Spotify, Ancestry.com, 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.

Abstract:

In fall 2018, the music streaming service Spotify partnered with genealogy website Ancestry.com 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!

Abstract:

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.]

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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.

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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.

So?

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?

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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.

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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.

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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’: http://wellcomelibrary.org/item/b18031535#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=248&z=-0.2239%2C0.1033%2C1.4084%2C0.7126

Hazel M. Stanton: University of Nebraska Yearbook, 1912 http://www.usgennet.org/usa/ne/topic/resources/OLLibrary/UNEYB/uneb086.htm

Carl Seashore: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Seashore

Charles Davenport: https://library.missouri.edu/exhibits/eugenics/davenport.htm

Seashore Measures: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPZ9j5COoho.

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.

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Lawrence Gellert, from ‘Negro Songs of Protest’, Rounder 4004. (Source: http://www.wirz.de/music/gellefrm.htm)

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. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40068255

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.