From the first time Phillip C. McGraw, Ph.D.—better known as “Dr. Phil”—appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1998, dropping lines like, “My dad used to say, boy, don’t let yer alligator mouth overload yer hummin’ bird ass,” I was hooked. That accent! That no-nonsense, Southern sauce! From what fount of otherworldly knowledge did Phil drink? An insecure teen, gnawing and thrashing my way through high school’s convoluted social milieu (not to mention the murky waters of multiraciality), Dr. Phil’s frank, accented approach to life’s difficulties appeared as a god-send. It didn’t matter much what Dr. Phil was actually saying or whether his words when strung together formed logical thoughts, it was more the way he said things that affected me so. His deep, sing-songy lilt—preachy and avuncular—brought to mind a grandpappy smoking a pipe, whose wisdom was drawn from a hard day’s farmin’, not a god-forsaken textbook.
With Oprah’s endorsement, the Cult of Phil grew fast and strong. Dr. Phil became a national figure–the corporate media’s version of a public intellectual and my own personal hero. His daytime talk show provided him with a regular platform from which to dispense more of that golden, “Texan-dipped” advice, as The New York Times put it. Selling over 2 million copies, his 2003 classic Self Matters began the onslaught of McGraw-family oeuvre, including several by his wife, Robin, and son, Jay–the face of Phil’s teen self-help brand. Not just a sage, Dr. Phil’s commitment to the McGraw family brand let us know he walked the walk. As evidenced by Dr. Phil’s opening credits, which feature behind-the-scenes glimpses of Mr. and Mrs. McGraw canoodling and his smiley next of kin, this family was for real. They loved and laughed together while cross-promoting each other’s book projects. Teenage Me wondered, did white people get better than this?
Today, Dr. Phil’s star, and my admiration for him, have faded significantly, but one thing remains the same. Ever since I can remember, my older sister and I have communicated almost exclusively via over-the-top, celebrity impersonations and Dr. Phil became a particular mainstay; even now, we religiously observe the maintenance of the Phil “voice.” Pre-Phil, I can recall my sister addressing me in a raspy, befuddled tone startlingly akin to the Keanu Reeves of yesteryear. Not soon after Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure became a permanent piece of our home VHS library, Reeves’ trademark method of delivering lines amidst staggered, nonsensical pauses became an obsessive, sisterly tick. “Dude, shut the door when you pee” she might say, staring blankly at me and cocking her head abruptly to the side.
The use of certain impersonations shifted with the ebb and flow of popular culture’s somewhat predictable tide, depending on whose video was “TRL’s” most requested or whose face most frequently graced the cover of TV Guide. I rehearsed George Herbert Walker Bush’s famous “thousand points of light” campaign ad in front of the stained glass mirror adjacent to the family room television; after that, it was all about Phil Hartman’s witty and endearing impersonation of Bill Clinton.
It went on that way until Dr. Phil’s shit blew up, and everything became solidified–as if, finally, my sister and I had found our one true voice. With age, I came to understand that Phil wasn’t the prophetic genius I’d hoped he was and that our compulsive Phil-talk was an oddity, to say the least. I began to wonder why, even as adults, we continued to embarrass ourselves in public and take such pains to text each other in mock-“Texan” (thank goodness for smart phones’ “add word” function).
It’s actually quite common for people to adopt alternate voices or speech patterns. Take, for example, child-directed speech (“babytalk”) or pet-directed speech. Both are customized forms of vocal communication or “prosodic modification,” which, while differing dramatically from normative adult speech in their intonation and grammatical structure, are considered customary forms of address. In fact, cross-linguistic studies show that babytalk and pet-directed speech are common across other European languages, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. As such, parents and pet owners can rest well knowing that prosodic modification of the child and dog varieties are nearly universal human ticks. Unfortunately, research into child- and pet-directed speech didn’t provide much insight into the unique phenomenon of “Phil-talk.” I had hoped to find other accounts in the literature, a history of similar episodes that might lift the shroud of tomfoolery, explain it away as all too common or evidence of psychological disorder x, y or z, something treatable with an esoteric name.
While at this point in my life Phil-talk is more or less an asinine charade, it continues to function as a key component of our familiar vernacular. Interestingly, when re-visiting the many impersonations that have come to define our adolescent years (the Keanu years, the Bush Sr. years, the Phil years), one thing becomes clear: all the voices we’ve adopted have been those of white, male, cultural standard-bearers (Ironically, Keanu Reeves also happens to be Hapa, though I never knew as much. His breakout role as “Ted” helped to popularize the “California dude” archetype). Additionally, I should note, that at no time did any female impersonations enter my repertoire. If you’re going to gain a voice, better make it a male one, no? The racial and gender dissonance that Phil-talk begets drives the urge to perform it.
From an early age, my mother would tell me tales of her sacrifice—how hard she worked when she came to this country and how difficult life could be in 1960s post-war South Korea—all in a voice with barely a shred of mispronunciation or foreign intonation. My father, a second-generation Swiss-Italian American, scrupulously corrected her syntactical missteps and any other vocal nuances that sounded un-American. It was important to my mother to succeed as an American, and most importantly, that her children succeed too. The pressure I felt to make her content was borderline unbearable. When I started doing the voices, it made my mother happy. She sometimes tried joining in, attempting to mimic key Phil phrases like, “You have gawt to get reee-al,” but to no avail. “You do it better than me,” she’d say, “…my accent.”
When I was young, people looked at me and asked, “what are you?” OR “where are you from?” “America,” I would say. “I’m an American.” These questions were provoked by the racial ambiguity of my mixed-race heritage–the hint of Asianness that marked me as something else. I could not change the shape of my eyes, the contour of my cheeks or the fact that my mother was Korean. But, I could try my hardest to act and sound like an American. Phil-talk became a way to obscure the Asianness, to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I did, in fact, belong.
Rather than being merely a childhood performance of celebrity impersonations, I have come to think these various chapters were actually an attempt to perform sonic whiteness. Whether it was Keanu’s California dude cadence, George Bush Senior’s waspy nasality, or Phil’s prolonged Texan twang, I tried to perform in what Aja Martinez defines as “white voice” in her article “‘The American Way': Resisting the Empire of Force and Color-Blind Racism” (593). She talks about Latino/a students using a “white voice” at school because they equate it with the voice of higher education, but I am really using it here as an explicit racial performance. As a a half Korean, half Euro-American teen girl (now woman) who decides to very literally adopt the voice of a White, 50-something, Texan, TV psychologist, “white voice” was the name of the game, and people loved it–especially my Korean immigrant mother.
For Asian Americans in particular, a people whose national belonging has been culturally questioned and legally denied, accents substantiate and make audible what the eye sees as un-American. In Shilpa Dave’s recently published Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film, she explores accents as they relate to cultural citizenship, national belonging and “the allocation of power.” Someone with an accent is “designated as an outsider to the dominant culture,” writes Dave. In contradistinction to “foreign” sounding accents, Southern accents are a classic symbol of American cultural belonging, like apple pie for the ears.
Would Phil’s wisdom sound as powerful or palatable without the accent? His appeal stems not only from his sometimes entertaining “Phil-isms” (e.g. “You can’t hide the sunrise from a rooster”), but from all that he and his voice signify. A white, male doctor giving advice on TV is hardly noteworthy, but Phil’s recognizably Southern accent separates him from the pack and softens the blow of his often severe advice.Phil’s accent (and his ringing endorsement from Oprah, long a trendsetter for the white middle class) have a way of diminishing racial and class barriers and cleverly marketing his advice as “good ol’ common sense” that everyone can get behind. Though Southern African American vernacular is often represented, negatively, as “improper” or evidence of inferior educational attainment, a White doctor using many of the same linguistic nuances is considered “charming” and “folksy.” One of the reasons people listen(ed) to Phil is because he’s a good, moustachioed Southern doctor that’s gunna tell it to ya straight, ya’ll. This kind of cultural capital is hard to manufacture. This, I figured wrongly, was what I stood to gain, not considering for a moment all that might be lost.
Constantly searching for ways to be seen, heard, and accepted within an American system of racial binarism that privileges whiteness, denigrates blackness, and locates yellowness somewhere in a No Man’s Land of racial categorization, sound’s flexibility has always seemed to me like a means to belonging. Furthermore, as a multiracial, Korean/White woman, even no man’s land can seem out of reach. As Michael Omi notes in the Introduction to The Sum of Our Parts: Mixed-Heritage Asian Americans, within the historical and political context of the United States, (the “one-drop rule,” eugenic fears of racial intermixing, anti-miscegenation laws, etc.) multiracial identities have consistently been “contained, disregarded, [and] denied.” Multiraciality disorients and confuses insofar as it can discredit entrenched signifiers which make race perceptible to the eye and ear.
Previously on Sounding Out!, I discussed my identification with Nas and the rap world as both a move towards color and the formation of an authentic, multiracial self. A move in the opposite direction, experimenting with “white voice,” functions as another attempt to navigate America’s system of racial identification, albeit in a much more problematic vein. After years of Phil-talk and vocal impersonations of the white male variety, I am finally putting a stop to the charade. However earnest (or subconscious) an attempt to belong, the loss of time spent mimicking Phil represents an era of racial silencing that is somewhat difficult to stomach. Despite the amusement it has brought to friends and family, I am putting the voice to rest in service of getting real.
Featured image: “Dr. Phil” by Flickr user House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democrats, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Christie Zwahlen is the Assistant Director at Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement, where she has worked for four years to develop, expand and promote community engagement opportunities for students, faculty and staff. Previously, Christie worked for two years as an AmeriCorps VISTA, designing Service-Learning courses in conjunction with faculty at Thiel College and as the Coordinator of the Bridging the Digital Divide Program at Binghamton University. Christie earned her Master’s Degree in English and a Graduate Certificate in Asian & Asian American Studies from Binghamton University in 2009. She is currently enrolled in the English PhD program at Binghamton University.
“It’s a city, not a cemetery. You can’t tell everybody to go around wearing earplugs.”
In 1905, a New York Times article declared New York City “the noisiest city on Earth.” More than a century later—this summer, to be exact—The New York Times ran a series on noise in New York City titled “What? The Long War on Loud” that proved that this city is still trying to figure out its relationship to sound. (One of the gems of that series? “New York’s War on Noise” timeline.) As a displaced New Yorker, some of my most vivid memories of the city are aural. Although New York City isn’t the only loud city out there, there are many reasons it’s called “The City That Never Sleeps”—and sound has a lot to do with it, depending on which neighborhood you call home.
Now you can see what neighborhoods are allegedly noisiest, and where all that noise comes from. Brooklyn designer Karl Sluis created the 2012 Manhattan Noise Complaints maps (click for full image), in which Sluis correlated the data on 311 noise complaints made during the year 2012 (40, 412 complaints, to be exact) that he obtained from the NYC Open Source site with Manhattan’s geographical coordinates. He used circles of various sizes to a) create an aural tracing of the island of Manhattan, sitting in a sea of turquoise blue b) showcase the number of complaints in an area. The bigger the circle, the larger the number of complaints.
The maps Sluis has created are helpful for visualizing the complaints on a broad scale, but they paint an incomplete picture of what noise means in New York City. The demographics of each neighborhood are absent from each map, a slight that can perhaps be traced to the 311 data available, but in order to better understand how New Yorkers define “noise” those stats must be included. Both Sluis and John Metcalfe from The Atlantic Cities discuss notable findings, but neither takes into account the fact that some of the areas with a higher concentration of noise complaints are not just densely populated but densely populated with racial and ethnic minorities. Indeed, comparing the maps’ noisy hotspots to a map of Manhattan racial demographics reveal how urban racial dynamics intersect with ideas about sound and power: who can make sound, who must be chastised for making noise, who can complain and whose complaints are actually being heard.
Mapping noise complaints gives a spatial dimension to noise, and it renders noise palpable, in a way. Sluis points out, “Noise complaints reveal the concentration of activity in the city as well as many smaller stories, such as the construction of the Second Avenue subway line, idling buses on the Upper East Side, and the homes of the loudest dogs (or the least patient neighbors).” He reminds us that the data comes from complaints and not necessarily decibels; in other words, it represents local ideas of what counts as sound and what counts as noise.
While Metcalfe correctly describes the thousands of 311 complaints about noise from 2012 as “the entire year’s expression of mass annoyance,” Sluis’s map does not go far enough toward figuring out whose annoyance, exactly. We must remember that annoyance oftentimes stems not just from physical reactions to noise but rather one’s perceptions about noise, what Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman deems “the listening ear.” How we hear others, Stoever-Ackerman argues, is not as natural as it seems. For example, whom we deem as noisy may stem from our community, our parents, and/or social conditioning. Accounting for race/ethnicity in noise maps will show how the listening ear conditions neighbors to categorize and react to certain sounds.
For the purpose of this analytic exercise, I compared Sluis’s maps and the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center’s 2010 map of block-by-block demographic changes in New York City, in order to illustrate how population density and racial/ethnic demographics play a role in concentrated pockets of noise complaints. Drawn from 2010 census data, the CUNY map clearly delineates neighborhoods and color-codes the groups in each neighborhood per block: blue for whites, green for Latino, orange for black, purple for Asian, and grey for “Other.” Although the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center’s maps cannot be superimposed on Sluis’s maps, they help give a general idea as to where neighborhoods are located in addition to racial demographics.
From the maps illustrating changing race/ethnicity patterns, I gathered what neighborhoods were predominantly white (West Village, Lincoln Square, Yorkville, Upper West Side), predominantly Latino (Washington Heights, East Harlem) predominantly black (Central Harlem, parts of Hamilton Heights), and predominantly Asian (Chinatown, blocks of the Lower East Side). When one compares Sluis’s overall noise map of Manhattan to the racial demographic maps of Manhattan, what stands out is that the major circles of noise complaints are also places where there are different racial and ethnic groups mingling (for example, Times Square) or places that are populated by mostly minorities (Hamilton Heights). Whereas Sluis flattens out the noise complaints, demographic stats point to the racial/ethnic contours of each neighborhood. Sluis’s maps focus on number of complaints; unfortunately this assumes everyone complaining is the same and that everyone making the noise is the same—a level aural playing field if you will. Bringing demographics into the equation underscores how not all complainers are equal and how not all complaints carry the same heft.
The city may be noisy, but “noisy” is relative. Sluis’s map shows some predictably noisy areas for those of us familiar with Manhattan’s soundscape (Union Square, Times Square) but it also draws attention to other areas not as predictable in the mainstream imagination (East Harlem South, Hamilton Heights). However, the maps by the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center help us better understand the context for the high or low number of complaints in certain areas. For example, one of the biggest circles on Sluis’s general map of Manhattan is located in the Hamilton Heights/Washington Heights area; the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center’s map of Manhattan above 110th Street show that these areas are densely populated by blacks and Latinos/as. This is key information because it reminds viewers that this neighborhood is a lot more ethnically diverse than other neighborhoods with a smaller number of complaints. It brings to mind: what role does race play in these complaints, in terms of those who complain and those who are the focus of the complaints? Although more people might mean more complaints, the prevalence of complaints like “loud talk” in East Harlem (Spanish Harlem) are nevertheless connected racialized ideas about people of color being “loud.” This doesn’t assume that the people complaining are white, but that they are complaining about groups that are characterized as loud, noisy, rowdy.
These noise maps, when put into conversation with demographic data, also indicate what areas are priorities in urban planning—the sounds of gentrification. The visualizations of the complaints by section (under the main map), combined with CUNY’s maps, are even more telling because they break down the number of complaints by category. The aforementioned northern tip of Manhattan, for example, is also where many of the complaints are concentrated. At a glance, loud parties, loud people, and loud car stereos seem to be the major complaints in those areas, according to Sluis’s visualizations. Meanwhile, noises of “urban growth,” such as construction and jackhammers, are less prevalent in these areas, whereas they are more prevalent below Central Park North, in now mostly-white neighborhoods.
Sluis’s maps of the 311 noise complaints data allow readers to see differences in terms of neighborhoods: who complains the most? what do they complain about? However, one thing to keep in mind is that first question: who makes the complaints. This is where the data falls short. Can it be assumed that those who are calling about the noise are mostly people who live in the neighborhood? Are Upper Manhattan neighbors less or more tolerant of noise? The answers to these questions, although they’re not found in Sluis’s map, point to how ideas of who is noisy or who can make noise are at play here.
I do not mean to downplay the usefulness of Sluis’s map. I instead call for the necessary addition of key missing factors to future noise maps in order to give us a more complex picture of noise complaints in Manhattan and elsewhere. Although it may not be possible to gather who the 311 callers are, including factors such as race and class may lead to very different noise maps. For example, what would a noise map of Manhattan look like if researchers brought income into the equation? Income inequality, especially in Manhattan where that imbalance is starkly on display, matters for the purpose of sound mapping. The more affluent neighborhoods are also the ones with less complaints and are the ones that are mostly inhabited by whites. Wealthier communities are more spread out and have more ability to couch themselves from noise, not to mention that it probably takes fewer complaints to get a response.
Gentrification is another factor: what kind of analysis could we do if we considered what neighborhoods have been gentrified in the past ten years? It is possible that as whites move into neighborhoods where people of color have historically lived, suddenly they find them noisy—hence, complaints. It is fitting to consider, for example, the tension between an established group of drummers in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem and the inhabitants of a new highrise (characterized as “young white professionals”) who wanted the 30-years and running drum circle shut down, as reported in The New York Times in 2008. Moreover, if we accounted for the history of zoning in the neighborhoods that have the most or the least complaints it would add another layer of analysis to the data. Are some of these neighborhoods used as entertainment zones, for example? Is it easier to open up bars there than elsewhere in the city?
With these questions in mind, the maps go from beautiful renditions of data, to opening up a bigger conversation about the arbitrariness of noise. The demographical and sociological context of these noise complaints must accompany the raw data, especially when it comes to sound. The analysis also points to the source of the data: 311 calls. I wonder if this is the only way that people in Manhattan (and New York City at large) are dealing with noise. I’m sure that after a century of being “the noisiest city on Earth,” folks have gotten creative about it.
Featured image: ” Stranger 10/100 Johano” by Flickr user MichaelTapp, CC BY-ND 2.0
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
The Noise You Make Should Be Your Own–Scott Poulson-Bryant
Sounding Out! Podcast #20: The Sound of Rio’s Favelas: Echoes of Social Inequality in an Olympic City
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Join Andrea Medrado for a sound tour of Rio as she explores the nooks and crannies of the city’s favelas. Lingering ominously above the narrative is the sense of competition and gentrification which the Olympics will bring to the city itself. As the rivalry of sport comes to town, this podcast focuses on the many ways that the contours of sound have been engineered by the city to further isolate and pacify the city’s poorer residents. But, even as the Olympics churn sonic borders, Medrado keeps a keen ear to ground and points out moments of resistance, hope, and enchantment in the ‘marvelous city.’
Featuring: Andrea Medrado, Maria dos Camelôs, Maurício Hora, Renata Souza
Dr. Andrea Medrado is a Lecturer at the Media School of Bournemouth University in the UK. She has an extensive academic background in media studies as well as professional experience in advertising as a creative writer. Andrea is also an experienced ethnographer. Her current research delves into issues of social exclusion, analyzing the ways in which the favelas (slums or shanty towns) are featured in the “promotion” of Rio as an Olympic city to a global audience. One of the key questions is: how are the favelas making themselves heard during the preparations for the mega events through the sounds that the residents produce? Her doctoral thesis (University of Westminster, 2010) was an ethnographic study about the practices of daily listening in a Brazilian favela. Outside of academia, she has worked as a creative writer in both advertising agencies and a number of political campaigns in Brazil. Her research interests include auditory culture and sound studies, alternative and community media, political communications, and media ethnography. You can contact her at email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org.