The family in A Quiet Place (2018) lives a life marked by incessant trauma. Invisible to the hunters who are far more powerful than they are, the family remains safe from direct assault as long as they remain unheard by the hunters, who can’t see them. But that same invisibility means the everyday mundanities of life become a constant struggle marked by the terror of the horrific death that will claim them should they make an errant sound. A trip to the pharmacy could prove fatal; a hungry child could summon the hunters and put in danger the entire family. When sketched out in these broad strokes, A Quiet Place, as Kathryn Adams Burton pointed out to me when we left the theater, summons terror from its viewers by depicting the kind of institutional surveillance and violence that endanger Black lives in the US, without one person of color in the entire movie. Thinking with Simone Browne’s Dark Matters (2015), Jennifer Stoever’s The Sonic Color Line (2016), and Jared Sexton’s Amalgamation Schemes (2008), I argue here that A Quiet Place places white characters in a non-white relationship with surveillance, which they overcome in a way that projects white ingenuity and strength and reinforces the centuries-old notion that those who live under the eye and ear of hyper-surveillance tactics do so because they deserve to and because they are not exceptional enough to evade those tactics.
The Quiet family’s invisibility is literal: the creatures who hunt them have no sense equivalent to human vision and instead track their prey using hyper-developed listening abilities. They remain vigilant for the audible traces of their victims; sound is the thing that can put the family in trouble. Simone Browne highlights in Dark Matters the significance of visibility and invisibility in the history of antiblack surveillance in the US. Lantern laws in 18th century New York City stipulated that enslaved black and indigenous people must carry a lit lantern if they were in the streets after dark, a regulation that Browne understands as an act of “racializing surveillance,” a “form of knowledge production about the black, indigenous, and mixed-race subject” (79). Specifically, the knowledge created through the lantern laws marked bodies of color as “un-visible,” in need of illumination in order to be properly seen. And here “seen” slips into a couple of different meanings, encompassing not only the ocular but also the notion of “seeing” that connotes understanding and discernment.
The early technology of lantern surveillance, as well as the boundaries delineated by sundown towns, marked black, indigenous, and mixed-race bodies as untrustworthy, scheming, and therefore in need of ongoing surveillance that would make these bodies visible to the eye. At the heart of Dark Matters is Browne’s contention that the history and techniques of surveillance cannot be understood separate from their racializing work: “surveillance…is the fact of antiblackness” (10). So while the Quiet family is white, their relationship to the powerful beings that hunt them–an existence unseeable and unknowable apart from heightened measures of surveillance–appropriates signifiers of racialized surveillance in order to heighten the stakes of the movie’s characters.
While Browne focuses primarily on acts of looking as mechanisms for violently enforcing the color line in Dark Matters, Jennifer Stoever traces the history of that same color line through listening practices. Stoever isn’t explicitly engaging surveillance studies the way Browne is, but her theorization of the “listening ear”–the social and political norms that shape how we hear race–includes surveillance acts that, like lantern laws, mark voices perceived to be non-white as always already ready to be monitored, bounded, and eliminated should they exceed their boundaries (13). For both Browne and Stoever, the act of surveilling uncovers a racializing sleight of hand: non-Whiteness is held up as that which stands out, though this racialization is proven backwards if we look and listen a bit closer. US looking and listening norms condition people to organize blackness and brownness and noise as aberrations against natural, invisible, inaudible whiteness, but it takes a good deal of white supremacist work to create this illusion (by “white supremacy,” I mean the social and political practices and institutions that reify and reward whiteness). Looking through brighter lights and sharper camera lenses at non-White subjects and listening through amplification devices and ubiquitous bugs to non-White subjects are both ways of drawing attention away from whiteness–the racialized construct that fuels US social, legal, and political praxis–and toward non-whiteness.
Stoever opens The Sonic Color Line by considering the violence visited upon Jordan Davis, Sandra Bland, and a Spring Valley High School student when each was considered too loud and unruly by white listening ears trained to surveil blackness. The Quiet family is listened to in the same way Davis, Bland, and the Spring Valley student were, in the same way non-whiteness has been surveilled in the US: with dire consequences for being too loud. But, by erasing black and brown bodies and histories from the screen, A Quiet Place divorces these surveillance tactics from their real-world context, where they work as tools of white supremacist systems to “fix and frame blackness as an object of surveillance” (Browne 7). Part of the fantasy of A Quiet Place involves “fixing and framing” whiteness as the objects of sonic surveillance practices that have historically worked to preserve and reward whiteness, not target it.
While the Quiet family is subjected to antiblack surveillance techniques, they are otherwise marked as white–and not just based on what their skin color looks like. Farmers in a rural, hilly region of Upstate New York, the Quiet family navigates the apocalypse with a libertarian aplomb. They’re stocked and loaded when the government fails to protect its citizens, and they’re also aware of but not in collaboration with other survivors in the surrounding area. Operating outside the bustle of urban noise, which Stoever notes is marked as non-White by the listening ear, the Quiet family likely boasts generations of working class whites who benefited from the kind of social safety nets built by the New Deal, only to mistake the wealth those social programs built to be fully the fruits of their own hard work.
The independence and autonomy that the Quiet family demonstrates is not on its own a marker of whiteness, but the kind of wealth accumulation that makes non-collaborative survival possible is the kind that’s historically been more readily available to white folks in the US. It’s a history that is flattened, as is the history of the surveillance that shapes their lives. Their wealth simply exists, and viewers aren’t meant to wonder where it came from or at whose expense. Likewise, viewers learn very little about what the hunters are, where they came from, and why they’re here. The hunters just appear, terrifying sonic surveillers who carry signifiers of antiblack listening practices but who remain detached from the antiblack history of surveillance.
The racialized terror at the heart of A Quiet Place grows from the fear of being denied one’s whiteness, being subjected to the same controlling surveillance measures that have helped maintain the color line for centuries in the US. It’s a standard white sci-fi nightmare scenario where technologies spin out of control and subjugate all of humanity, white people included. It’s also a white exceptionalist fantasy, where whiteness–not just white people but the wealth and freedom created for white people by white supremacist systems–conquers the unconquerable. Jared Sexton’s Amalgamation Schemes can prove helpful here, as he outlines the way racial ideology has shifted in recent decades to permit multiculturalism so long as it preserves whiteness. While systems like slavery and segregation were buttressed by explicit white supremacy, where whiteness = good and non-whiteness = bad, contemporary racial hierarchies are maintained by conceding that multiculturalism = virtuous and race-based solidarity = problematic. Here, white supremacy cloaks itself in diversity, hybridity, mixedness and points to any group that coheres around racial identity as regressive.
Flattening history is crucial to that ideological shift. In order to maintain a racial hierarchy that tips in favor of whiteness, past violence and kleptocratic seizures of money, resources, and lives must be removed from the equation so that the kind of multiculturalism that Sexton critiques can proceed as if all who participate do so on a level playing field. Whiteness becomes “something equivalent to the…ethnicities and cultures of nonwhite immigrants and American Indians” (Sexton 66). The field, of course, isn’t level when white supremacy has funneled centuries of ill-gotten gains to whiteness, so this kind of multiculturalism is a way of gaming the system, mixing up racial signifiers so that white folks can take on just enough racial signifiers to blend into a racially diverse society without giving up the power and privilege that continues to give them a leg up.
A Quiet Place follows a calculus similar to the multiculturalism Sexton describes. First, the movie extracts emotional responses of terror and dread through a mixture of racial signifiers, subjecting white characters to forms of surveillance rooted in antiblackness. With no historical context to explain the forms of surveillance the hunters use or the characters’ previous relationships to surveillance, the Quiet family’s whiteness becomes just another ethnicity, a flattened way of being in the world divorced from the white supremacist context that funnels resources their way. Their privilege and power become as invisible to viewers as they are to the hunters. By masking that privilege, A Quiet Place clears space for a fantasy world where the white heroes have survived by virtue of being simply more clever, more resourceful, more brave, more everything than all the black and brown people who have, by implication of their absence from the film, been killed off by the hunters.
A Quiet Place, then, takes a family of multiculturally white characters and positions them in roles white characters have become accustomed to occupying: that of world saviors–some of them even martyrs. Here, hyper-surveillance is simply a fact of life, and those who are able to live life free of the dire consequences of that hyper-surveillance are able to do so because they are exceptional. By this logic, what protects you from the police is either your innocence or your guile, not your whiteness. What guarantees your safety when you publicly challenge government policies is the righteousness of your cause, not your whiteness. What allows you to move in the dark without a lantern or to listen to your music loudly in public spaces without being shot or to cross borders without fear is your inherent virtue, not your whiteness. And when surveillance is positioned as a fact of life, and when those who avoid the crushing consequences of surveillance are understood to do so because they are virtuously exceptional, then those who are targeted, hunted, and killed using hyper-surveillance tactics are understood to be deserving of their fate because they are not virtuous or exceptional enough to avoid it. This is the logic that frames slavery as a choice, that cages children at the border, that influences and fixes elections across the globe but takes umbrage when subjected to the same tactics.
One terrible irony of a movie like A Quiet Place is that its flattened hyper-surveillance context makes it incapable of seeing and hearing the deep and rich history of black and brown evasion of hyper-surveillance. There’s an ingenuity coursing through activities of evading surveillance–“looking back,” marronage, and fugitivity chronicled by writers including Sylvia Wynter, Franz Fanon, Katherine McKittrick, and Simone Browne, among others–an ingenuity that evades hyper-surveillance and simultaneously exposes hyper-surveillance as antiblack while arguing against the notion that it is simply a fact of life and signalling avenues to freedom. Instead of those stories, though, the white Quiet family whispers to us a familiarly unsettling refrain: the white Quiet family, alone, can eradicate these terrors. The white Quiet family, alone, can fix this. The white Quiet family, alone, are exceptional.
Featured image, and all images in this post are screenshots from “A Quiet Place ALL TRAILERS – Emily Blunt & John Krasinski 2018 Horror Movie” by Youtube user Flicks And The City Clips.
Justin Adams Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his book, Posthuman Rap, is available now. He is also co-editing the forthcoming (2018) Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies. You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @j_adams_burton. His favorite rapper is one or two of the Fat Boys.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Teach Me How To Dougie Like A Mediocre White Man–Justin Burton
Resounding Silence and Soundless Surveillance, From TMZ Elevator to Beyoncé and Back Again–Priscilla Peña Ovalle
Quiet on the Set?: The Artist and the Sound of a Silent Resurgence– April Miller
Note: all translations of quotations from linked media are the author’s own.
In early March, viewers of the Argentine public television cooking show Cocineros Argentinos were treated to a jaunty bit of live interstitial music as the program returned from a commercial break. In keeping with the day’s Italian theme, a small band consisting of an accordion, violin, and sousaphone played a lively but simple minor-key melody in a brisk tarantella rhythm. “Those boys can play anything,” one of the hosts remarked approvingly. The other observed, “It’s the hit of the summer!”
These sixteen seconds of seemingly innocuous instrumental music on a government-sponsored television program sparked a minor firestorm in the Argentine press. One channel wondered whether they were deliberately “picking a fight with [President] Mauricio Macri,” while another categorized the musical selection as “polemic.” Social media voices in support of the embattled president called for Cocineros Argentinos to be cancelled. Ultimately, the program’s directors apologized to the public for having “bothered or disrespected” their viewers with “ingredients that do not belong in the kitchen.”
How could a bit of instrumental, pseudo-Italian kitsch cause such an uproar? Understanding the offense – for the musical selection was indeed intended as an obscene insult to the nation’s president – requires a bit of a dive into the history and culture of Argentine politics, protest, and sports fandom. The “hit of the summer” of 2018 in Argentina is not a pop song, but a chant that started in a soccer stadium, and has become a viral sonic meme, multiplying across social media and fragmenting into countless musical iterations. By early March, listeners in Argentina heard a clear meaning in this melodic sequence, and no singer was necessary to hear the words it invoked: Mauricio Macri, you son of a whore.
The melody comes originally from a source that expresses quite a different political sentiment. In 1973, after eighteen years of forced exile, ousted populist president Juan Domingo Perón was allowed to return to Argentina, and was shortly thereafter re-elected president. Perón died in office ten months later and was succeeded by his vice president and third wife Isabelita. Isabelita’s reign would soon devolve into an infamously brutal military junta, but in 1973 populist national fervor was running high in the country, and the airwaves were full of catchy, simple patriotic marches:
“Es tiempo de alegrarnos” (“It is time for us to be happy”), by Raúl “Shériko” Fernandez Guzmán, is full of optimism for what Perón’s return means for the country. The second stanza celebrates: “I see that my people returns once more to laughter / It’s that my country has begun to live again / Pain and sadness are left behind / The days of happiness and bliss have returned.”
It’s a sentiment that would be difficult to find today in a country where political discourse is polarized and acrimonious. Macri was elected in November 2015 on a platform that was largely about undoing the policies of the decade of Peronist administrations that preceded him (his party itself is called “Cambiemos” [Let’s Change]). Since coming to power, Macri’s party has pursued a neoliberal agenda that has been increasingly unpopular with the working and middle class. Cuts to state subsidies have made the cost of utilities and mass transit skyrocket, and groups from truck drivers to teachers have organized large-scale protests in response to the austerity measures and budget cuts to the public sector. In response to these increasingly fervent protests, Macri has even authorized violent police repression of crowds. In short, as of the beginning of 2018, he’s politically embattled and a target of widespread criticism from a wide range of sectors.
Yet the “hit of the summer” is not merely an ironic repurposing of an old bit of patriotic musical fluff in a time of unrest. In fact, as the phenomenon first went viral, most Argentines were unware of the music’s original source, which had been a fleeting fad. Instead, the melody had lived on and been transformed through the great repository of popular musical memory that is Argentine soccer culture.
Soccer fandom in Argentina is a full-throated affair. As Kariann Goldschmitt has observed in the case of Brazil, the soundscape of mass gatherings in the soccer stadium, and the affective charge of crowds experiencing the collective pain of loss or the exultation of victory, is a fundamental ingredient of popular identity in Argentina. But it is not the commercial, mediatized end of what Goldschmitt calls the “sports-industrial complex” that is primarily influential here.
Rather, hinchadas, or fan clubs, pride themselves on being able to sing loudly throughout the match, arms extending in unison, typically accompanied by bombos (bass drums), trumpets, and other loud instruments. Fan clubs pride themselves on the variety and creativity of their cantitos – the ‘little songs” that repurpose popular melodies with new lyrics that praise their own side, and insult their opponents’ lack of fortitude. Any memorable melody is fair game: for example, fans of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” might have found the cantito that Argentina embraced during the 2014 World Cup vaguely familiar. In the decades since its release, “Es tiempo de alegrarnos” had been used periodically by the clubs of several teams, in variants whose unifying factor was the use of the obscenity “la puta que te parió” (literally, “the whore that birthed you”) for emphasis.
It was San Lorenzo’s fans who gave the cantito a new life in politics, during a match against Boca Juniors. The connection between Boca and President Macri was obvious for fans of both teams; Macri began his political career as the president of that team. When San Lorenzo fans felt they had been the victim of biased refereeing, the song began: “Mauricio Macri, la puta que te parió…”. All four phrases of the melody repeated the same words.
Unusually for a soccer cantito, the chant was soon picked up by the fans of another team, River Plate, who used it in similar circumstances when facing Macri’s Boca Juniors, their archrivals. Even more unusual, though, is the life that the chant has since taken on outside of the soccer stadium, where it is directed at the President not due to his association with his former club, but because of growing discontent with his political career. In the last weeks of February the cantito, now popularly known by its initials as “MMLPQTP” was heard in concert halls, basketball stadiums, and even in a crowded subway station (where, despite fare prices that have risen at eight times the rate of inflation, service remains irregular and delays are common). Journalists covering the phenomenon began to refer to it as “el hit del verano,” or “the hit of the summer.”
Using the English-language “hit” made clear that the allusion was not merely to the season (February is, of course, summer in the southern hemisphere, and a popular vacation time for Argentines) but to the seasonal nature of pop music consumption. The popular music critic’s thinkpiece seeking to define the essence of the summer song, celebrate it or lament its banality is almost as much of a trope as the phenomenon of the hit summer song itself. The sonic zeitgeist of summer 2018, these journalists suggested, could best be defined not with a breezy club banger, but with the hoarse and irate voices of a nation embroiled in an economic crisis that would make idle days at the beach unthinkable for many of its citizens.
There were attempts to curtail the spread of MMLPTQTP: the national referee’s association debated suspending future soccer matches if the chant broke out, characterizing it as potentially “discriminatory” speech (some cantitos do traffic in racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic epithets, and referees have suspended games in the past to control them). In the end, no such suspensions occurred, perhaps because soccer fans and other musicians alike had already realized that the MMLPQTP chant had re-signified its melody so strongly that the lyrics were no longer necessary. One political cartoonist pointed out the referees’ conundrum perfectly: “They’re not singing the lyrics, sir, just humming the music,” the referee observes, asking, “should I suspend [the game] anyway?” Faced with the specter of censorship, Argentines embraced the full expressive potential of non-linguistic sonic signifiers, and the democratic possibilities of virally distributed, user-created content. A sonic meme was born.
The term “meme” was coined by Richard Dawkins, who used it to mean a basic unit of information analogous to a gene, only for information or ideas. I use the term here, though, in keeping with the more contemporary popular usage, to refer to user-generated humorous content – generally captioned images — shared online. Meme sharing sites often provide templates to help users easily generate variations on a theme. In this case, the structural template was a melody and two simple chords (which musicians helpfully transcribed and shared, both in standard Western notation and instructional video formats).
Musicians of all backgrounds flocked to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to riff on MMLPQTP. In a catalog too long to list in its entirety here, a greatest hits compilation might include solo versions for piano and charango, covers in popular genres from blues to cumbia to metal. Argentines with a strong sense of national identity might prefer tango, but Brazilian-style Carnival samba also made an appearance (playfully invoking the possibility of censorship with Spanish “subtitles” that replace the offending phrase with “la la la”). And thus finally, scandalously, the hit song made its way to national television on a cooking show, where despite its transformation into an Italian-style instrumental ditty, the sting of its insulting words was still clearly heard.
The viral success of instrumental versions of MMLPTQP is a prime example what ethnomusicologist Anne Rasmussen has recently called “the politicization of melody.” In music’s potential to comprise and thus link simultaneous linguistic and non-linguistic codes lies its ability to render those linguistic codes superfluous. These linkages provide the potential to signify political messages through melody alone, opening up possibilities for protest that are more difficult to prevent through legal means (broadcasters’ obscenity clauses, for example), or easier to circumvent through technological means (amplified instruments). It would be easy to overstate the durability or pervasiveness of such linkages, however. One need only look back to that same melody’s entirely differently politicized origin, which is today largely forgotten or seen as a curiosity, to imagine that the linkage between the melody to “Es tiempo de alegrarnos” and its current manifestation of partisan abuse might one day fade from popular memory like the one-hit wonders of summers past.
Featured Image: Screencapture from “Monumental MMLPQTP”
Michael S. O’Brien is an assistant professor of music at the College of Charleston. He has been conducting ethnographic field research on music and cultural politics in Argentina since 2003. His article examining the use of thebombocon platillo in Carnival music, soccer fandom, and political culture is forthcoming in the journal Ethnomusicology this fall. He has also published research on protest music in the U.S. in the journal Music and Politics and Smithsonian Folkways Magazine.
In this galaxy, two weeks ago, Leslie McMurtry published Episode I, a discussion of sound in the Star Wars films. Binge read it here! In today’s post, she listens to the farther reaches of the Star Wars galaxy–its multi-media forms including radio and cartoons–as well as the newest installment, Solo!
Yeah, I speak it a little.
For the first time in the onscreen history of Star Wars, a human speaks Wookiee and needs subtitles to do so. There is more significance to this moment in Solo (2018) than might first seem apparent. To understand why, we need to think back to the Ewoks, the small furry creatures from Return of the Jedi. They have polarized fans, and their language feeds into potential ethical sonic/linguistic dilemmas in Star Wars. As Ben Burtt explains,
With a new language, the most important goal is to create emotional clarity. People spend all of their lives learning to identify voices. You became an expert at that, and somewhat impossible to electronically process the human characteristic, and retain the necessary emotion. To fool the audience into believing this is a real character as the basis of the sound, although you may sprinkle other things in there. It varies from character to character.
The language of the Ewoks, however, was “rendered almost entirely from Tibetan.” As Stephen Davis argues, Tibetan and other non-European languages used in Star Wars “were sometimes distorted” and “not used to convey meaningful content.” This, says Davis, seemingly suggests “that these languages were never meant to be intelligible to moviegoers; rather, they were used to create social distance between strange characters and the anticipated audience.”
The process actually took a reversal when Star Wars was translated into Diné (Navajo) for its premiere in 2013 at Window Rock, Arizona, in front of an audience of hundreds. In Star Wars, a plethora of languages have been spoken by a variety of species, but it has been rare for human characters to speak in these languages. The potential distancing at work somehow becomes much less during this moment in Solo.
The first part of this article has mainly focused on the “original trilogy.” The next section will detail Star Wars in the digital era and in other media. Envisioned since 1978 as a cycle of nine films, A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi were given “Special Edition” makeovers in 1997 as Star Wars entered the digital era. These re-issues were committed to the soundworld of the original, Ben Burtt leaving “virtually untouched” such key elements as the sounds of Darth Vader, Artoo, Threepio, and the TIE fighters, while the Special Edition required the creation of Huttese dialogue for Jabba the Hutt and sound effects for his movement in A New Hope.
Kinda handy to have a storyteller who makes his own sound effects
As a child, Ben Burtt loved listening to his grandfather’s radio, tuning between stations to hear the sounds in between, the beeps, whistles, and static. “There’s something about that I find opens my mind,” he said. While the radio links to George Lucas and Star Wars have already been comprehensively explored, what about Star Wars on the radio?
Since at least 1925, when the BBC began its long-standing series of adaptations, The Classic Serial, adaptations from media like books and stage plays have been a mainstay of radio content. Despite the one-time frequent proliferation of film-to-radio adaptation, the practice has become much more uncommon. In 1981, with organised public radio manifestations like NPR (National Public Radio) still in their infancy in the US, drama had played a much smaller part on the airwaves than public service broadcasting’s equivalent in the UK, the BBC—indeed, drama was more likely to be found on nostalgic commercial throwbacks like The CBS Radio Mystery Theater. Nevertheless, when approached by Richard Toscan of USC, John Houseman, and Frank Mankiewicz, Lucasfilm quickly sold the adaptation rights to NPR for $1, including, crucially, use of music and special effects. The BBC also agreed to co-produce.
Why did George Lucas sell the radio rights to Star Wars for $1 a pop? Clearly the involvement of his alma mater USC was a factor; nevertheless, as previously argued, Lucas was invested in radio culture, not just of the 1930s serial type that was mirrored in action-adventure-science fiction films of that era, but also the free-wheeling intimacy of radio hosts such as Wolfman Jack and Bob “The Emperor” Hudson, a Burbank DJ and subject of one of Lucas’ films. The dramatization’s length (six-and-a-half hours) de-compressed A New Hope’s story, “meaning that the characters could be treated in more depth and the story told in more detail,” as noted by Frederica Kushner, creating character-developing moments in transmedia long before the digital age (including completely new sequences for Luke and Leia in episodes 1 & 2 of A New Hope and a scene in which Luke constructs a new light saber as a prologue to Return of the Jedi). NPR’s listening audience doubled during the broadcast of the first adaptation in 1981.
In the era of classic radio serials, rural listeners often used film-to-radio adaptations as a way of keeping up with movie culture; as Malcolm Usrey of the Texas Panhandle recalled, “[o]nly a serious emergency kept us from hearing The Lux Radio Theater.” In 1981, there was no way for viewers who wanted to re-watch Star Wars to do so, as it was long gone from cinemas. The radio adaptations would have offered the next best thing, while a more “fill-in” approach was beginning to manifest by 1996, when Return of the Jedi was finally adapted (in a much compressed form), by which point the original trilogy were all available on VHS.
The radio adaptations, nevertheless, remain a fascinating meditation on Star Wars’ transmedia and its use of sound. The response to sound in Star Wars functions perhaps similarly to Dermot Rattigan’s “macro-micro scale” in radio, the intimacy created when broadcasters address an audience of millions but seem to speak individually to YOU.
Sir, my audio sensors no longer . . .
As celebrated movie critic Gene Siskel wrote in his review of Return of the Jedi, “I can’t think of another recent picture whose sound I enjoyed so much. [. . .] it’s almost flawless. [ . . .] Three is not enough.” Indeed, three was not enough, and in 1999, Burtt became the sound editor on The Phantom Menace, the most expensive independent film in history, the first of a new trilogy. The Phantom Menace made full use (perhaps, some would suggest, over-use) of digital animation technologies and brought voices in the shape of Brian Blessed and Andy Secombe to alien creatures.
Williams’ leitmotifs proceeded to weave retrospectively into this trilogy as well as the introduction of new themes, for example “Across the Stars,” “a love theme that swells with the fervent romance shared by Anakin and Padmé, and which subsequently plays over the end credits” (and is only heard in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith). To return to Bribitzer-Stull’s catalogue of Williams’ use of leitmotifs, thematic irony is prominent in Revenge of the Sith when Padmé says she is pregnant:
Bribitzer-Stull presents this as “a clear case of romantic irony, since the audience knows what horrible fate lies in store for the two characters, though the characters themselves do not.” Another new composition was “Duel of the Fates” with three iterations of its leitmotif heard throughout The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith.
Echoes of “Duel of the Fates” are heard in Solo, and those who have seen the film will understand why.
Civilized words can be our greatest weapon!
Long before Disney acquired Lucasfilm, Star Wars’ transmedia success was profound. On television, Star Wars lived on the 1980s in Ewoks the animated series (1985-6) and Droids (1985). Droids were the further adventures of R2-D2 and C-3PO, set before A New Hope. With voice talent lent (again) by Anthony Daniels as Threepio and Artoo “as himself,” the short-lived animated series featured an opening theme tune by The Police’s Stewart Copeland. The final episode, an hour-long special, “The Great Heep” was based on a screenplay by Ben Burtt.
The music, composed and performed by Patricia Cullen (who scored Ewoks and The Care Bears), flirts with “fantasy”/ “medieval” music as well as imitating John Williams’ late-Romantic idiom. The story features humanoid characters speaking non-English languages and creatures that sound like tauntauns. Artoo and Threepio also interact with other droids in scenes that lay the foundation for later Burtt robot project Wall-E (2008).
As Daniels remarked, “That was my favorite episode. Ben has a particular affection for me as C-3P0 and has a natural empathy toward R2-D2.” (Ewoks and Droids were followed on the small screen by Clone Wars (Cartoon Network, 2008-15) and Rebels (Disney Channel, 2014-18), whose sound worlds may be investigated in future installments.)
Elsewhere, sound was particularly important to Star Wars in video game format. According to Felan Parker, since the release of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back for Atari, video games have had prominence within the Star Wars storyworld; as Jason Scott puts it, “Star Wars has been repurposed for each new technology, frequently as a flagship title to help sell hardware.” In the games, the Force becomes visualized and sonified. In Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1994), it has, in Parker’s words, a “tinkling sound” while in The Force Unleashed (2008), it sounds like “gushing wind.” As Christopher Coleman puts it, the Star Wars video games were perhaps more adventurous than the films and other forms of media to break away from the John Williams score and musically innovate.
Coleman argues that the zenith of this innovation was The Force Unleashed (for Xbox 360, Playstation, Nintendo Wii, or DS), set between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, centered around Darth Vader’s secret apprentice, Starkiller. This gave players the opportunity to be “visually stunned” but also musically impressed, creating a reactive musical environment that bridged the “significant stylistic gap between the two Star Wars trilogies.”
In 2012, Disney acquired Lucasfilm for $4 billion, starting a new trilogy cycle. Furthermore, Disney would begin making the Anthology films, “churning out” a new film “every two or three years indefinitely, providing the anchor for brand extensions worldwide,” of which Solo is the second (with Rogue One, 2016, being the first). “The cultural box-office explosion” from Black Panther has reportedly carried into Solo, with “fascinating” African-American actor Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian inheriting the cape from Billy Dee Williams.
However, Star Wars has never been able to escape, in Andrew Howe’s words, “the gravitational pull of contemporary racial politics”; the original trilogy has suffered from a notable absence of human racial minorities. Howe argues, for example, that Lucas withholds from the Tusken Raiders any forms of humanizing speech, in turn suggesting that human desert races like the Bedouins share the Tusken Raiders’ brutishness. “Perhaps,” Howe posits, “Lucas is suggesting that it is only in areas of lax governmental control that racial minorities can exist unmodified by race-based expectations.”
More infamous, perhaps, is Ahmed Best’s performance in The Phantom Menace as Jar-Jar Binks. Patricia Williams wrote scathingly of Jar-Jar’s “mush of West African, Caribbean, and African-American linguistic styles” in The Nation. The perception is that “Jar Jar was depicted in broad, stereotypical terms as the lazy Jamaican,” if not more pejoratively. Silas Carson played Nute Gunray (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones) as a Transylvanian, though audiences interpreted the Neimoidians as having East Asian accents which, combined with the qualities of sadism, power, and cowardice, caused some concern over stereotyped portrayals. However, as Howe points out, the main villains in the prequels are largely coded as white.
Howe argues that Lucas (and Lucasfilm, and by extension, Disney) were made exceedingly aware of Star Wars’ potentially unsatisfying track record as regards race and ethnicity, which he believes has been addressed, with varying degrees of success, in the prequels. Perhaps more successful was the casting of Mexican actor Diego Luna, playing the heroic rebel Cassian Andor in Rogue One, with a pronounced accent, which Samantha Schmidt puts this way, “There was no particular reason Cassian was Mexican, or why he shouldn’t be. He just was. [ . . .] It was a rare example of a time when a Latino actor has been cast in a blockbuster film not simply as a token Latino character but as a leading role with no obvious ties to Latino culture,” though arguably the same had occurred 14 years earlier with the casting of Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa (Smits is half Puerto Rican).
Star Wars in the digital era also revisited the divide between Standard North American and Standard Neutral English, particularly in the characters of Rey and Finn. Rey, the hero whose journey across The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and Episode IX has mirrored Luke Skywalker’s, is played by British actor Daisy Ridley, who has maintained a Standard Neutral English throughout her performance. Finn, former stormtrooper FN-2187, Rey’s friend and potential love interest, is also played by a British actor, John Boyega, who has swapped his accent for a Standard North American one. Boyega’s claims that director Rian Johnson felt Boyega’s accent just didn’t work are ironic, considering that Lucas originally preferred an American accent for Threepio (voiced by Anthony Daniels in a Standard English Neutral accent). American-ness and Britishness were clearly a major component of the latest grouping of Star Wars films:
Among other things, this resulted in rampant speculation about Rey’s parentage, her “Core Worlds”/Coruscanti accent making it clear that she wasn’t the long-lost daughter of Han Solo and Princess Leia. By contrast, Kylo Ren, Han and Leia’s actual son (and Rey’s antagonist/potential love interest), played by Adam Driver, does not emulate his code-swapping grandfather Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader and speaks Standard North American (though with the same bass baritone as James Earl Jones).
Finn’s accent and role feeds into a long-standing argument regarding the role of the stormtrooper, who spoke in the original trilogy with a Standard North American accent (likely because these characters were dubbed by Americans, like Bill Wookey) whereas, as previously discussed, the management structure of the Empire emulated its namesake Emperor and spoke Standard English Neutral. In the prequels, Jango Fett, the prototype for the stormtrooper clone army, spoke with a New Zealand accent, predicated on the Maori ancestry of actor Temuera Morrison, a convention carried through during Clone Wars, which is set between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.
To return to Ridley and Boyega, though, while both were born in London, the “suitability” of their respective accents says a lot about the endurance of class distinctions in British culture. Ridley’s suitably “noble-sounding” accent, closely matching Standard English Neutral, differs greatly from Boyega’s Peckham accent. You can take the stormtrooper out of the Empire, but you can’t take the American-ness out of the stormtrooper, it seems.
Ridley, with a background in music performance, is a mezzo-soprano, and her speaking voice is somewhat low in pitch, in contrast to the stereotypical feminine voice, higher-pitched and lilting. This vocal quality has not garnered the attention that Carrie Fisher’s voice has in her last role, in The Last Jedi, in which she was pilloried by some elements of fandom:
her voice is kerazy! It has that “I’ve been through some serious drugs and alcohol” tone, which, unless she can really play it down, would be pretty distracting for a “Queen”. It doesn’t sound like an easy voice to get away from….throaty, broken and borderline insane.
As Ros Jennings and Eva Krainitzki note, ageism is part of contemporary society. They further argue that a binary is usually established in screen media between “ageing as decline” or “successful ageing.” If an older woman on screen does not conform as either a “graceful” ager or “sexy oldie,” she is effectively erased and made invisible, clearly not the case with a visible and powerful General Leia Organa in The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi. Nor has Fisher’s voice been erased. The comments made by (usually male) critics regarding Fisher’s “kerazy” voice as evidenced above clearly situates her in, as Melanie Williams puts it, “the middle of both misogyny and gerontophobia.” On the dichotomy between “ageing well” and “letting oneself go,” Fisher’s voice is perceived as the latter and therefore not evidence of a “queenly” persona.
To break through this binary, it might be more instructive to look at the example of Vanessa Redgrave, who, like British compatriots Dame Helen Mirren and Dame Judi Dench, are examples of (in Williams’ words) female “post-middle-age life [being] as equally dynamic and fulfilling as the years before.” Redgrave’s distinctive “husky” voice (“powerful” despite her life-long smoking) more closely resembles Fisher’s, also deepened in register (though whether her self-admitted addictions to cocaine and prescription drugs have had any bearing on the timbre, intensity, and pitch of her voice is of, arguably, less relevance). While, as Williams would argue, Mirren and Dench in their public personas have attempted to “transcend age by ignoring it,” Fisher as Leia in The Last Jedi seems to adhere more to a model Jennings and Krainitzki have applied to Redgrave in Call the Midwife (BBC, 2012-), where her voice is of paramount importance—a holistic understanding of female ageing, neither hypersexualized nor invisible.
Fisher’s death before the release of The Last Jedi predicated a good deal of work cutting together Leia’s dialogue in order to finish the film. Star Wars is no stranger to such digital wizardry, having already digitally inserted Fisher’s face onto actress Ingvild Deila in 2016 for a scene in Rogue One and having resurrected Peter Cushing in the same film. Viewers were seemingly so struck with the visual spectacle of Cushing, portrayed on set by another actor, Guy Henry, with FACS (facial action coding system) superimposed, there was little comment on the non-Cushing vocal performance—though a number of fans felt they could tell the difference. Manuel Nogueira argued,
The only thing that put me off a little was the voice – the way the words were pronounced was perfect, but the tone was not. Peter Cushing had a beautifull [sic] unique voice and I suppose it’s difficult for someone to imitate it exactly.
While commentators argued about the ethics of these uncanny resurrections, the voices for these hybrid creations seemed to fly under the radar. Fisher’s voice was original, having been edited together from her dialogue in previous Star Wars films.
I’m such a happy Chewbacca!!
John Williams has continued to be involved in scoring the newest Star Wars films, to greater and lesser degrees. Composer Michael Giacchino had only four weeks to complete the score to Rogue One as he was brought in at the last minute. Giacchino, as the first person to compose for a Star Wars film other than John Williams, faced the difficulty of fitting his musical style within the existing Williams leitmotif structure while contributing something new. Broxton notes that within Giacchino’s score are allusions to the Battle of Hoth music from The Empire Strikes Back throughout the sequence “AT-ACT Assault” in Rogue One, including the use of xylophones and pianos, while the rhythm from the “Rebel Blockade Runner” sequence of A New Hope is heard in one of the new themes Giacchino composed, “Hope”:
Williams himself was back for The Force Awakens (2015), about which he noted, “It would be like writing an opera, and then writing six more based on the same kind of material and the same story . . . over the course of 40 years.” Similarly to previous movies in the series, the ratio of music to scenes in The Force Awakens is high, with little reference to previous leitmotifs (only seven minutes). The Last Jedi works differently, introducing, as Broxton points out, only two significant new leitmotifs. Nevertheless, Broxton argues, “As a result, The Last Jedi manages to be warmly nostalgic, emotionally powerful, and daring and thrilling, all at the same time, and often in the same cue.” For example, “Battle of the Heroes” returns in The Last Jedi, though it was last heard in Revenge of the Sith.
Although Solo makes sparing use of Williams’ leitmotifs (for example, “Rebel Fanfare” in an exhilarating sequence), John Powell’s score has seemingly more shading of mentor Hans Zimmer or Howard Shore. Bributzer-Stull considered Shore’s leitmotif structure for The Lord of the Rings films the most complex in film history. Also in Solo we have the first (to my knowledge) onscreen diegetic use of Williams’ themes, the Imperial March, which is used as part of a recruitment video on Corellia, in which a voice in Standard English Neutral tells potential applicants to join up and see the universe.
However, quite a different diegetic Williams music moment has already been heard, in Ep. 1 – “A Wind to Shake the Stars” of the 1981 Star Wars radio dramatization. Curiously enough, it was also part of a recruitment video, though, this time, the music was “Main/Luke A.” The first non-music and non-narration sounds heard in the radio adaptation are, in fact, Luke humming along to this Imperial Space Academy theme tune which he is playing repeatedly in the techdome before interrupted by his frenemies Windy and Deke. (For an idea of what it might have looked like, and indeed, a notion of how integral the score of Star Wars is to the story—and how odd it feels when it’s absent—take a look at one of the deleted scenes from A New Hope:
Beyond musical motifs, sound design in the newest films builds heavily on previously established conventions. Solo, the first Star Wars film not to feature Artoo and Threepio, gives us our first female-voiced droid, L-3 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge). L-3 speaks with a Standard English Neutral accent, which would lend credence to our “Core Worlds”/Coruscanti accent hypothesis. However, in all other respects, the film seems to muddy the waters considerably regarding consistency of accents. For example, soldier-of-fortune Val (Thandie Newton) speaks Standard English Neutral, though she could have easily been raised in the Core Worlds and fallen from grace. However, characters like Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), who grew up a street orphan in Corellia, speak Standard English Neutral, which hardly fits the hypothesis that it denotes the supposed Core Worlds linguistic training that the Empire (and the First Order) value. Surely Beckett’s (Woody Harrelson) disguise among the Imperials should have fooled no one, given he is the only officer there with an American accent. Some characters don’t really seem to know what accent to put on, such as Paul Bettany’s Dryden Vos, who appears to be speaking Standard North American with some difficulty.
In writing this article, I have realized the emotional impact of sound in Star Wars not just generally, but upon myself. The most intimate sonic moment for me is the Force/Obi-Wan/All-Purpose leitmotif, also known by the visual scene in which it first appears (or, in Bribitzer-Stull’s terms, the “prototypic statement”), Binary Sunset in A New Hope [However, if you watch the films in chronological rather than release order, you will not fail to recognize it in The Phantom Menace onwards]. At this moment, according to Bribitzer-Stull, “we have no idea of what this musical signifier actually signifies, but we know it means something important.” “Rey A/Primary” (from The Force Awakens) is linked via chords to “Binary Sunset.” I would argue the frequent use of “Binary Sunset” titillates the film-goer in scenes like the one in The Last Jedi in which—apparently astrally linked across space by Grand Leader Snoke—Rey and Kylo touch hands. By invoking “Binary Sunset,” does such a moment argue that the two will bring long-desired balance to the Force, given this leitmotif’s frequent and long-standing association with the Force? Or does it have another meaning? There is another musical echo when Rey and Kylo work together rather than against each other in that movie—a short reference to “Duel of the Fates” from The Phantom Menace:
However, Broxton best describes the emotional power of “Binary Sunset” in The Last Jedi by linking it cyclically with the title of the film:
as Luke watches Ahch-To’s twin suns rise in his final moments before he becomes one with the Force, [this] is a heartbreaking mirror of the legendary ‘Binary Sunset’ scene from 40 years ago, and allows us to reflect on the life of that young farm boy from Tatooine, dreaming of a life of adventure.
Interviewed in 2018, Ben Burtt noted that, “despite the digital age, I still emphasise field recording real, physical objects.” As has been previously argued, Burtt’s commitment to creative sound design which is still rooted in the experience of the physical world helped locate the fantastical elements of Star Wars. Coupled with George Lucas’ keen sound awareness and vision (or sonic vision), Star Wars’ sound has come to be an integral part of its ontology, whether in audiovisual media or its countless other incarnations (ahead of the release of Solo, children could clamour for a Nerf Blaster, Lightsaber, and Millennium Falcon Playset, complete with appropriate sound effects). No longer is it necessary to create one’s own sound effects during play, and one can roleplay as Chewbacca just as easily as Han Solo. According to Alexis C. Madrigal of The Atlantic, “Humans being humans, once Chewbacca’s voice had been manufactured by Burtt, people began to imitate it with their own vocal chords.” And while “Chewbacca Mask Lady” (Candace Payne) seems to revel as much in her appearance as Chewie as in the Wookiee sounds her mask makes, it’s surely through the sound of her exuberant, irrepressible laughter that we enjoy the YouTube video that has currently received more than six million views.
May the Force (and all its accompanying sounds) be with you.
Featured Image made here: Enjoy!
Leslie McMurtry has a PhD in English (radio drama) and an MA in Creative and Media Writing from Swansea University. Her work on audio drama has been published in The Journal of Popular Culture, The Journal of American Studies in Turkey, and Rádio-Leituras. Her radio drama The Mesmerist was produced by Camino Real Productions in 2010, and she writes about audio drama at It’s Great to Be a Radio Maniac.
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Speaking American–Leslie McMurtry
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Join host James Tlsty in the second installment of his podcast miniseries–“Listening In with Sounding Out!” In this miniseries Tlsty and co-host Shauna Bahssin dig deep into the archives of Sounding Out! and interview authors to get a sense of what they were thinking as they wrote their essays. In this episode Tlsty and Bahssin interview the amazing Pavitra Sundar discussing her SO! piece from October 2017, “The Queer Sound of the Dandiya Queen, Falguni Pathak”
James Tlsty is a Junior studying English and Philosophy, Politics and Law (PPL) at Binghamton University. James draws from literature and philosophy for pragmatic applications in social policy and activism. James is an active champion of the arts, as evidenced by his work with on-campus art initiative OPEN, a hybrid art gallery and open mic. He is also the resident Pop Music Department Director and an E-Board member at WHRW, where he is a registered radio engineer and programmer.
Shauna Bahssin is a junior double-majoring in English and art history. She currently serves as the managing editor for Binghamton University’s student newspaper, Pipe Dream, after maintaining the position of copy desk chief for three semesters. Outside of the paper, she helps supervise student fundraising initiatives through the Binghamton Telefund, and she hopes to work within the field of arts advancement after she graduates.
Pavitra Sundar is Assistant Professor of Literature at Hamilton College, where she teaches courses on global film and literature. Her scholarly interests span the fields of cinema studies, sound studies, postcolonial literary and cultural studies, and gender-sexuality studies. She is currently completing a book manuscript on the politics of Bollywood film sound and music. Her work has been published in journals such as Meridians, Jump Cut, South Asian Popular Culture, and Communication, Culture, and Critique, as well as in anthologies on South Asian and other cinematic traditions.
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SO! Podcast #66: Listening In with Sounding Out! (feat. Marlen Rios) — James Tlsty and Shauna Bahssin
Sounding Out! Podcast #65: Listening In with Sounding Out! (feat. Jenny Stoever) – James Tlsty and Shauna Bahssin
Sounding Out! Podcast #13: Sounding Shakespeare in S(e)oul – Brooke A. Carlson