Friday, October 27, 2017

Book Preview: Flip the Script: European Hip Hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality

By J. Griffith Rollefson

In my new book, Flip the Script: European Hip Hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality (University of Chicago Press, Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology, 2017), I examine how the children and grandchildren of immigrants from the former colonies and peripheries of Europe are employing the musical protest strategies of hip hop both to differentiate themselves from and relate themselves to their respective majority societies. Drawing on music, media, observations, and interviews from fieldwork in Paris, Berlin, and London—as well as a conclusion centered in Cork, Ireland—this book situates musical analyses in Europe’s postcolonial and globalizing contexts to demonstrate how this black American music structures local concerns and enables syncretic expressions that are at once wholly local and definitively global. It concludes that hip hop is both a product of the postcolonial contradictions that hyphenate citizens within their own nations and a form of cultural politics well suited to flip the script on the inequalities those hyphens imply.
In thinking about what section of the book would be best suited for a preview in Musicology Now, it occurred to me that it should not just clarify the argument and methods I use in the book, but offer a flavor of the analysis and argumentation – not just tell you, but show you what I’m up to.  Indeed, that’s an explicit sort of meta-argument in the book: that hip hop’s performativities call into question the form/content binary, both in our musicological analyses and in society more broadly.  Sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it.  And usually it’s both.  As such, I settled on an excerpt from the conclusion that focuses on one track from Cork, Ireland to model my use of musicological, ethnomusicological, and cultural studies methods in attending to hip hop as musical sound and lived culture and performed politics.
While the ethnically Irish voices in this excerpt are slightly divergent from the people of color whose voices lead the book, this snapshot unearths the postcolonial entanglements that make it abundantly clear that we need to think seriously about what hip hop has to say within a larger global and historical frame.
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The repeated chorus for The Good Vibe Society’s “December 11th” encapsulates the violent details of the historically rich verses and pivots to universalizing and hopeful ground, linking the Irish Revolutionary context to global anticolonial struggles. Employing a parallel structure built on a call to remembrance, the duo commemorate the December 11, 1920 “Burning of Cork City” by “the infamous terrorist organisation known as the Black and Tans during the occupation of Ireland by the British Empire”:
        Lest we forget—the streets were red with the enemies!
        Lest we forget—the lessons learned in our memories!
        Lest we forget—that you can never keep a people down
        At ground level, they’ll reform, rebound!
Notably, Brosy and Mickey’s call to remembrance is sourced not only from the contemporary British World War I commemorations and the “media circus surrounding the Poppy” that they mentioned in our interview, but from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Recessional,” written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. The repeated line “Lest we forget” concludes each stanza of the Kipling original, which begins:
        God of our fathers, known of old,
          Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
        Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
          Dominion over palm and pine—
        Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
        Lest we forget—lest we forget!
In flippin’ the script on Kipling’s battle cry of imperial dominion and contemporary expressions of British patriotism, the Irish duo localizes their politics of postcoloniality while drawing on hip hop’s well-established inversional practices. The track is thus a contrapuntal construction that, following Said, builds “both processes, that of imperialism and that of resistance to it” into its politics of postcoloniality. This is also the KoS practice that Q-Tip suggests is “universal if you’ve got Knowledge of . . . Self.” And as we will see in a moment, Brosy and Mickey Gatch’s commitments to and understanding of such practices in the African American context go far beyond a basic knowledge of hip hop’s poetic devices.
In their gesture to Kipling, Brosy and Mickey also tug at an intertextual thread to “The White Man’s Burden”—for this codification of the colonial imperative was brought into form by the same poet. Indeed, this poetic construction illustrates more clearly than any other cultural artifact that whiteness is the master trope of Western modernity. Kipling first drafted a poem with this title for the same Queen’s Jubilee, but instead reworked and published it in 1899 with the full title, “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands,” to commemorate the start of the Philippine-American War—and the coming of age of US imperialism. The poem begins:
        TAKE up the White Man’s burden—
        Send forth the best ye breed—

        Go send your sons to exile

        To serve your captives’ need
        To wait in heavy harness

        On uttered folk and wild—
        Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
        Half devil and half child
All told, Kipling’s poem extolls the thankless but paramount task of bringing those Wretched of the Earth “(ah slowly) to the light” from their “loved Egyptian night”—the task, that is, of the civilizing mission.

As such, “The White Man’s Burden” brings this book full circle, first in its suggestion that the colonial imperative, with its chattel slavery, white supremacy, and structural racism, is the Enlightenment’s sine qua non and second in the way we find that even a cursory look into Irish postcolonial hip hop will necessarily lead us to colonial entanglements in England, the Philippines, the United States, and further afield. Indeed, we are in an age of deeply interconnected globalization. But if this book has shown us anything, it is that any discussion about contemporary globalization must begin by laying bare the deep and enduring legacies of imperialism, colonization, racism, and slave capitalism on which globalization is founded. This is especially true in the realm of the culture industry. Indeed, to revisit Said, “Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale. But its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively, white, or Black, or Western, or Oriental.” We are all mutually implicated, but imperialism’s enduring myth of an emancipatory light that must beat back an imprisoning darkness has atomized the particular at the expense of the universal—a counterintuitive Enlightenment transaction that Etienne Balibar fittingly calls “Racism as Universalism.” The irony is almost as rich as the thanklessness met by Kipling’s civilizing slavers.
If Kipling’s parallel structure provides the form and foil for Brosy and Mickey Gatch’s myriad postcolonial linguistic inversions (and subversions) of British civility and authority, then the beat composed by Kanturk-based producer D’Beats offers a simple but suffusive and all encompassing sonic inversion of the British colonial gaze. A telling feature of the musical setting, which is easily missed, is that these hip hop artists construct their postcolonial political critique by articulating the swing and swag of their localized hip hop style to the melodic and rhetorical resonances of the song “Stranger in Paradise.” The entire track is constructed of a hip hop drum beat overlaid with a repeated and stuttering two-note, wordless loop built on the song’s signature motivic feature—an uplifting and transcendent rising fifth interval (B flat to F) performed by a rounded and vibrato-laden female voice.

Fig. 1: “December 11th,” The Good Vibe Society

The hit song is from the 1953 Broadway musical Kismet (Arabic: destiny, fate), based on the exoticizing 1911 British play of the same name. Although “Stranger in Paradise” is built on a musical quotation of the main theme from Alexander Borodin’s “Gliding Dance of the Maidens” both pieces were composed to evoke an exoticizing romance in the feminized space of a pastoral garden paradise.  What’s more, Brosy explained that the track was written amidst the backdrop of the Arab Spring: “as the Arab Spring was just getting off the ground at the time and we were both transfixed by the events we felt if we could make a song about Irish rebellion, that could be juxtaposed over any Arab city and still make sense.” As such, in choosing the Kismet sample and linking it to a track about colonial occupation, anticolonial struggle, and the Arab Spring, Brosy and Mickey recast the “stranger” signification as “occupier.” As detailed in chapter 5’s discussion of M.I.A., the sample also resonates with a long history of imperial discourse that equated the virgin female body with the untapped resources of colonial Africa, Asia, South America, the Caribbean islands, the Pacific islands . . . and Ireland.

Fig. 2: “Stranger in Paradise,” from Kismet (signature motive at 1:00)
Ireland has long served as something of a banana republic, functioning as a breadbasket—or better, butter crock—for the British Empire and a summer home for countless English nobility. Though it is becoming a leader in high-tech industries (or perhaps more accurately, a tax haven for international corporations) it remains a relatively underdeveloped agricultural hub that is only now recovering from an early lesson of globalization-as-postcoloniality. At the time of writing, it faces continuing IMF, EU, and European Central Bank imposed austerity measures in the wake of the 2008 global banking crisis (read: money grab). It should not surprise us, then, that the Irish people see all too clearly the connections between colonial structures of subservience and global economic practices of the new imperial structures. Thus, “Stranger in Paradise” functions through hip hop consciousness to bring into form The Good Vibe Society’s critique linking the exoticizing colonial gaze to the Irish War of Independence and, as Brosy put it, to “those who still fight for freedom around the world today.” In constructing their multimodal cultural politics through an articulation of local and national revolutionary histories to the globalized rebellion of hip hop and the imperialist orientalism of Kismet, these hip hop artists construct a usable politics and voice a def critique out of an array of histories. The MCs and their DJ construct an internationalist identity perched on moral high ground while simultaneously engaging national pride and militating against occupation of their “paradise,” the proud and pristine Emerald Isle.

At the end of the video for the track, the romantic strains of the “Stranger in Paradise” loop continue, and two quotes appear on screen. The first reads: “‘Damage of $20 million was done in Cork City on December 11th 1920’—The American Commission on Conditions in Ireland.” The second reads: “ ‘It is not to those who can inflict most, but to those who can endure most, that victory is certain’—Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork 1920.” The track concludes, but the video moves on to frame Ireland and establish solidarities from another US perspective. In a startling, but telling, conclusion to the music video, we are treated to archival footage of an interview with Muhammad Ali on an Irish talk show. In the summer of 1972, the boxer and anticolonial activist was in Ireland for a fight with Alvin Lewis at Dublin’s Croke Park and spent some time learning about the country and doing this extended interview with Cathal O’Shannon for the Irish state broadcaster RTÉ.
The forty-five-minute interview wraps up with Ali reciting his poetic response to the Attica Prison massacre, “Freedom—Better Now,” which is speculative fiction, suggesting what a black prisoner might have said before being shot by the firing squad of white police officers (you can watch the whole interview here). The Good Vibe Society samples the segment immediately after the recitation where Ali expresses his solidarity with the Irish people in the global anticolonial struggle. The video for “December 11th” thus concludes with Ali’s closing salvo: “And I have another thing to say: this is one thing I love and I admire about the Irish people. I’ve studied a little of the history since I’ve been here and I’ve found out you’ve been underdogs for years, hundreds of years, people dominatin’ ya and rulin’ ya. And you can identify with this freedom struggle. You understand. But I just have my mind on the other side of the water, but we all are fightin’ for the same cause and idea but we have different reasons and different approaches.”
I end with this brief analysis to suggest that Brosy and Mickey Gatch have found in hip hop a way to make their local and national histories speak outside of the conditions that made (and continue to make) these histories; to suggest that they have interwoven these histories with other histories of oppression and revolution; to suggest that because of these twinnings new histories will emerge; to suggest that, in some important ways, they have found themselves and their communities in and through hip hop; and to suggest that, in other ways, they have remade (and continue to remake) themselves through hip hop. I also end here to argue that much work needs to be done on the postcolonial whiteness of hip hop artists around the globe, even if the category of Irish has only had a relatively stable history as a form of whiteness for the past eighty years or so. In investigating and illuminating these histories, we as hip hop scholars can build on what artists and their fans have built to add nuance and detail to an oft-misunderstood art form too commonly regarded as a blunt instrument. Indeed, Ali returned to Ireland in 2009, near the end of his quest, to visit Ennis, County Clare, the birthplace of his great-grandfather, Abe Grady, “who emigrated to the US in the 1860s and married a freed African-American slave.”
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For more information, other resources, media, bibliography, syllabi, and much more please visit the book’s companion website:
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J. Griffith Rollefson is lecturer in popular music studies at University College Cork, National University of Ireland. He has served on the faculties of music at the University of Cambridge and the University of California, Berkeley, where he also served as UC Chancellor’s Public Scholar. Rollefson’s research has been recognized by the British Academy, Volkswagen Stiftung, DAAD, ACLS, and European Commission and is published in Black Music Research Journal, American Music, Popular Music and Society, in the edited volumes Crosscurrents: European and American Music in Interaction, Hip Hop in Europe, Native Tongues: An African Hip Hop Reader, The Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Studies, and elsewhere. His book, Flip The Script: European Hip Hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality (University of Chicago Press, 2017), was supported by the AMS 75 PAYS Endowment.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Announcing Music and Social Justice, a New Series from University of Michigan Press

By William Cheng and Andrew Dell’Antonio

From Plato to Public Enemy, people have debated the relationship between music and justice, rarely arriving at much consensus over the art form’s ethics and aesthetics, uses and abuses, virtues and vices. So what roles can music and musicians play in agendas of justice? And what should musicians and music scholars do if—during moments of upheaval, complacency, ennui—music ends up seemingly drained of its beauty, power, and even relevance?

We are proud to announce Music and Social Justice, a new series from University of Michigan Press. As the series coeditors, we welcome projects that shine new light on familiar subjects such as protest songs, humanitarian artists, war and peace, community formation, cultural diplomacy, globalization, and political resistance. Simultaneously, the series invites authors to critique and expand on what qualifies as justice—or, for that matter, music—in the first place. Music and Social Justice lends a platform for writers who wish to submit traditional scholarly monographs. But we’re equally enthusiastic to work with authors and artists who prefer to unsettle the discursive norms of conventional academic prose in the name of rhetorical experimentalism, anti-capitalism, neurodiversity, alt-textuality, and radical collaboration. We urge people within and beyond academic institutions to build inclusive dialogues about how and why music matters.

An evolving word cloud of potential (by no means comprehensive) themes for the series.
So many issues of justice might seem especially pressing these days—DACA, fascism, nativism, black lives, gun violence, climate change, nuclear apocalypse, schisms everywhere. But for various oppressed groups, justice has always been fiercely urgent: no luxury of postponing the fight because the fights come to them.

[top row, left to right] Cheng, Dell’Antonio, André, Cusick, Hisama
[bottom row, left to right] Madrid, Katz, McDaniels, Oja, Redmond
We’ve assembled an Advisory Board of eight terrific colleagues who are active and activist leaders in their fields: Naomi André, Suzanne G. Cusick, Ellie M. Hisama, Mark Katz, Alejandro L. Madrid, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels, Carol J. Oja, and Shana L. Redmond. Board members have already begun working closely with us to seek out prospective authors, open lines of communication, and review submissions.

We recently spoke with these board members about music and justice. Here are their takes on issues such as Black Lives Matter, the endangerment of DACA, foster care advocacy, composer John Zorn, contralto Marian Anderson, musical nuns of early modern Florence, a South African opera about Winnie Mandela, and the son jarocho songs performed by activists on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

EDITORS (Cheng and Dell'Antonio): Please introduce yourselves—who you are, what you teach, and what you research.

OJA: Living through an era of political, racial, and economic instability, I feel an increasing drive to read and produce scholarship that connects with the turbulent world around us. The question is how to do so. My current response to that question involves a project exploring institutional racism and racial segregation in the history of classical-music performance, with the career of the famed African American singer Marian Anderson as a centerpiece.

CUSICK: [I study] music's relationships to gender, sexuality, and other categories of politicized embodiment [in] early modern Italy, contemporary North America, and the global archipelago of prisons operated by the United States’ security services during the “global war on terror.” My most recent research focuses on the economic and erotic interests that informed the figure of the musical nun in early modern Florence—an era (resonant with our own) that was characterized by the mass incarceration of one kind of politicized body (women) for the unjust economic benefit of other bodies.

REDMOND: I am a thinker, a creator, and an accomplice. I study the musical and political worlds that are imagined and made by people of African descent. I teach that history, present, and future through text, sound, and practice. My work centers the ideas and musics of the forgotten, the vulnerable, and the rebels. As such, it works against neat typologies and prevailing wisdom, highlighting how people imagine and create freedom throughout the twentieth century and beyond.

EDITORS: Why launch a series on music and social justice? Why now?

MADRID: The current political climate in the United States has forced disciplinary fields in the humanities to become more aware of their social relevance. At a moment when decades of social gains in areas like gender, race, and immigration are being continually threatened while white supremacy is systematically normalized in media and politics, it is urgent that music studies engage questions of social justice and take a stance against intolerance, bigotry, and anti-democratic practices. It is time for musicologists not only to focus on deconstructing how musical discourse and practice may have performatively helped in the reproduction of oppressive social structures and behaviors, but also to consider how musical activism may challenge these systems and the ideologies that keep them in place.

KATZ: For centuries, musicians have used their art to call for justice and call out injustice. Music has the power to amplify these messages, to spread them, and to embed them in our memories and psyches. This series, in turn, will amplify the voices of those who study the intersection of music and justice. Given the role of music in recent social justice movements, whether Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter, now would seem to be the right moment to launch this series. History, however, offers centuries worth of precedent, so this series may also be seen as long overdue. Either way, it will serve as an essential vehicle for understanding a crucial and underexamined facet of music in human life.

EDITORS: Can you describe how your own work has dealt with matters of social justice, even—especially—if the words social justice don’t always come up?

MCDANIELS: I work with a lot with foster kids in the foster care system here in the United States. While there are many great stories of success with youth who have been through the system, there are too many horrible situations that repeat themselves year after year! It’s always about 500,000 youth continually rotating through the system and when they are deprived of opportunities and privileges, these are the young individuals who fill our prisons and cemeteries. I don’t call them underprivileged children. I call them children of powerful potential! So my music and graphic novels are created to inspire, motivate, and educate. That’s why we created Hip Hop in the first place.

HISAMA: My 1993 article “Postcolonialism on the Make: The Music of John Mellencamp, David Bowie, and John Zorn,” published in the academic journal Popular Music, spurred responses from Asian American activists (including the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence) to John Zorn’s representations of East Asian women. My article “John Zorn and the Postmodern Condition,” published in the volume Locating East Asia in Western Art Music, chronicles the responses from artists, musicians, and writers from the Bay Area and New York to Zorn’s work, and in the Polish journal Avant, I comment upon artists’ social responsibility in relation to Zorn’s more recent statements about his work.

ANDRÉ: I have published about teaching opera in a women’s prison that appeared in the book The Intersectional Approach: Transforming the Academy through Race, Class, & Gender. I also edited a cluster of articles in the journal African Studies about the first full-length opera by a black South African composer: Winnie—The Opera by Bongani Ndodana-Breen (premiered at the State Theatre in Pretoria, South Africa in 2011). With both of these projects—opera in prison and the South African opera on Winnie Madikizela Mandela—my first thoughts for publishing them was outside of musicology, given the lack of musicological venues for publishing on music and social justice. I have been very encouraged by the musicologists who have found these articles, and have contacted me to let me know that they have found them helpful for their own teaching and research.

EDITORS: Can you give us an example of how music or sound might embody social justice? Are there specific topics and projects you’d love to see from authors?

REDMOND: My work on the anthems of the African diaspora displays how Black activists and thinkers reinvented and performed citizenship—a citizenship that fit who they were and wanted to be rather than that which was defined for them. In that sense, the contemporary resistance to the U.S. national anthem (Kaepernick, et al.) is part of a long genealogy of Black refusal to a one-size-fits-all relationship to the nation and an important example of a social justice issue that is animated by and through music. I’d like to see work that is experimental in its approaches and that is deeply informed by community thought and practice. Collaborative projects are also welcome.

MADRID: Sound is central to protest rallies and civil disobedience. It is by conceiving and projecting a literal and metaphorical voice that individuals and communities make their anxieties and concerns known. The son jarocho songs that music activists on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border sing at the annual Fandango Fronterizo speak of the trans-border solidarity that such an event foments as well as the hurdles their communities have to overcome on an everyday basis. [I would like to see] work about music and sound in deportation centers, [and] transnational takes on sound and music in anti-globalization protests.

Rounding out the board members’ responses, Mary Francis observed: “I hope the series will include challenges to the idea that music is always and only one sort of social message-bearer. Music can and does play many roles in society, and while it often unites, sustains, and gives hope, it can also be used to signal or enact division. I hope there will be work in the series that explores just how complex music’s place truly is.”

And Shana Redmond offered these closing words on DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), under threat of repeal by the Trump administration and by Congress: “Living a life of integrity—with resources and free from fear and violence—is a human right. Policy is not the end of the struggle but is an important step into better futures. Defend DACA. Defend your communities.”

Please visit the website for Music and Social Justice for more details. We look forward to your submissions!

William Cheng (@willxcheng) is Assistant Professor of Music at Dartmouth College. He is author of Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good, Sound Play: Video Games and the Musical Imagination, and (forthcoming from Oxford UP) Why Listening to Beethoven Makes Me Feel So Respectable (and Other Vices of Musical Judgment). His writings have appeared in Critical Inquiry, Cambridge Opera Journal, Ethnomusicology, 19th-Century Music, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Washington Post, Slate, TIME, and Huffington Post. He serves on the boards of Journal of the Society for American Music, Music & the Moving Image, Women & Music, Ethnomusicology Review, Sensate, and Sound Studies.

Andrew Dell’Antonio (@dellantonio) is Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Musicology/Ethnomusicology Division of the Butler School of Music and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, USA. He is a former Mellon Fellow at the Harvard-Villa I Tatti Center for Renaissance Studies in Florence, Italy. His research explores how different modes of listening—from the 1500s to the present—influence the social uses and cultural meanings of music. His publications include the edited collection Beyond Structural Listening? Postmodern Modes of Hearing and the monograph Listening as Spiritual Practice in Early Modern Italy. He blogs at The Avid Listener and is co-author of the textbook The Enjoyment of Music.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Quick Takes — “Still Playing Games”: Considering Musical Meaning in an Assassin’s Creed Origins Trailer

By Will Gibbons

In the years since Gary Jules’s cover of “Mad World” graced an influential 2006 teaser, covers or edited versions of popular songs have become de rigeur in video game trailers. That’s particularly the case at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, where games debut to great fanfare, often with trailers created specifically for the event. After this year’s E3, a post in Vice’s video-game blog, Waypoint, bemoaned the ubiquity of covers and pop songs. The all-too-convenient pre-existing associations of these siren songs, the author argues, lure overworked trailer-creators into making questionable aesthetic choices. In his words: “it’s laziness. There’s a hook, the smallest one, the slightest indication of suitable association—and it’s grabbed, and tugged at, and there we go, there’s your trailer with a song that just barely works.”[1]

I tend to agree, and that’s the context in which I first watched the trailer for the hotly anticipated Assassin’s Creed Origins (Ubisoft, 2017) on the E3 livestream. Entitled “Mysteries of Egypt,” the wordless trailer (seen below) shows off the game’s ancient Egyptian setting. It also offers a few oblique hints about its plot, which appears—like many games in the Assassin’s Creed franchise—to center on the liberation of an oppressed citizenry. In this case, the “song that just barely works” is “Blood” (2015), by the Atlanta-based trio Algiers. A unique blend of (afro)punk, soul rock, and gospel, Algiers doesn’t shy away from politics; their provocative, insightful, and downright catchy songs often tackle issues of race and class head on.

There are two fairly straightforward aspects of “Blood” that connect the song to Assassin’s Creed. First, like the African-American spiritual, “Go Down, Moses” (in which the Biblical narrative of Israelite slaves in Egypt subversively reflects the status of black slaves in the United States), the trailer seems to draw connections between the plight of the downtrodden laborers seen on screen and the overt and systemic racism depicted by Algiers’ music. No doubt the trailer’s creators also found the allusions to media in the lyrics of “Blood” to be a clever twist; the references to “television coma,” images “flash[ing] across your screen,” and “playing games” allow the song to simultaneously suggest both Assassin’s Creed’s medium and its message.

Already, this use of “Blood” is troublingly insensitive. But further reflection reveals additional worrying issues at play in this particular combination of song and function. “Blood” strikes me as a fairly unambiguous warning about the harmful numbing effects of mass media on black culture. The original lyrics (softened by editing for the Assassin’s Creed trailer) are a powerful indictment of media-induced apathy. Consider, for example: “Flash across your screen/They got you in their hand/Fifteen minutes of freedom/Still 3/5 a man” or “Now death is at your doorstep/And you’re still playing games/So drown in entertainment/Cause all our blood is in vain.”

Likewise, Algiers’ official music video for “Blood” (below) juxtaposes images of the band with rapid-fire cuts of televised moments in the history of race relations in the United States. Like flipping through television channels, the images change too quickly to fully process—information overload. Before one can be contextualized, it’s abandoned, with the end result being (at least for me) a seemingly endless series of images divested of their meaning.

Even a cursory reflection on the song’s meaning casts the Assassin’s Creed trailer in a damning light that was surely not its creators’ intent. Around the time “Blood” was first released, bandmember Ryan Mahan noted in an interview that their music focuses on “engaging with the social circumstances that are repressed through the mechanisms of culture, through the mechanisms of power, through the mechanisms of pop culture, and also just by who benefits most from appropriation.”[2] Meanwhile, it’s difficult not to interpret the trailer as a dispiriting example of the kind of appropriation Mahan decries: the pop culture appropriation of music created to oppose pop culture appropriation.

Of course, it’s not uncommon for music to appear in media in ways its creators never intended. But the use of “Blood” in this trailer creates a paradoxical situation in which one or the other of the media involved must be understood in a way precisely counter to its purpose. Either 1) “Blood” helps sell the exact product that it so elegantly problematizes, or 2) the Assassin’s Creed Origins trailer explicitly discourages potential players from purchasing the game it advertises.

In either case, the “Mysteries of Egypt” trailer becomes a case study in the challenges and dangers of manipulating popular music in trailers. Without context and reflection—and without considering the ethics of our musical choices—we all risk drowning in entertainment.

William Gibbons is Associate Professor of Musicology and Associate Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Texas Christian University. He is the author of Building the Operatic Museum: Eighteenth-Century Opera in Fin-de-Siècle Paris (Rochester, 2013) and co-editor of Music in Video Games: Studying Play (Routledge, 2014). A new book, Unlimited Replays: The Art of Classical Music in Video Games, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
[1] Mike Diver, “Dear Video Games: Please Rethink Your ‘Emotional’ E3 Trailer Music.” Waypoint (12 June 2017).
[2] Amelia Mason, “Algiers Reclaims the Black Roots of Rock and Protests the World’s Troubles,” (16 September 2015).

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Quick Takes — A Wrinkle in Sound? Teasing Madeleine L’Engle and Ava Duvernay

By James Deaville

The teaser trailer to “A Wrinkle in Time” dropped eight months before cinematic release to high expectations and apprehensions: Madeleine L’Engle’s eponymous science fantasy novel has formed such an important part of so many childhoods that it was hard to imagine what director Ava DuVernay and Disney might do with it. Pundits seemed satisfied with what they saw, and were uniform in their praise of the trailer’s visual spectacularity and a-lister cast, while at the same time only mentioning its prominent cover of Eurythmics’ 1983 hit “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” which nevertheless underscores—with interruptions—the entire trailer (the seemingly unrelated first twenty seconds are actually the newly composed intro to the song).

The song’s lyrics speak to the journey of Meg and her friends to find her father, including the hazards they will encounter along the way. The trailerized music both superimposes structure and unity onto the bewildering array of images and provides another layer of meaning to the teaser’s visual and narrated narratives, which complicates yet deepens the trailer experience for the audience. The use of “Sweet Dreams” evokes nostalgia for the song and its associations for the audience member, a hook that emotionally grounds the trailer and forges a link between past experiences of the book and the song. At the same time, the listener/viewers must mentally scramble to map faded memories of the book onto fleeting glimpses of characters and places. Press reviews of the teaser alternately describe the music as “haunting,” “moody,” and “mournful,” and several commentators observe the darkening effect of its slowing in tempo, in keeping with current trailer trends. The music’s threatening darkness—unusual for Disney—conflicts with the trailer’s visual brilliance, but it’s no coincidence that the last word of dialogue in the trailer—spoken by Oprah Winfrey as Mrs. Whatsit—is “darkness” and the end credits resonate out with an attenuating “everybody’s looking for something,” sung over the characteristic synth accompaniment.

Indeed, voice in its various guises is a significant component of the soundtrack. We can readily recognize the narrating voices of Chris Pine and Oprah Winfrey, sonic hooks that not coincidentally mark the most prominent celebrities attached to the project. But who is that singing “Sweet Dreams?” The identity of the cover artist is always a difficult question for trailers, yet one that the public invariably raises in the comments to the YouTube posting. For the Eurythmics’ song, perhaps the most noted and notorious cover is that of Marilyn Manson, yet his version would be too “esoteric” for Disney. Over 60 other covers exist for the song, including 48th Street Collective (2005) and Emily Browning (2011)—indeed, upon first hearing a number of listeners have supported the suggestion of Browning as the singer, whose video version has almost 16 million views on YouTube. She may adopt a languid ethos like that of the teaser soundtrack, but a close listening reveals how the vocal stylings and phrasing differ at crucial points. A thorough search of the Internet uncovers that the trailer version of “Sweet Dreams” was the work of LA composer/producer Mark Hadley, who was brought on to “produce an intergalactic, trailer-ized” rendering of the song. His 2:38 trailer-ready track features singer Keeley Bumford, aka Dresage, and relies on languorous singing, slow tempo, synth sounds, reverb, and sonic discontinuity for its effect. That the trailer house editor completely changed the ending of his track reflects the fluidity in the making of these mini-movies.

Devotees of the original song may well have difficulties over this reworking, which seems aimed at (young) fans of a dark, slow, free female vocal style that has elements of “shoegaze,” “dream pop” and/or “sadcore.” We hear it for example in songs of Lorde and Lana del Rey and their respective covers of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” (the film The Hunger Games Catching Fire and the trailer to Dracula Untold) and “Once Upon a Dream” (video and trailer to Maleficent). The question remains, by what measure(s) do we assess cover versions? Faithfulness to the original? Adaptation to new stylistic norms? Creativity? Hadley and Bumford’s “Sweet Dreams” certainly won’t please fans of the Eurythmics’ synth pop classic, but in the context of the trailer to A Wrinkle in Time, the lyrics about searching and the music’s darkness make sense. And in any case, if the trailer cover will encourage the public to revisit or discover the original song, then all the better, whether or not they decide to see the movie.

James Deaville teaches Music in the School for Studies in Art and Culture at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. He has edited Music in Television (Routledge, 2010) and has co-edited Music and the Broadcast Experience (Oxford, 2016). He is currently working on a study of music and sound in cinematic trailers, a result of the Trailaurality research group that has been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. He is also undertaking a co-edited anthology on music and advertising as one of the Oxford Handbooks. He regularly gives papers at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies and Music and the Moving Image conferences (among others), and has published on music and media in Music, Sound and the Moving Image, the Journal of Film Music, and Music & Politics (among others).