Staging Overcoming: Narratives of Disability and Meritocracy in Reality Singing Competitions

Journal of the Society for American Music 11:2 (2017), 184214

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ABSTRACT

With the American Dream seizing center stage, reality television competitions often feature disabled auditionees and their moving tales of overcoming adversity. Musical—and frequently singing—abilities potentially normalize and envoice contestants while silencing vital conversations about the exploitation, stigmatization, and corporate politics at work in these seductive narratives. How do chronicles of overcoming overcome consumers? And how might inspiration porn about disability disable beholders’ emotional, intellectual, and rhetorical faculties? As fans and scholars resist or succumb to the tearfulness induced by sentimental stories, they must chart tricky routes through the heady skepticism of Scylla and the naive waterworks of Charybdis.

 

Taking Back the Laugh: Comedic Alibis, Funny Fails

 

Critical Inquiry 43:2 (2017), 528–49

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EXCERPT

In this article, I perform an acoustemology of comedy’s alibis in contemporary media. I listen for means by which laughter—its emission, contagion, suppression—can serve as audible barometers of how alibis either fly or bomb. A paradox emerges from the ways spontaneous-sounding laughter can simultaneously free us from societal scripts while shackling us within our own telltale, tittering bodies. A laugher’s accountability poses a moving target precisely because so much of comedy’s generic success relies on procedures of failure, impropriety, and breakage. Through three progressive cases, I delve into modern technologies of taking back laughter via the breaking and hacking of cultural texts. Each case features a do-it-yourself (DIY) phenomenon that exposes the stakes and choreographies of comedy’s consumer sovereignties: first, television fans who, through techniques of editing and recomposition, remove laugh tracks from comedies (The Big Bang Theory, Friends) or, inversely, add laugh tracks to dramas (Breaking Bad, The Wire), using the silence or surplus sound to break the show’s original mood; second, a YouTube game show that tries to make contestants break into smiles or laughter by presenting them with outrageous videos; and, third, Apollo Theater audience members who, through brash laughter and boos, use their collective judge-it-yourself authority to make or break the dreams of hopeful performers on amateur nights. All three of these examples hinge on the breakage of norms and the breaking in of new normals, embodying or eliciting laughter that may variously sound ambivalent, uncomfortable, or out of line. Lending a musicological ear to laughter’s stubborn materialities and technical hackability opens resonant perspectives into some of comedy’s funniest alibis. I conclude with a tribute to laughter’s Debbie Downer cousin: the groan.

Review of The Sound Studies Reader and The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies

 

Journal of the American Musicological Society 67:1 (2014), 257–66

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EXCERPT

The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (OHSS) and The Sound Studies Reader (SSR) are rowdy in the best sense of the word—vibrant, intense, materially diverse. These volumes invite us to journey into cities, enter laboratories, streak across microchips, zoom in on atoms, tread into gardens, and dive into watery depths in search of soundworlds that book and bloom. Authors lend their ears to a jumble of mediums, spaces, topics, agents, data, devices, cultures, historical moments, and futures.

Together, the resonant texts mirror and reflexively critique two of sound studies' leading concerns: first, that we live in noisy times (acoustically, discursively); and second, that the very challenges of writing about sound may offer vital clues into sound's definitions, properties, and epistemologies.

Role-playing Toward a Virtual Musical Democracy in The Lord of the Rings Online

 

Ethnomusicology 56:1 (2012), 31–62

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EXCERPT

This article examines the ways in which inhabitants of LOTRO simulate mu­sical behaviors and negotiate ideologies of virtual musical performance in light of the perceived freedoms that accompany practices of online role-play. Abiding by familiar conceptions of cyberspace as a site of disinhibition where identity pluralism prevails and anything goes, many players of LOTRO appeal to the egalitarian principles of role-play to defend their sense of performative entitlement. As one player colorfully puts it: “Players who want to play music in the gameworld ought to be able to regard­less of whether they can in reality. I don’t know many folks who can take an enemy out of commission entirely for thirty seconds with a flash of light, or by telling a riddle. Yet we do these things in-game, and I don’t view the music system any differently” (interview, Dalman, 23 December 2008). But whereas some players perform music as a means of propagating such democratic ideals and fostering a peaceful community of immersive role-play, others choose in­stead to deploy music as a tool of harassment and territorialization. Those who sonically provoke others or deliberately play over one another’s performances transform LOTRO’s soundscapes into veritable arenas that expose the creative yet potentially offensive consequences of music-making. At the heart of this study is the twin assertion that the emergent musical practices in LOTRO can broadly illuminate 1) the impact of technology on cultural definitions of music and musical agency and 2) the social dynamics and motivations that inform uses and abuses of sound in formations of musical communities.

Opera en abyme: The Prodigious Ritual of Korngold's Die Tote Stadt

 

Cambridge Opera Journal 22:2 (2011), 115–46

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Abstract

This essay frames Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die tote Stadt (1920) as a mise-en-abyme narrative containing four nested realms of diegesis: (1) the opera’s "real" world, (2) a prolonged dream sequence, (3) a dance troupe’s rehearsal of an opera within that dream, and (4) an expressly requested baritone song performed by a "Pierrot" character in the midst of that dreamt rehearsal. I conceptualise the opera’s dense meta-theatrics as a reflexive celebration (and also a didactic warning against the escapist pleasures) of sung spectacle. Excerpts from my interviews with Inga Levant—director of the 2001 Strasbourg production of Die tote Stadt—are used to supplement my broader examination of the ways in which Korngold’s reputation as a "problemless" and "apolitical" child prodigy has impacted critical, dramaturgical and hermeneutical orientations towards this opera since its earliest post-war performances.

 

Hearts for sale: The French Romance and the Sexual Traffic of Musical Mimicry

 

19th-Century Music 35:1 (2011), 34–71

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ABSTRACT

This article argues that veiled practices of gender mimicry facilitated the meteoric commercial success of the French romance in Paris during the July Monarchy. The romance was commonly characterized as a feminine genre particularly suited to women’s amateur proclivities. Many critics were quick to emphasize women’s putative obsession with romances while downplaying (or altogether neglecting to comment on) the extensive participation of men in the same musical venture. Men composers and poets who sought to pen marketable romances capitalized on aesthetic idioms and values that contemporary writers explicitly appraised as feminine. This article sets out to examine the following: first, critical dialogues surrounding the proliferation of romances during this period of social upheaval; second, the Parisian bourgeoisie’s valorization and fetishization of female amateurism; third, the poetics, politics, and economics of gender mimicry in the romance industry; and lastly, the challenges of music criticism and analysis with regard to the ambivalent significations of so-called easy music. Underlying each of these investigations is an attempt to understand the ways in which romanciers and romancières learned to perform femininity in their quests to become professionals in the lucrative business of musical amateurism.

Pleasure's Discontents

 

Journal of the American Musicological Society 66:3 (2013), 840–44

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EXCERPT

In this essay, I discuss some manners in which music’s reputed pleasures inform how we, as musicologists, negotiate our scholarly tasks and intellectual orientations. I propose that an ambivalence toward pleasure can go quite a ways in explaining the field’s initial resistance to feminist and queer musicology, with its unflinching queries into desires, erotics, and haptics. More broadly, I contemplate how this ambivalence continues to impact our profession’s social etiquette, topical vogues, and disciplinary identity. I close with brief thoughts on ways in which recent developments in online technology stand to shape musicology’s public role and image. At the heart of this thinkpiece is an investigation into how pleasure bears on professional as well as personal epistemologies—on ways of knowing music, musicology, and ourselves.

Toadofsky's Music Lessons

 

                                                Afterword for Music Video Games: Performance, Politics, Play, ed. Michael L. Austin (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), pp. 297–303

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EXCERPT

I devoured this entire volume in a single nearly uninterrupted sitting. Clicks and bloops rang in my ears, while colors and patterns popped into my mind’s eye. Vivid writing sucks you into a sensorial vortex; or, to use game-related vocabulary, such prose warps you (à la Mario’s magic whistle or Link’s ocarina) to other lands, other times. Striking essays in these pages abound with efforts to capture the sights, sounds, and feelings of music video games—an umbrella genre distinguished by a vital emphasis on rhythmic engagement and audiovisual coordination. Authors tackle broad themes, everything from agency and accessibility to community and pedagogy. Inquiries revolve around play’s musicality and music’s playfulness. In historical, technological, and cultural perspectives, much of ludomusicology’s literature to date upholds music and play as a match made in heaven, insofar as both activities echo with creativity, virtuosity, and the making and breaking of rules. In this brief afterword, I offer some modest musings on the ethical possibilities of music video games. By lending an ear to the affective affordances of music video games, I tease out the larger social stakes at work in day-to-day debates about artistry and recreation. With reference to a musical moment in the 1996 game Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, I use the metaphor of the safety net to weave together insights about what musicality entails, how it feels, and why anyone would seek to deny such feelings either to themselves or to others.

Monstrous Noise: Silent Hill and the Aesthetic Economies of Fear

 

In The Oxford Handbook of Sound and Image in Digital Media, ed. Carol Vernallis, John Richardson, and Amy Herzog (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 173–90

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EXCERPT

Just as Silent Hill can seem to transgress its status as an idle medium, so its grotesque soundscape manifests as a sentient antagonist, an invisible yet omnipresent force that seethes and convulses as it plays mind games with the player. This essay contemplates the ludic, perceptual, and hermeneutic anxieties provoked by this horror game’s uncanny sounds. By underscoring ways in which the industrial noises in Silent Hill haunt various borders—between diegetic and non-diegetic, real and virtual, lingering and ephemeral, organic and mechanical, surface and subdermal, instructive an manipulative—I explore how this game’s audio works to unsettle a player’s mental and bodily control. Through comparisons of discourses on noises and monsters, I frame the sounds in this gameworld as living monsters in their own right: abject, liminal, and always potentially trespassing on players’ own inhabited spaces. Underpinning these considerations are broader investigations into the aesthetic economies of fear—the frightening efficiency with which the minimal sounds (and overall reductive aesthetics)  of horror media can evoke maximal terror.

Acoustemologies of the Closet

 

In The Oxford Handbook of Virtuality, ed. Mark Grimshaw (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 337–48

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EXCERPT

Online video games in recent years have increasingly supported voice-chat functions that enable players to speak with one another using microphones connected to computers and consoles. Vocal communications greatly assist collaborative and competitive gaming by offering a quick hands-free means of verbal exchange. But even with its obvious utility, voice-chat has been denounced by some players and critics as an unwelcome development in game design. This chapter explores the social ramifications and critical conversations that have emerged from the coming (out) of voice in online gamespaces. What happens when players of online games drop their masks and introduce their own voices into a virtual space? How do the sounds of these voices influence players’ actions and relations? What factors bear on the differing proclivities of players to speak out? And what new masks—new fictions of identity—might materialize when voices of players conjure ambiguous, multiplicitous, or duplicitous identities? By extending metaphors of the prosthesis and the closet, I show how technologies of voice-chat in video games foster practices of assimilation, repression, deception, and revelation. In doing so, I interrogate traditional characterizations of voice as a site of authentic, agentic expression. I conclude with insights into the sexual politics of voice-chat in the audibly male-dominated communities of online first-person-shooter games.