Personalization, as exemplified by the popularity of music services like Pandora, has become a defining characteristic of a 21st century American musical sensibility; with an increasing number of Americans gaining access to on demand content, it would seem that the creation of a contemporary Great American Songbook is not only unlikely but quite possibly unwanted. And yet, despite the growing insularity of listening habits, it would seem that American popular culture continues to present individuals with auditory cultural touchstones in the form of viral singles. For better or for worse, creations like Rebecca Black’s “Friday” have become entities that we organize around, forming taste communities grounded in our reaction to the song.
The importance of music in personal history and the construction of identity became oddly salient recently with the broadcast of HBO’s Phil Spector. It is, I think, all too easy to get caught up in ridiculing the appearance of Phil Spector. A notable recluse in his later years, Spector was thrust into the spotlight while on trial in 2003 for the murder of Lana Clarkson; somewhat given to eccentricity in both lifestyle and presentation, publicized images of Spector lent themselves to commentary that, more often than not, almost necessarily included mention of Spector’s hair.
And although we might criticize the movie for overacting and underdeveloped characters, upon reflection what struck me as particularly poignant about the film was the way in which it reminded me that Phil Spector songs have had a memorable influence in my life.
Using Spector as a jumping off point I began to think this week on the relationship between music, technology, and American social history; although it is tempting to look back and claim that landmark songs “changed” American culture, I instead want to pick up on the idea from this week’s readings that technology and culture (both in the form of music and more broadly) are mutually constitutive processes.
It is, for example, difficult to talk about the impact of Phil Spector’s songs without referencing The Wall of Sound. Born out of a (in retrospect) rather stubborn refusal to embrace stereo sound, Spector engineered a technique wherein sound from the musicians was piped down into echo chambers and then recorded, in effect creating a metaphorical “wall” of sound.
Having not studied music extensively as an academic subject, I find myself still struggling with some questions and concepts. Does the Wall of Sound provide an example of Simon Frith’s (building on Andrew Chester) assertion that Western popular music absorbed Afro-American forms and conventions, producing an “intentionally” complex artifact? As Firth notes, an intentionally complex structure “is that constituted by the parameters of melody, harmony and beat, while the complex is built up by modulation of the basic notes and by inflexion of the basic beat.” (269)
More importantly, however, I wonder how Spector’s technique builds upon conventions that had long been established in African American gospel music and to what extent it was really “new.” Consistent with a larger move in rock music at the time, I marvel at how Phil Spector’s early songs helped to elevate ethnic minorities into the spotlight but also, at the same time, claimed their cultural practices for mainstream America.
Music, History, and Bioshock Infinite
Consistent with Phil Spector, what I am most interested in is the way in which we use fiction to look back on a past that is both imagined and real. How do we make sense of things in retrospect and what does our thought process tell us about the way that we understand the present? Although my thoughts are not fully formed on the subject, I am curious about how pieces of our cultural past are strategically deployed to foreground certain parts of our cultural history while obscuring others.
Bioshock Infinite is a video game premised on a many worlds theory, presenting an alternate history of America in the form of the utopic/dystopic floating city of Columbia. Reflecting sentiments from early 20th century America, the city evidences strong tones of nationalism, theocracy, and jingoism. And, given our continuing struggle with race (see “Accidental Racist”), I wonder about how something like Bioshock Infinite speaks to the way in which we see ourselves in relationship to our own history.
To be sure, the game plays fast and lose with history as it incorporates musical easter eggs throughout the world. “God Only Knows,” a song influenced by Spector’s Wall of Sound technique, makes an appearance early on in the form of a barbershop quartet.
Although rather charming, there is a way in which this type of action reflects a modern sensibility that songs (or perhaps moments in history in general) can be divorced from their surrounding context and transplanted as discrete units. Given the game’s logic I am fully willing to concede that a composer could have peered through dimensions and lifted this song but it seems unlikely that he would know why such a song was popular in the first place. This move seems to be much more about the developers trying to establish a relationship with players than creating a world (which is fine), but the way in which they have gone about it makes me worry that our understanding of cultural artifacts ignores the way in which they are part of systems.
As a parting gift, Bioshock Infinite also features this…
 This is, to be sure, an intentional on the part of writer/director David Mamet who even has Phil Spector suggest at one point that his song was playing the first time that his lawyer was felt up.
As I’ve grown older, I have to increasingly come to appreciate the ways in which I have managed to pursue an academic discipline that affords me the ability to watch copious amounts of television. Who would have thought that I could go to school to watch vampires on TV? And yet here I am.
But as much as I watch television for fun, I also constantly find myself turning a critical eye to the subject at hand. A long-time fan of mythology and the power of narrative, I often think about how characters and tropes in television shows reflect, articulate, and create new aspects of culture. Very much in alignment with Stuart Hall’s notion of decoding/encoding, I believe that television is dissected by viewers and the pieces are shuffled around to enact new forms of meaning.
As such, I’m quite intrigued by the viewers of shows like True Blood (HBO, 2008-present). Over the years, vampires have been theorized to embody issues of gender (e.g., Nina Auerbach’s Our Vampires, Ourselves), sexuality (Camilla and the lesbian vampire or James Twitchell’s work on the fears of male heterosexuality), and medicine and the body (Ludmilla Jordanova’s Sexual Visions: Images of Gender and Medicine and Science between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries). And while these themes are still relevant to contemporary culture, I think that it would be interesting to investigate issues of authenticity and representation in a show like True Blood.
Although this past season featured a number of references to illusion, appearance, and authenticity (ranging from introduction of faeries—long known to be notorious visual tricksters—to politicians and amnesia), the series itself has also wrestled with “realness” over its run. Whether it is vampires struggling with their “true nature,” the duplicity of organized religion, or relationships wherein one is cruel to be kind, I’m curious to examine how viewers interpret themes of authenticity and employ these incidents as references or models of behavior. How, for example, do viewers navigate the multiple layers of reality that exist on the show? How do stereotypes (i.e., “this is what you say I am) meld with religious themes (with an underlying current of “this body/life is not all that I am) and the lingering accusation of “Are you now or have you ever been a vampire?” Are the contemporary interpretations of vampires consistent with previous ways of thinking? Who watches the show and with whom? Do viewers watch a show multiple times (and does their understanding of the show evolve)?
Admittedly, one might be able to develop a rich body of work as a result of conducting a media ethnography on a show like True Blood but one should also be mindful of who is left out of this type of investigation, namely that one might miss the effects that a particular program has outside of its primary viewership. Obviously researchers must eventually decide who to examine in the process of ethnography as resources are not unlimited; this reality does not, however, excuse researchers from clearly labeling the bounds of their inquiry and articulating the limitations of their work. But, if we follow the argument that media can constitute culture, we can see how individuals may interact with a particular property at the level of culture without ever viewing the source material.
Take, for example, the Sesame Street short “True Mud,” which is roughly based on HBO’s True Blood. Here we see the potential for a wonderfully rich and complex set of meanings as Sesame Street appropriates a popular (and very adult) television show in order to wink at parents who might have seen True Blood. Although a portion of parents watching the “True Mud” skit might think back to an episode of True Blood, there are also assuredly parents who understand the reference but have never seen the show or parents who have no idea that “True Mud” is a parody of anything. These parents would most likely not consider themselves viewers of True Blood but their voices might tell researchers something about how True Blood fits into a larger media ecology.
Watching the clip, one immediately begins to develop a host of questions. What is the importance of the Southern setting and what does such an environment evoke for viewers of “True Mud” and True Blood? How does this contrast in setting relate to the environment of Sesame Street, which is urban? What is the demographic makeup of audiences for “True Mud” and True Blood and how does this constitution affect the way that the South is understood in relation to the property? How and why does the concept of a vampire map onto a grouch from Sesame Street? How does this presentation of a grouch differ from Oscar?
Ultimately, interviewing viewers of a property allows researchers to develop a complex understanding of the ways in which a piece of media might influence individuals but we must also recognize that the impact of media does not just stop with those who watch it directly. References made in pop culture, interpersonal interactions, or even children’s shows indicate that media can exhibit echoes as it permeates our lives.
 As a side note, this theme has been something that has been building up steam for a couple of years as I am curious about the seeming need for characters who can see through the veil or otherwise ascertain a measure of “objective” truth. We’ve seen shows like The Mentalist and Psych that feature incredibly observant individuals; Lie to Me, which concerned itself with Paul Ekman’s micro-expressions and truth telling, Ringer and The Vampire Diaries, which both feature doppelgängers, and Once Upon a Time and Grimm that both prominently feature a character who can see things that others can’t.
The world is a dangerous place not because of those who do evil but because of those who look on and do nothing.
These words, known to most who have ever encountered a course on Ethics, set the tone for HBO’s documentary Superheroes, which profiles individuals involved in the Real Life Superhero movement. Although there is truth to Einstein’s words—for failing to stop injustice can represent a form of evil—the question becomes one of perspective: in a simplified system that includes three perceived parties (victim, perpetrator, and savior), the solution seems rather obvious for we know what we should do, regardless of whether we actually intercede. But what happens when we situate the same concept in the context of a community or society? Vigilante justice leads to societal breakdown as we each enforce our own moral codes.
It is for this reason that I’m often suspect of these individuals who undoubtedly have good intentions. Although it is easy to judge and express disdain for grown adults who seem out of touch with society, the fringe often worry me. I’m not so much concerned that they do not look like I do or that they “dress up,” but rather worry because they do not play by my rules. And, ultimately, isn’t it just a short hop from there to a defining characteristic of a villain? Regardless of if the individual in question is a nuisance, helpful, or a menace, the fact that he or she has checked out of the system that you live in raises should raise some red flags.
The invocation of Kitty Genovese is also perhaps unsettling because it misses the forest for the trees. Again, on an individual level, the story is perhaps one that inspires you to action, but donning your gear does nothing to address the larger issue of apathy, the bystander effect, or the diffusion of responsibility (whatever you choose to call it).
And although it has not yet come to this, what if super villain groups formed in opposition to these real life superheroes? Not just gangs or the mafia, but groups of individuals who preferentially targeted those who would do good? The streets would devolve into a sort of war zone with casual citizens and public property caught in the crossfire. I suspect that these superheroes only survive because nobody is actively trying to hunt them.
This of course raises the notion of who should be a superhero.
I certainly get some of the impulse to become a superhero, transforming yourself into a powerful figure as you draw out the traits in yourself that you most admire. In many ways, I am all for that. And I also recognize the power and prestige that comes from donning a mask or a cape or a costume—these accouterments are symbols of your office and confer power, status, and meaning.
My constant struggle, however, is to walk the fine line between seeing the everyday as worthy of superhero status while fighting the impulse to disconnect from the system. In the best possible world, everyone is a superhero and everyone works together (using the particular talents that we each have) to contribute to a whole. In some ways, perhaps, similar to Communism (and we know how that went), but never with the expectation that you are going to necessarily get something for your efforts. You work because you believe in the system and because you place hope in your community.
And is this also just another symptom of a society that has become desensitized to extreme and spectacle? That we believe that, in order to be empowered, we have to become superheroes? Has the groundwork been laid by Stan Lee’s shows, which have “trained” real life superheroes? Where do we draw the line between a good citizen (one who is, perhaps, civically engaged!) and having to create a superhero persona? Ultimately, why can’t we integrate the actions that we would undertake as a superhero into our everyday sense of self?
The old questions that were first raised with virtual selves and MMORPGs continue to haunt me: are these people who are compensating for a feeling of powerlessness elsewhere in their lives? In some ways, their actions seem to be a direct response to the inefficiency of law enforcement but I suspect that it runs deeper than that. If you still believed in the system, wouldn’t you fight for reform instead of doing it on your own? Is there something just viscerally satisfying about putting yourself in potential danger that adds to the equation?
This raises interesting notions about what/who is a superhero. It sort of saddens me that we have gotten to the stage where we can’t see ourselves–our everyday selves–as superheroes in some fashion and attempt to grasp the feeling by (temporarily) transforming into something/someone else. Sure, symbols have power, but I can’t help but think that, if we tried, we could, too.
HBO’s Six Feet Under (2001-2005) presents viewers with a rather paradoxical situation: although ostensibly a show saturated with death (the main characters work for a family-run funeral home), the series’ core is a frank exploration of human existence in the wake of the deceased. Quite literally, the show is about life after death.
It follows quite naturally, then, that the third season episode “Twilight” concerns itself less with the moral arguments surrounding capital punishment and instead chooses to focus on the effects that the act has on those who survive. Taking this argument a bit further, we can see that while, on one level, the opening teaser of “Twilight” could be viewed in terms of lethal injection and punishment, it also more broadly sets up a theme that resonates throughout the rest of the episode: in what ways do we choose to let things die (symbolically or otherwise)? In effect, “Twilight” asks us to consider that capital punishment isn’t necessarily something that is solely defined by midnight stays and candlelight vigils; we make choices in our everyday lives that sentence others to a kind of death, whether it consists of the termination of a relationship, accepting the reality that a missing loved one might be permanently gone, or having an abortion. Importantly, while displaying all of this, the show does not pass judgment on individuals, but instead examines the inner turmoil incurred as part of the decision making process and suggests that although the choices made by the characters might indeed be the right ones for them, they do not come without emotional consequences.
Six Feet Under thusly takes a rather unexpected third position in the debate over capital punishment: instead of proclaiming the deed right or wrong, the show asks viewers to consider if they are prepared for the emotional fallout that comes from literal or figurative execution. This episode, like many others in the series, asks us to contemplate the role and power that death has in our lives—and I would argue that determining this answer for oneself greatly impacts one’s view on the morality of capital punishment. Ultimately, as we struggle with the notions of how and why life is sacred, we are also challenged by the show to consider the ways that we routinely (and virtually without notice!) determine that a life, or lives, are not worthy.
 The title of the episode also evokes a sense of the liminal state with twilight literally representing a sort of transition period but also manifests as a sedative taken by Claire during her abortion procedure and is described by the nurse as invoking a state in which “You’re not really gone, but you’re not really here.” There is, perhaps, no better line in the episode that describes the relationship of the dead to the living.
 As noted in Gary Laderman’s Sacred Matters, our constant preoccupation with death manifests in myriad ways, from Gothic Horror (my particular area of interest) to popular music to philosophy. The significance of the condition is also demonstrated by the various rituals that we have constructed to deal with death and dying—from the often-present funeral and wake (which are, to me, mainly an effort by the living to create a sacred space that confers a sense of community during a time of crisis) to the rite of the last meal and the rather morbid recording of prisoners’ last words in the state of Texas (http://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/stat/executedoffenders.htm). The existence of these rituals indicates that we continue to struggle with the uncertainty and finality of death and also place particular emphasis on actions undertaken prior to crossing over.