Posts in: MU228
As we enter the third week of class, a pattern I’ve noticed in our discussions of white consumerism in hip hop is a consistent misconstruing of the racial navigation of white artists. I understand that’s a mouthful. To put this issue in context, let’s go back to 1986. It’s November. Artists such as the Sugar Hill Gang and RUN-D.M.C. have budded as early stars in the world of commercial hip hop. However, three white, upper middle class, Jewish kids are about to burst onto the scene and shatter any preexisting notions of what it meant to have a lucrative career in hip hop. Of course, I’m talking about the Beastie Boys’ debut album Licensed to Ill which would become the best selling of its decade. Boasting hyper-masculine frat boy personas and playing with their punk rock origins, the Beastie Boys rose to number one on the Billboard with their smash hit “Fight for Your Right.” Throughout its music video, the three emcees can be seen spiking drinks and inciting chaos at what was supposed to be a mellow party. The scene culminates when the entire apartment is destroyed with pies and sledgehammers. It’s hard to believe that Adam Yauch, known as MCA, would go on to become a devout Buddhist and protest U.S. foreign policy at the VMA’s after watching him set his meek party host’s issue of Popular Science on fire. Yet, after listening to more of the Beastie’s discography and listening to interviews I realized that these songs are more socially conscious than meets the eye. That’s not to say they’re not problematic for other reasons, but they become a jumping off point for my exploration of how white consumers often miss the forest for the trees when understanding how white artists grapple with their race in the historically African American art that is hip hop.
In order to understand this phenomenon, I need to first define what I like to call the cycle of post-ironic consumerism. Hip hop is a responsive artform. Songs such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s The Message use ghetto realism to speak out against the condition of the South Bronx. This is where the cycle begins: with an issue. For the Beastie Boys, the issue they spoke out against was the toxicity of what we might call “jock culture.” While they employed hip hop as a means to address this issue, their performance as larger than life characters used irony in a groundbreaking way to exaggerate the characterization of the group they sought to expose. These tropes include reckless violence and aggressive misogyny to name a few.
And so we reach the next stage in the cycle, responsive performative irony. This is the exploitation of the issue’s own imagery to expose its shortcomings. It is my view that the song’s chorus is evidence of its own self awareness. Between each verse, the three shout “You gotta fight for your right to party.” The pause between “fight for your right” and “to party” echoes calls to action in protest anthems like Bob Marley’s Get Up Stand Up and then turns it on its head by narrowing the scope of that call to white male youth. The allusion to the structure of revolutionary music A) recognizes its existence and then B) sets up the issues of its audience as frivolous, i.g., “your mom threw away your best porno mag.”
Where this issue comes full circle is a post ironic reception by consumers. Somewhere between the initial conception and final rhetoric, the message becomes more ambiguous and is interpreted in its literal connotation. The ironic tropes are effectively embraced with sincerity and therefore reinforce the original issue at hand. The climax of this can be seen during a 1987 concert in Liverpool the show was shut down within its first ten minutes due to a riot. MCA faced a subsequent assault charge which led the group to reevaluate their image.
While I do not believe the group wrote this song with malice, I also don’t believe they were prepared to deal with the monster born out of the idiocy of their fans. On the other hand, without their use of convoluted satire they would have never been able to build a fandom that included not only those who understood their music, but also the listeners who took their image at face value.
This may seem like an isolated happenstance, but around the turn of the century, we take another ride on the cycle of post-ironic consumerism. This time, the artist in question was none other than Slim Shady. In an article by Loren Kajikawa, she articulates that just as the Beastie Boys did on Licensed to Ill, Eminem navigates his racial identity through a critique of white middle class culture in order to not emulate, but show allegiance with the African-American community as well as brand himself as a working class underdog dissociated from his own white privilege.
To be a white rapper is in and of itself a niche. As demonstrated by the Beastie Boys and the downfall of Vanilla Ice, the key to being successful within said niche is having a unique image, one that speaks parallel to African-American voices, but within the parameters of one’s own race. While the Beastie Boys took on upper class chauvinism, Eminem ducked the question of race by criticizing white societal archetypes perpetuated by conservative culture. This disconnect from suburban life was marketed towards straight white men who grappled with their identities in a society that fails to racialize white people. My Name Is is an attempt to break from the constraints of the Tipper Gores of the world and give oppressed positionality to young men rebelling against their own comfortable lives.
While Em performs as the figures he loathes in the music video for My Name Is, he certainly was not appeasing them. His visual performance, perhaps better choreographed than the Beastie Boys’ struck a nerve with middle class white male youth who could laugh along with Em at images they’d grown up with like the Brady Bunch and a hypersexual President Clinton.
While the product of Eminem’s music was a generation of vindictive white men, the post-ironic consumption of his music comes not from the youth who understood his message, but the parents of said youth who only intensified their own allegiance to conservative values. This manifested particularly in censorship which Eminem was on the receiving end of and addresses in The Real Slim Shady. While the song stands by further unnerving of the same audience by calling on them to be “proud to be out of your mind and out of control,” it also objects to his critics through lines such as “Will Smith don’t gotta cuss in his raps to sell records (Nope) Well, I do, so fuck him and fuck you too!” and the chorus “I’m Slim Shady, yes I’m Slim Shady. All you other Slim Shadys are just imitating.” The former is taking aim at the same demographic he took on in My Name Is and the latter is an acknowledgement of the movement he’d created through his work. Regardless, just as with Fight for Your Right, the ironic representation of a targeted issue only served to antagonize and exaggerate it in a more roundabout way.
So why does this matter? The aim of this article is not to make accusations about ineffective delivery or to claim that consumers are stupid. On the contrary, it is to question the model which white rappers use to enter hip hop. I would argue that while self deprecating humor and ironic depictions of one’s own culture have proven to be valuable in the longevity of one’s career, they can also be limiting artistically and do more to perpetuate than correct faults the artist sees in society. The Beastie Boys struggled to escape the boombastic characatures they’d made themselves into as their sophomore album Paul’s Boutique flopped financially despite its critical acclaim. The following they had built wasn’t necessarily interested in pop culture references and the Dust Brothers’ use of funk samples. The group also spent the rest of their career rebranding as socially conscious, especially through the activism and lyrics of MCA who famously said on sure shot:
“I want to say a little something that’s long overdue
The disrespect to women has got to be through
To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends
I want to offer my love and respect to the end”
It was through their more direct verses that the Beastie Boys were able to not only speak on issues with clear intent, but also maintain relevance until the passing of MCA. Simultaneously, Eminem struggled in his own career when his album Relapse suffered from poor reception due to the dragging out of the same identity that he used to rise to fame. It wasn’t until Recovery that he was able to open up about issues with substances and his own emotions that rebounded his career. What’s evident through both the music of Eminem and the Beastie Boys is that while irony sells, it’s not existentially or artistically fulfilling.
It’s 8:44 PM on a Sunday. The night has shaped up like most other Sundays past; I’m tackling a weekend’s load of homework while flipping through my liked songs on shuffle. My usual rotation of Action Bronson, Flatbush Zombies, and Mos Def is suddenly interrupted by something different. A steady four count and then…“Hey girls, B-boys, Superstar DJs- Here we go!” It’s Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Three’s The Roof is on Fire. While the straightforward flow and simple beat are a universe away from the sounds I’ve heard during the last hour, there’s something compelling about the three MC’s rocking the crowd and gassing up their DJ. When I close my eyes, the sugaring houses and spruce tree farms of Walden, Vermont disappear and I’m within the sonic universe of the South Bronx forty years ago. After four minutes of steady head bobbing, Charlie Prince calls out to the crowd “The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire” and I can’t help but respond with the recorded crowd: “WE DON’T NEED NO WATER, LET THE MOTHERFUCKER BURN” My sister looks up across the living room
dumbfounded, both eyebrows raised. I’m back in quarantine, now awkwardly fidgeting with a stack of papers and trying to avoid eye contact. This contrast between the rhythmic breaks manipulated by early DJs and the dull tranquility of remote learning has been definitive of the last week of class.
The week began with greetings as well as a short lecture from Dr. Carson about Lil Nas X’s old town road and the politics of genre and charts dating back to the conception of the Billboard Hot 100 (then called the Hit Parade) in 1936. This investigation into the politics of popular music got our collective wheels turning and predicated Wednesday’s discussion of an article by Tricia Rose entitled “Flow, Layering, and Rupture in Post Industrial New York.” This article identified the three elements listed in the title to be the three fundamental elements of Hip-Hop in its core four manifestations (DJing, emceeing, graffiti, and break dancing). In each form, the artists’ abilities to establish rhythm (flow), compound or trump the work of their peers and predecessors (layering), and then breaking from said established rhythm (rupture) worked in harmony to shape the heart of Hip-Hop.
In groups, we then were sent off to investigate each of these four forms and analyze the way each piece incorporated the three elements of hip hop. I found this exercise to be especially eye opening in the way that I view visual art. When looking at a piece by Fab Five Freddy, I was able to see the way in which he transformed a subway car into a mural expressing dissent towards the canonization of protest art movements. What was more enlightening were the parallels drawn between my own analysis of graffiti and my classmate’s respective art forms. The project as a whole painted a holistic picture of Hip-Hop during its genesis.
Thursday was an opportunity for unwinding and expanding our personal playlists as we listened to and discussed our collective class playlist, which you can follow on Spotify! The listening party was demonstrative of our diversity in taste and what allured us all towards one genre. Sharing music allowed us to make connections and even bond over a shared love of artists.
As we transition next week from the Old Skool to the New Skool, I’m excited to learn more about the musicians I grew up listening to and further understanding their cultural implications.
As I mentioned int the last post, Lazendorf came and played a concert on Thursday. They call themselves an experiment, not a band. They rarely record songs and have nothing written down. Lanzendorf is made up of Bryan Devendorf, Scott Devendorf, and Ben Lanz. Bryan and Scott are brothers, both play with The National. Bryan is the drummer and Scott is the bassist. Ben often plays with The National, among other groups and they all seem to be good friends.
I walked into the concert at Packard Hall. Packard often has classical music, I could tell this was going to be different. The hall was set up with three tents, two on the stage and one up above. Inside the tents there were some lanterns and the stage lights were dimmed down. Lanzendorf walked onto the stage with green jumpsuits on, they did not say a word and began playing. The music was like being in a trance. It was incredibly mellow, they were jamming the whole time improvising every song. They all had a true mastery of their instruments and the digital looping equipment. There was a surprise band member whose name I think was Kate. Kate was holding a microphone and would hold it up to the amp occasionally. Then out of a secret door a man with a beard. also wearing a green jumpsuit would emerge fiddle with something and then leave. Ben would occasionally start singing incomprehensible lyrics and then stop. It was hard to know if they played one continuous song or many songs without pause. After about one hour of playing they stopped, people did not know whether to clap or remain silent.
Ben took the microphone and said a few words of thank you for being at Colorado College and being able to share their music. Then, they picked their instruments back up and the concert continued. They played for another half hour, there were times when it seemed very distorted and others when it seemed incredibly melodic. After the music stopped some people started leaving, but others started coming. The concert has a very different feel than most I have ever seen. The ebb and flow of people made the concert a lot less static than most. On the whole I really enjoyed the concert, the distorted feel made the music exciting and the melodies served as a good relief. I was incredibly impressed by how well they were able to play together especially knowing that they were improvising. The concert had a magical quality that was great to see. I am glad to know that Packard s has now seen more than just lovely classical music.
The past couple of days we have had the chance to meet some especially cool people. The first were Bruce and Gabe.
Bruce is a graphic designer, he started a company called Post Typography. His interest in graphic design began in high school, where he published zines ( hand made magazines); he was scolded by his principle for making the zines. Bruce is a tall man with glasses, he seems quite nerdy. He was also part of post-punk band called Double Dagger. A double dagger looks like this: ‡, the band name and its songs paid tribute to typography.
Gabe is a photographer and film maker, he started Folk Hero Films. Like Gabe, his interest in aesthetic began making zines, he also got in trouble for their publications. Gabe’s first break as a photographer came when a National Geographic photographer took him under his wing. The photographer took pictures of tigers and rhinoceros, Gabe assisted. Once he got chased by a rhino while on the back on an elephant. His first complete story came with the documentary The Harvest. The Harvest explores and organization like Make a Wish, except these kid’s last wishes are to go on an epic hunt.
Through Gabe’s work on The Harvest he and Bruce began their collaboration. Bruce made all of the opening sequences for the movie, which consisted of old paintings of hunters. The main collaboration, however, has been working on Gabe’s documentary If We Shout Loud Enough. If We Shout Loud Enough is about Double Dagger, their influence on the Baltimore music scene, and their last tour before they called it quits. Gabe and Bruce epitomize many of the concepts that we have covered in class. They embrace the DIY spirit, through music, typography and film.
The second guests came to our class today. Scott Devendorf and Bryan Devendorf of The National and Ben Lanz of The National and Beirut. Together, they formed a band named Lanzendorf, a combination of their last names. I asked them how they felt about the concept of selling out, which we have discussed in class. Some background, about twenty years ago selling out meant anything to do with conforming to mass media. This included changing your sound to become more commercial or licensing a song to advertisements. They responded that they felt changing your sound was “not cool” but that some National songs have been on commercials and TV shows. They told us that musicians no longer make money from CD sales, so putting a song in a commercial is an easy way to make some money. They told us that they had never really meant to pursue music, but had always loved it. Lazendorf started when the opener for the National did not show up, it is experimental and jammy. They are playing a concert tonight!! Talking to people that have such a connection to the indie scene has been a true highlight of the class.
During our first few days of indie rock and culture I was surprised to hear that some of seminal bands that began what would become the indie movement were not great musicians. Bands like the Sex Pistols were made up of 4 men who could only play a couple of power chords and were not great singers. What the band did have, was an embodiment of the anti establishment, troubled youth sentiment that was running through England in the 1970’s. Bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash were true punks who knew you did not need to know how to play the guitar to be successful. They believed and embraced the DIY (do it yourself) image. They were part of subculture ( which I’ve learned is a word that cannot be properly defined) but essentially means people that do not identify with mainstream society such as punks, hippies and now, hipsters.
In the 1980’s Sonic Youth and Nirvana came along. Nirvana emerged from the grunge movement of Seattle. Made up of people that were dissatisfied with society. Kurt Cobain, front man of Nirvana, dealt with issues of authenticity and legitimization of music. As a musician that was thrown into the spot light he wanted the world to know that he was more than a man in a grunge band. This made me question whether all musicians want to feel a sense of wanting to be true musicians and why.
As a result of these movements and many others indie rock emerged. It was made up a group of musicians that did not want to support mainstream music and big record labels. The main discussions we’ve been having in class is whether or not indie music is for the high class. Bands like Vampire Weekend and the Dirty Projector came from ivy league schools. They were exposed to many different types of music that then influenced their songs. Some critics have called Vampire Weekend “ivy league post colonials” which I think is both funny and insightful. Personally, I think that while indie music has been associated with privilege a great thing about it is that it makes an effort to include many cultures and hopefully attract a diverse group of people.
I have a confession to make: I do not enjoy listening to music played by The Beatles. I am fully aware that this should result in me having my musician’s card removed, my guitar taken away from me and me being locked in a room with a TV playing “Yellow Submarine” until I can recite every line and song in the movie backwards. Unfortunately (or fortunately for me) this is Colorado College, and we are accepting people here. Thus I have my right to exercise my free-speech. However, I shall hold my tongue for arguably the first time of my life, and instead attempt to evenly discuss what the topic of our class has been for the past two days: The Beatles.
This being a Stage to Screen class, we not only focused on The Beatles’ music, we also focused on some of their uhhhh… Interesting endeavors into other forms of performance, such as movies. Before diving into their cinematic trials, I want to state that I have great respect for the Beatles as pioneers of the British Invasion. I think that they were extremely important for music as a whole in relation to the start of the “Classic Rock” era. They proved that a British band could experience huge success in the United States. Yes, I’ll even admit that some of their songs are catchy. However, there is one element of the Beatles which really leaves a sorry feeling in my stomach: their authenticity as artists.
Much of what we have been discussing in class recently pertains to how authentic a group of musicians are, and what makes them authentic or inauthentic. According to Philip Auslander, there is one element which is paramount in authenticity: the live performance. The live performance validates what we hear on the record. If you attend a show and the singer sounds like an emaciated camel with a hoof in its mouth, you are going to think “Wow, these guys are awful; I can’t believe I wasted my money on them” and write them a letter laced with your finest and most eloquent language. I could just be the minority, but I expect that the music I have paid money for to be real, not something thrown together for a chunk of change. A prime example of this is the 1990 Grammy scandal where Milli Vanilli had their Grammy revoked after it was revealed that they hadn’t even sung on the record. They had hired people who could actually sing to record it for them, and then toured and lip-synced along with the music as if they had recorded it. What if we learned that some modern day performers didn’t actually write their own music, or that one man actually wrote and produced Katy Perry’s “Hot and Cold” Ke$ha’s “Tik-Tok” and Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA”? Oh, wait, one man did. Now, I know you’re probably saying “But i saw the Beatles perform live in 1964 on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show!’ They didn’t have the ability to pull such shenanigans in the sixties!” And you’d be correct, but the Beatles did begin to pave the way for such acts.
The Beatles started their last tour in 1966 a week before Revolver was released. And they never performed any of their new material live. Why? Because they couldn’t. Many of the tracks on Revolver required special instruments or special effects that could not be reproduced in a live performance. Essentially, their music became a thing only for the stereo at home. And yet, the Beatles were– and are– still worshipped world wide as being the greatest rock band of all time. What does this say about Philip Auslander’s insistence that live performance is necessary for musicians to be taken seriously? What does this say about the Beatles and modern music? Do we even care if the musicians are actually performing what they played on the record?
As much as I found “Yellow Submarine” to be an intriguing display of psychedelic art, I felt a bit cheated– as if the Beatles were trying to compensate for their lack of live performances with cartoon caricatures. This is even without acknowledging that the Beatles didn’t even voice themselves for the film, and only appeared for a few minutes at the very end. It was thoroughly discussed in our readings for class (by Kenneth Womack and Todd Davis) that later in their careers, the Beatles wanted to be taken seriously as artists, and not just be the record selling pop-group that they had been before. To accomplish this, they released movies and albums. The music itself was some of the best that the Beatles ever recorded, and yet, to me it feels hollow. It’s like when you have a huge chocolate rabbit from Easter and you’re really excited to engorge yourself on the creamy goodness only to discover that it’s hollow. To me, studio music is exactly that– it lacks substance until I can see that it is real. The half-baked cinematic efforts such as Help! the Magical Mystery Tour (which was so bad that it wasn’t even broadcast in the united states) and Let it Be didn’t exactly give the Beatles a more mature appearance. In fact, it seems more like they only cared to turn a dollar without actually having to go on tour. It makes me sad.
I again encourage you to leave comments. If you don’t, I shall automatically assume that everyone agrees with me.
If you are feeling that your brain is very happy and content and have a desire to change that, I would encourage you to watch Swan Lake and immediately follow it with Black Swan. The juxtaposition of the smooth, ethereal dancing of Tchaikovsky’s ballet– which was first produced in 1870– and the gritty and rather disturbing Black Swan is rather drastic. However, the two are more similar than may be initially thought especially when the music is considered.
It is a testament to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s prodigious talent in composition that the music of Swan Lake is versatile enough to be used in a Ballet and in Black Swan. If you are unfamiliar with either the ballet or the movie, I shall attempt to come to the rescue here and here. There is one particular piece of Tchaikovsky’s composition that I would like to focus on, and that is the Swan Theme (of which I shall embed a video at the bottom). In the ballet, the music is used to underscore the moment when our fine hero Siegfried and his new-found love, the Swan Princess Odette, are separated by the nefarious von Rothbart who is to blame for transforming Odette into a fowl in the first place. In typical Hollywoo– errrr, Russian fashion, Siegfried vows to marry her to break the spell. How exactly this is communicated through dance I shall never fully understand. This is a touching moment in the ballet, as it portrays Siegfried’s love for Odette. In Black Swan, the Swan Theme, which is the most well-known segment of the whole score, is only hinted at (it is played in 8-bit form as Nina’s ringtone, and a variation of the theme is used in the very opening of the movie) until the finale of the movie where [SPOILER] Nina discovers that she never killed Lily, but instead stabbed herself in the stomach with the glass. What is of interest is how the same music functions so differently. As noted before, in the ballet the theme is used to underscore romance, and Siegfried’s intention to save Odette from the tyranny of von Rothbart. In Black Swan, the theme is used as the utter climax of the film where Nina realizes that she has let herself go and “lost herself” in the role of the Black Swan.
The question that arises, for me at least, is: In which instance is the music more powerful? Does the music fit the ballet or the movie better?
In my relatively humble opinion, the music was used to incredible dramatic effect in Black Swan, which causes me to go as far as to say that it surpasses the original usage. Of course, this can be viewed as a sacrilegious statement, especially in the eyes of our good friend Walter Benjamin who was discussed in an earlier post. Benjamin would say that it is impossible to replicate the Aura of the original composition and usage, thus making the use of the same theme in Black Swan inferior. This is a point of conflict for your dear author. as I truly do understand the brilliance of Swan Lake and Tchaikovsky’s composition. I don’t however, believe that “original” is synonymous with “the best”. Tchaikovsky was accused of “borrowing” the Swan Theme from Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. However, no one remembers Lohengren in the same way that they remember Swan Lake. Is the original still superior if the “remake” is better in every conceivable manner? I am not saying that Black Swan is better than Swan Lake. That would be preposterous and would likely result in me ending up on some sort of The-Secret-Organization-of-the-Defenders-of-the-Superiority-of-Ballet-Over-Other-Media Orginization’s black list. I am, however, saying that to me, the usage of the Swan Theme is more powerful in Black Swan than in the original ballet. I strongly encourage anyone to disagree with me and to voice your concerns of my incredible ignorance in the comments. In the mean time, have some swan:
Allow me to paint you a figurative picture, not a real one because I have the artistic ability of a one-flippered penguin. Anyway, you’re sitting in the absolute worst seat in a concert hall. You can barely see the performers and your neck is craned to an angle that would make a giraffe uncomfortable. And yet, you don’t care. You don’t even notice. You are so enraptured in the performance that only the music matters. You can feel the people around you moving their heads or tapping their feet. Nearly every member in the audience is leaning forward in their chair. This isn’t game 7 of the World Series, there is no elimination or tension– there is merely the magical ability of a group of performers to grab your attention in a felt covered vice-grip.
Such was the case for your humble author on Friday. I, along with the rest of MU 228 attended the Ying Quartet’s performance in Packard Hall. In case the Ying Quartet are not a group you are intimately familiar with, I shall summarize their performance style in a totally non-hyperbolic manner: The Ying Quartet is a group of four musicians, two of which play violin, one plays cello and one plays the viola. Their sound is amazing– the way that they mesh as an ensemble is truly remarkable, with no instrument being lost in the mix. But that is to be expected of professional musicians! What really entranced me, and I assume the rest of the audience for that matter, was the energy with which they played. You could see them moving with every note. David Ying, the cellist, moved as if his chair was slightly electrocuted; he never stayed still. This wasn’t just watching grown men and women squirm in chairs, this was watching four incredibly talented musicians having the time of their lives performing for an audience. When you watch someone having fun, you have fun. Joy and happiness are infectious, and it was extremely hard not to smile as I watched four adults honestly loving what they were doing.
During the latter half of the week, we were tasked to read the first two chapters of Philip Auslander’s “Liveness”, which focuses on how the live performance has been transformed and has been turned into a mostly-live-event-that-will-show-up-on-DVD-next- year. Auslander discusses how nearly every live event has been “mediatized”, that is, when a performance has been “circulated on television, as audio or video recordings, and in other forms based in technologies of reproduction.” If you attend a sporting event, you have the big screen to show you what is happening. If you go to a Ke$ha concert, there will be a plethora of screens, lights, microphones and rather absurd costume changes to help replicate her music videos. Very, very rarely will you attend an event where there are no special effects, amplifiers, big-screens or recording devices present. The pure live performance has been all but lost. Now, I am not for a second saying that we should all give up our iPods and return to the glory days of slogging five miles uphill both ways to attend a performance, I am merely commenting on how live performance has changed. I am, however, saying that The Ying Quartet’s performance was so powerful because it was so natural. The music was pure– no mixing witchcraft was present– the musicians were wearing simple concert attire, and you know what? It was amazing to watch.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must now go and inform all of my friends how vinyl is superior in every conceivable manner, and then talk about Woodstock as if I had been there.
I sat in the Packard Lobby on a surprisingly comfortable blue couch that wasn’t really a couch because it lacked certain aspects of a couch such as arm-rests and a backrest, but I digress. The reason I sat upon this not-a-couch was because we, the students, had been tasked to go and find a place to sit and record the sounds of our surroundings. I looked to my left and noticed that my not-a-couch was covered in dog hair. I was getting distracted, again. I reeled my wandering eyes and thoughts in, and shut everything down except my ears– a dangerous move on the first Monday of a block.
Silence wasn’t silence at all. I heard the fans of the ventilation, the footsteps of humans walk up the stairs to my left, the cracking of the plexiglass tunnel across the room from me. The cracking of the plexiglass as it heated under the rays of the sun reminded me of the first time I entered Packard this fall as a brand-new first-year student: It was dark, I was going to band, and I was 100% sure the glass was going to immediately shatter and fall on me after hearing it pop and crack for the first time. I remembered the emotions of my new-to-college-self: fear, trepidation, hope, excitement and above all, wonder.
Curses! I was off topic again… Or was I? I paused to think for a minute. Was this what was supposed to happen? Was I supposed to sit here and let the sounds trigger memories? If the popping sound of plexiglass was enough to get me to lose myself in memory, what could music do? What does this have to do with music in film?!
It turns out that one cannot simply dive straight into the complex transformation of music as it passes through different media.
As a class, we started by reading some incredibly dense material entitled Emotions Expressed And Aroused by Music by Stephen Davies, which comes from the succinctly named The Handbook of Music and Emotion: Theory, Research, Applications which discusses how a non-sentient thing (for lack of a better term) such as music can cause emotional reactions in listeners. It was laborious reading, but the subject material fascinates me. I never appropriately wondered why I listened to songs that made me feel sad. Why would I want to feel sad? How does the music make me sad? Would the song make me feel differently if I were to encounter it in a different context, such as in a movie?
Lo and behold, we discussed my final question today in class!
Last night we were tasked to listen to “Caught in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel. In case you are unfamiliar with the song, it was written in 1972 and is by my description “a song you can listen to whilst driving an old red pickup truck along a dirt road on a clear day in Iowa.”
But today, the song was in the movie Reservoir Dogs and was not used in a carefree, “cruisin” application. Instead the sing is played during a gruesome torture scene by Mr. Blond– a character in the movie– as he mutilated a cop with disturbing glee.
The image the song conjures in my head is no longer of a red truck, but that of a psychopath torturing a young cop. The transformation of my interpretation of the song depending on its setting is extremely interesting, and I am interested to see where we go next.
Tomorrow, we are watching Fantasia. Oh yeah, I’m excited.