et cetera. Album to album, the music breaks genre conventions, weaving between electronica, hip hop, folk, minimalist, metal, and more—at times in the same song. Some of their numbers follow the structure of classical western music, others use instruments and artists from the Far East. It’s an eclectic project that has spent the last decade unfolding across various media, telling stories through songs, music videos, animated short films, their own interactive website, spots on television (there was an animated segment on MTV Cribs), and now explicitly through Twitter and, with their new music video’s exclusive release platform, YouTube. Not only are their narratives and themes spread across various media, but the style of the sound itself is predicated by a listener’s ability to access music from across genres and the globe. Here is a group that has made a project out of the “dynamic browsing experience” of spreadable media, packing everything it can into a single brand. [ (( Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, Spreadable Media: creating value and meaning in a networked culture (New York, NY: New York U Press, 2013), 5. ))]
Gorillaz’s creator-composers, Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn.
But if, as Marshall McLuhan asserts, “the medium is the message;” what does one make of Gorillaz’s premeditated effort to spread throughout digital spaces and across multi-modal geographies? By building its brand and reputation around deconstructing genre, the group’s work intentionally feels both fragmentary and wholly unified, not unlike what Adorno makes the case for as emblematic of “serious music” where “the detail virtually contains the whole and leads to the exposition of the whole.” [ (( Theodor Adorno, “On Popular Music,” in Cultural theory and popular culture: A reader (1941): 76. ))] While Adorno claims that this dialectical construction in music makes it more complex, his argument doesn’t wholly follow through to see what the value of this complexity might truly be. Gorillaz, on the other hand, makes this dialectical nature not just their conceit, but (in a McLuhanish sense) their whole message. Their work up until this point in time has been invariably concerned with charting a brand of dialectical materialism and entropy (“O Green World,” and “Kids With Guns” are two of many explicit examples), using fictional conceits as a façade for visions of material dereliction, decay and the apocalypse, which have now culminated in their latest work, “Hallelujah Money.”
“Hallelujah Money” music video by The Gorillaz.
It is undeniable that the song and video are meant to be read in historical context: they were released on UPROXX’s YouTube channel on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration and contain explicit reference to Trump’s highly mediated personage. Not only do the lyrics directly recall to mind things that Trump has publicly said/tweeted with lines like: “And I thought the best way to protect our trees / was by building walls,” but the visual imagery, too, directly alludes to Trump: the gilded elevator that serves as the opening shot and setting of much of the music video is intentionally a replication of the Trump Tower elevator that was so highly mediated in Trump’s transitional period. While much of the lyrics appear initially oblique, the refrain, “Hallelujah money,” makes clear what this song is satirizing. All this is bolstered by the explicitly American imagery of the video’s visuals—the liberty bell, the “eye of providence” found on the dollar bill—as well as sampled clips from such sources as the animated version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm; another clip is meant to resemble the Klu Klux Klan (it’s technically footage from a ceremony of the La Candelaria Brotherhood, but the familiar garb and conflation seems entirely intentional); and there is a repeated scene of notable conservative and Trump supporter, Clint Eastwood (funnily enough, his name is the title of one of Gorillaz’s most popular songs from their first album). The imagery is highly political, but this song is more than just the kind of critique that John Storey provides as one of the definitions of political pop. [ (( John Storey, Cultural Studies and the Study of Popular Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh U Press, 2014), 109. ))]
A gilded elevator serves as the opening shot and setting of much of the music video.
The fact that the subject is Trump yields an even more self-referential reading than McLuhan might have supposed. Trump himself, through all his various holdings, television personalities and social media profiles, is as much a product of convergence culture and spreadable media as Gorillaz are. It’s hard to recognize Trump as a human being; rather, he is more aptly read as a Meme in Dawkins’s sense. [ (( Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford U Press, 1999), 192. ))] And while these multiplying layers of self-referentiality (having a metafictional band take on an entirely self-referential, largely content-less personage) might otherwise deride real meaning—circumscribing any sort of take-away for viewers and listeners—the song asks the question necessary to elevate its own commentary in the second refrain: “How will we know / when the morning comes / we are still human?”
There is, of course, the topical element of survival in the age of Trump and policy changes that have many groups rightfully frightened, but there is also the question of how we hold on to our sense of humanity in this ever-increasingly mediated world—one that figures like Trump are so clearly capitalizing on. The Gorillaz project, culminating in their most recent work, suggests that an apocalypse, if not already here, is well on its way; technological determinism through hyper-mediation, the internet, and other digital spheres are the progenitors of something purely constructed, something post-human. These fictions, then, aren’t something subordinated; they have real meaning. What began as a bunch of cartoon characters drawn to vaguely resemble primates are now Humanz, and are as important as the artists behind the fiction; who are still there, and will be for the foreseeable future. It’s up to them, and up to all of us, to determine how we navigate our way through these dialectics, the now no-longer extant line between fact and fiction that mediation has obscured. To the question, “How will we know / we are still human?” perhaps the answer is this: to listen to the song; to realize that you, the listener, exist; and it is your responsibility to listen.
Audiovisuality and the Media Swirl: Campaign 2016 Carol Vernallis / Stanford University
Donald Trump Supporters Interviewed by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog
Why hasn’t this presidential campaign given us much in the way of music? Where are the short videos with lively soundtracks—things we’d want to share on Facebook or Twitter? Where’s the “Yes We Can” of 2016? Where are the Rick Rolls and Obama’s sung speech of “Never Letting Us Down,” or the musical ad with Romney’s “47% no income tax?” Through all the dim moments of this cycle we could use something uplifting or inspirational, a 2016 election song or video that not only moves us but encourages us to share something with others and participate more actively.
For many reasons this election cycle has felt like a lost cause. Not that Trump seemed likely to win. It’s been a track-the-clickbait nail-biter. The issues are so serious—climate change, economic inequality and insecurity, racism and police violence, the Supreme Court, the surveillance state—and the political discourse has barely touched them. Not music but comedy may be this season’s best antidote, from Triumph the Insult Dog’s harangues to Samantha Bee’s “Pussy Riot.”
Nevertheless, this campaign’s audiovisual clips reveal something about ourselves and the media swirl. It also gives us materials we may not have come upon, worth sharing over the next three weeks, spurring a few more of us to get out and vote.
The primaries were audiovisually richer than the general. Bernie Sanders’s clips were the most moving. His “America,” using the eponymous Simon and Garfunkel song, opens with establishing shots that marry new and old tech: wind farms and family farms, small-town coffee shops with Wi-Fi. These images crossfade into an unusual progression of protagonists, from young people, young couples both straight and gay, to older couples: when Paul Simon sings “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together,” a middle-aged couple dances at a Sanders rally. As the video progresses, older-styled gestures and dance-forms appear, suddenly both modern and historical, partly for the fresh-eyed cinematography, and partly for the ways these images coincide with musical articulations, as in a music video. Lines of activists share high-fives, a country-dance promenade of Sanders and his wife unfolds, a farmer and family throw hay bales to the beat, and the camera glides over a rally while Sanders sways his arm like a conductor’s from the podium. (The tenor helps us think back to fields of wheat and forward to masses of people joined together, as sensitive to one another as in a community choir.) These processes and audiovisual rhymes make possible the ways that the ad builds, gradually incorporating people and communities, dissolving them into a graph of a checkerboard nation (with people as icons), and changing them back into fully articulated crowds. Rolling Stone and The New York Times raved, with others calling it “magnificent,” and “so full of love, enthusiasm and patriotic uplift (complete with flag-waving) that it’s downright goosebumps-inducing.” As the song and ad claims, the people have all come to “look for America.” This ad creates an exquisite relation between the small and the vast.
But on the whole the primary season matched what we’ve been seeing in the general. My fellow media scholars and I have been asking why there’s little musically or audiovisually rich content this cycle. We’ve identified several possible causes. This fractious season may resemble reality television or a sporting event; in the heat of the fray, music may not be needed. Our collective feelings of dread, disgust, and anxiety may fail to provide good musical material for ads: to tap into them risks disengaging other segments of the electorate. What would such musical or audiovisual content sound and look like? There aren’t many musical correlatives for disgust, even in splatter films. And even if there were, you couldn’t use it in an ad—especially in the depths of our both-sides-do-it era.
The types of and scale of materials have shifted, too. An incendiary tweet or a racist image moves with greater intensity and speed than a song or musical accompaniment. And for the left, paradoxically, the lack of audiovisual competition may play a role: Trump and his superpacs haven’t produced big-budget, well-distributed commercials. Clinton’s advertisements can thus remain understated. There’s no true audiovisual conversation.
Clinton may also have been reticent to draw on music because it has served her so poorly in the past. In 2008, musical choices like Celine Dion’s “You and I” highlighted her age and lack of cool. (And of course Trump too is, among other things, an uncool septuagenarian.)
The Original and Official Hillary Clinton (2008) Campaign Song Video
Perhaps both camps have heeded recent research asserting that political ads are largely ineffective (including their soundtracks): campaign resources should be devoted to the ground game—operatives knocking door to door in get-out-the-vote efforts. But this may be the wrong approach. This research may already be outmoded. Its data don’t account for onslaughts of outrageous Twitter posts, or Facebook’s silos of like-minded friends.
Trump has also been a destabilizing force. His erratic behavior makes it hard to gauge how to respond, audiovisually or otherwise. (Should you fight bullying with bullying?) His constant threats to sue or have people shot also carry weight, especially in an age of surveillance that could quickly turn into something like a Stasi state.
The reasons for the muting of music seem deeper, however. If you feel frozen, you’ll have difficulty singing or performing music (think of Doris Day in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Gwen Welles in Altman’s Nashville). You may feel incapable of stirring someone with music. The constantly shifting political landscape might also paralyze musicians and directors: campaigns haven’t typically lurched from scandal to scandal, producing and destroying memes that can render a musical ad instantly obsolete.
As we enter the homestretch, more striking musical moments have been happening—right at the moment when the race seems to have stabilized. Journalists have finally summed up Trump (“that yellow troll fascist dwarf”); Sean Penn also quipped that “voting for Trump is like masturbating your way to hell.” Perhaps in some ways we’re coming together.
Hillary Clinton Pantsuit Flashmob
The best recent musical moments so far remain understated, like Mary J. Blige’s acapella singing while directly facing Clinton. I like this recent flashmob clip celebrating Hillary’s pantsuits, shot in Washington Square; it’s enjoyable even if it seems a bit too well funded for its own good. It couldn’t possibly be a Trump promo. Compare it to the Trump rally clip with the USA Freedom Kids (three young girls, who according to their father were bilked by Trump); viewers on social media likened their performance to something you’d see for Kim Jong-un.
USA Freedom Kids
The biggest political ads of this season haven’t carried much aesthetic weight. (I wonder what later studies targeting effectiveness will show.) The music in Clinton’s ads suggest a stay-the-course approach, often drawing directly on minimalism, with stripped-down piano accompaniment. Sometimes something humorously sinister sneaks in, a là Danny Elfman. The soundtrack is usually complemented by footage processed to drain Trump of physical magnetism, and the overall scene is often tinted an unnatural blueish-gray, more dystopian than The Bourne Ultimatum. The bulky sans-serif font suggests overcompensated clarity (shouting) and bargain-basement utility. Why project limited resources for the public, I wonder, when the campaign has likely been so well-funded? (In fairness, Clinton’s ad agency has a house style: “Google it/The Briefing” looks sharp.) A subset of these ads, especially targeting military vets, feel more traditional, with their sensitive strings and subjects looking into the distance. Ads of girls and women listening to or re-voicing Trump’s misogynistic assertions, and others supportive of African American and LGBT communities, are more moving. (The music often softly percolates underneath, and the LGBT-themed “Equal” nicely pivots into a fuller arrangement.) Two Hillary campaign videos worth mentioning include a Trump University infomercial’s spoof (with a faux Ivanka voice-over promising to take all your money), and an immigration ink blot series comprised of morphing black forms accompanied by a melancholic string quartet (both bloom momentarily into trains and shackled people).
Trump’s ads have almost always looked shoddier. (Was he not only tweeting late at night but also editing on free software?) One on Hillary’s coughing seemed particularly embarrassing. Trump’s first ad intimates that Clinton literally has trouble with her eyes (cloudy); once it’s finished with Mexico and ISIS, the music and image sweetens and clarifies. One of Ivanka Trump saying publicly donated money will be matched by her father feels like a late-night acne-treatment commercial. Cheap and plentiful, these were mostly distributed on Facebook.
Most of the user-generated clips circulating now seem like tired retreads of earlier YouTube campaign genres, even though they may have been funded by superpacs. Given their low view-counts we may not need to worry about them. I like a cover of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” with Trump’s lines with the tweaked hook line (“how many times can you [I] sing sorry?’”); a “Batman v Trump: Official Trailer” with Trump CGI’d in; a dance battle with the candidates heads photoshopped in; a mashed-up speech (Trump singing about Pokémon); a sung meme showcasing a single gesture, Clinton’s Debate 1 shimmy; and of course the Gregory Brothers’ songified debates. Both Trump and Sanders also appeared for SNL cameos, green-screened into Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” but only Sanders seemed to embrace all the characters.
SNL‘s “Hotline Bling” Parody
One idiom I’m particularly fond of, deriving from folk music and stand-and-deliver stars, is will.i.am’s “Yes We Can,” (2008) directed by Jesse Dylan. I now see this video as connecting with Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” There’s Joss Whedon’s “Save the Day,” a tongue-in-cheek video quickly hijacked by the alt-right. The production company Anonymous Content has just made a clip with 1,000 stars too. The promise of a tiny bit of sex (Mark Ruffalo agreeing to appear full monte) might hope to provide what stirring music once did. will.i.am has just done an amusing sendup of a debate—but it turns the music down.
Campaign-rally and convention music has also felt déjà vu. I could give a shoutout to Katy Perry for participating in Clinton’s campaign (“Roar” and “Fight Song”), and note that Trump, always engaged in the scam, used a rash of songs without the artists’ blessings (the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Queen), reminding us how Bruce Springsteen chided Reagan for misusing “Born in the USA” in an earlier race-baiting campaign. But the response to Trump’s sloppiness, the music video “Stop Playing Our Song,” with Usher and Sheryl Crow, was enervated. The original song’s intensity has been diminished, the perpetrator (Trump) remains unnamed, and no course of action is offered.
But some new turns have delighted me. During the first debate Tecate beer placed an anti-Trump commercial spoofing his “wall.” We might complain about the ad’s Eurocentrism, noting that Tecate is owned by Heineken. Primarily white men cross over a long, snaking, mini-wall at coffee-table height—good for smashing down beer cans—to another group of possibly more Latino men, whom we might assume are on the border’s southern side. The ad begins like recent film trailers, with a swiftly rising glissando, and a camera soaring above a vast, desert flanking an eagle. (Trump has been pushing that eagle.) Then we have Anglo-sounding guitar-based rock. Still, though the commercial’s weighted North, I’ve seldom seen a big corporation take this kind of political stand: it feels like we’re possibly moving into a new era, with new genres. Not only might a corporation outsource their production and merchandising, they might share out their politics.
During this election cycle, finding, sourcing, and making connections among clips can prove challenging. One sweet clip is of a mariachi band performing in the Oval Office possibly chimes with a 2008 one. (The Dems produced one mariachi tape that upset a community because the musicians weren’t in an appropriate neighborhood. Might this one help make good on an earlier oversight?) Might the YouTube-based “Fuck Trump” hip hop videos also have been funded by a Democratic superpac? (A Macklemore video is particularly wonderful.) On Trump’s side, the mashed up documentary footage accompanying his official music video with “C’Mon Ride the Train” by Quad City DJs incongruously suggests racial inclusiveness with a proletarian flare (and supposedly a prosumer created the initial cut). The singer so expressively effuses about “getting on the choo-choo” that we can imagine she’s doing the arm gestures, but Trump almost never mingles with the crowds. Perhaps some of the ad’s pleasure comes from latent content: Trump promises “It’ll be beautiful,” but we don’t know how; perhaps the singer can fill in a bit? Somehow we’ll whirl our way into the White House. Or perhaps there’s even more latent content: that Trump plane forcibly inserts itself 27 times into the crowd, perhaps foreshadowing the new revelations of his sexual assaults.
Like many academics I tend to look for political content outside of traditional or official discourse. One of the most influential videos for reading this election season may be Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Trump got into it with Beyoncé over “Formation,” and Trump surrogates have falsely accused Beyoncé of speaking vulgarly about genitalia—in one case misquoting the lines from a remix of “Flawless,” a song she performed with Nikki Minaj, in which Minaj touts her own genitalia (and doesn’t seize someone else’s without consent). SNL just spoofedLemonade’s “Sorry” substituting in Ivanka, Kellyanne, Tiffany, and Omarosa.
Beyoncé’s Lemonade, a 50-minute audiovisual film comprised of music videos and interstitial poetry, not only confronts common marital difficulties but also provides a means to hold the American past, present, and future together. It develops historical strands about Africa, the Middle Passage, slavery, reconstruction, lynching, neo-liberalism and the disinvestment in black neighborhoods of the 70s, Hurricane Katrina, and the police murders of African-Americans. It often takes place below ground, or in confined quarters, with palpably poor air quality. As such it could be seen as existing in direct conversation with Trump’s rallies, with his circling helicopters overhead and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” (After Trump menaced Hillary during the second debate, this spatial relationship seems more strongly etched.) Lemonade expands out as Beyoncé, at the Video Music Awards, brought police-shooting victims’ mothers to the red carpet. Expanding further, some fans (including me) heard “Fuck Donald Trump” emerging in the mix during Beyoncé’s Formation tour.
My academic training also encourages me to see our culture as in need of conversation about what we’re frightened of, or have pushed aside, and to expect that these issues will bubble forth somehow, transmuted or veiled. Music video has long been a place to find the underdiscussed: shot quickly and less susceptible to some forms of censorship, tied to youth and rebellion, and relatively free from narrative demands, it can thereby allow a freer play of desires and thoughts. In recent heavily digitally processed, mind-twisting videos, artists like Rihanna, Lana Del Rey, and Allie X and Allie X often slide toward some indeterminate abyss (just beyond the frame). We watch moment-by-moment to see if they’ll endure. These clips capture the ever-present anxiety of our contemporary moment, life without a banister, caught within what Berlant has identified as the biopolitical production of precarity under post-Fordism.
Another thread in today’s music videos leads elsewhere. Empowering videos by musicians of color like Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” link directly to Black Lives Matter. Women of color (Beyoncé, Rihanna, Jill Scott, J-Lo, and FKA Twigs) also seem to have been pulling out the stops—sometimes through topic, sometimes purely through self-presentation and delivery. They may sense they’re the most capable of helping us imagine a transition from Obama to Clinton. (Perhaps even European American female musicians like Sky Ferreira and Miley Cyrus have been backing away a bit to create more space for them.)
Two recent clips, Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair” (directed by Alan Ferguson), fall within this last group. Solange says she wanted to show the video’s subjects, African-Americans, as regal and proud. The figures in the images simultaneously project a sense of firmness as well as telegraph an awareness of the larger cultural moment. Like Sanders’ “America” these two clips find a way to create a fit between the micro and macro. The music and image are so in sync that they project an image of our dream of democracy itself. I can’t quite say how the videos do this. Perhaps the image captures something about the music. There’s a sensitivity to fine details (the single thread pulled back from Solange’s dress), the mid-ground (the water-stained patterns on white cloth), and the largest scale (the many figures in the frame who all move in concert).
Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair”
I hope Hillary’s team is planning a final audiovisual spectacular for its get-out-the-vote effort. Perhaps they’re holding out, responding to studies that show music succeeds best as an end-game? (There’s the just released 30 Days, 30 Songs, a project delivering a new protest message every day leading up to the election.) Maybe now that Trump is imploding we’ll hear new voices sing louder. But so far one of the most moving ads is a silent video with a man using sign language. “We Shall Overcome” still feels very far away, but I’ll use some of these clips to help me make it to the 8th (not the 35th).