First, tonight’s (TUESDAY’S) Beat Research is a special session featuring three button-pushing beatsmiths:
Hailing from Toronto, Doldrums comes to town during a tour taking him around the US and over to Europe. Omnivorous in his sampling, and known to release VHS-only mixtapes, Doldrums — who often adds video collage and his own voice to the proceedings — has named his “preferred sources” as “mainstream R&B, classical music, future shock, bollywood, richwave and clip-clop.”
Appearing alongside Doldrums are two Boston-based beat-head transplants. TimeWharp hails from Atlanta but now makes Boston his home for cooking up warm sonic stew over crackling hot boom-bap, and Avila Santo, who lists his location as “Boston California,” channels the sound of Flying Lotus’s Los Angeles with his own take on neck-snapping rhythms and sticky synth lines.
In my talk, among other things, I’m hoping to connect the following two videos, toward which, if any dear readers are quick with Dutch to English, do help me to understand precisely how the judges discuss dancehall’s shortcomings in the Got Talent clip (aside from the English bit, which is plenty telling).
So, yeah. There’s rearing; and then there’s rearing —
Slightly older kids, well enculturated & irrepressibly motivated, can tend to take things to the next level, bumping body parts with acrobatic abandon and lighting rooftops (and laptops) on fire —
Devotees of dancehall reggae and reggaeton will no doubt recognize elements of perreo and daggering in the “choque” (alt. “choke” or “shoke”) — named after the collisions so central to the dance. (One bump on each beat = 95 bumps per minute!) As one choque song goes, and there are many of them, the dance might be conceived as “perreo con toque.” Musically speaking, all the big choque songs (whether by La Combinacion, Son de AK, Element Black, Los de Tura, etc.) are basically reggaeton productions, if by reggaeton we mean Spanish-language, reggae-inflected rap over beats constructed piecemeal from mid-90s dancehall riddims — a stab of guitar from Murder She Wrote, a Fever Pitch hi-hat, kicks and snares resampled so many times they’ve taken on a new character, thick and crunchy, perfect for soundtracking the crashing of hips. In this way, we might appreciate an aesthetic symmetry between the ways the dance and the music both sample from as they explode well-worn forms.
Notably, however — and clearly departing from perreo and daggering in this way — the choque has a strong and, for many, surprising (or even subversive) “equal opportunity” character. As seen in the video above (and in many others), after doing some “leading” of their own, the men take turns being “led” (i.e., smashed on) by the women. Moreover, as I’ll discuss below, the choque also appears to lend itself to a fair amount of same-sex coupling — a rather rare sight in dancehall or reggaeton (especially male-to-male). But despite (or perhaps because of?) how clearly the choque is indebted to Caribbean forms — both musical and embodied — the video above has been received and recoded, again and again, as “African.”
When I first “stumbled upon” and reshared that video (via @culturedoctor, aka Sonjah Stanley Niaah), it wasn’t just called “Best Dance Ever. Watch it.” — it was called “Best African Dance Ever. Watch it.” And while I have no doubt that Africanists and Caribbeanists and scholars and enthusiasts of all stripes could hold an animated debate over what constitutes an “African” dance, whether here or there, and how much it hinges on aesthetics and history and politics — or, per Sonjah, whether “there is ground for analyzing inter-dependent genealogies” — I’m not so interested in hashing out that particular argument as I am in teasing out how ideologies of race and nation and sexuality, as routed through the charged site of Africa, play out in the public spheres gathered around YouTube and the myriad places, online and off, where a video like the one above can be discussed or re-embedded.
Comments on the various instantiations of the video reveal a remarkable resonance produced by the familiar movements and milieu. (It’s actually rather striking how little of the YouTube discourse around the song&dance mention the music at all.) This everyday but spirited rooftop jam clearly activates viewers’ social, global, and racial imaginations (to name a few). Some claim the dance for themselves, folding it into a capacious sense of identititity, others distance themselves from the scene and all it opens into —
All manner of associations and explanations are proffered —
Remarkably, debate continues despite that the uploader — who was, incidentally, not the first: this copy has nearly 20X as many views — finally “corrected” the title after several commenters correctly ID’d it as a Colombian scene/song (i.e., “Choque” by Son de AK).
People remain keenly interested in, skeptical of, and, indeed, ignorant of the video’s provenance. Some insist it is African African. Of course, even once we locate it in the Americas, that hardly means it’s not “African.” Note that Sonjah refers to the dance as a product of “the African community in South America,” an interesting (and, of course, political) way to describe it — as opposed to say, “Colombian” or “Afro-Colombian” or “Buenaventuran” etc. — and, I hasten to add, not necessarily an identititity that the kids in the video would oppose.
But pan-African commitments do not always lead to the tightest coalitions, for local cultural mores can produce fissures. It’s clear, for instance, that certain Jamaican viewers, even as they observe strong links to their own dear practices (“Dagga dat”!), find themselves repelled by certain practices that, no pun intended, give them pause (“dat cyaah gwaan a yaard”) —
And I think he was further convinced, and a little dismayed and bemused, when I shared some other choque videos I had turned up:
That video led me to a couple more, where the action is set in front of and then inside a home, and (thus?) it gets a little more intimate:
As you might imagine, given how YouTube has become ground zero for gay slurs, the comments on these videos get pretty hyperbolic. Indeed, trawling for interesting responses, I came across some classic chatroom Spanglish invective:
My friend and colleague, Michael Birenbaum Quintero, a self-identified “ethnomusicĂłlogo gringolombiano” who has been working in Colombia (and specifically in Buenaventura) for many years now, and is well acquainted with the choque phenomenon, offered another interpretation. He told me this sort of display — dancing in front of one’s house with a small soundsystem — is a commonplace practice in Buenaventura, including same-sex partnering. It may be homosocial, but it is not necessarily homoerotic — and according to MBQ such activity is rarely seen that way. Rather, and perhaps ironically (for some outside observers), this sort of galavanting is, more often than not, a means of showing off for girls. (But tell that to YouTube.)
Moreover, and this is something I hadn’t picked up on, MBQ noted that there’s a fair amount of subtle deflection in the dancing between men: rather than a square crotch-to-ass thrust, the guys are more likely to swivel hips at the last moment, so the bumping of sides is more frequent.
This is not always so, however, as some fellow Buenaventuran fellows demonstrate:
Then again, here they are again (and again), with opp-sex partners, so go figure:
And here’s a great example of two girls from Buenaventura, at what appears to be a family party, showing how the dance can be a lot more athletic than erotic —
Clearly, specific cultural frames and contextual understandings structure the meanings of choque, even as translocal elements (reggaeton, daggering, skinnyjeans) undeniably inform both local engagements and global circulation / fascination / revulsion. That said, it’s worth noting that the reason the choque became the phenomenon that it did — inspiring local and regional artists to record songs about and for it — is precisely because of all the kids in Buenaventura and ChocĂł dancing with abandon out in the street, up on the roof, and, eventually, on YouTube. This has made the choque more popular than ever, and it has invited contributions and appropriations of all sorts.
For one, thanks no doubt to YouTube, it has long since traveled beyond Buenaventura and Colombia: uploaded in September 2009, this video finds a Dominican couple doing the “baile de choque” (as well as jerkin’s “reject”) to some local dembow beats:
Closer to home, some recording artists have attempted to court crossover success by translating the choque for audiences outside of Colombia’s Afro-Pacific communities. As noted on the Masala blog a few months ago, Element Black and Bloke 18 premiered an upscale take on the tune, complete with HD video:
note the mambo outro
According to MBQ, although hailing from Buenaventura, Element Black appear to be targeting the regional capital, Cali, with this production. The most obvious cue is the participation of Cali-based group Bloke 18, but as MBQ told me via email, there are other signs to be read here: for one, whereas “videos for Pacific-focused music tends to have a generally darker demographic like that of the Pacific itself,” in this video we see “much lighter-skinned, upper-class-CaleĂ±o-looking models”; moreover, MBQ contends that “the fact that the more virtuosic aspects of the dance (e.g. head to butt headbutts) don’t appear” suggests that they wanted to “make it easier for Cali dancers,” a strategy seemingly buttressed by the use of mambo / merengue in the production. (But then, MBQ adds: “This is more that post-Ilegales No Pare Sigue Sigue neo-merengue mambo stuff than merengue, but it’s probably important that merengue is generally associated with the upper classes in Cali.”)
While listening to an Element Black mixtape I turned up, it occurred to me that mambo (as well as reggaeton) was working as a sort of platform in itself — as a means to project and promote one’s act, to invite the participation of a readymade public (i.e., one already addressed/amassed by mambo). It seems telling that there are multiple choque mambos circulating with their name on it. Then again, is mambo the platform, or does “choque” itself create a new scaffolding?
Perhaps inspired by the same crossover dreams, another act drummed up a (blanqueado?) salsa version:
Given the choque’s “African” connotations, there are consequences — in terms of social, cultural, and financial capital — for facilitating the circulation of choque beyond Colombia’s Pacific coast. While I can’t speak further to its reception in Cali, I have noticed a few videos portraying the choque in BogotĂĄ, where it is definitely received ambivalently, not least because the suggestive dance has been embraced by (putatively) non-Afro-Colombians — most scandalously of course, by highschool kids and even younger.
Indeed, the following footage of uniformed students in BogotĂĄ doing “EL NUEVO BAILE PARA JOVENES” (as the description phrases it) became the focus of an alarmist “national” news story —
Despite, then, what we might observe — and some would celebrate — as a certain set of cultural mores on display in choque videos, discourses of shame and scandal persist, at least in certain quarters. (One gets the sense, looking across these various videos and their metatexts, that these dances are ok, y’know, on the coasts, but not in the center!) Or maybe it’s just another lame excuse for the moralist media to replay the same supposedly salacious imagery again and again and again:
Resonant (and in conversation) with mediatized youth dance scenes the world over, the choque stands as another site of cultural and social contest. The myriad comments on choque videos using terms like “mierda” or “porquerĂa” alongside racist and heterosexist epithets merely serve to confirm, among other things, that as with its kindred genres (perreo, daggering, wining, freakin’) the choque can do a whole lot of cultural work at once. Whether teaching kids how to be in their bodies and cavort with their peers (sometimes a lot more innocently and playfully than critics let on), or pushing against longstanding biases, the choque vividly embodies the inevitable collisions in a post-slave, post-colonial, and multicultural society like Colombia.
And, indeed, despite vitriolic debates on YouTube and the fanning of populist fears on TV news, a large part of the choque’s cultural work may already be done. As MBQ also noted in our email exchange:
As for the upward mobility of choque, I recently saw on a friend of mine’s Facebook page a video of a middle-class white mother of about 40 and her 20something son in Buenaventura unironically dancing choque together.
In my recent post on “Watagatapitusberry” I wondered aloud, in so many words, where “the text” in question might reside, given that most people have been exposed to an intermediary “fan”/peer-produced text (a video) more popular than the original “text” (a recording), tho perhaps soon eclipsed by a new “official” video with potentially greater reach (I’m sayin: Pitbull is second only to Miley Cyrus for most viewed music video, all time on YouTube). That said/wondered, I was happy to stumble across Henry Jenkins’s recent interview with Jonathan Gray in which they discuss the notion of the “paratext.” As Gray explains:
I draw the word from a book of that title by Gerard Genette, a French literary theorist. He was interested in all those things that surround a book that aren’t quite the “thing” (or “the text”) itself. Things like the cover, prefaces, typeface, and afterwords, but also reviews. His subtitle to that book – “Thresholds of Interpretation” – is the intriguing part, since it suggests that meaning might be constructed and might begin at these textual outposts, not just at the site of “the thing itself.” And that in turn offers a pretty radical proposition, namely that the item that we’re studying, whether it be a film, television show, book, or whatever, becomes meaningful and is interpreted in many sites, some arguably even more important than the site of thing itself. The purpose of the book, quite simply, then, was to examine those sites.
I prefer the word paratext precisely because it has a pretty academic background, and from within textual studies at that, and thus isn’t encumbered by a lot of the connotations that surround many of the other words that we usually use. Your readers may be more familiar with “hype,” “synergy,” “promos,” “peripherals,” “extratextuals,” and so forth. But hype and synergy frame paratexts too definitively as wholly industrial entities. Certainly, paratexts are absolutely integral in terms of marketing, and in terms of grabbing an audience to watch the thing in the first place. But we’ve often stalled in our discussion of them by not moving beyond the banal observation that hype creates profits. What I wanted to look at is how they create meaning, how our idea of what a television show “is” and how we relate to it is often prefigured by its opening credit sequence, its posters, its ads, reviews, etc. Meanwhile, “peripherals” belittles their importance, since they’re not at all peripheral, at least in potential. “Promos” is fairly innocuous, and yet I’m interested not just in how the things that surround a film or show create an image of it before we get there, but also in how reviews, DVD bonus materials, fan creations, and other after-the-fact paratexts might change our understanding later on, so that too seemed inadequate. And though I like “extratextuals” (the title of my blog!), “extra” means “outside of,” whereas “para” suggests a more complicated relationship to the film or show, outside of, alongside, and intrinsically part of all at the same time. Hence my fondness for that word in particular.
Interesting stuff, though I’m not sure — thinking through several musical examples I’ve had on my mind lately — that the notion of the paratext can be so easily ported over to the messy, p2p musical culture we witness on the web. Rather, it seems a better fit when we’re talking about mass media broadcast models (TV shows, films, books), where it is relatively easy to posit a central text and peripheral (if also crucial) ones.
Let’s take “Watagatapitusberry” yet again as our object of analysis: what’s the text and what’s the paratext? Can we really say so clearly that the pseudo-“Official Video” made by a group of NYC teens is simply a paratext when it’s the version that most people have engaged as “Watagatapitusberry”? When we behold that so many other “Watagata” videos — including, notably, the slick new production ft. Pitbull and Lil Jon — seem to take their cues from those dudes dancing in their kitchen, their high school, their backyard and bathroom, who will make the argument that it is nevertheless a paratext? Does the concept of paratext prove useful in this instance, or does it in fact — for all the useful intellectual/cultural work it might do around TV or Hollywood — prevent us from apprehending something even more radical about the ways that texts are co-produced and circulate, with value added, in today’s media ecologies.
(Perhaps it goes without saying, since this is common for any popular song these days, that “Watagata” has also been remixed widely, e.g. by Toy Selectah, Allen Cruz, A.C.T., and no doubt many more. These are perhaps more easily subsumed under the notion of the paratext — so long as they don’t end up more important to people’s interpretation and engagement with “Watagatapitusberry” than “the text” itself, whatever that is.)
We could add to “Watagata” the example of “You’re a Jerk” (as my previous post also suggested), a song which, as the New Boyz have recounted, jumped from MySpace to YouTube and inspired dozens of people to dance along in their own videos (many of which are now muted/missing), all of which positioned the New Boyz to sign a deal for major production/promo/distro, which produced, eventually, an “official” text of its own (which includes a glossy video but should maybe also entail the audio-ID fingerprint which Warner Bros adds to its takedown-DB). Indeed, as far as Warner is concerned, the audio-ID fingerprint may as well be the text (which they can monetize), and everything else just a paratext — some more parasitical/piratical than others.
Of course, the template for “You’re a Jerk” is “Crank Dat,” which perhaps best illustrates the problem with trying to apply a theory of para/texts to music culture in the age of YouTube. Really, re: “Crank Dat,” which is the text and which are the paratexts? Is the text itself the song that Soulja Boy recorded (relying heavily on Fruity presets)? Or is it the easily-mastered set of dance steps so crucial to its spread? Is it the initial video that made the rounds featuring SB’s friends doing the dance in their living room? Is it the white-out-on-my-sunglasses tutorial-in-a-pool that SB put out there to help people learn to do the dance (and spread the song)? Or is it the official video / release? What about the dozens, if not hundreds, of other versions of people dancing to or mashing up the song? What about the dozens of “Crank Dat” spinoffs? I realize that as I go down this list, things can get more and more para/meta, but the first few questions, to my mind, show how hard it is to locate “Crank Dat” in any singular instantiation.
Or, take, “Super Freak” & “U Can’t Touch This” (which I discussed a ways back) — whose text has merged with whose? Which is now primary and which is para? It’s not simply a matter of which came first. And who can ever say when it’s all been settled? Don’t count a good paratext out. Ever.
Against this backdrop, I find more persuasive the idea that a musical text is less defined by a textual object per se and more by a set of relations, ever reconstituting themselves. Along these lines, I’m eager to hear more from Georgina Born, presenting at a symposium in which I’ll take part at Princeton next month. Born seems to be arguing — in proposing what she calls the “provisional work” — that the notion of the “assemblage” might better describe how musical culture works, at least in certain realms of creativity and collaboration. From her abstract —
it is possible to discern an alternative ontology of music to that historically enshrined in intellectual property law … the âprovisional workâ … To grasp the alternative ontology requires us in turn to engage analytically with music in the expanded sense of the assemblage: that is, as a constellation of mediations â sonic, but also social, material and technological, discursive, corporeal and temporal – that together constitute what âmusicâ and musical experience are held to be.
If this is like the Death of the Author all over again, maybe it’ll go down easier this time?
I’m excited to announce, for a couple reasons, that next week PBS will begin airing the 4-part series, “Latin Music USA.” Episode 1 (Latin Jazz, Mambo) and Episode 2 (Salsa) will air on Monday, October 12; Episode 3 (Chicano Rock, Tejano, NorteĂ±o) and Episode 4 (Latin Pop, Reggaeton) will air the following Monday, October 19. It’s an ambitious and salutary project —
Latin Music USA is a story about American music. Fusions of Latin sounds with jazz, rock, country, rhythm and blues – music with deeper roots and broader reach than most people realize. Itâs a fresh take on our musical history, reaching across time and across musical genres to embrace the exciting hybrid sounds created by Latinos; musical fusions that have deeply enriched popular music in the US for over more than five decades.
The multi-media project is anchored by a four-hour documentary series that will premiere in October 2009, during Hispanic Heritage Month, on PBS stations nationwide. Produced by a world-class production team at WGBH and the BBC, Latin Music USA invites the audience into the vibrant musical conversation between Latinos and non-Latinos that has helped shape the history of popular music in the United States. Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15th-Oct. 15th), a time to recognize the contributions of Hispanic Americans to the United States and to celebrate Hispanic heritage and culture, offers the series a perfect opportunity to further honor these influences. (via)
As if the series’ ambition and tribute to the USA’s Latin roots/routes wasn’t enough to be excited about, they’ve given me (and maybe you, dear reader) an additional reason to be enthused: Episode 4, touching on reggaeton and Latin hip-hop, features my first appearance as a TV talking head! That I get to offer some commentary alongside big dogs like Daddy Yankee and Tego Calderon, never mind the vast slate of distinguished musicians, producers, journalists, and scholars also featured in the series, is a humbling and awesome thing to report.
thx to the enormous room for the classy backdrop!
You can get a taste via a couple clips on their website, wherein I think I acquit myself ok:
I highly recommend poking around on the website. It’s quite flashy and interactive — you can browse texts, audio, and video by navigating swirling networks of places, genres, instruments, rhythms, and more. Check out, for example, the “universe” of Latin Jazz.
This series is a big experiment for PBS, a deviation from the standard programming targeting the PBS core audience (i.e., Masterpiece Theater, Antiques Roadshow). According to one of my contacts at PBS, they’re aware that the primary audience for this series (Latinos) does not typically watch PBS, and they’re hoping it will attract viewers from all over the spectrum. So, tusabes, plz help em out on their socialmedia campaign by friending, fanning, RTing, etcccc —
Special thanks to Juan Camilo Agudelo & Adriana Bosch for involving me in the project — congratulations on its completion, y’all, and all the best with reaching the vast viewership it deserves!
I love the moment at 0:21 in this credit card commercial:
It’s obvious why, no?
MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” — a “work” which, in addition to the song itself, includes as a part of its whole a now iconic video, known as much for its choreography as parachute pants — has become a part of the whole that is Rick James’s “Super Freak.”
Why has that happened? Because we say so, hear so, see so, know so.
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of ĂŠsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.
Which is not unlike what Nicolas Bourriard recently proposed (via /Jace):
These artists who insert their own work into that of others contribute to the eradication of the traditional distinction between production and consumption, creation and copy, readymade and original work. The material they manipulate is no longer primary. It is no longer a matter of elaborating a form on the basis of a raw material but working with objects that are already in circulation on the cultural market, which is to say, objects already informed by other objects. Notions of originality (being at the origin of) and even of creation (making something from nothing) are slowly blurred in this new cultural landscape marked by the twin figures of the DJ and the programmer, both of whom have the task of selecting cultural objects and inserting them into new contexts.
But what I like about Eliot saying this in 1922, more than Bourriard in 2009, is that this essential cultural process long predates mechanical and digital reproduction. It’s the stuff of poets and philosophers, as well as DJs and hackers, walkman-wearing dancers and credit card commercials. It’s just how culture works. Always has, always will. Can’t stop, won’t.
So thanks for the songs & dances, guys; now they’re ours.
'Atlantic rapper T.I. has passed two million MySpace friends, his MySpace page has over 82.6 million views and his hit single "Whatever You Like" has over 27 million streams at MySpace. Right now all of the songs at his MySpace page are collectively getting well over one million streams per day and to date have streamed over 138 million times. … At a penny per stream, T.I.'s MySpace page can bring in $15,000 per day if visitors listen to 1.5 million streams (which T.I. will easily exceed today). Those streams would generate even more revenue if the songs had an Amazon.com buy button (which they do not yet have). That's $105,000 in ad revenue for one week. Album sales, assuming a 15/85 digital/physical split, brought in (roughly) $5.42 million. First-week sales of "Whatever You Like" brought in $235,000 …. The total of the three is $5.76 million. That's $3.75 per MySpace friend (again, not including ringtones).'
whattaya know, michael berube started blogging again. why didn't anyone tell me? and why doesn't dude have an rss feed? does he really expect me to actually visit his website every time? sheesh. anyhoo, welcome back. your smart sarcastic takes on national and academic politics are always edutaining.
In my sha3bi searches last night I came across all kinds of odd & awesome stuff. And I don’t say ‘odd’ as an uninformed outsider (though I am one, relatively speaking), but b/c some of the cha3bi vids one finds are truly bizarre mashups of footage ranging from what looks like a Francophone African music video (Reunion? really?) to clips from Tom&Jerry —
But one of the best things I came across is a video of a more traditional — indeed, acoustic — mulid street performance than the soundsystem-propelled events portrayed in Jennifer Peterson’s article. According to the uploader, this depicts “men whoop[ing] it up on the streets of Al Hussein [Cairo]” in a post-mulid mood. One can certainly see connections to the recent/remix version of mulid/inshad/sha3bi, though one also gets to see/hear the improvised poetry a bit more, which inspires one commenter to call it “8 Mile on the Nile ;)” — watch the MC with the frame drum step up around 1:12:
The other thing I find uncanny about this clip — given the way that “ghettotech” has emerged in “nu-world” discourse — is how the call-response chants from 0:47 to 1:07 sound pretty much exactly like several ghetto-tech/-house/juke tracks. I don’t know what they’re saying (sounds like “yeah yeah”), but it would mix very well with any number of tracks that anchor themselves with a repeated “uh oh!” or “hold up!”
I know I’ve used it before, but, that said, I can’t resist ending with this gif —
Today / tonight, my ever entertaining, unpredictable, visionary father-in-law (and, yes, now a grandpa, thx to Nico) is going to be on the Colbert Report! He’ll be there primarily to discuss his latest passion, poker as strategic thinking and educational tool (though you never know what might come out of Charlie’s mouth, esp as prodded by the likes of Colbert).
The writer’s strike (with which I’m in deep sympathy) has me a bit confused about whether this makes Charlie a scab of sorts, but it definitely makes him pretty damn cool in my book, regardless. Go Charlie!
I’m not really a TV watcher. Really. I mean, sure, I’ve watched something like 2000 videos on YouTube over the last couple years (and I don’t think that even counts videos embedded in blogs, etc.). But I probably watch OldTube only a couple hours a week at best — like if, say, a big Bawstin game is on (and even then I’m usually tagging along with Becca’s great enthusiasm for sports, which well outstrips mine).
That said, I’ve spent 50 hours of the last couple months catching up with The Wire. After having read enough raves from enough trusted filters (while vigilantly avoiding any spoilers), I finally decided that I needed to be on board for the fifth and final season (which premiered tonight, non-demand). I have to say that I agree wholeheartedly with the show’s boosters. It’s an utterly engrossing series and, almost improbably, lives up to all the hype.
Earlier today Julianne Shepherd said about The Wire, “This is the most important work of visual literature of my lifetime! How can you not react to that total awesomeness?!” I concurrr. And I like the idea of the series as a work of “visual literature.” It has repeatedly been characterized as Dickensian, and I think that’s apt — not just for the way that David Simon, et al., offer such a detailed, vivid, and only kinda cartoonish portrait of the bleak houses of Bmore, but, obviously, because it’s also a serial, which makes it especially fun to watch all at once. (Waiting a week per episode is going to be tough after Netflicking the first four seasons.)
Since I’ve called it “only kinda cartoonish” I should probably reaffirm that the most striking aspect of the series is, as has been remarked again and again, its verisimilitude. The cops talk like cops, the corner boys like corner boys, the dockworkers like dockworkers, etc. It’s all very convincing and richly textured, drawing one in and suspending one’s proverbial disbelief (what’s to disbelieve when it seems so ‘real’?).
The Wire has faced some criticism, however, precisely because the response to the show, broadly speaking and from various quarters, has so affirmed its trueness to life. A recent piece in The Atlantic, for instance, finds the show too bleak, more bleak than life really is (for the author and his consultants anyway), and hence finds the show’s pessimism to undermine its verisimilitude: “This bleakness is SimonĂąâŹâąs stamp on the show,” argues Mark Bowden, “and it suggests that his political passions ultimately trump his commitment to accuracy or evenhandedness.” Along these lines, and in that article, sociologist Elijah Anderson notes that “decent people” are underrepresented in the show, which, he contends, instead portrays underclass black life in Bmore as all too defined by the code of the streets. (Others have noted that the women in the show lack the fullness and range of the male characters, which is a valid criticism too.) W/r/t bleakness, however, I’m inclined to agree with my friend Marco: it doesn’t seem exaggerated. To put it another way: shit is real. (Or sure seems so.) And I mean shit literally too.
W/r/t to verisimilitude, though, for me — and maybe you saw this coming — what most frequently trips me up (or really, tripped me up, since it has largely been corrected since the early seasons) is the use of music in the show.
Notably, The Wire pretty much exclusively employs music in what film scholars/scorers would call a diagetic manner: that is, any sound you hear, the characters hear too. It’s “source music,” emitting from a particular source in the world that you’re watching. Tracks blast from cars and boomboxes and club systems; they don’t creep up on you like sneaky violins and woodwinds to manipulate your emotional response to what is happening. They serve as set pieces. As such, the music offers another level of detail to the show’s attempts at verisimilitude. Or at least that’s what I expected to hear. So I was surprised, during Season 1, to hear Mos Def and Common and other (let’s face it, bourgie) hip-hop songs playing in the Bmore ‘jects. Don’t get me wrong. I like those guys, but they’re not exactly offering thug motivation, knamean. (& I know I’m not the first to note this disconnect, but having avoided detalled commentary on the series in order to avoid spoilers, I didn’t read through long threads on the placement of music in the series prior to formulating this critique.)
To their credit, the producers of the show came around and remedied such diagetic distractions. In later seasons one hears music better matched to the settings: e.g., Fiddy and Jay-Z, a little Sean Paul for good measure (even some Vybz Kartel). Up to the time music, gangsta music, popular music. The soundtrack suddenly started to rise to the level of thoughtful detail of the rest of the show. Omar’s Latino pardner bumped reggaeton in his ride. Jimmy McNulty, the Pogues. And finally, sometime in season 3, Baltimore club music made a few key appearances: a house party here, a club scene there, a couple kids bumping along to the distinctive beat in their ride. In Season 4, Bmore club (as esoteric knowledge) even serves as a cunning tool for marking ignant interlopers from NYC. Season 4 also saw the introduction of homegrown hip-hop, a scene apparently spurred by the series, which has put (C)harm City on the map in recent years in a manner rivaled only by, well, Baltimore’s club music itself.
And though the producers have gone so far as to compile an album featuring tracks by DJ Technics, Mullyman, Diablo, and other locals, they’ve decided for the 5th season — against my highest hopes — to use a version of the Tom Waits penned theme song, “Down in the Hole,” as sung by Steve Earle (who plays a recurring character on the show) rather than, as I had fantasized, commissioning a Bmore remix of the Waits original (which remains my favorite version).
That’s it for now. Just wanted to let y’all know: I’m watching with ya. There won’t be any plot talk here (I still hate spoilers), but I’m always happy to talk themes. Plus, you can find all the Wire talk you want at places like Heaven and Here, where David Simon himself occasionally leaves a comment. Maybe me too.