This piece is co-authored by Sarah Kessler and Karen Tongson.
Scholarship rarely happens in isolation, despite quantitative demands in the humanities for “single-authored” works. Instead, intimacies of different shapes and configurations, transpiring in spaces as variegated as “the institution,” cocktail bars, cars, and even boudoirs, have profound effects on how we think, and on what we eventually write. However, academics have very few forms beyond the citation, the footnote, or even the acknowledgment, through which to admit our debts, recognize our inspirations, and lay bare the narcissisms of our small differences.
Our current areas of research—karaoke for Karen, ventriloquism for Sarah—traverse what may appear to be a narrow terrain of sound studies currently focused on “voice” or “the voice.” And yet the strains of sound studies that draw us to these topics do not exclusively concern themselves with the tropes or techniques of voice and vocalization that karaoke and ventriloquism conjure. Though voice presents itself as the most basic and fundamental connection between these two concepts and practices, we are each more invested in exploring karaoke and ventriloquism as actual sound technologies, as well as technologies of power. As you will read below, ventriloquism, for all its associations with archaism and mysticism in certain historical contexts, is also depicted as a technology and technique of deception, statecraft, and power. Meanwhile, karaoke, for all its associations with the expressive and participatory potential of amateur vocalization is also, crucially, a technological apparatus, whose media archaeology bears the traces of intercolonial conflicts, negotiations, and aftermaths. Finally, we are also both interested in the ways in which these sound technologies and techniques have been transformed into critical, intellectual, and affective methodologies, especially since they’ve both been harnessed as broader cultural metaphors for judgments at once moral and aesthetic.
Over an obscenely caloric breakfast, we devised several questions touching upon some keywords and concepts we believe are applicable to both karaoke and ventriloquism, two topics that undermine notions of authorship, source, and origin. In our respective writing about these two subjects, we’ve both occasionally (or more than occasionally) been besieged by the anxiety that our work is melding together into some indeterminate blob. To put it another way: like any other lesbionic duo resisting the “urge to merge” (as so many other queers have warned against), we’ve arrived at that moment in our intimate and intellectual relationship where we’ve decided to sort out whose socks are whose. Somewhat ironically, then, we wrote this post together to establish some of the crucial differences between karaoke and ventriloquism.
The following “ventrilokeal” dialogue shows, from a conceptual standpoint, where some of the boundaries between karaoke and ventriloquism harden, while others remain porous.
We each provide separate answers, engaging the other person’s answer when appropriate. Feel free to supplement some of our questions in the comments section, addressing either or both of us. And thanks for indulging.
1) How do both karaoke and ventriloquism—as terms, metaphors, and practices—conjure and/or reframe our understandings of originality and derivation?
KT: Karaoke, at least in my mind, has become the prevailing metaphor for derivation in the contemporary moment. Whenever the term is tossed about casually as a cultural metaphor, with little regard to the geographical contexts, modes of performance or the technologies that underlie its current practice, “karaoke” functions as a kind of shorthand for “the unoriginal,” the debased copy, the amateur reenactment. Novelist Dubravka Ugresic’s long essay on “Karaoke Culture” (2011) provides a perfect example of these applications of “karaoke.” And yet, karaoke in the U.S. in the last 15 years or so has also been construed as something that unlocks the creative and expressive potential of beleaguered, repressed or emotionally stunted individuals, usually men (see Lost in Translation, the forgotten Huey Lewis and Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle, Duets, and a recent pair of books I actually quite like, Brian Raftery’s Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life and Rob Sheffield’s Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke). Of course, it will take all of Empty Orchestra (my working book title), to answer this question properly, but one of the principles guiding my own account of karaoke as a metaphor for copies and reenactments (in addition to my exploration of its material practices and technological history), is that derivation and mimicry have always been a key concern of—and a point of intersection between—queer theory, aesthetics, critical race studies, and (post)-colonial studies.
SK: When ventriloquism is employed as a metaphor in popular cultural contexts, it’s also often used to connote a lack of originality. The term tends to describe (and to fantasize) a situation in which one individual acts as the communications medium—usually the speaking or singing vessel—for words, songs, and other ideological formulations that originate or originated with someone else. So, in contrast to the mass copying and amateurism invoked by “karaoke,” “ventriloquism” suggests an unoriginality that can, and that must, be traced back to a discrete body and distinct point of origin. Think, for example, of George “Dubya” Bush and Dick Cheney, who were often represented as a ventriloquial duo. Political cartoons depicted Dubya as Cheney’s open-mouthed dummy, perched on the knee of his puppet master, the “actual” leader of the free world. Here, ventriloquism was used to image a scenario wherein the man who seemed to be in power was both secretly and openly manipulated by another man, who was the true source of power. In this case, unoriginality on Bush’s part connoted originality on Cheney’s, whereas in the case of the Beyoncé lip-synch scandal (more on this below), unoriginality signified very differently. Generally speaking, however, “ventriloquism” implies that a deceptive act has occurred, one that masks the origin of its own workings. It signals the veiling and subsequent exposure of a powerful apparatus. This apparatus is usually vocal in nature, the voice’s historical connections to power being well documented. In his Western cultural history of ventriloquism, Dumbstruck (2001), for example, Steven Connor traces the form back to Greco-Roman oracular myths in which divine prophecy is primarily accessible as a voice, transmitted through the mediating body of a priestess.
Contemporary ventriloquists like the British performer Nina Conti often claim to be surprised by what their dummies say, which suggests that, far from being an omnipotent machinator, the ventriloquist is a bifurcated entity—one whose practice places her beside herself, in conversation with herself (or, as others have noted, with her unconscious). My recent work argues for bifurcation as a workable antidote to the tired, either/or question of originality vs. derivation to which popular cultural forms are repetitively subjected.
2) The terms “karaoke” and “ventriloquism” are both frequently employed in adjudicatory ways. As Karen has pointed out elsewhere, “karaoke” is often used in reality TV contexts (American Idol, The Voice) as a negative judgment of performance quality, i.e. “that performance was shit—mere karaoke.” “Ventriloquism,” for its part, is often used to connote a deviousness or deception that disqualifies a performance (think folks condemning Beyoncé post-lip-synched inauguration performance). What are the differences between “karaoke” and “ventriloquism” as judgments?
KT: I actually think that one of the primary differences between these two terms as judgments, and perhaps more simply as just terms, is that “karaoke” condemns the person performing it, or performing something in “the style of” karaoke (i.e. derivatively, as a copycat, as a mere echo of the “original”), as a lightweight. Pulling off a feat of ventriloquism seems like a heavier, more sinister, and more complex operation of power, at least as I’ve heard you explain it, and as you describe it viz. Bush/Cheney above. Karaoke as a performance practice also lacks ventriloquism’s gravitas and requisite skill, insofar as ventriloquism is an archaic-seeming art form. Karaoke is the opposite of serious or sinister: it’s laughable, buffoonish, and absurd. It’s all surface and no depth. Ventriloquism, at least as I’ve heard you describe it to me on many occasions, in different situations, seems more layered. This is not to say, however, that I actually believe that karaoke is lightweight, or only about surfaces, but as a term of adjudication, it can’t really break free from those associations to mean anything more.
SK: Yes, as you say above, “karaoke” as judgment indicates amateurism and insubstantiality, whereas “ventriloquism” suggests a more menacing, or at least a more complicated, operation. And when one actually does karaoke, one can’t even conceal one’s appropriation—it’s part and parcel of the practice. A ventriloquist, on the other hand, hides herself in plain sight: the greater the attention focused on her dummy, the less it matters that—as the audience well knows—she’s the one talking. This is called “misdirection”: if the eyes are on the dummy, the ears will follow, and the dummy will appear to speak even if he doesn’t have his own microphone.
The interesting thing about the liberal accusation that Bush was Cheney’s ventriloquist dummy was that, though the image of Cheney as evil puppetmaster was sinister, it still served a reassuring function, in that it allowed for the continuation of the idea that there was a source, or origin, of power, period. As opposed, let’s say, to a more Foucauldian understanding of power as dispersed, not traceable to an isolated sovereign body. In contrast, when Beyoncé allegedly lip-synced, but in fact sang over, her own recording of the National Anthem at the 2013 presidential inauguration, her performance—which, as many have pointed out, was not unusual by pop industry standards—was framed as ventriloquism in order to cast doubt on her legitimacy as a live performer, i.e. as a performer whose voice could “stand up” in non-studio conditions (which are still, and ironically, just as much mediated as studio conditions). These ventriloquial scenarios are, it should go without saying, gendered and racialized: Bush-Cheney as ventriloquism emasculated Bush while restoring power to Cheney’s white, male, visibly disabled body; Beyoncé-Beyoncé as ventriloquism rather unsuccessfully attempted to pit Bey against herself (mediated, recorded Beyoncé vs. live Beyoncé) in order to devalue her corporeal body and frame her as unworthy of (national) subjectivity.
3) Both karaoke and ventriloquism are mass, but not mainstream, cultural practices. Karaoke is a mass cultural activity, but one that still carries with it the frisson of doing something slightly risqué (hence its frequent overlap with inebriation). Ventriloquism, while not being a cultural activity practiced by the masses, is a mass-mediated and mass-consumed cultural form, despite the aura of Vaudevillian anachronism (and/or pathology) it persistently conveys. How might we account for the “mass but not mainstream” quality of both practices?
KT: I actually have to credit Zhou Xun and Francesca Tarocco, co-authors of an ambitious book, Karaoke: The Global Phenomenon (2007) with the “mass vs. mainstream” formulation. At this point, karaoke is globally ubiquitous, thanks to the many delivery systems that have evolved from the first karaoke and sing-along machines from Japan and the Philippines. There’s actually a popular app called Sing!, which enables you to perform karaoke and compete against anyone in the world. Meanwhile, YouTube is replete with karaoke videos to perform and practice with (some KJs, or “karaoke jockeys,” use YouTube as their primary interface), as well as with videos of people from all walks of life performing karaoke in various bars or at family functions in the home or elsewhere. These days, practically every sitcom on primetime TV stages a requisite “karaoke outing,” that usually leads to disastrous, if hilarious consequences for its characters.
And yet karaoke as a mass practice can’t quite broach the mainstream, because of its various “abject” associations with immigrant communities, aspirational everymen longing to be idols, isolate geeks who only interact with the outside world through their computers, drunkards, gaggles of girls group-singing to Madonna, queens bereft of the piano bar’s liveness, slumming with an electronic delivery system for their show tunes, and other such “sad” spectacles. Once someone excels at karaoke—at singing someone else’s song so well that they transform it in some way—we are apt to think they actually exceed karaoke, and leave behind the form, much in the same way that, as you suggest in your opening comments, a good dummy eclipses its ventriloquist. When (in the words of many an Idol judge), someone makes someone else’s song “their own,” we enter into the territory of the cover, the reboot, the repurposed. The failure of the form to transcend its own limitations, even if it serves as the vehicle for many to otherwise achieve transcendence in myriad ways, is what keeps karaoke abject and not quite ready for mainstream acceptance.
SK: In the U.S., there’s a genre of white, masculine ventriloquism that’s currently extremely popular. This genre is typified by U.S. ventriloquism’s two biggest guns, Terry Fator and Jeff Dunham, who, following in the footsteps of Edgar Bergen, brought their ventriloquism to television to increase the art’s spread. Fator won America’s Got Talent in 2007 and now gives nightly performances at The Mirage in Vegas, where he has a theater named after him. He’s made hundreds of millions this way. Dunham has a strong presence on Comedy Central and is also one of the top-grossing U.S. standup acts. Both vents are especially popular with “Heartland” audiences, and both have casts of gendered and racialized puppets to whom they, as white male ventriloquists, play the straight man. Dunham, in particular, takes an unapologetic stance towards his own redneck identity, which permits him to criticize and recuperate this identity in one fell swoop. For instance, Dunham’s “white-trash trailer-park” dummy Bubba J drinks a surfeit of beer and is of low, if any, intelligence, but he remains benign in comparison to the rest of Dunham’s cast of characters, which includes Achmed the Dead Terrorist (a bin Laden caricature) and José Jalapeño on a Stick (use your imagination). Fator and Dunham’s ventriloquism evokes the practice’s historical connections and overlaps with minstrelsy, consolidating a fragile white masculinity in the process.
This culturally bounded reading of contemporary ventriloquism’s mass popularity directly resonates with your reading of karaoke as a practice with “abject” associations that is accordingly repurposed to “unlock the creative and expressive potential of beleaguered, repressed or emotionally stunted individuals, usually men.” While ventriloquism is difficult to perform well, vent instruction manuals always stress that, with practice, anyone can ventriloquize. One of the reasons that the practice isn’t mainstream is that it’s associated with a perverse desire, even a need, to speak through someone else in lieu of being able to speak “for oneself.” Edgar Bergen was always said to be shy with women, and to woo them through his brash, confident alterego Charlie McCarthy. And in his autobiography, Who’s the Dummy Now? (2008), Terry Fator (or his ghostwriter) writes about how his father found his ventriloquism perverse, and how he literally closeted his dummy as a result. Ventriloquism is too blatant a form of triangulation to be normal, and is thus coded as deviant, a perversion of heterosexuality’s direct, unmediated operation. Hence Fator’s book title, which aggressively restores authority to the formerly emasculated ventriloquist.
4) As the previous question suggests, and as prominent scholars of ventriloquism have also suggested, ventriloquism is ever anachronistic. Karaoke, too, is suffused by a sense of belatedness, reflected in nostalgic, hits-driven karaoke song choices and/or by the practice’s enduring connection to seemingly obsolete technological forms like laser discs. In what ways is each form out of time, or behind the times, and, alternatively, why do these forms appear as such even as they continue to exist in time?
KT: As I mentioned above, karaoke’s purported abjection in the U.S. is, in many ways, a consequence of its association with the immigrant communities from Asia who imported the practice, as well as karaoke technologies, to the west coast as early as the mid-1970s. In that sense, karaoke functioned as a vehicle of nostalgia for those in the diaspora who longed to connect with memories of “home” through certain musical repertoires, even if some of those repertoires were actually already comprised of American pop hits folks grew to love when they were still “back home” (e.g. songs by the Carpenters, or any of the Johns—Elton, Olivia Newton, Denver). I haven’t quite worked it all out yet, but there is a certain circular temporality to karaoke. I have a hunch that the form is Romantic insofar as it is, at once, about the moment and its “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” yet prone to saturating those powerful feelings with the “passionate recollection of youth.” There’s also something anticipatory and performative about karaoke, insofar as it has the capacity to do what it purports to articulate. I wrote something about this from a personal perspective in a piece about my favorite L.A. karaoke bar, the Smog Cutter. As the question above remarks, karaoke also feels belated, or emblematic of a particular era, because of the visual peripherals that accompany some song catalogues, especially those released on laser disc in the late 1980s and early-to-mid-1990s (i.e. the videos comprised of b-roll, and oblique narrative re-imaginings of certain songs). I can’t get into all of it here, but my plan is to devote a chapter to the karaoke video—from its production history (of which Brian Raftery offers an excellent preliminary account), to its repurposing in contemporary queer performance art.
SK: I’m still working on understanding ventriloquism’s anachronism—why it continues to appear, or to feel, outmoded despite its present popularity—besides the obvious fact that its contemporary iterations evoke Vaudevillian performance. Nina Conti, who has, like Fator and Dunham, distributed her ventriloquism across multiple media platforms, makes many jokes about this. Her puppet Monk, who sounds like a muffled Sean Connery trapped in a fuzzy, simian body, will often deride her for practicing such a “dead art,” and Conti’s documentary, Her Master’s Voice (2012), theorizes the ventriloquist dummy as a “bereaved object” that loses its voice repeatedly, and finally for good. Conti’s film, however, argues with its own assertion by reanimating the dummies of a dead ventriloquist with new voices, a process that could theoretically continue ad infinitum. Steven Connor argues that present-day “revivals” of ventriloquism like Conti’s are always “necromantic,” conjuring the form’s prehistory while at the same time referencing “newer” media like film (which, according to Rick Altman (c. 1980) and Michel Chion (c. 1982) is itself a form of ventriloquism). Writes Connor, “Whether because it is scandalously or mysteriously archaic, or uncannily premonitory, ventriloquism is always anachronistic, never quite on time.” And Mladen Dolar tells us that the voice itself is ventriloquial, leading to the extrapolation that ventriloquism literalizes or visualizes what the voice has always already done.
I tend to think of ventriloquism as temporally bifurcated. A ventriloquist has to exist in both the future and the past to make her practice work. She has to anticipate what’s going to be said next while remembering what’s just been said, and she has to keep her lips still while moving her tongue—acts that circumvent linearity and synchronization. In saying this I’m not arguing for ventriloquism as a “resistant cultural practice”; rather, I’m simply pointing out the temporal perversion to which the art lends itself.
Reflecting upon this conversation on karaoke and ventriloquism—a conversation that is, of course, ongoing—it has become even more apparent to us that both forms are sound technologies struggling against obsolescence, even as they are so frequently imagined as possible gateways to some human “truth” or “essence” precisely because of their associations with the voice. Though vocalization and vocality are reflexively associated with both forms, we hope we’ve been able to underscore some of the ways in which their powerful associations with “voice” naturalize, and to a certain extent also neutralize, the technical elements of each practice. We appreciate the opportunity to make some key distinctions, and to sound some of these issues out, here on the SO! Blog. Many thanks to Jennifer Stoever and Liana M. Silva for their generous editorial input. Like Conti’s bereaved puppets, who lose their voices only to be invested with new ones, we now relinquish ours—for the time being.
SK & KT
Featured Image by Flickr User Sam Grover
Sarah Kessler is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, where she is writing a dissertation on ventriloquism in contemporary British and U.S. popular culture. She received an M.A. in Modern Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2008. Kessler’s writing on art, film, and media has appeared in artforum.com, the Brooklyn Rail, In These Times, and Public Books, among other publications, and she has held editorial positions at Triple Canopy and Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry. She is currently completing an article on the documentary work of ventriloquist Nina Conti.
Karen Tongson is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, and the author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press, 2011). Her work has appeared in numerous venues in print and online, including Social Text, GLQ, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Novel: A Forum on Fiction. She is currently the series editor for Postmillennial Pop at NYU Press, and just completed a multi-year term as co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Her current book project, Empty Orchestra: Karaoke. Critical. Apparatus. critiques prevailing paradigms of imitation in contemporary aesthetics and critical theory, while offering a genealogy of karaoke technologies, techniques, and desires.
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We are living in strange times. Our experiences, especially our musical experiences, have become fragmented and odd. The album has been declared dead, live concerts are now silent, listened to on headphones, and some of our favorite performers exist in a faux-holographic space between life and death. The fragmentation of our musical experiences is indicative of a larger set of changes that encourage sound studies to pay attention to fragmented, outlying, and diffuse sonic phenomenon. In his new book Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation, part of Jonathan Sterne and Lisa Gitelman’s “Sign, Storage, Transmission” series at Duke University Press, David Novak pays attention to one such fragmented and outlying realm, Noise music. Novak’s contribution to sound studies is to encourage us to deal with the fragmented complexity of sonic environments and contexts, especially those where noise plays a crucial part.
The past decade has seen growing public attention to noise as pollution, as problem, and as a poison. Examples of noise as a social issue needing immediate response abound, but one letter to the editor from the Wisconsin Rapid Tribune epitomizes the way that noise is sometimes read as a problem to be overcome. Novak’s book is one a few recent books, including Eldritch Priest’s Boring Formless Nonsense, Greg Hainge’s Noise Matters, and Joseph Nechvatal’s Immersion Into Noise, that complicate the idea of noise as problem. What sets Novak’s book apart from these is how his ethnographic approach allows him to approach Noise music from both the macro-perspective of its historical context and the micro-lens of his personal relationship to it.
For Novak, Noise music is a trans-cultural, transnational interaction that is both material and abstract. His analysis of it works to blur the boundary between both large-scale networks of exchange and the highly individuated experience. Novak relates the story of Noise music as originating in Japan in the 1980s. Noise musicians working separately caught the ears of American fans. Some of these fans were well-known musicians themselves, who brought Noise recordings and eventually the performers themselves to a wider U.S. audience. At the time, Noise was generally understood as taking one of two binary positions. Either Noise music was understood as a uniquely Japanese cultural expression, or it was instead theorized as a product of the Western imaginary motivated by the production of Japan as the anti-subject within modernity (24). Novak wisely recognizes the limited nature of these two positions, and seeks a more sophisticated method of understanding the circulation that creates Noise music, contributing, ultimately, a theory of feedback. Here the transnational circulation of materials, ideas, and expressions constitutes a culture itself, one that is not distinct from either the Japanese or the U.S. manifestations of Noise music (17). This a welcome contribution to compositional and intersectional perspectives on cultural exhange.
If Noise music is a circulation, a set of experiences and contexts, flows and scapes, ecologies and environments, then genre boundaries can not adequately describe the contextual and historical exchange of sound. Though genre must be considered, Japanoise does not find Novak searching particularly rigorously. He chooses two key Noise musicians, The Nihilist Spasm Band from Canada and Merzbow from Japan and describes their historical context, reception, and influence. But other than those descriptive basics, he is unsuccessful in finding anything new to say about Noise as genre. Concluding the chapter, he casually states that the existence of Noise threatens the boundaries of other musical genres. Though this fascinating statement would have been worthy of a chapter, and certainly foundational to his central idea (that Noise music is diffuse), Novak misses an opportunity to better support these connections in his chapter on genre.
Most interesting, however, is Novak’s focus on the material conditions of the production of Noise music. In describing the diffuse flows and scapes of Noise music, he addresses a plurality of experience: from the technological to the spatial to the private dimensions of listening. These concerns put him in conversation with Louise Meintjes’ Sound of Africa and Julian Henriques’ Sonic Bodies. Like these scholars, Novak refuses to locate the material conditions of production as solely economic, technological, or cultural. Instead, Noise music results from of an assemblage of conditions and possibilities. This is best exemplified by how Novak distinguishes the live music experience from the recorded. Here, Novak resists the neat distinction, long established in musicology, that hears the live experience as collective and interactive, and recorded music as individuated and passive. Instead, Novak suggests “liveness” and “deadness.” Liveness and deadness are not bounded to the dichotomy of the live performance with the recording, but rather two qualities that float through and with both experiences. “Liveness is about the connection between performance and embodiment… deadness, in turn, helps remote listeners recognize their affective experiences…” The experience of live Noise music, according to Novak, often challenges the boundaries of what is often expected when hearing live music. I have seen this in my own experiences standing in an audience surrounded by shrieking, booming, droning noises.
Truth be known, I’m as taken with Noise music as Novak. If his book confesses to being written by a critical but vehement fan, then I ought to confess the same of the music which I love so dearly. I had the chance to see Merzbow perform in Raleigh in August. He strummed obviously homemade instruments, turned fader pots, and concentrated intently on his laptop. A fan was crawling through the crowd on their hands and knees; occasionally they stood to sway, then returned to crawling. I thought that this behavior might seem odd, but in the context of Merzbow’s performance, it was as legitimate as any other. Through these odd behaviors, the fan demonstrated Novak’s conception of individuation within Noise music. The material conditions of the performance, the screeching Noise, made it impossible for me to ask the person what they were doing or feeling. I experienced the fan and the Noise in a tension from which there is no resolution. We were both uncomfortably located in a multiplicity of experiences. These experiences don’t resolve to a whole, but rather pulsate and echo and feed back into each other, intertwining with expectations of behavior, material conditions, and embodiment(s).
Japanoise raises many important questions. What social processes lead us to foreground the sonic experiences in our lives? And further, how does a critical understanding of these processes help to advance the work of understanding the power and politics of sound? But, for me, Novak’s work serves best to remind me of how much value is found in fragmented, diffuse, outlier experiences, like Noise music. Because sound occupies a crucial role in our social and political lives, Novak encourages us not to resolve tensions, rather to exist amongst them and hear them as lively and productive.
For those readers who might be unfamiliar with the music Novak describes, the book’s website has a fantastic collection of supplemental media for you to enjoy: http://www.japanoise.com/media/.
Seth Mulliken is a Ph.D. candidate in the Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program at NC State. He does ethnographic research about the co-constitutive relationship between sound and race in public space. Concerned with ubiquitous forms of sonic control, he seeks to locate the variety of interactions, negotiations, and resistances through individual behavior, community, and technology that allow for a wide swath of racial identity productions. He is convinced ginger is an audible spice, but only above 15khz.
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[Editor's Note 01/24/14 10:00 am: this post has been corrected. In response to a critique from DJ Rupture, the author has apologized for an initial misquoting of an article by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, and edited the phrase in question. Please see Comments section for discussion]
Time to ring the bell: this year, Sounding Out! is opening a brand-new stream of content to run on Thursdays. Every few weeks, we’ll be bringing in a new Guest Editor to curate a series of posts on a particular theme that opens up new ground in areas of thought and practice where sound meets media. Most of our writers and editors will be new to the site, and many will be joining us from the ranks of the Sound Studies and Radio Studies Scholarly Interest Groups at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, as well as from the Sound Studies Caucus from the American Studies Association. I’m overjoyed to come on board as SCMS/ASA Editor to help curate this material, working with my good friends here at SO!
For our first Guest series, let me welcome Justin Burton, Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, where he teaches in the Popular Music and Culture program. Justin also serves on the executive committee of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music-US Branch. We’re honored to have Justin help us launch this new stream.
His series? He calls it The Wobble Continuum. Let’s follow him down into the low frequencies to learn more …
Things have gotten wobbly. The cross-rhythms of low-frequency oscillations (LFO) pulsate through dance and pop music, bubbling up and dropping low across the radio dial. At its most extreme, the wobble both rends and sutures, tearing at the rhythmic and melodic fabric of a song at the same time that it holds it together on a structural level. In this three-part series, Mike D’Errico, Christina Giacona, and Justin D Burton listen to the wobble from a number of vantage points, from the user plugged into the Virtual Studio Technology (VST) of a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) to the sounds of the songs themselves to the listeners awash in bass tremolos. In remixing these components—musician, music, audience—we trace the unlikely material activities of sounds and sounders.
In our first post, Mike will consider the ways a producer working with a VST is not simply inputting commands but is collaborating with an entire culture of maximalism, teasing out an ethics of brostep production outside the usual urge for transcendence. In the second post, Christina will listen to the song “Braves” by a Tribe Called Red (ATCR), which, through its play with racist signifiers, remixes performer and audience, placing ATCR and its listeners in an uncanny relationship. In the final post, Justin will work with Karen Barad’s theory of posthuman performativity to consider how the kind of hypermasculinist and racist signifiers discussed in Mike’s and Christina’s pieces embed themselves in listening bodies that become sounding bodies. In each instance, we wade into the wobble listening for the flow of activity among the entanglement of producer, sound, and listener while also keeping our ears peeled for the cross-rhythms of (hyper)masculinist and racist materials that course through and around the musical phenomena.
So hold on tight. It’s about to drop.
As an electronic dance music DJ and producer, an avid video gamer, a cage fighting connoisseur, and a die-hard Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson fan, I’m no stranger to fist pumps, headshots, and what has become a general cultural sensibility of “hardness” associated with “bro” culture. But what broader affect lies behind this culture? Speaking specifically to recent trends in popular music, Simon Reynolds describes a “digital maximalism,” in which cultural practice involves “a hell of a lot of inputs, in terms of influences and sources, and a hell of a lot of outputs, in terms of density, scale, structural convolution, and sheer majesty” (“Maximal Nation”). We could broaden this concept of maximalism, both (1) to describe a wider variety of contemporary media (from film to video games and mobile media), and (2) to theorize it as a tool for transducing affect between various media, and among various industries within global capitalism. The goal of this essay is to tease out the ways in which maximalist techniques of one kind of digital media production—dubstep—become codified as broader social and political practices. Indeed, the proliferation of maximalism suggests that hypermediation and hypermasculinity have already become dominant aesthetic forms of digital entertainment.
More than any other electronic dance music (EDM) genre, dubstep—and the various hypermasculine cultures in which it has bound itself—has wholeheartedly embraced “digital maximalism” as its core aesthetic form. In recent years, the musical style has emerged as both the dominant idiom within EDM culture, as well as the soundtrack to various hypermasculine forms of entertainment, from sports such as football and professional wrestling to action movies and first-person shooter video games. As a result of the music’s widespread popularity within the specific cultural space of a post-Jersey Shore “bro” culture, the term “brostep” has emerged as an accepted title for the ultra-macho, adrenaline-pumping performances of masculinity that have defined contemporary forms of digital entertainment. This essay posits digital audio production practices in “brostep” as hypermediated forms of masculinity that exist as part of a broader cultural and aesthetic web of media convergence in the digital age.
Media theorist Henry Jenkins defines “convergence culture” as “the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want” (Convergence Culture, 2). The most prominent use of “brostep” as a transmedial form comes from video game and movie trailers. From the fast-paced, neo-cyborg and alien action thrillers such as Transformers (2007-present), Cowboys & Aliens (2011), and G.I. Joe (2012), to dystopian first-person shooter video games such as Borderlands (2012), Far Cry 3 (2012), and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (2012), modulated oscillator wobbles and bass portamento drops consistently serve as sonic amplifiers of the male action hero at the edge.
Assault rifle barrages are echoed by quick rhythmic bass and percussion chops, while the visceral contact of pistol whips and lobbed grenades marks ruptures in time and space as slow motion frame rates mirror bass “drops” in sonic texture and rhythmic pacing. “Hardness” is the overriding affect here; compressed, gated kick and snare drum samples combine with coagulated, “overproduced” basslines made up of multiple oscillators vibrating at broad frequency ranges, colonizing the soundscape by filling every chasm of the frequency spectrum. The music—and the media forms with which it has become entwined—has served as the affective catalyst and effective backdrop for the emergence of an unabashedly assertive, physically domineering, and adrenaline-addicted “bro” culture.
Film theorist Lorrie Palmer argues for a relational link among gender, technology, and modes of production through hypermasculinity in these types of films and video games. Some definitive features of this convergence of hypermediation and hypermasculinity include an emphasis on “excess and spectacle, the centrality of surface over substance… ADHD cinema… transitory kinetic sensations that decenter spatial legibility… an impact aesthetic, [and] an ear-splitting, frenetic style” (“Cranked Masculinity,” 7). Both Robin James and Steven Shaviro have defined the overall aesthetic of these practices as “post-cinematic”: a regime “centered on computer games” and emphasizing “the logic of control and gamespace, which is the dominant logic of entertainment programming today.” On a sonic level, “brostep” aligns itself with many of these cinematic descriptions. Julianne Escobedo Shepherd describes the style of Borgore, one particular dubstep DJ and producer, as “misogy blow-job beats.” Other commenters have made more obvious semiotic connections between filmic imagery and the music, as Nitsuh Abebe describes brostep basslines as conjuring “obviously cool images like being inside the gleaming metal torso of a planet-sized robot while it punches an even bigger robot.”
MASCULINITY AND DIGITAL AUDIO PRODUCTION
While the sound has developed gradually over at least the past decade, the ubiquity of the distinctive mid-range “brostep” wobble bass can fundamentally be attributed to a single instrument. Massive, a software synthesizer developed by the Berlin and Los Angeles-based Native Instruments, combines the precise timbral shaping capabilities of modular synthesizers with the real-time automation capabilities of digital waveform editors. As a VST (Virtual Studio Technology) plug-in, the device exemplifies the inherently transmedial nature of many digital tools, bridging studio techniques between digital audio workstations and analog synthesis, and acting as just one of many control signals within the multi-windowed world of digital audio production. In this way, Massive may be characterized as an intersonic control network in which sounds are controlled and modulated by other sounds through constantly shifting software algorithms. Through analysis of the intersubjective control network of a program such as Massive we are able to hear the convergence of hypermediation and hypermasculinity as aesthetic forms.
Media theorist Mara Mills details the notion of technical “scripts” embedded both within technological devices as well as user experiences. According to Mills, scripts are best defined as “the representation of users embedded within technology… Designers do not simply ‘project’ users into [technological devices]; these devices are inscribed with the competencies, tolerances, desires, and psychoacoustics of users” (“Do Signals Have Politics?” 338). In short, electroacoustic objects have politics, and in the case of Massive, the politics of the script are quite conventional and historically familiar. The rhythmic and timbral control network of the software aligns itself with what Tara Rodgers describes as a long history of violent masculinist control logics in electronic music, from DJs “battling” to producers “triggering” a sample with a “controller” or “executing” a programming “command” or typing a “bang” to send a signal” (“Towards a Feminist Historiography of Electronic Music,” 476).
In Massive, the primary control mechanism is the LFO (low frequency oscillator), an infrasonic electronic signal whose primary purpose is to modulate various parameters of a synthesizer tone. Dubstep artists most frequently apply the LFO to a low-pass filter, generating a control algorithm in which an LFO filters and masks specific frequencies at a periodic rate (thus creating a “wobbling” frequency effect), which, in turn, modulates the cutoff frequency of up to three oscillating frequencies at a time (maximizing the “wobble”). When this process is applied to multiple oscillators simultaneously—each operating at disparate levels of the frequency spectrum—the effect is akin to a spectral and spatial form of what Julian Henriques calls “sonic dominance.” Massive allows the user to record “automations” on the rhythm, tempo, and quantization level of the bass wobble, effectively turning the physical gestures initially required to create and modulate synthesizer sounds—such as knob-turning and fader-sliding—into digitally-inscribed algorithms.
SONIC WARFARE AND THE ETHICS OF VIRTUALITY
By positing the logic of digital audio production within a broader network of control mechanisms in digital culture, I am not simply presenting a hermeneutic metaphor. Convergence media has not only shaped the content of various multimedia but has redefined digital form, allowing us to witness a clear—and potentially dangerous—virtual politics of viral capitalism. The emergence of a Military Entertainment Complex (MEC) is the most recent instance of this virtual politics of convergence, as it encompasses broad phenomena including the use of music as torture, the design of video games for military training (and increasing collaboration between military personnel and video game designers in general), and drone warfare. The defining characteristic of this political and virtual space is a desire to simultaneously redefine the limits of the physical body and overcome those very limitations. The MEC, as well as broader digital convergence cultures, has molded this desire into a coherent hegemonic aesthetic form.
Following videogame theorist Jane McGonigal, virtual environments push the individual to “work at the very limits of their ability” in a state of infinite self-transition (Reality is Broken, 24). Yet, automation and modular control networks in the virtual environments of digital audio production continue to encourage the historical masculinist trope of “mastery,” thus further solidifying the connection between music and military technologies sounded in the examples above. In detailing hypermediation and hypermasculinity as dominant aesthetic forms of digital entertainment, it is not my goal to simply reiterate the Adornian nightmare of “rhythm as coercion,” or the more recent Congressional fears over the potential for video games and other media to cause violence. The fact that music and video games in the MEC are simultaneously being used to reinscribe the systemic violence of the Military Industrial Complex, as well as to create virtual and actual communities (DJ culture and the proliferation of online music and gaming communities), pinpoints precisely its hegemonic capabilities.
In the face of the perennial “mastery” trope, I propose that we must develop a relational ethics of virtuality. While it seems to offer the virtue of a limitless infinity for the autonomous (often male) individual, technological interfaces form the skin of the ethical subject, establishing the boundaries of a body both corporeal and virtual. In the context of digital audio production, then, the producer is not struggling against the technical limitations of the material interface, but rather emerging from the multiple relationships forming at the interface between one’s actual and virtual self and embracing a contingent and liminal identity; to quote philosopher Adriana Cavarero, “a fragile and unmasterable self” (Relating Narratives, 84).
Featured Image: Skrillex – Hovefestivalen 2012 by Flickr User NRK P3
Mike D’Errico is a PhD student in the UCLA Department of Musicology and a researcher at the Center for Digital Humanities. His research interests and performance activities include hip-hop, electronic dance music, and sound design for software applications. He is currently working on a dissertation that deals with digital audio production across media, from electronic dance music to video games and mobile media. Mike is the web editor and social media manager for the US branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, as well as two UCLA music journals, Echo: a music-centered journal and Ethnomusicology Review.
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Editor’s Note: Sound Studies is often accused of being a presentist enterprise, too fascinated with digital technologies and altogether too wed to the history of sound recording. Sounding Out!‘s last forum of 2013, “Sound in the Nineteenth Century,” addresses this critique by showcasing the cutting edge work of three scholars whose diverse, interdisciplinary research is located soundly in the era just before the advent of sound recording: Mary Caton Lingold (Duke), Caitlin Marshall (Berkeley), and Daniel Cavicchi (Rhode Island School of Design). In examining nineteenth century America’s musical practices, listening habits, and auditory desires through SO!‘s digital platform, Lingold, Marshall, and Cavicchi perform the rare task of showcasing how history’s sonics had a striking resonance long past their contemporary vibrations while performing the power of the digital medium as a tool through which to, as Early Modern scholar Bruce R. Smith dubs it, “unair” past auditory phenomena –all the while sharing unique methodologies that neither rely on recording nor bemoan their lack. The series began with Mary Caton Lingold‘s exploration of the materialities of Solomon Northup’s fiddling as self-represented in 12 Years a Slave. Last week, Caitlin Marshall treated us to a fascinating new take on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s listening practice and dubious rhetorical remixing of black sonic resistance with white conceptions of revolutionary independence. Daniel Cavicchi closes out “Sound in the Nineteenth Century” and 2013 with an excellent meditation on listening as vibrant and shifting historical entity. Enjoy! –Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief
“To listen” is straightforward enough verb, signifying a kind of hearing that is directed or attentive. Add an “er” suffix, however, and “listen” moves into a whole new realm: it is no longer something one does, an attentive response to stimuli, but rather something one is, a sustained role or occupation, even an identity. Everybody listens from time to time, but only some people adopt the distinct social category of “listener.”
And yet listeners have emerged in diverse historical and social contexts. Arnold Hunt, in his recent book The Art of Hearing, for example, points to the congregants of the Church of England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, whose sermon-gadding and intense repetitive listening to preachers became a form of popular culture. Shane White and Graham White, in The Sounds of Slavery, argue that early nineteenth-century black slaves adopted listening, or “acting soundly,” as a way of being that gave everyday sounds—conversation, cries of exertion, hymns—multiple layers of meaning and a power unknown to white overseers. Jonathan Sterne, in The Audible Past, describes the post-Civil War culture of sound telegraphy, in which young working class men trained themselves to employ “audile technique” for bureaucratic purposes, rendering their hearing objective, standardized, and networked.
We might add our own contemporary iPod era to these examples. We live in a time, after all, when it entirely acceptable to appear alone in public, ears connected to an iPod, head bobbing to the grooves of a vast archive of recorded music. Sampling, playlists, streaming–thanks to playback technologies, the U.S. has become a nation of obsessive listeners, and the power to “capture” a sound and re-hear it, something that began with the phonograph, remains a time-bending drama that can awaken people to their own aurality. Technologized listening, in fact, has spawned many of the icons of music discourse in the past 100 years: Edison’s tone testers in 1910s, record-collecting jitterbugs in the 1930s, audiophiles of the Hi-Fidelity era in the 1950s, Beatles fans with their bedroom record players in the 1960s, the “chair guy” in Memorex’s famous ad campaign of 1980, dancing listeners silhouetted in iPod posters since 2003.
But I think also that phonograph-centric narratives have obscured earlier, equally powerful cultures of listeners. The focus of my recent research, for example, has been the world of antebellum concert audiences. Between 1830 and 1860, the United States developed concentrated population centers filled with boosters and recent migrants eager to embrace a life based on new kinds of economic opportunity. Shaping much of the urban experience was a growing commercialization of culture that generated new and multiple means of musical performance, including parades, museum exhibitions, pleasure gardens, band performances, and concerts. Together, these performances significantly enhanced the act of listening: for people used to having to make music for themselves in order to hear it, a condition common to most Americans before 1830, access to public performances by others provided an opportunity for working and middle-class whites (women, African Americans, and the poor were another matter) to stop worrying about making music and, with the purchase of a ticket, to solely, and at length, assume an audience role.
The odd circumstance of purchasing the experience of listening provided class-striving urbanites with new possibilities for self-transformation. For many young, rural, white men, for example, arriving to the city for the first time to take clerking jobs in burgeoning merchant houses, being able to hear diverse performances of music was associated with a cosmopolitanism that brimmed with social possibility. Thus, for instance, Nathan Beekley, a young clerk, recently arrived in Philadelphia in 1849, found himself attending multiple performances of music several nights a week, including more and more appearances at the opera as a way to avoid “rowdies.” In New York City during the 1840s, George Templeton Strong, a young lawyer in Manhattan, derided his own musical abilities and instead attended every public musical event he could find, carefully chronicling his listening experiences and analyzing his reactions in a multi-volume journal. Walt Whitman, a young man on the make in Brooklyn and New York between 1838 and 1853, regularly attended every sound amusement he could, including the Bowery Theatre, dime museums, temperance lectures, political rallies, and opera, writing in Leaves of Grass, “I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen/And accrue what I hear into myself.”
This culture of listening was, in many ways, very much unlike ours. Despite an expanded access to performance, for instance, professional concerts before the mid-1850s were often understood as part of a wider ecology of sound. Very few listened to music in ways that we might expect today–focused on a “work,” in a concert hall, without distraction. Listening, in fact, was as much a matter of local happenstance as personal selection—a passing marching band, echoes of evening choir practice at a nearby church, an impromptu singing performance at a party. Such experiences were marked by the momentary thrill of spontaneity and discovery rather than the studied appreciation of familiarity; in any moment of hearing, it was difficult to know how long the encounter might be, or even what sounds, exactly, were being heard. Cities like Boston and New York were especially rich with such surprise encounters.
Francis Bennett, a young arrival to Boston in 1854, for example, encountered, in his first night in the city, a band concert and the “cries” from a “Negro meeting house,” and within weeks became enamored of fife and drum bands, often leaving work to follow one and then another as far as he dared. Young writer J. T. Trowbridge was more stationary but equally enthusiastic about what he heard from his New York rooming house in 1847: “The throngs of pedestrians mingled below, moving (marvelous to conceive) each to his or her ‘separate business and desire;’ the omnibuses and carriages rumbled and rattled past; while, over all, those strains of sonorous brass built their bridge of music, from the high café balcony to my still higher window ledge, spanning joy and woe, sin and sorrow, past and future….”
Music listeners were also often listeners of other forms of commercial sound, especially theater, oratory, and church services, which, together, comprised a complex sonic culture. This was especially reinforced by the physical spaces in which they shared such diverse aural experiences. In a rapidly-growing society, there often was not time or immediate resources to construct buildings dedicated to specific uses; instead, existing structures–typically a “hall” or “opera house”–served mixed uses.
As historian Jean Kilde noted in When Church Became Theater, evangelists in the Second Great Awakening often rented urban theaters for services; and congregations, in turn, rented churches to drama troupes, ventriloquists, and musicians to raise money. This “mixed-use” of buildings was reinforced by hearers, who often engaged in their own “mixed-use” understandings of what they heard. They evaluated sermons as they would a theatrical performance or found church choirs thrillingly entertaining rather than piously inspirational. Conversely, they listened to symphonic concerts with a religious solemnity.
This culture of antebellum, middle-class urban listeners didn’t last long, succumbing to the class sorting by post-Civil War social reformers, who mocked the indiscriminate over-exuberance of antebellum listeners as a kind of “mania” and a form of social disorder. As Lawrence Levine explains in Highbrow Lowbrow, over the course of the nineteenth century, developing a “musical ear” became increasingly paramount, reverence for great works of art shaped audience response, and listening became a specific skill to be learned. Music became something to appreciate not simply hear. By the 1890s, a true listener was someone who, in the words of critic Henry Edward Krehbiel (in his enormously popular How to Listen to Music, from 1897), “will bring his fancy into union with that of the composer” (51).
In many ways, the controlled silent listening favored by reformers directly paved the way for music technologies, like the phonograph, that similarly sought to control and manipulate listening. But it was the urban music listeners of the 1840s and 1850s who were responsible, in the first place, for identifying and accentuating the joys and possibilities of “just listening.”
Featured Image: Etching of Jenny Lind Singing at Castle Garden in New York City, 1851
Daniel Cavicchi is Dean of Liberal Arts and Professor of History, Philosophy, and the Social Sciences at Rhode Island School of Design. He is author of Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum and Tramps Like Us: Music and Meaning Among Springsteen Fans, and co-editor of My Music: Explorations of Music in Daily Life. His public work has included Songs of Conscience, Sounds of Freedom, an inaugural exhibit for the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles; the curriculum accompanying Martin Scorcese’s The Blues film series; and other projects with the Public Broadcasting System and the National Park Service. He is currently the editor of the Music/Interview series from Wesleyan University Press and serves on the editorial boards of American Music and Participations: the Journal of Audience Research.
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