Medium Cool: Music Videos from Soundies to Cellphones

Medium Cool: Music Videos from Soundies to Cellphones

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822390206
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 09/05/2007
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Roger Beebe is Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies in the English Department at the University of Florida. He is a coeditor of Rock Over the Edge: Transformations in Popular Music Culture, also published by Duke University Press.

Jason Middleton is an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies in the English Department at the University of Rochester.

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Duke University Press

Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4162-8

Chapter One


The study of music video has provoked various territorial skirmishes between university disciplines, precisely because music videos are media hybrids. Being both visual and musical, videos lie not so much in a no-man's land but rather in a space that overlaps various scholarly (as well as sensorial and semantic) domains. The two major books on the topic-E. Ann Kaplan's Rocking around the Clock and Andrew Goodwin's Dancing in the Distraction Factory-each take one of two often very contrary positions, with Kaplan drawing upon postmodernism and film theory (particularly feminist film theory and its obsession with "the gaze") and with Goodwin self-defined as rock sociologist. Ostensibly, one habitually privileges the visual, while the other compensates by placing the sonic on a pedestal. In response to Kaplan's overindulgence of the visual dimension, Rocking around the Clock's critical nemesis, Dancing in the Distraction Factory, retaliates with the insistence that music video's visual aspects are secondary to "the music itself." In contradiction to the film theory trajectory, Goodwin's book, along with the anthology Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader, herald a more exactingly music-centered methodology.

Although both the image and music figure in Goodwin's argument, he is so eager to stress the importance of the latter and to oppose Kaplan, that, again, the intrigue of music video's specific union of sound and image suffers shorter shrift than it deserves. Goodwin's response to Kaplan's earlier work is presented in the form of a conscious, self-imposed polarity, one whose bias toward one media industry edges toward the factionalism that marks Kaplan's neglect of music. While it definitely seems more sensible to understand videos as promotional devices created by the music industry, their birth out of and continual clinging to the moving-image arts should not be undermined. In this essay my objective is to insist that we investigate how these two registers interact, rather than simply picking what we consider to be the most robust opponent in a largely fantastical battle for authority.

What is lacking in much of this side-taking work is the recognition of music video's central paradox-that the various components of these synergistic arrangements waver opportunistically between states of separation and attachment. Their composite parts are compatible yet incompatible and the "dominance" of any given element is constantly under negotiation. With the help of Busta Rhymes's "Gimme Some Mo'" (1998) as my chosen example, I intend to rummage around in the writhing hermeneutic melee that is music video. In doing this, I am keen to draw upon the energy mustered by these configurations in order to fluctuate between singular and joint identities and to assess whether this dynamism can be harnessed and used to power certain liberating gestures within the politics of representation. To help me in this endeavor, I enlist a concept that Goodwin also finds useful-synaesthesia-although my understanding of it is not quite the same as his.


In its literal sense, synaesthesia can be defined as the transposition of sensory images or attributes from one modality into another. Synaesthetes claim the ability, for example, to see music (usually in terms of color) or to taste shapes, with the former being the most common of its manifestations and the most pertinent to the study of music video. In addition to being a recurrent trope in various forms of artistic expression, synaesthesia has been well documented by scientific investigation, particularly in neuropsychology.

What all of these diverse studies of synaesthesia argue is that we very rarely use any sense (as it is presently socially circumscribed) on its own-and music video "viewing" is blatantly one such case. The senses inform each other, cross each other's tracks, and, most importantly, embody both a singularity and the potential to merge. With such ideas at the fore, analyses of audio-visual art forms that lavish attention so unreservedly on one sense in isolation seem doubly aberrant, and this shadow even looms in the background of Goodwin's cross-modal aspirations. The conclusion to his deployment of synaesthesia is telling, especially in its use of italics: "I have tried to show, with some textual detail, exactly how we might invert the position of film studies, by demonstrating exactly how the visuals support the sound track." The image, it would appear, is now the compliant factor, the reacting and molded feature buckling under the weight of music's importance. Furthermore, the assertion of synaesthesia's existence and its support of such an argument against film studies is pretty much an end point for Goodwin, who does little to deconstruct his own disciplinary hegemony.

It is a shame that, in so doggedly striving to show how image follows music in videos, Goodwin fails to value the haphazard, perhaps more involuntary realignments of meanings that happen when audio-visual formats are thought of not as a parade with one leader, but as a thoroughfare with two-way traffic. As has already been suggested, synaesthesia helps dissolve sensory boundaries as they are currently socially delineated; it is a physical, perceptual experience that, as I demonstrate below, seems to overlap with cultural inscription. This coalescence also lends resonance to a theoretical skipping between the representational and the corporeal. And the implications of this mutability become extremely poignant when the body is being portrayed and discussed in these visual and musical encounters. For instance, when a human body is represented in an audio-visual manner, the implications of the sonic components may radically contradict how we are socially educated to interpret the image. Therefore the obligatory reunion of any such multisensory expressions into a single music video confuses patterns of depiction that may seem fairly stable within, say, a song or an image on its own. Synaesthesia, in its blurring of the distinctions between bodily experience and cultural convention, coaxes out our curiosity about how the senses interact and influence each other and the extent to which any of our understanding of this is "natural." What lies behind our present and seemingly so arbitrary subdivision of the senses? And what, moreover, does this schism support? Together with a multiplicity of other phenomena, synaesthesia may help to chip away the political ordering of perception. With this in mind, the metaphorical notion of synaesthesia that I intend to improvise upon becomes a possible strategy for unsteadying so fixed and blinkered a view; for defying segregations of the senses and for exposing the extent to which these are socially interpellated.

What I propose in this essay-in contradiction to theoretical assumptions that tend only to recognize unitary, fenced-in modalities-is that we not only acknowledge this conjoining of the two senses (and many of their objects) but also that we search out methods for probing the political impact of these (re)constituting movements. Of prime concern here is the fact that the performing body is differently regulated by the codes of both musical and visual representation: it is perceived differently by the ear and by the eye, and our responses are enormously reliant on our notions of such things as format and genre. Yet in music video these representations are forced to coalesce in a very specific manner. While this evidently leads to various forms of exclusion, it also opens up opportunities for various 'synaesthetic' transferences, or loopholes of representation and perception. What any theorist of music video should take into account is how some of our standard devices of sensorial encoding might be at odds with one another. The question, then, is what this might entail for a depicted presence-for example, a body-that is more often than not asked to function as some sort of constant, unified identity (although I would consider this a misguided request).


At this point, I want to stress that the overlapping of sensory experience is not simply some sort of fortuitous confusion, but instead is an integral part of the way humans consciously and strategically build up language, understanding, and political regulation-and that the manufacture of music video is as much a part of this process as anything else. While synaesthetic sympathies allow us to fantasize about a less rigid perceptual world, they also enable us to take on board how each sense's phasing into and out of the other is neither accidental nor uncontrollable.

Here I want to draw upon the rhetorical power of figural, even poetic language-and in particular the functioning of metaphor-to argue for a notion of language and sensory perception that has a greater amount of such malleability. As Lawrence Marks suggests: "Synaesthesia is fundamentally illogical, improper, a violation of common sense ... Perhaps the character of synaesthesia is a microcosm of metaphor itself, going as it does beyond ordinary meaning to new meanings." Before exploring this parity, however, I am eager to scrutinize how language itself works synaesthetically in its creation of metaphors, after which I intend to examine the opportunities that a metaphorical exchange between the visual and the sonic (as often happens within music video) can offer us.

According to Joseph William, when the sense of an image or sound lies beyond our linguistic grasp, attainable words belonging to other senses are borrowed to fill in the gaps. For example, "a loud shirt" is not actually a noisy garment but one colored in such a way that it startles us like a blast of high volume. Here the instantly evocative experience shares its impact with another sensory domain. For William, the synaesthetic exchange is "so regular, so enduring, and so inclusive that its description may be the strongest generalisation in diachronic semantics reported for English or any other language." This is such a commonplace descriptive process that it has become almost unnoticeable-we would rarely stop to think back to the derivation of "the loud shirt" because it has become naturalized as a mode of description. Yet in these very familiar means of figural expression lie the potential for new articulations, even new consciousnesses, precisely because they draw upon sensory perception.

It does not seem unreasonable, then, to promote the ability of metaphor to expand, rather than to capture or explain-and by metaphor I here refer to both the way "synaesthesia" might work figuratively and the manner in which music and image "act out" each other's parts within videos. While metaphors are essentially epistemologically unreliable (they are productive rather than reproductive; facilitators rather than translators), their talents dwell in their flexibility and in their incitement of new consciousnesses. This capacity has not escaped the attention of several twentieth-century philosophers, whose excitement about metaphor I now wish to briefly feed upon. Richard Rorty clarifies the critical difference between metaphors as describers of alien outside worlds (which he undermines) and metaphors as "causes of changing beliefs and desires ... [making] possible novel scientific theories as causes of our ability to know more about the world, rather than expressions of such knowledge." In the face of a ravine in meaning, metaphor obliges semantically (as we have seen in synaesthetic adjectives) not with a translation of the intangible but through references to altogether different objects or sensations.

The implied sliding between the material and the immaterial, language and object, and imagination and manifestation is an angle that fascinates another theorist, Paul Ricoeur: "By displaying a flow of images, discourse initiates changes of logical distance, generates rapprochement. Imaging and imagining, thus, is the concrete milieu in which and through which we see similarities. To imagine, then, is not to have a mental picture of something but to display relations in a depicting mode." Later he expands this idea: "One of the functions of imagination is to give a concrete dimension to the suspension or epoche proper to split reference. Imagination does not merely schematize the predicative assimilation between terms by its synthetic insight into similarities nor does it merely picture the sense thanks to the display of images aroused and controlled by the cognitive process. Rather, it contributes concretely to the epoche of ordinary reference and to the projection of new possibilities of redescribing the world."

Ricoeur places great emphasis on imagination as the key to the fetters of everyday life and its truth values, the key that opens doors onto different perceptual planes. From this perspective, imagination can be used to transfigure the literal-it conveniently speaks the same language yet is distanced enough not to be swamped by it: "What is given to thought in this way ... [is the] most hidden dialectic-the dialectic that reigns between the experience of belonging as a whole and the power of distanciation that opens up the space of speculative thought."

Such thinking diverges dramatically from that of Goodwin, who is eager to "prove" a synaesthetic allegiance while writers like Ricoeur argue persuasively for the facility and potential of metaphor rather than its mere existence. In fact, it is perhaps more useful to conceive of metaphor itself not as a static object but as an action or interaction-that is, more like a verb, a refusal of semantic stasis. Ricoeur associates the position of metaphor with "neither the name, nor the sentence, nor even discourse, but the copula of the verb to be. The metaphorical 'is' at once signifies both 'is not' and 'is like.'" The separation and similarity that I consider to be so central to unlocking the political potential of media synergy is supported by arguments like these. Moreover, as Ricoeur continues, metaphor reintroduces an important factor into ontology: the concept of "as" to evoke action and liveliness. And it is this dynamism embodied in the union of various art forms that carries promises of movement and change.

Such a preoccupation with energy is also urgently expressed in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's sense of metaphor, which similarly favors an instigation of proliferating rather than destructive forces. Communication between previously unaffiliated meanings and their realignment into new "assemblages" (their term for configurations of what seem to have been previously discrete entities)-which is exactly what metaphor achieves-evades the restrictive impulses of established modes of consciousness. Assemblages not only function to mutual benefit, they also create lines along which power can flow, and it is this second quality of assemblages which has been so sorely neglected in the study of music video. Syntheses and interactions of these kinds are politically determined for Deleuze and Guattari and cannot be consigned purely to the realm of thought. Synaesthetic metaphor should no longer be considered disinterested play because it can be employed to smuggle advantageous though previously unsanctioned plots into hostile territory. In many ways this notion resembles two children in a large coat passing themselves off as a giant or conjoined twins, or the liminal being dragged into the mainstream by its more acceptable partner-something that will become increasingly more believable when music video examples are singled out for investigation.


Excerpted from MEDIUM COOL Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Index 345

Introduction / Jason Middleton and Roger Beebe 1

Music Video and Synaesthetic Possibility / Kay Dickinson 13

Illustrating Music: The Impossible Embodiments of the Jukebox Film / Amy Herzog 30

The Audio-Vision of Found-Footage Film and Video / Jason Middleton

Art/Music/ / Maureen Turim 83

Strange People, Weird Objects: The Nature of Narrativity, Character, and Editing in Music Videos / Carol Vernallis 111

Dancing to a Pacific Beat: Music Video in Papua New Guinea / Philip Hayward 152

Visions of a Sound Nation: Finnish Music Videos and Secured Otherness / Antti-Ville Karja 174

“Coming to You Wherever You Are”: Exploring the Imagined Communities of Muchmusic (Canada) and MTV (United States) / Kip Pegley 200

Elvis from the Waist Up and Other Myths: 1950s Music Television and the Gendering of Rock Discourse / Norma Coates 226

Elvis Goes Global: Aloha! Elvis Live Via Satellite and Music/Tourism/Television / Lisa Parks and Melissa McCartney 252

Video and the Theater of Purity / Warren Zanes 269

“I’m From Rags to Riches”: The Death of Jay-Z / Cynthia Fuchs 290

Paradoxes of Pastiche: Spike Jonze, Hype Williams, and the Race of the Postmodern Auteur / Roger Beebe 303

Bibliography 329

Contributors 341

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