Peter DiCola’s analysis of Girl Talk is astute, on point, and insightful. So instead of quibbling with him about arcane or subjective matters, I’ll try to add a bit of aesthetic and cultural analysis to his legal and procedural observations.
Improvising vs. Composing
First of all, it’s important to point out that Girl Talk is not a typical mashup artist, and in fact many of the DJs I interviewed for my book Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010) don’t really view him as one of their own. This isn’t simply because he exceeds the standard, 2-song “A plus B” technique that serves as a basic template for the form; after all, Osymyso was mashing together hundreds of songs at a time back in the early 2000s, and he’s downright canonical. Rather, it’s because Girl Talk is more improvisatory, and less formalistic, than most other mashers.
Of course, improvisation has been a central element of DJing at least since Kool Herc first started beat juggling between two decks. And some contemporary mashup DJs, like Z-Trip and TradeMark G, are rooted in live, on-stage improvisation. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. If sample-based music describes a spectrum between what we traditionally think of as performance and composition, the vast bulk of mashup artists tend to see themselves on the composition side of the fence. They assemble the mashup in the studio, then play it “as is” in the club, just as they would play any other record. As DJ Earworm told me, “a good mashup artist is a good composer. Because, you know, you’re moving these parts around and giving it new form.” While Girl Talk certainly lives up to this description on albums such as “All Day,” his live, improvisatory performances are something else altogether.
Mashup vs. Cut-up
An interesting point DiCola raises is the prevalence of what he calls the “name-that-tune” critique of the mashup aesthetic, the claim that they “have no intertextuality or deeper meaning.” Not only is this claim unjustified, it completely misses the point. The problem is, these critics think of mashups as simply another example of paper-thin postmodernism. This couldn’t be further from the truth; in fact, you could call mashups post-postmodern.
To illustrate my point, let’s take a look at an earlier art form that looks a lot like mashup at first glance: the cut-up. Cut-ups were a kind of literary collage popular among avant-garde writers like William Burroughs and Brion Gysin in the mid-20th century. As the technique’s name suggests, writers would cut existing, finished texts into pieces, and then tape them back together in random fashion, thus generating surprising and provocative new juxtapositions and grammatical logics. The cut-up was the very essence of postmodernism: it aimed to disrupt the “master narrative” of linear thought and force the reader to confront its limits head-on. In other words, it was a reaction to, and an inoculation against, high modernism.
Mashups use similar techniques to achieve the opposite effect. We no longer live in a modern world, in which all information is forced to hew to a single, objectified model of reality. Postmodernism has not only successfully exposed and disrupted the hidden power dynamics of the master narrative, but produced a cultural environment in which an endless parade of symbols float unmoored in a sea of chaos and contradiction. The role of the mashup is to restore some semblance of order to this maelstrom, by stitching together the disparate symbols with a genealogical thread. Every sample in a mashup means something, and brings its entire cultural history trailing behind it. Thus, while the cut-up is named for its ability to sever signifier from signified, the mashup is named for its power to suture them back together (albeit in different combinations and permutations). This is the point that critics miss: the mashup isn’t an expression of postmodern nihilism, but an argument against it.
The final point of DiCola’s I’ll touch upon is the concept of originality, as it applies to a cultural form that consists entirely of “borrowed” work. As he observes, the question of whether a given mashup is original or not is almost moot when it comes to questions of transformativity and “fair use”; the very fact that people argue about it demonstrates that creative forces are at work.
Yet it’s also interesting to look at how the originality arguments play out. I devote an entire chapter of Mashed Up to exploring the various techniques DJs employ to differentiate between innovative and derivative work, as well as the ways in which they’ve moved beyond the distinction altogether. Commonly cited markers of originality in mashups include: how well a DJ selects his source materials; how the samples are arranged, both spatially and temporally; how the samples are transformed using digital processing techniques; and even textual interplay between the lyrics of the songs he’s chosen. In combination, these factors can describe a given DJ’s “signature” style, as distinctive as a saxophonist’s phrasing and tone, or a rapper’s rhyme and flow.
One could spend countless hours dissecting the mashup aesthetic and debating its legalities, and having done so myself, I can attest that it’s time well spent. Ultimately, however, the form’s significance outstrips even these weighty dimensions of analysis. What makes the mashup most interesting to me isn’t the question of what an individual work means, or whether it’s legitimate in the eyes of the copyright office, but rather how it’s produced (and reproduced) in the first place.
Our mode of musical production is always a harbinger of social changes to come, and the mashup has a lot to say about what lies in store for us as a globally connected, digital society. By blurring the lines between artist and audience, original and copy, the mashup fundamentally rejects the atomistic assumptions that undergird our legal, economic and political institutions. The millions of people who participate in the process of re-imagining a song comprise a kind of “collective subjectivity” as cohesive and amorphous as a storm cloud, and like a cloud, their actions only have meaning in aggregate.
This is why analyses that focus on a DJ like Girl Talk as though he’s a radical innovator or lone copyright renegade always tend to leave me cold. As Girl Talk himself would be the first to admit, his work neither begins or ends on his laptop; at best, he’s a highly entertaining conduit for an infinitely larger and more complex process. Or, to use his words (as I did in the epigraph to Mashed Up), “This shit is not about me, it’s about all of us, ’cause we’re the same motherfuckin’ person.”
Here at Sounding Out! we like to celebrate World Listening Day (July 18) with a blog series. This year, we bring your attention to the role of listening when it comes to the sounds of the K-12 classroom, and by extension, the school.
Any day in a K-12 school involves movement and sounds day in and day out: the shuffling of desks, the conversations among classmates, the fire drill alarm, the pencils on paper, the picking up of trays of food. However, in many conversations about schools, teaching, and learning, sound is absent.
This month’s series will have readers thinking about the sounds in classrooms in different ways. They will consider race, class, and gender, and how those aspects intersect how we listen to the classrooms of our past and our present. More importantly, the posts will all include assignments that educators at all stages can use in their classrooms.
Time’s up, pencils down, and let’s listen to Shakira Holt‘s playlists, compiled by three of her high school graduates. –Liana Silva, Managing Editor
This past school year, in my roles as a high school teacher who likes what music can do for the classroom environment and as a Link Crew Coordinator who oversees student leaders as they host a mixture of freshman-only and schoolwide events, I frequently found myself sternly censoring black female student contributions to musical playlists. Although I emphasized the criterion of “clean” with increasing exasperation, my students just did not seem to get it. Strangely overlooking “ni**a,” “f***,” and “s**t,” they brought me songs, which, if played, would have gotten me called into the principal’s office, literally. When they triumphantly approached me with “clean” versions, they typically cast not a moment’s thought towards the lyrical content of drugging, drinking, fighting, and sexing, topics no less hazardous for campus play. Clearly, my students and I were working from battling notions of “clean.”For them, “clean” was a concept fully bound up in and therefore fully resolved by language alone; in their view of things, to excise the problematic language was to expel the problem. For me, however, “clean” also included ideas such as “not sipping, smoking, popping, or shooting anything,” “not beating, kicking, hitting, shooting, or stabbing anyone,” as well as “not offering a play-by-play of actual or desired intimate activity.” Then there were some of the songs’ seemingly innocuous but just as troubling projections of sad, turbulent, co-dependent visions of love which often turn on the most toxic, tired iterations of normative gender expectations and almost always wound me up to deliver long, moralistic speeches on relationships.
Feeling every bit the forty-year old school marm that I am, I remain abundantly clear on my objections to these songs for general classroom and campus use. However, I confess that my effectual silencing of these young women never sat quite right with me. It nagged me with worries over what I was really refusing to hear, to make space for by shutting off the voices of these young black women in this way.
However outré, daring, or trouble-making I may fancy myself as a scholar and thinker, when placed within the K-12 context, I am, it turns out, your average, workaday campus censor. I hypocritically feign alarm at cussing. I fake-clear my throat with loud ahems whenever that blue talk ventures into the X-rated. While I fully respect the creativity and naughtiness of student-to-student speech and spend a good bit of time pretending not to hear what is meant to be conversation among peers, there is a limit I feel compelled to enforce. Whenever the volume grows too loud for me to pretend not to have heard or when the word choice becomes spectacularly adventurous, the expectations of the classroom/campus setting demand my intervention. Dutifully, I step in as judge and censor.
Nor is this a singular feature of schools. Places and spaces of all kinds depend heavily upon the extent to which both occupants and itinerants adhere to place-based expected modes of behavior and speech. It is important to note that even when enforced and observed by people of color, these behavior and speech norms remain overwhelmingly middle-class and white in origin and character, which can lead to interesting, sometimes alarming, and even deadly implications for people of color who enter “allegedly public” spaces without observing these norms, as Jennifer Lynn Stoever points out. In the Introduction to The Sonic Color Line: Race & the Cultural Politics of Listening, Stoever argues that in failing to act or speak in ways that reflect the place-based expected modes of behavior and speech governing such spaces, people of color frequently run the risk of falling prey to what she calls “white Americans’…implicit, sometimes violent, control over…an ostensibly ‘free,’ ‘open,’ and ‘public’ space” (2). This risk, as Stoever illustrates, often exposes non-compliant people of color to condemnation, confrontation, and even bodily harm.
The collision of place/space, race, and gender is a natural element of life in the U.S. and has become a regular and needful facet of contemporary national discourse. In a brilliant analysis of this collision as it took place in the 2013 George Zimmerman trial, Regina Bradley explores how the presence of Rachel Jeantel laid bare the way in which enforcement of place-based norms is often racialized and gendered. Rachel Jeantel is the young black woman whose body, comportment, and speech set off waves of derision and controversy as she testified in court regarding the last living moments of her close friend, Trayvon Martin. Bradley recalls how critics ignored Jeantel’s anguish, her grief, and her trauma in order to train excessive focus on her “refusal and inability to conform to expected cultural and aural scripts of black womanhood within the confines of the courtroom.” The courtroom’s “cultural and aural scripts of black womanhood” demand overt demonstrations of respect, if not outright intimidation, passivity, and general humility in tone and demeanor which would typically compensate for any deviations from Standard American English speech norms. Jeantel’s speech played only by the rules of what Brittney Cooper has called “her own particular, idiosyncratic black girl idiom” as created by her “Haitian and Dominican working-class background, her U.S. Southern upbringing, and the three languages—Haitian Kreyol…Spanish, and English—that she speaks,” and not by the rules of SAE. Thus lacking both the gentle mien expected of black women in court and an acceptable mainstream speech pattern, Jeantel suffered a broad range of brutal racist, classist, and sizeist critiques centering not only on her attitude and her speech, but also on her weight, her skin tone, her hair, and her general unfitness for public consumption.
Like the courtroom, the K-12 classroom and campus are place-based contexts that possess their own “expected cultural and aural scripts.” These scripts prescribe and police such speech elements as volume, tone, syntax, diction, and content. Like courtrooms and other spaces, the K-12 classroom and campus can easily become oppositional, and sometimes downright antagonistic, towards the young black female people who occupy these spaces while speaking their “own particular, idiosyncratic black girl idiom[s].” The idiosyncrasies of their idioms can so completely transgress the K-12 cultural and aural script that these young black female people often lose the right of being heard altogether, of achieving any attention at all beyond opprobrium for their transgressiveness. Bradley writes pointedly of Jeantel, “Her emotionally charged question ‘are you listening?’ jolted not only [George Zimmerman’s attorney, Don] West but those watching the trial. Were we listening? What were we listening for?” I find overwhelming resonance here because when I reframe my students’ playlists and song choices as alternative types of “idiosyncratic black girl idiom,” I must also reframe myself as an agent of what Bradley calls “hyper-respectability,” a source of censure and scorn. I must then answer Jeantel and Bradley’s questions honestly: For most of the year, I was not listening to my black female students. Too preoccupied with listening for speech that matched the cultural and aural scripts of the K-12 classroom and campus, I repeatedly silenced idiosyncratic black girl idiom, enacting an all too-frequent response to black female voices.
This sin against my students becomes even clearer when I consider it in the context of terms set forth by Robin James in “How not to listen to Lemonade: music criticism and epistemic violence.” James discusses at length how music criticism can inflict great violence upon “black women’s cultural and creative work” by “recentering [white] men as authorities and experts.” When white men are recentered as omniscient, innately generic, and consummately universal arbiters of culture and artistry, cultural and creative work emerging from outside of their personal and cultural frames of reference become subjected to filters, demands, and expectations often inapplicable or inappropriate to the work but especially to the black female experiences and vantage points from which that work arises. Hence the “epistemic violence” of which James’ title speaks. Without difficulty, I can replace James’ “black women’s cultural and creative work” with Cooper’s “idiosyncratic black girl idiom,” or even have my own go at it with “black female vision and voice.” I can then also substitute James’ “recenter[ed white] men with “recentered elder/teacher/agent of hyper-respectability.” Having done so, I arrive once again at the epistemic and ontological violence I enacted upon my students—for good reason, of course, but to the same unfortunate end.
My intention is not to intimate that I should have green lighted their every choice and let their music go blaring from the loud speaker at lunch while high school kids enjoyed our classic recess days, during which big kids actually had fun at lunch, dancing and tossing the football (girls, too!) and jumping double-dutch. In retrospect, I see now that there was a way to keep that aural space PG-13 AND to listen deeply to the songs that mattered most to these young women, to hear not only what the songs were saying to them but more importantly to hear what they were saying through the songs. I am saddened that I could have been generating ways throughout the year to center and amplify the very black female student voices I stifled and silenced far too often, for far too long.
This post is an attempt at redemption for all my huffy exasperation and my quickness to relieve them of the aux cord this school year. Enlisting the help of the three seniors (now graduates) who bore the brunt of all my aux cord snatching, I have set about putting things right. I asked them to compile playlists of their top five songs, along with the lyrics. I then asked these young women either to come in and speak with me about their songs or to submit written commentary about the music they chose. I took off all restrictions and encouraged them to select whatever songs their hearts desired.
When I first imagined the critical value of engaging in this project, I figured that I might be able to mine their playlists and commentaries for some Patricia Hill Collins-esque crystallization of black female thought as it exists at this moment, late in the second decade of the new millennium, among high school seniors on the cusp of black womanhood in a country which remains steadfastly anti-woman, anti-black, and anti-black woman. That is indeed a worthy project and one which deserves completion. For this post, however, I simply want to listen to my students at long last. I want to listen closely, and I want to listen deeply. I want others to listen to them, too.
Attending fully to the thoughts and words and feelings of black female people, is but one means of expressing a form of love I call philogynoir. Clearly, this term plays with and off of Moya Bailey’s misogynoir, which she defined upon its 2010 inception as a “the particular brand of hatred directed at black women in American visual & popular culture.” Philogynoir is my attempt to rise to the challenge of naming, which Bailey identified as essential to addressing social ills. She told Mic.com last year, “I think we have to refine language in a lot of different ways so we can actually come up with solutions that help the communities we want to address,” she said. “When you use language that’s generic or unspecific you can get at some of the problem, but not all of it.”
If misogynoir calls out racist-sexist hatred aimed squarely at black women so that that hatred can be challenged and ultimately eliminated, then the concept of philogynoir provides a name for conscious gestures of love towards those same people—words, acts, and artifacts of acknowledgement, admiration, and adoration which have the potential to neutralize and ultimately undo the effects of the hatred. Deep listening, as I imagine it, in its potential to affirm, to humanize, to dignify, and to amplify, can be activated as a powerful form of philogynoir.
Other than the chance to redress my teacherly wrongs, the greatest honor I experienced in this philogynoir project was the opportunity to attend to the hurts of my students by listening to their distress, their agony. To be sure, their playlists and commentaries demonstrate that the idiosyncratic black girl idiom is highly equipped to express a full range of feelings, thoughts, experiences, and yearnings, so I hesitate to make any move which might define and confine the black female experience or its idiosyncratic idiom only in terms of pain and trauma, especially when there is such little space for black girl pain beyond its most fetishized pop culture iterations. The pain and the trauma are there, however, and deserve witness and respect.
I call attention to the pain and the trauma in my students’ idiosyncratic black girl idiom because it is precious. These are sacred hurts, holy injuries—not because they were inflicted by a deity, but because where they touched the lives of these young women, they became creative forces, shaping the signs and symbols by which these young women will know and be known, by which they will call and be called. There is tragedy here, yes, and terrible misery—but there is also mystery and great, thrilling, healing power, as well. My fervent wish for these young women is that with time, they will come to embrace the mystery and to know healing in every hurting place. My prayer is that they will each, in time, wield that creative force of their own accord to make something beautiful and lasting in the genius of their own idiosyncratic black girl idiom.
What follows are the playlists, with commentary, of these three young black women (whose names I have changed), both bespeaking and spoken in the “idiosyncratic black girl idiom” of each individual young woman, articulating each unique voice and vision and innately honoring the experiences that have shaped them. I have included no critiques of the songs or even of their commentaries. For the time being, these playlists represent a sacred line in the sand across which I will not venture with critique.
I am simply listening now. I’m listening to them, and I’m listening for them…in solidarity and in love.
- Long Song Away by Kevin Ross
This whole song is jazzy, especially the intro. It’s about a girl in the rush of it all. I connected to it because I had so many responsibilities at home. I never had time for fun. My life was joyless. I was like a robot. I finally had to have a conversation with my mom and let her know that she would have to let me live a little and be young. There had to be some kind of fun in my life. This song is about slowing down and just letting the record play.
- Confidently Lost by Sabrina Claudio
This song speaks to me. I’ve been lost before and I got to a place where I was comfortable with my lostness. I love the part about “I don’t need you to find me cuz I’m not hiding anything.” This is a good soul/R&B song about how hard it is to figure out what will bring you fulfillment but that’s not a bad place to be. Being lost is not necessarily anything negative. It means you’re going somewhere.
- Redbone by Childish Gambino
This song makes me want to put on some skates and roll-bounce to it. A lot of people like the groove on this song, but they miss the deeper meaning. It’s telling people to wake up and be known for who you are. It has a lot of references to the Black Lives Matter Movement and the dangers involved in being black. When he says “scandalous” and “creep up on you,” he’s talking about police brutality and racism, especially with the president we have now, and when he says “greenlight,” that’s a code for “wake up” as in “be woke.”
- Location by Khalid
This one is about early teenage love and it’s talking about how we are all too attached to our electronics, so when he says “send me your location,” he’s talking about using the electronics as a way to get to face-to-face communication.
- Put It On Me by Jah Rule feat. Lil Mo & Vita
I like this song maybe because I was born in them days. It’s about a thug and his ride-or-die chick. I like the part when he says, “Every thug needs a lady.” But this song actually means more to me than just the song. In my family, I have many family members who have ties to gangs. I’m looking out for my little brother and doing everything I can to keep him from that life. One of the things we do is perform in the house. We always do this song, like we act it out and everything. So I always think of my brother when I hear this song, especially the part where he says, “Where would I be without you?” I’m that person for my brother. If I wasn’t there for him, he’d be in a gang. I also have a close friend who used to be affiliated, but she’s not anymore. I think about her on the part where it says, “A tear for a tear,” because when she cries, I cry.
- Coming Out Strong by Future & The Weekend
I chose this song because it reminds me that no matter what, I can never give up on myself even if I’m in a bad position in life.
- Do For Love by TuPac
I like this song because it tells a story and the way TuPac loves the girl and never gave up on her….I wish someone could do the same for me.
I chose these two songs by this particular singer because she talks about love in a different aspect compared to everyone else these days. Her take on love is different, like it’s more thoughtful and more mature. It’s not just sex and drama.
- Candy by Cameo
I chose this song because I just have to have some funk in my life. LOL
- Ride of Your Life by Tinashe
I like the beat of this song and it’s kind of catchy in a way.
- Habits (Stay High) by Tove Lo
I chose this song because after my first love broke my heart, I developed bad habits because my heart was traumatized.
- Kiss It Better by Rihanna
I wish someone could kiss my heart better, but it seems like everyone is the same.
- Party Monster by The Weekend
After my bad habits formed like having sex with no love interest hoping it would make me feel better some type of way….This song talks about sex, drugs, and waking up next to someone and not really knowing them.
- The Letter by Kehlani
“‘The Letter’ by Kehlani is featured on her album You Should Be Here. It was released in April of 2015. The song speaks on a loved one who abandoned Kehlani at a young age. She references her mother, and it goes through the motions of abandonment and feeling unwanted. In the song, she says,
Why bring me into the light?
Must have done something
To make you want to run and hide
Why oh why didn’t you just live your life?
And every girl needs a mother, and dammit, I needed you.
I chose this song because it was the first time I felt like I could personally and truly relate to art. My mother left my life when I was 15. Similar to Kehlani in the song, I had so many things going on in my head for years. But then I heard the song…and it said everything I didn’t know how to say at the time. I blamed myself like she did for a while, and I questioned her motives every day. My mother left during a crucial stage of my childhood, and it’s something I still don’t know how to recover from. The experience in this song plays a role in my story because it showed me that I’m not the only one, and that I had a choice to let the loss make me or break me. I chose for it to make me stronger.”
- Keep Ya Head Up by Tupac
“Keep Ya Head Up” by Tupac was featured on his album Strictly for My N.I.G.G.A.Z. which debuted in February of 1993. This song talks about a lot of issues in today’s society but particularly women’s roles. He speaks on rape culture and women’s rights.
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women — do we hate our women?
I think it’s time to kill for our women
Time to heal our women, be real to our women
And since a man can’t make one
He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one
So will the real men get up?
I know you’re fed up, ladies, but keep ya head up
I chose this song because it relates to my womanhood. Tupac speaks on our lesser value in today’s society and our mistreatment. Women are allowed to be raped without any repercussions and we are constantly STILL fighting for our own rights, even today.
- 1st of Tha Month by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony
“1st of Tha Month” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony is featured on their 1999 Eternal album. The song centers around receiving welfare checks in lower income areas and how the community rejoices.
Wake up, wake up, wake up
It’s the 1st of the month
So get up, get up, get up
So cash your checks and come up
I chose this song because I know that feeling, of not having much to eat all month. Sometimes you could feel that emptiness and you resort to doing things you wouldn’t normally do if you weren’t put in that situation. Getting those checks brought solace to my household. That economic struggle made me who I am, and made me appreciate so much. But the 1st of the month… The whole hood would feel that deposit.
- Weary Blues by Louis Armstrong
“Weary Blues” by Louis Armstrong was released in the year of 1925 and is featured on his Jazz Collected album, collaborating with Hot Five and Hot Seven. The song feels like soul. With the rhythm, all the way to the emotion, you can feel celebration. I chose this song because it reminds me of Louisiana itself. It reminds me of Mardi Gras, the crawfish, the Southern lingo. It reminds me of my Southern culture which plays a huge role in my life.
- Wishing by Edo G feat. Masta Ace
“Wishing” by Edo G and Masta Ace is featured on Edo G’s album, My Own Worst Enemy, which released in 2004. The song speaks about problems reflected in the system, that need to be addressed. Being lied to by presidents, lack of healthcare, blacks being murdered, drugs, and many other issues. In the first verse Masta Ace says,
I wish the president would stop lying
Black babies would stop crying
And young brothers would stop dying
I wish the police would stop killing
Politicians stop stealing and acting like they not dealing
When they know they got bricks in the street
I’ve chosen this song, because it speaks about problems that often are ignored that go on within my community. It also speaks about political corruption, which is something I care about. These issues affect me as an American because they are American issues. Being black and low income, you are subjected to a lot of different deprivations. This song highlights them and throws up a red flag. For change.
Featured image: “Afro Punk Fest 2013” by Flickr user J-No, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Shakira Holt is a lifelong Los Angeles resident and teaches literature on the secondary level. She earned a doctorate degree in English from the University of Southern California and works primarily in the area of black women’s literature and culture. o
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A Listening Mind: Sound Learning in a Literature Classroom–Nicole Furlonge
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.