Welcome to week two of our February Forum on “Sonic Borders,” a collaboration with the IASPM-US blog in connection with this year’s IASPM-US conference on Liminality and Borderlands, held in Austin, Texas from February 28 to March 3, 2013. The “Sonic Borders” forum is a Virtual Roundtable cross-blog entity that will feature six Sounding Out! writers posting on Mondays through February 25, and four writers from IASPM-US, posting on Wednesdays starting February 6th and ending February 27th. For an encore of week one of the forum, click here. And now, put your hands together for Regina Bradley!–JSA
I’m most haunted by a scene in the film Django Unchained (2012) where a slave and former mandingo fighter is torn to bits by dogs offscreen. After seeing the dogs begin to maim the slave, the scene rapidly cuts away to former slave and bounty hunter Django’s expression (played by Jamie Foxx) while the man hollers in pain amidst the growl of dogs in the background. The scene’s grisliness was not situated within Quentin Tarantino’s signature visual violence, but in its sound. Sound better relayed the violence imposed upon the man’s body, signifying the unavailability of literal or visual discourse to speak to the racial trauma black bodies continuously face.
Tarantino’s use of sound in this scene and the rest of the film capitalizes on an intriguing alternative to investigating racial trauma narratives in our current popular imagination. I know folks are tired of hearing about Django Unchained, but hear me out. Er, hear Quentin Tarantino out. No, I’m not talking about interviews or dribble about how he was a slave in his last life or two but rather the way he manipulates music to present a soudscape where revenge fantasies are okay. Unlike past sonic renderings of slavery like the O’Jays’ track “Ship Ahoy,” Django retraces the slave narrative in a contemporary social-cultural moment. Tarantino’s redrawing represents how postracialism provides a scapegoat for (a)historical representations of racial trauma and violence. I am most interested in the ways that the Django Unchained soundscape provides Tarantino a way to dabble in what historian and blogger Jelani Cobb calls “racial ventriloquism” by allowing him to present a sonically revisionist representation of the intersections of slave discourse, black manhood, and trauma.
If it is true that Jamie Foxx asserted that “hip hop goes hand in hand with Quentin Tarantino” then Django reflects a type of hip hop sensibility that is situated between hip hop’s commodification as the most visible form of contemporary black culture and as the most accessible form of blackness and black expression. If I had to pinpoint it, I’d suggest Tarantino’s inclusion of two rappers, Tupac Shakur and Rick Ross, within Django is no doubt a nod toward a gangsta rap sensibility that Tarantino appropriates for his slave narrative/western. Shakur’s song “Unchained” plays in the film’s trailers; Ross’s “100 Black Coffins” plays in the movie and its rolling credits. Sampling from Tupac Shakur’s music as a member of the group Outlawz reflects the vengeful, if not nihilistic, undertones of gangsta rap that run parallel to the spaghetti western aesthetic that Django is primarily framed within. Not only is Django a badass and outlaw in the sense that he is a freed slave bounty hunter roaming the South in search of his woman, but Tupac’s song contextualizes him as a gangsta badass outlaw bounty hunter who exists in the fringes of normative society. He is not the norm, but rather the exceptionally violent Negro that we as an audience root for. We want him to be violent. Violence is not only a fantasy but a privilege we want to give Django because of the violence inflicted upon him as a former slave.
“Unchained,” a mashup of James Brown’s “The Payback” and Tupac Shakur’s posthumous release “Untouchable,” sonically corresponds to these desires, using funk and the underlying association of violence in gangsta rap to provide a backdrop to cheer for Django’s violent revenge. The song utilizes sound bytes of Django and his bounty hunter partner/emancipator King Schultz (played by Christopher Waltz) interwoven with samples of “The Payback” in order to provide the context of why Django becomes unchained and displaced from the traditional impositions of violence seen in slave narratives.
A reflection of hip hop in terms of production – sampling and blending to create a unique new sound – “Unchained” also provides its listeners with a bridge between a (revisionist) slave narrative and contemporary racial violence. As the song opens, a prominent electric guitar strums to remind the listener of its western generic context but gives way to an emphatic crescendo of the horns that introduce “The Payback.” The loudness of the horns signifies the arrival of something great–Django’s arrival. The horns demand the listener’s attention. James Brown sings “sold me out, for chump change. . .told me that they, had it all arranged” sets up Django’s literal and sonic “emancipation,” correlating “sold me out” to being sold as a slave. A sound byte of King Schultz shooting Django’s overseer immediately follows Brown’s verse, bridging Brown’s verse of “time to get ready for the big payback” with Django’s freedom in the film. Django’s change in stature is sonically affirmed by an adamant and hype Shakur, rhetorically asking in loop “Am I wrong ‘cause I wanna get it on til I die?!” Shakur’s voice over the infamous horns of “Payback” and Brown’s signature scream relay the urgency of Django’s mission and past traumas, emphasizing not only black men’s capability but willingness to be violent when threatened.
Another reading of this loop suggests the inherent need for black men to be violent, an essentialized (mis)conceptualization of contemporary black men within a gangsta rap aesthetic that parallels Tarantino’s (re)vengeful intentions for Django Freeman. The call and response between Shakur and the sound byte of Foxx repeating “I love the way you die boy” loosely correlates and subverts the racial trauma that often provides the foundation for slavery discourse. Foxx’s sample comes from a scene in the film where Django has just shot and killed his former overseer. The line is an inversion of when Django previously begged for mercy for his wife Broomhilda and the overseer sneered “I like the way you beg, boy.” The triumphant rendering of Brown’s horns and the loop of Shakur, when heard in conjunction with Foxx’s sound byte, signify that Django has, indeed, got the big payback. The sound bytes of Django’s voice provides a challenge to the literal slave’s voice while the music provides a backdrop for what a slave’s revenge may sound like, subverting the racial trauma inflicted on slaves.
James Brown and Tupac Shakur reflect pivotal moments of black masculinity from soul and early renderings of commodified rap, but Rick Ross reflects a more contemporary moment of black masculinity and violence within hip hop as a multicultural space. It is significant that Django includes this moment of hip hop because it similarly frames the haziness of racial politics that contextualizes the film. Ross’s “100 Black Coffins” showcases a gruff Rick Ross spitting bars about violent repercussions and avenging himself and slave women:
The track reflects a sonic representation of the American South as a site of racial trauma as seen in the American popular imagination. There is a minute and, if unaware of the film’s homage, a quickly fleeting understanding of the black coffin as representative of the original Django’s coffin that he carried around with him as a reminder of his traumatic experience and need for revenge. The sonic feel of this track is overtly masculine, consisting of Ross’s signature grunt, a lone whistle, a wailing male chorus, and hard-hitting percussion. Ross’s demands for black coffins, black pastors, and black bibles against a sonic backdrop of wails and an unsettling bell toll inflict a similarly violent Southern cultural soundscape.
Furthermore, the understanding of blackness as pathological due to the trauma blacks experience, frames Ross’s narrative as parallel to Django’s (if he were a rapper). I’m particularly struck by “100 Black Coffins” for two reasons: Rick Ross’s beat (he never picks a lame one) and Ross’ call and response with himself. Furthermore, the urgency and depth that Ross presents in his background ad libs is a haunting reflection of black (slave) men’s inability to avenge and protect their families and themselves. Ross’ solo call and response signifies a coping mechanism for the solitary existence many slaves faced when disconnected from loved ones. Ross seamlessly interchanges ahistorical images and hip hop memes against a sonic backdrop that reflects the use of sound as a usefully ahistorical space where a ‘mash-up’ of blacks’ past and present can collide. Ross talking about slinging drugs from the block extends to blacks being sold on a slave block without a question of how the two correlate. This is undoubtedly problematic but, within the context of Django as a revenge fantasy film, is acceptable because it is part of the performance of a pseudo-slave narrative.
Idealistically, critically engaging Django as a sonic discourse could provide bridges to similarly violent – yet very real – representations of sonic violence in the popular imagination like Trayvon Martin’s 911 tapes and the recent murder of Jordan Davis. It is also important to point out the existence of nonmusical cues of silence and screaming presented by Kerry Washington’s character, Broomhilda, and what they suggest about the treatment of (slave) women’s narratives and agency in a sonic space, an issue that the two hip hop tracks do not broach. Overall, however, Django pushes the envelope sonically and visually in reference to sonic borders of blackness and the usefulness of the sound of racial trauma to contextualizing black masculinity, provoking a complicated question: in what ways does music blur contemporary and historical black discourses, creating a hazy representation of not only what blackness does, but what black pathology sounds like?
R.N. Bradley is a PhD candidate in African American Literature at Florida State University and a regular writer for Sounding Out!
I am here today to defend auto-tune. I may be late to the party, but if you watched Lil Wayne’s recent schizophrenic performance on MTV’s VMAs you know that auto-tune isn’t going anywhere. The thoughtful and melodic opening song “How to Love” clashed harshly with the expletive-laden guitar-rocking “John” Weezy followed with. Regardless of how you judge that disjunction, what strikes me about the performance is that auto-tune made Weezy’s range possible. The studio magic transposed onto the live moment dared auto-tune’s many haters to revise their criticisms about the relationship between the live and the recorded. It suggested that this technology actually opens up possibilities, rather than marking a limitation.
Auto-tune is mostly synonymous with the intentionally mechanized vocal distortion effect of singers like T-Pain, but it has actually been used for clandestine pitch correction in the studio for over 15 years. Cher’s voice on 1998’s “Believe” is probably the earliest well-known use of the device to distort rather than correct, though at the time her producers claimed to have used a vocoder pedal, probably in an attempt to hide what was then a trade secret—the Antares Auto-Tune machine is widely used to correct imperfections in studio singing. The corrective function of auto-tune is more difficult to note than the obvious distortive effect because when used as intended, auto-tuning is an inaudible process. It blends flubbed or off-key notes to the nearest true semi-tone to create the effect of perfect singing every time. The more off-key a singer is, the harder it is to hide the use of the technology. Furthermore, to make melody out of talking or rapping the sound has to be pushed to the point of sounding robotic.
The dismissal of auto-tuned acts is usually made in terms of a comparison between the modified recording and what is possible in live performance, like indie folk singer Neko Case’s extended tongue-lashing in Stereogum. Auto-tune makes it so that anyone can sing whether they have talent or not, or so the criticism goes, putting determination of talent before evaluation of the outcome. This simple critique conveniently ignores how recording technology has long shaped our expectations in popular music and for live performance. Do we consider how many takes were required for Patti LaBelle to record “Lady Marmalade” when we listen? Do we speculate on whether spliced tape made up for the effects of a fatiguing day of recording? Chances are that even your favorite and most gifted singer has benefited from some form of technology in recording their work. When someone argues that auto-tune allows anyone to sing, what they are really complaining about is that an illusion of authenticity has been dispelled. My question in response is: So what? Why would it so bad if anyone could be a singer through Auto-tuning technology? What is really so threatening about its use?
As Walter Benjamin writes in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the threat to art presented by mechanical reproduction emerges from the inability for its authenticity to be reproduced—but authenticity is a shibboleth. He explains that what is really threatened is the authority of the original; but how do we determine what is original in a field where the influences of live performance and record artifact are so interwoven? Auto-tune represents just another step forward in undoing the illusion of art’s aura. It is not the quality of art that is endangered by mass access to its creation, but rather the authority of cultural arbiters and the ideological ends they serve.
Auto-tune supposedly obfuscates one of the indicators of authenticity, imperfections in the work of art. However, recording technology already made error less notable as a sign of authenticity to the point where the near perfection of recorded music becomes the sign of authentic talent and the standard to which live performance is compared. We expect the artist to perform the song as we have heard it in countless replays of the single, ignoring that the corrective technologies of recording shaped the contours of our understanding of the song.
In this way, we can think of the audible auto-tune effect is actually re-establishing authenticity by making itself transparent. An auto-tuned song establishes its authority by casting into doubt the ability of any art to be truly authoritative and owning up to that lack. Listen to the auto-tuned hit “Blame It” by Jaime Foxx, featuring T-Pain, and note how their voices are made nearly indistinguishable by the auto-tune effect.
It might be the case that anyone is singing that song, but that doesn’t make it less bumping and less catchy—in fact, I’d argue the slippage makes it catchier. The auto-tuned voice is the sound of a democratic voice. There isn’t much precedent for actors becoming successful singers, but “Blame It” provides evidence of the transcendent power of auto-tune allowing anyone to participate in art and culture making. As Benjamin reminds us, “The fact that the new mode of participation first appeared in a disreputable form must not confuse the spectator.” The fact that “anyone” can do it increases possibilities and casts all-encompassing dismissal of auto-tune as reactionary and elitist.
Mechanical reproduction may “pry an object from its shell” and destroy its aura and authority–demonstrating the democratic possibilities in art as it is repurposed–but I contend that auto-tune goes one step further. It pries singing free from the tyranny of talent and its proscriptive aesthetics. It undermines the authority of the arbiters of talent and lets anyone potentially take part in public musical vocal expression. Even someone like Antoine Dodson, whose rant on the local news, ended up a catchy internet hit thanks to the Songify project.
Auto-tune represents a democratic impulse in music. It is another step in the increasing access to cultural production, going beyond special classes of people in social or economic position to determine what is worthy. Sure, not everyone can afford the Antares Auto-Tune machine, but recent history has demonstrated that such technologies become increasingly affordable and more widely available. Rather than cold and soulless, the mechanized voice can give direct access to the pathos of melody when used by those whose natural talent is not for singing. Listen to Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, or (again) Lil Wayne’s “How To Love.” These artists aren’t trying to get one over on their listeners, but just the opposite, they want to evoke an earnestness that they feel can only be expressed through the singing voice. Why would you want to resist a world where anyone could sing their hearts out?
Osvaldo Oyola is a regular contributor to Sounding Out! He is also an English PhD student at Binghamton University.