Thursday, 27 January 2011

Spoken Word

My new book, Spoken Word: Postwar American Phonograph Cultures, is now out.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Alice in Audioland, Part Three

Director Tim Burton stated that he wanted to make his cinematic Alice someone with whom he could identify. Such an adult-friendly Alice was provided by scriptwriter Linda Woolverton, who had previously worked on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Lion King (1994), and Mulan (1998). As opposed to Lewis Carroll’s imaginary space of timeless childhood wonder lost to adults, Burton and Woolverton made Wonderland an actual place that can be revisited by a nineteen-year-old Alice on the verge of marriage and a career. Instead of lingering in the magic realm of childhood in endless mad tea parties and wonderfully pointless dialogues, Burton’s film feels as though it is in a hurry to move on to the sequel: a cinematic reification of the modern complaint that “kids are getting older younger.” Even the caterpillar in the film is in the act of becoming, changing into a butterfly as a metaphor for the transition to adulthood. Most notably, Woolverton has made Alice into a Hollywood action hero, vorpal sword in hand. While the feminist message is to be applauded, the application of any adult moral negates exactly the quality that was so revolutionary and funny about Carroll’s books: their revelry in sheer nonsense for its own sake.

My last example of an audio Wonderland is an earlier female interpretation of Carroll: the 1948 RCA Victor record of Eva Le Gallienne’s touring stage production of “Alice in Wonderland.” Le Gallienne’s adaptation was first performed at the New York Civic Repertory Theatre in 1932, and then made several tours of the US. The show was revived in 1947, when Le Gallienne was working with the American Repertory Theatre. Le Gallienne was a powerful and influential figure in American Theater, and was also romantically linked with Hollywood stars such as Alla Nazimova and Tallulah Bankhead, as well as one of the actresses who played Alice to her White Queen. Listen to her scene as the White Queen here:

The RCA record of Le Gallienne’s show is my favorite adaptation of Carroll’s work, and demonstrates that – evidence to the contrary – the Alice books can be successfully adapted for the stage, screen, or loudspeaker with their delicate charm intact. Listen here to Le Gallienne’s version of one of the funniest moments from “Through the Looking-Glass”: Alice’s encounter with Humpty Dumpty.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Alice in Audioland, Part Two

Two of the most disappointing moments in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) are when Avril Lavigne’s uninspired “Alice” plays over the film’s end credits, and when Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter breaks into a cringe-inducing “futterwacken” dance. There is little doubt that both are motivated by strategies of corporate synergy: the Lavigne track serves as a marketing tool in music videos and soundtrack releases; and the dance has become the key to a “Single Ladies”-style viral marketing campaign in Disney’s buildup to the film’s DVD release (see the “Show Us Your Futterwacken” contest at It’s a shame that neither the song nor the dance were integrated into the film with any kind of subtlety or coherence, given that Lewis Carroll’s books are essentially musicals: think of the violent lullaby the Duchess sings to her child; the Mad Hatter’s “Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat”; the Lobster-Quadrille; the songs of the Mock Turtle and the White Knight; and the grand choruses sung in praise of Queen Alice. Maybe Burton and Disney didn’t take the synergistic possibilities of the project far enough. What if the film had been conceived as a gigantic mashup of contemporary popular music and Carroll’s narrative universe? Lou Reed as the caterpillar, Lady Gaga as the Red Queen, Dizzee Rascal as the Mad Hatter, Noel and Liam Gallagher as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Missy Elliott as the White Queen, Willie Nelson as the Cheshire Cat, Jack White as the White Rabbit, Joanna Newsom as Alice… I know – this is starting to sound like a recipe for disaster along the lines of the dreadful 1978 “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” film starring the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton, but an Alice musical could make for a more coherent kind of media industry synergy and could provide a narrative form that lends itself to Carroll’s lyrical and episodic stories.

In this second installment of audio adaptations of Alice’s adventures, I offer an Alice/musical mashup in the form of Decca’s 1944 children’s record, “Alice in Wonderland,” featuring Hollywood musical icon Ginger Rogers in the title role. Rogers’ performance is nothing to write home about, and the musical setting of “How doth the little crocodile” isn’t particularly inspired, but it makes me wonder how the scene might have worked if Carroll’s poem had been set to music by say, Timbaland or Aphex Twin. Bonus points for identifying the voice of the White Rabbit (or should I say, White Wabbit).

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Alice in Audioland, Part One

Tim Burton’s "Alice in Wonderland" (2010) is the latest in a long line of screen adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s books. There have been versions from the silent era of film (Cecil Hepworth’s of 1903 and W. W. Young’s of 1915); a star-studded MGM film from 1933; the 1951 Walt Disney animated film; Jonathan Miller’s trippy 1966 BBC television adaptation, which features British comedy icons like Peter Cook and Peter Sellers and the music of Ravi Shankar; an X-rated “musical fantasy” version from 1976; and a wonderfully dark and surreal 1988 offering by animator Jan Svankmajer. All of these films illustrate the pros and cons of adapting Carroll’s singular works. On the one hand, the Alice stories allow filmmakers to showcase the latest in cinematic special effects as the heroine falls down the rabbit-hole, grows and shrinks, or encounters the Cheshire cat’s lingering grin. On the other hand, Carroll’s intricate verbal humor, circuitous plots, fantastic creatures and events, when coupled with the iconic status of John Tenniel’s illustrations, make the books difficult to visualize. The result tends to be films with some isolated stunning moments, but that disappoint adult fans and either bore or terrify the children that they were ostensibly meant to entertain.

Might Carroll’s surreal wordplay and flashing leaps of the imagination be easier to adapt in a sound-only medium? In the next few blog entries, I will post excerpts from some of the audio adaptations of Alice’s adventures. For my first installment, I offer a December 1937 radio broadcast of CBS’s prestigious “Columbia Workshop.” This show was directed by William N. Robeson, and featured an “experimental musical score” meant to determine the extent to which orchestra instruments could provide a radio drama’s sound effects. Listen below to how the show dramatizes a scene from Carroll’s "Through the Looking Glass" (1871) that is not typically found in the films: Alice’s ride on the Wonderland train and her conversation with the gnat. The scene highlights how the broadcast uses musical instruments as sound effects, and also reminds us that Carroll’s prose is populated by a wild cacophony of voices: we hear Alice’s long-suffering politeness, as well as uncanny disembodied voices that speak and think in chorus; the murmurs of overheard speech from the other passengers in the coach; a train announcement that morphs into the whinny of a horse; and the piping of a gnat in Alice’s ear.

Monday, 12 April 2010

I've Told Every Little Pumpkin

The fact that I am in the process of finishing a semester teaching a class on the work of David Lynch, and am also a long-time fan of mashup mixes, must make me the ideal demographic for the Mashed in Plastic project: a collection of mashups featuring music from Lynch’s films and television shows ( Though all the tracks will be of interest to hardcore Lynch fans, Totom’s “I’ve Told Every Little Pumpkin” has an immediacy and power that ranks it with my favorite mashups. Totom has combined the vocals from Linda Scott’s recording of “I’ve Told Every Little Star” (1961) – which was featured in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) – with the backing track and chorus vocals of Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979” (1996).

The term “mashup” has gained widespread usage in the past five years or so, but it is often used in a broad sense to mean the same thing as a “re-mix.” In the strictest terms, a mashup is not simply a re-mix of multiple recordings, but a special category of re-mix that combines two discrete tracks (usually the vocals from one track and the instruments from another) in order to produce a new song. The technical simplicity of that maneuver is significant: mashups are not about virtuosic editing technique, but about “high concept” ideas and a certain DIY Punk attitude. Also like Punk, the best mashups work simultaneously as both pop music and pop music criticism: for example, when Destiny’s Child sing over a Nirvana track we are prompted to think about the segregation of white and black musical genres since the 1990s on radio formats and charts; or when we hear Christina Aguilera front the Strokes we confront the different approaches taken to romance in various genres of pop music, or how the division of labor between writing lyrics, melodies, and instrumentation tends to work in contemporary songwriting.

Another test of a classic mashup is whether or not it transcends its sources, and for me, Totom’s track passes with distinction. After hearing “Every Little Pumpkin,” Linda Scott’s 1961 record sounds too slow, and more importantly, its showtune chord structures create a harmonic landscape that doesn’t seem to encompass the full emotional range of the lyrical references to painful secrets, longing and loneliness. By contrast, the heavy, open guitar chords of the Pumpkins track lend both an emotional weight and a productive ambiguity to the lyrics. The bright, candy-coating of the 1961 track can, of course, be seen in a positive light, and must have been part of its allure for Lynch, who we should note, has been doing his own cinematic mashups since re-working Bobby Vinton and Roy Orbison in Blue Velvet (1986).

It is the Smashing Pumpkins track that fares the worse by comparison with the mashup, however. Listen to how flat and lifeless the verse melody to “1979” sounds after we’re used to hearing Scott’s vocals over the guitar riff. Billy Corgan’s anonymous delivery on the verses of “1979” helps the slight melody to fade into the background so that the track feels like an empty stage setting without any featured actors. Ironically, Scott’s vocal performance brings the Pumpkins backing track to life, fusing with the rhythm track in a more “organic” way than Corgan’s: listen for example, to how her phrasing weaves in and out of the kick drum pattern. When Corgan moves to a higher register on the chorus, “1979” finally switches into high gear, but now I can’t hear this section of the song without missing Scott’s urgent counterpoint in the background (“dum-da-dum…”); another example of how vocal performances work as instruments of rhythm as much as melody.

The chorus of “Every Little Pumpkin” creates a duet in which Scott’s brassy, full-voiced style coexists with Corgan’s alt-rock whispers and rasps. Mashups are, after all, inherently utopian, since they make us imagine a world where we can have it all; where we don’t have to choose between perky melodies and heavy tracks; between early sixties optimism and mid-nineties irony; between pop and rock. The fact that these utopian musical moments are “impossible” only adds to their bittersweet charm. It is on this point that we should recall “Every Little Pumpkin’s” connection to Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. After all, in her remarkable starring role in that film, Naomi Watts performs her own kind of actorly mashup, embodying both the perversely perky “Betty” and the dark, psychotic Diane Selwyn. Watts' performance gets folded into those of Scott and Corgan in the brilliant video mashup of the Totom track:

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Pastor Gary Greenwald on Backmasking

Of all the ink that’s been spilled describing what has been lost with the passing of the vinyl record, little attention has been paid to debates about the existence of “backmasking”: a process whereby messages were thought to be placed in popular recordings such that their meaning could only be discovered when the record was played in reverse. Some of my most vivid memories of interacting with vinyl and turntable are of methodically spinning discs counter-clockwise on my parent’s old record player, straining to find the eerie secret messages supposedly hidden in the Beatles’ “Revolution #9,” Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” or Prince’s “Darling Nikki.” Now, in the cold laser light of the digital age, those rites and secrets seem as esoteric as table rapping, but they have something besides nostalgia to offer those interested in media history. I didn’t think about it at the time, but my basement explorations of backmasking were enactments of what William Boddy refers to as a “vernacular theory of electronic communication.” The vernacular theory of backmasking was made known to the public through the lectures of anti-rock activists who claimed to have discovered an uncanny power in popular recordings. Consider these excerpts from a 1982 lecture by Pastor Gary Greenwald:

It will not come as a shock that Greenwald’s “neurological explanation” for backmasking has not held up under scrutiny. Psychological studies have produced no evidence that listeners are influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the content of backward messages. To decode reversed messages, the unconscious brain would have to be simultaneously hearing language forward and backward, all the while identifying and deciphering an intended message from the chaos of reversed sound. Studies have shown that the forward meaning of backward statements do not “leak” through, even when the backward statements themselves are coherent and memorable, let alone if they are something as esoteric as “turn me on, dead man.”
It is easy to point out what the backmasking theorists got wrong in their hodgepodge of haunted media, media effects panic, subliminal advertising anxiety and cultural xenophobia, but what I find more compelling is what they got right. That is, backmasking theory was remarkably productive in record culture. First, it provided otherwise “faceless” rock bands like ELO and Styx with a certain transgressive edge and a compelling marketing strategy at just the moment when the industry was in a prolonged sales slump, rock promotion was becoming thoroughly routinized, and the baby boom generation that had driven its massive expansion was aging out of the key record-buying demographic. In the longer term, backmasking crusaders helped to create their own worst nightmare in the form of the overtly satanic rock of bands like Venom, Grim Reaper, and Slayer, all of whom surely grew up playing their Led Zeppelin records backwards and contemplating the details of Jimmy Page’s pact with the devil. At the same time, kids like me who scoured the grooves of their LPs for hidden messages put the theory of backmasking to action, and in the process, rediscovered a sense of wonder at the familiar medium of sound recording. Backmasking theory was most influential then, not as a critique of record producers, but as a stimulus for new types of record consumption. In other words, the performances of showmen like Gary Greenwald renewed rock and re-enchanted the old medium of recorded sound.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Tippy Toe Bubble Book

In 1914, Ralph Mayhew was working for Harper & Brothers on a children’s book of verse in which he planned to have “a child sitting blowing bubbles which ascended and burst into the little pictures and nursery rhymes.” Mayhew struck upon the idea of incorporating small phonograph records in his Bubble Book, and was eventually able to convince Harper & Brothers and Columbia Records to back him, with the first edition of the Bubble Books pressed in 1917. The first Bubble Book – which contained three single-sided 5 ½-inch records featuring musical versions of traditional children’s verses and an accompanying package with illustrations – met with immediate success, and subsequent editions were released through the early 1930s. The Bubble Books were the first book and record hybrids marketed to children, and so represent a pioneering instance of cross-media synergy between book publishing and the record industry. As we can hear on this example, the Bubble Books consisted of a repackaged oral tradition of children’s nursery rhymes and songs.

Forms of children’s entertainment like nursery rhymes were well-suited to the time limitations of early records: with only approximately four minutes of recording time per side, it was difficult to develop longer narrative forms. But nursery rhymes also helped to associate these mass-produced records with oral traditions of parenting. In fact, the rhetoric of Columbia’s ad campaigns connected Bubble Books to a timeless matrilineal oral tradition, and at the same time attempted to upstage that tradition by arguing for the supremacy of the modern media: records could stockpile and reproduce all the old familiar rhymes, and with accompanying pictures lovelier than anything available in the past. Further, while mothers were portrayed as the vehicle of a beloved tradition, ads imagined a future in which her role was replaced by the phonograph. Note how a 1918 ad in Ladies’ Home Journal presents “Tom the piper’s son,” who asked mothers, “Let me sing to your child…I’ve always wanted to tell those children of yours my story, and to sing them a song – and now at last I can do it.”
We find here the substitution of the phonograph for the mother’s voice and a tradition of oral nursery rhymes. Bubble Book ads were aimed at mothers as the “middle term” in the chain of family consumption, but implied that the phonograph could “cut out the middleman” between oral tradition and the child; the middleman being the mother, who was reminded of her parental responsibilities even as her role was threatened. Bubble Book ads took part in a larger tendency of advertising copy of this era to address feelings of regret at the loss of earlier traditions, and to offer consumer goods to assuage anxieties about the passage to a culture of mass consumption. Such ads suggested that the modern consumer could simultaneously enjoy both the modern and the traditional via the product, and so, in Roland Marchand’s words, civilization could be “redeemed.” Bubble Book ads claiming that traditional characters like “Tom the piper’s son” wanted to speak directly to children may have made their media products more innocuous to parents, but that rhetoric also reveals some of the underlying anxieties that parents were feeling concerning their children’s consumption of mass produced media. It was of course, the record companies and Harper & Brothers, not “Tom the piper’s son,” who were looking for new ways to speak directly to children.