Editor’s Note: Today we start off a series, a propos for World Listening Day 2016 on digital humanities and listening. As I mentioned in my Call for Abstracts in March, this forum considers the role of “listening” in the digital humanities (DH, for short). We at Sounding Out! are stoked to hear about (and listen to) all the new projects out there that archive sound, but we wonder whether the digital humanities engage enough with the the notion of listening. After all, what’s a sound without someone to listen to it? The posts this month consider: how have particular digital studies, projects, apps, and online archives addressed, challenged, expanded, played with, sharpened, questioned, and/or shifted “listening”? What happens to digital humanities when we use “listening” as a keyword rather than (or alongside) “sound”?
We will be hosting the work of DH scholars who are doing exactly that: prompting readers to consider what it means to listen in the context of DH projects. Fabiola Hanna will be reflecting upon what DH means when it talks about participatory practices. Emmanuelle Sonntag, who has written for SO! before, will be addressing listening from the starting point of the documentary Chosen (Custody of the Eyes). Today, however, we start things off with a collaborative piece from the Vibrant Lives team on the ethics of listening to 20th century sterilization victims’ records.
Don’t just stand there. Take a seat and listen.-Liana M. Silva, Managing Editor
In the 1920s a young woman was admitted by her mother to a mental institution in California. The local doctor recommended her for sterilization with the following notes:
has been reported to have interest in sexual encounters
Mother is pregnant and cannot care for her (thinks she may be able to post-sterilization).
This brief note is representative of the stories of the roughly 20,000 people who were sterilized in California institutions of mental health. The soundscape of these institutions is largely lost to the past. We cannot recover the sounds of treatment spaces, family visits, recreation, and everyday life of those in the care of the state of California who were considered feeble, insane, or otherwise out of control.
Like the conversations about illness and reproduction presumably had in those halls, the sounds of salpingectomies (removal of fallopian tubes), vasectomies (severing the vas deferens), and, later, tubal ligations are lost to us. In the absence of human rights violations, this is perhaps as it should be; we cannot collect the minutiae of everyday life. But in situations where reproductive and disability rights have been limited, where we can see race and gendered bias, we may well have need of telling such stories.
Reparative justice best practices dictate that survivors should be able to tell their own stories on their own terms. How can we listen to such stories when the majority of our survivors have died and we have little to nothing in their own words?
While conversations between patients, parents, and doctors might be lost to us in terms of playback, they have embodied traces in the nearly 20,000 people sterilized in California between 1919 and the 1950s under eugenic sterilization laws. The 19,995 sterilization recommendations and notes, brought together under the project Eugenic Rubicon: California’s Sterilization Stories, cannot currently be made publicly available due to U.S. patient privacy laws. Important documentary films like No Más Bebés, which tells the story of Mexican-American women sterilized without consent at Los Angeles County – USC Medical Center in the 1960s and 1970s, have made it possible for us to hear accounts of such reproductive injustice first hand. But for the thousands of people sterilized between 1909 and the repeal of eugenics laws in 1979, we must find other ways to listen and to hear.
Given the privacy restrictions on working with this dataset and our concerns to care for the people who are represented therein, we (the Vibrant Lives team) felt it was important to find alternative methods that did more than de-identified and quantified graphs could do. We know all too well that we can’t recover the past “as it was.” Nevertheless, we are working to bring the emotional and intellectual power of sound and critical listening to a largely unheard history of sterilization of Latinx people. Specifically, our project prompts listeners to consider how listening fits into reparative justice for the victims of sterilization.
Listening Toward under the Law
That eugenics laws and their surgical enactments played out in racialized and gendered ways is not surprising but bears repeating. For example, according to work by Alexandra Minna Stern, Nicole Novak, Natalie Lira, and Kate O’Connor, patients with Spanish or Hispanic surnames were three times as likely to be sterilized as their non-Hispanic counterparts. Those lost sounds have traces in California’s Latinx communities, both in terms of the community structures themselves, but also in terms of soundscapes that never were because of sterilization. This acoustic ecosystem in which the politics of race, gender, nation, and mental health converged in dramatic fashion is recorded only in the bodies and medical records of the patients and the 21st century communities shaped by the children, born and unborn, of these patients.
Not only are we limited to working with the textual, institutionally generated remnants of the past, we are also constrained by 21st century health and personal data privacy laws. Our archive is a set of medical records and as such this collection contains sensitive patient data that must be de-identified and used in accordance with contemporary HIPAA (Health Information Portability and Accountability Act) regulations and IRB protocols.
This means that we cannot reveal names, dates, and other identifying information regarding those who were sterilized in the first half of the 20th century. We are unable to tell individual stories of sterilization lest the individual be identified. Traditionally, historians have used fictional composites to tell such stories and our collaborator Alexandra Minna Stern used this method in her 2015 second edition of Eugenic Nation.
The HIPAA guidelines and their impact on how we tell the history of medicine raises important legal questions about how we might balance a public right to know about practices (we’d call them abuses) within state-run facilities with the need to protect patients’ rights to privacy regarding their own reproductive and mental health. In some cases, it seems as though the privacy guidelines protect the state more than they protect any individual patient. In fact, we have seen a remarkable lack of concern for these records in their discovery and transmission. The records themselves were largely abandoned when Stern discovered the microfilm reels in the 2000s. They were lost again after she returned them to the state after having made a copy. The originals are lost as far as we know.
Listening Toward the Past
Vibrant Lives is working not with sounds found, but with archival records found and then sonified (transformed into sound) as a way of listening toward those rooms, conversations, and procedures. In brief, this sonification entails the following steps
- Selecting a subset of the large data set (we can’t currently process the whole)
- Selecting between two and four axes of information, such as gender, race, age at sterilization recommendation, consent, or nationality
- Mapping the informational values into numerical space – sonification requires the creation of a dataset whose limits are 1 and -1 (based on how the speakers work)
This work has been done to date using two tools: Sonification Sandbox, an open source tool developed at the University of Georgia, and GarageBand, a proprietary music making tool that comes with Macintosh computers. We use Sonification Sandbox to create the score first and then turn to GarageBand because it has a greater range of instrumentation available. The sonification process is still very experimental and exploratory. Team member Jacqueline Wernimont does all of our sonifications for us and she is trained as a historian of literature and technology. While she has extensive experience within digital humanities methodologies, sonification is a new effort for us.
We have begun producing short sample tracks that allow us to enact the kind of listening toward that we’re advocating for. In the track below, we have data from the age, gender, and consent axes for the period 1940-1949. Additionally, this sample draws only from what we’ve described as “Spanish surname” patients, the vast majority of whom were American-born of Mexican descent, although they also include some other Latinx national communities.
Latinx Eugenics Sample Track
As you listen, each note represents one Spanish-surnamed person recommended for sterilization. The children, both boys and girls under 18, who were sterilized without consent are the highest notes, and the adult men who were sterilized with consent are the lowest.
Listening Toward as Ethical and Communal
Listening is always about an ethical relationship and it is particularly fraught when the effort to listen and to encourage others to listen entails hearing about a person’s most intimate health information and experiences. This is particularly true when those experiences may include trauma from unwanted surgery or other experiences.
While we might think of patient privacy as a form of care, in this instance we find ourselves wondering who these regulations actually serve. According to the updated 2013 HIPAA guidelines, personal health records are no longer considered sensitive information 50 years after death (it was previously 100 years). Preliminary estimates by our team indicate that as many as 1,000 survivors might be alive in 2016. However, while the vast majority of the people discussed in the records are no longer alive, family and friends may well be.
We respect the need for family members and friends to privacy when it comes to the health records of their loved ones. At the same time, an essential component of most restorative justice programs, like those undertaken for North Carolina eugenic sterilizations, is an articulation of the violations, which HIPAA blocks in many ways (North Carolina’s cases were revealed by investigative journalists who are not subject to HIPAA and the IRB regulations that we must adhere to as academics). As a consequence, those who might most benefit from reparations – sterilized individuals and their immediate families, including children – are likely to die before the privacy laws enable us to draw attention to the individual impacted by the racialized and gendered discrimination evident in the records.
The sonification of these records and the companion participatory performances that we facilitate allow us to intervene and share these important stories before all of the survivors and family members have passed away. We have the opportunity to drive justice-oriented processes forward while there is still time.
Consent/Non-consent Sample Track (entire population)
Vibrant Lives focuses not just on the stories but also on the people who listen to the audio. We spend time watching how our audiences participate in listening toward the history of eugenic sterilization in California. Below are images of recent presentations of this work in which we’ve incorporated both haptic (touch-based) and sonic performance.
Part of what we see here is the attentive posture of our participants – leaning in to feel a history of sterilization. The haptics are being shared with a thin, red metal wire that the participants have to touch lightly in order to not dampen the signal for others. For us, this is an effort to bring care for the experiences of others into the performance. The history of eugenics has impacted communities and we are creating communal aural and tactile experiences as a way to disrupt the notion that academic work and knowledge is a solitary endeavor.
The performance captured above is also an exercise in patience and as such expresses a willingness on the part of the participants to sit with a disturbing history. The sample people are listening to and feeling here is 100 seconds long with each note/vibration corresponding to one person who was sterilized. In most performances the participants stay for the duration of the piece, but there have been instances where people have touched a haptic piece and then walked quickly away. We can’t know why some have chosen to walk away.
Some of those who have stayed have shared with us that they felt responsible to feel and hear each person. It’s an abstraction, to be sure, but we are intrigued by the power of listening and feeling to encourage people to not simply look and walk away. As one participant at a Michigan performance noted, the “tingling (from the haptics) lingers, it’s spooky.” Another participant at the same performance indicated that she felt “more implicated” having engaged with a multi-media experience than with a visual like a graph or chart. When asked why, she responded “I’ve felt it and will continue to remember that, but still will likely do nothing in response.”
In creating performances where participants have to care for one another and care enough about the people represented in the data to stay through a durational piece, we are working to redress the extraordinary lack of care that the records represent, both in terms of testifying to the violence done to men’s and women’s bodies and in terms of the State of California’s lack of regard for this history.
Sounds Felt, Sounds Touched
Our work is an ongoing experiment. We’ve moved from haptics along a wire, to haptic spheres that vibrate with the sonification. The image above is from one of these events this spring. We’ve retained the communal effect while transforming the embodied structure of the event. Participants now gather around, encircling the object as they listen toward a history of reproductive injustices. People still tend to lean in – to have heads lowered in a posture of intense focus. The sphere itself demands that someone cradle it and it also requires that people touch lightly once again so as to not dampen the experience for others.
We plan to expand our durational events in our next iteration known as “Safe Harbor” in which we hope to explore how to best care for those people sterilized by the state by caring for their data. In this instance we are thinking of sounds (and more) that we’ll make together with impacted communities. For this work we are particularly interested in engaging audience members in the hosting and care of the eugenics data and, by extension, the survivors.
As a way of enacting a site-specific response to both historical and contemporary human and reproductive rights violations that have occurred in the state, we plan to stage this durational event in California. We’ll begin by inviting audiences to help build and shape an empty warehouse space with us, transforming the empty space into a place of care where we can listen toward these histories. The audience will be invited to converse about the research and reflect upon conversations through making, creating, and ultimately building up our safe harbor.
We plan to listen to and co-create with impacted communities through collective making of the space. As a result, Safe Harbor will enact a cooperative improvisational process shaping socially responsive dialogue – performing, hearing, listening, documenting, and rebuilding notions of care in real time. What we hope to discover here are shared sounds of resistance, repair, and healing. Sounds that might let us listen toward the past, while also creating more just futures.
Featured image: “Water under 12.5 Hz vibration” by Jordi Torrents, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Vibrant Lives is a collaborative team that makes, stages, and performs as part of interactive multimedia installations. Jessica Rajko and Eileen Standley are both professors in the Dance area of the School of Film, Theater, and Dance at Arizona State University (ASU). Jacqueline Wernimont’s home department at ASU is English and she’s a digital humanities and digital archives specialist. Wernimont and Rajko are also multimedia artists/faculty working in Arts, Media, and Engineering.
The data derives from a larger project, known as Eugenic Rubicon: California’s Sterilization Stories, a multidisciplinary collaboration among Arizona State University, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and University of Michigan. This larger collaboration includes historical demography and epidemiology, public health, history of medicine, digital storytelling, data visualization, and the construction of interactive digital platforms. This team is quite large, with our center of gravity residing at the University of Michigan where historian of science Alexandra Minna Stern directs the Eugenic Rubicon lab. Stern discovered the microfilms of more than 20,000 eugenic sterilization patient records in 2013. Stern and her team have created a dataset with this unique set of patient records that includes 212 discrete variables culled from over 30,000 individual documents. This resource is the first of its kind, encompassing almost one-third of the total sterilizations performed in 32 states in the U.S. in the 20th century.
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EPISODE LI: Creating New Words from Old Sounds–Marcella Ernest, Candace Gala, Leslie Harper, and Daryn McKenny
Justin Bieber caught me off guard last year. There I was, minding my own business, listening to a pop station, and this breathy little thing, this delicate vocal wrapped in a halo of shimmering effects starts piping through my car. I didn’t even realize it was him at first; it had been so long since I’d heard a new Bieber song. And I had no clue the production was from Skrillex and Diplo (from their 2015 Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack Ü), which is why I was probably also not ready for the drop, that moment when the song’s tension releases and I’m suddenly gliding across a syncopated bass synth while Bieber’s vocals are pinched into a dolphin call. Somehow, two of the most notoriously unsubtle producers and the posterboy for “too much, too soon” had snuck up on me with “Where Are Ü Now” (WAÜN).
WAÜN’s drop from nowhere isn’t brand new. Subtle soars and understated drops are officially A Thing. More importantly, they do work beyond the sonic aesthetic. In this case, I want to listen to WAÜN in the context of Bieber’s performance of gender, specifically with an ear toward the way Skrillex and Diplo mix elements from dancepop’s 2015 toolkit to produce a track that plays on feminine tropes, which articulate a kind of masculinity. Listening to WAÜN alongside Robin James’s Resilience & Melancholy (2015) amplifies the male privilege at play in WAÜN. James calls attention to the way drops can sonify feminine resilience, and WAÜN’s surprise drop toys with that resilience in a thoroughly heteromasculine way. I’ll first set up how drops usually work, then read James in the context of Bieber’s gender performance as heard in WAÜN.
Drops, at their most basic, are climactic moments when a song’s full instrumental measure hits (hence “drop”), often after some key elements of the instrumental have been removed so that the climax can sound more intense. At that broad level, any genre can employ a drop of some sort. EDM and dancepop drops—the kind that most directly inform the music of Skrillex, Diplo, and Bieber—are bass-heavy and typically follow a soar that intensifies volume, texture, rhythm, and/or pitch: you soar to a sonic plateau or a cliff, and with a “YEEEEEES!!!!!” coast on some wobbly goodness to the next verse.
The pre-chorus soar in the Messengers/Sir Nolan/Kuk Harrell-produced “All Around the World” from Bieber’s 2012 Believe is a solid example. In the video below, the soar starts at 0:45, the chorus enters at 1:00, and the drop lands at 1:15. It’s textbook: the instrumental is stripped back and filtered, and in the opening moments, we hear a descending bass glide. A filter does what its name suggests–it filters out a prescribed set of frequencies so that we only hear a certain range, and in this case it’s the low end that comes through. The effect makes the synths sound like they’re pulsating through water, and the higher frequency overtones take on a shimmery quality. Over the course of the 8-measure soar, the higher frequency range is brought into earshot, and then, on the second half of the eighth measure…nothing. This nothingness is integral to James’s central argument in Resilience & Melancholy: nothingness intensifies what follows. In these eight measures, we’ve glided down to the low end only to soar up up up until all that’s left is Bieber’s voice, confident, nasally, with just a touch of autotune as he sings the titular line that will take us to the chorus. That chorus bangs harder because of the soar to oblivion before it.
WAÜN’s drop lands at 1:09. For full context, start from the beginning and listen for the soar. (If you also need to stare dreamily into Bieber’s eyes, then by all means.)
There’s not really a soar there. No intensifying volume, texture, rhythm, pitch. The not-soar (starting at 0:48) is even a weird length, clocking in at 12 measures after an 8-measure intro and 16-measure verse have established a multiples-of-8 structural rhythm; even if we were expecting a drop, it comes four measures early. The clearest sign we get that a drop is imminent is that moment where the instrumental reduces to a quiet hiss for two measures as Bieber sings “Where are you now?” That hiss is the structural equivalent of the nothingness we hear just before “All Around the World”’s chorus, and with no traditional soar before it, we have just enough time to think “Oh shit, are they gonna….?” before we’re off, clutching tight to Justin Bieber as we ride a dolphin through the more tender parts of Skrillex’s and Diplo’s musical oceans.
Until that nothingness, this could just as easily be one of those heartfelt Bieber tunes where he reaches to the high end of his range for a chorus full of feels. That Bieber? He’s incredibly self-assured, bearing his soul because he’s certain you’ll love him. The bait-and-switch of WAÜN’s soarless drop highlights Bieber’s insecurity in this song—he’s just dolphin calls and “Where are you now”s—by creating expectations for a different persona.
So what we have here is an atypical drop, a drop that calls attention to itself by behaving differently than we expect it to, a drop that’s a study in understatement–all courtesy of three of dancepop’s resident maximalists.
Atypical soars and drops aren’t new, as producers will always toy with musical conventions as a way to disrupt expectations. Skrillex’s own “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” (2010) includes a pre-drop that doesn’t soar at all. In 2015, two big acts in the dance scene, Disclosure and The Chemical Brothers, released singles that don’t soar right, either. Disclosure, whose big 2013 hit “Latch” soared rather traditionally into Sam Smith’s chorus, is coyer on “Bang That” and “Jaded.” “Bang That” includes three separate 8-measure phrases (at 0:30, 0:45, and 1:01, respectively, in the linked video) that never take off, finally settling into a descending bass line (starting at 1:09) that just repeats a rhythmic motif, running out the clock on the final four measures before the chorus. “Jaded,” at the other end of the spectrum, includes only a 4-measure pre-chorus (1:18-1:27) that seems to be sweeping upward like a traditional soar, then roller coasters down and back up over the final two measures. The instability of this soar/not-soar is punctuated with an additional eighth note tacked onto the end of the fourth measure, throwing the chorus off-kilter. The Chemical Brothers employ a similar roller coaster sweep in “Sometimes I Feel So Deserted” that marks out an even eight measures (0:58-1:13) without either intensifying rhythmically or pushing to a pitch ceiling at the drop.
These soars and drops stand out precisely because, like WAÜN’s, they aren’t the norm. To help theorize WAÜN’s not-soar, I want to think with Robin James, whose Resilience & Melancholy hears soars and drops in the context of contemporary race and gender politics. James situates soars and drops as the sonic equivalent of resilience–a performance of feminine overcoming that ultimately only strengthens the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that inflicts the damage that is being surmounted. In other words, women can only attempt to overcome through the damage that white supremacist capitalist patriarchy inflicts upon them. Sonically, the soar is an accrual of damage that is spectacularly (and profitably) overcome in the drop, the music that resiliently endures on the other side of nothingness. Melancholy, on the other hand, is failed resilience, a handling of damage that does not directly profit white supremacist patriarchy and that could sound any number of ways, including like a non-traditional soar. While admittedly these soars and drops aren’t always about gender politics, R&M opens space for us to think about gender and soars/drops together.
I don’t think WAÜN’s non-soar/drop is resilient or melancholic, but I do think it’s helpful to think of it as being about resilience and melancholy. This is where Bieber’s performance of masculinity comes into play. From his earliest poofy-headed, babyfaced performances, Biebs has done a modified bro thing: his heart’s on his sleeve, but mostly as a strategy for sexual conquest. “All Around the World,” again, is exemplary. In the lyrics, Bieber uses his worldly experiences to woo a potential lover, who he also negs, keeping himself in a position of power as someone who knows more, has seen more, and is willing to accept this woman despite her obvious flaws.
In WAÜN, though, I hear his performance of masculinity complicated further, as he tries out a number of more feminized tropes all at once. Lyrically, Bieber is the scorned lover who claims to have done all the care work in his relationship. Visually, he’s the pop icon whose body is ogled, scrutinized, and marked. Vocally, he receives the pitch-shift treatment that has most recently been associated with DJ Snake’s production of diva vocals (think “You Know You Like It” and “Lean On”). He also sings in a breathy style that James has elsewhere noted mimics Ellie Goulding’s vocals. Musically, Skrillex and Diplo give him the soar/drop construction to undergird his pain, a musical technique that most often signifies feminine resilience.
What bubbles up is a heteromasculine play on resilience and melancholy. Skrillex and Diplo liquidate the soar until all that’s left is a nothing-hiss before the drop. In the context of the other feminized tropes Bieber is messing with in WAÜN, this failed soar could feel melancholic, a refusal to spectacularly overcome. Overcome what, though? Bieber gets to sound resilient or melancholic without ever experiencing damage. That’s his male privilege. James points out that one of the most violent outcomes of resilience discourse is the re-enforcement of damage. If resilience is the way women become legible and profitable, then the damage inflicted by ablist white cisheteropatriarchy becomes a necessity, something that must be endured to gain access to power and resources. This is the lynchpin of James’s critique: resilience is a harmful discourse because it ultimately benefits the system it purports to overcome. Melancholy turns resilience logic on its head by refusing to treat damage as something an individual is responsible for overcoming. WAÜN, though, erases damage altogether in its initial drop. WAÜN’s feminized tropes ultimately highlight instead of unsettle Bieber’s performance of hetero-masculinity: what’s more man-ly than accessing power and resources without the threat of institutional violence?
Importantly, these feminized tropes don’t undermine Bieber’s heteromasculine performance; rather, they only seem to add nuance to the slightly bro-ier [that’s a word] Bieber performance we’ve become accustomed to. That’s what I mean when I say WAÜN is about resilience and melancholy; Skrillex and Diplo use the markers of queer or feminine overcoming and failed overcoming to re-construct Bieber’s masculinity, to toss some more ingredients into his manly mix, and the not-soar is a big component of that. Skrillex and Diplo tap into this soar experimentation, then drop it into the middle of a slightly more gender-fluid Bieber.
WAÜN’s high water mark is a few months behind us at this point, but Bieber remains hotter than ever, with “What Do You Mean?,” “Sorry” (another Skrillex production credit), and “Love Yourself” still dominating US and UK charts. Several more singles from Purpose (including two more Skrillex collaborations) are poised to do the same in 2016. Each of these singles extends some of the same tropes Bieber, Skrillex, and Diplo explore in WAÜN—breathy vocals, misunderstood and mistreated pop icon, resilience and contrition and care in the face of a failed relationship—and I hear WAÜN’s initial drop as the sonic moment that preps Bieber’s return to the pop charts. He wades back into the mainstream with a more complex performance of heteromasculinity and reaps the profits that come with it.
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 at justindburton.com and on Twitter @justindburton. His favorite rapper is Right Said Fred.
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Editor’s Note: Here’s installment #3 of Sounding Out!‘s blog forum on gender and voice! Last week I talked about what it meant to have people call me, a woman of color, “loud.” The week before that we hosted Christine Ehrick‘s selections from her forthcoming book; she introduced us to the idea of the gendered soundscape, which she uses in her analysis on women’s radio speech from the 1930s to the 1950s. In the next few weeks we’ll have A.O. Roberts with synthesized voices and gender, Art Blake with his reflections on how his experience shifting his voice from feminine to masculine as a transgender man intersects with his work on John Cage, and lastly Robin James with an analysis of how ideas of what women should sound like have roots in Greek philosophy.
This week regular writer Regina Bradley puts the soundtrack of Scandal in conversation with the agency of the show’s protagonist, a black woman in manages crises for a living. So, lean in and close your eyes, but keep your ears open for any spies creeping in. –Liana M. Silva, Managing Editor
9:00 pm (Eastern). The quick shutter of an invisible camera calls the attention of the viewers to Scandal. The clicking re-emphasizes the show’s title, bringing to mind paparazzi and their capturing of scandalous behavior. The shuttering also signifies the literal and sonic fast paced timing of Shonda Rhimes’ most popular ABC prime time show: quickened plots, fast talks, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-something-important visual details. Scandal’s central character, Washington D.C. crisis manager Olivia Pope (portrayed by Kerry Washington), is known mostly for her sharp professional outfits and no-nonsense approach to work. In Olivia, Rhimes has created a black female character that is perfectly flawed, a symbol of both the potential power and victimization of black women. Olivia Pope is neither just the savior nor is she solely a victim.
Scandal evokes intense debate about race and power because of its visual politics, but rarely is Scandal’s scoring prominent in those discussions. The soundtrack acts as an indicator of contemporary black women’s agency in popular culture. As both Rhimes and Scandal music director Alexandra Patsavas reveal, Scandal’s ‘vintage’ soundtrack is an opportunity to buoy the plot and add a unique alternative perspective to the action taking place on the show. The soundtrack’s nods to yesteryear artists – including Stevie Wonder, The Ohio Players, The O’Jays, Sam Cooke, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and Nina Simone sonically narrate additional layers of agency and identity on the show. Are these tracks giving Olivia a voice? What does Scandal’s scoring suggest about race, place, and power scripts for black women in contemporary popular culture?
Scandal takes place in Washington D.C., a location full of physical and sonic significance in national lore and the black popular imagination. In a national narrative D.C. is the epicenter of political agency, power, and the visibility of whiteness as a form of power. It is America’s city. Yet D.C. in the black imagination is the Chocolate City, a space that serves as a living archive of black folks’ attempts to intervene into a national narrative that would rather overlook the contributions of black bodies and culture. Washington, D.C. is the home of the Moorland-Springarn Research Center and multiple black cultural archives, Howard University and its place as the black mecca of Black Greek Letter Organizations, GoGo Music, and (embattled) social-political policies and endeavors for black people. It is a site of black identity that goes much farther than the place where everyone saw how a certain somebody had an American Dream. On the other hand, the increasing gentrification of the city raises questions of whether or not the nickname “Chocolate City” is applicable.Thus, Washington, D.C. exists at the crux of the romanticization of Americanness as a form of worldly power and the reality that (white) Americanness does not include all Americans.
Yet Washington D.C. as a site of complex and rich black experiences does not alone buoy Scandal’s use of Washington, D.C. as a site where a black woman “handles” the hustle and bustle of American power and its upheaval. This type of work takes place in the scoring, particularly because the show is not culturally recognizable as a “black show.” Its inherent blackness is sonic, using black music to revisit tropes of power and racial politics.
One possible and albeit slightly heavy handed approach for thinking through Scandal’s leaning on funk and soul music is to point out how the show uses black cultural forms to invoke power. For example, soul songs like Otis Redding’s “Mr. Pitiful,” Edwin Starr’s “War,” and Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” are not only used to accentuate the action in a scene but the possibility of Olivia as a power figure. The use of black men’s voices as they yell, scream, and moan sonically allude to power as a masculine concept. Yet Olivia’s connection to these songs signifies her potential to wield power in unorthodox ways not associated with black women. For example, the crescendo of music before Olivia delivers a demand to her team sets up her agency as a political figure. Her blackness is amplified and earmarked by the music. This pairing amplifies the question of race and power in a useful way. The dominantly black musical script offers the critique and engagement with Olivia Pope’s blackness that many viewers and critics complain are lacking. (See the brilliant synopsis presented by Dr. Jessica Marie Johnson about Shonda Rhimes’ portrayal of black women and popular culture that took place at Duke University last month.)
Scandal serves vintage musical scoring as a double entendre: the sound of black music from previous eras evokes ‘vintage’ scripts of race, gender, and power from that era that seep into this present moment. Scandal’s use of soul, funk, and disco sonically allude to larger questions lingering from the Civil Rights Movement: integration as an equalizer of power and privilege, the hypermasculinity of the Civil Rights Era, its cultural producers, and the immediate aftermath of these scripts on (black) American society in the late 1960s and 1970s. We frequently annotate black agency through the men creating (singing?) the music. This is equally true for the black cultural productions of the era, as they aesthetically supplemented the understanding that black folks mattering connected to the uplift and healthy presence of black men. Even with soul and funk music, which stand as antithetical responses to the problematic expectations of classist respectability politics, black women’s agency was associated with the sexual, emotional, or physical agency of black men.
The blackness and “maleness” of the funk and soul used in Scandal’s score subverts the power that Olivia Pope exerts in her dealings with her clients, her lovers, and team. For example, in season two Olivia and President Fitz’s sex tape is threatened to be leaked to the public. It is important to note that the tape is an audio tape, suggestively alluding the absence of physical and visual rhetoric to address the interracial relationship. As Olivia gives the word to leak the sex tape, The Ohio Players’ track “Love Rollercoaster” begins to play. It sonically stabilizes Olivia’s decision to “leak” her sexuality as a power move while also leaving room to question the deeper implications of how the viewer navigates her blackness and womanhood using physical, aural, and cultural markers of sexuality. Using male funk and soul artists allows Pope to ‘codeswitch’ between cultural scripts of power as masculine and womanhood as opposite power. It amplifies her authority and agency while signifying that her physical appearance and voice may not have the ability to confer her worth to the audience.
This tug-and-pull of power and agency is most amplified in Olivia Pope’s dealings with her father Rowan Pope, played by Joe Morton (who plays the HELL out of this role, by the way). Rowan Pope is a literal and figurative double agent: He is Elijah Pope, a curator of antiquities at the Smithsonian, and Rowan Pope, head of the top secret and lethal U.S. organization called B613. His fragmented life speaks to the constant negotiation of “safe” black masculinity. He also embodies the anxieties about black men as violent and bloodthirsty. Rowan/Elijah encapsulates all of the swagger and vitriol associated with conceptualizations of black power and black men from the Black Liberation Era. He is cold and calculating, and he complicates the rhetoric of racial uplift and expected from the Civil Rights/Black Power movements. He speaks in hardened, hushed tones with conviction, while snarling his words with spite for white authority. Not to mention, his is the character that brings up race overtly in the show.
This balance between hushed tones and snarled words comes through in Rowan’s early interaction with Olivia during Scandal’s season three premiere. Olivia, on the run because her name is leaked as the President’s mistress, is recovered by her father and told to flee the country. Rowan is not a doting and concerned father in this scene. Rather, he is disappointed by her lack of prowess and failure to aspire to higher forms of power and authority than “first lady.” Rowan recognizes there is no power in being the wife of the President, especially as a black woman, and he criticizes her for not following the first rule of black folks’ survival: “You need to be twice as good to get half of what they have.” “They” is a collective noun for white folks, often spoken behind closed doors as a means to inspire young black folks to do better. Rowan demands she state out loud what they need to be twice of. Olivia’s voice cracks and is breathless as she whispers “twice as good to get half of what they have.” Rowan exaggerates a “yes” and dismisses Olivia as “mediocre.” It is a painful and powerful scene where multiple dichotomies take place: a father scolding his daughter, a black man undermining black women’s agency, and the fear/anxiety about black women’s sexuality as a sign of weakness and lacking privilege. The wavering volume of Olivia’s voice signifies her quickly plummeting ability to voice her power. Olivia’s loss of words amplifies Rowans’ own authority, embodied in his voice when he adamantly declares “I am the hell and the high water!” No soundtrack can save her here.
However, Rowan does have human moments, reaching out to his estranged daughter Olivia with wine and music, specifically Stevie Wonder. Her record collection is filled with Stevie Wonder. It is important that she has a record collection instead of a collection of CDs or playlist. Not only does this detail speak to the trope of “vintage” that runs through the show but also gives credence to how Olivia establishes her power. Her major moments are annotated by Stevie Wonder: when her name is leaked “Higher Ground” plays in the background. When she is kidnapped at the end of the episode for past December’s Winter finale “Don’t You Worry Bout a Thing” takes center stage. Again, the sounds of a man, her father in this instance, are the soundtrack to her work. The choice of music subverts the gender balance of power. Through male artists, the show gives Olivia her authority.
The most prominent sonic signifier is the instrumental accompaniment from the artist The Album Leaf titled “The Light.” Also known as Olivia and President Fitz’s “song,” the track plays each time the two characters interact and share intimacy (physical and otherwise).
Notes from what sounds like an electric piano playing a scale are short and sweet to the ear. The track lends its innocence and vulnerability to Olivia and Fitz’s affair and offers a possibility that their love for each other can be read as star-crossed instead of in bad taste.
Scott Poulson-Bryant offered an intriguing read on his Facebook page on “The Light” as an allusion to the Civil Rights’ theme song “We Shall Overcome.” This reading of “The Light” as the context to Olivia and Fitz’s relationship makes room to complicate how Olivia’s agency as a black woman is historically and politically bound to women before–she alludes to her similarity to Sally Hemmings in one episode. Olivia’s Sally Hemmings reference uses Hemmings as the genesis point for understanding the complexity of Olivia’s sexual encounters as well as how to navigate black women’s sexual agency – and pleasure – in popular spaces. Sally Hemmings’ relationship to President Thomas Jefferson lends historical credence to Olivia and Fitz’s Scandal but also signifies the gray area of historical memory, cultural expectations, and consent as a form of power for African American women. “The Light” instrumental is not only a sonic accompaniment of Olivia as she relates to Fitz but her own struggles to recognize and balance her public and personal agency.
The soundtrack of Scandal gives a voice to not just Olivia’s authority in a place where race and power are intertwined but also a voice on national television to how whiteness and political power operate. Scandal’s controversial protagonist/anti-hero Olivia Pope is often central to recent discussions of race, gender, and popular culture. But the soundtrack to the show asks viewers to not just watch closely but also listen closely. Tune out and you might miss something.
Regina Bradley recently completed her PhD at Florida State University in African American Literature. Her dissertation is titled “Race to Post: White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture and Literature.” She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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Editor’s Note: Here’s installment #2 of Sounding Out!‘s blog forum on gender and voice! Last week we hosted Christine Ehrick‘s selections from her forthcoming book; she introduced us to the idea of the gendered soundscape, which she uses in her analysis on women’s radio speech from the 1930s to the 1950s. In the next few weeks we’ll have SO regular writer Regina Bradley, with a look at how music is gendered in Shonda Rhimes’ hit show Scandal, A.O. Roberts with synthesized voices and gender, Art Blake with his reflections on how his experience shifting his voice from feminine to masculine as a transgender man intersects with his work on John Cage, and lastly Robin James with an analysis of how ideas of what women should sound like have roots in Greek philosophy.
As I planned for SO!’s February forum, I wondered about my own connection to the topic: how is the loudness of a voice gendered? Does it matter who we call “loud”? As a Latina, I’m familiar with the stereotypes of the loud Latina, and as a Puerto Rican I faced them at every gathering. So for this week I decided to reflect upon my experiences in a personal essay. Lean in, close your eyes, and don’t let the voices startle you.–Liana M. Silva, Managing Editor
I was 22 years old when someone called me deaf. I was finishing my bachelor’s degree at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus. After four years of living in San Juan, I still hadn’t gotten used to the class and race microaggressions I encountered regularly because I was a brown girl who grew up in the country and was going to school in the urban capital, el área metropolitana. These microaggressions were usually assumptions about who I was based on how I talked: I called pots a certain way, I referred to nickels in another way, and I couldn’t keep my voice down–all indications, according to my “urban” friends, that I grew up in the country. But being called “deaf” was a new one.
My boyfriend at the time had no cellphone, and his mother would call me regularly to see if he was on his way home from a gig or to ask him to run an errand. She and I were not close, but we were cordial. I always felt we didn’t click on some level. This particular weekend day, she had called to ask if he had left San Juan already to come visit her, and I told her I had just seen him that morning before he left. Somehow she and I went from small talk into a conversation.
In my head, I thought I was making headway with her and that this was a huge step forward in our relationship. We talked about his gig the night before, about how my family was doing, things like that. Then she asked me if my family had a medical history of people losing their hearing. “No? I don’t think so. Why do you ask?” I said in Spanish.
“Because you talk so loud, and so do your father and your sister. Your mom isn’t loud.”
That was over 10 years ago, but the comment still stings. I am certain that wasn’t the only time someone called me “loud” or pointed out the tone of my voice, but it’s the one time that still rings in my ears when I think about the intersection of gender and sound. It wasn’t just that I spoke at a high volume, it was that I was a woman who spoke at a high volume. I was the girlfriend who was loud.
Of course we’re not born loud- or soft-speakers – we learn to use the volume level that prevails in our culture, and then turn it up or lower it depending on our subculture and peer group.
-Anne Karpf, The Human Voice
What does “loud” mean, anyway? Denotations fade into connotations. As I write this, I struggle to think of how to describe loud in a way that doesn’t feel negative. Because every time I think of “loud” its negative connotations float up to the surface. Just take this Merriam-Webster online dictionary entry for “loud.” Aside from the reference to volume, “loud” also means sounds that are offensive, obtrusive—annoying.
To be fair, I’ve always been self-conscious of my voice, and not in the way most people hate the sound of their voice. I always felt my voice was not girly enough. I always felt as a teenager and a young adult not “pretty” enough, not thin enough, not “feminine” enough, so my insecurities also extended to my voice.
Growing up, I heard people tell me time and time again to keep my voice down, that I was talking too loud, that people next door could hear me, et cetera. Grandparents, cousins, parents, friends: I got it from every corner. Shush. But I don’t recall anybody saying that about the boys/men I hung out with. Add to that the comments I got about my appearance: “you’re too fat,” “your hair is too frizzy,” ‘you’re ugly.” I associated being loud with being unattractive. Just another flaw.
It’s no coincidence then that describing a woman as loud is almost never said as a compliment. Although a man can be loud—he might even be expected to have a deep, booming, commanding voice, as the above video describes—when a woman is described as loud, it’s almost never in a good light. Karpf mentions in The Human Voice: The Story of a Remarkable Talent that “Loudness certainly seems to be judged differently depending on the sex of the speaker. Talking loudly is considered an act of aggression in women, but in men as no more than they’re entitled to.” In other words, society deems men to be allowed to be loud, and by extension loudness comes off as a masculine feature. So loudness, something that at its base means high volume, ends up being constructed as more than just decibels. Women who are “loud” become noisy, rude, unapologetic, unbridled.
Mija pero que duro tu hablas.
In Puerto Rico, the word for “loud” was alto (high) but also duro (hard). I knew early on that when someone told me that I spoke duro they didn’t mean it in a kind way. The voice was described as hard, harsh, shards of glass. It hurt to be called loud. It hurt to be called hard. Especially when you understand that society accepts only certain ways of being a woman: soft, delicate, fragile, dainty. It was never meant as a compliment to have someone call your voice “hard.”
If I was listening to my mother and my aunts or cousins speaking, and then chimed in, I would get the “shhhh” or if they wanted to be discreet they would make a gesture with their hands to indicate to me that I should bring my voice down. I learned early on that a lower voice was more appealing than the loud voice hiding in my vocal box.
I am Puerto Rican, and even though I was born in New York City, I was raised in a small town on the western side of Puerto Rico. I was already well-aware of stereotypes and digs about my being born in New York, even at a young age. My cousins would tell me I was stuck up, I thought I was better than other people because I had cable, I only listened to music in English (I guess that was a bad thing to them). When I moved to San Juan, I was no longer a displaced Nuyorican but a country bumpkin. Peers, friends, and new acquaintances would not classify me as a Nuyorican but, because I was living in San Juan at the time, would categorize me as an islander, de la isla, which basically meant I was not from el “area metro.” I was, in short, a country bumpkin to them.
The loudness of my voice was not just a marker of where I came from (the country, with all of the classicism that the phrase entails) but for me became conflated with gender. I knew that even when I wasn’t living in the city, I had been called loud. It’s just that when my peers asked me to lower my voice or to not speak so “duro” it was also because they thought of me as jíbara, country.
Sometimes I would get carried away when I was telling a joke among my female roommates, or I’d be excited to share some news, and eventually someone would tell me to tone it down. Baja la voz. As I reflect upon my college years living with roommates in a crowded apartment in a crowded city, I remember that we often got together and laughed, talked over each other, shouted across the apartment. But I would get carried away and then someone would say something about it. Mira que nos van a mandar a callar. Someone’s gonna tell us to shut up.
It was in college, however, that I learned to modulate my voice. I am physically capable of whispering, but when I spoke in English in a classroom setting (I was an English major in a school whose language of instruction was Spanish) I felt even louder in English. So I made the effort to tone down my voice, literally. I equated English with career, and by extension with my professional persona.
Ultimately, English would be the language I spoke (and still speak) in academic circles; with the language came also the tone and the volume. Men in my classes seemed more often to initiate conversations in my classes, and sometimes even in the ones where they were a minority. Meanwhile, the driven graduate student that I was, I wanted to step in but not stand out because of my voice. I didn’t want to give them (or the professor for that matter) a chance to discount me because I was a loud Puerto Rican woman at an American school. Eventually I learned how to switch back and forth. So did my fellow female classmates.
I remember as a teacher modulating my voice so I would be less loud and less abrasive in a college classroom. I wanted to assert my authority. If some women resort to vocal fry in order to be taken seriously, as this 2014 article in The Atlantic (online) suggests, I resorted to modulating my voice. That was my way of passing: passing for creative elite, passing for feminine, passing for authoritative. I tried to assert my credibility as a burgeoning scholar and professor by tweaking my voice. I laughed a little softer, I spoke a little slower, I sounded a little lower. I teetered between trying to sound feminine and trying to downplay my femininity through my voice.
Was I trying to sound more like the stereotype of a woman so I could be more credible in the classroom? Was this my own version of respectability politics? “Don’t be so loud and they’ll listen to you”?
“White supremacy grants white people the ability to be understood as expressing a dynamic range; whites can legitimately shout because we hear them/ourselves as mainly normalized. At the same time, white supremacy paints black people as always-already too loud.”
The negative rhetoric about women and loudness is also connected to respectability politics. Take for example the stereotype of the angry black woman (which is in the vicinity of the loud Latina). If women must be delicate and feminine, being loud would be unattractive, unseemly. Loud also means “not being silent,” in other words, speaking when not spoken to. Robin James touches upon “loudness” in contemporary music, and how the turn toward less loud tracks also has to do with racialized ideas about who can speak and who can be loud–in other words, what counts as noise and what counts as harmonious sound. She cites Goldie Taylor’s piece in The Daily Beast about how, regardless of how angry she felt about the racial injustices in the United States, she would never be able to scream and shout without consequences. Loudness is something racialized people cannot afford.
The stereotype of the angry woman points to how the notion of who is loud and what tone of voice is considered loud are constructed. Although there are studies that point out that the sound of one’s voice indicates to others that one is in a position of authority or that one’s voice can make or break one’s career, there is yet to be a study that shows how the biology of the body that produces the voice affects what one can or cannot do. In other words, the connection between voice and our abilities, or our social class, is constructed—in our heads.
Assertive, aggressive, leader: these descriptions benefit men, for the most part. Aggressiveness is seen as a masculine trait, and along with that a loud tone of voice is also seen as masculine. (This idea is also problematic, for it sets anything that isn’t aggressive and assertive as female, and therefore negative.) The opposite applies to women; the same way our society associates fragile delicate things with femininity, a fragile, soft, low tone of voice is the acceptable range for a woman. And James and Taylor’s comments point to how race also changes the equation. Damned if we speak, damned if we don’t.
Over the years, I’ve become more comfortable with the way I sound. I’ve also become more comfortable switching between my aural codes, like I do with English, Spanish, and Spanglish. I know that there’s a volume that I use in certain spaces. I also know that in other spaces I don’t have to watch over how loud I am. If I am in a familiar space, with people I am close to, I feel less inclined to watch myself. I feel safe, not judged. I can be as loud as I want to be. But loudness is also an accepted way of speaking around my family. If I spoke in a low tone, I’d probably be picked on for that. My father, for one, has a booming, deep, loud voice, and so do many of my family members.
For me, embracing my voice is also a kind of body acceptance. My body, plus-sized and all, takes up space. My voice takes up space too. As a teenager and an adult I was constantly shamed for the way I look (skin too brown, voice too loud, face too painted, hair too short), and for a time tweaking my voice became a way to try to fit in. But I later learned how to respond to the remarks. I learned to be sarcastic. I learned to make jokes. I learned to talk back. I didn’t find my voice; I embraced my voice.
Dear readers, let us know in the comments: have you been chastised for being loud? Or for not speaking loudly enough?
Featured image: property of the author.
Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!.
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