This September, Sounding Out! challenged a #flawless group of scholars and critics to give Beyoncé Knowles-Carter a close listen, re-examining the complex relationship between her audio and visuals and amplifying what goes unheard, even as her every move–whether on MTV or in that damn elevator–faces intense scrutiny. Last week, Regina Bradley (writer, scholar, and freelance researcher of African American Life and Culture) introduced us to the sonic ratchetness of Baddie Bey; the week before you heard our Beyoncé roundtable podcast featuring our first two writers, Priscilla Peña Ovalle (English, University of Oregon) and Kevin Allred (Women and Gender Studies, Rutgers)–as well as Courtney Marshall (English, University of New Hampshire) and Liana Silva (Editor, Women in Higher Education, Managing Editor, Sounding Out!), who will close out our series next week. Today, madison moore gives us not only great face but killer hair choreo. Mic drop. Hair flip.–Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever
“Which Beyoncé are you trying to do?,” a sale associate at Beauty Full, the largest beauty supply house in Richmond, Virginia, asked me. It was a good question, because the shop had whole rows of wigs and ponytails that conjured Beyoncé enough for what I needed to do. Choosing just one would be tough.
“This one is very Beyoncé,” he said, pointing to a style reminiscent of the huge, teased out curly Afro Beyoncé worked in the early 2000s. I wasn’t really feeling this particular style but I could tell my sales guy was living it. “It’s not fierce enough!” I told him. “I need something that really moves!” I’d been invited to give an hour-long lecture on Beyoncé at a university, one of my first gigs, and I was out at the last minute shopping for a wig to wear during my talk so that I could give the children a little sip of Beyoncé. That’s when I saw it: a long, black and dark brown two-toned wig with curls for eternity that I knew would look great on stage. Come on, wig!
I wanted to wear a wig “that really moves!” during this talk to demonstrate what I feel is the creative genius of Beyoncé’s performance persona: what I call “hair choreography.” Not unlike dance moves intended for the body, “hair choreography” is a mode of performance that uses hair to add visual drama to the overall texture of sound and it’s the special genius of Beyoncé’s stagecraft. On one occasion some friends and I were drinking wine and downing live Beyoncé videos on YouTube when one of us was like “I am living for her hair choreography!” I’m not sure we invented the concept but the phrase “hair choreography” has certainly stuck with me. Hair choreography is one of the secret weapons of the pop diva, those places in a live performance where she flips and whips her hair in exactly the right point, using “haircrobatics” to punctuate a moment, a feeling, raising the stakes, the sex appeal, and even the energy in the audience.
Hair choreography is exciting because it tells a story, but even more than telling a good story in performance “hair choreography” punctuates everything else happening on stage: the lights, the dance moves, the glitter, the sequins, the music. In this way, “hair choreography” becomes part of the spectacular offering of stage presence; a type of magnetism that, despite everything else happening on stage, draws us into a single performer – the star – whose single energy needs fill up the whole space. “Hair choreography” occurs in those moments of a live performance where the hair is flipped, whipped, dipped, spun and amplified during the most exciting, emotion-filled sounds and dance moves.
Even though many scholars still often approach them as separate practices, sound and motion are so fluidly entangled, as Jennifer Stoever has revealed. In this way, “hair choreography” builds on performance studies scholar Imani Kai Johnson’s call for the “aural-kinesthetic.” The “aural-kinesthetic” is not a method or a theory but simply a way for scholars to think about how music and movement happen at the same time. “Hair choreography” is about the relationship between sound, body and movement, and how each of those comes together to leave a visceral impact on an audience.
One video that shows the importance of hair choreography to Beyoncé’s package is her medley “If I Were A Boy/You Oughta Know,” a mélange of the soft hard rock her own track coupled up with the aggressive rock of Alanis Morissette’s iconic break-up jam of the same title. In the clip, as Beyoncé segues from “If I Were A Boy” into “You Oughta Know” the wind machines appear to blow her hair faster, and with every emotional note or beat she knocks her head to the side with attitude, forcing her straight hair with it. By the time Beyoncé sings “And I’m here, to remind you…,” the most emotional (and recognizable) transition of the song, the hair is already going full blast. Guitars and drums go off while strobe lights engulf the stage in a frenzy of chaos.
At “You, you, you oughta know” she falls to her knees and performs a choreographed head bang while sliding across the floor using only her knees. It’s important to note here that the singing has stopped because this is a moment of “hair choreography,” a transition indicating an impending change in mood.
Everyone loves Beyoncé’s hair. In her will the late comedian Joan Rivers requested “a wind machine so that even in the casket my hair is blowing just like Beyoncé’s.” There are countless YouTube tutorials showing young girls how they too can achieve that Beyoncé look with weaves, wigs and lace fronts. Even the comedian Sommore, who stared in the 2001 film Queens of Comedy , had something to say about Beyoncé’s hair:
Beyoncé is a bad motherfucker. Oh this bitch bad. Let me tell ya’ll how bad this bitch is. I went to see her concert in Atlantic City after she had her baby. I sat in the second row – this bitch was flawless. I mean I’m talking about the bitch was flawless. Only problem I had with Beyoncé…she had on too much hair! This bitch came out she had at least 18 packs of hair on. She came out I thought the bitch was the cowardly lion from The Wiz. I’m sitting there in awe of this bitch neck, I’m like, “This bitch neck is strong as a motherfucker!”
All jokes aside, the mystery of Beyoncé’s hair-–and all of the technologies involved in keeping it moving–is part of the genius of her brand image, particularly because it works to make her ethnically ambiguous.. Having various types of hairstyles allows her creole body to infinitely play with race, and this makes her marketable to nearly everyone. Is she black? Is she Spanish? Is she biracial? Could she be Brazilian or from Latin America? Yes. In this way, her hair choreography not only punctuates her sound, but it shapes the very way it is heard, enabling her to morph into more personalities and fit into more demographics than even Lady Gaga or Madonna. It’s why she’s able to sound sexy or inspirational, “hood” or “classy,” vampy or masculine, vocal or dance-y. Look at a video like “XO,” to me the most mass-marketable song on BEYONCE. First of all she looks fabulous, but I think it’s hard to watch that video and not feel like it’s specifically pitched to 15-year-old white girls in Connecticut. Everything about the video, especially her sweeping hair flourishes, positions Beyoncé as relatable to teenage girls all over the US.
As dance studies scholar Melissa Blanco Borelli sees it the mulatta body engages with a practice she calls “Hip(g)nosis,” or a type of hypnosis enacted by the yellow-bodied performer on fascinated audiences. This type of hypnotics, via the hips, “exposes the male gaze” by thinking through the “pleasure and consumption of the mulatta…” (She Is Cuba, forthcoming, Oxford University Press). Through hip(g)nosis Beyoncé has learned to use her ambiguous skin color and hair optics to her (monetary) advantage as a way to slide in and out of ethnic categories. Indeed, what does the fact that she is the lightest member of Destiny’s Child and also the groups’ most successful member have to do with her celebrity? The irony in all of this race play is that she was recently awarded the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award after her jaw-dropping 15-minute performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, and she is one of the few contemporary black pop singers who can play with race in the same way Michael Jackson did.
When I watched her recent MTV VMA performance I screamed a lot during her show, but the one moment I remember specifically, and still keep rewinding back to, happened right at the end of “Mine,” to me the best track on BEYONCE. She vamps “MTV, Welcome to My World,” and quickly spins and flips that hair back around baby, giving face to the camera, making millions of queens all over America scream YAASSS!!! at the top of their lungs. Beyoncé herself nodded back to queer performance and performers during a performance of “XO” this year on February 28th 2014 at the O2 Arena in London, after one overzealous fan threw a wig at Beyoncé as she sauntered off the stage and into the crowd (3:17).
When she turned around to pick the wig up she ad libbed “You got me snatching wigs, snatching wigs” into her microphone, knowing perfectly well that “Beyoncé snatching wigs” is one of the most popular fan-created Internet memes. In black gay male performance culture people often talk about “snatching wigs” or “coming for your wig,” and to this end scholars like E. Patrick Johnson and Marlon Bailey have done important work in theorizing the interplay between black gay colloquialisms and performance. If you’re “snatching wigs” then you’re performing better than everybody else while completely eradicating the competition. You’re seemingly indefatigable. Snatching a wig means a particular performance was highly effective or unique, and a snatched wig implies how an audience might surrender itself to a strong performer, as was the case with the aforementioned wig thrower. Beyoncé definitely understands the power of stage presence; a type of magnetism that, despite everything else happening on stage, draws us into a single performer – the star – whose single energy needs fill up the whole space. Filling up an empty stage with a single body is a lot of space to fill if you think about it. And making an audience focus on you when there are 10,000 other things are happening around you is an even more challenging task.
But “snatching wigs” can also mean you’re revealing someone’s deepest secrets, something you know they’re hiding. What’s underneath a wig but a secret – your real hair texture, a bald spot you don’t want anyone else to know about. A snatched wig can mean a break of the illusion. When I wore that wig during my Beyoncé talk to demonstrate hair choreography everyone knew it was fake – I put it on in front of them – but if the wig came off the illusion would have been broken nonetheless.
Part of Beyoncé’s monumental fame has to do with the fact that while she synchronizes, punctuates, captivates, and performs, she never lets us see underneath her wig. She just lets it whip.
madison moore (Ph.D., American Studies, Yale University, 2012) is a research associate in the Department of English at King’s College London. Trained in performance studies and popular culture, madison is a DJ, writer and pop culture scholar with expertise in nightlife culture, fashion, queer studies, contemporary art and performance, alternative subcultures and urban aesthetics. He is a staff writer at Thought Catalog, Splice Today, and his other writing has appeared in Vice, Interview magazine, Art in America, Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture, the Journal of Popular Music Studies and Theater magazine. He is the author of the Thought Catalog original e-book How to Be Beyoncé. His first book, The Theory of the Fabulous Class, will be published by Yale University Press.
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Karaoke and Ventriloquism: Echoes and Divergences-Karen Tongson and Sarah Kessler
– Yvon Bonefant
“New Wave Saved My Life*”-Wanda Alarcon
After a rockin’ (and seriously informative) series of podcasts from Leonard J. Paul, a Drrty South banger dropped by SO! Regular Regina Bradley, a screamtastic meditation from Yvon Bonenfant, and a heaping plate of food sounds from Steph Ceraso, our summer Sound and Pleasure series gets even louder with Kariann Goldschmidt‘s work on live events in Brazil. Brasil Ao Vivo! --JS, Editor-in-Chief
Brazilians pray, cheer and celebrate in public and often in close physical proximity to each other. From the nearly 3 million people that flocked to Copacabana Beach to hear Pope Francis lead a mass in 2013 to the huge crowds that regularly turn out for concerts at Maracanã stadium, Brazilians earn their global reputation for large-scale public events. Of course there is Carnival in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador; the largest LGBT Pride Parade in the world held in São Paulo; and then there is football.
The relationship between large-scale public events and sound hit home as the country reacted to the national team’s humiliating loss to Germany in the semi-final round of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The world witnessed a different kind of public outpouring as the Brazilian public mourned. Within hours of the initial shock at the lopsided score, images of Brazilian football fans weeping and screaming in the stadium and on the street became a humorous meme with music and sound playing a prominent role. By the next day, most Brazilian football observers were taking pleasure in the public spectacle of weeping fans. With the abundance of images featuring hysteria, videos mocking the intensity of the crying went viral with dramatic musical scores. One observer proclaimed : “essa capacidade de rir de nós mesmos é uma das melhores qualidades”; the capacity to laugh at ourselves is one of our best qualities. That Brazilians express all varieties of emotions and annual passages together in public for everyone to witness, even when they border on campy excess, allow for everyone to feel the pleasures of community and the power of public performance.
All of this led me to believe that such a public culture has an effect on the aesthetics of what performance studies scholar Philip Auslander calls “liveness” in recorded music and related viral media. Auslander argues that the appeal of liveness for television broadcasts, concerts, and other stage performances allows audiences to feel the immediacy of the moment even if the presence of mediation, such as screens and on-air censorship, is obvious. The international spectacle of Brazilians emoting en masse, then, has a direct relationship with Brazilian sonic aesthetics. Nowhere, I argue, is this more prominent than in the (sometimes viral) popularity of live recordings.
That immediacy Auslander speaks of spreads to many aspects of Brazilian popular culture, including the popularity of concert DVDs and albums which are regularly listed among the most popular domestic recordings. In fact, concert records tend to be more popular than the studio albums that inspire the tour. These live albums often carry the designations Ao Vivo, live or MTV Acústico (the equivalent of the Unplugged albums popular in the United States), and they are often recorded in such a way so as to feature the interaction of the crowds. In place of the draw for authenticity (a value that permeates the MTV Unplugged recordings) is the love for community, and for experiencing big emotions together no matter how obviously they are mediated through cameras, microphones and other technology. Through the example of the continued popularity of live albums in Brazil, there is an opening for a different theorization for sounding liveness; in place of celebrating canonic performances and virtuosity, the valorization of liveness in Brazil reinforces the importance of crowds and the so-called “popular classes” at the root of the politicized singer-songwriter genre MPB or Música Popular Brasileira.
The pleasure and preference for live recordings also extends to social media. For meme chasers, a good example of this is Michel Teló’s 2011 hit “Ai Se Eu Te Pego.” The song and video were recorded ao vivo before a crowd dominated by young women. A close listen reveals that sounds of Teló’s female audience members are just as important as his voice even if his voice is only slightly louder in the mix. There is barely a moment in the recording when the audience stops making itself heard; the engineering revels in their presence. This is especially obvious during the opening seconds of the track when Teló and his audience sing “Nossa, nossa / assim você me mata / Ai, se eu te pego / Ai, ai, se eu te pego” [Wow, wow / you kill me like that / Ah, if I could get you / ah, ah, if I could get you] in unison at nearly the same volume in the mix. When the accordion and electric bass (crucial instruments for the song’s forró style) finally enter over the screaming audience, there is a noticeable break in the tension set up by the audience and Teló singing together. Their cries, like those in other live recordings, illustrate Teló’s appeal to the crowd in that moment while also allowing other listeners to imagine themselves there.
Teló’s song went viral (as of this writing, the official version currently has nearly 580 million views on YouTube and over 72 million plays on Spotify), with alternate video versions teaching the song’s dance steps and others highlighting global football stars dancing and singing along to the song. At one point Neymar, the national team’s biggest hope for World Cup victory, sang with Teló in front of a crowd. In general, Teló’s live songs easily outpace his studio recordings in terms of virality, and, I would argue, that a major part of the appeal of “Ai Se Eu Te Pego” is its provenance in a concert setting. It is just as important that the screaming throngs of women are audible as it is for those dance steps to be easy and recognizable. The liveness of the recording is so important, in fact, that the screaming audience appears as sampled snippets in the Pitbull remix. In its viral form, Teló’s song united the popularity of live spectacle with Brazil’s enthusiasm for other live events, merging concert goers with football fans.
The popularity of Teló’s live song is not an isolated incident. Look, for example, at record sales figures for all time. Two are live albums by artists who do not appear elsewhere on the list. Other albums that have sold more than 2 million copies in Brazil alone are by Roberto Carlos (Acústico MTV) and the teen pop/rock duo Sandy and Júnior (As Quatro Estações ao Vivo and Era Uma Vez… Ao Vivo). In 2011, five of the top ten albums in Brazil fit the ao vivo mode with little regard to genre: MPB stars Caetano Veloso and Maria Gadú are there alongside sertanejo artists Paula Fernandes and Luan Santana. In 2012, three of the top 20 best-sellers were live albums. Meanwhile, DVDs of concerts in Brazil continue to be strong sellers. Thus, the communal pleasure palpable on-screen translates to that experienced in the home.
Compare this with the status of live records in the United States in the last few years where they have rarely seen any chart success. If anything, liveness continues in YouTube clips and Spotify Sessions but not in physical sales and downloads. This is probably because live albums for U.S. based artists are embedded with different values having to do with the rock authenticity rather than communal pleasure. These performances demonstrate the chops of the musician and valorize the concerts (and tours) as events. The double live albums from the 1970s such as as Frampton Comes Alive, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s One More From The Road, and Kiss Alive! hold a prized place in the classic rock canon, often as much for extended guitar solos rather as the screaming throngs of fans. In the late ‘80s and early ’90s live albums, especially MTV Unplugged, re-inscribed a love of liveness through acoustic instruments and songs that reached back into the roots of American popular music. Eric Clapton’s Unplugged (1992) even topped the Billboard album charts and won 6 Grammy awards including Album of the Year while other records such as Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York and U2’s Rattle and Hum were multi-platinum hits. While there is the occasional top-40 live single, these songs are the exception to a genre of that has has moved liveness to YouTube rather than streaming and MP3 markets.
SO! contributor Osvaldo Oyola has noted there is a tension between the efforts recording engineers often go through to make studio recordings sound as immediate as possible, and those that call attention to the recording process. Live records replace the need to sound polished with the need to sound spontaneous, often reveling in mistakes and banter. That immediacy is something I enjoy when listening to live recordings and it has a parallel for many people who participate in the reception of major events in real time through social media.
In Brazil, audiences enjoy the immense power of participation in live events. As part of a larger work in progress I’m particularly fascinated by how this power and pleasure is mediated through the sonic experience of recordings and viral social media. Whether they are sharing tears over an international football loss or singing along to “Ai Se Eu Te Pego” Brazilians extend Auslander’s liveness by prolonging and replaying the immediacy of the crowds to experience that shared sonic moment, again and again.
Kariann Goldschmitt is a Visiting Lecturer in the Faculty of Music at University of Cambridge. Her scholarly work focuses on Brazilian music, modes of listening, and sonic branding in the global cultural industries. She has published in the Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies, Popular Music and Society, American Music, Yearbook for Traditional Music, and Luso-Brazilian Review and contributes to the South American cultural magazine, Sounds and Colours.
Featured image: Adapted from “Gloria” by Flickr user Lourenço Fabrino, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
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Sound-politics in São Paulo, Brazil– Leonardo Cardoso
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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