And Gil-Scott Heron thought the revolution would not be televised.
The past few weeks the world has been watching the protests in Egypt. We have not just watched, but we have also tuned in. This is history in the making, especially considering that many of the information we are getting of this protest movement come from the ground, from the protesters themselves, and their requests have gone viral on Youtube and Twitter.
Earlier this week, I was watching CNN and its coverage of the protesters at Tahrir Square after Mubarak’s statement that he would not step down. On several occasions the broadcasters on CNN asked viewers to listen to protesters. The grainy images of the mobile crowds had been playing in the background all afternoon, a reminder of what was going on while the broadcasters offered information and analysis. But at times the broadcasters stopped speaking so viewers could listen to the crowds. The grainy images emitted a dull roar, the combination of all of the cries and statements from the protesters. The cameras followed people down streets, but the roar was constant. It struck me how often the plea to listen came up during the broadcast. On Friday, when Mubarak resigned, I tuned in online (from work) to CNN, MSNBC, and BBC America. The broadcasters made the same requests: let’s tune in to the crowds at Tahrir Square. See early in this MSNBC video where Brian Williams encourages viewers to listen to the protesters:
The newsmedia seemed to offer the sounds to its viewers, but what is at stake when that happens? How are the sounds being coded? Mark Branter’s post on sound and sanity in the context of the Rally to Restore Sanity (which took place on October 30th 2010), reminds us that oftentimes noise and screaming is connected to “irrationality and fear.” He points out, “Public noise is senseless sound, while rational debate is meaningful sound.” In this context, the constant plea from newscasters for the American public to “listen in” to the crowds at Tahrir Square takes a different spin. Are we insiders looking at the Other scream and shout? When the newscasters ask us to tune in to the pleas and screams coming from the Egyptian crowds I wonder if the newscasts frame them as senseless crowds because of the way that they present these sounds. In any instance, this presentation of sound is not innocent. Some may argue that it is just a request from Western media to pay attention to what the crowds are saying, but I believe that we cannot truly listen to their cries on Tahrir Square when we still hold in place this analogy of “sound/noise::rationality/irrationality.” Many agreed that Mubarak should listen to the pleas of the crowds, but are we listening to them as well?
The coverage of the Egyptian protests shows us how complicated listening is. The protesters are not just seen but heard (only when the network wants the viewers to listen, mind you) by viewers. The sonic aspect of this movement is reinforced when we think of the “Speak-to-Tweet” service, set up to allow Egyptian protesters to tweet when the Egyptian government turned off all internet communication. We could read AND hear what the protesters were saying.
When media outlets choose to tune in to the protests in Egypt, this is an example of how important sound is to narratives. Visuals are not the only story, is what I get from the protest coverage. (And letting the world hear the protesters is a step in the right direction.) The coverage and its inclination toward the audio of the protesters tells me that it’s not just a matter of shock value but it’s also a statement of the role of audio in the news. It’s supposed to be a reflection of what is going on at the moment, like taking the temperature of the crowds. As others have said on this blog (for example, Priscilla Peña Ovalle) sound is usually linked to the visual, and the hierarchy of senses in our society always has the visual as the most important. Listening is important, but we must also think about how we listen, and what filters the sounds we listen to.
This year, my first book—Dance and the Hollywood Latina: Race, Sex, and Stardom (Rutgers UP: 2011)—was born. The writing process required nearly a decade of thought and development, a gestation period that reminded me how to listen as well as see.
As a sound recordist in film school, I became acutely aware of the hierarchization of the visual over the aural: it was a challenge to claim space for sound when the director wanted to yell “Action” as soon as camera was ready. Me (covered in grime, Nagra deck over one shoulder and boom pole in hand): “What’s the frame line? Is my mic—or the shadow of my boom pole—in the shot? And, maybe I can get a level-check before we shoot—so the audio levels are as pretty as your exposure? Maybe?”
Yet, most of those instincts and that tenacity dissipated during graduate school. As I honed the language of film and television analysis, I, too, began to privilege the visual over the aural. Over time—and with the help of colleagues like Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman—Dance and the Hollywood Latina reminded me how to listen.
And so, I present a moment from the book that reinforced the scholarly importance of watching with my ears. In the following excerpt, I analyze Rita Moreno’s aural Otherness in West Side Story. The scene, like many others of Moreno’s career, illustrates the tension between the “look” and the “sound” of the Hollywood Latina. While my book is primarily organized around the ways that racialized sexuality is encoded in the dance of the Latina body in Hollywood film, the chapter “Rita Moreno, the Critically Acclaimed ‘All-Round Ethnic'” helps clarify how the Hollywood Latina has been read as both “easy on the eyes, but hard on the ears,” a phrase used to describe Moreno during her appearance on The Muppet Show in 1976.
The excerpt explores a pivotal scene in the film, where Anita (Moreno) confronts Maria (Natalie Wood), whom she discovers has just slept with Tony—the murderer of Bernardo (George Chakiris), Anita’s boyfriend and Maria’s brother:
[T]he nondance musical number “A Boy Like That” illuminates how the Hollywood Latina has also been aurally imagined and reproduced. [The song] expresses Anita’s anger and sense of betrayal, and eventually builds into a powerful duet (“I Have a Love”) between the women. As a backdrop, the setting and bodies of the scene are visually coded as Latino/a: the apartment matches the purples, blues, and reds associated with the Sharks in the film, while the two Latinas in the frame—one real and one diegetic—are colored Puerto Rican through the use of brown makeup. These stylized signifiers set the tone for Moreno’s aural representation in the scene. As the only Puerto Rican in the film cast, Rita Moreno gave a performance that became a touchstone of aural authenticity for non-Puerto Rican actors such as George Chakiris (Bernardo). In one interview, Chakiris notes that he and the Shark actors used Moreno as their sonic “guide” (Gross 2001). [Interestingly, the West Side Story shooting script available in the Bob Wise Collection at the University of Southern California Cinematic Arts Library includes written dialect for the Jets but not the Sharks, suggesting that the sonic expectations of the Latino/a characters were self-evident].
Both Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno lip-synch to prerecorded tracks, but unlike Wood, Moreno performs her other songs herself; “A Boy Like That” is Moreno’s only song that does not feature her real singing voice. While the dubbed vocal performance compensates for Moreno’s higher vocal range, it undercuts the ferocity of her physical performance. As Moreno’s facial expressions and posturing exhibit an angry and forceful delivery, singer Betty Wand’s vocal interpretation of the lyrics overly amplifies the supposed sound of a Latina body in lieu of the emotional urgency of the song. Moreno’s assertive body language is thus mismatched with the generic quality of Wand’s artificial accent, a kind of aural brown-face that flattens the scene’s intensity.
In a 2001 interview, Moreno expressed her disapproval of the vocals in “A Boy Like That,” claiming that Wand’s lack of acting skills resulted in a restricted interpretation that did not match the physical intensity of the scene. She explains: “[Wand] just couldn’t get it the way I wanted it…to sound. It should have almost been a growl…you know, barely sung. And she ended up sounding…almost like a cliché Mexican” (Gross 2001). Despite Moreno’s coaching, Wand could only articulate the song’s Latina-ness, a sonic interpretation that solely relied on a stereotypical accent to tell its story. This racialized vocal performance is incompatible with the emotional depth Moreno produces onscreen because it was only—always, and already—aurally Other. [This shift is most noticeable at the moment in “A Boy Like That” when Rita Moreno’s dialogue as Anita suddenly shifts to the lyrics of the song].
Rita Moreno’s career enabled me to hear the Hollywood Latina, an experience that enhanced my analysis of Dolores Del Rio, Carmen Miranda, Rita Hayworth (Rita Cansino), and Jennifer Lopez—the other women I study in Dance and the Hollywood Latina. I am thankful for Moreno’s (creative/political/critical) voice and hope that she continues to help me listen anew.
And thank you, dear listeners, for your time and attention. I hope to hear from you soon.