This is something you just don’t hear about in the history books.
–Alex Hutchinson, Creative Director, Assassin’s Creed III
What does it mean to speak American? According to Laura Amico, a teacher in the Cliffside Park school district in New Jersey, to speak American is the opposite of speaking Spanish. As suggested by this video, captured by students via Snapchat before they walked out in protest, to be American is the same as to speak American. Evidently, to speak American is to speak English, a historical curiosity, given that English was not spoken on the North American continent until the 17th century, preceded by many Native American languages and, ironically, Spanish. In simplest terms, “American English” is not a homogenous dialect either. What kind of “American English” does Laura Amico exalt as acceptable for patriotic conduct? How does an American patriot speak?
In The Patriot (2000), Mel Gibson plays Benjamin Martin, a hero of the French and Indian War, who is forced out of his South Carolina plantation-managing life to avenge the deaths of his sons at the hands of the British during the American Revolution. The main British villain of that film, the fictional Colonel Tavington,–played in sneering style by Jason Isaacs—is notable for his barbaric conduct (among other things, he traps civilians in a barn and burns them alive). British audiences were noticeably aghast at this characterization, which implicitly compared British command of the time period to Nazi atrocities in World War II. Tavington may in part have been based on Banastre Tarleton, a notorious and brutal, misogynist dragoon whose victory at Monck’s Corner was among the bloodiest battles in the dirty war fought in the south at the end of the Revolution, or Lord Rawdon, a serial rapist and generally unpleasant English officer.
Nevertheless, Tavington’s barn-burning exploits are more likely based on American General John Sullivan’s slash-and-burn campaign against British-allied Mohawks, Senecas, Onondagas, and Cayugas, a subject little discussed in American history. This culminated in a 1782 massacre at Gnadenhutten in Ohio, where white Americans murdered 96 Delawares who had converted to the Moravian faith (pacifists). Evidently, in The Patriot, the conflict was not a civil war, and character was constructed in part through dialect (as detailed below, dialect here refers to all the clues in the way a person speaks, not just his or her accent).
Although Tavington’s conduct in The Patriot manifested visibly onscreen, his dialect said much about him. As noted in a recent Atlantic Monthly article, entertainment—such as Disney cartoons—can “take [bias] and pour concrete over it.” Rosina Lippi-Green, a linguist, notes that such biases are then difficult to remove: “They etch it in.” Another linguist, Chi Luu, suggests that with English RP (see below), the effect is more subtle; such accents go beyond “pure evil” by shading villains as more educated and intelligent—but still bad. Relating these findings to The Patriot, viewers understand Tavington as educated, intelligent, and evil through his English RP dialect; moreover, in black-and-white terms, his dialect makes tangible that he is completely different from the rough-and-ready, courageous Benjamin Martin. An aural line is drawn between American “good guys” and British “bad guys.” The British are fighting just to be sadistic or greedy; the Americans are fighting to defend their way of life.
Compared to media about other American conflicts, there has been little recent dramatic depiction of the American Revolution. Historically, one reason dramatizations of the American Revolution have historically remained rare is the tradition of American reverence for the “Founding Fathers,” causing their depiction as human beings to be circumscribed. Just as visual conventions have been built up regarding the antagonists of the conflict, so, too, have aural conventions in audio-visual representations such as a general use of a Standard North American accent for American (patriot) characters (whether they hail from northern or southern colonies) and English RP for all (villainous) British characters. The effect of this is epitomized by the example from The Patriot above: “good guys” versus “bad guys.”
While the way characters sound is important in most creative works—from the written dialect of Dickens’s characters to the chilling, mask-assisted tones of Darth Vader—it is no more so than in audio drama. Richard J. Hand and Mary Traynor have argued in the The Radio Drama Handbook (2011) that the elements of audio drama are words, music, sound, and silence. Arguably the most important of these to the audio drama are words. Alan Beck’s work on radio acting further argues that to create character through words and sound, refinement of dialect is needed. In this context, dialect refers to more than just a regional pronunciation: it includes details on a character’s geographical region, social class, gender, age, style, and subgroup.
In terms of The Patriot, probably the highest profile pop cultural depiction of the American Revolution until Hamilton, accents mattered. “A well-educated British accent,” in American films at least, “had come to serve as a sufficient shorthand for villainy” as Glancy pointed out, or “British, upper class, and a psychopath, happily burning people alive,” as a 2010 Daily Mail article put it. Whatever his villainy, would a historical Colonel Tavington, have sounded the way he did as depicted in The Patriot? How did those on the North American continent in the 18th century sound?
Richard Cullen Rath has convincingly argued that sound was incredibly important in colonial America, but what role did speech in English have? David Crystal, in discussing the Globe Theatre’s 2004 production of Romeo and Juliet in original pronunciation (OP)/Early Modern English (EME), was most frequently asked one question: how do we know? How do we know what Shakespeare’s English sounded like? For EME, spelling, contemporary accounts of the language, and the use of rhythms, rhymes, and puns illuminate this area. Crystal noted that EME would not sound like any modern accent but would have the pronunciation of “rs” in common with “rural” accents, as in Ireland and the West Country (Somerset).
This is important because the association of Shakespeare with a certain kind of English accent—the RP referred to below—has long had the effect of making his works less accessible than they might have been. If Shakespeare’s actual working dialect had more in common with “rural” accents like Irish and West Country, the latter of which is often still designated as a shorthand for stupidity in common with American southern dialect, this has a liberating effect on Shakespeare in performance. It may sound “strange” at first, but it suggests that Shakespeare can/should be performed in a vernacular, at the very least to make it more accessible to a wide variety of audiences.
Crystal has suggested that, “It is unfortunately all too common to hear accents on stage or film in which—notwithstanding the best efforts of dialect coaches—accuracy and consistency throughout the performance leaves, shall we say, a little to be desired.” Sky 1’s recent big-budget effort in historical drama, Jamestown, set in 1619, is diverse and rich in dialect, with characters speaking with Irish, northern English, southern English, and Scottish accents—nor are they uniform in suggesting that one accent will signify the character’s goodness or badness (though it has to be said most of the southern English-speaking characters are, at the very least, antagonistic). Most of the Native American characters have so far not spoken English rather than racist “Tonto talk,” and white English-speaking characters must speak Powhatan (or use sign language) in order to communicate. As actor Jay Tavare points out, early Hollywood was not concerned with the accurate portrayal of indigenous languages, given that Navajo extras were most often used in Westerns (meaning the Diné language of the southwest was heard regardless of where the film was set). More recently, even such films as Dances with Wolves (1991), which has generally received praise for its accurate portrayal of Sioux/Lakota culture, included Lakota dialogue which was linguistically imprecise. Clearly, there is still a long way to go.
Suppose we decide we cannot ever know how such historical actors sounded, so we decide to depict 18th century English speakers based on other criteria. How do directors, actors, and voice coaches bring the viewer/listener as close to the author’s intent as possible in fictional depictions of the years surrounding the American Revolution? How is the 18th century made accessible through dialect? As Glancy suggests above, British officers in film, television, and radio depictions of the American Revolution are most commonly associated with Received Pronunciation (RP), though the term was not coined until 1869, and, as Crystal points out, the “best speech” heard in the English court of the 16th century was “nothing like” RP. In fact, it was probably influenced by the Devonshire accents of Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh (an English so far in Jamestown associated with servants . . .). As Edda Sharp and Jan Haydn Rowles point out in How to Do Standard English Accents, RP has almost disappeared in England, “now confined to a very small section of society, the older upper and upper middle classes, older actors and broadcasters.”
The officer class of the British Army in the 18th century was in fact largely composed of Scots (as per Stuart Reid and Paul Chappell)—though how much they retained their Scottish identity (including accent) is of course impossible to know. As Kevin Phillips in 1775: A Good Year for a Revolution points out, within England, support for the colonies during the American Revolution was generally strongest in the major cities and in the eastern and southern counties—the same places where during the Civil War, support had been strongest for Parliament and Cromwell. Support in Scotland was limited to a small fringe. By contrast, statistics from Revolutionary America 1763 to 1800: Almanacs of American Life on the ancestral origins of the white population of Virginia in 1790 make Scotch-Irish (11.7%) and Scottish (5.9%), the second-largest groups after English. References to the Scottish officer class are made in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, where Colonel Munro is referred to as “the Scotsman” (played memorably in the Michael Mann film by Maurice Roëves). Beal suggests that guides to “correct” pronunciation in the 18th century were often written by and for Scots—to pass as “British.” The Scottish people have had a long history of wishing to disassociate themselves from rule by the English (as evident in the 2014 Scottish Referendum). The Wars of Scottish Independence in the 13th and 14th centuries were fought between English and Scottish forces, at the conclusion of which Scotland retained its status as an independent state. However, in 1707, the Act of Union unified England and Scotland under one government.
With these many regional British accents potentially to be heard in the British Army in America in the 18th century, and with approximately 92.2% of white colonists in Virginia hailing from the British Isles in 1790 (including England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales), it is perhaps curious that there has been so little variation in dialect in media depictions such as films, TV, and radio. Traditionally, for example, George Washington has been depicted with a Standard North American accent and not a modern southern American accent. This is also true in the case of Colonial Williamsburg re-enactors.
Besides being generally a very sound depiction of the Revolutionary period, HBO’s John Adams (2008), based on David McCullough’s book, is also unusual as far as accents go. John Adams gives the British King George III, played by Tom Hollander, Standard Neutral English, but it does something very unusual with its American characters. Virginian characters (including Washington and Jefferson) have suspiciously Somerset-sounding accents. John Adams introduces a clear regionalism in Anglo-American accents that goes beyond the singling out of the Boston accent (which is generally personified in John Adams himself). It isn’t clear why this decision is made; the accent does not belong exclusively to Virginian characters, as it is also the accent of Benjamin Franklin, proudly Pennsylvanian, and Alexander Hamilton himself. Is the shorthand present to aurally distinguish between Loyalists, and American rebels? What affinity, one might ask, does the Somerset accent have with a depiction of the American character?
Standard North American speech is rhotic (people who say an ‘R’ whenever it is written), as is the Somerset accent (and, as Ben Zimmer explains, was associated with country speech in England from the 17th century). This contrasts with Neutral Standard English Accent, which is non-rhotic (people who only say an ‘R’ if there is a vowel sound spoken after it). Perhaps the filmmakers had in mind the best guesses about how “proper” Anglophones spoke in the 18th century, as in John Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791), where he normatively condemns rhotic English. Then again, perhaps it is merely a storytelling expedient; look at the actors assembled to play Founding Fathers:
- Washington – David Morse, American, born in Massachusetts
- Jefferson – Richard Dillane, born in London
- Hamilton – Rufus Sewell, born in southern England of Welsh and Australian parents
- Franklin – Tom Wilkinson, born in Leeds, grew up in Canada
- Sam Adams – Danny Huston, American, born in Rome
Standardization may have made practical sense, but the use of the rhotic sends a subtly different message than North American Standard English, and perhaps hints at the influence of David Crystal’s work on OP/EME.
Even among linguists, North American 18th century English has not been examined to the extent that EME has, with Beal going no further than to suggest “the contact between the various regional dialects of the English-speaking colonists and the languages of the Native Americans and of other European colonists” would have influenced pronunciation, but she is not conclusive as to what extent. Noah Webster in 1789 envisioned “a language in North America, as different from the future language of England, as the modern Dutch, Danish and Swedish are from the German or from one another” (cited in Mühleisen). From the beginning, too, American fiction was concerned with pronunciations, with Cooper sensitive to those which “disclosed class or origins,” as Schachterle noted. The word “Americanism,” in fact, was coined by John Witherspoon in 1781. Its entry in Webster’s Compendious Dictionary (1806) is “a love of America and preference of her interest.” As David Crystal points out, this was the first dictionary written in English to include words like butternut, caucus, checkers, chowder, constitutionality, hickory, opossum, skunk and succotash. It was also the first dictionary to give now-familiar American spellings to words like color and defense.
It is probably not a surprise that many of the words above have their origins in Native American languages. Black and Native voices (and use of dialect) are somewhat rare in media depictions of the Revolutionary period, notable exceptions being The Last of the Mohicans, with its heroes (“Hawkeye,” Uncas, and Chingachgook, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, Eric Schweig, and Russell Means, respectively), as part of an extended, multi-racial family unit, speaking with a uniform Standard North American accent:
and Ubisoft’s smash video game, Assassin’s Creed III (2012).
The hero of this Xbox/Playstation game is Connor/Ratohnhaké:ton (Noah Watts), half-British, half-Mohawk, who speaks Mohawk as well as English (again, no Tonto talk here), as taught by the project’s language consultant, Akwiratekha’ Martin. However, again ignoring historical realities like the Sullivan campaign, the villains are British redcoats, echoing the storyline set up by The Patriot (Connor’s village is burned and his parents are killed by a British officer who sneers, “You are a nothing, living in the dirt like animals.”) In a making-of featurette, the creators of Assassin’s Creed III note that it has more than two hours of “cinematics,” a concept that suggests that the game will be a more potent window into history for its users than film, television, radio, or books. While it is positive that the game inaugurates a Native American action hero role model, it is disappointing that it recycles “the British are baddies” dialect trope.
In media like cartoons, video games, and audio drama, dialect supplies us with many clues about characters and what we should think and feel about them. Class is still very much implicit in accents in Britain, and every time we open our mouths we display characteristics about ourselves, whether feigned or not. When mass media-makers produce historical drama, they make choices. Despite the United States’ and the United Kingdom’s “special relationship,” the “British are baddies” trope remains. Its continued use and the future choices made by media-makers have much to say about Anglo-American relations and conventions in fiction today.
If, as suggested by several linguists identified in this article, children very quickly pick up conventions of who is “bad” via what they sound like, it behooves us to pay careful attention to the way mass media uses voices and what norms these establish, for listeners young and old. Also, what accents filmmakers use for past accents may profoundly influence who can hear themselves as “American” in the present moment–one important reason why Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton resonated with contemporary audiences. If teacher Laura Amico in the Cliffside Park school district in New Jersey has established that her pupils should “speak American,” what does this mean (besides the fact she expects them to speak English not Spanish)? Should they, for example, speak like President Trump, who uses a New York Queens accent which, according to Jeff Guo, connotes “competence, aggressiveness and directness” despite the fact its speaker comes from a privileged background? As Guo suggests, the way we speak is at least as important as what we say. In response to reports that Trump mocked the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, by imitating his accent, Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi published a statement saying, “Americans are not defined by their accents, but by their commitment to this nation’s values and ideals.” That, perhaps, is speaking American?
Featured Image: Arno Victor Dorian, Assassin’s Creed Unity: Leon Chiro Cosplay Art
With thanks to Kenneth Longden and Matthew Kilburn
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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Our listening practices are discursively constructed. In the sonic landscape of India, in particular, the way in which we listen and what we hear are often normative, produced within hegemonic discourses of gender, class, caste, region, and sexuality. . . This forum, Gendered Soundscapes of India, offers snapshots of sound at sites of trans/national production, marketing, filmic and musical texts. Complementing these posts, the accompanying photographs offer glimpses of gendered community formation, homosociality, the pervasiveness of sound technology in India, and the discordant stratified soundscapes of the city. This series opens up for us the question of other contexts in India where sound, gender, and technology might intersect, but, more broadly, it demands that we consider how sound exists differently in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Afghanistan. How might we imagine a sonic framework and South Asia from these locations? —Guest Editors Praseeda Gopinath and Monika Mehta
For the full introduction to the forum, click here.
To read all of the posts in the forum, click here.
The late 1990s was a pivotal time for activism around queerness in India. The violent response of the Hindu right to Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1998), a film portraying a romantic and sexual relationship between two women, prompted widespread debate on the question of censorship generally and of sexual-minority rights in particular. By rendering homosexuality explicit in its visuals and dialogues, and charting a linear trajectory of queerness—the protagonists move from unhappiness to happiness, denial to acceptance—Fire valorizes “coming out.” In the film, as in liberal strands of LGBT activism, it matters not only that one is out, but that one is seen as such. The premium placed on visibility in this formulation is undercut by the “queer” figure of Falguni Pathak. A tomboyish singer with a high-pitched voice, Pathak shot to fame with her debut album Yaad Piya Ki Aane Lage in the same year that Fire was released in India. Her performances mobilize disparate, even contradictory, signs of gender and sexuality at once, inviting us to examine the relationship between visuality and aurality in constructing queerness.
Falguni Pathak’s stardom is typically understood in the context of economic liberalization and the reconfiguration of Indian public culture that followed. The 1990s boom in the music industry was facilitated by the spread of satellite television, which gave non-film singers a new platform and a new set of audiences. Pathak’s “cute” and catchy love songs circulated endlessly on television countdown shows, turning her into an unlikely sensation. I say “unlikely” because Pathak’s apparent tomboyishness seemed at odds with the hyper-femininity and heteronormativity of the narratives in her music videos. Romantic quests, schoolgirls giddy with love, feminine bonding over make-up and men—these are standard features of Pathak’s videos, as is her own smiling presence as the singer-narrator. Through her gestures and lyrics, she comments on the lovesick teen’s plight and steps in occasionally to comfort or help the young girl, as in her first hit, “Chudi.”
For instance, in “Maine payal hai chhankai” (“The tinkling of my anklets,” 1999) she cheers on a group putting on a dance and puppet show for a school function. In songs like “Chudi/Yaad piya ki aane lagi” (“Bangles/I remember my lover,” 1998), “O piya” (“O beloved,” 2001), and “Rut ne jo bansi bajai” (“The music of the weather,” 2012) she is portrayed as a pop star.
The singer-as-pop-star was a common trope in early Indipop music videos (Kvetko). But Pathak dressed very differently than other pop stars. Whether on or off screen, she was (and is) always in men’s clothing, with a short, unfussy haircut and little make-up. Pathak’s style was mirrored on occasion by a minor character in her music videos. (“Chudi” includes a tomboyish school girl who struggles with the dance moves her friends choreograph.) Thus, Pathak’s visible presence in her videos brushed against the pitch, timbre, and style of her singing, which together articulated a hyper-feminine pop sensibility.
This sense of a “mismatch” (Fleeger) continues in Pathak’s contemporary performances. She is the most sought-after vocalist for Navratri festivities in Mumbai each year. On each night of this nine-day long Hindu festival, the “Queen of Dandiya” appears on stage dressed in a brightly colored kurta, vest, and trousers, and sings traditional Gujarati songs and hymns. The women in her audience dress more conventionally and more elaborately, in saris, salwaar kameez, and ghaghra-cholis. They dance in circles, performing recognizable garba moves. Meanwhile, Falguni Pathak saunters around the stage, engaging cheerfully with her fellow musicians and fans. Neither Pathak’s clothes nor her unfeminine dance moves bother the revelers as they dance the night away. For example, note how Pathak sways and rocks to the beat 34 seconds into this lively 2012 stage performance of Suneeta Rao’s hit song “Pari hun mein.”
Falguni Pathak’s temple performances at other times of the year are similar. They draw huge crowds unconcerned with the apparent mismatch between sound and image in her star persona. She tends to be as immersed in the devotional songs she sings as her audience. But her movements, plain clothes, and floppy hair-style make her look more like the male percussionists who accompany her, rocking and whipping their heads from side to side as they keep the beat, than the middle-class women clapping and singing along.
Performative traditions of mimicry and cross-dressing abound in India. But Pathak’s gender performance does not align with those religious, folk, and filmic traditions (and tropes) because it never registers as masquerade. The very casualness of her look, the fact that she dresses in t-shirt and trousers in all of her public appearances, suggests that this is not a temporary or theatrical adoption of a gender role. When asked in interviews why she eschews traditionally feminine clothing, Pathak always responds that she never has worn anything other than pants and t-shirts and is comfortable as she is. There were certainly other pop stars in the 1990s whose musical performances had masculine elements to them. Recall, for instance, Shweta Shettty’s suited look in “Johnny Joker” (1993). But none of Pathak’s peers sported a butch look as consistently and nonchalantly as she did—and none of them sang in as saccharine a voice. After six decades of Lata Mangeshkar’s vocal hegemony in Hindi cinema, such a “sweet,” contained, and unadorned voice has come to represent ideal Indian femininity. Pathak sounds charming and benign in her songs and interviews, but she does not dress the part.
Pathak’s challenging of conventional gender norms through her appearance and through the fact that she has never been married raises the specter of queerness in public discourse. But even that is difficult to pin down. Popular commentators and fans sometimes suggest that she looks like Kiran Bedi, a high-ranking (retired) police officer who enjoys celebrity status, making it hard to read the masculine details of Pathak’s persona as “gay.” Even as she is a queer icon (Giani), Pathak never comments on her sexuality or love life. She either evades questions about relationships or simply states that she is single. Where some celebrities come out publicly or keep alive innuendoes about their sexuality (Singh), she treats it as a non-issue. All in all, what we get in Falguni Pathak’s music videos and star persona is a queerly gendered performance that seems both utterly “natural” (because it seems comfortable and casual) and profoundly mismatched.
To be clear, my argument is not so much that Falguni Pathak looks or sounds queer. The latter point is as hard to prove as the former is easy. If, for just a second, we manage to shut out of our mind’s eye the image of Pathak singing, her voice sounds thoroughly conventional. She sings in a traditional idiom, of traditional themes. No matter how intently I listen, no “queer timbre” (Bonenfant, Chaves Dasa), no “butch throat” (Glasberg) reaches out to touch me. Thus on the one hand, Pathak, like the other “mismatched women” Jennifer Fleeger writes about, confounds heteronormative expectations about gender and sexuality. On the other, her voice eludes “queer listening” (Bonenfant). What do we do with a queer figure who doesn’t sound queer? How might we understand her voice vis-à-vis queerness in Indian public culture? How do her live performances today continue to disrupt the emphasis on visibility in queer studies and politics—that is, the fixation on visual representations and “coming out” of the closet? Finally, how might Pathak’s “vocalic body” (Connor) help us conceive of the intersection of aurality and queerness in South Asian public culture?
Falguni Pathak intervened in a cultural field that was just beginning to deal with LGBT visibility. This becomes apparent when we remember that the 1990s was a period not just of economic liberalization but of vibrant queer activism as well. Pathak’s non-feminine image was startling for a pop star, but her voice was familiar and “good.” Her safe sound allowed her to push the boundaries of desire in televisual representations of the time. But it did more than that, too. The disjuncture between her feminine voice and butch look was critical to the complex landscape of desire her music videos evoked. It created space for ambiguity and incongruity amid charged debates about alternative sexual identities.
In “Main teri prem diwani/Indhana winva” (“I am madly in love with you,” 2001), Pathak stars as the neighbor to whom the protagonist turns for advice in matters of love. In an amazingly campy move, Pathak urges the young woman to seduce her lover by donning outfits inspired by Moulin Rouge (2001), specifically the song “Lady Marmalade” (00:36-00:55), and The Mummy Returns (2001) (1:59-2:03). Queerness is also writ large in “Meri chunnar udd udd jaye” (My scarf flies away, 2000), where Pathak appears as the beloved friend of a young girl in exile. The girl misses her friend intensely and attempts to recreate the dance moves and games she played with her older friend, this time with another mysterious woman who steps out of a painting.
Men’s roles in this and other Falguni Pathak music videos are ambiguous at best (Giani). Thus, despite the happy ending to the teen love stories, what lingers is Pathak’s simultaneous disruption and enabling of straight romance. This is why she is remembered fondly as a queer icon, even as the music scene in India has moved on from the “cuteness” of the 1990s. She offered LGBT audiences a way to read and revel in non-normative desires (Giani), without completely unseating “traditional” ways of living and loving.
The broader lesson in Falguni Pathak’s performances is that we cannot think of visuality apart from aurality, and vice versa. No matter how hard NBC’s “The Voice” tries to convince us (Tongson), we cannot in fact understand the sound of a singer’s voice as separate from the image of her as a performer and the contexts in which she emerges on the scene. It is not Pathak’s tomboyish appearance so much as the apparent disjuncture between that look and her voice that is key. What is queer about her voice is the look of it.
Featured Image: Falguni Pathak’s classic pose.
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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Currently on the faculty and the associate technical director of California Institute of the Arts Sharon Lund Disney School of Dance, Allison Smartt worked for several years in Hampshire’s dance program as intern-turned-program assistant. A sound engineer, designer, producer, and educator for theater and dance, she has created designs seen and heard at La MaMa, The Yard, Arts In Odd Places Festival, Barrington Stage Company, the Five College Consortium, and other venues.
She is also the owner of Smartt Productions, a production company that develops and tours innovative performances about social justice. Its repertory includes the nationally acclaimed solo-show about reproductive rights, MOM BABY GOD, and the empowering, new hip-hop theatre performance, Mixed-Race Mixtape. Her productions have toured 17 U.S. cities and counting.
Ariel Taub is currently interning at Sounding Out! responsible for assisting with layout, scoping out talent and in the process uncovering articles that may relate to or reflect work being done in the field of Sound Studies. She is a Junior pursuing a degree in English and Sociology from Binghamton University.
Recently turned on to several of the projects Allison Smartt has been involved in, I became especially fascinated with MOM BABY GOD 3.0, of which Smartt was sound designer and producer. The crew of MOM BABY GOD 3.o sets the stage for what to expect in a performance with the following introduction:
Take a cupcake, put on a name tag, and prepare to be thrown into the world of the Christian Right, where sexual purity workshops and anti-abortion rallies are sandwiched between karaoke sing-alongs, Christian EDM raves and pro-life slumber parties. An immersive dark comedy about American girl culture in the right-wing, written and performed by Madeline Burrows. One is thrown into the world of the Christian Right, where sexual purity workshops and anti-abortion rallies are sandwiched between karaoke sing-alongs, Christian EDM raves and pro-life slumber parties.
It’s 2018 and the anti-abortion movement has a new sense of urgency. Teens 4 Life is video-blogging live from the Students for Life of America Conference, and right-wing teenagers are vying for popularity while preparing for political battle. Our tour guide is fourteen-year-old Destinee Grace Ramsey, ascending to prominence as the new It-Girl of the Christian Right while struggling to contain her crush on John Paul, a flirtatious Christian boy with blossoming Youtube stardom and a purity ring.
MOM BABY GOD toured nationally to sold-out houses from 2013-2015 and was the subject of a national right-wing smear campaign. In a newly expanded and updated version premiering at Forum Theatre and Single Carrot Theatre in March 2017, MOM BABY GOD takes us inside the right-wing’s youth training ground at a more urgent time than ever.
I reached out to Smartt about these endeavors with some sound-specific questions. What follows is our April 2017 email exchange [edited for length].
Ariel Taub (AT): What do you think of the voices Madeline Burrows [the writer and solo actor of MOM BABY GOD] uses in the piece? How important is the role of sound in creating the characters?
Allison Smartt (AS): I want to accurately represent Burrows’s use of voice in the show. For those who haven’t seen it, she’s not an impersonator or impressionist conjuring up voices for solely comedy’s sake. Since she is a woman portraying a wide range of ages and genders on stage and voice is a tool in a toolbox she uses to indicate a character shift. Madeline has a great sense of people’s natural speaking rhythms and an ability to incorporate bits of others’ unique vocal elements into the characters she portrays. Physicality is another tool. Sound cues are yet another…lighting, costume, staging, and so on.
I do think there’s something subversive about a queer woman voicing ideology and portraying people that inherently aim to repress her existence/identity/reproductive rights.
Many times, when actors are learning accents they have a cue line that helps them jump into that accent. Something that they can’t help but say in a southern, or Irish, or Canadian accent. In MOM BABY GOD, I think of my sound design in a similar way. The “I’m a Pro-Life Teen” theme is the most obvious example. It’s short and sweet, with a homemade flair and most importantly: it’s catchy. The audience learns to immediately associate that riff with Destinee (the host of “I’m a Pro-Life Teen”), so much so that I stop playing the full theme almost immediately, yet it still commands the laugh and upbeat response from the audience.
AT: Does [the impersonation and transformation of people on the opposite side of a controversial issues into] characters [mark them as] inherently mockable? (I asked Smartt about this specifically because of the reaction the show elicited from some people in the Pro-Life group.)
AS: Definitely not. I think the context and intention of the show really humanizes the people and movement that Madeline portrays. The show isn’t cruel or demeaning towards the people or movement – if anything, our audience has a lot of fun. But it is essential that Madeline portray the type of leaders in the movement (in any movement really) in a realistic, yet theatrical way. It’s a difficult needle to thread and think she does it really well. A preacher has a certain cadence – it’s mesmerizing, it’s uplifting. A certain type of teen girl is bubbly, dynamic. How does a gruff (some may say manly), galvanizing leader speak? It’s important the audience feel the unique draw of each character – and their voices are a large part of that draw.
AT: What sounds [and sound production] were used to help carry the performance [of MOM BABY GOD]? What role does sound have in making plays [and any performance] cohesive?
AS: Sound designing for theatre is a mix of many elements, from pre-show music, sound effects and original music to reinforcement, writing cues, and sound system design. For a lot of projects, I’m also my own sound engineer so I also implement the system designs and make sure everything functions and sounds tip top.
Each design process is a little different. If it’s a new work in development, like MOM BABY GOD and Mixed-Race Mixtape, I am involved in a different way than if I’m designing for a completed work (and designing for dance is a whole other thing). There are constants, however. I’m always asking myself, “Are my ideas supporting the work and its intentions?” I always try to be cognizant of self-indulgence. I may make something really, really cool but that ultimately, after hearing it in context and conversations with the other artistic team members, is obviously doing too much more than supporting the work. A music journalism professor I had used to say, “You have to shoot that puppy.” Meaning, cut the cue you really love for the benefit of the overall piece.
I like to set myself limitations to work within when starting a design. I find that narrowing my focus to say…music only performed on harmonica or sound effects generated only from modes of transportation, help get my creative juices flowing (Sidenote: why is that a phrase? It give me the creeps)[. . .]I may relinquish these limitations later after they’ve helped me launch into creating a sonic character that feels complex, interesting, and fun.
AT: The show is described as being comprised of, “karaoke sing-alongs, Christian EDM raves and pro-life slumber parties,” each of these has its own distinct associations, how do “sing alongs” and “raves” and our connotations with those things add to the pieces?
AS: Since sound is subjective, the associations that you make with karaoke sing-alongs are probably slightly different from what I associated with karaoke sing-alongs. You may think karaoke sing-along = a group of drunk BFFs belting Mariah Carey after a long day of work. I may think karaoke sing-alongs = middle aged men and women shoulder to shoulder in a dive bar singing “Friends In Low Places” while clinking their glasses of whiskey and draft beer. The similarity in those two scenarios is people singing along to something, but the character and feeling of each image is very different. You bring that context with you as you read the description of the show and given the challenging themes of the show, this is a real draw for people usually resistant to solo and/or political theatre. The way the description is written and what it highlights intentionally invites the audience to feel invited, excited, and maybe strangely upbeat about going to see a show about reproductive rights.
As a sound designer and theatre artist, one of my favorite moments is when the audience collectively readjusts their idea of a karaoke sing-along to the experience we create for them in the show. I feel everyone silently say, “Oh, this is not what I expected, but I love it,” or “This is exactly what I imagined!” or “I am so uncomfortable but I’m going with it.” I think the marketing of the show does a great job creating excited curiosity, and the show itself harnesses that and morphs it into confused excitement and surprise (reviewers articulate this phenomenon much better that I could).
AT: In this video the intentionally black screen feels like deep space. What sounds [and techniques] are being used? Are we on a train, a space ship, in a Church? What can you [tell us] about this piece?
AS: There are so many different elements in this cue…it’s one of my favorites. This cue is lead in and background to Destinee’s first experience with sexual pleasure. Not to give too much away: She falls asleep and has a sex dream about Justin Bieber. I compiled a bunch of sounds that are anticipatory: a rocket launch, a train pulling into a station, a remix/slowed down version of a Bieber track. These lead into sounds that feel more harsh: alarm clocks, crumpling paper…I also wanted to translate the feeling of being woken up abruptly from a really pleasant dream…like you were being ripped out of heaven or something. It was important to reassociate for Destinee and the audience, sounds that had previously brought joy with this very confusing and painful moment, so it ends with heartbeats and church bells.
I shoved the entire arc of the show into this one sound cue. And Madeline and Kathleen let me and I love them for that.
AT: What do individuals bring of themselves when they listen to music? How is music a way of entering conversations otherwise avoided?
AS: The answer to this question is deeper than I can articulate but I’ll try.
Talking about bias, race, class, even in MOM BABY GOD introducing a pro-life video blog – broaching these topics are made easier and more interesting through music. Why? I think it’s because you are giving the listener multiple threads from which to sew their own tapestry…their own understanding of the thing. The changing emotions in a score, multiplicity of lyrical meaning, tempo, stage presence, on and on. If you were to just present a lecture on any one of those topics, the messages feel too stark, too heavy to be absorbed (especially to be absorbed by people who don’t already agree with the lecture or are approaching that idea for the first time). Put them to music and suddenly you open up people’s hearts.
As a sound designer, I have to be conscious of what people bring to their listening experience, but can’t let this rule my every decision. The most obvious example is when faced with the request to use popular music. Take maybe one of the most overused classics of the 20th century, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. If you felt an urge just now to stop reading this interview because you really love that song and how dare I naysay “Hallelujah” – my point has been made. Songs can evoke strong reactions. If you heard “Hallelujah” for the first time while seeing the Northern Lights (which would arguably be pretty epic), then you associate that memory and those emotions with that song. When a designer uses popular music in their design, this is a reality you have to think hard about.
It’s similar with sound effects. For Mixed-Race Mixtape, Fig wanted to start the show with the sound of a cassette tape being loaded into a deck and played. While I understood why he wanted that sound cue, I had to disagree. Our target demographic are of an age where they may have never seen or used a cassette tape before – and using this sound effect wouldn’t elicit the nostalgic reaction he was hoping for.
Regarding how deeply the show moves people, I give all the credit to Fig’s lyrics and the entire casts’ performance, as well as the construction of the songs by the musicians and composers. As well as to Jorrell, our director, who has focused the intention of all these elements to coalesce very effectively. The cast puts a lot of emotion and energy into their performances and when people are genuine and earnest on stage, audiences can sense that and are deeply engaged.
I do a lot of work in the dance world and have come to understand how essential music and movement are to the human experience. We’ve always made music and moved our bodies and there is something deeply grounding and joining about collective listening and movement – even if it’s just tapping your fingers and toes.
AT: How did you and the other artists involved come up with the name/ idea for Mixed-Race Mixtape? How did the Mixed-Race Mixtape come about?
AS: Mixed-Race Mixtape is the brainchild of writer/performer Andrew “Fig” Figueroa. I’ll let him tell the story.
A mixtape is a collection of music from various artists and genres on one tape, CD or playlist. In Hip-Hop, a mixtape is a rapper’s first attempt to show the world there skills and who they are, more often than not, performing original lyrics over sampled/borrowed instrumentals that compliment their style and vision. The show is about “mixed” identity and I mean, I’m a rapper so thank God “Mixed-Race” rhymed with “Mixtape.”
The show grew from my desire to tell my story/help myself make sense of growing up in a confusing, ambiguous, and colorful culture. I began writing a series of raps and monologues about my family, community and youth and slowly it formed into something cohesive.
AT: I love the quote, “the conversation about race in America is one sided and missing discussions of how class and race are connected and how multiple identities can exist in one person,” how does Mixed-Race Mixtape fill in these gaps?
AS: Mixed-Race Mixtape is an alternative narrative that is complex, personal, and authentic. In America, our ideas about race largely oscillate between White and Black. MRMT is alternative because it tells the story of someone who sits in the grey area of Americans’ concept of race and dispels the racist subtext that middle class America belongs to White people. Because these grey areas are illuminated, I believe a wide variety of people are able to find connections with the story.
AT: In this video people discuss the connection they [felt to the music and performance] even if they weren’t expecting to. What do you think is responsible for sound connecting and moving people from different backgrounds? Why are there the assumptions about the event that there are, that they wouldn’t connect to the Hip Hop or that there would be “good vibes.”
AS: Some people do feel uncertain that they’d be able to connect with the show because it’s a “hip-hop” show. When they see it though, it’s obvious that it extends beyond the bounds of what they imagine a hip-hop show to be. And while I’ve never had someone say they were disappointed or unmoved by the show, I have had people say they couldn’t understand the words. And a lot of times they want to blame that on the reinforcement.
I’d argue that the people who don’t understand the lyrics of MRMT are often the same ones who were trepidatious to begin with, because I think hip-hop is not a genre they have practice listening to. I had to practice really actively listening to rap to train my brain to process words, word play, metaphor, etc. as fast as rap can transmit them. Fig, an experienced hip-hop listener and artist amazes me with how fast he can understand lyrics on the first listen. I’m still learning. And the fact is, it’s not a one and done thing. You have to listen to rap more than once to get all the nuances the artists wrote in. And this extends to hip-hop music, sans lyrics. I miss so many really clever, artful remixes, samples, and references on the first listen. This is one of the reasons we released an EP of some of the songs from the show (and are in the process of recording a full album).
The theatre experience obviously provides a tremendously moving experience for the audience, but there’s more to be extracted from the music and lyrics than can be transmitted in one live performance.
AT: What future plans do you have for projects? You mentioned utilizing sounds from protests? How is sound important in protest? What stands out to you about what you recorded?
AS: I have only the vaguest idea of a future project. I participate in a lot of rallies and marches for causes across the spectrum of human rights. At a really basic level, it feels really good to get together with like minded people and shout your frustrations, hopes, and fears into the world for others to hear. I’m interested in translating this catharsis to people who are wary of protests/hate them/don’t understand them. So I’ve started with my iPhone. I record clever chants I’ve never heard, or try to capture the inevitable moment in a large crowd when the front changes the chant and it works its way to the back.
I record marching through different spaces…how does it sound when we’re in a tunnel versus in a park or inside a building? I’m not sure where these recordings will lead me, but I felt it was important to take them.
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Mariah Carey’s New Year’s Eve 2016 didn’t go so well. The pop diva graced a stage in the middle of Times Square as the clock ticked down to 2017 on Dick Clark’s Rockin New Year’s Eve, hosted by Ryan Seacrest. After Carey’s melismatic rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” the instrumental for “Emotions” kicked in and Carey, instead of singing, informed viewers that she couldn’t hear anything. What followed was five minutes of heartburn. Carey strutted across the stage, hitting all her marks along with her dancers but barely singing. She took a stab at a phrase here and there, mostly on pitch, unable to be sure. And she narrated the whole thing, clearly perturbed to be hung out to dry on such a cold night with millions watching. I imagine if we asked Carey about her producer after the show, we’d get a “I don’t know her.”
These things happen. Ashlee Simpson’s singing career, such as it was, screeched to a halt in 2004 on the stage of Saturday Night Live when the wrong backing track cued. Even Queen Bey herself had to deal with lip syncing outrage after using a backing track at former President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. So the reaction to Carey, replete with schadenfreude and metaphorical pearl-clutching, was unsurprising, if also entirely inane. (The New York Times suggested that Carey forgot the lyrics to “Emotions,” an occurrence that would be slightly more outlandish than if she forgot how to breathe, considering it’s one of her most popular tracks). But yeah, this happens: singers—especially singers in the cold—use backing tracks. I’m not filming a “leave Mariah alone!!” video, but there’s really nothing salacious in this performance. The reason I’m circling around Mariah Carey’s frosty New Year’s Eve performance is because it highlights an idea I’m thinking about—what I’m calling the “produced voice” —as well as some of the details that are a subset of that idea; namely, all voices are produced.
I mean “produced” in a couple of ways. One is the Judith Butler way: voices, like gender (and, importantly, in tandem with gender), are performed and constructed. What does my natural voice sound like? I dunno. AO Roberts underlines this in a 2015 Sounding Out! post: “we’ll never really know how we sound,” but we’ll know that social constructions of gender helped shape that sound. Race, too. And class. Cultural norms makes physical impacts on us, perhaps in the particular curve of our spines as we learn to show raced or gendered deference or dominance, perhaps in the texture of our hands as we perform classed labor, or perhaps in the stress we apply to our vocal cords as we learn to sound in appropriately gendered frequency ranges or at appropriately raced volumes. That cultural norms literally shape our bodies is an important assumption that informs my approach to the “produced voice.” In this sense, the passive construction of my statement “all voices are produced” matters; we may play an active role in vibrating our vocal cords, but there are social and cultural forces that we don’t control acting on the sounds from those vocal cords at the same moment.
Another way I mean that all voices are produced is that all recorded singing voices are shaped by studio production. This can take a few different forms, ranging from obvious to subtle. In the Migos song “T-Shirt,” Quavo’s voice is run through pitch-correction software so that the last word of each line of his verse (ie, the rhyming words: “five,” “five,” “eyes,” “alive”) takes on an obvious robotic quality colloquially known as the AutoTune effect. Quavo (and T-Pain and Kanye and Future and all the other rappers and crooners who have employed this effect over the years) isn’t trying to hide the production of his voice; it’s a behind-the-glass technique, but that glass is transparent. Less obvious is the way a voice like Adele’s is processed. Because Adele’s entire persona is built around the natural power of her voice, any studio production applied to it—like, say, the cavernous reverb and delay on “Hello” —must land in a sweet spot that enhances the perceived naturalness of her voice.
Vocal production can also hinge on how other instruments in a mix are processed. Take Remy Ma’s recent diss of Nicki Minaj, “ShETHER.” “ShETHER”’s instrumental, which is a re-performance of Nas’s “Ether,” draws attention to the lower end of Remy’s voice. “Ether” and “ShETHER” are pitched in identical keys and Nas’s vocals fall in the same range as Remy’s. But the synth that bangs out the looping chord progression in “ShETHER” is slightly brighter than the one on “Ether,” with a metallic, digital high end the original lacks. At the same time, the bass that marks the downbeat of each measure is quieter in “ShETHER” than it is in “Ether.” The overall effect, with less instrumental occupying “ShETHER”’s low frequency range and more digital overtones hanging in the high frequency range, causes Remy Ma’s voice to seem lower, manlier, than Nas’s voice because of the space cleared for her vocals in the mix. The perceived depth of Remy’s produced voice toys with the hypermasculine nature of hip hop beefs, and queers perhaps the most famous diss track in the genre. While engineers apply production effects directly to the vocal tracks of Quavo and Adele to make them sound like a robot or a power diva, the Remy Ma example demonstrates how gender play can be produced through a voice by processing what happens around the vocals.
Let’s return to Times Square last New Year’s Eve to consider the produced voice in a hybrid live/recorded setting. Carey’s first and third songs “Auld Lang Syne” and “We Belong Together”) were entirely back-tracked—meaning the audience could hear a recorded Mariah Carey even if the Mariah Carey moving around on our screen wasn’t producing any (sung) vocals. The second, “Emotions,” had only some background vocals and the ridiculously high notes that young Mariah Carey was known for. So, had the show gone to plan, the audience would’ve heard on-stage Mariah Carey singing along with pre-recorded studio Mariah Carey on the first and third songs, while on-stage Mariah Carey would’ve sung the second song entirely, only passing the mic to a much younger studio version of herself when she needed to hit some notes that her body can’t always, well, produce anymore. And had the show gone to plan, most members of the audience wouldn’t have known the difference between on-stage and pre-recorded Mariah Carey. It would’ve been a seamless production. Since nothing really went to plan (unless, you know, you’re into some level of conspiracy theory that involves self-sabotage for the purpose of trending on Twitter for a while), we were all privy to a component of vocal production—the backing track that aids a live singer—that is often meant to go undetected.
The produced-ness of Mariah Carey’s voice is compelling precisely because of her tremendous singing talent, and this is where we circle back around to Butler. If I were to start in a different place–if I were, in fact, to write something like, “Y’all, you’ll never believe this, but Britney Spears’s singing voice is the result of a good deal of studio intervention”–well, we wouldn’t be dealing with many blown minds from that one, would we? Spears’s career isn’t built around vocal prowess, and she often explores robotic effects that, as with Quavo and other rappers, make the technological intervention on her voice easy to hear. But Mariah Carey belongs to a class of singers—along with Adele, Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé, Ariana Grande—who are perceived to have naturally impressive voices, voices that aren’t produced so much as just sung. The Butler comparison would be to a person who seems to fit quite naturally into a gender category, the constructed nature of that gender performance passing nearly undetected. By focusing on Mariah Carey, I want to highlight that even the most impressive sung voices are produced, and that means that we can not only ask questions about the social and cultural impact of gender, race, class, ability, sexuality, and other norms may have on those voices, but also how any sung voice (from Mariah Carey’s to Quavo’s) is collaboratively produced—by singer, technician, producer, listener—in relation to those same norms.
Being able to ask those questions can get us to some pretty intriguing details. At the end of the third song, “We Belong Together,” she commented “It just don’t get any better” before abandoning the giant white feathers that were framing her onstage. After an awkward pause (during which I imagine Chris Tucker’s “Don’t cut to me!” face), the unflappable Ryan Seacrest noted, “No matter what Mariah does, the crowd absolutely loves it. You can’t go wrong with Ms. Carey, and those hits, those songs, everybody knows.” Everybody knows. We didn’t need to hear Mariah Carey sing “Emotions” that night because we could fill it all in–everybody knows that song. Wayne Marshall has written about listeners’ ability to fill in the low frequencies of songs even when we’re listening on lousy systems—like earbuds or cell phone speakers—that can’t really carry it to our ears. In the moment of technological failure, whether because a listener’s speakers are terrible or a performer’s monitors are, listeners become performers. We heard what was supposed to be there, and we supplied the missing content.
Sound is intimate, a meeting of bodies vibrating in time with one another. Yvon Bonenfant, citing Stephen Connor’s idea of the “vocalic body,” notes this physicality of sound as a “vibratory field” that leaves a vocalizer and “voyages through space. Other people hear it. Other people feel it.” But in the case of “Emotions” on New Year’s Eve, I heard a voice that wasn’t there. It was Mariah Carey’s, her vocalic body sympathetically vibrated into being. The question that catches me here is this: what happens in these moments when a listener takes over as performer? In my case, I played the role of Mariah Carey for a moment. I was on my couch, surrounded by my family, but I felt a little colder, like I was maybe wearing a swimsuit in the middle of Times Square in December, and my heart rate ticked up a bit, like maybe I was kinda panicked about something going wrong, and I heard Mariah Carey’s voice—not, crucially, my voice singing Mariah Carey’s lyrics—singing in my head. I could feel my vocal cords compressing and stretching along with Carey’s voice in my head, as if her voice were coming from my body. Which, in fact it was—just not my throat—as this was a collaborative and intimate production, my body saying, “Hey, Mariah, I got this,” and performing “Emotions” when her body wasn’t.
By stressing the collaborative nature of the produced voice, I don’t intend to arrive at some “I am Mariah” moment that I could poignantly underline by changing my profile picture on Facebook. Rather, I’m thinking of ways someone else’s voice is could lodge itself in other bodies, turning listeners into collaborators too. The produced voice, ultimately, is a way to theorize unlikely combinations of voices and bodies.
Featured image: By all-systems-go at Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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