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On Ventriloquism, Dummies, and Trump’s Voice

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A few weeks ago, I wrote my dissertation’s epilogue on Trump as a ventriloquist’s dummy without a ventriloquist. At that point I was still ignorantly assuming that things wouldn’t go the way they did. I looked back at these words yesterday and was struck by what still resonated and what I got so, so wrong.
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Even a dummy can hear that the bygone “America” invoked by the current U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s popular slogan “Make America Great Again” is a resonant echo of the “America” lambasted by Richard and Willie’s radical vinyl ventriloquism in the era of the U.S. Bicentennial forty years ago. This fantasy “America”—as the black ventriloquist duo, alongside their inspiration Richard Pryor, pointed out in 1976—conveniently guts U.S. history, eliding the nation’s enduring legacies of genocide and slavery and shilling the myth of the country’s originary whiteness.
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It is not, however, Trump’s campaign slogan that ultimately captivates the audiences—that “galvanizes the base,” as it were—of the much beloved and much ridiculed businessman, reality television star, and now, non-metaphorical politician. Rather, Trump’s appeal seems to stem from his propensity for “saying what we all want to say but can’t say.”  Indeed, Trump has positioned himself as a “voice,” as the voice, that will finally speak out against the “politically correct” discourse that has silenced “the American people”: “The forgotten men and women of our country—people who work hard but no longer have a voice: I am your voice,” he declared at the close of the 2016 Republican National Convention. The real estate mogul-cum-TV-star-cum-politician is famous for speaking off-script, for “telling it like it is,” for staging the vocalization of things that, in Jeff Dunham’s words, “you could never say out loud.”
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As my dissertation “Anachronism Effects: Ventriloquism and Popular Media” shows, Trump’s celebrated ability to speak the allegedly unspeakable is a key function of the ventriloquist’s dummy (a function that, it should go without saying, has been put to varying ends). What distinguishes Trump from the usual political puppets, however, is the absence of a discernible ventriloquist. For unlike George W. Bush, who was constantly relegated to Vice President Dick Cheney’s knee during the seemingly endless period of the former’s dubious presidential career, Trump appears beholden to no one, a horror movie ventriloquist’s dummy that uncannily operates on its own, like Corky Withers’ Fats.
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As a dummy without a ventriloquist, Trump can, and does, make a point of accusing his rivals of dummification. At the RNC, he framed Hillary Clinton as “a ‘puppet’ of corporations and elites…[sure to] ‘keep our rigged system in place.’”  Paradoxically, this kind of accusation is extremely effective amongst his supporters, who, ironically, love him for exemplifying the puppet’s freedom to spout whatever invective comes to mind. Surely the politician’s words matter, but my own feeling is that it matters less what Trump says and more that he has cultivated the appearance of saying something, really anything, that otherwise cannot be said.
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A close examination of his actual language reveals that there is still so much left unsaid by this high-profile dummy, so much that remains implicit within the chaotic, yet fundamentally interpretable, stream of consciousness that appears to constitute his discourse (for a discussion of the codedness of Trumpean language, see Chris A. Smith, “How Politicians Talk About Race and Gender Without Talking About Race and Gender”).   After all, like Dunham, Trump will name “Mexicans,” “immigrants,” and “Muslims,” as personae non grata in his “America,” but there are other groups he fails to indict as vociferously. Indeed, there are still things that this dummy “can’t say,” confirming the fact that “political correctness” informs Trump’s language just as much as it does many other politicians’. What differentiates him from the rest of the lot is the reigning fantasy, held by those on the left as well as on the right, that his strings have been cut, that he performs as freely and divinely as a Kleistian marionette.

The powerful fantasy of unbridled speech that attends to Trump has equally captivated Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, those on the supposedly opposite poles of our dual-party system. This is why liberal arguments whose heft hinges on the things Trump has said, citing their lack of logic, their fascistic bent, et cetera, will have utterly no bearing on the man’s popularity. Trump’s pull arises from his vocalization’s appearance as unfettered. And Trump well knows this, which is why he flouts teleprompts and cues, debate preparation, and “party lines.” His act may, as ventriloquist acts often do, end up going badly. My point, however, is that its allure is less about language and more about voice.

In a recent Washington Post article in early 2016, journalist Kevin Guo analyzed Trump’s accent, writing that
Trump’s supporters often praise how the politician gives voice to harsh truths. But that voice itself, that unmistakable instrument, has been a noteworthy element of Trump’s populist image. Though he grew up in privilege…Trump never shed his Queens accent. Today, that accent helps him summon the stereotype of the blunt, no-nonsense New Yorker.
The reporter has a point, that Trump’s accent, his New York inflection, makes him sound no-bullshit, even pragmatic, in spite of the politician’s immense wealth and privilege. Yet the analysis only goes so far. For the “forgotten” Americans to whose unspeakable longings Trump claims to give voice are largely not New Yorkers with Queens accents. (As an aside: Bernie Sanders undoubtedly also emits New York-accented speech, and though the two politicians’ bases have had some overlap, they generally have not appealed to the same constituencies.)
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Trump’s effectiveness, then, lies not in his language or even his “no-nonsense” accent, but in what communications scholar Jennifer Mercieca has identified as the rhetorical strategy of “paralipsis” in “How Donald Trump Gets Away With Saying Things Other Candidates Can’t.”  Writes Mercieca, “paralipsis…enables [Trump] to publicly say things he can later disavow,” later defining the Greek term as “(para, ‘side’ and leipein, ‘to leave’)…leave to the side.”  Once again, we must observe that “leaving to the side” is precisely what ventriloquism enacts, placing dummy alongside ventriloquist so that the former can say what the latter “can’t.” In Mercieca’s reading, Trump is both ventriloquist and dummy, able to speak the unspeakable in one voice and disavow that spoken unspeakable in a voice materially identical to the first.
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That Trumpism is ventriloquism, and not just in the metaphorical sense, has not gone lost on Terry Fator, who, as an actual ventriloquist and a proud Trump supporter, has been open about his appreciation of the politician’s artistry. “I’m a huge Trump fan,” he crowed on Fox News in May of 2016, affirming that he and his wife will vote for the politician come the 2016 presidential election. Fator appeared alongside a new puppet—a larger-than-life, toupee-crowned Trump dummy he recently added to his Vegas repertoire.
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“With somebody as colorful as Trump,” the ventriloquist began, “—and I don’t do anything derogatory,” he continued, cutting himself off mid-sentence, as Trump himself might have done. “It’s all fun,” Fator went on, “it’s like, you know, the hair,” he said, then doffing the puppet’s orange mop. “I don’t really do political humor,” he continued, “but really it’s how does Trump feel about something…. So I’m not making a political statement in my show; I’m letting Trump say what he feels about something….” After a few moments’ more banter with anchor Sean Hannity, Fator let Trump “say what he feels,” which amounted, quite simply, to the phrase “I’m gonna make Mexico pay for it!,” at which point Fator had the puppet sing a few bars from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”
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Awkwardly, and for a few moments too long, Hannity laughed. The dummy hadn’t said much of “what he felt” about anything. He’d simply repeated Trump’s speech, like a broken record.
 Featured Image: Screen Capture by SO! Ed. JS
Sarah Kessler is a recent Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine.  She received an M.A. in Modern Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2008. Kessler’s writing on art, film, and media has appeared in artforum.com, the Brooklyn Rail, In These Times, and Public Books, among other publications, and she has held editorial positions at Triple Canopy and Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry

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Karaoke and Ventriloquism: Echoes and Divergences--Sarah Kessler and Karen Tongson

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Sound and Sanity: Rallying Against “The Voice”–Mark Brantner

Gendered Sonic Violence, from the Waiting Room to the Locker Room

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This past August 2016, professional “pick-up artist” Dan Bacon caused a stir with his article “How to Talk to a Woman Who is Wearing Headphones.”  The article was published on TheModernMan, a site pledging to “make [a woman] want to have sex with you ASAP.”  Bacon offers step-by-step “instructions” for pick-up artists to overcome the obstacle of being rendered inaudible by the music a woman might be listening to:

She will most likely take off her headphones to talk to you when you say, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’, but if she doesn’t, just smile, point to her headphones and confidently ask, ‘Can you take off your headphones for a minute?’ as you pretend to be taking headphones off your head, so she fully understands what you mean.

His article was criticized in articles that appeared in The Guardian, Washington Post, Slate, and other news sites, which pointed out that Bacon and his followers advocated ignoring a clear visual signifier of privacy in pursuit of sex. Not only did Bacon feel entitled to a woman’s time, they suggested, but also to an audience. What Bacon insists is “two, [sic] normal human beings having a conversation” is in fact a belief in his unilateral right to be heard.

Image by Flickr User Chris Wolcott, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Image by Flickr User Chris Wolcott, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

I witness a similar gendered dynamic of forced listening each week outside of a women’s health clinic in New York, where I volunteer as a clinic escort. Evangelical protesters from a handful of churches line the sidewalks outside the clinic every Saturday morning during the hours that they know abortions have been scheduled (in addition to pap smears, screenings for sexually transmitted infection, prenatal care, transgender services, etc.). Escorts walk with patients down the block to the front door. The sidewalk becomes a space of physical and emotional risk as protesters block the pathway with large, gruesome signs and their flailing limbs (at times physically assaulting volunteers and patients), as well as filming and photographing patients in the hopes of inducing shame.

Among their most intrusive weapons is the scream, which male protestors direct at patients, nurses, doctors, volunteers, security guards, and passersby.  While women are abortion protestors, too, they generally get relegated to note-taking, sign holding, and pamphlet distribution, almost never given the authority to “sidewalk preach” or scream. In my experience of listening to this masculine screaming, words lose all sense and become pure sensation. Some patients wince, most speed up their pace, a few burst into nervous laughter, and almost all are stunned into speechlessness as they experience what one volunteer calls “the ripping apart of silence.”

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Anti-Abortion protest in Miami, 2006, Image by Flickr User Danny Hammontree, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

During otherwise quiet moments, when nobody is walking down the sidewalk, a handful of men including a pastor and a high school science teacher pace the strip of sidewalk directly in front of the clinic entrance, preaching about sexual immorality and the “black genocide” taking place behind its soundproof walls. When a woman turns the corner down the sidewalk, they immediately begin to raise their voices. The men shout loudly as they attempt to chase women away from the door: “You don’t have to do this”; “Don’t be a murderer”; “You should have kept your legs closed.” The women and children accompanying these men plead in tones of pure desperation: “Your baby has a heartbeat at three weeks”; “You will regret it”; “Let us help you.” Volunteers chatter to the patients, trying to babble over the cacophony; the clinic has been forbidden from broadcasting amplified sound, though Janis Joplin and other artists used to play from speakers at the entrance.

A sample of anti-abortion protestors’ sonic technique, by Youtube user ehipassiko

At other clinics in the United States, protesters use amplified sound in violation of city sound permit requirements.  In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Catholic Church purchased the land across the street from the reproductive services clinic. Every weekday morning protesters gather there to sing, pray, and yell at cars and the patients getting out of them. Sitting in the midst of signs declaring “ALL LIVES MATTER” and “TULSA’S AUSCHWITZ,” a boombox faces the front door of the clinic and blasts Christian rock music. A clinic escort in Tulsa, who is also a Unitarian priest, described her experience with amplified sound in a sermon titled “A Womb of One’s Own”:

I stood near the driveway entrance where the protestors had placed a CD player blaring Christian music (which I happened to know) and so I stood near it and sang softly while they continued to shout. After about 20 minutes of shouting from afar, while I stood singing to the music, one of the protesters came near the CD player and began to pray for me—loudly. I stood quietly as he yelled a prayer for my misdirection, for my false prophethood, for my broken soul.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, volunteers track decibel levels on their phones in the hopes of getting the local police to issue a citation.

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If, as Jonathan Sterne states in The Audible Past, “listening is a directed, learned activity” (19), then women and gender-nonconforming people must learn the art of hearing but actively not listening, of learning to direct one’s attention elsewhere to ignore catcalls and shouts of abuse. Christine Ehrick points out that vocal sound is not only a signifier of gender, it’s also a signifier of power. To ignore a male voice yelling over one’s own, or over one’s headphones, requires a stamina that contradicts the expectation of female receptivity and submission; Bacon asserts that “most women are polite” and will take off their headphones when asked. Even as patients overcome their shock and put up a wall against the shouting, protesters and volunteers must perfect the act of directed listening, focusing on the commentary to take note of periodic death threats, bomb threats, and any other unusual comments in spite of the repetition of the preaching and aural abuse.  They must also speak and listen guardedly to each other, as protesters eavesdrop on conversations between volunteers, hoping to discover their identities so as to shame and harass them in the public and professional sphere.

Anti-abortion protesters push their agenda through their conflation of the public and private, the internal and external, the oral and aural. They continue to yell even once the patients have made their way into the clinic, despite the fact that the waiting room is soundproof—silent except for the occasional murmured conversation, soft piano music, or cartoons. In his essay “Broadcasting the body: the ‘private’ made ‘public’ in hospital soundscapes” in Georgina Born’s 2013 collection Music, Sound and Space, Tom Rice discusses the blurring of the internal and external in hospital environments, where patients must put on “mental headphones” as a form of “studied unawareness” (174). Despite the private, internal nature of illness, in hospitals there exist “threats to bodily boundaries and bodily control” (184). The right-to-life movement has capitalized on this blurring of boundaries since its 1984 film The Silent Scream. If their posters of mangled fetuses bring the unseen into the realm of the visible, their shouting brings the unheard into the realm of the audible as they give voice to these silent fetuses: “Mommy, mommy, don’t kill me!”

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41st MARCH FOR LIFE RALLY in front of the US Supreme Court on 1st Street between Maryland Avenue and East Capitol Street, NE, Washington DC on Thursday afternoon, 22 January 2015 by Elvert Barnes Protest Photography, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When anti-abortion protesters gather in public spaces such as sidewalks, they affirm Judith Butler’s claim in Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly that “if there is a body in the public sphere, it is presumptively masculine and unsupported, presumptively free to create, but not itself created. And the body in the private sphere is female, ageing, foreign, or childish, and always prepolitical” (75). The loudest protesters use their male bodies and male voices to assert their right to create sound and to be listened to by female ears.  The masculine voices emanating from these presumptively male bodies stridently invade, interrupt, and attempt to shape private and prepolitical spaces, extending even to the uterus—what one would think would be the most private and prepolitical of spaces. At its most troubling, the loud, relentless insistence by the right to an audience translates to the desired ownership of non-male bodies.  This desire for control–and its performative rhetoric enacted in the public sphere–originates in the absence of female bodies and voices, in the exclusively male private sphere of “locker room talk.”

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This was locker room talk. This was locker room talk. I’m not proud of it . . . This was locker roomtalk. Yes, I’m very embarrassed by it, and I hate it, but it’s locker room talk. –Donald Trump in the third presidential debate, 19 October 2016

The stridency of the 2016 election cycle has revealed the gendered nature of public space and sonically blurred the boundaries between the theoretically public space of streets and the metaphoric masculine privacy of the metaphorical “locker room.”

“Locker room talk” has been the term used by right-wing pundits–and the candidate himself– to excuse the recently re-played 2005 recording of US presidential candidate Donald Trump bragging to radio and TV host Billy Bush about various sexual conquests: “I moved on her like a bitch”; “Grab them by the pussy”; “You can do anything.”  Trump’s statement following the release of the tape in October 2016 emphasized a patriarchal delineation of space, in which male bodies are always safe and non-male bodies almost never are: “This was locker-room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago.”

Trump’s insistence on a private space, in which men can talk amongst themselves with no consequences, reverses the dynamic outside of the hospital, in which the private is made public. It also further demonstrates the blurrability—and even portability—of private space, which white males arm themselves with and freely replicate in public spaces. Not only does such private “banter” affirm the assumption of the superiority of the male voice and the stigmatization of the female voice, it silences the voices of the women affected by Trump’s actions, while objectifying women-writ-large into currency exchanged between men. And indeed, women’s prior allegations were all but ignored by the press and the public until the release of Bush tapes.

We had to hear it from Trump’s own mouth to believe it.

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In Modernity’s Ear, Roshanak Kheshti discusses the “feminization of listening” via sound reproduction and particularly the world music industry, which mythologizes the sound of the “other” in service of white female ears (27). Constructed in terms of a male heteronormative fantasy, the ear has come to resemble a vagina, “an organ to be penetrated by an active sonic force” (67). In this construction not even headphones–which ideally afford a visual signal calling for privacy and the gendered privilege of uninterrupted listening–are enough to shield non-male ears from the average scheming pick-up artist.

Kheshti’s arguments can be fittingly applied to gender-specific spaces of both the locker room and the abortion clinic. Male-asserted power dynamics of speaking and listening work to create spaces spaces that silence female needs, voices, and agency. In the public space outside the clinic, such practices deem women an ear for hearing patriarchal arguments against abortion, and in the private space of the locker room, objectify them as a vagina for “grabbing.”

The spatializing of power dynamics via sound has forced women to become versed in aural refusal, to keep our ears closed the same way we are encouraged to “keep our legs closed.” This aural refusal, however, all too often renders women silent in public, patriarchal spaces. Feminist initiatives like “Shout Your Abortion” and “Hollaback,” a movement to end street harassment, have given women voice within these structures of gendered sonic violence. The initial criticism faced by Hollaback, regarding racism in their viral video, alongside the targeting of non-white women and couples outside the clinic, suggests that the intersectional dimension of listening in public needs further examination in hopes of reaching an understanding of what equitable public space would sound like. Ultimately, however, with these and other movements, women are asserting not only our right to harassment-free public and private space, but our right to create sound, to speak, and to be heard.

 

Featured Image: “Yell!” by Flickr User Vetustense Photorogue, Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Rebecca Lentjes is an NYC-based writer and gender equality activist with plans to pursue graduate studies in ethnomusicology at Stony Brook University. Her work has appeared in VAN Magazine, Music & Literature, TEMPO Quarterly Review of New Music, Bachtrack, and I Care If You Listen. By day she works as an editor and translator at RILM Abstracts of Music Literature; by night she hatches schemes to dismantle the patriarchy.

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I Can’t Hear You Now, I’m Too Busy Listening: Social Conventions and Isolated Listening–Osvaldo Oyola

Gendered Voices and Social Harmony–Robin James

Vocal Gender and the Gendered Soundscape: At the Intersection of Gender Studies and Sound Studies—Christine Ehrick

 

 

 

Malcolm Gladwell’s Bad Aesthetics

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Malcolm Gladwell, who recently wrapped the first season of his podcast Revisionist History, has been on a roll lately. Not a particularly endearing one, though. I’ve been trying to locate his nadir, but it’s not easy with so many options to choose from. Is it in the New Yorker, when he condescendingly exclaims “Of course not!” in response to whether Caster Semenya should be allowed to compete in the 800-meter at the Olympics? He follows up with the assertion that no track-and-field fan disagrees with him, as if the complexity of gender identification is somehow best left to a majority appeal. Or is it in Revisionist History’s Episode 9, “Generous Orthodoxy,” when he chides Princeton students protesting the use of Woodrow Wilson’s name around campus? Calling one student “angry”—a loaded word to lob at a black woman—and surmising she would later “regret her choice of words,” Gladwell advises the students to instead threaten to leave the university if their requests aren’t honored. Why? Because otherwise “every crotchety old Princeton alum” wouldn’t believe they actually care about the university.

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For those keeping score, that’s Gladwell, who spent an entire other episode of his podcast lamenting that we don’t “capitalize” people’s educational potential well enough, counseling black students to separate themselves from an Ivy League education as a way to make a point about a pro-segregationist president. Gladwell’s seventh episode, “Hallelujah,” where he discusses musical genius, is not obviously about the kind of systemic inequalities he bumbles in the Semenya and Princeton examples. But the conclusions he draws about genius and the anti-pop aesthetic judgments he claims are informed by the same bad gender and race politics that would put a person’s gender identification in other people’s hands and place the burden of sacrifice on the aggrieved in matters of racial injustice.

The episode “Hallelujah” revolves around two songs that Gladwell argues reached their peak of genius years after they were initially recorded: “Deportees Club” (1984) by Elvis Costello and “Hallelujah” (1984) by Leonard Cohen. In each case, Gladwell asserts that the first recordings were flawed but that they attained a certain beauty in later versions that reveals something about how genius works, though each attained that genius status by different routes. While Costello is responsible for the version of “Deportees Club” that Gladwell loves—he re-recorded it as “Deportee” in 1985 (it wouldn’t be released until 1995 on a re-issue of Goodbye, Cruel World)—“Hallelujah” would peak for Gladwell in a series of covers, most famously by Jeff Buckley (1994), performed by artists other than Cohen. Gladwell’s focus on the process by which a song reaches genius status is a riff on David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses theory. Here, Costello and the litany of “Hallelujah” coverers display a process of genius called “experimental innovation,” where the first draft is never the final draft, and genius is only unlocked after years of work. I’ll return to Gladwell’s notion of musical beauty and how it relates to his bad politics momentarily, but I first want to unpack the theory of genius that enthralls him in this episode.

mozart-beethovenGalenson’s notion of genius is a binary, where some geniuses (“conceptual innovators”) are very young, decisive artists and others, like the “experimental innovators” responsible for “Deportee” and “Hallelujah,” are endless tinkerers who tend to reach their creative potential later in life. Gladwell uses the same paradigmatic examples that Galenson does to categorize geniuses; conceptual innovators are Pablo Picasso, while experimental innovators are Paul Cézanne. Curiously, Gladwell notes that this theory of genius may be best exemplified in music, but he doesn’t seem aware that music scholars have already laid out this same broad theory of genius with easy comps: Mozart the young genius and Beethoven the old master. Moreover, Gladwell doesn’t seem aware that this is a lousy theory of genius.

I’ve written elsewhere about genius myths, and there’s a rabbit hole of problematic ideas out there about classical music genius that run from benignly self-serving to violently racist. One critique is particularly useful for pushing back against Gladwell, as it highlights the gender and race problems with Gladwell’s approach to genius. Tia DeNora’s Beethoven and the Construction of Genius (1994) is a painstaking deconstruction of Beethoven’s genius. While DeNora’s argument includes a number of moving parts, it can be summarized as a demonstration of the way “genius” isn’t so much innate talent as it is a combination of several social and political ideals intersecting with a person’s talents or insights.

It was the 90s, when postmodernity crested in musicology, and the aim of DeNora’s analysis is quintessentially postmodern: undo the Great White Man myth to make room for other kinds of histories and notions of genius to be accommodated. If we understand Beethoven’s genius to be firmly rooted in a number of social and political attitudes—including the reflexive belief that only a white man could be a genius—that tipped in his favor, then we can understand that history isn’t telling us that only men or only white people can be geniuses; rather, history is showing its biases. This sort of deconstruction doesn’t really move the academic needle now—most college freshmen can articulate the Great White Man critique—largely due to the work of DeNora and other deconstructionists who effectively cleared the space for us to build other kinds of scholarship on top of their work.

"Pop!Tech 2008 - Malcolm Gladwell" by Flickr user Pop!Tech, CC BY 2.0

“Pop!Tech 2008 – Malcolm Gladwell” by Flickr user Pop!Tech, CC BY 2.0

Alas, though, the 90s truly must be all the rage right now, because Gladwell is wading right back into Great White Man territory. To be clear, he isn’t doing it on purpose, for whatever that’s worth. In Episode 9, the one where he counsels the black Princeton students to threaten to leave the school, he performs a whole Great White Man rant to establish his credibility as A Guy Who Gets It. But beyond understanding that there are too many things named after white men, Gladwell doesn’t indicate that he knows what the rub really is, that the name on a building or School is a tiny piece of a much bigger, systemic problem of race and gender. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, his ideas about musical genius betray his own tendency to set up hierarchies where Great White Men are always on top. So excuse me while I pump some air in my Reeboks, hitch up my Guess jeans, and douse myself in CK1; we have some 90s theory to attend to.

Gladwell doesn’t—and perhaps can’t—articulate what’s genius about the versions of “Deportee” and “Hallelujah” he reveres, and his assessment of the originals is similarly vague. About 1984’s “Deportees Club,” he exclaims, “Oh, god, It’s awful!” For Cohen’s 1984 “Hallelujah,” Gladwell borrows a line from Michael Barthel, who could’ve just as well been describing Gladwell’s podcast: “The entire performance is so hyperserious that it’s almost satire.” [Historiographic aside: Barthel, who is now a researcher for the Pew Research Center, seems to be the under-cited source for the “Hallelujah” history in both Gladwell’s podcast and Alan Light’s book on the song]. Gladwell may suffer a poverty of aesthetic language to describe what is or isn’t good about these songs, but by considering what he does and doesn’t like—what counts as genius or not for him—we can understand where his aesthetic allegiances lie.

Screenshot of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" video on YouTube

Screenshot of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” video on YouTube

Gladwell finds beauty in music whose emotional content is as stripped down as the acoustic guitar textures on the later recordings of “Deportee” and “Hallelujah.” The line he quotes from Barthel misses the point: Barthel likes the satirical nature of the original “Hallelujah” and finds the famous Buckley version—which becomes something of an ürtext for all the covers that came after it—an unfortunate telescoping of emotional range, a “Hallelujah” that only knows lament instead of the many “holy, broken, profane, transcendent” hallelujahs Cohen first explored. But all those hallelujahs, along with the “angry, loud, and upsetting” original “Deportees Club,” don’t seem to suit Gladwell, who prefers versions of the songs where both the emotional and musical content are as straightforward as possible.

Screenshot from Jeff Buckley's video for "Hallelujah"

Screenshot from Jeff Buckley’s video for “Hallelujah”

That Gladwell is drawn to the versions of Buckley’s “Hallelujah” and Costello’s later “Deportee” that feature an acoustic singer-songwriter coffeehouse vibe isn’t a coincidence. The villain in his account of genius is pop. Noting that both songs were initially recorded in 1984, he reminds us that year’s “biggest album” was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” “pop music glossed to perfection…not a single stray note or emotion on that record.” “Thriller” was the final single from an album two years old, and it peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, so Gladwell’s definition of “biggest album” is suspect, but he’s looking for “the antithesis of ‘Deportee’ and ‘Hallelujah,’” so I’ll engage on his terms and zero in on his aesthetics by figuring out what he thinks is wrong with pop music like “Thriller.”

Gladwell offers a couple other assessments of pop aesthetics in his description of producers. Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who co-produced the Goodbye, Cruel World album “Deporteees Club” appeared on, are the ill-fitting pop perfectionists who try to harness Costello’s sound but only manage to screw it up. Trevor Horn is the guy spending four weeks—“a month,” Gladwell bemoans—shaping a snare sound for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” (1983). Whether it’s Langer and Winstanley, Horn, or Quincy Jones (who Gladwell doesn’t name but who produced “Thriller”), Gladwell has no space for the behind-the-glass work of sound design and sonic processing in his aesthetics of genius. He argues, citing Costello’s own assessment, that glossy pop perfection couldn’t capture the “dark, emotional, bitter songs, gritty and spare,” pouring out of Costello. For Gladwell, pop music production is the villain because it short circuits the true, raw emotion that he finds beautiful.

The problem with Gladwell’s aesthetics is that he’s mistaking his taste for genius, then reverse-manufacturing an explanation of genius that privileges a specifically white masculine mode of expression. “Glossy pop perfection,” in his estimation, covers up something beautiful, obscuring real emotion. But directly sharing one’s emotions—whether musically or politically—is more acceptable for some than for others. We need look no further than Gladwell for proof. If you’re Elvis Costello or Jeff Buckley singing laments? You’re a genius. If you’re a black woman protesting Woodrow Wilson at Princeton? You’re “angry.”

Joe Mabel [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Joe Mabel [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In fact, the danger of directly expressing oneself underlies a wide array of black aeshetics, from Gates’s Signifying Monkey to Shana Redmond’s analysis of Janelle Monae’s “Cold War.” Redmond cites Darlene Clark Hines’s “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West” to highlight Monae’s engagement with “the acts of dissemblance that have long characterized black women’s participation in the public sphere” (398). Hines argues that Black women developed “a cult of secrecy, a culture of dissemblance” to protect themselves in public spaces, “creating the appearance of disclosure…while actually remaining an enigma” (Hines 915). It is Monae’s rupture of pop conventions—she breaks down and cries, dropping her lip synch even as the track plays on—that, on the one hand, creates the space for her to step outside of that culture of dissemblance and, on the other hand, marks the cover those pop conventions provide, the strategic, protective secrecy available under so much glossy pop perfection. In his 2002 “Feenin,’” Alexander Weheliye homes in on glossy pop voice-processing, the vocoders and filters (and, several years after his article, AutoTune) that render the R&B voice machinic, and contends that these processing techniques yield human desire that “can be represented only in the guise of the machinic” (39, emphasis mine). In other words, the gloss isn’t a bad thing. It’s a strategy that plugs technology into humanity in order to project ways of being beyond the white liberal humanist subject. In both Redmond’s and Weheliye’s analyses, the sound of pop, the glossy perfection that Gladwell holds up as the antithesis of genius, is employed by Black musicians to enable emotionality in a world that is otherwise hostile to such expression.

Gladwell’s bad aesthetics, his refusal to recognize beauty in pop music, is also bad politics. By holding up an aesthetic that prizes stripped-down, straightforward emotionality, a form of expression available to some but not others, Gladwell ends up in the same Great White Man genius bind DeNora and others unraveled in the postmodern 90s. So I’ll sum it up with a 90s phrase: genius is always already political. Denora argues—and Gladwell inadvertently demonstrates—that labeling artists as genius relies on politically volatile aesthetic judgments that reinforce existing power hierarchies, in this case along the lines of race and gender. Like his response to Princeton students and his armchair adjudication of Semenya’s gender identity, Gladwell’s theory of musical genius proves to be less a revision of history and more a revival of history’s worst politics.

Featured image: “Malcolm Gladwell” by Flickr user Ed Schipul, CC BY-SA 2.0

Justin D Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, and a regular writer at Sounding Out!. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his current book project is called Posthuman Pop. He is co-editor with Ali Colleen Neff of the Journal of Popular Music Studies 27:4, “Sounding Global Southernness,” and with Jason Lee Oakes of the Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies (2017). You can catch him atjustindburton.com and on Twitter @justindburton. His favorite rapper is Right Said Fred.

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Sounding Out! Podcast #58: The Meaning of Silence

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In this podcast Marcella Ernest discusses the cultural use of sound in Hula and other Native languages with discussants Candace Gala and Nancy Marie Mithlo. They consider the role of silence in understand an Indigenous intellectual system. How do we use silence as a tool in Native creative processes? What does silence demand from us? Tune in as Ernest tackles these demanding questions!

Guests: 

Candace Gala, PhD, The University of British Columbia, Language and Literacy Education

Nancy Marie Mithlo, PhD, Occidental College, Art History and Visual Arts

Marcella Ernest is a Native American (Ojibwe) interdisciplinary video artist and scholar. Her work combines electronic media with sound design with film and photography in a variety of formats; using multi-media installations incorporating large-scale projections and experimental film aesthetics. Currently living in California, Marcella is completing an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. Drawing upon a Critical Indigenous Studies framework to explore how “Indianness” and Indigenity are represented in studies of American and Indigenous visual and popular culture, her primary research is an engagement with contemporary Native art to understand how members of colonized groups use a re-mix of experimental video and sound design as a means for cultural and political expressions of resistance.

www.marcellakwe.com

Featured image “Silenced” by János Csongor Kerekes @Flickr CC BY-SA

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Sounding Out! Podcast #57: The Reykjavik Sound Walk – Andrew J. Salvati

Sounding Out! Podcast #47: Finding the Lost Sounds of Kaibah — Marcella Ernest

Sounding Out! Podcast #51: Creating New Worlds From Old Sounds – Marcella Ernest

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