Spotify,, and the Fortunes of Race Science in the Twenty-First Century

Presented at the 2019 annual meeting of the American Musicological Society in Boston, MA. The paper’s theoretical frame ended up differing a little from the submitted abstract; and I’m more than happy to share the typescript upon request.


In fall 2018, the music streaming service Spotify partnered with genealogy website to turn results from the latter’s popular DNA testing kits into playlists, so that users might not only know their national heritage, but, in the words of one Ancestry executive, “experience” it through music. A century earlier, in the midst of an earlier fad for genealogy and heredity, Columbia Gramophone Company worked with psychologist Carl E. Seashore to market his “Measures of Musical Talent” to the general public. These Measures—psychometric tests of musical ability designed to reveal one’s inherited capacity for musical achievement—are now known to be a direct product of eugenic research, and their sale among the many strategies used by the movement to legitimize race science in the public eye. This paper sketches a genealogy of musical “self-testing” from Seashore to Spotify, arguing that in every instance, the idea of uncovering an inner musical self is mobilized to legitimize changing hierarchies of race and class. Through an examination of previously unstudied advertisements for the Seashore Measures, as well as family-history material from the archives of the American Eugenics Society, this paper considers first the role of music in the early marketing of scientific self-knowledge. The second half of the paper situates the Spotify/Ancestry partnership within this history. Promotional materials for the partnership are examined in light of both the contemporary resurgence of ethno-nationalism, and theorizations of “human capital” as a mode of self-actualization. Building on recent work by William Cheng and Rachel Mundy, among others, the paper concludes by advancing a theory of the “musically constituted subject,” a term I use to describe the phenomenon of a scientifically legitimized personal relationship with music that serves to justify, and obscure, relationships with race, nation, and power. In situating the Spotify/Ancestry partnership in a longer history of musical “self-testing,” this paper aims to offer window into both contemporary subjects’ changing relationships to music in the streaming era, and changing relationships to capital in the neoliberal age.

Eugenics at the Eastman School: Music Psychology and the Racialization of Musical Talent

Presented at the 2017 annual meeting of the American Musicological Society in Rochester, NY.

I’m happy to share the typescript of this talk: please get in touch via email!


In 1923 the psychologist of music Carl E. Seashore gave a speech to the International Congress of Eugenics in New York, in which he spoke enthusiastically of the musical possibilities afforded by the burgeoning sciences of race and heredity. To an audience of scientists and wealthy industrialists—the drivers of the American eugenics movement—Seashore proposed that the capacity for musical excellence was a heritable trait, and that as such it was “quite within the power of future generations to enhance the quality and degree of musical talent by conscious selection.” This call to action was heeded. At the behest of George Eastman, Seashore and his laboratory, in conjunction with the Eugenics Record Office under Charles Davenport, embarked on a decade-long experiment at the Eastman School of Music, seeking to test the validity of measuring musical talent, and to examine how eugenic wisdom might be applied to music education. This paper offers new readings of now little-known scientific studies to shed light on the strong institutional, intellectual, and financial ties between American music psychology and the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century. Focusing first on the development of Seashore’s “Measures of Musical Talent,” validated during the Eastman experiment as a measure of supposedly innate musical ability, the paper traces ties between Seashore’s laboratory and national eugenics organizations, integrating the Measures into the history of standardized intelligence testing as an instrument of racial and class-based social stratification. The second half of the paper examines how the Seashore Measures were employed in explicitly racialized studies of musical ability, arguing not only that the Measures leant a scientistic veracity to existing musical stereotypes, but that the conclusions of these experiments were used to extend the project of educational segregation. In reintegrating the history of music psychology and eugenics, this paper aims first to expand on existing studies of music and scientific racism, moving toward a clearer history of racialized musical epistemologies; and second, to ask how such a history might help address contemporary questions surrounding the role of scientific research in music studies.

Music & Eugenics: Preliminary Observations

[This post introduces research from my Master’s dissertation, submitted as part of the MMus Musicology at King’s College, London. As far as I am aware, this is original research, and any errors are therefore mine.]


Between 1925 and 1935, students at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY were the subjects of an experiment. In addition to the usual grind of weekly lessons and assessed recitals, musicians were made to sit regular standardized tests of ‘musical capacity’: psychological tests modeled on the then-popular Binet-Simon IQ test, that claimed to measure an individual’s innate musical talent.

The chief investigator in these tests, Hazel Martha Stanton, gave the following, somewhat puritan, rationale:

There is yet too much in music education dependent on showmanship. It is recognized that individuals who sing or play an instrument may or may not possess a high degree of innate musical talent. With music steadily gaining a foothold in education it is becoming increasingly more important that we have a means of identifying musical talent other than personal opinion based on performance, important as that may be.

Hazel Martha Stanton

In other words: our enjoyment of music is irrelevant, and perhaps even too sensuous to be entirely above-board. What we need is data.

The goal of the Eastman experiment was twofold. First, to establish that this hard data was attainable through scientific measures—specifically, the battery of tests devised by Stanton’s supervisor Carl Emil Seashore: the Seashore Measures of Musical Talent. And second, to build up a store of information on the possibility of this musical capacity being a hereditary trait.


The experiments run by Seashore at his University of Iowa laboratory inherited a number of European émigré sciences—experimental ‘brass instrument’ psychology, anatomy, acoustics, physical anthropology—but ran them through an American filter, one that valued academic knowledge by its industrial application. Psychology and biology were gaining ground at the same time as those great sciences of mass production, Taylorism and Fordism, were the hot new thing in labor force manipulation. Efficiency was the watchword, and, as ever, capital was king.

As well as being a heyday for the biological sciences and mass production, the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries saw a shift in American racism, coming about with the introduction of ‘free’ Black labor into the industrial workforce, and a new anxiety over whiteness that incorporated both anti-Black and anti-immigrant sentiments. This cultural intersection—science, industrial capital, and racism—is the founding cocktail of the American eugenics movement, and Seashore’s lab was at its center.

What was musical eugenics?

Carl E. Seashore

Going back to Eastman: the twin goals of the experiment—to validate the Seashore Measures, and to point to their use in tracing the inheritance of musical talent—are expressly eugenic concerns. We do not need to infer this from subtleties of wording or critical reading: they explicitly state as much in the results published during the decade-long tests. Seashore and Stanton presented preliminary reports on the Measures at the Second International Congress of Eugenics in 1921, and fourteen years later presented conclusions from Eastman at the Third. In his contribution to the Second Congress, Seashore makes his ambitions plain:

My proposition is that if certain musical talents are heritable, as we believe them to be, it is quite within the power of future generations to enhance the quality and degree of musical talent by conscious selection.

Something about this proposition rings as ludicrous to twenty-first century ears—innate gifts, selective breeding of supermusicians, it’s all a bit crypto-fascist. And sure, what makes for sound science in 1921 rings as distinctly false today: the Seashore Measures are scuppered by a basic methodological error, that practicing music (and particularly Western art music) makes you perform better in the tests.

Charles Davenport

But these ideas were the bedrock of a certain kind of musical thinking, and were hugely influential among those with the power to shape public musical policy. Seashore was well-connected. Sitting on the Advisory Council to the Eugenics Committee of the USA, he was in close personal contact with Charles Davenport and Madison Grant, linchpins of elite society and eugenic ‘thought leaders’ to the wealthy and powerful. For example: it was this high-society connection that put Seashore and Stanton in contact with George Eastman, Kodak millionaire and founder of the Eastman School. He was so intrigued by the Iowans’ talk of eugenic musical efficiency that he not only allowed them to experiment on ‘his’ students, but oversaw the project personally, and swung Stanton a permanent staff position as school psychologist.

Their efficacy apparently ‘proved’, the Seashore measures were used throughout the US in explicitly racialized studies. The new racial typography of eugenic theory offered opportunities to put long-held beliefs to the test, and, these Measures being a somewhat biased instrument, the results confirmed every stereotype: African Americans were poor musicians but had strong feeling for rhythm; Italians had a rare melodic gift but only Germans could put it to use, and so on. Eugenics was not only a science but a policy platform, and studies like these laid the groundwork for segregation in musical education.

What did it do, and why should we care?

The specific impact of these studies is hard to assess—while their published output is part of the scientific archive, the impact this experiment had on Eastman students, or the effect of Seashore’s speeches at the ICE, is for now out of reach.

But I would offer two preliminary observations. First: Not only has music always been a part of eugenic thinking, but it was an active priority of those at the very heart of the American movement. Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s less-celebrated cousin and the first person to theorize a post-Darwinian eugenic platform, wrote extensively on musical skill in Hereditary Genius, a founding text for the global movement. And while Carl Seashore was always at the outer rim of the inner circle, Charles Davenport and Madison Grant are no minor figures—their personal involvement indicates a centrality of music as yet unappreciated in the history of the discipline.

The Seashore Measures, in their 1957 LP form. You can play along.

And second: that the synthesis of uncritical faith in science, rapacious capitalism, and all-pervading racism might have emerged in the early twentieth century, but we’re lying to ourselves if we think this toxic combination is out of our system. The eugenic research of the early American university would score highly for ‘impact’ under the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, its industry-facing STEM initiatives a model of corporate-academic cooperation. While it remains to be seen whether the resurgent populist Right will side with science (like its 1930s cousin) or against it, the case of musical eugenics at least offers lessons for contemporary music psychology, and for all those whose research intersects with—or resists—a government agenda.

It’s easy to point to ideological continuities between the eugenics era and the present day. But more revealing are material ties. Results from racialized musical experiments, carried out using the Seashore Measures, found their way into Richard Lynn’s 2006 diatribe Race Differences in Intelligence—a ‘dysgenic’ opus tracking humanity’s supposed decline, a eugenicist’s grand ‘I told you so’. Until his recent retirement, Lynn was employed by the University of Ulster, and before that, Exeter, confirming that eugenics is still part of the makeup of the academy, even if it no longer enjoys a starring role.

Lynn’s more controversial research, though, was privately funded. In a reminder that there is no such thing as coincidence: His publisher, Washington Summit Publishing, is a front for the Pioneer Fund, a foundation that was set up in 1937 to administer the fortune of eugenic philanthropist Wycliffe Draper. (Both publisher and foundation are designated hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Centre). The Pioneer Fund was in its earliest days run by Harry Laughlin, formerly assistant to Charles Davenport at the Eugenics Record Office, Cold Spring Harbor, the same organisation that funded and oversaw the creation and use of the Seashore Measures. The same money that gave musical eugenics to the world is to this day working to defend it.

What’s next?

The limits of a Master’s dissertation kept my inquiry centered on Eastman and Seashore, but the story is bigger. Eugenics was an international enterprise, and a quick survey found admiring references to Seashore and Stanton in proto-Nazi Rassenmusik journals. Following these leads, as well as those from published studies from outside the American Northeast, would build up a broader picture of what musical eugenics meant worldwide in the early twentieth century.

And second: to get further away from published material. The scientific record is the easiest to trace, but it is mostly proselytizing eugenics’ virtues. Who were the critics? What did teachers at Eastman think of scientists barging into their classrooms with phonographs and standardized tests? How did it shape policy, and did these ideas persist after desegregation?

Philip Bohlman writes that ‘the science of race and the science of music are sister-discourses of modernity’. But these sisters were closer than we thought, and the transition through postmodernity hasn’t consigned their work to history. As historian Ann M. Little notes, most people in the past were awful, but through studying history we have the capacity to do better. Picking through the racist history of music psychology offers a way into how music and science have been used as tools of ‘racecraft’, and technologies for social control, in a hope that these mistakes are not repeated.

Image credits:

‘Individual and racial inheritance of musical traits’:

Hazel M. Stanton: University of Nebraska Yearbook, 1912

Carl Seashore:

Charles Davenport:

Seashore Measures:

2015 in Music Bestsellers: Representation at a Cost?

Or: ‘What is punk about hardcover nonfiction?’

As the last few weeks have, perhaps upsettingly, suggested, the most-read form of music writing is probably the obituary.

Close on the list, though, comes the (auto)biography, a form that shares with its short-form, post-mortem cousin a sense of narrative inevitability, a hero’s journey where the ending is known in advance, with the real object the detail logged along the way.

What I’ll call the ‘dad-rock’ biography was a cliché of mid-aughts publishing, with new insider treatments of the Rolling Stones or Metallica appearing around Fathers’ Day and Christmas with the inevitability of James Bond reruns or ‘Carols from King’s’. But 2015 was supposed to be different.

Most roundups of the ‘best music books of the year’ hint at a shift away from the ‘baby-boomer middle class male’ model, with critics identifying new trends taking the lead: autobiography rather than biography; women rather than men; the music industry as a subject rather than individual musicians.

Inspired by Slate’s damning analysis of mass-market history writing, and motivated by the fact that my career very much depends on the way people read about music, I decided to test these ‘best ofs’ against the New York Times Best Seller List (the end-game of commodity literature), to see which critical hypotheses stuck, and whether the Invisible Hand Of The Market’s appetite for white men with guitars has been in any way sated over the last twelve months.

The first hurdle: unlike History, there is no separate best seller list for Music. The data, then, comes from two sources: the ‘Culture’ listings, published monthly, and the general Hardcover Nonfiction, released weekly. The full lists of music books are included at the bottom of this post.

The lack of a music-specific list does allow for a preliminary conclusion, though—people don’t actually read about music that much. On average the Hardcover Nonfiction list is 50% contemporary-political (with right-wing talk-radio diatribes having the most sticking power), and another 25% biographies of Founding Fathers, so anything cultural is competing for a small share of a crowded market. Even on the ‘Culture’ list, music’s representation lags behind literature, theatre, and film, with music books (loosely defined) occupying on average two slots on a table fifteen-long, and peaking in November with four. Attaining any rank as an NYT Best Seller is, of course, a significant achievement, particularly when much political Hardcover Nonfiction is implicated in less-than-savoury bulk-buying practices, skewing the data further away from equivalence with readership. But it is worth noting that music’s ubiquity in everyday life fails to translate into reading habits.

Cover.How Music Got FreeMusical entries in the ‘Culture’ listing maintain a balance of biography, autobiography, and criticism, and with the exception of Philip Glass’s autobiography Words Without Music (Liveright), are devoted exclusively to popular forms. One ‘industry’-themed work breaks through, Stephen Witt’s personal history of CD piracy How Music Got Free (Viking), with Peter Guralnick’s biography of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips (Little, Brown) approaching industry non-performers through the more traditional biography form.

Male authors are overwhelmingly represented, with thirteen books as opposed to the five by women. Women’s writing is, with the exception of the co-authored Wayfaring Strangers by Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr (UNC Press), entirely autobiographical, affirming a point in Slate’s analysis: consumers are more inclined to trust/permit women to write their own stories, rather than to take on the mantle of neutral ‘historian’. Whiteness, too, remains the paradigm, with ballerina Misty Copeland’s autobiography Life in Motion (Touchstone) the only single-author book on the list by a Black author (and only tangentially a ‘music’ book), and Duke (Gotham/Penguin) and The Rap Yearbook (Abrams) offering the only writing on Black music to feature.

There are, however, discrepancies between the monthly Culture and weekly Nonfiction lists, in part owing to data collection: some books may sell well for a week, but be overtaken by slower and steadier sellers and so not make the monthly roundup. The biggest discrepancy, though, cannot be accounted for by a failure of methodology: nearly 85% of the entries are books by women.


Specifically, 2015 was a bizarrely good year for the female (post)punk autobiography. Perhaps heralded by the success of Viv Albertine’s 2014 Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys (Faber & Faber: 2014), 2015 saw two outstanding publishing hits: Girl in a Band, by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth (Dey Street/Morrow) and M Train by Patti Smith (Knopf), which occupied five and ten weeks respectively on the main Hardcover list. Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (Riverhead) rounds off the post-punk edge of the trend for a week, and Sara Barielles, Carly Simon, and Grace Jones all feature for one to three weeks each. Only Elvis Costello stands to wave the dad-rock flag, alone.

Six women to one man is not the ratio we are used to seeing on best seller lists—not in nonfiction, and especially not in music. But while increased representation must be applauded, it is hard to be entirely optimistic. The bizarrely specific success of the post-punk women’s autobiography points to a trend in publishing as much as it does in readership: more of these books are being sold because more are being commissioned. A victory for a certain kind of feminism: women’s stories are now seen as being worth exploiting. (This trend might also reflect a common idea in publisher-logic, that women authors equate to women readers.) As in History, women are still only trusted to tell their own stories, compelled by the limits of the autobiography form to keep their observations specific, and geared toward the past.

That the highest sellers had their musical peak in the late twentieth century begs another question: why is there an insistance on reading and writing about music only after it’s been thoroughly denatured? 2015’s wave of punk books makes little sense as a continuation of the punk project. (What says ‘anti-establishment’ like hardcover nonfiction?) Uncharitably: are these books merely the dregs of an already commodified art form, repackaged and sold for nostalgia like-new? Is it only the assumption of an ageing demographic that keeps music criticism so far away from engaging with the musical vitality of the present, with all its political demands?

The move away from the gendered dad-rock paradigm, begun in 2015, is a promising start for a new wave of music writing. But until the problems posed by the hegemony of the (auto)biography and the conservative demands of commercial publishing are confronted, the obituary might be all we have.

New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction, Jan-Dec 2015

March 15
2. GIRL IN A BAND, by Kim Gordon. (Dey Street/Morrow.)

March 22
2. GIRL IN A BAND, by Kim Gordon. (Dey Street/Morrow.)

March 29
8. GIRL IN A BAND, by Kim Gordon. (Dey Street/Morrow.)

April 5
9. GIRL IN A BAND, by Kim Gordon. (Dey Street/Morrow.)

April 12
18. GIRL IN A BAND, by Kim Gordon. (Dey Street/Morrow.)

April 26
15. WORDS WITHOUT MUSIC, by Philip Glass. (Liveright.)

October 18
9. I’LL NEVER WRITE MY MEMOIRS,by Grace Jones as told to Paul Morley. (Gallery Books.)

October 25
3. M TRAIN, by Patti Smith. (Knopf.
13. SOUNDS LIKE ME, by Sara Bareilles.
14. FORTUNATE SON, by John Fogerty with Jimmy McDonough. (Little, Brown.)

November 1
4. M TRAIN, by Patti Smith. (Knopf.)
9. UNFAITHFUL MUSIC AND DISAPPEARING INK, by Elvis Costello. (Blue Rider.)
15. FORTUNATE SON, by John Fogerty with Jimmy McDonough. (Little, Brown.)
17.SOUNDS LIKE ME, by Sara Bareilles (Simon & Schuster)

November 8
5. M TRAIN, by Patti Smith. (Knopf.)
7. UNFAITHFUL MUSIC AND DISAPPEARING INK, by Elvis Costello. (Blue Rider.)

November 15
11. HUNGER MAKES ME A MODERN GIRL, by Carrie Brownstein. (Riverhead.)
14. M TRAIN, by Patti Smith. (Knopf.)

November 22
20. M TRAIN, by Patti Smith. (Knopf.)

November 29
15. M TRAIN, by Patti Smith. (Knopf.)

December 06
7. M TRAIN, by Patti Smith. (Knopf.)

December 13
9. BOYS IN THE TREES, by Carly Simon. (Flatiron.)
18. M TRAIN, by Patti Smith. (Knopf.)

December 20
7. BOYS IN THE TREES, by Carly Simon. (Flatiron.)
20. M TRAIN, by Patti Smith. (Knopf.)

December 27
11. BOYS IN THE TREES, by Carly Simon. (Flatiron.)
20. M TRAIN, by Patti Smith. (Knopf.)

New York Times ‘Culture’, Jan-Dec 2015

2. THE BEATLES LYRICS, by Hunter Davies. (Little, Brown.)
15. Wayfaring Strangers (Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr (University of North Carolina Press.)

14. PUNK ROCK BLITZKRIEG, by Marky Ramone with Rich Herschlag (Touchstone.)

2. GIRL IN A BAND, by Kim Gordon. (Dey Street/Morrow.)


5. WORDS WITHOUT MUSIC, by Philip Glass. (Liveright.)
6. JOHN LENNON, by Philip Norman. (HarperCollins.) (FIRST PUB. 2008)

8. DUKE, by Terry Teachout. (Gotham/Penguin.)
13. WORDS WITHOUT MUSIC, by Philip Glass. (Liveright.)


7. LIFE IN MOTION, by Misty Copeland. (Touchstone.)
15. HOW MUSIC GOT FREE, by Stephen Witt (Viking.)

7. DYLAN GOES ELECTRIC!, by Elijah Wald. (HarperCollins.)


1. M TRAIN, by Patti Smith. (Knopf.)
4.THE RAP YEAR BOOK, by Shea Serrano and Arturo Torres. (Abrams.)
7. RAZZLE DAZZLE, by Michael Riedel. (Simon & Schuster.)
8. THE SONG MACHINE, by John Seabrook. (Norton.)

7. THE RAP YEAR BOOK, by Shea Serrano and Arturo Torres. (Abrams.)
8. BOB DYLAN: ALL THE SONGS, by Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon. (Hachette Books.)
9. SAM PHILLIPS, by Peter Guralnick. (Little, Brown.)

Music, Racism, and the American Left: Thoughts on Lawrence Gellert

This post is the first in a planned series on music, race(ism), and radical politics, building on and around research done for my undergraduate dissertation. Resources, as they are added, will be posted here.

Looking at Lawrence Gellert’s Negro Songs of Protest, one wouldn’t think it a particularly dangerous book. A slim compilation of twenty-four folk songs set to simple piano accompaniment, with a binding so frail that most of the pages had declared their independence from the spine decades ago, and yellowed in some places to the point of unreadability. (This, I’m told, is one of the better surviving copies.) Like many of its colleagues churned out from the leftist presses of New York in the early twentieth century, this book bears the marks of struggle. Unlike its more famous comrades, like the Little Red Songbook or anything by People’s Songs, though, it never recieved any modern re-printings, and was left instead to meditate on the coming revolution from the stacks of research libraries, accessed from time to time not as a tool of struggle but a curio from a more optimistic age. Dangerous, now, perhaps not. But as the contemporary Left struggles to define its response to issues of race and racism, relics of past struggle offer useful historical guidance: what about past action was successful, and what is best kept in the movement’s past?

The cover of 'Negro Songs of Protest', painted by Lawrence's brother, Hugo Gellert. From the Library of Congress's copy, scanned by the author.
The cover of ‘Negro Songs of Protest’, painted by Lawrence’s brother, Hugo Gellert. From the Library of Congress’s copy, scanned by the author.

Gellert’s songbook is a unique historical document, not only in its content (though none of Gellert’s songs occur in other collections), but in its purpose: to record African American music specifically concerned with politics. As Langston Hughes points out in his introduction, this effort was sorely needed:

These songs collected by Lawrence Gellert from plantations, chain gangs, lumber camps are of inestimable value. They show that not all Negroes are shouting spirituals, cheering football teams, dancing to the blues or mouthing interracial oratory—supposedly unruffled by the economic stress of these days. Some of them are tired of being poor and picturesque and hungry.

Terribly and bitterly tired.

These songs stand as a radical rival to collections like those of the Library of Congress, collections concerned with liberal preservationism, grounded on romantic notions of ‘the folk’ and their primitive but ‘authentic’ expression. Gellert’s recordings make explicit what others prefer as allusion: ‘Sistren’ and Brethren’ deals with the aftermath of a lynching; ‘If You Catch Me Stealin’’, the less ‘picturesque’ side of rural Black poverty; and many others the abusive conditions faced by African Americans in work, in court, and in jail. (More detailed studies of individual songs will appear on this blog as this series progresses.) These radical assertions of an African American reality concealed in other musical, and, indeed, historical accounts are a vital record of the Jim Crow experience—this alone makes Gellert’s collection worth recognition.

Lawrence Gellert, from ‘Negro Songs of Protest’, Rounder 4004. (Source:

Little has been written about Negro Songs of Protest since its publication. It makes minor entries more recent histories of the left-wing folk revival, but with two exceptions, no authors have considered it worth serious discussion. Part of this neglect is undoubtedly owed to the chauvinistic reign of Joseph McCarthy that darkened the period between the decline of the Popular Front and the moment when its histories were written—where other ‘fellow travellers’ like Alan Lomax were able to hide behind prominent ‘establishment’ posts, the marks of Communism on Gellert’s work were unable to be concealed.

While the fog of McCarthyism has slowly lifted, the influence of a broader, racist, conservatism remains—both in broader American culture, and specifically in the way Gellert’s reputation has been handed down. Bruce Conforth’s 2013 biography, the only book-length study of Gellert’s life and work, reads as little more than a smear on Gellert as a man, and a blanket assault on the songs he collected. In the run up to publication, Conforth claimed to have found proof of something long-rumoured: that Gellert substantially altered and in some cases entirely forged the songs in his collection in an effort to impress his left-wing peers. The relative inaccessibility of Conforth’s book—priced at a mark only available to academic libraries—makes it hard for most readers to assess this proof for themselves. The little time I had with the book, though, seemed to show that these claims were nothing but sensationalism.

Conforth’s principle claim is that the songs Gellert collected are not ‘folk songs’, because ‘the more overt songs were most probably composed with specific contexts in mind; they probably had relatively short life spans and a context dependency that disallowed their full acceptance into the folk tradition’ (Conforth, 119). Far from the damning proof promised, Conforth instead reveals his own conservatism. The notion that ‘folk’ songs are somehow timeless and immutable, divorced from the everyday, has barely been credible since Herder popularised it in the eighteenth century. That this trope is brought into action, though, reveals another of the reasons why Gellert’s collection is so fascinating: in its bridging of political, ‘folk’, and Black aesthetics, it offers a unique test-case for musical historiography.

Since books like Samuel Charters’ The Poetry of the Blues, there has been a trend toward arguing that African American folk music has nothing of the explicitly political—there is, he says, ‘little social protest in the blues’. While allowances are made for ‘complaint’, African Americans are never permitted the specific agency of political protest.  In defining the topical as ‘not-folk’, Conforth pulls the same rhetorical trick: political songs are excluded from being ‘real’ representatives of their tradition simply because they are political. Needless to say, this stereotype is grounded in the centuries of more obvious racism that asserted the inability of Black people to think for themselves, and their need for white ‘guidance’. For conservatives, the horror of Black thought, let alone Black communist thought, is too much to bear.

Of course, Gellert’s collection is hardly an unmediated expression of Black resistance. The songs are transcribed with piano accompaniments by leftist composer Elie Siegmeister. They are arranged in the ‘house style’ of the Composers’ Collective: strident, full of open fifths and occasional, unexpected suspensions in a small concession to aesthetic modernism. The actions of all folk-song collectors at this time are marred, too, by cultural appropriation—an issue that remains complicated in Gellert’s case, owing to his and his informants’ involvement in a shared political struggle, but a power dynamic that nonetheless exists. In their broader song-collecting efforts, the Left also carries its fair share of ‘romantic racism’, and attempts to synthesise Black and white struggle often fell apart on account of this failure of understanding.

This paradox of leftists at once having a much more nuanced understanding of the operations of race than the majority of white Americans, and simultaneously perpetuating subtler forms of racism, remains as unresolved in contemporary politics as it was in the 1930s: the recent clashes between white Democrats and the Movement for Black Lives, for example, show that there is clearly progress to be made. Digging Lawrence Gellert out of the archive doesn’t offer any immediate prospect for reconciliation, but an awareness of the text, and its position in the knotted historiography of music, racism, and resistance, offers at least a passing hope for progress toward a better political solidarity.

Select References:

Samuel Charters, The Poetry of the Blues (New York: Oak Publications, 1963).

Bruce M. Conforth, African American Folksong and American Cultural Politics : The Lawrence Gellert Story (Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2013).

Steven Garabedian, ‘Reds, Whites, and the Blues: Lawrence Gellert, “Negro Songs of Protest,” and the Left-Wing Folk-Song Revival of the 1930s and 1940s’, American Quarterly, 57 (2005), 179-206.

Eleanor Marx and the Problems of Literary Biography

9781408843239Rachel Holmes’s recent biography of Eleanor Marx is an unlikely success. This observation is not meant as a comment on the quality of the book, which is on the whole excellent. But it seems strange that a profile of so radical a woman—pioneering feminist, socialist, and inheritor of her father Karl’s analytic genius, as well as an actor, translator, and literary critic—has been so well received in the relatively conservative world of trade non-fiction.

This cross-partisan appeal is clearly something of which Holmes is aware. A central chapter includes a lengthy block quotation from a Telegraph journalist quite smitten after attending one of Eleanor’s speeches, and—one hopes in an intentional parallel—the book’s cover is adorned with a pull-quote from a similarly charmed, more recent, Telegraph review.

Much of this success can be pinned on Holmes’s attempted humanisation of the biographical subject, but there is such a thing as being too human. Holmes sets two goals: to convince readers of Eleanor’s powerful political force and continued relevance; and to tell a compelling story set on intellectual stage of late-Victorian London, and the balance seems weighted toward the latter, with results that always fall slightly flat. Much of Holmes’s literary effort is expended on sub-Dickensian scene-setting; passages in which more of Eleanor’s voice could have been allowed to shine through—she was a brilliant social analyst, and when her writing is in the foreground, it paints its own backdrop.

Letting a subject ‘speak for themselves’ is of course, from an academic perspective, impossible. On the issue of naming, though, Holmes makes a show of deferring to Marx’s wishes. We are told in the first paragraph that, in her childhood and beyond, Eleanor insisted on being called Tussy—‘to rhyme with pussy, not fussy’—and this convention is retained for most of the book, and expanded into a baffling range of nicknames for all of the principal actors: Friedrich Engels, for example, is referred to by four different names almost interchangeably, a technique as confusing as it is infantilising. Tussy was first a childhood nickname, as were the nicknames she gave to family and friends, and while their use persisted into adulthood within her family and immediate circle, their use as defaults in a biography written a century after the fact creates a sense of intimacy that the reader (at least, to my mind) never feels like they have earned. Holmes presents with great skill the eminence of Eleanor’s ensemble cast—for the most part literary luminaries like George Bernard Shaw, and prominent activists like Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray—and, when invited into this inner circle I found myself feeling almost inadequate, and more than a little like a trespasser.

These naming conventions are an attempt to create intimacy, and this sense of intimacy is undoubtably one of the reasons for the biography’s success, but it is not, then, without its faults. The techniques of ‘humanisation’ that are the biographer’s stock-in-trade are self-evidently literary techniques, and Holmes’s particular rendering of Eleanor’s engagement with literature only makes their theatricality more apparent. Marx’s achievements as a feminist are set in light of her identification with ‘new women’ in (notably male-authored) literature—Nora in Ibsen’s The Doll’s House; Emma, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary—and the attention paid to her career as an actor, as well as a translator of literature, contributes to a presentation of Eleanor as embodying these characters, and as a character herself in Rachel Holmes’s great nineteenth-century novel. (An abundance of unnecessarily gendered imagery compounds this fault: for example, the process of writing and publishing is more than once described in terms of giving birth.)

This wouldn’t be a problem on its own—it is clear from her writing that Marx did indeed model herself on these women—but even outside of the literary sphere, the presentation of Eleanor as the manifestation of other peoples’ ideas occurs too often. Perhaps the most repeated words in the book are from Karl Marx’s correspondence, distinguishing between his daughters: ‘Laura looks most like me, but Tussy is me’. Holmes uses this as a compliment—Eleanor is the inheritor of her father’s brilliance—but, as with the insertion of Eleanor into various narrative archetypes, its frequency comes across more as dehumanising.

The best thing about Rachel Holmes’s Eleanor Marx, then, is Eleanor Marx. It is probably the sign of a biography done well that I came away from it with a wish to read more of the subject’s original writing (which, fortunately, is archived online), but in this case it feels more like the the book is incomplete. Nevertheless, the impression one does get of Eleanor is of a woman more than the equal of her peers, and one whose insight still serves as a guide over a century after her death. Her synthesis of burgeoning feminist and socialist thought, and resulting insistence that women’s liberation is an integral part of class struggle, rather than a mere side-effect, demands recognition across the Left, as does her similar insistence on anti-colonial praxis. Her works as a literary translator, teacher, and advocate are testament not only to scholarly skill, but a belief in the necessity of art in building a new society—she was, in this regard, a model public intellectual.

Holmes characterises Karl’s life as devoted to theory and Eleanor’s to practice, but this is a simplistic formulation. Eleanor was just as much a theorist as her father, but as a writer and activist (and actor, and translator, and journalist), contributed in such a way as to render the distinction meaningless. While the immediate future of the Left in Europe remains in question, Eleanor Marx’s return to the limelight offers a powerful inspiration.

Murder, Apologism, and the Beatles

(This post was originally written on Medium, and was featured as an Editor’s Choice. It is re-published here for the sake of completeness. Published 16/04/2014.)

‘Run For Your Life’ is a song in which the singer-protagonist’s female partner is repeatedly threatened with death, if caught with another man. Sexual violence is an undercurrent in popular musics of the twentieth century, but rarely in the Beatles’ output is it framed this explicitly: ‘I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man.’ More disturbing, though, are the lengths to which fans go to defend the song: It was written by John, who was jealous of Paul’s more adventurous sex life. It was written as a parody, based on lyrics from Elvis. It’s a good song, if you ignore the text. It was the ‘60s, things were just different back then.

Lennon later disowned the song, stating that it was the one he most regretted writing, a sentiment that has given fans further grounding to simply ignore the undercurrent of sexual violence that it arguably brings to the rest of Rubber Soul, or even all of Lennon’s output. The topic of a ‘jealous guy, born with a jealous mind’ is revisited in his solo song ‘Jealous Guy’ (from the Imagine album, six years later), framed in a more apologetic context, but this does not, etiher, absolve him of the original sentiment. ‘Run For Your Life’ is, ultimately, a jaunty pop song about sexual violence and abusive relationships, and while it can (and should) be contextualised, such a process shouldn’t come at the expense of problematising what is a hugely troubling topic in pop music history. The question ‘How and why can this song exist?’ prompts more profitable thought about the musical nature of pop/rock music in the ‘60s, and its social frame of reference.

Musically, ‘Run For Your Life’ is unremarkable, which is partly what makes it so dangerous. Propelled by simple strummed acoustic guitar, a regular tonic/dominant bass pattern, and driving quaver tambourine, little distinguishes it sonically from other songs of the same tempo on Rubber Soul, like ‘I’m Looking Through You’ or ‘Wait’. In its simplicity in harmony, verse/chorus structure, and instrumentation, it almost goes out of its way to be innocuous. Other songs on the album demonstrate that the Beatles were capable of stretching the sonic and harmonic palette of the standard pop song—the cod-Elizabethan piano solo on ‘In My Life’, or the gypsy jazz-come-doowop of ‘Michelle’ stand as evidence for their technical ability—which suggests that ‘Run For Your Life’s simplicity is entirely conscious. Simplicity gives pop songs their staying power (see also: ‘Blurred Lines’), and the song’s catchiness has undoubtedly influenced fan responses.

The reason I would propose for this uncomplicated musical setting relates also to the presence of aggressive masculinity as a music/lyrical ‘topic’ in popular music, made acceptable, or even noble, through its simplicity of sentiment and expression. Jealousy and violence were perceived, in the 1960s, as staple themes in the blues’ stock lyrical arsenal. Male-on-female violence, in particular, usually in response to (suspected) female infidelity, was simply part of the aesthetic. Robert Johnson’s ‘Me and the Devil Blues’:

Me and the Devil, woooo

Was walking side by side

And I’m going to beat my woman

‘Til I get satisfied

Bo Carter’s ‘Old Devil’:

I beat my baby, man with a rope and a line

… , until she went stone blind.

While these are also evidently problematic, it is worth noting that (as is also true of the Beatles output) these lyrics are not representative of the vast majority of blues, which, while a manifestation of the systematic violence leveled by white America against African Americans and women, are frequently witty, homely, or hedonistic. Blues, too, was also in its original forms performed as much (if not more) by women than men, and while men’s and women’s lyrics differed with regard to subjective experience, the broad themes (love, work, drink, partying) were universal. While these themes do exist in the blues, the roots of the equation of ‘blues’ as a genre with the ‘jealous lover’ topic lie perhaps not in the blues itself, but in its revival.

The blues revival of the 1960s reignited primitivising myths that encompassed ‘violence, sex, irrationality, and, at the same time, noble innocence and childlike naïveté’ (Filene, 2000), largely based on biographical anecdotes and mythologies regarding itinerant bluesmen (specifically men) like Johnson, rather than a close reading of their lyrics. While the ‘jealous lover’ has been a near-constant trope through history, the moment of the ‘60s revival combined its performance of unhinged masculinity with the genuinely re/oppressed figure of the African American male, creating a stock persona that singers might adopt, a persona to be respected, empathised with, and feared. While the specific musical language of the blues was not employed by the Beatles, the emphasis on power and simplicity, combined with the lyrical topic of the down-and-out, socially outcast and jealous lover, is arguably derived from this more recent re-imagining of the travelling blues musician. It is a simple song from a simple man, expressing plain (and, through this simplicity, justified) desire.

Country music, also rooted in earlier blues traditions, also makes use of the ‘jealous guy’ persona to garner sympathy from its intended white, working-class Southern audience. Through rockabilly, country music managed to exert a huge impact on the music of American and Britain in the 1950s, and played no small part in shaping the Beatles’ musical and lyrical vocabulary. One of the fan defences of ‘Run For Your Life’ that its first lyrical hook, ‘I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man’ is taken from Elvis Presley’s ‘Baby, Let’s Play House’ (words & music by Arthur Gunter). The lyrics of ‘Baby, Let’s Play House’ are a plea addressed to a former girlfriend, who has already deserted Presley, to come back so they can ‘play house’ (i.e. perform the roles of a traditional family) just as before. As the lyric ‘I’d rather see you dead’ is accented by a break in the music, it comes across as a short emotional eruption, but the song’s pleading tone is quickly resumed. While it is still problematic, one never gets the impression that Presley is actually capable of violence. In Lennon’s setting, ‘I’d rather see you dead’ is a sustained threat, made repeatedly and combined with original lyrics that make its meaning unambiguous: ‘Catch you with another man, and that’s the end’. If Lennon’s intent is parody, then, it does not come across very well: the musical simplicity and associated earnestness do nothing to problematise the lyrical topic evoked, but in fact solidify the associations the lyrics make between blues and country formulations of aggressive masculinity.

‘Run For Your Life’, then, is a performance of gender, channeled through musical and lyrical topics with deep social histories. Arguably more significant, though, is the fact that this performance was, and still is, allowed to take place. Defenders of the song have used the fact that gender relations in the 1960s were (on the surface) very different to what we’re used to now as a way of absolving the lyrics of their problematic content. Defenses of this sort are based in part on an unwillingness to compromise one’s status as a ‘Beatles fan’ by questioning the moral integrity of one’s musical idols, but also, in setting the ‘60s as an Other age distanced from our own, on an inability to question their own enjoyment of the music based on what it says about past and contemporary gender relations. To imply that domestic abuse, like Bakelite or tie-die trousers, is some relic far removed from the modern world is simply wrong, a damaging lie that stokes the engines of patriarchy and rape culture. When two women a week are murdered by their partners, and one incident of abuse is reported to the police every minute, one can as much distance oneself from this violence as one can from the ground beneath one’s feet.

Is a catchy hook and driving tambourine all people need to ignore abuse? I’m not sure people even need that. The fact that campaigns such as It Happens Here need to even exist is testament to the fact that such violence generally passes under the radar. Whatever musicological insights one can gain from looking at ‘Run For Your Life’ (and, problematic as it is, I hope to have demonstrated that it is useful) must come second to the fact that its reception makes painfully apparent our inability to talk about domestic violence, and the myths that surround its perpetration. Yes, gender relations have changed over the half-century since Rubber Soul’s release, and great theoretical advances have been made, but in saying that, one’s purpose must be clear: we are still in no position to distance ourselves from ‘Run For Your Life’, while hundreds of thousands of people are still running for theirs.


The Beatles, Rubber Soul (Parlophone, 1965).

Bo Carter, ‘Old Devil’ (Bluebird, 1938) reissued on Jackson Blues 1928-38 (Yazoo 1991). Music: Lyrics:

Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk : Public Memory & American Roots Music (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

Arthur Gunter & Elvis Presley, ‘Baby Let’s Play House’ (Memphis: Sun Records, 1955). Music: Lyrics:’s-Play-House-lyrics-Elvis-Presley/813EB2D02D15CDC7482568740028DD44

Robert Johnson, ‘Me and the Devil Blues’, (Vocalion: Unknown). Music: Lyrics:

American Authenticity: ‘Duck Dynasty’ and the NSA

(Originally published 16/12/2013)

Yesterday, in what I’d like to think was a rare lapse of judgement, I sat down to watch two whole hours of American television; an experience I am not keen to repeat, yet I feel merits further consideration. The two programs in question, a CBS 60 Minutes special report on the NSA, and A&E’s bizarrely sensational Southern ‘reality’ show Duck Dynasty, are both terrifying, in their own special ways, yet they when seen together, they can be useful in revealing some of the currents that underlie American popular discourse–specifically, the location of ‘American authenticity’ in the ‘other’ working man.

Coming from the perspective of someone used to the British left-wing media’s coverage of the scandal following Edward Snowden’s leaking of compromising documents revealing the extent of the NSA’s surveillance programmes, the CBS 60 Minutes special seems almost as self-parody. As discussed in this article on The Verge (which also contains an embedded video of some of the report), the special is entirely uncritical of the NSA’s actions: the only mention of the extent of the surveillance activities comes from the NSA director, who denies ‘listening to people’s phone things’, a denial that is true (the documents never accuse them of this), but entirely unrelated to the charges actually presented by the leaked documents.

The report, hosted by CBS’s ‘security expert’ John Miller (who opened the show by highlighting his credentials as an ‘insider’, having once worked for the Director of National Intelligence), serves to effectively rehash the same arguments used to on the one hand deny the significance of Snowden’s leaks, and on the other, point to the ‘damage’ he has done, and how this information is dangerous, and an aide to foreign powers (two arguments that are largely contradictory). Their main weapon in this attempt to discredit Snowden, though, is not statistics that point to the lives put at risk by his leaks, nor diplomatic transcripts showing declining trust in the US by its former allies, but, in true American fashion, the sort of personal insults that seem more appropriate to a school kid. He is nothing but a ‘twenty-something high school drop out’, who has personal habits that, in insightful analysis by expert Miller, are ‘pretty strange’. Evidence, it seems, is not required by CBS, or indeed the NSA; all they need to smear Snowden is to suggest that he might be a little bit weird.

By way of contrast, the rest of the report has a tone that flits uneasily between IT Crowd-style ‘geek sitcom’ and a military recruitment video. Endless shots of (almost entirely meaningless) computer code flashing up in white-on-black text; shots of uniformed soldiers sitting at their many-monitored desks in a futuristic control centre; and conspicuous references to ‘hostile foreign powers’ contribute to a sense of Cold-War paranoia. That discussion of Snowden’s leaks is intercut with an interview regarding the NSA’s role in countering ‘cyber attacks’ from these rogue states (shown here by The Verge, again, to be a total fabrication) also contributes to this invocation of the American military/nationalist ‘topic’, a set of associations that has pervaded national discourse since before the Civil War.

The strategy of associating the NSA with American national identity, though, is not just limited to this overt military symbolism. It is very much part of the national mythos that the ‘everyday working man’ is the locus of all that is authentically American. This ideology developed over the nineteenth century, and was solidified in the early twentieth (especially with the rise of authors such as Steinbeck writing tales of ‘working folk’ in the Depression). Key to this ideology, though, is that the working people are both ‘other’ and ‘the people’; an almost contradictory assertion, yet one that allows a mainstream bourgeois ideology of nationalism to be maintained through the perpetuation of America’s peculiar class system (tied as much to geography and race as to economic status). This ideology accounts for the success of Duck Dynasty (those crazy rednecks are as ‘other’ as they come, but boy are they good honest folk etc.); and it also accounts for the presentation of the ‘ordinary workers’ at the NSA headquarters.

While it might seem a stretch to present high-tech, PhD-educated security analysts as honest, salt-of-the-earth workers, the idea that authenticity lies in the ‘other’ enables CBS to link those working for a living the NSA with that same genuineness of spirit. With a few simple twists, such as presenting one of the analysts, who looks like exactly the same sort of dorky kid that they previously accused Snowden of being, with a Rubik’s Cube, they humanise the NSA: it is no longer a faceless government organ, but a gang of slightly geeky college kids who spend their days solving codes and playing with number puzzles. At this point, reference is made to the NSA’s origins as a code-breaking organisation in WWII (the same way a British broadcast might reference Bletchley Park)–by associating these 21st-century ‘boffins’ with their patriotic, heroic predecessors, the nationalistic re-imagining is complete. Here are a bunch of friendly kids making an honest living. If you are against that, you are against America.

American ideology, then, has managed to pull a fairly neat trick. In associating everything seen as ‘human’ (natural/friendly, etc.) with being ‘American’, the narrative of ‘us and them’, so central to American belief from the nation’s very founding as a rebel state, and developed through the isolationist period, and the Cold War, can be invoked in almost any situation. The discourse of American Authenticity is a fickle one, to be sure. It has, in its past iterations, been used to deny rights to African Americans, and to elevate them as folk heroes; to heap praise on some European immigrant groups, and to justify the erection of a wall on the Mexican border; or to simply mean that one kid gets bullied in High School while another one thrives. What is certain, though, is that it is pervasive, and moreover, that it is perhaps the most powerful tool available to those who would seek to manipulate and mould the views of the American people.

American Lulu?

(Originally published 21/09/2013.)

American Lulu is difficult. Difficult in the way that Brechtian theatre is meant to be difficult: it is alienating, obtuse, sometimes crude, sometimes absurd. Difficult in the way that Berg’s opera too is difficult: in its jarring musical language, in its mere semblance of narrative; in its unnerving portrayal of the Male Gaze’s destructive glare. But, unfortunately for its obviously talented cast and production team, also difficult for all sorts of reasons emerging from a poorly-thought-through premise. Its attitude to race is confusing at best, as is its approach to the gender politics that composer Olga Neuwirth wanted to redefine. Its score is almost schizophrenic, flitting (in some cases line-by-line) between Second Viennese School serialism and the sort of ‘jazz’ that only a classically-trained composer could write. Above all, though, there is difficulty with its initial proposition: rather than offering a ‘new interpretation’, Neuwirth’s offers little more than Berg in a kind of musical modern-dress.

Perhaps the first question that should be asked is ‘what makes American Lulu American?’ Neuwirth would, presumably, answer by pointing to the score’s jazz-inflected (infected?) sound-world (populated with an orchestra augmented by four saxophones, a drum kit, and electric guitar), and its setting amid the struggle for African-American civil rights. Throwing in a sax-heavy pentatonic scale has been musical shorthand for ‘America’ since the ’20s, but in Neuwirth’s score it comes across as a peculiar tokenism. Porgy and Bess, one of the few serious attempts to engage with African-American music in the operatic canon, treats its musical language with respect. Gershwin, whether led by motives that would now be considered patronising or not, saw a depth of expression in blues idioms that drew him to view this music as a music that could tell its own story. Neuwirth’s score, in comparison, seems to use jazz as a citation, rather than an expressive language in its own right; as if believing that putting plunger-mutes on Berg’s trumpets will transform Vienna into New Orleans with a single con sordini. It would be wrong to entirely disregard Neuwirth’s changes to the score, as some critics have done; her completion of Act 3 is stylistically consistent (albeit with the hybrid style she establishes herself in Acts 1 and 2), and there is genuine merit in the fusion of twelve-tone language and jazz that some later scenes pull off. The problem is that, as with other aspects of the production, the use of jazz comes across as exactly that: use. American Lulu sees jazz as a device rather than a language, a tool rather than a means of expression. This reflects a larger problem with the work as a whole — its ‘Americanness’ comes across as the sum of forced-together superficial elements, rather than coming from the heart of the drama.

This cardboard cut-out Americana is also to be found in its non-musical aspects. While Berg’s opera uses character archetypes named only by their professions (‘the gymnast’, ‘the banker’ etc.), a reductionist technique that fits well with the aesthetic of Brechtian epic/dialectical theatre, Neuwirth’s archetypes are modelled on what seem to be outsiders’ caricatures of American life: the sleazy, cigar-chomping tycoon; the black pimp in a fancy suit; the greaseball nightclub owner; perhaps most absurdly, the fully kitted-up American football player, who bursts on-stage in slow motion, as if mid-touchdown. While these characters are still in keeping with a Brechtian aesthetic, their use comes across (like the music) as clumsy and tokenistic.

These costume changes (for that is all they are) would be fine, though, if the central theses of Neuwirth’s adaptation were adequately realised. The score’s imitation-jazz would be fine if issues of race were adequately discussed; and the comic animation at the centre of the work would  work well if Lulu’s mental health and agency were properly considered. As it is, though, the void at the core of the work throws its more obvious, superficial changes into relief.

This Rosa Parks-shaped hole in the work’s racial politics needs to be discussed, but before dealing with its onstage presentation, it is worth noting that this was perhaps the most ethnically-mixed audience I’ve ever seen at a ‘classical’ performance (in terms of ratio, even matching last year’s Porgy and Bess at ENO). The fact that this 80%-white audience can be considered progressive and diverse is telling in itself (though the ratio was closer to 70% at the end, as it seemed like most of the white people walked out mid-Act 2). Nevertheless, if ‘hybrid’ works like this can help opera shift away from the white-man demographic then, whatever the flaws, they are perhaps worthy of encouragement.

This mixed audience presents a problem: the production wants the audience to be white. The work’s ‘message’ depends on making the audience feel complicit in Lulu’s downfall; making viewers uncomfortable by forcing us into the position of watching a black artist being paraded on stage in a Josephine Baker banana skirt. You, says the play, are on the side of the club promoter, and the pimp. Look at what you are making her do. The programme notes tell us how to feel about this: ‘She is an exotic creature trapped on a stage before a paying public, forced to re-enact her life story. We listen and watch but do nothing and so become complicit in her nightly repeated murder. […] The only way she will stop singing is to stop breathing and we will not leave until she has died.’ (John Fulljames – Director). While this technique has a long operatic history, and is undoubtably effective (for example, the audience’s admiration for the boy Tadzio in Death in Venice‘s ‘Games of Apollo’ forces us into the position of complicity with Aschenbach’s unsettling devotion), the impact of this revelation is somewhat dulled when a) the programme notes tell us you’ve been bad before we even see the events in question, and b) when a mixed-race audience has specifically come to see a Lulu who ‘confidently searches for her own form of expression, her own identity’ (Neuwirth). Unlike Berg’s original staging, this audience is there because they want to be on Lulu’s side. To promise Lulu ‘telling her own story’, then present little more than Berg’s original while calling the audience out as objectifying racists seems something of a mixed message.

Perhaps that is the point: it lures us in with promises of a struggle for Civil Rights and agency, then asks us to question whether 21st-century white people watching a struggle for (racial/sexual) emancipation is any less ‘othering’ than when our 20th-century forebears leered at what was beneath the banana-skirt. If that is the message, it throws up issues for Neuwirth’s score: one cannot forget that, through most of jazz’s early recording history, it was marked as ‘Race Music’. Neuwirth’s score, using jazz as little more than a musical shorthand for ‘Black America’, falls back on this same racial essentialism that has plagued jazz from its very beginning–if the audience are guilty of ‘othering’ Lulu, Neuwirth ‘others’ an entire culture.

The paraphernalia of Civil Rights (the onstage gramophone playing Martin Luther King speeches over scene changes; Lulu’s use of the Black Power salute) further confuse the work’s outlook on race and gender. In the prologue to Act 1, the Pimp asks Lulu why, despite having money and devoted clients, she’s so ‘insatiable’, with the implication that Lulu feels unfulfilled as the struggle for social emancipation is making slow progress. This phrasing is odd: through the rest of the play, Lulu’s ‘insatiability’ is sexual. Were this a one-off ambiguous phrasing, the presentation of Civil Rights and Lulu’s sex-drive as linked could probably be passed over, but it recurs. When rejecting the love of the jazz singer Eleanor as weak and feminine, Lulu raises her fist into the Black Power salute. This bizarre assault on her own gender while drawing attention to her race is seriously problematic: part of what drove Black prostitution and objectification in the early twentieth century was a belief (among white men, of course) that Black women were supremely erotic beings, with unmatched sexual appetite–part of Josephine Baker’s fame rested on her reputation as a voracious lover. Presenting Lulu as a sexual and racial being, and presenting in these offhand gestures race and sexuality as being linked is hugely problematic, especially in a production that mimics Baker’s dance itself. The only other black character is the Pimp, another being defined in relation to sexuality (even the jazz singer is white). Calling out the audience for their role in Lulu’s demise seems something of a double standard when the play itself is just as guilty of racial essentialism.

These ideological problems undercut the excellent practical elements of the production. Angel Blue as Lulu delivers a fantastic performance in a role perhaps more difficult than Berg’s original, and Jaqcui Dankworth as Eleanor provided a striking timbral contrast to the otherwise operatic vocal soundworld. (Also, is theirs the first onstage interracial homosexual relationship in opera?) The hanging beads encircling the stage provided a literal ‘fourth wall’, made entirely opaque at the end in a wonderful, almost-too-literal Brechtian moment of alienation. Lulu bursts through the wall into the audience, and it is here where her murder is enacted; this could have been a very powerful moment were the work’s outlook not so confused.

This confusion seems brought on by a dissonance between Neuwirth’s tokenistic Americana and the troubling messages on race and gender that such an adaptation of Berg’s supplies. Arguably, the same messages could be better imparted if American Lulu was instead simply a production of Lulu with an inventive staging. While many see re-writing Berg’s score as a vile transgression, similar critics usually have no problem with radical alterations to the composer’s intentions regarding the opera’s staging; and although it is interesting that music is seen as exempt from alteration (even generally with regard to making cuts), in this case I would argue that a more conventional approach to the music would have been a better way of presenting Neuwirth’s argument. A staging of Berg’s Lulu with a black protagonist set in the American South in the mid-twentieth century could have dealt with Civil Rights in perhaps a more nuanced way than the overblown Americanisms of American Lulu‘s staging and music allow.

Despite its strong performances and occasional innovation, American Lulu is brought down by a disjuncture between powerful issues and tokenistic Hollywood clichés of the American underbelly. Using Lulu to confront ongoing racial and sexul issues in this manner had the possibility to be sensational. American Lulu, caught up in its own stylisticism, fails to achieve this potential.

Music and Detachment in ‘Spec Ops: The Line’

(Originally published 24/07/2013.)

In my previous post I looked issues to do with the reception of music written for video games within the art-music world, with reference to film music. This post is something of a follow-up, prompted by thoughts of how game music might be differentiated from film music in positive ways, rather than coming across as a poor relation marred by aesthetic problems. While it is true that the examples below are some of the more effective I’ve encountered, and are not representative of the vast majority of games, I see these as more of a proof-of-concept–signs of potential in the medium that set a goal for future development.

2K’s Spec Ops: The Line was widely praised, above all, for presenting a challenge to the jingoistic militarism currently in vogue among mainstream game production. Marketed as a fairly typical modern military shooter, the game eventually forces players to become complicit in the protagonist’s psychological downwards spiral brought on by traumatic conflict, sleep deprivation, and American betrayal–a clear comment on the gung-ho interventionist patriotism of the Call of Dutys or Battlefields that mark the industry’s ideological consensus. Much has been written at length on why this critique is effective, but from the perspective of seeking to understand music’s role, the principle concern is with its creation of detachment: both the protagonist’s mental detachment from reality; and the game’s forcing of the player to consider their detachment from the events which, in order to continue the game, they are made to take part in.

The sandstorm-ruined city of Dubai, as seen by protagonist Capt. Walker

The first significant use of music occurs midway through the second chapter, when the trio of protagonists, at this stage still in sound mind, enter an insurgent base to the sound of blazing guitars and a generic rock vocal–a moment that virtually screams ‘America, F*ck Yeah!’, in keeping with the early chapters’ lulling of players into a false sense of security. Shooting unspecified-middle-eastern insurgents to a pounding riff is modern gaming’s bread and butter, and in this early stage of Spec Ops its citation makes perfect sense–at this point in the characters’ story, they still consider themselves the heroes. Once the level’s set-piece firefight has concluded, however, an offhand remark from one of the protagonist’s squad-mates sets up the first moment of musical detachment. By asking (paraphrase) ‘Where’s that music coming from?’, the game forces the player into awareness of the artificiality of the situation: the characters can hear their own soundtrack. This subverts every assumption that comes with the medium–not only that the soundtrack is in a space removed from the action, but that it is subservient, and is only shaped by the world, rather than participating in events. This is enough of a jolt to draw the player out of the action, and to make them realise that they are interacting with an artificial world. As the game’s message is dependent on making the player feeling complicit in the protagonist’s (eventually) horrific actions, breaking immersion has the effect of constantly reminding the player of their agency within this world, and the active choices they make in participating in this story.

This music is moments later revealed to be controlled by the Radioman, a mysterious antagonist whose voice, and choice classic rock/soul picks, are piped directly to the protagonist for most of the rest of the game via the in-game radio. This use of radio is another of Spec Ops‘s subtler inversions of gaming convention. In-game radio stations are fairly common, especially in open-world games such as the most recent Fallouts, in which the radio serves as a complementary component of world-building. Crucially, however, in these games the radio is optional–there is an off switch, useable at the player’s discretion. In Spec Ops, not only does the music jarr with its environment, but it is inescapable.

The Radioman’s studio, from which ironically appropriate music is broadcast to Dubai.

In forcing players to acknowledge the Radioman’s power, the game invites players to consider the artificial nature of this situation. The most obvious example is the use of Martha Reeves & The Vandellas ‘Nowhere to Run’ at the moment when the Radioman reveals he has led the protagonists into an ambush. Not only does this song choice demonstrate to the player that their antagonist has created this situation as a form of psychological as well as physical warfare, but it also serves to, again, break the player’s immersion in the game world. The realisation of the Radioman’s ‘clever’ lyrical parallels provides a split-second breach of concentration, drawing the player into a fuller realisation of their situation: not only is their in-game environment constructed/orchestrated by a more powerful figure, but the game itself is also a construction, and their interaction is only ever on its terms. The choice of this particular song is motivated by more than its appropriate chorus lyric. The up-beat Motown groove continues to provide an immersion-breaking filter over the rest of the scene, creating a continuous dissonance between aural (happy summer soul) and visual (shooting people in the face) stimulation. This particular song was also used, by a similar military radio DJ, over footage of soldiers training in the film Good Morning Vietnam, and while one can’t be sure of this being an intentional reference, it certainly adds another web of intertextual links to Spec Ops‘s already busy frame of reference.

The music composed specifically for the game is less easy to consider with narrative significance, as it is composed of the sort of repeating fragments that follow the standard patterns of action-game soundtracks: silence in between firefights, and classic rock-esque riffs during combat. The soundworld of Spec Ops‘s incidental music is arguably sparser than other games of this type, with one particularly effective track consisting of solo bass guitar playing low-register repeating lines, almost so low that pitch becomes irrelevant and a heartbeat rhythm the only quantifiable effect. In other moments the lead guitar tone is touched with delay, creating a slightly distant effect. I won’t go as far as saying that this represents a subversion of rock-soundtrack sensibilities, but it certainly does something to undercut the pomposity that comes with this aural territory.

Spec Ops’s title menu, complete with ideology.

Perhaps the most significant use of music, however, comes from before one even starts the game. The title menu, complete with inverted American flag, torn and tattered by bullet holes, is accompanied by a Hendrix-like solo guitar rendition of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’. In one aural citation, the developers reveal the game’s purpose. Just as Hendrix, through playing the national anthem provides a critique of the nation, so do 2K critique the military shooter genre by themselves writing a military shooter.

Spec Ops‘s use of music is intelligent, mostly consistent, and an important contributing factor to the game’s message. If game music is to be more closely examined, there need to be examples that stand up to this sort of critical reading, and at time of writing, these are still few and far between. Games such as Spec Ops: The Line however, prove that game music, if approached correctly, is a central element of the medium’s approach to narrative.