How has new media changed the media industry?

While the topic of much contemporary debate, there is little agreement over the future power relations of the media industry. Although the adoption and development of new media has begun to challenge the hegemonic models of socio-economics (Freeman and Louç̃a), there is no guarantee that commonsense practices will emerge and produce a democratic revolution of the industry. Certainly, new media and technologies have provided consumers with more agency than ever, yet this idea of media convergence (Jenkins) introduces the potential for new realms of monopolisation. This essay will investigate the negotiation between the democratic nature of new media and corporate efforts to maintain concentration of industrial power, deliberating between the possibility for equal opportunities, collaborative insights and unmediated representations, and the continued quest for profits- a negotiation that Eugenia Siapera describes as ‘a tension between the tendency of user contents towards diversity, and the tendency of ‘monetization’ or capitalization over such contents to impose certain limits and controls to this kind of diversity and online exchanges’ (Siapera: 53). The concepts of consumer control and media reform will be studied alongside the idea of longstanding media conglomeration and the issue of, and ethical struggle against, monetisation of new media and the continued control of media corporations.

 

From video on-demand to user-generated content, new media is increasingly passing control over to the consumer. Next generation users represent the empowered consumer, allowing them to demand what, when and how they consume media, creating a continued struggle for the industry to attract attention and monetize consumption. Henry Jenkins speaks about the age of participatory culture and collective intelligence (Jenkins), noting the increasing agency of the general public in the production, distribution and consumption of media. Certainly, this creates scope for major change in the media industry because, as Siapera finds, it is with user empowerment ‘that we may locate the potential for change, for struggle towards a more equitable distribution of wealth and power’ (Siapera: 60). Already shifts in media power are occurring, with 70% of survey respondents trusting consumer reviews posted online in the decision process of consumption (Nielson) . However, it must be noted that a similar 70% of these consumers say they trust branded websites (Nielson). Thus, the change corporate to consumer power is tangible yet slight.

Additionally, new media and technologies have led to globalisation and the breaking down of spatial and temporal barriers, thus creating freers flow of media images and information. The consequent trend of widespread user-generated content has undermined the traditional media business model of selling content to users, and has opened up the possibility of bottom-up flows of information with the ability to bypass mass media monopolies. Moreover, this has invigorated the call for free rather than dictatorial flow of information and the public’s entitlement to intellectual property that may allow global democracy through collective intelligence. Certainly, aggregate blogs such as the Huffington Post depict this change in the production of media content, moving towards a more inclusive circulation of information. This trend is also accompanied by the continuous decline of national newspapers of 5-20% year on year (The Guardian). However, these figures reflect the increasing reliance on the internet as a source of news, as well as the adoption of tablets. Evidently, major media corporations are able to harness this new media trend by investing in online and mobile editions, following the consumer wherever he goes.

In ‘The Long Tail’, Chris Anderson notes the increased revenue of niche products with cheap distribution, exhibition and availability through the internet (Anderson). The implication is that smaller companies are able to produce, promote and circulate their products with the use of new media, with the prevailing trend of viral marketing yielding a fairer chance for small or start-up businesses in the competitive market. An obvious example for this would be the YouTube sensation, Justin Beiber, and his launch to fame through new media outlets. Indeed, Jose van Dijick notes how sites like YouTube originally intended to provide a democratic forum for ordinary people to launch their talent, observing that these video-sharing sites are essentially ‘mediating platforms between the masses of aspiring amateurs and the ‘old’ Hollywood media moguls…they provide a new link in the upward mobility chain of the commercially driven star-system’ (van Dijick: 52). Yet, in practice traditional media is left far from redundant since ‘viral’ fame is only recognised by the mainstream when it is acknowledged by traditional mass media. Thus, ‘old’ media remains an integral part of the industry, with new media merely representing a more level starting point.

Richard Barbrook writes about new media’s ‘gift economy’ for information exchange  and goes as far as to refer to the internet as a ‘really existing form of anarcho-communism’ (Barbrook) with the idea of collective effort of the masses. Although the emergence of the ‘prosumer’ may provide what some view as a less hierarchical and more meritocratic model, with the idea of peering and transparency in ‘wikinomics’ (Tapscott and Williams), one may also consider the implication of exploitative crowdsourcing for private gain. Indeed, to link it to the previous point regarding video-sharing sites, media corporations are able to harness this bottom-up model by using these supposedly ‘democratic’ forums as bait for talent- a free, ‘gift’ economy. Certainly, notable sites such as YouTube are owned by the major corporations, and Google’s conditions for use make uploaded content their property, giving them the rights for promotion, distribution, and censorship (van Dijick: 49). So when Jenkins discusses how Web 2.0 ‘was envisioned as a new frontier space where grassroots initiatives, communal spirit and ‘free’ amateur culture had a chance to blossom’, one must question how free the resulting platforms are. Furthermore, Elizabeth Van Couvering notes that the concentration of new media companies mirrors that of traditional media (Van Couvering, 2003), meaning the same hierarchical pressures remain. Clearly, even ‘user-generated’ content does not necessarily denote user power over display and circulation. Therefore, what has changed is the way in which media is picked up, but a truly democratic model is far off. The corporations have been able to turn ‘commons-like structures towards commercially driven platforms’ (van Dijick: 51), meaning that the guise of democratic media production is actually orchestrated by the same elitist power of the media owners. Thus, ‘UGC is firmly locked into the commercial dynamics of the mediascape’ (van Dijick: 53), illustrating little change towards the democratising of the industry.

 

Evidently, for every step new media takes in the direction of unmediated consumer control, traditional media corporations are close behind with profit-driven plans. New media outlets represent further potential for vertical monopolisation, thus hindering the progression towards a democratic media industry. Through this, these firms are able to ‘operate in ways commensurable with industrial capitalism, based on mass production and control of distribution’ (Siapera: 49), rather than an egalitarian system of disintermediation. Their monetizing efforts, then, towards copyrighting and pay walls means the ‘dynamics of the new media are infused with power relations’ (Mansell: 98), mirroring the unequal distribution of power and wealth in society in the same way that the old media industry did.

To this extent, it seems that the political economy of the media has merely shifted online. Indeed, new media revenue is subject to the same financial strains as traditional media, relying on the sale of advertising space and consumer analytics (Siapera: 49). For example, the extreme success of Facebook is based on the implementation of such a model, with Facebook continually looking for new ways to convert new user dynamics into a profitable platform using this revenue system. In the third quarter of 2013 the social media giant’s revenue from advertising grew by 66% to $1.8 billion, with nearly half of that accounting for mobile advertisements (BBC News, 2013). One can here observe that the company is continuing to harness consumer trends that see a consistent rise in mobile interaction, allowing them to capitalise on social media use rather than looking to provide a felicitous forum for grassroots conversation and collaboration. This institutionalisation of new media means that the fundamental economic system remains unchanged. Evidently, open source sites are trailing behind privatised platforms, which challenges the predictions of a public-led media industry.

 

Initially, new media systems such as the search engine were imagined to further empower the consumer with the ability to control one’s access to information. However, corporate sovereignty can here also be observed; through additional monopolisation, publishers retained overarching autonomy. For example, Google’s acquisition of YouTube gives them the power to saturate further advertising space, as well as the ability to manipulate supposedly organic searches across these platforms. As Siapera notes, ‘online corporations prioritize the mainstream…in opting for traffic maximization they steer clear of any substantial controversy’ (Siapera: 57). Certainly, it remains in their interest to provide a platform most desirable to fellow corporate initiatives, with an inclusive, ‘natural’ user experience pushed to the side-lines. Powerful brands are able to invest more, and in turn media owners manipulate search queries to allow their clients to capitalise. Consequently, alternative viewpoints are made harder to find; clearly, the dictated flow of traditional media has made its way online. Bergquist and Ljungberg corroborate with this, arguing that ‘some of the user/developers experience power relationships that are expressed as an elitism of the inner circle and exercised as the right to hinder a person in contributing to the common good’ (Bergquist and Ljungberg: 315), as is illustrated with the example of search engine manipulation. Thus, the concentration of media ownership remains an overriding feature of the industry. This carry-over of top-down structure into new media leaves corporate media with ever-more autocratic and hegemonic power, which as Herman and Chomsky discuss in ‘Manufacturing Consent’ (Herman and Chomsky), has created (and patently sustained) an unequal hierarchical society despite an ostensibly more consumer-controlled media.

In addition, new media has seemingly, by its egalitarian premise, provided a voice for those previously denied. Certainly, developing countries have increased their share in world internet users from 44% in 2006, to 62% in 2011 (ITU Telecommunications). However, this change has altered (and improved) but not removed the digital divide; the defining line between those with and without a voice has changed from socio-economic factors to that of digital literacy, generational factors and willing participation. So, although changes have been made that begin to blur class lines the media remains unequal, with those lacking new media cultural capital left in the ‘old’ media one-way flow of information.

 

Siapera’s insistence ‘on a plurality of engines, a diversity of portals and providers, and clear criteria for inclusion/exclusion of different points of view’ (Siapera: 58) aligns with Jenkins’ sentiments. He emphasises the importance of ‘[fighting] against the copyright regime…to expand access and participation to groups that are otherwise left behind, and to promote forms of media literacy education that help all children to develop the skills needed to become full participants in their culture’ (Jenkins: 259). Both conclusions on this subject require intervention by the general public, yet it seems that the lure of commodities and services provided by companies overtakes the instinct to redistribute power. The questions of whether the public care enough about how ‘authentic’ the images they see are or if everyone has a voice in the world is somewhat contentious. As in his criticisms of the culture industry, Adorno cynically observes the ‘passive dupes’ of commodity culture who have no intellectual engagement with the media and instead relish in the passivity of dictated messages (Adorno, 2002: 492). Ultimately, new media has brought about major changes in the industry, most notably with the introduction of consumer empowerment. Yet, dominant new media has a similar capitalist model of profit-driven incentives, despite the fact that more democratic grassroots platforms have potential to become socially resourceful forums, allowing equal opportunities for all. As discussed, mass media are able to compete with free models using personalised consumer targeting and native advertising, which creates a more desirable experience for users. Therefore, due to societal focus on the individual, users are more likely to support what best suits their consuming experience, rather than what will result in public benefit.

References:

Adorno, Theodor. 2002.  Essays on Music: Theodor W. Adorno. London: University of California Press.

Adorno, T. and Bernstein, J. 2001.The Culture Industry. London: Routledge.

Anderson, Chris (2006). The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. New York: Hyperion.

Barbrook, R. (2005). The High-tech Gift Economy. Internet Banking, E-Money and Internet Gift Economies, 3.  http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue3_12/barbrook [Accessed: 3 Nov 2013].

BBC News. 2013. Facebook revenue surges 60%. [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-24751441 [Accessed: 4 Nov 2013].

Bergquist, Magnus and Ljungberg, Jan. 2001. The power of gifts: organizing social relationships in open source communities. Information Systems Journal vol. 11.

Freeman, Chris and Francisco Louca. 2001. As Time Goes By: From the Industrial Revolution to the Information Revolution. London: Oxford University Press.

the Guardian. 2013. ABCs: National daily newspaper circulation August 2013. [online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/media/table/2013/sep/06/abcs-national-newspapers [Accessed: 3 Nov 2013].

Herman, E. and Chomsky, N. 1988.Manufacturing consent. New York: Pantheon Books.

ITU World Telecommunications. 2011. The World in 2011: ICT Facts & Figures. [report] Switzerland: International Telecommunications Unions.

Jenkins, H. 2006. Convergence culture. New York: New York University Press.

Mansell, R. 2004. Political Economy, Power and New Media. New Media and Society, Sage Publications, 6 (1), pp. 96-105.

Nielson Global Online Consumer Survey. 2009.Global Advertising Consumers Trust Real Friends and Virtual Strangers the Most. [report] United States: The Nielson Company.

Resnick, David. 1998. Politics of the Internet: The Normalization of Cyberspace. In. C Toulouse and W.T Luke (eds.). The Politics of Cyberspace, 48-68. London: Routledge.

Siapera, E. 2012. Understanding new media. London: SAGE.

Tapscott, D. and Williams, A. 2006. Wikinomics. New York: Portfolio.

Van Couvering, E. 2003. ‘Media Power on the Internet: Towards a Theoretical Framework’, paper presented at the Research Seminar for Media Communication and Culture, London School of Economics, 25 April, London.

 

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Explore and access Hip Hop culture’s negotiation of ‘racial burdens of representation’.

As one of the most globally prominent subcultures, hip-hop bears an extraordinary burden of representation for the African-American community it speaks for. Since this representation is projected through mass media, it relies on the endorsement of predominantly white media conglomerates that hold no such burden and merely seek marketability. Just as Theodor Adorno speaks of the destructive nature of the ‘culture industry’ (Adorno), a capitalist world inevitably demands the commodification of hip-hop culture in the continuous quest for profit, regardless of the detrimental effect of such hyperbolic, sensationalised images have on the representation of black, working-class youth, and despite the need for re-addressing old racial politics.

This essay will investigate how the burden of racial representation affected the rise of hip-hop to its prominent state, exploring the authenticity and potential political power that mainstream hip-hop artists have had to forfeit in order to gain their standing, and looking at why realistic, political representations remain ‘underground’. The introduction of a spectrum of hip-hop representation will contest the opinion that ‘mainstream’ unambiguously equates to negative images, using the case studies of duo Dead Prez in comparison to the commodification of leading artists-cum-entrepreneurs Jay-Z and Kanye West. The third category will examine hip-hop figures that perfectly depict the genre’s commodification by almost parodying stereotypes such as 2 Chainz. Textual analysis of lyrics and branding will establish the implicit difficulties of the burden of racial representation throughout the spectrum, and therefore introduce the idea that mediated images cannot provide an ‘authentic’ picture of ghetto life to mass audiences.

A range of hip-hop acts provide varying representations of the black youth culture, but only those presented through ubiquitous mass media determine the global hegemonic view. The question that arises is whether these mainstream acts are responsible for depicting a realistic or positive image of black youth, given their status and agency. Historically an under- or mis-represented minority, pressure to find the bearer and most effective form of the burden of black representation is prevalent. Chuck D commented that, given mainstream media’s neglect and exploitation of the black community, hip-hop may be seen as the ‘Black CNN’; ‘I thought it could be used- under the radar- for getting the information out [to] Black communities. It [still] does, but it’s not really under the radar…Packaged, endorsed, homogenized. A big white pimp is sitting over it’ (qtd. by Kitwana: 47). Evidently, hip-hop’s negotiation of racial representation is problematized by the industry structure and has affected how rappers respond to this burden.

Hip-hop duo, Dead Prez, produces ‘revolutionary but gangsta’ tracks in which they rap about social ills and issues with the music industry that prevent their mainstream success and hinder the reach and impact of their messages. They explicitly note the lack of realistic representation:

 

‘I know it’s part of they plans

To make us think it’s all about party and dancin’

And yo it might sound good when you spittin’ your rap

But in reality, don’t nobody live like that’ (Dead Prez)

 

Although their image provides a more realistic perception of black life, their focus on sincere lyrics rather than fetishized images mean they are excluded from the narrow range of mainstream hip-hop. Corporate media are not concerned with activist response but rather consumer response, and therefore filter content to reinforce their own agenda. As Timothy Guzman notes, ‘the majority of rappers are used by the major labels to sell propaganda’ (Guzman), such as ideologies of individual agency and the glamorization of commodity indulgence. Thus, Dead Prez’s music is ‘so real that the radio will never play it’ (Dead Prez).

            The next category of rappers is best characterised by Jay-Z and Kanye West, who achieved mass success through the marketization of signifiers of authenticity, both in terms of lyrical skill and conforming to the accepted narratives of black ghetto ascendance. Despite statuses of authenticity, both rappers also epitomize commodified hip-hop in both their music and private lives. Their branding and displays of economic power and material wealth make them extremely marketable, and are therefore highly endorsed by corporate media. The images they perpetuate focus on possessive individualism as well as stereotypical signifiers of black culture. Certainly, mass media exploit these representations in order to promote commodity culture, making hip-hop a saleable asset. Overlooked, then, are the realities of black youth unemployment and lack of social mobility; while Reagan mobilised the perception of self-induced poverty and criminality, mainstream hip-hop extends this with the notion that black prosperity is achievable through commodity culture, which undermines the implicit issues faced by black Americans. It additionally reduces black agency to bodily pursuits of racial conformity. Carried through from Reaganism is the emphasis on personal agency, meaning concepts of communal aid through realistic representation that gives voice to otherwise silenced issues is pushed from the agenda. Though by their premise regarded as credible spokesmen for black youth, these artists avoid explicit political critique. For example, Jay-Z raps: ‘[my songs] ain’t politically correct/ This may offend my political connects’ (Jay-Z). Ironically, his appraisal is limited to musical aesthetics and notably circumvents actual political criticism, probably because of the very political connections (famously with President Obama and powerful corporate sponsors) he is mindful of offending.

Guzman claims ‘[Kanye West and Jay-Z’s] music has no substance or positive meaning behind the lyrics. It is music that destroys the minds of urban youths’ (Guzman). This bold statement seems contestable given the opposing argument that such rappers provide an uplifting representation that was also previously denied; indeed, these artists also represent aspirational black figures. However, the significance of such representation is limited as ‘no utopian public image or monument is available to symbolise collective aspirations’ (Mitchell: 888) because of the issues to eschews, as discussed above.

Alternatively, they more implicitly represent a kind of Trojan Horse of the music industry that is able to exploit the system. Certainly, Todd Boyd described Spike Lee’s public image as ‘a compromised image of Blackness for mass consumption in return for the financial power to challenge the racial status quo elsewhere’ (Boyd: 138). To this extent, it seems reasonable that in a society of racial prejudice those able should use anything at their disposal to gain dominant standing and consequently a voice for an underrepresented class. Corroborating this is the inclusion of some politically-conscious content, most notably with West’s 2013 Yeezus album. Indeed, once credible mainstream success is established labels are able to market anything with existing branding. New Slaves in particular introduces provoking themes to mainstream discourse that are otherwise neglected. West boldly confronts the idea that blacks remain enslaved in America, mirroring Paul Gilroy’s theories of the legitimising and entrapment of commodity culture (Gilroy). He positions himself as a victim of ‘rich nigga racism’ (West), as if to authenticate his elevated position as still marginalised by dominant culture. Although no solution is reached (and the outspoken themes may be viewed merely as a shock-factor or market niche), this text could be read as the implementation of subliminal messaging to mass audiences, paving the way for more sincere conversation in years to come.

Mickey Hess writes that ‘a theory of hip-hop’s seemingly conflicting concerns of authenticity and marketability may work to reframe W.E.B. Dubois’ concept of double-consciousness in commercial terms as artists work to produce marketable music for mainstream listeners yet at the same time to maintain a necessary level of authenticity to a place of cultural origin’ (Hess: 298). This argument suggests that moments of realism can enter the mainstream as long as they are teamed with marketability, implying that mainstream hip-hop may be used as a platform for some sort of reformist racial representation. This is somewhat problematic as racial representation that is mediated by marketing strategy is inevitably inauthentic and unrealistic, and, as Tricia Rose writes, ‘corporate media outlets empower these businessmen-rappers, underpromote the more sophisticated rhymes, and play down the vigorous and well-informed analysis and criticism’ (Rose: 11-12).

No amount of realism is visible in the third category of rappers. Typified by 2 Chainz, this branch of hip-hop epitomizes the damaging representation of black youth in its reduction of black consciousness to the identification with violent, sexist and hedonistic images of masculinity rather than real contemporary issues. 2 Chainz is a mass-circulated figure who produces standardised beats, simplistic and repetitive lyrics and focuses on fetishized elements of commodity culture. Through his overt performativity of clichéd fashion and gesticulation he perpetuates a stereotypically simplistic image of black youth culture that Rose calls ‘neo-minstrelsy’ (Rose: 29) and Kevin Powell labels ‘a cultural safari for white people’ (Powell qtd. by Kitwana: 53). Although enjoyed by the masses, this performance is detrimental to the realistic representation of black culture. Bill Yousman explains that ‘White youth adoption of Black cultural forms in the 21st century is also a performance, one that allows Whites to contain their fears and animosities towards Black through rituals not of ridicule, as in previous eras, but of adoration’ (Yousman: 366). Indeed, the novelty makes such acts non-threatening to dominant structure as it adheres to an accepted model of blackness; the monopolisation of independent labels has reduced hip-hop to a narrow range of images that are easily circulated to a wide audience. Limiting these images simplifies the representation of black youth culture and perpetuates the flawed concept that masculinity is achieved through such displays of sexism, aggression and possessive individualism. Additionally, to those unconnected to hip-hop culture, such representations denote unrealistic perceptions of black pathology and immorality, yet essentialist illustrations dilute white guilt and reduce the need to address racial inequalities. Guzman notes that ‘the music industry use rappers to further demoralize people who have no idea what is happening in their communities and the world’ (Guzman). This circulation of political apathy keeps the masses focused on commodity indulgence and away from discussions of bottom-up progression, which would jeopardise corporate power. Indeed, these black mainstream figures forfeit potential for progressive race relations because it is absent from industrial motivation. Instead, dominant structures are left unchallenged by the immense powers of the masses with the distraction of ‘big booty hos’ and ‘the Gucci store’ (2 Chainz). Global audiences that rely on media representations are adopting these misguided images of black youth culture (Kitwana: 123); a white hip-hop fan said: ‘the stuff in the music, it appeals to our sense of learning about other cultures and wanting to know more about something that we’ll probably never experience’ (qtd. by Hurt, 2007). The idea that audiences are ‘learning’ through these hyperbolic, unrealistic depictions suggests that hip-hop artists have the burden to represent an accurate image of black youth culture so as to address the issue of race relations.

However, a broader question is whether hip-hop should or can be responsible for projecting authentic racial representations. Tupac said: ‘I don’t know how to be responsible for what every black male does…Yes, I am going to say I’m a thug, because I came from the gutter and I’m still here!’ (Tupac). Certainly, discourses that position hip-hop as the encouragement of black social deviance are somewhat perfunctory; in many ways mainstream hip-hop is a microcosm of American culture with the manifestation of broad themes of identity crisis. Quinn notes the ‘(re)assertion of alternative models of gendered and sexual relations that chimed with an increasingly liberalized and sexualized U.S. society’ (Quinn: 132). Therefore, if hip-hop speaks for American society, its role is more importantly an outlet of social concerns rather than an authentic image of a single social group.

Furthermore, it is debatable as to whether popular culture is an appropriate arena for addressing race issues. Mass media is an incredibly powerful hegemonic tool, one previously absent of black representation, and has the ability to globally imbue ideological discourses. Hip-hop’s international presence on mainstream media makes it an apt forum for the improvement of race relations, and has the potential to provide the ‘catalysts necessary to jump-start an international human rights movement in this generation, a movement with the potential to parallel if not surpass yesterday’s civil rights success’ (Kitwana: 11). However, the consolidation of traditional media means a continuity of mediated representations is controlled by very few corporate figures. Thus, nuanced discussions are replaced by the fortification of commodified cultural capital. Nevertheless, new media outlets promise democratisation of the media industry with user-generated content and prosumerism. By its premise, new media provides a commons-like platform for individual and group representation by bypassing traditional media and corporate mediation. In theory, this suggests that hip-hop acts would be able to circulate both authentic and positive representations of the African-American community in order to introduce realistic perceptions that may lead to activism and progressive political agendas. Yet, the lack of continuity and ubiquity of new media content creates fragmentation and diminished impact. Consequently, representations with potential to alter hegemony rely on being ultimately endorsed by traditional media, meaning ‘user-generated content is firmly locked into the commercial dynamics of the mediascape’ (van Dijick: 53), and the same obstacles apply.  

Additionally, the very nature of mediated imaging is problematic as it is separated from lived experience and relies on, as Edward Said theorizes, the reader being the creator of meaning (Said). Moreover, the nature of popular culture denotes passive engagement that people indulge in during their leisure time. Such escapism is rendered essential in capitalist societal pressure for daily profit-hunting, producing what Adorno labels ‘passive dupes’ (Adorno: 492). The lack of a receptive audience makes popular culture a questionable arena for enlightening racial representation.

Hip-hop began as a forum for the discussion of black social issues, communal spirit and empirical representation of a marginalised race. Its global appropriation through commercial mediation has produced the circulation of out-dated racial politics. Kitwana comments: ‘if white hip-hop kids ignore hip-hop’s history and do not resist the temptation to reproduce the old racial politics, we will have lost a beautiful democratic momentum set in motion by American youth, one that has the vision and capacity to leave the old racial politics on the pages of history where it belongs’ (Kitwana: 106). However, it seems inconceivable that hip-hop can bear the burden of racial representation, whether in terms of authenticity or uplift. The idea that sensationalised mainstream hip-hop images are ‘uplifting’ seem troubled as they provide erroneous messages about the prosperity of black youth culture, and yet ‘authentic’ images are too confronting to be accepted as popular culture. In reality, all that exists is this theatre of human anxiety, the dramatization of identity crisis through hyperbolic images that is in equal parts relieving and damaging; it allows escapism for a range of groups and individuals while channelling their human angst, and yet also abuses the representation of American black youth as a platform for this. The genre has allowed the elevation of black figures, though only under the terms of the white corporations. Evidently, they must find a way to break free from corporate media as well as the entrapment of commodity culture that is used as a ‘distraction from and compensation for a wider inequality’ (Gilroy: 6) before progressive racial representation may be circulated in order to confront prevailing race relations.

 

Cited Sources:

2 Chainz, Birthday Song (Def Jam, 2012).

Adorno, Theodor. 2002. Essays on Music: Theodor W. Adorno. London: University of California Press.

Boyd, Todd. 1997. ‘The Day The Niggaz Took Over: Basketball, Commodity Culture, and Black Masculinity.’ in Out of Bounds: Sports, Media and Politics of Identity, ed. Aaron Baker and Todd Boyd. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Dead Prez, Turn off The Radio (Full Clip, 2002).

Gilroy, Paul. 2011. Darker than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture. Cambridge Mass: Harvard UP.

Guzman, T. 2013. Why does the Music Industry keep ‘underground hip hop’ underground?.Silent Crow News, Available at: http://silentcrownews.com/wordpress/?p=2405 [Accessed: 28 Nov 2013].

Hess, Mickey. 2005. “Metal Faces, Rap Masks: Identity and Resistance in Hip Hop’s Persona Artist” in Popular Music and Society. Taylor & Francis Group.

Hurt, Byron. 2007. Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. Independent Lens Series, PBS. First broadcast, February 20th.

Jay-Z, ‘Death of Autotune’ (Roc Nation, 2009).

Kitwana, Bakari. 2005. Why White Kids Love Hip Hop. New York: Basic Civitas Books.

Mitchell, W. 1990. The Violence of Public Art: “Do the Right Thing”. Critical Inquiry, 16 (4), pp. 880-899. [Accessed: 27 Nov 2013].

Quinn, Eithne. 2005. Nuthin but a G Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rose, Tricia. 2008. The Hip-Hop Wars. New York: Basic.

Said, Edward. 1983. The World, the Text and the Critic. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Tupac, Changes (Interscope/Death Row, 1992).

Van Dijick, J. 2008. Users like you? Theorizing agency in user-generated content. Media, Culture and Society, 31 (41), Available from: doi: 10.1177/0163443708098245 [Accessed: 28 Nov 2013].

West, Kanye,  New Slaves (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2013).

Yousman, B. 2003. Blackophilia and Blackophobia: White Youth, the Consumption of Rap Music and White Supremacy. Communication Theory, 13 (4), pp. 366-391. Available from: doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.2003.tb00297. [Accessed: 27 Nov 2013].

Many indie directors have transitioned from the (semi)independent domain into the mainstream. Comparing two films from one director’s filmography – one a (semi)independent production, the other a mainstream production – discuss whether there are inherent stylistic, narrative or thematic differences that are attributable to the shift from indie to mainstream.

The filmography of Gus Van Sant documents a definite transition from independent into mainstream production, particularly with the examples of My Own Private Idaho and Milk. This essay will argue that inherent stylistic, narrative and thematic devices conclusively distinguish Van Sant’s shift into mainstream cinema, including the use of narrative guidance, objectives and plot trajectory, character sympathy and resolution. His use of artistic techniques debatably give Milk an art-house aesthetic that appeals to a mass audience in search of the cultural capital associated with high-brow culture. However, I will be theorising that the fundamental narrative structure in Milk is specifically geared towards a mainstream audience, with any art-house techniques being used merely as a means of aiding mainstream cinema imperatives of enjoyment, easy comprehension of the story and creating maximum catharsis for the audience, rather than for the sake of art.

 

Milk depicts the story of the election of Harvey Milk to San Francisco Supervisor during the 1970s. Van Sant provides an emotive portrayal of his incredibly likeable protagonist, leaving a powerful message of perseverance and self-expression. Meanwhile, My Own Private Idaho, which Van Sant made earlier in his career, is the abstract tale of homosexual prostitutes, with a loose base on works of Shakespeare. It provides a theatrical, unnaturalistic snapshot of the lives of these young men, leaving an ambiguous impression for its audience.  

 

Audience consumption of these films is primarily important in differentiating them. They can be characterised by their respective adherence to Brechtian and Stanislavskian practices, the fundamental reception strategies being verfremdungseffekt versus the forth wall and suspension of disbelief. Through the alienation technique of verfremdungseffekt, Brecht wanted his audience to think not feel emotions, and therefore wanted them to hold a critical detachment from the action and characters[1]. This is not to say that all art film adheres to Brechtian practice (in fact, much independent cinema follows realism in a similar way to Stanislavski), but it is an example of the subverting of Hollywood conventions. On the other hand, Stanislavskian strategy asks its audience to emotionally invest and believe in the action by the building of a forth wall[2]– an ideal taken up by the continuity style of mainstream Hollywood. The result is that mainstream representations such as Milk become more affecting than the thought-provoking, reflexive tone of many independents such as Idaho.

            Additionally, passivity is key to mainstream cinema viewing. From what Adorno and Horkheimer have explored with their theories on the ‘passive dupes’[3] that indulge in the superficial novelties of popular culture, one can determine that popular cinema is for passive, indulgent enjoyment, while independent cinema is for artistic expression and challenging, which seems to closely follow this differentiation between Idaho and Milk. Van Sant seemingly made a conscious move to the mainstream in an effort to reach the masses: ‘[making mainstream films] was like me going back, or trying to, in sentimental movie fashion, going back to make popular art, art for the populace.’[4] This reach for the mainstream audience explains why Van Sant’s storytelling techniques become more apt for the passive mass audience. Peter Bradshaw writes: ‘I felt that Milk is a slightly staid film, closer to the middle-of-the-road side of Gus van Sant’s film-making persona, the bland side’[5]. Considering this analysis, one can determine that Van Sant’s shift to the mainstream has lost the interest of his art film following, to whom the challenge of active viewing is what makes cinema so stimulating. Bordwell corroborates this point, stating that ‘the Hollywood spectator, it is claimed, is little more than a receptacle; few skills of attention, memory, discrimination, inference-drawing, or hypothesistesting are required’[6]. With the continuity style exemplified in Milk, cinematic techniques are purposefully used to stimulate specific emotional responses from the audience at specific times, with the result of a seamless storytelling mechanism. While this lends itself to the forth wall practices of Stanislavski, Idaho sticks to the Brechtian audience engagement, which is related to what Edward Said theorises about the production of meaning: ‘the reader is a full participant in the production of meaning, being obliged as a moral thing to act, to produce some sense.’[7] This imperative explicitly distinguishes Idaho from Milk, which demands nothing by receptivity.

 

Stylistic elements certainly contribute to the production of these varied audience interactions.

Blogger, Tempest in a Teacup, wrote: ‘Van Sant often tailored his use of camera angles and shots, among other cinematographic tools across his films, in a far more experimental manner than the Hollywood blockbuster to enhance his films’ effectiveness in conveying the mood and meaning within his settings’[8]. This corroborates what was aforementioned regarding Milk’s art film aesthetic; however, though this blogger views these cinematographic tools as ‘experimental’, I would argue that this is merely a façade disguising mainstream continuity in order to appeal to a mass audience in search for high-brow capital. Certainly, the context of Van Sant’s previous art-centric filmography provides intertextual reference and prejudice to the reading of this film, though a deeper evaluation proves little outside of Hollywood convention. For instance, the colour and quality of the film gives it a dated look and differentiates it from the over-saturated visuals of most Hollywood blockbusters. Yet, this stylistic choice merely adds credibility by likening it to the real footage from that period; indeed, the use of media footage helps to establish this, creating increased suspension of disbelief rather than challenging experimentation. For example, the real footage announcing the deaths of the politicians provides true emotion that is tangible to the audience who has intertextual knowledge of the true story. Additionally, the use of a handheld camera during crowd scenes enhances realism and audience complicity. Photographic stills, newspaper articles and screen captions, although appearing to be experimentally artistic devices, merely serve to depict how these images would have appeared in the news, and guide the narrative to allow passive viewing.

Very differently, the truly experimental and confronting style of Idaho includes freeze-frames of the characters in sexual positions, which has the opposite effect, estranging the audience. This unrealistic representation draws attention to construct of representation, emphasising the point that nothing can be truly represented through art. It allows the audience to appreciate the sordidness without emotional investment, providing distanced judgment rather than emotional involvement, and active engagement rather than passive narrative guidance. Van Sant uses other distancing techniques such as repeated time-lapse images of flying fish and landscape during scene transitions. This abstract imagery keeps the audience detached and yet curious, demanding full analytical engagement in order to decode metaphorical visuals that represent the loneliness of the characters. Most notable, however, is the inclusion of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and the use of a chorus ensemble; another Brechtian practice, which highlights the use of an ensemble to voice a range of narrative stimulants. These seemingly unfitting sequences challenge the audience to appropriate certain readings and significances to the main plot of Mike’s, the protagonist’s, search for his identity, as well as expecting a certain degree of literacy. The juxtaposition of the two plots creates further fragmentation, requiring invested intellectual engagement from the viewer.

 

What ultimately distinguished Milk as inherently mainstream in comparison to Idaho is the narrative style.  Milk’s non-linear narrative helps to build this idea of an art-film aesthetic, however this essay will argue that the ultimate intention and effect of the narrative is that of a mainstream film. As Robert P. Kolker says of continuity style adopted by Hollywood mainstream cinema: ‘narrative flow is pieced together out of small fragments of action in such a way that the piecing together goes unnoticed and the action appears continuous.’[9] Notably, this does not specify a linear narrative, and, although the disjointed narrative in Milk jumps back and forth in time, providing almost an art film feel of experimentation with temporality, it serves to reveal layers of the story in a way that most emotionally affects the viewer. For instance, the dramatic irony, including the fact that Milk’s death is announced at the beginning of the film, increases audience sympathy as they watch the action unfold. Additionally, the flashes to Harvey voice recording in 1978 serves as a narrational voice-over rather than any fragmentation of narrative, bringing to audience’s attention to certain significances through reflective narration and guiding rather than distancing. Therefore, this is actually another example of narrative guidance that places the film so firmly in the mainstream category. Moreover, it retains a linear progression and overall structure, meaning it is not truly fragmented or alienating, as it may be art film. Indeed, narrative elements are carefully and strategically tied together by the end in order to dictate exactly how the audience should react.

This narrative flow is aided by the establishment of objectives and plot trajectory, which are progressed over the course of Milk’s campaign. The narrative voice-over is then used to guide the viewer through the progression, giving an unambiguous presentation. On the other hand, in Idaho the plot objective is unclear, apart from the quest for the protagonist’s mother, which comes in the middle and is left unresolved. Here Van Sant uses an episodic structure; although the plot seems to move forwards in time, there is often no clear link or definitive time frame between scenes. Mike Restaino remarks that ‘the structure of the picture was enough to scare anyone who disliked provocative cinematic storytelling right back into the mall where they belonged’[10]. Indeed, the incomprehensive narrative estranges the viewer, making it unpalatable for a mainstream audience who expects to be fluently guided through the film. This lack of structure and trajectory portrays a snapshot of the characters’ lives and emphasises the protagonist’s confused, lonely and loveless existence, allowing the audience to make detached judgments without constant dictation of sympathy, which makes it all the more provocative. Moreover, while Milk’s narration provides seamless and comprehensive transitions, Idaho includes diegetic narration in which the characters provide exposition, monologues in verse, and the notably postmodern moment when the photos in the magazines speak directly to the audience to deliver background information to the prostitution industry. In these moments there is a lack of characterisation, which seems to adhere to Brecht’s technique of stepping out of character and breaking the forth wall in order to remind the viewer that they are watching a film, which further fragments the narrative with the modernist imperative of distancing the spectator.  

 

This leads into the point of character sympathy. Kolker claims that ‘the classical Hollywood style asks…that the audience be embraced by that story, identify with it and its participants’[11].This definition is also qualified by contemporary Hollywood, and once again places Milk firmly in this category. The film encourages a strong identification with the hero figure, sympathetically portraying his private and public life, his good intentions and his undeniable charm. The exploration of his romantic relationships allows further emotional connection for the viewer. In addition, the antagonists are unambiguously established, being placed as an obstacle for Harvey’s objectives. The audience is able to recognise the offensive statements of the opposing parties as they have been presented with the perspective of the gay community. This hero/antagonist formula is typical of mainstream cinema, making it accessible to a mass audience that is used to passively following a standardised storyline.

            This sympathetic investment makes Milk more affecting in comparison to the distanced thought-provoking style of Idaho. Much of the performance in the film is relatively uncharacterised and not complex, with little explicit insight into character motivation. Through detached delivery, the audience is invited to make unmediated judgments of the characters; indeed, we seem to learn more facts about the protagonists than their personalities, which allows an objective perspective. However, there are moments of powerful emotion between the two main characters that are made more powerful in comparison, seeming less contrived and predictable. The chorus characters speak their dreams and experiences but are not explored as characters, with overlapping conversations in chorus scenes providing less realism and more a sense of overwhelming pace of life. This creates little emotional investment as the information is presented unmediated. These choreographed chorus scenes contrast with intimate scenes in which deep feelings are shared, emphasising this fragmentation of two juxtaposing plots that keeps audience intellectually rather than emotionally engaged.

 

The narrative device that places the definitive nail in Milk’s mainstream categorisation is the inclusion of cathartic resolution. The end scene is made up of an emotive march led by Milk’s supporters. Memorial candles light up the night scene, with sombre faces and the final words of Milk’s voice-over on top of a lyrical piece of music. There is an overwhelming sense of tragedy and hope, almost demanding that the audience see the death as a martyrdom, and to feel despair as well as pride for the character. Such a cathartic ending is typical of Hollywood, which guides the audience to specifically feel a certain way. The musical score is very evident here and throughout the film, as it unambiguously guides narrative affectation, which typifies mainstream passivity.

In Idaho, no resolution is made, as indeed there was no objective established. This is highlighted by the closing caption of ‘have a nice day’, symbolising the mundaneness of the snapshot of life, and emphasising that this kind of life continues after the viewers have stopped watching. The difference between the two endings may be defined by what Colebrook distinguishes as ‘narrative-semantic and stimulant-affective’[12]. In other words, the thought-provoking versus cathartic experience, or cognition versus affect. Mainstream cinema generally does not explicitly invite audience response, while Brechtian techniques in independents such as Idaho provoke a cognitive reaction beyond the cinema, into the social realities of our world.

 

Finally, one must consider the thematic variances of the two films. While Milk imparts themes of sexual liberation and social revolution, as well as broader concepts such as overcoming adversity, in Idaho there are no such clear-cut morals or impressions. As Bradshaw notes: ‘Van Sant tells a straightforward story of a guy the audience can all cheer for: a sympathetic, non-partisan, and essentially monogamous figure’[13]. This denotes a transition into the mainstream as there is certainly no ambiguity regarding the film’s sympathies or intended morals. For instance, Van Sant’s reading of Dan White’s unresolved sexuality is presented rather than left up to the viewer to decide. The use of the star system is also significant here; David Denby remarks that ‘by casting a famously macho actor as Harvey Milk, Van Sant has made the central humanist desire for self-acceptance and pride newly powerful.’[14] Certainly, the intertextuality of Penn’s public persona is used to shape these themes.

 

Scott Tobias ‘found Van Sant drifting away from the personal core’[15] in his later films such as Milk. Indeed, this shift notes a move away from his auteur work in place of mass-market appeal that demands certain standardised techniques. Although the intertextual knowledge of Van Sant’s work as an art film director may lead to questions of Milk as a mainstream film, it is evident through this investigation of stylistic, narrative and thematic differences from his early work that Milk is inherently mainstream in all of these categories, with the most significant element being the film’s unequivocal narrative guidance.

 

Word count: 2526


[1] Reni Ernst, The Spectator and not the Actor is the Central Focus of Brecht’s Stagecraft, (Dublin: GRIN Verlag, 2008) p. 3.

[2] Constantin Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares, (New York: Routledge, 1989).

[3] Theodor Adorno, Essays on Music: Theodor W. Adorno, (London: University of California Press, 2002), p. 492.

[4] Gus Van Sant, quoted in ‘All the world’s an art school’ by Simon Hattenstone, The Guardian, 24 January 2004, http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2004/jan/24/features.weekend1 [accessed 28.05.13].

[5] Peter Bradshaw, ‘Milk’, The Guardian, (22.01.09), http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/jan/22/milk-film-review-gus-van-sant-sean-penn [accessed 21.05.13].

[6] David Bordwell, The Classical Hollywood Cinema, by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, (London: Routledge, 1985), p. 7.

[7] Edward Said, The World, the Text and the Critic (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts 1983) p 41.

[8] Tempest in a Teacup Blog, ‘Gus Van Sant’s Milk: We Will Recruit You’, Blogspot, (2010), http://t3mpestinat3apot.blogspot.com.au/2010/05/gus-van-sants-milk-we-recruit-you.html, [accessed 30.05.13].

 

[9] Robert P. Kolker, ‘The Film Text and Film Form’ in Film Studies: Critical Approached, ed. John Hills and Pamela C. Bibs, (Oxford: UP, 2000), p. 17.

[10] Mike Restaino, ‘My Own Private Idaho’, Pamela Jaye Smith Articles, http://www.pamelajayesmith.net/articles/my-own-private-idaho/ [accessed 28.05.13].

[11] Robert P. Kolker, ‘The Film Text and Film Form’ in Film Studies: Critical Approached, ed. John Hills and Pamela C. Bibs, (Oxford: UP, 2000), p. 16.

[12] Claire Colebrook, ‘Earth Felt the Wound: The Affective Divide’ in Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture (Vol. 8 / No. 1 / Winter 2011), p, 49.

[13] Peter Bradshaw, ‘Milk’, The Guardian, (22.01.09), http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/jan/22/milk-film-review-gus-van-sant-sean-penn [accessed 21.05.13].

[14] David Denby, ‘True Love’, The New Yorker, 2008, http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/cinema/2008/12/01/081201crci_cinema_denby, [accessed 20.05.13].

[15] Scott Tobias, ‘My Own Private Idaho is a personal statement and a River Phoenix memorial’, A.V. Club: The New Cult Canon,

http://www.avclub.com/articles/my-own-private-idaho-is-a-personal-statement-and-a,94005/ [accessed 01.06.13].

 

Bibliography:

Adorno, Theodor, Essays on Music: Theodor W. Adorno, (London: University of California Press, 2002).

Bordwell, David, ‘The Classical Hollywood Style’ in The Classical Hollywood Cinema, by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, (London: Routledge, 1985).

Bradshaw, Peter, ‘Milk’, The Guardian, (22.01.09), http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/jan/22/milk-film-review-gus-van-sant-sean-penn [accessed 21.05.13].

Colebrook, Claire, ‘Earth Felt the Wound: The Affective Divide’ in Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture (Vol. 8 / No. 1 / Winter 2011).

Denby, David, ‘True Love’, The New Yorker, 2008, http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/cinema/2008/12/01/081201crci_cinema_denby, [accessed 20.05.13].

Ernst, Reni, The Spectator and Not the Actor is the Central Focus of Brecht’s Stagecraft, (Dublin: GRIN Verlag, 2008)

Hattenstone, Simon, ‘All the world’s an art school’ , The Guardian, 24 January 2004, http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2004/jan/24/features.weekend1 [accessed 28.05.13].

Kolker, Robert P., ‘The Film Text and Film Form’ in Film Studies: Critical Approached, ed. John Hills and Pamela C. Bibs, (Oxford: UP, 2000).

Restaino, Mike, ‘My Own Private Idaho’, Pamela Jaye Smith Articles, http://www.pamelajayesmith.net/articles/my-own-private-idaho/ [accessed 28.05.13].

Said, Edward The World, the Text and the Critic (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts 1983).

Stanislavski, Constantin, An Actor Prepares, (New York: Routledge, 1989).

Tempest in a Teacup Blog, ‘Gus Van Sant’s Milk: We Will Recruit You’, Blogspot, (2010), http://t3mpestinat3apot.blogspot.com.au/2010/05/gus-van-sants-milk-we-recruit-you.html, [accessed 30.05.13].

Tobias, Scott, ‘My Own Private Idaho is a personal statement and a River Phoenix memorial’, A.V. Club: The New Cult Canon,

http://www.avclub.com/articles/my-own-private-idaho-is-a-personal-statement-and-a,94005/ [accessed 01.06.13].

 

Filmography:

Milk, Dir, Gus Van Sant, Focus Features, Axon Films, 2009, DVD.

My Own Private Idaho. Dir. Gus Van Sant, New Line Cinema, 1991, DVD.

Compare the representations of memory and time control in mainstream and independent films. Use Looper and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in your analysis.

While sharing a common idea, Looper and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are fundamentally different films that attract very divided audiences. Both include what Smelik notes as a warning of the cataclysmic implications of technology- a moral ending characteristic of Hollywood science-fiction[1]. However, the core difference between the two can be expressed by the fact that in Eternal Sunshine the use of memory technology may be seen as more of a metaphor, while Looper aims to fascinate with its time travel technology. With this in mind, I will be exploring how the films differ thematically, generically and stylistically, as well as the way they are marketed and consumed.

 

Most apparent is the generic difference between these films. Looper is recognisably an action film, while Eternal Sunshine may be categorised as a psychological drama. Mainstream time travel films tend to be very much in the high concept category, independents in the experimental. Ian Long writes: ‘High Concept appeals to basic human curiosity or interest… Science fiction’s preoccupation with time, identity and alternative future makes it a natural home for High Concept’[2]. This is corroborated in Looper, with a review remarking that with it ‘you’ve got a high-concept action film rooted in science fiction and driven by characters’[3]. Independent film tends to focus more on experimentation, making it, in the same vein, apt for philosophical debates and audiences. To this extent, though both films include similar concepts of technology, only Looper would be widely acknowledged as a science fiction film, because of the privileged status it gives science.

 

With this differentiation in genre comes a divided demographic and consequent marketing strategy. Both use stars, but Looper puts Willis in his type cast, while Eternal Sunshine subverts audience expectation, creating an experimentation in performance rather than playing up to genre. This appears to divide the audiences into the passive mainstream, and the active art-house viewers; the former comfortable in their understanding of the characters, the latter challenged and provoked. However, the two are not inextricably linked. With the two-tiered system of communication in mind, film-literate audience will also find intellectual stimulation and cinematic allusions in Looper, while the mass mainstream audience (making up the majority) will look at it purely as a form of passive entertainment. This adheres to Adorno’s theory that ‘passive dupes’[4] indulge in mainstream popular culture, and helps to clearly differentiate the two audiences of complicity and passivity into high and low brow categories.  

Such audience distinctions display varied forms of consumption. Rian Johnson actively uses new media to mediate fan involvement and extend their curiosity, encouraging such blogs and videos that study the franchise and find loophole in material- typical discriminatory behaviour of fandom. Indeed, John Fiske asserts that ‘fans discriminate fiercely…the boundaries between the community of fans and the rest of the world are…strongly marked and patrolled’[5]. Independent films are less about fandom and more about individual engagement; the affecting nature of the material and style makes it a personal experience.  

 

Themes in the mainstream films are generally more focused on a fascination in the technology of memory or time control, while independent films tend to investigate the moral codings that the concept of this control initiates. Certainly, much of the discourse surrounding Looper deconstructs the film’s ‘rules’ of time travel. For example, Kevan Roche writes: ‘[Looper] does a good job of giving the audience just enough of an explanation to logically follow the plot and action, while also being vague enough to inspire questions and debate about the overarching structure of how it actually works’[6]. Again, this highlights the combination of passivity and fascination in the consumption of mainstream film.

However, Eternal Sunshine explicitly depicts a philosophical discourse regarding the ethics of memory control. Twice are Nietzsche quotations (to which the film title alludes) spoken by Mary, including: ‘how happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!/ The world forgetting, by the world forgot/ Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!/ Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d’[7]. This engagement with philosophical debate clearly puts the film’s intentions before the audience, along with symbols that aid the argument. For instance, Joel changes his mind about getting memories erased, but is powerless. Furthermore, the erasers are portrayed as irresponsible as they get high while in the process of deletion. Taking this point further, Reeve claims that memory control is not the given debate, but more is the Freudian focus on love’s roots in childhood[8]. This positions the literal technology even further in the background, using it merely as a foundation on which to experiment. Meanwhile in Looper, the technological system is at the forefront of the film’s plot and fan discourse. Though some morals may be found in Looper, it seems evident that such readings are not the primary intention. As shown, most science-fiction fans find pleasure in deconstructing the time travel system, rather than finding philosophical codings. Eternal Sunshine viewers tend to come away appropriating the argument that has been put forward into their own life, which may not necessarily include the literal concept of memory control.

 

Stylistic variances denote that Looper is less about affect and more about the idea of the pace-turning thrill-seeking. While both films include a film noir-style narrative voice-over, that featured in Eternal Sunshine is a stream of consciousness, less coherent, more providing a tone and atmosphere. In Looper it is direct, concise and informational. In the same vein, shot transitions in Looper are deft and scene-to-scene progressions are clear, while in Eternal Sunshine we are often unsure what time period we are entering in each scene. Furthermore, stylistic devices such as lighting, sound and focus distortion are used to portray the fading of memories in Eternal Sunshine. In Looper, effects are less alienating, and more aesthetically pleasing, which again denotes the primacy of the spectacle, the aesthetics of astonishment. Eternal Sunshine techniques are closely linked to Deleuzian theories of affection[9], while Looper’s are powerful and visually impressive (for instance the spectacular sequence when the Rainmaker kills the looper). Affect is therefore an important difference between the two. Colebrook claims that ‘art may well have meanings or messages but what makes it art is not its content but its affect[10]. This may be contested because of the hybridity of Looper’s style, but that typical art film affection is only explicitly foregrounded in Eternal Sunshine.

Joel interacts with his memories with a consciousness towards the activity of deleting them, allowing affecting self-reflection for him and the audience. While characters in Looper also interact with their future selves, the interaction is more focused towards feeding the plot progression. Here, the audience is complicit in the fictive world as they follow the twists and turns, though self-reflexivity is not demanded of them; they can remain passive on a deeper level, engaged on the superficial level. Even Old Joe even says ‘let’s not talk about time travel or we’ll be here all day’. This line almost satirised the genre by acknowledging the insignificance of intellectual depth.

 

Emotion is far more significant in Eternal Sunshine through the developed sequences of the couple’s relationship, while in Looper his marriage is shown merely through brief flashbacks. The increased sympathy stimulates metaphysical discourse rather than superficial engagement with story as mere stimulus for the hero’s plight. Though criticisms of Willis’s performance aid this argument of a very superficial engagement with his relationship, viewer empathy seems of less importance to the enjoyment of the film. As Smelik articulates, independent memory or time control films are more concerned with the portrayal of emotions than realistic technological inventions[11]. With Looper, a full picture of time travel is attempting to be portrayed, and is what interests the mainstream audience.

 

Narrative structure also aids the distinction between the two representations. The fragmented style in Eternal Sunshine is arguably more true to human experience, due to the complexity of emotional implications being affecting for the audience. Looper follows the typical Hollywood ending of inevitably making the protagonist the ultimate saviour. Though the fate of Looper’s remaining characters is left unstated, it is very much implied. Moreover, audience focus has remained on the hero, meaning there is a satisfaction of resolution when the ‘loop’ is ‘closed’. Thus, the ambiguity that comes with the tenuous subject of time and memory control manifests itself in different ways in the two distinctions: here, Hollywood convention smooths out such issues with narrative closure and close adherence to the unambiguous formula of the action genre. As Shaw writes, ‘Classical Hollywood films do indeed tell us precisely how to respond to emotional scenes, using every technique in the book…In so doing, they achieved a remarkable uniformity of emotional response in audiences worldwide.’[12] While not a ‘classical’ film, Looper’s narrative is certainly ‘Hollywood’, and follows these conventions that result in more unequivocal, passive, pleasure-viewing. The motif of the stopwatch symbolises the theme of the manipulation of time. This reflects the fact that everything within the plot as well as the creative process is pre-determined, progressing to a resolution. Indeed, everything in mainstream cinema is strategized and scheduled, allowing the audience to remain passive. Meanwhile, independent films such as Eternal Sunshine ‘allow for the ambiguity of affect by foregrounding the ambiguity of memory, which results in a non-linear, fragmented narrative structure’[13]. Here, audience response has less ‘uniformity’, as it is more personally affecting; the viewer’s role is more active.

 

Ultimately, both films look at the ability to control destiny, and queries over how much we can learn or how much we are shaped by our memories. The main difference is evidently the thematic use of time and memory control, which is determined by the genre and the target audience. For Looper, it is the novelty of time travel as a technology and a focus on the action hero. Eternal Sunshine uses concept of memory control as stimulus for social experimentation and commentary by stimulating affect in viewers.

 


[1] Anneke Smelik, ‘The Virtuality of Time: Memory in Science Fiction Film’ in Technologies of Memory in the Arts, eds. Liedeke Plate & Anneke Smelik, (Palgrace Macmillian: 2009), p. 57.

[2] Ian Long, Sci-Fi Workshop, Euroscript, http://www.euroscript.co.uk/scifiworkshop.html, [accessed 10.05.13].

[3] Matt Barone, ‘The 25 Best Movies of 2012: Looper’ (21.12.12), http://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2012/12/2012-year-in-review-best-movies/looper [accessed 07.05.13].

[4] Theodor Adorno, Essays on Music: Theodor W. Adorno, (London: University of California Press, 2002), p. 459.

[5] John Fiske, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 34.

[6] Kevan Roche, ‘Looper analysis: Deconstructing Its Time Travel’, (04.10.12), http://whatculture.com/film/looper-analysis-deconstructing-its-time-travel.php [accessed 06.05.13].

[7] F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, (New York: Random House, 1974), p. 52. 

[8] David Reeve, “Two Blue Ruins: Love and Memory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ed. Christopher Grau, (USA: Routledge, 2009), p. 4.

[9] Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

[10] Claire Colebrook, Understanding Deleuze, (Allen & Urwin: 2002), pp. 24-5.

[11] Smelik, p. 63.

[12] Daniel Shaw, ‘A Rejoinder to Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Motion Pictures‘, Film-Philosophy, (vol. 12, no. 2: 2008), pp. 142-151. http://www.film-philosophy.com/2008v12n2/shaw.pdf, p. 146.

[13] Smelik, p. 62. 

Bibliography:

Adorno, Theodor, Essays on Music: Theodor W. Adorno, (London: University of California Press, 2002).

Barone, Matt, ‘The 25 Best Movies of 2012: Looper’ (21.12.12), http://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2012/12/2012-year-in-review-best-movies/looper [accessed 07.05.13].

Carroll, Noël, Engaging the Moving Image (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

Colebrook, Claire, Understanding Deleuze, (Allen & Urwin: 2002).

Fiske, John, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, (New York: Routledge, 1992).

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

Long, Ian, Sci-Fi Workshop, Euroscript, http://www.euroscript.co.uk/scifiworkshop.html, [accessed 10.05.13].

Nietzsche, F., The Gay Science, (New York: Random House, 1974). 

Reeve, David, “Two Blue Ruins: Love and Memory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ed. Christopher Grau, (USA: Routledge, 2009), p. 4.

Roche, Kevan, ‘Looper analysis: Deconstructing Its Time Travel’, (04.10.12), http://whatculture.com/film/looper-analysis-deconstructing-its-time-travel.php [accessed 06.05.13].

Shaw, Daniel, ‘A Rejoinder to Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Motion Pictures‘, Film-Philosophy, (vol. 12, no. 2: 2008), pp. 142-151, http://www.film-philosophy.com/2008v12n2/shaw.pdf [accessed 07.05.13].

Smelik, Anneke, ‘The Virtuality of Time: Memory in Science Fiction Film’ in Technologies of Memory in the Arts, eds. Liedeke Plate & Anneke Smelik, (Palgrace Macmillian: 2009).

How is authenticity constituted in the contemporary music industry? What is its purpose? Please illustrate with a case-study of a particular genre, artist or group.

In today’s music industry, notions of ‘authenticity’ are not necessarily acknowledged or questioned, given the context of mass ‘commercial’ music. Yet, for some musicians their key selling point is their authenticity; their originality, real talent, and genuine belonging to their given subculture, proven by their display of habitus.  I will be arguing that authenticity can never be definitively ascribed to an artist, and that it does not necessarily need to be in the context of the contemporary mass-market music industry (at least in the mainstream). I will be looking at the case study of rapper Rick Ross, and will problematize this study with a re-evaluation of the concept of authenticity in hip-hop.

 

An authoritative definition of authenticity is that by John Fiske in his discussion of fandom. He writes that ‘authenticity…is a criterion of discrimination normally used to accumulate official cultural capital’[1]. In other words, the distinction of authenticity is something that fans use to characterise themselves as true fans. Yet, this arouses the question of whether this authenticity, then, is something subjectively attributed by the audience rather than inherent in the artist. Indeed, as will be explored through this essay, authenticity is hard to conclusively define.   

 

Hip-hop rapper Rick Ross is a prime example of where fabricated authenticity, or indeed public inauthenticity, presents a viable and successful product in today’s music industry. Born William Leonard Roberts II, this popular rapper is rumoured to have been a prison guard at the penitentiary in which notorious drug lord, Rick Ross, was incarcerated in the 1990s. The ‘Freeway’ Rick Ross makes claim that this public figure stole his name and identity in order to create a hip-hop persona, thus infringing on ‘publicity rights, false advertising, unjust enrichment, and unfair business practice’[2]. This case begs the question of why, with this public information of inauthenticity, this musician continues to gain success.

            Certainly, Gilbert and Pearson write that ‘artists must speak the truth of their (and others’) situations…[The singer’s] fundamental role [is] to represent the culture from which he comes’[3]. This denotes a kind of honesty from the artist, which is lacking in the case of Rick Ross who makes claims to a drug empire that seemingly aims to impress his fans. Grossberg corroborates this when he speaks of ‘honesty to experience’[4].  He articulates the concept of authenticity as how fans can ‘find some sense of identification and belonging, where they could invest and employ themselves in specific ways’[5]. In other words, authenticity signifies the resonating with their common desires, feelings and experiences. Within hip-hop fandom, such canonized figures such as Biggie Smalls and Tupac represent true authenticity in the scene. Biggie reached out to his community by dedicating his song ‘Juicy’ to ‘all ma n***as in the struggle’[6], and goes on to talk about having to ‘hustle’ in order to ‘feed his daughter, thus denoting a perceived authenticity. There has been a shift in values for many of the biggest hip-hop stars of today; Ross raps about his lavish lifestyle. In his song ‘Street Life’, he raps: ‘ain’t nothin’ but the street life, that’s money, cars and hoes, it’s the only life I chose’[7]. Apart from being fairly simple and unimaginative, it also appears decidedly inauthentic to characterise ‘street life’ through displays of wealth.  However, such exhibitions of prosperity and hedonism also find their way into the lyrics of esteemed rap stars, so how does one distinguish between the authentic and the inauthentic? This leads us on to the importance of discrimination and distinction in the discussion of authenticity.

Fiske’s thesis that ‘fans discriminate fiercely…the boundaries between the community of fans and the rest of the world are…strongly marked and patrolled’[8] is extremely relevant here. Indeed, ‘true’ hip-hop fans obtain enough cultural capital by being able to distinguish either side of the authentic/commercial paradigm. Fiske observed that Dr. Who fans in the Tulloch and Alvarado study (1983) ‘frequently used official culture criteria such as ‘complexity’ or ‘subtlety’ to argue that their preferred texts were as ‘good’ as the canonised ones, and constantly evoked legitimate culture- novels, plays, art, films- as points of comparison’[9]. Certainly, ‘authentic’ hip-hop fans attribute such features to the work of Biggie, denouncing ‘mainstream’ figures such as Ross as ‘simple’ and ‘derivative’. In contemporary discourses, it has become a real hip-hop versus ‘shit-hop’ feud.  

However, even such hailed artists subscribe to inauthentic strategies. Biggie’s image was consciously doctored in order to speak to and for his demographic. His mother relates that lyrics referencing the lack of food to eat, having to eat ‘sardines for dinner’ in his ‘one-room shack’[10] was a ruse, part of his on-stage persona. Certainly, Biggie, born Christopher Wallace, attended private school, and was always provided for by his mother.  Furthermore, when he was first signed, his manager P. Diddy insisted on the input of popular music as ‘hooks’ that would be palatable for a mass audience. This relates to Shuker’s case study of Bob Marley and the Wailers, who were ‘watered down for white consumption’[11]. In both cases, it seems that there exists authentic talent, while their public personas are altered, possibly explaining why such inauthenticity is forgivable for such revered artists.

         Indeed, there is a potentially excusable argument. Forman Murray writes, ‘successful acts are expected to maintain connections to the ‘hood’ and ‘keep it real’ thematically, rapping about situations, scenes and sites that comprise the lived experience of the ‘hood’. At issue is the complex question of authenticity as rap poses continually strive to reaffirm their connections to the ‘hood’’[12].  However, there exists the difficulty of ‘keeping it real’ and also appealing to a mainstream audience for maximum profit. Additionally, since the rap scene has preconceived standards of what makes an authentic artist, then rapper are forced to adhere to such a mold, even if that means deviating from their true, authentic self. 

Interestingly, Mickey Hess implements theories of W.E.B. DuBois to add a new perspective, writing: ‘A theory of hip-hop’s seemingly conflicting concerns of authenticity and marketability may work to reframe W.E.B. Dubois’ concept of double-consciousness in commercial terms as artists work to produce marketable music for mainstream listeners yet at the same time to maintain a necessary level of authenticity to a place of cultural origin’[13]. Therefore, even the truly authentic have to find that balance as, in a capitalist society, their art must be commodified and profit-driven in order to be continued. Shuker corroborates this with the assertion that ‘such views of mass art forms…as compromised by its association with capitalist commodity production, are flawed’[14]. He speaks of the prevalence of artists with concerns of profitability, and claims that ‘a concern with marketability is not necessarily at odds with notions of authenticity and credibility; indeed, the latter are themselves marketable commodities’[15]. Thus, authenticity cannot denote disregard for profit margins, but instead must be what is attributed to the act by the audience.

Fornas’ argument helps to define why hard-core fans may continue to canonise these figures that have elements of inauthenticity. He claims that authenticity is not intrinsically opposed to artificiality, as authenticity is essentially a construction we ascribe to what we perceive[16]. Therefore, as a construction attributed by the audience, authenticity can be whatever the audience wants it to be. It could be viewed that Biggie earned his authenticity by becoming complicit in gang culture that ultimately left him murdered- definitive proof of his affiliations to the culture he sought to stand for.

 

Steven Feld asserts that ‘authenticity only emerges when it is counter to forces that are trying to screw it up, transform it, dominate it, mess with it’[17]. Therefore, it seems that it is because of the rise of the manufactured pop star that causes these discourses of authenticity. However, this evidence ultimately seems to conclude that, although revered in niche subcultures and fan communities, authenticity cannot be conclusively defined, nor does it need to be in order to be enjoyed. Particularly in a contemporary context, mass market does not demand authenticity, as mainstream audiences are able to connect with inauthentic artists because they do not belong to the social group to which that artist is supposedly trying to stand for. In today’s industry, the purpose of authenticity is merely to distinguish between different fan communities and the selling point of different musicians. 

 

Word count: 1,414

 [1] Fiske, John, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 36.

[2] Eriq Gardner, ‘Judge Rejects Warner Bros. Records’ Motion to Dismiss Ricky Ross v. Rick Ross Lawsuit’, HollywoodReporter, 7/18/2012 [accessed 18.04.13], http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/rick-ross-freeway-ricky-warner-bros-sue-maybach-music-351204.

[3] J. Gilbert and E. Pearson, Discographies: Dance Music, Culture, and the Politics of Sound (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 164-5.

[4] L. Grossberg,, We Gotta Get Out of This Place (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 206.

[5] L. Grossberg,, We Gotta Get Out of This Place (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 204-5.

[6] Biggie Smalls, ‘Juicy’, youtube.com, [accessed 18.04.13], www.youtube.com.

[7] Rick Ross, ‘Street Life’, youtube.com, [accessed 18.04.13], www.youtube.com.

[8] Fiske, John, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 34.

[9] Fiske, John, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 36.

[10] Biggie Smalls, ‘Juicy’, youtube.com, [accessed 18.04.13], www.youtube.com.

[11] Roy Shuker, ‘”Every1’s a winner”: The Music Industry’ in Understanding Popular Music, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 47.

[12] Murray, Forman, “Represent: race, space, and place in rap music” in Popular Music and Society (Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 72.

[13] Mickey Hess, “Metal Faces, Rap Masks: Identity and Resistance in Hip Hop’s Persona Artist” in Popular Music and Society (Taylor & Francis Group, 2005), p. 298.

[14] Roy Shuker, ‘”Every1’s a winner”: The Music Industry’ in Understanding Popular Music, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 34.

[15] Roy Shuker, ‘”Every1’s a winner”: The Music Industry’ in Understanding Popular Music, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 35.

[16] J. Fornas, Cultural Theory and Late Modernity, (London: Sage, 1995), p. 275.

[17] C. Keil, and S. Feld, Music Grooves (Chicago: Sage Publications, 1994), p. 296.

Bibliography:

Fiske, John, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, (New York: Routledge, 1992).

Fornas, J., Cultural Theory and Late Modernity, (London: Sage, 1995).

Gardner, Eriq, ‘Judge Rejects Warner Bros. Records’ Motion to Dismiss Ricky Ross v. Rick Ross Lawsuit’, HollywoodReporter, 7/18/2012 [accessed 18.04.13], http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/rick-ross-freeway-ricky-warner-bros-sue-maybach-music-351204.

Gelder, Ken, The Subcultures Reader, 2nd ed, (USA and Canada: Routledge, 1997).

Gilbert, J., and Pearson, E., Discographies: Dance Music, Culture, and the Politics of Sound (London: Routledge, 1999).

Grossberg, L., We Gotta Get Out of This Place (London: Routledge, 1992).

Hess, Mickey, “Metal Faces, Rap Masks: Identity and Resistance in Hip Hop’s Persona Artist” in Popular Music and Society (Taylor & Francis Group, 2005).

Keil, C., and Feld, S., Music Grooves (Chicago: Sage Publications, 1994).

Moore, Alan, ‘Authenticity as Authentication’ in Popular Music, Volume 21/2, (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 209–223.

Murray, Forman, “Represent: race, space, and place in rap music” in Popular Music and Society (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Thornton, Sarah, ‘Exploring the Meaning of Mainstream’ in Club Cultures, (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1996).

Shuker, Roy, ‘”Every1’s a winner”: The Music Industry’ in Understanding Popular Music, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2001).

Smalls, Biggie, ‘Juicy’, youtube.com, [accessed 18.04.13], www.youtube.com.

Ross, Rick, ‘Street Life’, youtube.com, [accessed 18.04.13], www.youtube.com.

Rubidge, S. ‘Does authenticity matter? The case for and against authenticity in the performing arts’, in Analysing Performance, ed. P. Campbell (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.), pp. 219–33.

Willis, Ellen, Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, ed. by Nona Willis Aronowitz, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011 [1981]), p. 221.

 

How do music videos operate ideologically? Discuss within the bounds of a textual analysis on a particular musician or band and their representation of gender, ethnicity, class or sexuality in their videos.

There are very apparent ideologies projected in the hip-hop genre, and are undeniably evident in their music videos. Nas’s song Nasty is accompanied by a video that typifies the main ideologies of the hip hop scene, as well as marking a change from principles displayed in early hip-hop. The video opens with an introduction to a live Nas show from the stage perspective, looking into the audience. When the song begins we see shots of him in a recording booth. The main sequence begins with Nas in a limousine with two females, then he gets out on the street with an extensive gang of boys awaiting him. He walks through the ‘hood’, shaking hands with many of these young men, some of them children. He takes off his expensive-looking jacket to reveal a plain white vest. As he reaches the end of the street he turns and makes his way into the recording booth. This essay will explore how class and economics are presented as the main ideologies in many hip-hop videos, with the specific example of Nas’s Nasty video. I will be problematizing such a reading of music videos as signifiers of cultural ideologies with an ethnographic approach.

 

Hip-hop subculture has one of the most recognisable ideological leanings, with the rags-to-riches ideal being chiefly prominent. Nasty and other similar music videos adhere to this fundamental capitalist logic of meritocracy. However, it subverts the dominant American Dream ideology in place of an attainable dream for members of the subordinated classes and ethnicities. The video’s setting in the inner-city streets of New York denotes the importance of territoriality in hip-hop. Forman talks about how this territoriality represents capitalist ideologies that are driven by a market logic and customer base[1]. Indeed, both gang-affiliated and geographical spatiality show how this subculture revolves around a monetary mentality, which is also mirrored by the genre’s associations with the drug trade. This is exemplified in Nas’s video, as he displays his material prosperity with jewels, money, clothes and champagne. The fact that the young boys in the video evidently look up to Nas as they keenly look on when he arrives in his chauffeur-driven limousine depicts how economic capital is key to the definition of success. The video depicts an aspiration towards entrepreneurship outside the dominant culture; such an ideology projects anti-establishment sentiment, rejecting the importance of education and class and providing aspirations of alternative culture capital.

 

This emphasis on economic rather than class mobility is portrayed as authentic hip-hop ideology; preserving a working-class aesthetic with economic advancement shows Nas remaining in his class and staying true to his roots. When he strips off his expensive jacket to reveal a white vest, he demonstrates this adherence to the working-class aesthetic. He maintains his style, handshake, walk and typical hip-hop gestures. A semiotic analysis of this habitus shows how they act as signifiers for hip-hop authenticity and therefore its associated ideologies. Furthermore, the fact that he walks through the ‘hood’ provides a signification of spatiality. Forman speaks of ‘how the dynamics of space, place and race get taken up by rap artists as themes and topics’[2]. Certainly, through this setting, Nas is authenticating his place in the genre, and an adherence to the allied ideologies.

However, with the intertextual knowledge of Nas’s rise to fame and wealth, one may note ideological changes his earlier videos. He is now more part of Adorno and Horkheimer’s concept of the culture industry[3] than part of the subculture he represents. His old songs were about persevering to become successful, and his videos portrayed him spatially in his ‘hood’, in which he seemed to fit. The Nasty video places him in the same space, but with a very different relationship to this environment- as an ‘other’, although a revered other. This presents a limitation of the socio-economic ideologies of hip-hop, as there remains the dichotomy of remaining true to one’s roots but having to buy into the culture industry in order to rise ‘out of the ghetto’. This marks a change from early hip-hop, when economic imperatives were virtually non-existent due to the lack of long-term financial prospect of the genre, as well as the lack of career aspirations within this community- ‘getting out the ghetto’ was and is seen as a futile feat to many due to prejudices and class exclusivity. Now that in recent years the scene has shown colossal profitability, the ideologies have changed from voicing socio-political concerns to the display of wealth and a certain image of the tough, narcissistic, entrepreneurial pimp stereotype that is so prevalent in hip-hop. The occasional nod to humble beginnings, such as in this video, is evidently all that is needed to remain ‘authentic’ and to commodify the working-class aesthetic.    

Barthes’s concept of ‘myth’ describes ‘a peculiar system in that it is constructed from a semiological chain which existed before it’[4]. To this extent, our ideas of Nas are shaped by intertextual knowledge. This video also fits into a canon that makes up the wider ‘myth’ surrounding the African-American community of inner city New York- such mainstream hip-hop videos shapes how the mass market views the subculture.

 

This structuralist reliance on textual analysis limits the study of music videos as it disregards actual experience and reception. Nigel Thrift’s approach of non-representational theory[5] looks at the significance of the Deleuzian concept of affect[6] in such an analysis; that is, how the viewers personally respond to the video. Semiotic approach of analysis is problematic, as such music videos are mediated by dominant culture that controls media and therefore the production of hegemonic ideology. Certainly, popular hip-hop is presented to mainstream audience as an ‘exotic other’, as Edward Said would put it[7]; a socially constructed representation. Therefore, we must look to this embodied reaction for a truer reading of the video and the ideologies it imparts. Indeed, Anike writes that the ‘criteria of hip hop authenticity is rather complex and therefore a more appropriate way to describe it is a deep spiritual, emotional, or personal connection an individual feels towards a specific artist or performance’[8]. The ethnographic evidence found in the comments left on the video on YouTube depicts a drawn-out argument on who is the best hip-hop rapper of all time: ‘nas is the best storyteller and rakim best lyricist. Rakim is the god and nas is god´s son’[9]. This links to Fiske’s discussion of fan distinction and discrimination[10] and the theory that fandom is about a sense of belonging rather than explicit ideological implications. As Adorno and Horkheimer would see it, the viewers ‘seek novelty, but the strain and boredom associated with actual work leads to avoidance of effort in that leisure time which offers the only chance for really new experience. As a substitute, they crave a stimulant’[11]. Indeed, ideological readings are not necessarily directly taken from this type of video. Moreover, Nas is representing a minority subculture, while the majority of his consumers are from outside of it, passively indulging for the novelty of the aesthetic for an escape from the constraints of their own culture, or for the gaining of subcultural capital in place of the lack of dominant cultural capital. Sarah Thornton corroborates this idea, claiming that ‘fantasies of identity are key to pleasure’[12]. Undoubtedly, such a fantasy exists outside of reality and real-world issues of ideological debate. Thus, learned cultural responses to music videos may be subverted by a study of the pre-cognitive affect in which ideological issues are less considered than passive entertainment.

 

Evidently, the bourgeois idea of cognitive connection to culture is seemingly unfitting for a study of popular music; instead the focus is on pleasure, not critical analysis. As Andrew Britton explores the concept of Hollywood blockbusters, so too is popular music to be ‘consumed’ rather than ‘read’ with the postmodern logic of spectacle over content[13]. Nonetheless, music videos do operate ideologically; the Nasty video adds to the ‘myth’ of hip-hop ideology, particularly with regard to the economic goals and class authenticity.  It may therefore be concluded that, as Said claims, ‘the reader is a full participant in the production of meaning, being obliged as a moral thing to act, to produce some sense’[14], indicating that music videos operate ideologically only to the extent to which the viewer interpolates it.

 


[1] Murray Forman, ‘’Represent’: Race, Space and Place in Rap Music’ in Popular Music, vol.19, no.1, (Cambridge University Press, 2000), http://www.jstor.org/stable/853712 [accessed 20.05.13], p. 67.

[2] Murray Forman, ‘’Represent’: Race, Space and Place in Rap Music’ in Popular Music, vol.19, no.1, (Cambridge University Press, 2000), http://www.jstor.org/stable/853712 [accessed 20.05.13], p. 66.

[3] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, (Stanford University Press: 2002).

[4] Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), p. 114.

[5] Nigel Thrift, Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect, (Oxon: Routledge, 2008).

[6] Gilles Deleuze, ‘Part III, Proposition 56: Spinoza, Benedictus de’, Ethics. Trans. by W.H. White and A.H. Stirling, (London: Wordsworth, 2001 [1677]). 

[7] Edward W. Said, Orientalism. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).

[8] Stephanie Anike, Hip Hop’s Masked Authenticity, (Rutgers University) dialogues.rutgers.edu/all-journals/…/140-hip-hop-s-masked-authenticity‎, [accessed 01.06.13], p. 2.

[9] ado2700, YoutTube.com: Nasty by Nas, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wo97R0ib1CE [accessed 01.06.13].

[10] John Fiske, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 36.

[11] Theodor Adorno, Essays on Music: Theodor W. Adorno, (London: University of California Press, 2002), p. 459.

[12] Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital, (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), p. 91. 

[13] Andrew Britton, Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton, edited by Barry Keith Grant, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009).

[14] Said, Edward The World, the Text and the Critic (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts 1983) p 41.

Bibliography

Adorno, Theodor and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, (Stanford University Press: 2002).

Adorno, Theodor, Essays on Music: Theodor W. Adorno, (London: University of California Press, 2002).

Anike, Stephanie, Hip Hop’s Masked Authenticity, (Rutgers University) dialogues.rutgers.edu/all-journals/…/140-hip-hop-s-masked-authenticity‎, [accessed 01.06.13].

Barthes, Roland, Elements of Semiology, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1968 [1964].

Barthes, Roland, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972).

Britton, Andrew, Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton, edited by Barry Keith Grant, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009).

Fiske, John, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, (New York: Routledge, 1992).

Forman, Murray, ‘’Represent’: Race, Space and Place in Rap Music’ in Popular Music, vol.19, no.1, (Cambridge University Press, 2000), http://www.jstor.org/stable/853712 [accessed 20.05.13].

Thornton, Sarah, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital, (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1996). 

Thrift, Nigel, Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect, (Oxon: Routledge, 2008).

Said, Edward, The World, the Text and the Critic (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts 1983).

Said, Edward W., Orientalism. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).

ado2700, YoutTube.com: Nasty by Nas, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wo97R0ib1CE [accessed 01.06.13].

“One of the striking features of nineteenth century American literature is the number of women who turned to writing for income and self-expression. In the process, they established a tradition of writing that is more grounded in domestic than is men’s writing, a tradition that focuses on community and family and which uses sentiment and/or emotion to explore fundamental truths and moral issues”. Discuss.

Jane Tompkins writes on how nineteenth century domestic novels characterise ‘a monumental effort to reorganize culture from the woman’s point of view…in certain cases, it offers a critique of American society far more devastating than any delivered by better-known critics such as Hawthorne and Melville’[1]. Indeed, both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Awakening seem to adhere to this tradition, though on differing tangents of realism and sentimentalism. I will be scrutinizing these texts as branches of the domestic tradition, and will be assessing their respective effectiveness in terms of social discourse. I will be investigating how affect theory applies to the use of emotion in female writing, and how that provided a new dimension to social criticism in American literature through its acknowledgment that emotions are vital to moral judgment.

 

Due to its mass popularity and emotive style there have ever been connotations of domestic female writing with non-literary, indulgent, passive consumption. Tompkins corroborates this, speaking of how popularity is often equated with degradation, emotion with ineptitude and domesticity with insignificance[2]. These female writers are thought to have used ‘false stereotypes, dishing out weak-minded pap to nourish the prejudices of an ill-educated and underemployed female readership’[3]. The idea of stereotyping is certainly true of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, yet such a claim is problematized with the example of the more elliptical writing style in The Awakening. This is where the tradition divides into realism and sentimentalism; though using different styles both use emotion and include the theme of the primacy of human connection and emotion in moral judgment, valorising the concept of affectional experience.

Certainly, the Deleuzian concept of affect distinguishes how such a tradition offers a new dimension to social criticism. Affects are states of mind and body related to feelings and emotions, made up of pleasure or joy, pain or sorrow and desire or appetite[4]. This non-cognitive reaction arguably determines a certain moral coding. Thus, art that has this effect can discover new truths otherwise lost in rigid logic. Undeniably, social issues including slavery and female oppression can only truly be dealt with in relation to moral judgments determined by emotional experience. Shaun Nichols writes about emotivism, the idea of expressing rather than reporting one’s feelings[5]. He claims that ‘sentimental accounts are supposed to give a more accurate rendering of moral judgment on the ground, as opposed to the disconnected, emaciated characterization of moral judgment promoted by some in the rationalist tradition’[6]. Indeed, this emotive reflection on human morals seems to bring additional degrees of empathy and therefore affect for the reader.

This affect is exploited in varied ways in the realist and sentimentalist traditions, being affecting to different readerships and effective in different ways. Uncle Tom’s Cabin deals with the ways in which women can be political actors through their capacity for expression and compassion; in fact, the writing of the book was a political act in itself. Meanwhile, The Awakening is about the self-expression and liberation of women on a personal level. To this extent, they are respectively apt for realism/sentimentalism as they act on different scales.

 

Contemporary reaction to The Awakening saw much critical hostility. Certainly, at a time when one could not openly express such deviances from the patriarchal structure and sexual inclinations, this naturalistic representation resonated deeply with its readers. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that much of Edna’s story stems from Chopin’s own thoughts on female liberation and independence, as she read much feminist writing and wrote in her diaries of her resentment towards various social obligations she held as a woman[7]. This is portrayed when Edna gets up in the middle of the night and ‘she could not have told why she was crying’[8]. The unembellished depiction of a woman’s unarticulated and unheard strife provides significant potential for affect in the reader, speaking to the supressed voice of women and giving them agency to express themselves by depicting how they are not alone, that Edna too ‘had all her life long been accustomed to harbour thoughts and emotions which never voiced themselves.’[9]

Lawrence Thornton refers to the novel as a ‘political romance’[10]. Indeed, Chopin chapters Edna’s liberation not just socio-politically, on a literal level, but emotionally, on a sentimental level. In other words, the hybridity of realism and sentimentality creates a new category of social commentary; there is a move from observational realism to the realism of embodied desire. Being influenced by Darwinist thinking, Chopin uses The Awakening to portray the dominance of humans’ natural instincts, and thus providing a study of the fundamental truth that humans cannot repress their sexual desires, despite social constrictions. In the process, critiques of the institution of marriage, motherhood and Christianity are implicitly explored with this view of emotional liberation. 

Sandra Gilbert writes that ‘Edna’s ‘awakenings’ become increasingly fantastic and poetic, stirrings of the imagination’s desire for ‘amplitude and awe’ rather than protests of the reason against unreasonable constraint’[11]. It is evident that such an emotive category of expression was needed during this period of oppression. She goes on to says that the passage in which Edna learns to swim is symbolic not just of her move towards liberation and independence, but of the novel itself from a realist text into ‘a distinctively female fantasy of paradisal fulfilment’[12]. Certainly, it is evident that the observational, literal and descriptive style of the novel changes to one of philosophical pondering, metaphorical imagery and erotic implications, marking Chopin’s rejection of the male-dominated style of realism and ultimately the male-dominated society. Notwithstanding the novel retains its naturalistic plot, thus preserving credibility and resonance.

The sentimental aspects, for instance when she refers to the night of her first ‘awakening’ as ‘like a night in a dream’ and goes on to remark that ‘there must be spirits abroad tonight’[13], despite being dramatized, draws on realistic sentiment, making it therefore more naturalistic in its affect. The fantastical imagery provided of Edna’s dinner party and her feeling like a ‘regal woman, the one who rules’ seems adverse to the realistic tone of the novel, yet it touches on realistic emotion and the real fantasy of empowerment. Furthermore, when she asks how many years she slept in Madame Antoine’s bed, it provides almost a fairy tale image, but reflects feelings of passion that are the reality of female existence. Finally, the symbolism and ceremony of her martyrdom may seem theatricalised, but it is not unthinkable to consider such a situation to be true, and such suicidal sentiments are tangible to a subordinated audience.

 

Sentimental novels are often seen as being inherently false in sentiment, or as James Baldwin puts it, ‘fantasies, connecting nowhere with reality, sentimental’[14]. Yet this may be contested, as Beecher Stowe does draw on own experience of the loss of a child and personal feelings of attachment and empathy. She seems to appropriate such emotions to the large-scale issue of slavery; indeed, separation and loss were true factors of the slave trade, meaning the novel does not consist of ‘fantasies connecting nowhere with reality’, but with actual emotional ramifications of the industry.

Incidents and injustices in Uncle Tom’s Cabin are not exaggerated in themselves, but the superficial stock characters and situations are dramatised, which could be seen as inauthentic and potentially less sympathetic. Certainly, Baldwin remarks that sentimentalism adheres to ‘the formula created by the necessity to find a lie more palatable than the truth’[15]. The unnaturalistic portrayal does makes the story more palatable, yet it may also be viewed as more sympathetic to those who had not considered the humanity of the black characters, meaning exaggeration is needed in order to explicitly subvert dominant prejudices. In other words, it needs to be made palatable to a wide audience that would be adverse to such claims as the humanity of slaves; these theatrical clichés provide an accessible comprehension, universality and plausibility for mass readership. Dobson corroborates this, noting ‘an emphasis on accessible language, a clear prose style, and familiar lyric and narrative patterns defines an aesthetic whose primary quality of transparency is generated by a valorisation of connection, an impulse toward communication with as wide an audience as possible’[16]. For example the lack of subtlety that describes Eva’s death, and the clichéd gesture of the Senator and his wife giving away their dead child’s clothes easily and simply conveys the theme of empathy, denoting the striving for affect in the reader. This differs in The Awakening in which metaphors are more commonly used than direct narrative guidance.

Furthermore, the episode with the Senator and his wife depicts the effectiveness and resonance of sentimentalism. Mr. Bird’s decision to help is completely understandable to the reader as they have already established sympathy with Eliza and her child. Mrs. Bird unequivocally sums up the moral of this passage: ‘”Your heart is better than your head, in this case, John.”’[17] Thus, she draws attention to the significance of emotion in political judgment. George Orwell corroborates the effects of this cliché/truth dichotomy, claiming that ‘it is an unintentionally ludicrous book, full of preposterous melodramatic incidents; it is also deeply moving and essentially true’[18]. Ultimately, because of the sub-human status of African-Americans during this time, it could be seen that such hyper-sentimentality and guided narrative is needed in order to forcibly provoke a new perspective.

 

Together these subgenres make up the domestic tradition, with Beecher Stowe looking at the institution of slavery from the domestic and emotional point of view, while Chopin explores female public standing from the private and psychological point of view. Indeed, contemporary women were placed in the domestic sphere by society, meaning domestic references and familial, emotional ties represent all they held in their agency to explore moral and social issues. These features were nonetheless poignant and effective in their own right. The use of domestic scenes, for instance the family home and dinner parties, are used as signifiers for the common, making such instances accessible to a wide audience (inclusive of male and female) and more personally affecting than institutional settings. Yet, communal issues have an effect on these domestic issues (for example, family separation in slavery and the oppression of women in marriage and society), thus this presentation of the domestic sheds light on the effects of the communal, depicting how this tradition brought a new way of critiquing society.

This new form of social criticism was met with fierce denunciation, with Willa Cather writing about such authors as ‘women of strong and fine intuitions, but without the faculty of observation, comparison, reasoning about things’[19]. This condemnation of the use of emotions rather than rationale to explore fundamental truths and moral issues may be contested with the argument that with realism in The Awakening Chopin observes, compares and reasons with female emotion as Edna begins to recognise ‘her position in the universe as a human being, and…her relation as an individual to the world within and about her’[20], while Uncle Tom’s Cabin draws on true sentiment and judgment, although presented in a hyper-emotive style. Furthermore, Dobson claims that sentimental texts ‘do not wallow in excessive emotionality; rather, they represent an essential reality and must be treated with heightened feeling’[21]. Although true of both texts, Uncle Tom’s Cabin may be seen to ‘wallow’ in its emotion, but this merely denotes a need for even more heightened feeling, as it is dealing with an industrial issue rather than a personal one.

 

Ultimately, the use of domesticity and emotion shed a new light on the state of American society, being able to affect readers in a different way. As Dobson writes: ‘in a world of mortality, of absolute and certain loss…a body of literature giving primacy to affectional connections and responsibilities still reflects the dilemmas, anxieties, and tragedies of individual lives’[22]. To this extent, this tradition was able to appropriate such sentiments to national social issues, suggesting an adoption of emotional investment in the formation of moral judgment. Their respective positions in the canon of American literature proves their worth in terms of the development of the nation using the domestic style.

 

Word Count: 2018

 

 

[1] Jane Tompkins, “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History” in Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860, (New York: Oxford U P, 1985), p. 83.

[2] Ibid, p. 82.

[3] Ibid, p. 83.

[4] Gilles Deleuze, ‘Part III, Proposition 56: Spinoza, Benedictus de’, Ethics. Trans. by W.H. White and A.H. Stirling, (London: Wordsworth, 2001 [1677]). 

[5] Shaun Nichols, ‘Sentimentalism Naturalised’ in The Psychology and Biology of Morality ed. W. Sinnott-Armstrong, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), p. 1.

[6] Ibid, p. 4.

[7] Sandra M. Gilbert, ‘Introduction: The Second Coming of Aphrodite’ in The Awakening and Selected Stories, ed. Sandra M. Gilbert, (New York and London: Penguin, 2003), p. 11.

[8] Kate Chopin, The Awakening and Selected Stories, (New York and London: Penguin, 2003), p. 49.

[9] Chopin, p. 96-7.

[10] Lawrence Thornton, ‘The Awakening: A Political Romance’ in American Literature, (Montana: Duke University Press, 1980), p. 1.

[11] Gilbert, p. 25.

[12] Gilbert, p. 17.

[13] Chopin, p. 74.

[14] James Baldwin, ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel’ in Collected Essays, (The Library of America, 1998), p. 16.

[15] Baldwin, p. 13.

[16] Joanne Dobson, ‘Reclaiming Sentimental Literature’ in American Literature, volume 69, Number 2, (Duke University Press, June 1997), p. 286.

[17] Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, (London: Wordsworth Classics, 1999), p. 76.

[18] George Orwell: ‘Good Bad Books’ First published: Tribune. — GB, London. — November 1945.

[19] Willa Cather, Pittsburgh Leader, 8 July 1899, Margo Culley, ed., The Awakening, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994 [1899]), p. 170.

[20] Chopin, p. 57.

[21] Dobson, p. 272-3.

[22] Ibid, p. 280.

Bibliography:

Bakhtin, Mikhail, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creations of a Prosaics, ed.s Gary Saul Morson, Emerson, Cary, (California: Stanford University Press, 1990).

Baldwin, James, ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel’ in Collected Essays, (The Library of America, 1998).

Beecher Stowe, Harriet, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, (London: Wordsworth Classics, 1999).

 

Cather, Willa, Pittsburgh Leader, 8 July 1899, Margo Culley, ed., The Awakening, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994 [1899]), p. 170.

Chopin, Kate, The Awakening and Selected Stories, (New York and London: Penguin, 2003).

Deleuze, Gilles, ‘Part III, Proposition 56: Spinoza, Benedictus de’, Ethics. Trans. by W.H. White and A.H. Stirling, (London: Wordsworth, 2001 [1677]). 

Dobson, Joanne, ‘Reclaiming Sentimental Literature’ in American Literature, volume 69, Number 2, (Duke University Press, June 1997).

Gilbert, Sandra M., ‘Introduction: The Second Coming of Aphrodite’ in The Awakening and Selected Stories, ed. Sandra M. Gilbert, (New York and London: Penguin, 2003).

Nichols, Shaun, ‘Sentimentalism Naturalised’ in The Psychology and Biology of Morality ed. W. Sinnott-Armstrong, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).

Orwell, George, ‘Good Bad Books’ in Tribune, (London, November 1945).

Thornton, Lawrence, ‘The Awakening: A Political Romance’ in American Literature, (Montana: Duke University Press, 1980).

Tompkins, Jane, “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History” in Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860, (New York: Oxford U P, 1985).