Recently, the new biopic and telenovela Celia, La Serie on the life of Celia Cruz reminded me of how her iconic call “Azucar!”(translated as sugar) engaged audiences to feel the sabrosura of her music. The soap-opera included documentary footage of the larger iconic events in Celia’s career that could not be recreated, scenes that captured how Cruz and the audience connected. The scenes that best captured this are when Celia performs with Fania at Yankee Stadium in 1973 and in Zaire in 1974. When she felt the audiences’ joy in her performance she’d share that expressive sentiment of the sweetness in the moment, taking audiences to a deeper ecstatic place.
I also felt and witnessed this myself when I saw Cruz perform at the Hollywood Bowl decades ago. It’s akin to what I sensed when also hearing Damaso Pérez Prado’s guttural “Maaam-bO” in his “Mambo No 5.” While watching Celia, La Serie, I asked my mom if she had ever watched Desi Arnaz on I Love Lucy. Her response included a dislike for Arnaz, while I remembered enjoying his performance of “Babalú Aye.” Our exchange raised the question: can Arnaz’s performance, like Cruz’s expressive phrasing or Pérez Prado’s musical cue, unify a Latinx and African diaspora through sound and affect?
I posit that Arnaz’s televised performances of “Babalú Aye” like Celia’s “Azucar” or Prado’s “Mambo” exemplify what Alejandra T. Vazquez calls in Listening in Detail “vocal armament and ornament” (132), a sound that cultivates an afecto caribeño among Spanish-speaking diasporic migrants and their descents. My use of afecto here is a key sonic detail, playing upon the Spanish meaning to show tenderness and emotion. I also appreciate affect theory as it provides a framework by which to explore the emotionality and connection to experiences that have not been named. For example, in “Feeling, Emotion, Affect,” Eric Shouse writes about affect as “the body’s way of preparing itself for action in a given circumstance by adding a quantitative dimension of intensity to the quality of an experience. The body has a grammar of its own that cannot be fully captured in language.” I attempt here to cultivate a language that address how Arnaz’s physical and sonic articulation sets an entry to examine contributions by members of the Latinx Caribbean diaspora and its reach to those of us hearing and seeing them in a US context.
Growing up bilingual and bicultural in Los Angeles, I saw how my mom retained a bit of her homeland by watching a variety show called Siempre en Domingo. Many of the artists who performed were also heard on the local Spanish language station K-Love. The ritual gathering on Sunday nights as we watched the show metaphorically united my mom with her family.I believe that viewing and hearing her Mexico made the distance away from her family soften. For me, listening to the songs I heard on Siempre en Domingo then replayed on the radio helped codify something more than Mexican; it was pan-Latino. These moments of engaging with television shows mediate my experience of sound and affect, which I’ve named afecto caribeño (translated to “caribbean affect”).
My fondness of Desi Arnaz stems from a familiarity of Spanglish when I saw my first episodes of I Love Lucy (1951-1957) on Saturdays on KTLA. Its stars, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, played a married couple, and the comedy of errors would inevitably involve “Lucy Ricardo” trying to scheme something. In real life, Ball and Arnaz were a Hollywood power couple who produced their show, establishing a practice of syndication rights paid to the actors. Arnaz played “Ricky Ricardo,” the owner of the Tropicana nightclub where he was also the bandleader. When scenes featured him at the club he would always play the congas, thus creating a continuum of his earlier career as a musician to now television star.
Hearing Desi Arnaz speaking inglés with a Cuban accent was familiar to my ears. I knew that sound of English blended with español because it was what I heard from my parents and their acquaintances. In the show, misunderstandings happened because one could not decipher what “Ricky” meant or said. The mistranslations led to some comedic moments and the establishment of a long-running comedic television trope at the expense of Latino characters and actors, as explored by Dolores Inés Casillas and Sebastien Ferrada in “Listening to Modern Family’s Accent.” However, in Life on the Hyphen, Gustavo Pérez-Firmat describes Arnaz’s nilingüe–someone who speak neither Spanish nor English—and argues his nilingüe-ism was personified through “Ricky Ricardo” as “Spanish utterances shot through anglicisms so that the monolingual viewer can understand what he was saying” (43). But, Arnaz did not reach only “English-only’ ears. To my pocha ears Arnaz spoke a familiar—and not incorrect—spoken Spanish. As a young viewer, I had no reference for his mistakes. Sonically “Ricky’s” familiarity came through when he complained about “Lucy” in Spanish. Hearing the español I spoke at home on “I Love Lucy” is how I connected to the hyphened Americano via tv. Nowhere was this more pronounced than with Ricardo’s frequent performances of “Babalú”.
Before his film career, Arnaz was known as the mambo king. Due to his lackluster rise as a “Latin Lover” in Hollywood, Arnaz returned to work as a musician and began singing his signature “Babalú” around 1943. The song is attributed to Margarita Lecuona and published in 1939. “Babalú” conflates the popular 1940s-50s big band sound with a Cuban folksong (or son) sung to the Orishas (deities or gods). Babalú is an Orisha deity who oversees health and is revered because of his power over life and death, and is also known as San Lázaro within the pantheon of Catholic saints. By the time Arnaz made the song popular in the United States, the song had also been associated with Miguelito Valdés, who was known as “Mr. Babalú.” Other musical contemporaries like Damaso Pérez Prado were also making a name for themselves by developing a new sound that Latinized dance music in the U.S. According to Ed Morales in Living in Spanglish, it is in the 1950s that Prado creates his signature sound in Mexico City by “mixing North American swing and bebop” known as mambo (152). However, it is Arnaz’s performance that I reference because of its reach to a multi-generational audience through syndication of the “I Love Lucy” show.
Each time Arnaz performs “Babalú” it serves as an offering to the Orisha to heal the longing for a homeland he left long ago, as experienced by many musicians like Cruz who live in exile. With each performance on the “I Love Lucy Show,” Arnaz reconnects to his cultura. Performing this on national television it’s not about the Anglo viewer who only sees Arnaz as the “Rhumba Rhythm King” (sic) (Pérez-Firmat, 52) made famous in movies; rather it is about Arnaz creating a space of agency through a prayer and healing ritual in song, thus an expression of Afecto Caribeño connecting the Latinx diaspora to something beyond national borders and generations.
For example, in Season 2 episode 21 “Lucy Takes a Job at the Bank,” Arnaz (as Ricky Ricardo) brings out his son Ricky Jr. to play the congas alongside him. Ricky as proud father shares his joy in this moment. The camera pans out to Lucille Ball and her co-star Vivian Vance sitting at the table. Arnaz instructs his son to “say thanks” and he replies in Spanish “gracias.” This exchange is profound because it accentuates the bilingualism and bicultural exchanges that happen in the home space now introduced to many via television. Arnaz continues, “Even though Little Ricky was born in America, there’s lots of Cuban in his heart.” The Cuban in his heart plays out in sonic beats through a father-and-son performance on the congas and the calling upon “Babalú Aye.” Both Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are happy parents, not just stage parents, who revel in this moment. As Ricky Jr. plays, his mother bangs on the table too and Arnaz looks up to the sky as if in gratitude for this moment to the Orisha Babalú.
Upon reflection, I am aware of how television informed my childhood search for something that reflected how I spoke and heard the world. In these linguistic-sonic moments I reconnected to my mother’s homeland and sought to make sense of my pocha identity when I heard English spoken with a Spanish accent. In Relocations, Karen Tongson names these moments of connection that occur through a technological network as “remote intimacies” that can “account both technically and affectively, for the symbiosis that can happen between disparate subjects. . .I like to think that these imaginary correspondences sometimes have to happen across greater distances, both conceptually and topographically with other ethnicities, accents, nations (130)” The conceptual and topographical correspondence informs afecto caribeño as a means to enable critical connections to a Latinx diaspora centered en el Caribe highlighting the mestizaje of African and Spanish heritage, thus expanding upon Paul Gilroy’s notion of the “black Atlantic” on how the Atlantic slave trade also impacted culturally el Caribe. Upon singing “Babalú Aye” Arnaz’s performance not only is a disruption to Anglo American viewers, but also “disrupts the myth of Cuban whiteness” (Vasquez, Listening in Detail, 150).
I am drawn to sonic experiences that can help unpack Latinidad and the multicultural roots that are informed by other migrations of Africans, Asians, and Spaniards to the Américas. I am a descendant of these mestizajes, as Gloria Anzaldúa writes in her canonical text Borderlands / La Frontera. A concept like afecto caribeño addresses the social and emotional exchanges that emanate from the complexity of these migrations and how they reveal themselves in momentary connections. When Arnaz performs as “Ricky,” he breaks that character upon playing the congas. Here he does not act as the nightclub owner; the reverberation of the conga mediates an embodiment of his true self exemplifying un afecto caribeño.
reina alejandra prado saldivar is an art historian, curator, and adjunct lecturer in the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program and Liberal Studies Department at CSULA and in the Critical Studies Program at CALArts. As a cultural activist, she focused her earlier research on Chicano cultural production and the visual arts. Prado is also a poet and performance artist known for her interactive durational work Take a Piece of my Heart as the character Santa Perversa (www.santaperversa.com) and is currently working on her first solo performance entitled Whipped!
Featured Image: Desi Arnaz performing with Diosa Costello, 1948.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
SO! Amplifies: Shizu Saldamando’s OUROBOROS–J.L. Stoever
SO! Reads: Dolores Inés Casillas’s ¡Sounds of Belonging! – Monica de la Torre
Marginalized bodies produce marginalized sounds to communicate things that escape language. The queer body is the site of sounds that engage pleasure, repression, rage, isolation, always somehow outside of dominant language. Sound Studies tells us that we should trust our ears as much as our eyes, justifying our trust in sound, and of the resonating body. Affect Theory goes further, saying that all senses play into a body that processes input through levels of response, experience, and anticipation. Affect is the vibrational space that is both bodily memory and anticipation. So where do sound and affect meet in queer bodies? How do marginalized peoples use sound and the body to express liberation, objectification, joy, and struggle?
Our writers in Sound and Affect tackle these questions across a spectrum of the marginalized experience. I opened the series by offering the concept of the tremble, a sonic form of affect that is necessarily queer in its affective reach. Last week, Kemi Adeyemi, sloooooooowed thingggggggggs doooooooooownnnnn so to hear the capitalist connections between the work expected of black bodies and the struggle for escape from this reality through the sonic affects, temporal shifts, and corporeal elsewhere of purple drank. Next week, Justyna Stasiowska brings the noise in a discussion of the trans body and the performance work of Tara Transitory. Today, Maria P. Chaves Daza explores the connection between voice, listening, and queer Chicana community formation: through space, across time, and with laughter. —Guest Editor Airek Beauchamp
In October 1991 at the University of Arizona fall reading series, Gloria Anzaldúa read several poems and short stories–work now held at the UT-Austin Collection. Recently, I sat in my living room listening to the recording, feeling the buzz of her presence, the audible excitement in the Modern Languages Auditorium that Gloria Anzaldúa is about to speak. After some welcoming statements and a poem by Rita Magdaleno, inspired by Magdaleno’s reading of Borderlands, Anzaldúa takes the stage.
As part of her praxis, Anzaldúa makes space for queer people, both through her words and vocal tone. She begins with a joke about her relationship with mics and takes the time to thank the organizers, especially for her cozy writer’s cottage. Anzaldúa dedicates the reading to Yolanda Leyva, her old roommate, telling Leyva she hasn’t forgotten her. Then, she announces her involvement in Sinister Wisdom and encourages women of color in the audience to contribute to this all-lesbian journal. She proceeds to laugh as she says, “lesbians of color only, sorry. [laughs]” Similarly, as she announces a collection she is editing with Francisco Alarcon about Chicana dykes and Chicano gay men, she says, “so if anybody is a Chicana dyke or a Chicano gay man, sorry about the rest of you” [laughs]. In the future she will also edit a book called Chicana Theory “Chicanas only (laughs), sorry.” Last, she acknowledges Chuck Tatum for changing the title of his annual from “New Chicano Writings” to “New Chicana/o Writings” and for allowing for Spanish and Spanglish Tex-Mex when he first wanted pieces in English. Anzaldúa takes the opportunity to recognize and promote the work of Chicana/o lesbian and gay writers by demarcating several publications exclusive to their work. This exclusivity is softened with giggles and laughs, affects, which help work through the tension(s) of recognition and exclusion caused by this explicit circumscription.
Her nervous, silly laugh–echoed in the laughs of her audience–reaches out to bring me into that space, that time. Her smooth, slow and raspy voice–her vocalic body–touches me as I listen.
In their introduction to The Affect Reader, Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg assert affect’s “immanent capacity for extending […] both into and out of the interstices of the inorganic and non-living, intracellular divulgences of sinew, tissue and gut economies and the vaporous evanescenses of the incorporeal (events, atmospheres, feeling-tones)” (2).This sound recording of Anzaldúa’s poetry reading is an example of the immanent capacity this “incorporeal” event has to resonate and “sometimes stick to bodies and worlds” for listening audiences (1). Affect in its simplest form is “the name we give to those forces […] that serve to drive us to movement, towards thought and extension” and is “synonymous with force or forces of encounter (2).” My encounter with Anzaldúa’s (incorporeal) recording and the affect created through listening to her work lead me to ponder an answer to Seigworth and Gregg’s question:
How does a body marked in its duration by these various encounters with mixed forces, come to shift its affections (its being affected) into action (capacity to affect)? (2)
Toward an answer to this question, this post explores my relationship between Anzaldúa’s voice and my pedagogy, both her speaking voice as well as the interior voice she offers her audience, the way in which she opens spaces for queer women of color, and the resonances I find in both. As a queer woman of color who once felt isolated, Anzaldúa’s work has in many ways liberated me as a scholar, providing me with access to a voice for my own experiences. But Anzaldúa’s voice–its tactile material aspects and the way its sound builds affective connections between myself and other queers of color–strikes a chord in me that resonates without the need for language, across space and time. Her voice in the recording and in her writing sparks a recognition and validation of my being.
Yvon Bonenfant’s theorization of “queer listening” highlights a practice of visibility and exclusivity that enables Anzaldúa’s vocalic body to reach out to the queer community, and for us to “listen out” in return. In “Queer Listening to Queer Vocal Timbres,” Bonenfant identifies the vocalic body as central to listening experience. He defines the vocalic body as an instrument producing vibrations that touch others, and a socially produced body positioned by environmental factors in a set of relations of power that produce identity. From these constitutive power relations the queer body listens for other queer bodies since “queer is a doing, not a being;” and listening is an active process of identifying the elements reaching out to queer people (78). Thus, Bonenfant, elaborates queer listening as
a listening out for, reach[ing] towards, the disoriented or differently oriented other […] listening out through the static produced by not-queer emanations of vocalic bodies. […] since hearing is feeling touch, this act of finding requires attunement to the touch of the vocalic bodies that caress queer. Sometimes, one has to listen very carefully to find them (78).
Queer listening then, takes seriously the power that bodies have to make sounds that reach out of the body to touch queer people and queer people’s ability to feel them.
On the University of Arizona’s recording, I can hear in Anzaldúa’s laugh a relish in her ability to take up space, to have before her an audience of more lesbian, gay and queer writers to contribute to her several anthology projects. Her voice is filled with a nervous excitement; after all, there is always a danger in being queer. Her laugh resonates as a physical instantiation of the risk of her own existence and of the other queers in the room. It is also a soothing mechanism; her laugh momentarily takes the edge off of some of her words as it reaches out, touches, and brings together queer people of color.
It is in this same way, that Anzaldúa’s work creates the space to speak and listen to queer people of color in many contexts. I was first introduced to Anzaldúa in the classroom, specifically a feminist theory class. It was the first time I had heard a Chicana speak about being queer (or anyone who was mestiza for that matter); the classroom can be fraught with danger for students like me. Cindy Cruz, in “Notes on Immigration, Youth and Ethnographic Silence,” argues that the classroom needs to be a space aware of the political climate that silences LGBTQ immigrant students (68). In the classroom, writers such as Anzaldúa, Cherrie Moraga, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks all contribute to the growing canon of “politically undesired” identities (68). Without these writers, the queer-identified person may never be given a reason or a chance to speak about their experience as brown/black transgressive sexual subject. For this reason, when I teach I always read Anzaldúa aloud or ask members of the class to do so. Her powerful language, when vocalized, creates what Bonenfant would call a somatic bond that inhabits the students themselves, the classroom, and demands that we discuss homophobia, sexism, misogyny, and racism from the perspective of the atravesadx: the immigrant queer person of color. Reading Anzaldúa aloud creates what Karen Tongson calls “remote intimacy: a way of imagining our own spaces in connection to others.” This is almost a pirate bond, a way of connecting the undesired and marginalized.
I have experienced this affective bond on multiple occasions, but one instance stands out.
In a Critical Race Theory class during my fifth year grad school, a fellow student, an immigrant woman of color, came out to the class by way of a seminar paper. As she read the paper she was shaking, her voice cracked, and tears rolled down her face. She was terrified of the consequences of “coming out,” however she found the courage to write and share her experiences. I remember how this reading touched me, the student’s voice interlaced with quotes explaining Anzaldúa’s concept of “homophobia”—the fear of going home– moved through the classroom and classmates: people leaned in, shifted in their seats, began doodling, some shook their heads in agreement in relation to coming out. I don’t think the student would have felt this was possible or appropriate if we hadn’t read Anzaldúa; the only lesbian writer on the syllabus.
The sound of Anzaldúa’s text creates a vocalic body for queer listening available to people who yearn for its touch. Bonenfant posits this idea of yearning as inherently queer. Queer, as a form of doing, requires performative activity, always looking to find our own likenesses in others. Recognizing sound as touching the vocalic body, “queer listeners can perhaps catch some of the subtle variations in timbre that indicate a resonant ‘identity’ that wants to touch someone like us” (78). Anzaldúa’s various texts speak of concrete experience but the timbre of her voice–and the voice(s) reading her work–speaks to much more, a certain trembling that I feel in my own experience and that I wish to not only receive but to share with other queers of color also reaching out while also always receptive to the timbre of likeness.
Affective phenomena do not rely on textual or linguistic acts to communicate but instead are networked intensities of impulse that connect the individual body-mind to the bodies-minds of others. As Gregg and Seigworth explain,
Affect arises in the midst of in-between-ness: in the capacities to act and be acted upon. […] That is, affect is found in the intensities that pass body to body. In fact, it is quite likely that affect more often transpires within and across the subtlest of shuttling intensities: all the minuscule or molecular events of the unnoticed (2).
Anzaldúa incites in me a sense of intensity as the unnamable but unmistakable realities of my own experience resonate when I listen, while also lighting in me a force, an exertion of a “politically undesirable” self that I must assert in the world and in the classroom as a space of in- between-ness. Anzaldúa’s writing and the timbre of her voice are, to me, intensities and forces that go unnoticed, except by those who are yearning for them. Listening to Anzaldúa in the classroom proliferates the possibility of queer listening encounters; listening to Anzaldúa at home, in my living room, regenerates my belief in the impossible, in our ability to be in intimate spaces without homophobia: the fear of going home.
JS and AB are grateful for the the editorial work of Tara Betts on early drafts.
Maria P. Chaves Daza is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at SUNY Binghamton University studying testimonios of undocumented women. They are a McNair Scholar and a Clifford D. Clark Fellow. They hold a B.A in Women’s Studies form NEIU in Chicago and a Master’s in Philosophy from the Philosophy, Interpretation and Culture (PIC) Program (SUNY Binghamton).
REWIND!…If you liked this post, check out:
“Music to Grieve and Music to Celebrate: A Dirge for Muñoz”-Johannes Brandis
On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice-Yvon Bonenfant
“Hearing Queerly: NBC’s ‘The Voice’”-Karen Tongson
Could I Be Chicana Without Carlos Santana?-Wanda Alarcón
This piece is co-authored by Sarah Kessler and Karen Tongson.
Scholarship rarely happens in isolation, despite quantitative demands in the humanities for “single-authored” works. Instead, intimacies of different shapes and configurations, transpiring in spaces as variegated as “the institution,” cocktail bars, cars, and even boudoirs, have profound effects on how we think, and on what we eventually write. However, academics have very few forms beyond the citation, the footnote, or even the acknowledgment, through which to admit our debts, recognize our inspirations, and lay bare the narcissisms of our small differences.
Our current areas of research—karaoke for Karen, ventriloquism for Sarah—traverse what may appear to be a narrow terrain of sound studies currently focused on “voice” or “the voice.” And yet the strains of sound studies that draw us to these topics do not exclusively concern themselves with the tropes or techniques of voice and vocalization that karaoke and ventriloquism conjure. Though voice presents itself as the most basic and fundamental connection between these two concepts and practices, we are each more invested in exploring karaoke and ventriloquism as actual sound technologies, as well as technologies of power. As you will read below, ventriloquism, for all its associations with archaism and mysticism in certain historical contexts, is also depicted as a technology and technique of deception, statecraft, and power. Meanwhile, karaoke, for all its associations with the expressive and participatory potential of amateur vocalization is also, crucially, a technological apparatus, whose media archaeology bears the traces of intercolonial conflicts, negotiations, and aftermaths. Finally, we are also both interested in the ways in which these sound technologies and techniques have been transformed into critical, intellectual, and affective methodologies, especially since they’ve both been harnessed as broader cultural metaphors for judgments at once moral and aesthetic.
Over an obscenely caloric breakfast, we devised several questions touching upon some keywords and concepts we believe are applicable to both karaoke and ventriloquism, two topics that undermine notions of authorship, source, and origin. In our respective writing about these two subjects, we’ve both occasionally (or more than occasionally) been besieged by the anxiety that our work is melding together into some indeterminate blob. To put it another way: like any other lesbionic duo resisting the “urge to merge” (as so many other queers have warned against), we’ve arrived at that moment in our intimate and intellectual relationship where we’ve decided to sort out whose socks are whose. Somewhat ironically, then, we wrote this post together to establish some of the crucial differences between karaoke and ventriloquism.
The following “ventrilokeal” dialogue shows, from a conceptual standpoint, where some of the boundaries between karaoke and ventriloquism harden, while others remain porous.
We each provide separate answers, engaging the other person’s answer when appropriate. Feel free to supplement some of our questions in the comments section, addressing either or both of us. And thanks for indulging.
1) How do both karaoke and ventriloquism—as terms, metaphors, and practices—conjure and/or reframe our understandings of originality and derivation?
KT: Karaoke, at least in my mind, has become the prevailing metaphor for derivation in the contemporary moment. Whenever the term is tossed about casually as a cultural metaphor, with little regard to the geographical contexts, modes of performance or the technologies that underlie its current practice, “karaoke” functions as a kind of shorthand for “the unoriginal,” the debased copy, the amateur reenactment. Novelist Dubravka Ugresic’s long essay on “Karaoke Culture” (2011) provides a perfect example of these applications of “karaoke.” And yet, karaoke in the U.S. in the last 15 years or so has also been construed as something that unlocks the creative and expressive potential of beleaguered, repressed or emotionally stunted individuals, usually men (see Lost in Translation, the forgotten Huey Lewis and Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle, Duets, and a recent pair of books I actually quite like, Brian Raftery’s Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life and Rob Sheffield’s Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke). Of course, it will take all of Empty Orchestra (my working book title), to answer this question properly, but one of the principles guiding my own account of karaoke as a metaphor for copies and reenactments (in addition to my exploration of its material practices and technological history), is that derivation and mimicry have always been a key concern of—and a point of intersection between—queer theory, aesthetics, critical race studies, and (post)-colonial studies.
SK: When ventriloquism is employed as a metaphor in popular cultural contexts, it’s also often used to connote a lack of originality. The term tends to describe (and to fantasize) a situation in which one individual acts as the communications medium—usually the speaking or singing vessel—for words, songs, and other ideological formulations that originate or originated with someone else. So, in contrast to the mass copying and amateurism invoked by “karaoke,” “ventriloquism” suggests an unoriginality that can, and that must, be traced back to a discrete body and distinct point of origin. Think, for example, of George “Dubya” Bush and Dick Cheney, who were often represented as a ventriloquial duo. Political cartoons depicted Dubya as Cheney’s open-mouthed dummy, perched on the knee of his puppet master, the “actual” leader of the free world. Here, ventriloquism was used to image a scenario wherein the man who seemed to be in power was both secretly and openly manipulated by another man, who was the true source of power. In this case, unoriginality on Bush’s part connoted originality on Cheney’s, whereas in the case of the Beyoncé lip-synch scandal (more on this below), unoriginality signified very differently. Generally speaking, however, “ventriloquism” implies that a deceptive act has occurred, one that masks the origin of its own workings. It signals the veiling and subsequent exposure of a powerful apparatus. This apparatus is usually vocal in nature, the voice’s historical connections to power being well documented. In his Western cultural history of ventriloquism, Dumbstruck (2001), for example, Steven Connor traces the form back to Greco-Roman oracular myths in which divine prophecy is primarily accessible as a voice, transmitted through the mediating body of a priestess.
Contemporary ventriloquists like the British performer Nina Conti often claim to be surprised by what their dummies say, which suggests that, far from being an omnipotent machinator, the ventriloquist is a bifurcated entity—one whose practice places her beside herself, in conversation with herself (or, as others have noted, with her unconscious). My recent work argues for bifurcation as a workable antidote to the tired, either/or question of originality vs. derivation to which popular cultural forms are repetitively subjected.
2) The terms “karaoke” and “ventriloquism” are both frequently employed in adjudicatory ways. As Karen has pointed out elsewhere, “karaoke” is often used in reality TV contexts (American Idol, The Voice) as a negative judgment of performance quality, i.e. “that performance was shit—mere karaoke.” “Ventriloquism,” for its part, is often used to connote a deviousness or deception that disqualifies a performance (think folks condemning Beyoncé post-lip-synched inauguration performance). What are the differences between “karaoke” and “ventriloquism” as judgments?
KT: I actually think that one of the primary differences between these two terms as judgments, and perhaps more simply as just terms, is that “karaoke” condemns the person performing it, or performing something in “the style of” karaoke (i.e. derivatively, as a copycat, as a mere echo of the “original”), as a lightweight. Pulling off a feat of ventriloquism seems like a heavier, more sinister, and more complex operation of power, at least as I’ve heard you explain it, and as you describe it viz. Bush/Cheney above. Karaoke as a performance practice also lacks ventriloquism’s gravitas and requisite skill, insofar as ventriloquism is an archaic-seeming art form. Karaoke is the opposite of serious or sinister: it’s laughable, buffoonish, and absurd. It’s all surface and no depth. Ventriloquism, at least as I’ve heard you describe it to me on many occasions, in different situations, seems more layered. This is not to say, however, that I actually believe that karaoke is lightweight, or only about surfaces, but as a term of adjudication, it can’t really break free from those associations to mean anything more.
SK: Yes, as you say above, “karaoke” as judgment indicates amateurism and insubstantiality, whereas “ventriloquism” suggests a more menacing, or at least a more complicated, operation. And when one actually does karaoke, one can’t even conceal one’s appropriation—it’s part and parcel of the practice. A ventriloquist, on the other hand, hides herself in plain sight: the greater the attention focused on her dummy, the less it matters that—as the audience well knows—she’s the one talking. This is called “misdirection”: if the eyes are on the dummy, the ears will follow, and the dummy will appear to speak even if he doesn’t have his own microphone.
The interesting thing about the liberal accusation that Bush was Cheney’s ventriloquist dummy was that, though the image of Cheney as evil puppetmaster was sinister, it still served a reassuring function, in that it allowed for the continuation of the idea that there was a source, or origin, of power, period. As opposed, let’s say, to a more Foucauldian understanding of power as dispersed, not traceable to an isolated sovereign body. In contrast, when Beyoncé allegedly lip-synced, but in fact sang over, her own recording of the National Anthem at the 2013 presidential inauguration, her performance—which, as many have pointed out, was not unusual by pop industry standards—was framed as ventriloquism in order to cast doubt on her legitimacy as a live performer, i.e. as a performer whose voice could “stand up” in non-studio conditions (which are still, and ironically, just as much mediated as studio conditions). These ventriloquial scenarios are, it should go without saying, gendered and racialized: Bush-Cheney as ventriloquism emasculated Bush while restoring power to Cheney’s white, male, visibly disabled body; Beyoncé-Beyoncé as ventriloquism rather unsuccessfully attempted to pit Bey against herself (mediated, recorded Beyoncé vs. live Beyoncé) in order to devalue her corporeal body and frame her as unworthy of (national) subjectivity.
3) Both karaoke and ventriloquism are mass, but not mainstream, cultural practices. Karaoke is a mass cultural activity, but one that still carries with it the frisson of doing something slightly risqué (hence its frequent overlap with inebriation). Ventriloquism, while not being a cultural activity practiced by the masses, is a mass-mediated and mass-consumed cultural form, despite the aura of Vaudevillian anachronism (and/or pathology) it persistently conveys. How might we account for the “mass but not mainstream” quality of both practices?
KT: I actually have to credit Zhou Xun and Francesca Tarocco, co-authors of an ambitious book, Karaoke: The Global Phenomenon (2007) with the “mass vs. mainstream” formulation. At this point, karaoke is globally ubiquitous, thanks to the many delivery systems that have evolved from the first karaoke and sing-along machines from Japan and the Philippines. There’s actually a popular app called Sing!, which enables you to perform karaoke and compete against anyone in the world. Meanwhile, YouTube is replete with karaoke videos to perform and practice with (some KJs, or “karaoke jockeys,” use YouTube as their primary interface), as well as with videos of people from all walks of life performing karaoke in various bars or at family functions in the home or elsewhere. These days, practically every sitcom on primetime TV stages a requisite “karaoke outing,” that usually leads to disastrous, if hilarious consequences for its characters.
And yet karaoke as a mass practice can’t quite broach the mainstream, because of its various “abject” associations with immigrant communities, aspirational everymen longing to be idols, isolate geeks who only interact with the outside world through their computers, drunkards, gaggles of girls group-singing to Madonna, queens bereft of the piano bar’s liveness, slumming with an electronic delivery system for their show tunes, and other such “sad” spectacles. Once someone excels at karaoke—at singing someone else’s song so well that they transform it in some way—we are apt to think they actually exceed karaoke, and leave behind the form, much in the same way that, as you suggest in your opening comments, a good dummy eclipses its ventriloquist. When (in the words of many an Idol judge), someone makes someone else’s song “their own,” we enter into the territory of the cover, the reboot, the repurposed. The failure of the form to transcend its own limitations, even if it serves as the vehicle for many to otherwise achieve transcendence in myriad ways, is what keeps karaoke abject and not quite ready for mainstream acceptance.
SK: In the U.S., there’s a genre of white, masculine ventriloquism that’s currently extremely popular. This genre is typified by U.S. ventriloquism’s two biggest guns, Terry Fator and Jeff Dunham, who, following in the footsteps of Edgar Bergen, brought their ventriloquism to television to increase the art’s spread. Fator won America’s Got Talent in 2007 and now gives nightly performances at The Mirage in Vegas, where he has a theater named after him. He’s made hundreds of millions this way. Dunham has a strong presence on Comedy Central and is also one of the top-grossing U.S. standup acts. Both vents are especially popular with “Heartland” audiences, and both have casts of gendered and racialized puppets to whom they, as white male ventriloquists, play the straight man. Dunham, in particular, takes an unapologetic stance towards his own redneck identity, which permits him to criticize and recuperate this identity in one fell swoop. For instance, Dunham’s “white-trash trailer-park” dummy Bubba J drinks a surfeit of beer and is of low, if any, intelligence, but he remains benign in comparison to the rest of Dunham’s cast of characters, which includes Achmed the Dead Terrorist (a bin Laden caricature) and José Jalapeño on a Stick (use your imagination). Fator and Dunham’s ventriloquism evokes the practice’s historical connections and overlaps with minstrelsy, consolidating a fragile white masculinity in the process.
This culturally bounded reading of contemporary ventriloquism’s mass popularity directly resonates with your reading of karaoke as a practice with “abject” associations that is accordingly repurposed to “unlock the creative and expressive potential of beleaguered, repressed or emotionally stunted individuals, usually men.” While ventriloquism is difficult to perform well, vent instruction manuals always stress that, with practice, anyone can ventriloquize. One of the reasons that the practice isn’t mainstream is that it’s associated with a perverse desire, even a need, to speak through someone else in lieu of being able to speak “for oneself.” Edgar Bergen was always said to be shy with women, and to woo them through his brash, confident alterego Charlie McCarthy. And in his autobiography, Who’s the Dummy Now? (2008), Terry Fator (or his ghostwriter) writes about how his father found his ventriloquism perverse, and how he literally closeted his dummy as a result. Ventriloquism is too blatant a form of triangulation to be normal, and is thus coded as deviant, a perversion of heterosexuality’s direct, unmediated operation. Hence Fator’s book title, which aggressively restores authority to the formerly emasculated ventriloquist.
4) As the previous question suggests, and as prominent scholars of ventriloquism have also suggested, ventriloquism is ever anachronistic. Karaoke, too, is suffused by a sense of belatedness, reflected in nostalgic, hits-driven karaoke song choices and/or by the practice’s enduring connection to seemingly obsolete technological forms like laser discs. In what ways is each form out of time, or behind the times, and, alternatively, why do these forms appear as such even as they continue to exist in time?
KT: As I mentioned above, karaoke’s purported abjection in the U.S. is, in many ways, a consequence of its association with the immigrant communities from Asia who imported the practice, as well as karaoke technologies, to the west coast as early as the mid-1970s. In that sense, karaoke functioned as a vehicle of nostalgia for those in the diaspora who longed to connect with memories of “home” through certain musical repertoires, even if some of those repertoires were actually already comprised of American pop hits folks grew to love when they were still “back home” (e.g. songs by the Carpenters, or any of the Johns—Elton, Olivia Newton, Denver). I haven’t quite worked it all out yet, but there is a certain circular temporality to karaoke. I have a hunch that the form is Romantic insofar as it is, at once, about the moment and its “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” yet prone to saturating those powerful feelings with the “passionate recollection of youth.” There’s also something anticipatory and performative about karaoke, insofar as it has the capacity to do what it purports to articulate. I wrote something about this from a personal perspective in a piece about my favorite L.A. karaoke bar, the Smog Cutter. As the question above remarks, karaoke also feels belated, or emblematic of a particular era, because of the visual peripherals that accompany some song catalogues, especially those released on laser disc in the late 1980s and early-to-mid-1990s (i.e. the videos comprised of b-roll, and oblique narrative re-imaginings of certain songs). I can’t get into all of it here, but my plan is to devote a chapter to the karaoke video—from its production history (of which Brian Raftery offers an excellent preliminary account), to its repurposing in contemporary queer performance art.
SK: I’m still working on understanding ventriloquism’s anachronism—why it continues to appear, or to feel, outmoded despite its present popularity—besides the obvious fact that its contemporary iterations evoke Vaudevillian performance. Nina Conti, who has, like Fator and Dunham, distributed her ventriloquism across multiple media platforms, makes many jokes about this. Her puppet Monk, who sounds like a muffled Sean Connery trapped in a fuzzy, simian body, will often deride her for practicing such a “dead art,” and Conti’s documentary, Her Master’s Voice (2012), theorizes the ventriloquist dummy as a “bereaved object” that loses its voice repeatedly, and finally for good. Conti’s film, however, argues with its own assertion by reanimating the dummies of a dead ventriloquist with new voices, a process that could theoretically continue ad infinitum. Steven Connor argues that present-day “revivals” of ventriloquism like Conti’s are always “necromantic,” conjuring the form’s prehistory while at the same time referencing “newer” media like film (which, according to Rick Altman (c. 1980) and Michel Chion (c. 1982) is itself a form of ventriloquism). Writes Connor, “Whether because it is scandalously or mysteriously archaic, or uncannily premonitory, ventriloquism is always anachronistic, never quite on time.” And Mladen Dolar tells us that the voice itself is ventriloquial, leading to the extrapolation that ventriloquism literalizes or visualizes what the voice has always already done.
I tend to think of ventriloquism as temporally bifurcated. A ventriloquist has to exist in both the future and the past to make her practice work. She has to anticipate what’s going to be said next while remembering what’s just been said, and she has to keep her lips still while moving her tongue—acts that circumvent linearity and synchronization. In saying this I’m not arguing for ventriloquism as a “resistant cultural practice”; rather, I’m simply pointing out the temporal perversion to which the art lends itself.
Reflecting upon this conversation on karaoke and ventriloquism—a conversation that is, of course, ongoing—it has become even more apparent to us that both forms are sound technologies struggling against obsolescence, even as they are so frequently imagined as possible gateways to some human “truth” or “essence” precisely because of their associations with the voice. Though vocalization and vocality are reflexively associated with both forms, we hope we’ve been able to underscore some of the ways in which their powerful associations with “voice” naturalize, and to a certain extent also neutralize, the technical elements of each practice. We appreciate the opportunity to make some key distinctions, and to sound some of these issues out, here on the SO! Blog. Many thanks to Jennifer Stoever and Liana M. Silva for their generous editorial input. Like Conti’s bereaved puppets, who lose their voices only to be invested with new ones, we now relinquish ours—for the time being.
SK & KT
Featured Image by Flickr User Sam Grover
Sarah Kessler is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, where she is writing a dissertation on ventriloquism in contemporary British and U.S. popular culture. She received an M.A. in Modern Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2008. Kessler’s writing on art, film, and media has appeared in artforum.com, the Brooklyn Rail, In These Times, and Public Books, among other publications, and she has held editorial positions at Triple Canopy and Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry. She is currently completing an article on the documentary work of ventriloquist Nina Conti.
Karen Tongson is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, and the author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press, 2011). Her work has appeared in numerous venues in print and online, including Social Text, GLQ, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Novel: A Forum on Fiction. She is currently the series editor for Postmillennial Pop at NYU Press, and just completed a multi-year term as co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Her current book project, Empty Orchestra: Karaoke. Critical. Apparatus. critiques prevailing paradigms of imitation in contemporary aesthetics and critical theory, while offering a genealogy of karaoke technologies, techniques, and desires.
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