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Scoring the Ball Game

How stadium organists sometimes sound like silent film accompanists

by Justin Peacock

Sports themselves provide ample entertainment, but the in-stadium experience has long been enhanced with music and sound effects as well. For centuries, the organ, sometimes known as the “Queen of instruments,” had been used mainly in Churches to accompany the Sacred Rite. During the silent era, organists played on special theater organs to accompany films. After the fully electric organ was introduced in 1933, it was quickly transferred to another popular venue of entertainment: sports stadiums. These organs were first used to play the classic baseball songs like the national anthem and take me out to the ballgame. Later on during the 1960s, the ballpark organists would play songs as players walked up to the plate, known as walk-up songs. At first, these songs were always the players’ home state anthems. However, since these tunes were unknown to a majority of the audience, an innovative young organist named Nancy Faust decided to change her game.

Faust was hired by the White Sox before the 1970 season to be their organist. A female organist in this era caused some uproar from the traditionalist baseball fans, but Faust didn’t care much. She was extremely talented, but didn’t read music. Instead, Faust learned to play almost any song by ear. When she didn’t know a state anthem for a walk-up song, she would call her mom and play it based on her mother’s humming. Faust realized that the state anthem songs didn’t get the crowds excited, so she started playing more modern walk-up songs that had something to do with the players’ names or numbers. She would play things like “Till You Marry Me, Bill” when Bill Melton came to the plate or “Take Five” for someone with the jersey number five. Using her creativity, Faust was able to expand the organ’s use to cover the action within the game, like playing the ominous Jaws theme when a manager takes the long walk to the mound or “The Gambler” when a player steals a base. The organ became an integral part of the fan experience at White Sox games as Nancy expanded its use to all parts of the game, and this style quickly spread around the entire league and even to other sports. She turned the organ into a tool to react to the action of the game, like playing her signature “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” late in the game when the opposing team was losing. This kind of “underscoring” was very similar to what was called during the silent era “playing the picture.” This was when organists would coordinate their musical selections with what they were seeing on the screen.

Silent films originally used entire orchestras as underscoring. While orchestras had to strictly follow their sheet music, pianists and organists could improvise. The theater organ was the the best of both worlds: one person (much less expensive than an orchestra) could fill the hall with a “symphonic” sound while also playing the picture for dramatic and comedic effect. The organist in the movie theater would either follow the studio’s cue sheet or improvise their own music to accompany the film. The underscoring of each film would vary depending on the organist’s interpretation of the film. This is similar to how the different organists would affect the audience’s view of the baseball game. Nancy Faust may think of one song to play for a player, and the Chicago Cubs’ organist may think of another. In a silent movie, the music dramatizes the action on the screen, like speeding up rhythm and tempo during an intense scene. Similarly, the ballpark organist dramatizes the action on the field with their music, like playing the Jaws theme when a coach is doing something as routine as walking out to pull his pitcher.

The most basic purpose of movies and sports is to provide entertainment to the audience. The organ adds to the atmosphere of the game, much like it did during the silent era for movies. Baseball is a very slow game, with most games lasting over three hours. The organ is a way to keep the audience entertained during all the downtime between pitches and innings. During these lulls in action the organist usually plays short tunes like “Charge” or “Let’s Go” to pump up the crowd. In playoff games or with a win on the line, these short tunes can really get the crowd standing and cheering. Faust also showed that the organ can comment on the game and the emotions felt in the crowd. By playing an ominous song with the bases loaded, the organist is heightening the fear and worry in both the pitcher and the crowd.

The organ is used differently in a Church setting than in a sports stadium or movie theater. During a mass, the organ is used to add more meaning and additional prayer through song. The loud and grand sound of the organ made it perfect for the sacred act of celebrating a Mass. The organ’s use in a baseball stadium also adds some sacred effect to the game. A baseball game is a ritual as well since the same pattern is followed every game. For decades, the same “Star-Spangled Banner” has been played before the game and the same “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” has been played during the seventh inning stretch. The fans know when to stand for these songs because they have been played at every game they’ve ever attended. Each team has some of its own special “rituals” too. The St. Louis Cardinals have a tradition every year on opening day of having the players parade around the stadium in cars. The massive Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales open the parade by pulling an old beer wagon around the stadium as the song “Here Comes the King” is played in the background by the stadium organist. The ceremony is one that connects fans across generations, since nearly every fan has attended at least one opening day throughout the years. The song has become synonymous with the team and specifically this celebration of the return of baseball. During the ceremony, the organ is used to add more meaning, not just to entertain. When fans hear this song played on the organ, it evokes a nostalgic feeling and takes them back to the first opening day they attended decades earlier.

In this way the organists do much more than just add to the entertainment or emotion of the baseball game. Sure, the songs being played can give us a laugh or add to the drama unfolding in front of us, but they also create memories for us that we associate with the music. Hearing that same sound of the organ brings us back to that feeling of sitting out in the summer sun with our family and relaxing at a baseball game. Without the organ music, every silent film would be the exact same, but the organ helps to differentiate the experience for us and create a lasting memory. Similarly, the organist’s creativity and talent can make the baseball game more special and give it more meaning than just any generic game.

Hearing Halos

Giving the Elves a Sonic Soft Focus in The Lord of the Rings

by Meggie Weithman

The essence of a character does not come strictly from their makeup, costuming, or even lines of dialogue. Character is also how they sound. This does not necessarily mean their voices; a character’s “sound” can be  created through sound effects, such as confident or weary footsteps or even the rustle of expensive or worn-out clothing. This is something Peter Jackson considered when adapting J. R. R. Tolkien’s  The Lord of the Rings into his monumental cinematic trilogy. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is one of the most popular fantasy tales of the 20th century. Part of what makes Tolkien’s stories so popular is his extensive creative imagination. Jackson’s trilogy is populated by  a plethora of mythical creatures both familiar and re-imagined. Of particular prominence are the elves—tall, beautiful, cunning, and immortal creatures that inhabit Middle Earth. Their cinematic portrayal only furthers this mysterious yet awe-inspiring quality.  Soft focus and lighting help render their mystery and beauty.  But there is also music. Howard Shore’s underscore  paired with the lighting and soft focus create halos both sonic  and visual around the elves. Let’s take a look at and a listen to the audiovisual representation of the female elves in the first film of the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring to see how sound can conceive not only character but also fashion fantastical creatures.

An hour into the film, Arwen arrives to rescue Frodo after having been stabbed by the Nazgul. She’s first present as  a bright light reflecting on Frodo’s face accompanied by  the faint sound of a chorus of female voices singing in Tolkien’s elvish. When we see her, she is backed by a soft yet bright light that obscures her appearance entirely,inspiring a great deal of mystery and fear shown on Frodo’s face. As she moves toward Frodo, her likeness is revealed yet still surrounded by the halo, evoking an angelic image. Her voice is soft and calming with a slight reverb again, adding to her divine aura.  

As she comes closer, male voices join in harmony with the female voices. The long drawn out notes sung by the otherworldly choir mimic that of a medieval church ensemble, furthering the elves’ ethereal vibe. 

To be sure, Howard Shore hardly invented the sound of otherworldly voices. To someone familiar with choral music, Arwen’s underscore sounds very similar to  Eric Whitacre’s  immensely popular “Lux Aurumque” which is the setting of quatrain about angels singing to the new born baby Jesus. Both use the musical topic of angelic voices which originates with invisible nuns singing from choir lofts.

Arwen, while beautiful and initially mysterious, does not embody all that Tolkien intended to portray with the elves. In the novel, she is described as  soft, beautiful and weightless, in the way that people tend to imagine an angel. It seems, however, that Tolkien intended the elves to be more like biblical angels whose power is unknown, making others afraid and even suspicious of their power and intentions. As Susan Carter notes, Galadriel, embodies Tolkien’s ideal elves epitomizing  “a figure who belongs in the forest or wood, startlingly pure, and yet tainted with suspicion because she is both authoritative and elusive” (72). Galadriel represents the elves as creatures who possess a great deal of mystery. All other creatures are suspicious of her as they do not know the extent of her power. 

We are first introduced to Galadriel  as an acousmêtre (a character or being who is invisible, often offscreen). The acousmêtre, as Michel Chion suggested, is endowed with certain powers; “The powers are four: the ability to be everywhere, to see all, to know all, and to have complete power. In other words, ubiquity, panopticism, omniscience, and omnipresence” (24). Galadriel is known by all others as one who posses the power to see all that was, is, and will happen. By introducing her as an acousmêtre, her power and omniscience is foreshadowed. Her low, whispered voice is a sound only heard in Frodo’s mind as she communicates with him telepathically about the evil he brings with him into the forest. Already, Galadriel is introduced more mysteriously than Arwen. Unlike Arwen, the underscoring precedes Galadriel’s appearance; her musical halo can be heard despite not yet being physically present. Just as hearing her voice indicating her more immense power, her musical halo does the same.  When she descends a large staircase minutes later, we see Frodo’s face again is illuminated by the bright light emitting from behind her; his face filled with curiosity. The faces of the others in the company exhibit fear, wonderment, and reverence. 

Galadriel’s musical halo follows suit: she descends the staircase with a  melody sung by the female voices descending in half steps creating a haunting and mysterious tone less like that of the church and more like that from a supernatural horror film, with shrill strings backing the haunting melody of the female voices evoking  a more uncanny feeling. Indeed, unlike Arwen, the light emanating from behind Galadriel is not a bright white. The green undertones of her halo reflect the darker side of the power of the elves and hint at the moral ambiguity that complicates her power. 

A later interaction between Frodo and Galadriel exemplifies this ambiguity. In this scene, Frodo offers Galadriel the ring. As she speaks, her face is only half lit exemplifying the duality of the nature of elves. Galadriel does not deny that she has long desired the ring as it would bring her great power. Her thundering voice pounds, “In place of a dark lord you would have a queen, not dark but beautiful and terrible as the dawn, treacherous as the sea. Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair.” As she speaks, her voice deepens and the lighting turns a dark green; a bright light continues to show from behind her but the shadows grow over her face. The music shifts to thunderous percussion and horns that match the size of her voice and stature. 

Immediately both her visual and sonic halo turn menacing: a threatening deity rather than a mysterious angel. After she passes her “test” and refuses the ring, the horns diminish, softening her sonic halo; the soft white glow she had before, returns and she is once again Galadriel. Her essence as extremely powerful, however, remains in the tone and reverb of her voice even though she has returned to her original beauty. 

Tolkien’s elves inspired wonder, reverence, and a great deal of fear in creatures unfamiliar with them, such as the hobbits. Peter Jackson’s filmic representations evoke on these feelings by giving them a visual and musical aura. The use of these halos furthers the angelic good nature of the elves but can also be used to blur their divinity by exemplifying their conflicting powers. The halos created with soft focus, light, and most importantly, music, are ultimately what bring Tolkien’s ideas to life. 

Color Deafness

Sometimes Jordan Peele wants us to hear Black Vernacular English

by Nicholas Dodig

A colorblind society assumes that the color of one’s skin does and should not affect opportunity. What about the idea of color deafness—the idea that people would turn a deaf year to way people speak (what’s called their sociolect) as to not take note of their race and class? Jordan Peele, a 42-year-old director from New York, has established himself as a comic, and one of the most prominent horror film directors of the past ten years. His first blockbuster film, Get Out, was an allegorical tale reflecting on  the state of racism in the United States. His second film, Us, posted nearly identical numbers in the box office; however, Us did not tackle racism as directly as his first film, but it acts once again as an allegory of race relations in America. Peele also plays, cleverly and potently, with what is called Black Vernacular English (BVE)

One of the first examples in popular culture of color deafness stems from the end of World War II. Max Shulman writes about the occurrence of an all-black cast, unbeknownst to listeners, for a radio drama The Face which challenged the typical notions of a Black way of speaking and made strides towards racial equality and the elimination of certain societal constructs. With listeners unaware of the performer’s race, especially during a time where Jim Crow laws were still dividing black and white Americans, performers were evaluated on their acumen rather than their race. The radio show was originally supposed to show actors as artists first, and black people second because talent was often neglected during this time period due to race. Moreover, the production director for this show ensured that there would be no display of social consciousness or any sort of “black” dialect. This was intentional because of the time period where it was better to, “[deny] racial distinctions in favor of a transcendent democratic national identity.” The actors’ performances put on a display of color deafness which challenged the societal construct of a “black voice,” and accomplished its goal by demonstrating the talent of black actors. 

In an interview about Us, Peele insisted that the film was not about race; however, he noted the importance of casting an all-black family as the main characters in a film. Specifically, he spoke about the importance of finding and nurturing black talent just as the radio program did at the end of the second World War. 

Jordan Peele pictured with the family from Us

For a long time in film, black actors only played insignificant roles in classic films such as Mildred Pierce where the only black actor plays the role of the maid, in line with menial tasks black Americans performed for a long time in society. Today much has changed. Directors like Peele have made good on inclusion of black talent cast in major roles—an important contribution to the shift in American and International film toward colorblind casting. In Peele’s first blockbuster, there is actually a vision-impaired art collector who seems to act as a “colorblind” character. This is especially prevalent when the main character faces the art dealer in the time leading up to his expected demise as the art dealer insists that this is not because of his race.  

The lead in Get Out with his adversary the blind art collector

Apart from casting an all-black family in Us, Peele explores a new strategy of making us aware of race: through speech. In a pivotal scene, the Wilson’s are approached by their doppelgängers, there is a striking instance of code-switching. Code-switching is the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation. Peele often employs code-switching in the comedy skits Key & Peele, often exaggerating the effect of black characters moving between a BVE and a mainstream or “white” American English. Code-switching between different varieties of speech draws attention to what linguists call “markedness” — a deviation from what is tacitly understood to be normative speech. A striking moment of code-switching takes place at one of the most suspenseful scenes of Us. Given the nature of this scene, which is very quiet and tension-building, Peele clearly wants the audience to notice. 

The Wilson’s see four silhouettes in their vacation home driveway

Although the scene may appear as comic relief—a role that the father plays throughout most of the film—Peele inserts this instance of code-switching at a moment of great tension where dialogue is key. Get Out and Us have black actors playing black characters. Peele specifically said he would never cast a white person in a lead role as a means of promoting black talent. Yet through code-switching, Peele emphasizes the appearance of BVE’s markedness to draw attention to the problem of color deafness. Color blindness may have run its course in film and television, not least because there are now increasingly movies and shows with a multiracial cast (for example in the 2018 British adaptation of Les Miserables Inspector Javert is played by David Oleyowo.) That said, Peele’s rationale for code-switching seems ambiguous. Even as black actors are now cast in significant roles, Peele seems to say: “not so fast.” His use of Black Vernacular English newly raises the issue of colorblindness.

Indeed, if Peele has taken a provocative approach toward equality in film—one that runs first through difference, including linguistic difference, some critics seem to have noticed. Some reviews referred to the film as overly “white” given that the characters rarely speak in Black Vernacular English which is likely his goal through having characters take possession of “white speak.” Instead of having actors speak in BVE all throughout the film Peele’s code-switchings prove to be more effective in asking his audiences:”Are you really colorblind and colordeaf?”—

Sounding (Extra)Ordinary

How the soundtrack of WandaVision subverts expectations with genre-self-consciousness.

By Zach Ferguson

The long break between Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies due to the Coronavirus pandemic made audiences anxious to see more content. So why would one make a sitcom—a sitcom!—about somewhat secondary characters:  Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and her love interest Vision (Paul Bettany), who had died a few films back? WandaVision is a unique Marvel project. Fans were expecting the usual Marvel format: the intense action scenes, the villain’s tragic backstory, and the hero’s triumph marked by a lively full orchestra. When the first two episodes were released, the Marvel format was missing—for the first time in the MCU’S history. Wanda and Vision were a happily married couple living their double lives … in the suburb of Westview, New Jersey.  Why New Jersey? How is Vision alive? Why is Wanda, a native Sokovian (derived from the Romani ethnic group), in this American sitcom reality? She even talks with an American accent. All of this is present within the first three episodes with basically no explanation to these oddities. 

The pilot episode opens with a catchy intro theme called “A Newlywed Couple” which  evokes  the 1950’s sitcom format . The lyrics “A regular husband and wife” bring attention to the Janus-faced nature  of the episode. Wanda clearly tries to make an effort to fit in with this suburb and the overall format of the show, which is very faithfully presented with black and white picture, classic television aspect ratio, and quirky xylophone cues. Wanda and Vision get involved in classic sitcom hijinx that is very unlike their characters, who are normally very serious.

The sitcom format is kept for the next two episodes. The theme songs change to fit the decade but each theme song also contains the same tritone called “the devil’s interval” as explained by the show’s composers  Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez. The repetitive nature of this tritone makes it very recognizable and initially does not disturb the upbeat nature of sitcoms. However, as the show progresses, there are very strange instances where characters break out of character. Wanda is caught off guard whenever this happens, but somehow, she seems to always put reality back into sitcom mode. She usually does this by literally rewinding the episode (I was not kidding when I said they take the sitcom format seriously). 

These strange occurrences of breaking reality do fit with the devil’s interval in the music, as this ostensibly ordinary sitcom with its seemingly ordinary theme songs is actually hiding a dark, say, extraordinary, secret. This unexpected side also presents an interesting dynamic between the show’s story and audience expectation. Wanda thinks she is being ordinary by trying to fit this classic American television  role marked by the happy , and easy-to-follow repetitive intro themes. But the audience cannot be as easily fooled.  We know that this is anything but ordinary for the MCU. At the end of the third episode, it is revealed that Westview is actually trapped in this magical hexagonal dome, called the hex, that is forcing the citizens to play along in the sitcoms. The culprit of the creation of the hex is none other than Wanda, the Scarlet Witch. 

After revealing this alternate reality, all scenes outside of Westview follow the  Marvel format, while all scenes in Westview continue in sitcom style , although Wanda tries to keep these two worlds from colliding. In one such instance, she walks out of the hex, threatening people to stay out, speaking in her Sokovian accent. Back in the hex, she returns to the fake, ordinary, American accent. If viewers haven’t noticed, Agatha Harkenss (Kathryn Han), an opposing witch who talks to Wanda outside of the hex, notes—as if winking to the audience—“that accent really comes and goes.” Of course, part of the comedy in sitcoms is their self-awareness, sometimes breaking the fourth wall.  Here this takes the form of  genre-self-consciousness. A fake version of Wanda’s twin brother Pietro also makes a comment about her accent asking  “what happened to yours?” when she questions  him what happened to his accent. Wanda is the “creator” of her own  sitcom.  She writes her own script; and she is also the sound designer. The American sitcom aesthetic is intentionally shaped from Wanda’s subconscious. As a character, Wanda wants to hide her accent in order to feel like a normal person. But as a “director” of course, she cannot help but point to it. This manufactured sense of normality goes deeper than just having superhero powers. 

Wanda’s Eastern European heritage is more than an accent:, her upbringing alludes to the Romani, a nomadic people at the margins of European countries, often being surrounded by poverty and war. As a child, she would watch old American sitcoms to improve her English. The “perfect” American reality presented in the sitcoms allowed  young Wanda to escape from a life of conflict and violence. When Wanda is finally living in the United States, she is ostracized for being an outsider—marked in part by her accent. One could say it is because of her powers, but even Avengers are “Others” of sorts. This is why she is often antagonized outside of the hex. She is treated as a dangerous individual with evil  intentions even though she tries to communicate that she just wants to have a normal life and have a normal burial service for Vision. Not only are people with accents literally misunderstood, but Eastern Europeans, especially,  serve as villains in media—partly a hold-over from the Cold War. Wanda even makes a sly reply of “Maybe I already am,” to Monica Rambeau’s (Teyonah Parris) statement  “Don’t let him make you the villain.” She cannot escape the pressures of the genre, sitcom or MCU.

Wanda’s heritage-caused tribulations that she has faced because of her heritage ties the knot in her decision to settle in the New Jersey suburbs and create her own sitcom-like world. Her predicament is a paradox :a stereotypical other  in America, her safe haven is the suburban utopia of  American sitcoms. Perhaps all Wanda really wants is to fit in with an  idealized  United States.  If WandaVision is about Wanda’s grief of losing Vision due to  her extraordinary status, one of the stages of grief is the denial of who she is and how she is perceived. To escape this grief Wanda will do anything in her powers to change her life, including its soundtrack—accents and music—even if it means denying her own heritage. The extraordinary world of superheroes is full of emotional and political woes that Wanda is tired of dealing with. The ordinary American sitcom reality, full of laugh tracks and quirky incidental themes, is devoid of this life shattering trauma—yet it may be just as illusionary. Wanda not only wants to be engulfed in this ordinary world, she wants to sound ordinary. One trying to necessarily “fit in” and cleanse themselves of their culture is reflective in Wanda’s denial as she alters the entire soundtrack of the Marvel format to assimilate herself. Wanda’s extraordinary assimilation reveals her insecurities and trauma break the Marvel format to represent her struggle with identity. 

Not Yet Tapped Out

The Number that Kept Fred Astaire Dancing

By Kelly Anne Huggard

Fred Astaire is probably the most famous American dancer of all times, known for his imaginative numbers in film musicals like Swing Time, Top Hat, and The Band Wagon.  A little-known piece of trivia is that his “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (henceforth: PoR) for the 1946 musical Blue Skies was to be Astaire’s last dance number, and it looked like he was going out with a bang. It’s one of the most unusual and iconic dances of his legendary career, which is marked by many groundbreaking routines that came before and after PoR. Some of the most celebrated performances of his career before his first attempt at retirement involve dancing in roller skates, “dancing”  a drum set, and mimicking the sound of a machine gun with the incomparable speed of his feet (all things that had never been done before). PoR is stunning in showcasing Astaire’s creative mind at the top of his game, allowing for his career to continue for 25 more years, with routines that got even more innovative. Although Astaire retired at the age of 70,  he would still come back for a performance at the Oscars one year later.

Why is PoR so special? The New York Times 1946 review of the Blue Skies  notes:

“Mr. A. makes his educated feet talk a persuasive language that is thrilling to conjugate. The number ends with some process-screen trickery in which a dozen or so midget Astaires back up the tapping soloist in a beautiful surge of clickety-clicks.”

On top of its  “trickery,” the biggest thrill is the explosion of pure tap. Tap dancing is distinct because of the shoes that allow dancers to produce a unique sound with each movement because of the metal “taps” attached to their feet.

Tap dancing originated as a fusion of primarily Irish and African styles of dance in the late 17th century. The combination of these two cultural styles of dances is credited for tap’s unique emphasis on rhythm and sound. Tap dancing reached the height of its fame from the 1930’s through the 1950’s because of the rise of the Hollywood musical. The popularity of tap dancing during this time was largely due to the creativity and talent of performers, like Astaire. Astaire, however, was different from other stars because his style of tap dancing was influenced by ballroom dancing, giving it a more graceful appearance – an appearance of pure movement.

Tap can be performed as a solo, duo, or with a troupe (or a combination of each). While a solo allows the dancer to shine through advanced and technical choreography, the incorporation of an ensemble changes the acoustics of the number, amplifying the sound of the taps through the reproduction of sound. The louder and stronger the sound of the taps is, the grander the performance appears to be. One of the most entertaining parts of tap dancing is the vital role of sound in the performance. This is why the viewer’s eyes are drawn to the feet of the dancer – not just because of their movement, but because of their sound.

In PoR, Astaire took the typical ensemble and made it his own  – literally! Although most of the number is a solo to highlight his  talent, in the final minute of the song, the curtain opens to reveal a second stage filled with an ensemble of Fred Astaires. As the cluster of clones is revealed, there is a pause in the music as their taps are heard for the first time, and the tempo speeds up as they continue to dance. When the soloist Astaire differentiates his choreography from the ensemble’s, the sound of the troupe’s taps essentially becomes part of the music. As Todd Decker notes in his award winning book “Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz,”  this number is a prime example of Astaire’s “music making approach to dance making,”  as the ensemble provides another layer of sound. Sound is essential to tap dancing, as every move (or mistake) can be heard, but in Astaire’s performance, there are no mistakes. The perfection of the dance naturally produces a perfection of sound.

Although the use of a cane or any prop in general is not uncommon, Astaire brings it to the next level with his cane in PoR. The cane becomes a third tap shoe as he masters the difficult rhythm of the song by hitting it against the ground to emphasize certain beats in the music. In all of his dances, especially tap numbers, rhythm was Astaire’s primary concern. The irregular tempo of this song challenged Astaire, taking him five weeks to master. The unique incorporation of the cane combined with Astaire’s natural talent to switch between fast and slow movements, turned an obstacle into part of what makes PoR so iconic.

The way in which this stunning number is designed and performed sets the stage for pure dance. There are no distractions from the dance as Astaire moves around the screen uninterrupted for over four minutes: he is aiming at pure movement. Astaire achieves pure movement  by walking in a wide circle to reset before a faster dance break. These moments not only helped Astaire catch up with himself but also provide structure for the complicated choreography. The visual of the soloist Astaire combined with the ensemble of clones is simply stunning. Even though the backdrop is plain, the image and movement of the many Astaires is mesmerizing. The simple set acts as a stage for pure dance, pure movement, and pure sound. 

By achieving this idea of pure dance, pure movement, and pure sound, the number takes place in Astaire’s fantastical world of pure. Although the curtain closes at the end of this number, it did not close on Astaire’s career like he intended it to. Astaire came out of retirement in 1947, with some of the most innovative performances of his career following.

Astaire further revolutionized the potential of a prop in his hat rack dance from Royal Wedding (1951). In the absence of a partner, Astaire transforms a simple prop, the hat rack, into a partner as he dances around the room with it as if he were dancing around the ballroom with Ginger Rodgers (his most famous dance partner). Royal Wedding contained another legendary Astaire performance in which he defied the laws of gravity (or so it appeared). During a solo performance of “You’re All the World to Me,” Astaire dances on the walls and ceiling of his room thanks to a rotating set. The scene is absolutely mind-blowing and stunning to watch, displaying Astaire’s infinite creativity – something that lived on even after his passing in 1987. His obituary in the New York Times praised his talent and creativity saying, “His dance numbers fit neatly within the bounds of a movie screen, but they gave the illusion of being boundless, without regard for the laws of gravity or the limitations of a set.” Astaire’s fantastical world of pure could not be confined and continues to live on through the influence of his performances.

Although Astaire’s career would have ended on a high note if he went out with PoR, how lucky are we that this number was not the end. 

Cutting Your (Audio) Losses

What makes a captive audience a captivated audience? 

by Jamie ‘Frodo’ Harkin

Traveling on an airplane hasn’t always felt like being trapped in a two-by-two-by-four shoebox, surrounded by fellow zombies, immersed in the cold glow of a myriad of blue screens. Planes once were more spacious, less stressful, and more importantly, full of laughter, conversation, and excitement… even if bored children sometimes were a little rowdy. Airtravel used to be an experience full of luxury and delight—now it’s become another example of what sociologists David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney diagnosed in 1950 as modernity’s predicament: the lonely crowd—masses of people alone in their own social and perhaps now also acoustic bubble.

With the advent of the economy class in 1958, airplane seating was rearranged to mirror what Gabriele Pedulla has described as “the true core of twentieth-century cinema”. David Flexer, a Memphis movie theater owner, fearing the impending downfall of the Golden Age of Cinema, had an idea to save his business: he pitched the idea of screening movies on flights to several airlines. Home television had brought the viewing experience into the home, just as radio had brought sound, music, and live news in the 1930’s. The advent of VCR in 1956 meant that consumers could buy or record any piece of audiovisual content, and, perhaps more importantly, the ever increasing catalog of content meant that media was constantly in competition for attention, and consumers started to individualize their media diet—a trend that has continued to this day.

Most airlines dismissed Flexer’s idea. Given the choices that viewers had grown  accustomed to, they feared passengers would feel like a captive audience, trapped in some form of white noise torture chamber. Flexer countered that delivering the audio through a stethoscope-like set of headphones (designed to evoke the upward mobility of the medical professions) would give passengers a choice, and that this choice would not make them a captive audience, but a captivated one. Flexer, although he may not have known it at the time, had created the first fully immersive audio experience. 

This was a taste of the future, where (practically) everybody owns headphones and goes through life listening to their own soundtrack. The (anti)social aspects alone could be enough to dissuade theater owners from promoting headphone usage, nevermind the health and safety arguments, such as a fire alarm. However, it was only in 1999 that we were introduced to Neo, and The Matrix: an entirely digital world – and the dangers of being too immersed in one. It is astonishing that it took only twenty-two years before technology progressed to the point where we’re talking about actually living in the Metaverse, with Bill Gates claiming that Zoom will be dead and gone in two-to-three years, replaced with an entirely digital environment. We can now simulate entire, virtual environments in an entirely real, 3D space, or a warzone, with shrapnel flying overhead, and bombs going off, or the rush of landing a plane amidst a hurricane in Microsoft’s Flight Simulator. We have reached a point of being able to simulate virtual environments so well that it is not a surprise to see multimillion dollar tournaments decided by who has better aural awareness. Why then, do so few movies, and even fewer movie theaters, strive to provide the same experience of total audio immersion? One must simply look at Baby Driver to see that headphones can provide Hollywood with an entirely new sensory playground. 

Foremost, video games can have thousands of different sound effects playing simultaneously, combining to create a lush, dynamic, virtual audio environment. Video games do this as a way of populating the environment, much the same way that a waiting room might play generic, calming music, helping to reduce anxiety, and give the space a sense of life. This is important because it allows us to audibly perceive the environment that our avatar is in, from their point of view – to be immersed. It also means that the relative positions of the virtual sources of these sounds  must also be taken into account. 

By contrast, in film, every single sound, from a pin dropping, to a machine gun firing is carefully composed, recorded, and mixed to sync up with what is happening on screen. But the output remains the same summation of signals whether from a mono-speaker, or a Dolby 7.2.3 System. However, if you consider a larger room, such as an IMAX theater, the time for the sound to travel from Side Left to Side Right can be in excess of 0.1s, almost ten times the limit of human latency perception. This creates an uncanny-valley effect in traditional surround sound loudspeaker systems, generating a minute echo and de-synchresis between the two channels. Additionally, this dilution of metadata into simply “This speaker plays this sound file at this volume”, means that the only way of denoting a moving sound is by increasing that sound in one speaker while decreasing it in another. This can cause hot (and cold) spots in the directionality of the output sound. Dolby 5.1 (or equivalent), which is still used in most theaters, is notorious for having a lack of rear or side depth, depending on the layout of the speakers themselves. 

Headphones, by contrast, use an entirely different type of encoding. Imagine you are playing a war simulator, and a grenade goes off at your two o’clock. The headphones only have two, L&R, outputs, but you can tell that the explosion was in front of and to your right from the directionality of the sound. The audio drivers will take the unedited sound effect, and knowing the relative position of the grenade, perform a Fourier transform on the original file, creating a slight distortion. This slight distortion is what gives the sound a sense of direction. 

It is also extremely important to factor that in film, practically all sound effects are added in post production, unlike in video games, with each and every sound being generated dynamically by the environment in real time. Given that the vast majority of movies will now be watched on a TV (or some system with only stereo output), it is no wonder that most studios would elect to focus less on the audio, and more on the visual in post-production. In this way, despite being an actual simulation, the video game is technically a Stage 3 Simulacra, masking the absence of a profound reality, a copy with no original. Ironically, film, having been manipulated and precisely arranged to tell the audience exactly what they want to hear, is the deeper Stage 4, lacking any hyperreal aspect, a world entirely its own that we can merely observe.

Alas, it appears that, while the added immersion made possible through headphones in video games is vastly superior to that which is available through loudspeakers thanks to superior encoding and processing, we are cursed by our millennial audio recording, studio limitations, and societal factors to suffer multichannel audio in theaters a while longer. Next time you are watching a movie on a flight, choose one that you have seen in theaters or at home. Ask yourself, are you as captivated by the movie as you were then, or simply captive on the plane, trying to escape?

Lost in Dubbing

Why the sound of the voice matters in cinema that is breaking language barriers

By Melany Gonzalez

Growing up in Dallas, my siblings and I spent a lot of summers in Mexico where we would watch American shows and films, dubbed in Spanish. I remember sitting around my grandma’s living room laughing at Spongebob’s Spanish accent. He didn’t sound like himself—or so we thought because our ‘normal’ was his American voice. He sounded like he had aged overnight. Spongebob’s voice sounded deeper, much like the mutation of voice a pubescent boy might experience rather suddenly. You could hear the strain and overcompensation of the voice of an older actor trying to pass as a much younger version of himself. Hearing dubbed dialogue as a bilingual kid can be a strange experience. Subconsciously, we were aware but just couldn’t put into words what was happening. All we knew was that Spongebob sounded weird and funny. Why?

Pirated ‘Just One Bite’ episode in Spanish
English Version of the Same Episode

Our cognitive connection to language extends beyond the lexical meaning of words. When we watch dubbed films, and even dubbed cartoons, vocal delivery matters. The replacement of an unfamiliar voice heightens our attention. For those who aren’t bilingual or multilingual, the voice replacement might create an entirely new character. If the dubbed version is the only one known, an entire group of people will have gained a skewed perspective of the film. Dubbing creates a multiplicity of cultural representations—a unique mix of social and cultural cues—often offering one image while sounding like another. Cutting up the original formulates a ‘neutralized’ final product that denies us appreciating a film in its intended context.

The little things in life…

To truly understand what is lost in dubbing, we have to hear the voice in all its capabilities. The sound of speaking—that which precedes and creates the word—is the most powerful factor of language in dubbed products, but goes unnoticed in everyday life. The philosopher Mladen Dolar coined the term ‘vanishing mediator’ to describe the voice in our society. Of the everyday interaction with voices he says, “we may at first be very much aware of his or her voice and its particular qualities, its color and accent, but soon we accommodate to it and concentrate only on the meaning that is conveyed.” When we lose focus on the voice, we overlook its sonic qualities as well. Special characteristics like pitch, timbre, and tone produce individuality and can change the entire meaning of a phrase. A hint of sarcasm and a question turns into a challenge. The dynamic characteristics of the voice can also hold our stories. They provide context of our geographical and ethnic upbringing, holding value beyond that expressed through plain words. 

Dubbing at Work…

But what does any of this have to do with dubbing? Dubbed films generally receive positive and negative reviews. Those who enjoy them are usually content being able to understand films produced in different languages, while the negative ones typically point out the monotone voices that are used. Despite opinions, dubbed films are inevitably altered as a result of dividing the original product into parts. A film’s features—actors, background music, source sounds, angle shots—are purposely composed and chosen by the director. When such a prominent aspect, like the dialogue of a film, is replaced with a completely different form it will always be inferior to the original. Likewise, the translation of words is also inferior to the replacement of voice. It is easy to find a close parallel of a commonly used phrase from one culture in another. However, dubbed films typically do not, and simply cannot, mimic the true texture and awareness of a voice, changing the entirety of the delivery.

Cousins, Priyanka and Parineeti Chopra, on the cover for Frozen 2, dubbed in Hindi (per Parineeti’s Instagram)

In an interview with Perry Sherouse, Giovani, a Georgian live-interpreter, recalls his experience of representing dialects in foreign films by sharing that “what was more important…was that the audience ‘understands’ the film. If a joke or insult were made, he would invent something on the spot to convey that illocutionary act.” The audience is then also dependent on the interpreter to provide an accurate understanding of the original film in a different context. The dubbing of film voices cannot be reproduced in the same manner. Much like in comedy where two people can tell the same joke, but their delivery will invoke different responses. In the case of dubbing, what is missing is the expression of culture relayed in the original film through the delivery of voice. Dubbed voices transport the characters on screen into a different realm or cultural sphere, but their physical appearance remains a representation of their intended roles. The audience then receives two individual, unique signals—a mixed message of sorts. One from the voice and another from the visual. Take the dubbing of films during the Soviet Union era for example.

Sherouse points to a pirated version of Rambo to exemplify the difficulty in scoring the quality of dubbed films due to the range of representation and delivery. He notes, “dubbed in a single male voice in Russian…such an artifact indexes ‘Westernness’ (in content) as well as ‘Sovietness’ (in form) in a fashion that blurs the neatness of singular emanation of  ‘quality’.” At stake is the neutralization of culture. These dubbed films are essentially a separate category—a salad bowl of different representations—that we can think of as ‘patched’ films. Creating a final product out of different parts, these films use the original visuals while picking and choosing audio to cover up the holes in order for audiences to understand.

In his study about the effect of dubbing on emotions, Víctor González Ruiz points out that, “unlike subtitling, the process of dubbing does not give the audience the opportunity to fully perceive the cultural gap between what they hear and see, and their own reality”. In his study, the German film Anatomie is misidentified as an American film because of its Hollywood-like suspense elements and its dubbed voices in Spanish. The audience’s confusion in correctly classifying the film’s cultural and geographical origins emphasized the power that dubbed voices have in audiovisual mediums. There is no room for interpretation or exposure to the representation that a film conveys when the original voice is missing. 

So what’s left…

The question remains: if dubbing alters so much of the audiences’ reception, do we simply leave the gates closed to social integration in film? Should we just appreciate films in their original form even if we cannot understand the words? Will the other elements provided—accent, inflection, speech melody, etc.—be sufficient enough to get the message across together with body language, music, and visuals? It is hard to be critical of dubbed films and what they lose in the process when the positive outlook is the exposure of a film beyond geographical and language barriers. As of now, we remain viewers of ‘patched’ films when watching dubbed films and ignorant of the original product in its most authentic form. It’s a push and pull relationship—a battle between losses and gains.

Trains and Cicadas

How directors Yasujirō Ozu and Hou Hsiao-Hsien imagine a Japanese soundscape

by Conrado Alcantara

Imagine the sound of summer: waves lapping on the beach, the rustling of leaves, the chirping of summer birds—in short, the sounds of nature. Unless you live in America, where you might want to add Independence Day Fireworks. What, then, are sounds of different countries and cultures, like, say Japan.  In the eyes—or rather, ears—of the Hong Kong New Wave director Hou Hsiao-Hsien and one of his idols, the famous Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu (1903-60), it is the quiet, sizzling sounds of cicadas. Now imagine the sound of city life: traffic noise, ever-changing surroundings, turbulence—a drastic antithesis to the Japanese countryside. Yet both the sounds of nature and modern civilization create the same sense of nostalgia, belonging, and identity. For Hsiao-Hsien and Ozu, these sound memories co-exist with one another and are central to their films, particularly in those centering on Japan, by examining the symbolism, context, and methodology that shape their soundscapes. Giving a glance into the theme of modernity and if the perception of this concept has changed over time through the manipulation of sound memories.  Let’s take a look, or rather, a listen.

I’ll start with Hsiao-Hsien’s 2003 Cafe Lumiere because it not only narrates the erosion of the family but does so by paying homage to Ozu’s classic Tokyo Story (1953). Both films are vastly different yet they both start and end with shots of trains, not meant to be seen but heard. In Cafe Lumiere, Hsiao-Hsien follows Yōko, a young Japanese woman researching Jiang Wen-Ye as she deals with her own pregnancy in the pursuit of this knowledge. In Tokyo Story, Ozu focuses on parents: Shūkichi and Tomi who visit their children in Tokyo journeying from Onomichi. But why do both these directors pay so much attention to trains and cicadas? 

The answer: both sounds are simple and remain as fixtures in their own soundscapes, invested with the significance of the bodies and lives that ricochet through their social time and space. It encourages the use of reduced listening, which focuses on the traits of a sound independent of its cause and meaning. Cicadas are reminiscent of a summer’s day, frequent in the countryside and often associated with memories of childhood nostalgia. In contrast, a train’s rhythm is fast and descending, turning the cogs to industrialize society in an urban landscape. These two sounds are staples in what can be called a Japanese soundscape. Their simplicity makes it easy for viewers to disregard these sounds as mere background noise, but they ultimately ground the film by establishing a motif. More specifically, both sounds evoke an auditory space that corresponded to a particular notion of territoriality, one obsessed with mutual exclusivity. If we consider the usage of these dichotomous sounds throughout the film, how often do they appear and what does it aim to accomplish?

Hsiao-Hsien is a Taiwanese director, elected to create a film whose dialogue is in Japanese with direct homage to the legendary filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. However, Hou’s take on Tokyo is similar to his view of Taipei: both are sprawling and anonymous cities with a lack of identity. Thus, Cafe Lumiere is an unconventional twist to the standard notion of a Japanese film.  He includes aspects of his own experiences and environments through the contrasts presented through music. The main narrative point is that Yōko struggles with the choice to move back to Taiwan (with her Taiwanese boyfriend and child) or to stay in Japan. Hsiao-Hisen presents this conflict through music, particularly through Jiang Wen-ye, a Taiwanese composer on which Yōko researches. Used as diegetic sound, the piano pieces from Jiang is the background score for the film. Through the background score of Taiwanese origin and the presence of trains, Hsiao-Hsien uses the character of Hajime to represent this dichotomy.

Furthermore, Hsia-Hsien shows Yōko and Hajime on commuter trains, in a constant mode of transportation. Hajime is a trainspotter and has a fixation on recording the sound of trains because they represent identity. The citizens constantly pass through this environment without ever interacting with the sight and sound it represents, which makes it an apt symbol for the lack of identity in modern society. Hsiao-Hsien chooses to end Cafe Lumiere with this dichotomy. The rhythm of the train is the only audible sound and it implies the thoughts and identities of characters. By doing so, Hsiao-Hsien subtly showcases Yōko’s choice to remain in Japan. While influenced by Ozu, Hsiao-Hsien includes intertextuality as both directors illustrate how the effects of modernization have a costly human toll. 

This is apparent through the symbolism throughout the film. Trains are symbols that are constantly in motion and increase productivity through efficiency. Tokyo, in its historical context, was a progenitor for the production of trains and to this deal remains increasingly invested in them. Suffice to say, without trains, Tokyo in its modern age cannot function. Likewise, trains are a symbol of modernity, especially after the events of World War II.  The history of trains may also be construed as an invitation to become a tourist of emotions. In contrast to the prevalence of trains in both these films, the presence of cicadas remains an unseen force. Even in day-to-day life, cicadas are typically unseen and the boundary between diegetic and non-diegetic sound remains ambiguous. This disembodied voice makes the sound of cicadas acoustmêtre. Moreover, the cicadas’ song is shrill and noticeable, yet it contains themes and images that are often associated with a summer’s day. They evoke childhood nostalgia and their inclusion in these films is peaceful and monophonic. The ingredients for the soundscape of both of these films instill a simple, elemental quality that contrasts the natural to the artificial. 

In Tokyo Story, cicadas and trains only appear thrice. But in the scenes in which they appear, their monophonic sounds emerge against their surroundings, absent of dialogue and score. These sounds of the Japanese soundscape have referential meanings that are often associated with acoustic symbols in comparison to Cafe Lumiere. Likewise, the images presented synergize with the sound, creating added value. In Tokyo Story, Ozu uses “pillow shots,” which stem from the idea of pillow words in Japanese poetry that evoke feeling with evocative images from everyday life. These shots are naturalistic which creates a tone of serenity along with the silence. Ozu’s train shots elicit this old Japanese tradition and Hsiao-Hsien continues to emulate this. At the end of Tokyo Story, the train enters the town of Onomichi and Ozu ends the film by showcasing the effect of modernity as it permeates the countryside. This encourages the audience to feel the emotional impact of the film’s narrative and the ellipsis only strengthens its magnitude. 

The way both films conclude is indicative of how soundscapes are invested with cultural significance. As the ambient noise of the modern city crescendos through the rhythm of trains, the acoustic foreground of the cicadas recedes. These two sound events are crucial ingredients that compose the identity of what both directors believe Japan to be in their individual eras. The balance of sound through trains and cicadas highlights the growing reach of urbanization in Japan and ultimately, the ache of modernism—filled with an emptiness at the heart of modern society.

A Double Interpretation of Double Consciousness

How American Cinema has tried to change the image of black folks in a white society

by Eleanor Hagenow

The concept of double consciousness was first introduced by W.E.B. Du Bois in his book The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. It seeks to capture a predicament many African Americans feel in a predominantly white society: wanting to be accepted but constantly experiencing oppression and depreciation. The “double” consciousness alludes to their awareness both of themselves as black people and of how white people stereotypically judge them. Let’s take a look at two films, both centered around interracial couples, to understand the changing portrayal of Black Characters in American cinema.

In Get Out (2017), Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a black photographer, meets the family of his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). The black employees who work for Rose’s family exhibit extremely strange mannerisms from the moment Rose and Chris arrive. The Armitage family has robbed these employees of their strengths through hypnosis. Rose’s family attempts to do the same to Chris to steal his “eye for photography.” He kills Rose and her family before they succeed in doing so.

Rose’s family members, specifically her father and brother, attempt to disprove their racist attitudes through their conversations with Chris. In their initial conversation, the father explicitly tells Chris that he “would have voted for Obama for a third term if he could.” The brother, Jeremy, later attempts to compliment Chris during their family dinner by commenting on his stature. He states how Chris would be a “beast” at fighting because of his “genetic frame and makeup.” Chris is clearly uncomfortable in these scenes despite their intentions.

Initial conversation between Chris and Rose’s father

Chris’s character illustrates double consciousness. In the beginning of the film, Rose hits a deer while driving to her parents’ house. A white police officer comes to the scene and asks for Chris’s ID, despite the fact that Rose was driving. Chris, however, stays calm. He is aware both of who he is and how the white officer views him: as a black man. 

Chris complying with officer’s request for identification

An important aspect to consider regarding double consciousness is whether white people are aware of it, and the Armitage family is. Rose apologizes for the behaviors of her father and brother when she and Chris are alone. Her character is cognizant of both the racist implications of her family and Chris’s inevitable struggle of fitting into white culture.

Now let’s travel back in time a bit. The second film we are looking at, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, was produced and released in 1967, during the height of the Civil Rights Era.

In this film, a white woman, Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton), and a black man, Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), become engaged after a trip to Hawaii. They go to Joanna’s parents’ house to share their news. Dr. Prentice tells Joanna’s parents, unbeknownst to her, that he will not marry her unless they approve without any reservations. Joanna’s father, Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy), does not approve of their relationship because of their racial diversity. Dr. Prentice’s parents then come to the Drayton’s house for dinner, having the same initial reaction as Joanna’s father. Through much consideration and conversation, the parents agree to allow Joanna and John to get married. The film then ends with both families sitting down together for dinner. 

The Draytons and Prentices dining together 

The presence, and absence, of Ebonics— dialect of American English spoken by a large proportion of African Americans— or African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Black Vernacular English (BVE), illustrate double consciousness in the two films. This allows double consciousness to not only be seen, but also heard. Aspects of it include double negatives, omission of the verb “be,” and lack of subject-verb agreement. Here is a skit by the pair of black comedians Key and Peele that helps illustrate both double consciousness and AAVE.

Key & Peele – A Cappella – Uncensored

Note the difference in how Troy and Mark, two men of color, talk to each other versus how they talk to their white friends. They call their white friends “buddy” and use very delicate and uplifting language. When they are left alone, however, their mannerisms change. They use terms like “thang” and “bouts” (when referring to the word “about”). They also swear at each other. The video illustrates their double consciousness as black men. The choice to delay using AAVE until their white friends leave likely comes from their mutual desire to assimilate into white culture. They do not want to scare their white friends through their aggressive dialogue.

The directors of both films illustrate awareness of how language codes color. Let’s look at a scene in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner which exhibits this. In this scene, John and Lottie, the black housekeeper, are alone. Lottie uses double negatives, calls him “boy,” swears at him, and points her finger in his face. We never see her speak or act in this way to any member of the white Drayton family.

Lottie getting in John’s face

This scene allows viewers a chance to hear the double consciousness of the black characters. John and Lottie never use AAVE or swear words in front of the Drayton family. They speak very formally. This portrays them as respectable and as equals. We hear how their dialogue changes, however, when white people are not present. Only then do they feel it appropriate to remain faithful to their ethnic roots, and use Ebonics, and not use more formal speech. They are aware of both their identities as black people and the stereotypical attitudes of many white people at the time. Being more reserved in front of the Drayton family exhibits their desire to assimilate and be accepted into white culture.

We can also hear double consciousness in Get Out through Chris’s dialogue. Here are two scenes of phone calls between him and his best friend Rod, another black man.

Get Out – First Omen & ID scene

[Exclusive] GET OUT Red Band Clip

The two black characters swear and use double negatives when speaking to each other. Chris does not speak in this way in front of Rose’s family. He, again, speaks very formally and respectfully. This portrays how he balances his racial identity and disproving the stereotypes held by a racist, white society.

These two films also analyze the evolution of generational bias. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner initially reinforces the traditional, racist bias of white societies. The interracial couple is first introduced to the white parents. The disapproval of the relationship portrays how white people of the era often viewed black people as being less than them. Get Out, on the other hand, blatantly betrayals this bias. It was written and produced by Jordan Peele, a black director. The white characters are envious of and steal black people’s features to better themselves. It is Chris’s cultural awareness and double consciousness which ultimately allow him to escape. Being written, produced, and directed by a black man, Get Out portrays how while white societies still have racist mindsets, they have evolved into coveting black people instead of looking down on them.

Jordan Peele, the director of Get Out

It is important to be aware of the challenge Black Americans face in white societies: remaining true to their racial identity while navigating a social environment prone to continued discrimination. More than a century has passed since Du Bois’s published Souls of Black Folk and half a century since Guess Whose’s Coming to Dinner. Yet Get out is still part of an ongoing project: increasing white folks’ awareness of double consciousness as one step toward racial consciousness, racial difference, and racial equality.

Taming the Temptations

How lyrical rapper J. Cole raises awareness about addiction and mental health

by Graham Lorenz

Is hip hop an occupational hazard? Two of my favorite rap artists, Mac Miller and Juice WRLD, recently died from overdosing on drugs. Since 2017, nine well-known rappers have died from either overdosing or gun-related violence. Many rap songs are about drugs, sex, violence, and confrontations with law enforcement—which can be deadly. Because sex and crime sell,  rappers seem to not think or care about the impact their music has on their listeners. Lyrical rapper J. Cole is on a mission: he has taken on the role of changing rap’s image so that younger generations have better role models. His 2018 KOD album, following a drug-related death of 21-year-old rapper Lil Peep, discusses topics of addiction and calls rappers to spread more positive messages in their songs. Before the release, Cole tweeted that the album name KOD has 3 meanings: Kids on Drugs, King Overdosed, and Kill Our Demons.

These three overarching themes are conveyed with J. Cole’s iconic rap style— smooth lyrical rapping over hip hop beats with R&B choruses. The album instantly made history, as J. Cole became the first musician to have three songs debut simultaneously in the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 (“ATM,” “Kevin’s Heart,” and “KOD”). Today, its legacy has been cemented as it is certified Platinum, meaning that over 1 million album units have been sold. J. Cole’s message may not be falling on deaf ears because he’s struck a new note with audiences, a softer tone, lyrical, reflective, and even melancholic. The music videos that accompanied the release of the album show some of these aspects of his music. Let’s look at a couple examples.

“Kevin’s Heart” was one of the three songs to debut in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. The song is titled after famous comedian Kevin Hart, who had recently admitted to cheating on his pregnant wife. The music video was released alongside the album in April of 2018. It follows Hart through a seemingly normal day, but the lyrics from the song make it clear that, beneath the surface, he is really struggling with addiction. Scott Lazer, the director of the video, told Genius that J. Cole wanted everywhere Kevin goes (in the video) to experience one of two reactions: “temptation or scorn.” “Kevin’s Heart” falls more into the Kill-Our-Demons meaning of the KOD album. Cole had stated that the song’s deeper purpose was “To face our shit and realize we have some shit going on inside – everybody.”  Everybody knows the  famous saying, “no one is perfect.”  Cole looks to convey this message by using a famous celebrity,  Kevin Hart, who was maybe thought to be “untouchable” before his scandal. 

The video opens with an exterior profile shot of Hart driving his car, with a depressed solo instrument accompanying the lyrics, most notably:

 “Told myself I’m strong enough to shake it and I’m trying

But I’m only human, I know loving you’s a crime”

The melancholic intro is soon overtaken by a full hip hop beat with Cole singing the song’s chorus (which mentions drug addiction) :

“Slip me a xanny at once (Somebody)

I got the earth in a blunt (Smoke)”

The continuation of the depressed instrument, juxtaposed to the upbeat hip hop music, represents the lingering effects of addiction and sadness associated with it. The climax of the music video happens at 3:10.  Hart is eating dinner at a restaurant when a lady at the bar slips him a note inviting him over. The music stops. Kevin then goes to the restroom, where a comedic scene happens between him and a random guy who chooses the urinal right next to his.

Hart, annoyed with this guy, goes to wash his hands, but the stranger stops him, saying “Hey man look, nobody’s perfect, and you’re only human… just learn from it man.” The scene changes to Kevin walking up the steps of his house, with the depressed instrument playing unaccompanied behind the final lyrics of the song:

“They tell me what’s done in the dark will find a way to shine

I done did so much that when you see you might go blind”

Hart lets out a slight laugh before entering his home, perhaps laughing about how foolish it would have been to throw away his marriage by getting with the girl at the bar. In reality, we know that Hart didn’t make this choice and ended up cheating on his wife. The final scene of the video is a shot that pans up to the sky, where clouds are formed as the words “choose wisely.” J. Cole’s final note is reflective of a central message of the KOD album: think before you act.

The music video for the song “ATM” currently has 79 million views on YouTube. The song calls out how modern-day rappers are blinded by money and the consequences their greed has. An example being 50 Cent, who would constantly flaunt his wealth from his rap, but in 2015 was forced to file bankruptcy due to ill advised purchases. The video opens with a scene of Cole flying in the air on a throne, holding a dollar bill on a string behind him, as kids– flying on prescription drug containers– follow him through the air.

“Count it up, count it up, count it up, count it ” (x6)

The message is clear: many kids want to be like the rappers they listen to because of the money they get, but fail to see the harmful drug addictions that can often accompany fame. The song’s repetitive chorus then comes in:

The repetitiveness of the chorus deals with the overwhelming addiction rappers have to  money, continually counting it as if wealth is the only thing that matters. After the chorus, Cole exhibits his lyrical genius through a fast-paced verse where he satirically raps, as though he is one of these greedy rappers. Along with the lyrics, the video shows a recurring shot of Cole in a straitjacket, in a room where the walls are covered with money. Cole raps:

 “don’t give a f*** if it kills, it mix well

I’m only counting Big Bills Big Bills”

As I mentioned, I lost two of my favorite artists to drug overdoses. Cole is calling out the ridiculousness associated with some of their logic, commenting on how rappers mix drugs that are known for being fatal and completely ignoring the dire consequences. Like his “Kevin’s Heart” music video, Cole saves the best, or most meaningful, spectacle for last. The final scene shows Cole driving a convertible into the sky to chase a dollar bill on a string, however, he fails to reach it and the car falls out of the sky, crashing into the ground.

Since 2000, 77% of mainstream rap songs mention the use of prescription drugs. Additionally, there has been an increasing rate of rappers overdosing on prescription drugs. J. Cole has seen enough of his friends in the industry die. He has waged a war against negative influences in rap songs, and his KOD album won him a glorious battle.