Focusing on the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Once More with Feeling”, Jamie Clarke evaluates this episode in the context of the Buffy franchise, arguing that it exemplifies an entertainment strategy that courses through the Buffyverse. Traditionally, entertainment is either too often denigrated as a specific ideological formation that produces negative effects of audience passivity as against more overtly challenging texts, or, alternatively, entertainment is celebrated within a postmodern theoretical framework that views the multiplicity of pleasures afforded as inherently productive and even oppositional. Alternatively Jamie Clarke concentrates on entertainment for entertainment’s sake: as a dialectical operation that intermingles wish fulfillment and repression by arousing radical fantasies in order to contain them. Typical of the series and Joss Whedon’s strategies, the episode “Once More With Feeling” appears to willfully play with wish fulfillment/invocation that both figuratively and literally run the risk of arousing utopian fantasies that cannot be contained.
“That’s entertainment” – Sweet, The Music Demon. In this article I ultimately want to address the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Once More with Feeling” (season 6, episode 7). However, I do not want to look at this episode in isolation from the remainder of the Buffy franchise but rather argue that it exemplifies a certain entertainment strategy that courses through the Buffyverse. Now it seems to me that entertainment is either too often denigrated as a specific ideological formation that produces negative effects of audience passivity as against more overtly challenging texts, or, alternatively, entertainment is celebrated within a postmodern theoretical framework that views the multiplicity of pleasures afforded as inherently productive and even oppositional. Alternatively I want to concentrate on entertainment for entertainment’s sake which is to say as a dialectical operation that in Fredric Jameson’s terms intermingles wish fulfilment and repression by arousing radical fantasies in order to contain them (Jameson, 1990: 25).
In order to analyse this mechanism I will concentrate less on consumers and ideology (that assumes unilateral transmission) and more on fans and affect (that inscribes a dialectical procedure into reception). What seems to me to be of specific interest therefore is the manner in which Joss Whedon, Marti Noxon and the other writers/directors working on Buffy for Twentieth Century Fox target affect and fans by constructing scenarios that feed into and exceed audience expectation. I will argue that his formula culminates in the episode “Once More With Feeling” that ventures beyond Jameson’s dialectical formula in that it appears to wilfully play with wish fulfilment/invocation that both figuratively and literally run the risk of arousing utopian fantasies that cannot be contained. Before turning to the musical episode in particular I believe our exposition would benefit from a brief survey of critical approaches to the Buffyverse.
The critical material on Buffy the Vampire Slayer , in print at least (see here the Slayage online journal), is expanding but currently somewhat limited. However, as a general rule two tendencies emerge. The first is to treat some self-contained aspect of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as an ideological work. Such analyses concentrate upon the encoded more or less implicitly pre-determined messages that the text transmits. Certainly some ideological responses are definitely triggered by Buffy and I will briefly make reference to two critical examples. Brian Wall and Michael Zyrd adopt a Marxist master frame of analysis to determine the world historical content of Buffy. Thus they argue that “Buffy and Angel both stage the dialectical unfolding of late capitalism and propose [.] what might follow our mode of production.” (Wall and Zyrd, 2002: 71).
Following the pyrotechnics of close reading Wall and Zyrd attempt to demonstrate that the characterisation of villainy in Buffy follows a trajectory of feudal/the master in season 1; through state institutions/the mayor/the initiative in seasons 3 and 4; whereas Spike is determined as resilient due to his affiliation with hedonism and therefore capitalism from season 2. Although it is not mentioned I assume that Glory in season 5 would then represent over-conspicuous consumption that to some degree inoculates the Scoobies who are themselves not averse to a bit of shopping. We are further told that the British Giles represents “the history of capitalism itself,” (74) in his trajectory from librarian to small businessman whilst Wall and Zyrd obviously take delight in the episode “Anne” (3, 1) where “Buffy reaffirms her Slayer duties […] her reclamations of ethical duty underscored visually when she fights her captors with a hammer and sickle.” (66).
Alternatively to this Marxist master code Anne Millard Daugherty rather more predictably (and therefore I consider less problematically) adopts a (post)feminist strategy to unpick the text determining that Buffy “represents female empowerment.” (Daugherty, 2002: 164). She writes how Buffy subverts the male gaze theory of Laura Mulvey in a reading of the episode “Welcome to the Hellmouth” (1.1). Daugherty determines that the initial scene subverts the slasher genre of films like Halloween (1978) by opening with a teen female siring a teen male. Later we are told in series that “Xander clutches the stake, symbolically representing the phallus [.] it very obviously belongs to Buffy not him” (150), whilst Angel is objectified by Buffy as “dark and gorgeous” (151) and Giles “wears glasses, indicative of his impaired gaze.” (150). If we ignore the misreading of Mulvey in Daugherty (the male gaze is structural for Mulvey in the relation of spectator to image and cannot be merely inverted in the diegesis) it seems to me that many of such readings are well argued, textually substantiated and often convincing (although Wall and Zyrd make somewhat exotic leaps).
This is to say that I will not contest that Buffy does indeed trigger such issues as, amongst others, low calorific feminism; auteurism (Joss Whedon’s control); teen angst (lycanthropy as puberty, or even better, lycanthropy as male menstruation); the re-writing of religion and vampire mythologies; teen date violence; and sexuality (Tara and Willow’s lesbianism). However, what I want to argue is suspicious about each of these ideological readings is the extent to which it is determined that events in Buffy are read for Daugherty as “symbolic” (150) or alternatively “allegorical” (Wall and Zyrd, 2002: 70 and 71). Such readings appear to view entertainment as direct expressions of some underlying world historical fact.
Alternatively, I consider that the pastiche of styles and genres running throughout the Buffy franchise contribute to an overriding ideological irresponsibility that refuses to cash out any coherent critical interpretation. For instance, to draw attention to the hammer and sickle is not the same as arguing that Buffy is secretly a member of the politburo. In this regard I am not sure what it “means” to draw attention to such features. It rather seems to me that this use of this image reflects a form of iconographic shopping that is designed specifically to momentarily activate the kind of reading proposed by Wall and Zyrd. Likewise if Daugherty understands that Buffy “kicks butt and so can we all,” (164) such an analysis would have to traffic more effectively with features such as Spike’s abuse of Harmony in season 4 and Buffy’s treatment of Spike in season 6 that has been cited as a form of domestic violence (Ross, 2002b). It seems to me that as a product of millennial televisual culture the Buffy franchise exemplifies ideological irresponsiblity and over-determination that is typical of such advanced and sophisticated millennial television whereby making meaning of this stamp is almost too easy to substantiate within self-contained readings in that the text has always already read itself.
Ideological critique in this context becomes not oppositional but rather a further site of consumption. This is to say that as a corporate sponsored speech act in the public sphere Buffy disqualifies ideological critique in advance as a process of de-mystification. The secret here is that there is no secret, Whedon knows what he is doing and so does the media savvy viewing audience. It is my argument that it is not the audience that is duped by such ideologies but the readings of academics who expect secretive ideological cohesion within a depth hermeneutic procedure that presupposes total organised coverage. Allow me to make it clear I am not trying to invert these readings but rather question their first principles. I consider that something at once rather more complicated and rather more obvious is at work here than ideology and this procedure is best determined by Richard Dyer’s argument that such texts be read in terms of “entertainment as entertainment.” (Dyer, 1985: 221). Thus when Daugherty draws attention to Giles’s spectacles as indicative of an impaired gaze (a reading that is slightly stretched anyhow) her scouring reading procedure brackets the fact that he is a Watcher.
For me, watching is not here an ideological reinforcement of patriarchy nor its obverse deconstruction but rather watching as the consumption of spectacle itself. I will later want to attach this consumption of entertainment as feeding from utopian desires whereby as Hans Magnus Enzensburger writes “Consumption as spectacle contains the promise that want will disappear.” (Enzensburger, 2000: 562). With this in mind I believe the overruling concern of a text like Buffy is not any imperative to deliver or inculcate ideological messages but rather with attracting a sizeable and affluent audience that is capable of reading such encoded messages, as such generates pleasure from such successful reading, a procedure which ultimately collapses the difference between academic meaning and consumption which may explain the guilt that academics always seem to confess before claiming to be Buffy watchers.
In view of this hermeneutic crisis, alternative to this procedure is a second reading strategy that centralises on the Buffyverse whereby the site of reception and the decoding of the message at the site of consumption is prioritised. It is in this regard of Buffy as actively soliciting pure entertainment value and legitimating multiform polymorphous identifications rather than any fixed ideological positioning that I consider Buffy to be exceptional. Buffy seems atypical even within the current age of television culture where self-reflexivity and ideological playfulness has become a mainstay in such franchises as The Sopranos, Dawson’s Creek, and Ally McBeal. Certain critics have indeed seized upon this dimension to the Buffyverse. Patrick Porter for instance cites a series of innovations provided within Buffy. The text thus features multiple genres (gothic, horror, sci-fi, teen flick, martial arts film); inverts norms; enjoys self-reflexivity; involves unexpected character development (Angel turns out to be a vampire); and practises wilful experimentation (see here especially the episodes “Hush” (4, 10); “The Body” (5, 16) and as we will see “Once More With Feeling” (6, 7)).
All of these factors contribute certainly to Buffy scrambling ideological data that renders both meaning elusive and therefore attempts to anchor readings ultimately unconvincing. More importantly they operate to secure Buffy as what I want to term a “fan machine” whereby the stimulation of pleasure is the key to generating a cult. For our concerns here the most significant innovations that Buffy develops are the de-familiarisation of genre by interfering with ideological messages and the subversion of series history. In terms of de-familiarisation of genre Porter follows Daugherty in citing the opening of “Welcome to the Hellmouth.” However here there is no means/ends operation that is carried out whereby subversion is activated to mobilise a political agenda of female empowerment but rather the means are the ends in that for Porter the sheer thrill of subversion is in itself the goal. As Whedon himself testifies “genre busting is at the heart of Buffy [.] the mission statement of the show [.] is: nothing is as it seems.” (Whedon, 2000). Ultimately this is to say that subversion of stereotypes and expectation attracts viewers by a process of engagement with speculation.
The subversion of series history equally operates as a fan-machine. Previously episodic television featured no deaths, irreversible revelations or other life changing events. Consequently in a series such as Star Trek it was expected that each episode stood alone and that the sequence of episodes could be told in any order because the conclusion settled matters in some definitive fashion. Alternatively Buffy operates as a continuum that produces character arcs that breach the self-containment of individual episodes as evidenced by the “Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer…” segment that precedes every screening (Saxey, 2002: 195). This leads us to another critic Esther Saxey who writes on slash fiction, a form of fan fiction that usually constructs narratives of dissident sexualities from the raw material of extant cultural artefacts. For Saxey the denial of closure, something that is always a structural potential in the television series, operates as an invitation again to active engagement with the middle of the text and the interstices in between. In this respect for Saxey, Buffy seems actively to court such S&M slash fiction with its frequent representation of Angel in chains, Oz in a cage, torture, and identity shifting (most saliently “Who Are You? (4.16) where Faith and Buffy switch bodies).
Again breaking with the principle of the duped audience Saxey contends that “there is both a camp glee in spotting kinky sex potential in a TV show and a deeper ratification of its existence which slashers have not failed to pick up on.” (204). Ultimately I believe that the subversion of dominant ideologies in Buffy is not itself indicative of any attempt to advance a deconstruction but rather a recognition that as a material commodity Buffy has to broadcast and not narrow-cast. The success of a commodity such as Buffy is determined in this instance by ratings points as gauged by the Nielsen ratings survey whereby broadcasters sell time to advertisers by virtue of gross rating points, reach and frequency. Advertising agencies, in turn, isolate programmes that finesse a specific demographic according to income, gender, class, age and ethnicity.
As an artifact of corporate televisual culture Buffy exemplifies synergy as it succeeds in transgressing the boundaries of the televisual text and enjoys an after-life in various co-existing universes and windows of consumption including network TV, cable, video, film, and the internet that can only call into question a totalised ideological procedure. Buffy’s ideological complexity is then not of the order of some academic or political exercise but rather a material necessity in order to appeal to as diverse a constituency as possible to sustain itself by securing involved viewers for the Universal Pictures Network platform (Vogel, 2001: 176-8). In this regard ideological over-determination is the pleasure of the Buffy text as entertainment. This ideological over-determination should not however be read as a negative limit or catastrophe that announces that class struggle and patriarchy are over and that we are all now happy consumers. Rather class struggle and feminism speak to real needs that Buffy addresses in order to interpellate viewers as consumers of Buffy. Sensibility, affect and engagement in this respect point to slippages in capitalism that are then defused by the culture industry.
The realisation that Twentieth Century Fox adopts a fluid position and that the audience is Buffy’s lifeblood certifies a democratic appeal to broad sectors of the community. Furthermore the text must repeatedly renew itself and continuously re-configure itself in order to sustain itself as a commodity. Accordingly there is then some degree of reciprocity between producer and consumer that threatens to de-stabilise the transmission of coherent ideologies which is to say that rather than a strictly oppositional account there is a dialectical interpenetration of these two models that involves consumption and production in a feed-backward, feed-forward loop. Buffy does not want one time passive viewers that may as well be disinterestedly looking at anything but engaged, active and dedicated watchers who are trained in rituals of repeated consumption.
In this regard a corporation such as Fox does not want to generate ideology and consumers but rather emotive affect and fans. It is my argument therefore that texts like Buffy that aspire to cult status deliberately stimulate affect in order to detour its ideological itinerary toward further consumption. This question of fandom has received a certain degree of critical attention in recent years (see here Jenkins, 1992, Lewis ed. 1992, Harris and Alexander eds., 1998). What these volumes and the contributions collected within them seem to share is the desire to re-habilitate fandom. They argue correctly that the popular media seem anxious to pathologise fans as alternatively “brainless consumers” (Jenkins, 1992: 10); “odd”; (Grossberg,1992: 50); in terms of “deviance” and “fanatic[ism]” (Jenson, 1992: 9) or as representing a de-valorised form of cultural capital in comparison to the understanding of the meaning maps of the academy (Fiske: 1992). These contributions therefore operate to re-habilitate fandom into the mainstream. For example Joli Jenson is paradigmatic when she writes, “Fandom […] is what ‘they’ do; ‘we,’ on the other hand, have tastes and preferences and select worthy people, beliefs and activities for our admiration and esteem.
Furthermore, what ‘they’ do is deviant, and therefore dangerous, while what ‘we’ do is normal, and therefore safe.” (Jenson, 1992: 19). I certainly agree with this literature that fans get a bad press. However I am less anxious to domesticate fandom. If the option is between “safe” academic consumption and “dangerous” fandom then I personally think that it might be the case that academia has more to learn from fandom than fandom from academia. Of course the gap between fans and consumers is barely tenable but I want to maintain that fans are a kind of front line and more-than-ideal consumers. This is to say that the proximity, the over-investment and the excessive nature of the fan is something that a text like Buffy both invokes and cannot necessarily contain. It is in this space of excess that I consider Buffy as entertainment begins to open its appeal to risk. There is in the fan a more highly developed understanding of the degree to which the consumer is a necessary adjunct to the producer that in certain cases begin to actively question the issue of copyright and ownership.
Thus when Porter pathologises the fact that fans mistakenly believe that they “own” the show he fails to acknowledge that copyright is a legal fiction and that a text like Buffy is in the first and last instance legitimated by its audience. This is the situation in which the deliberate stimulation of affect by a text such as Buffy to secure consumers operates to outdistance ideological positioning as passive consumption. This intersection of affect and fandom is addressed by Lawrence Grossberg who draws a distinction between the fan and the consumer. He writes: One can struggle to rearticulate effective popular appeals but I think it is true that the consumer, however active, cannot remake the conditions of their subordination through their act of consumption. The fan, however, is a different matter altogether [….] Because the fan speaks for and to the question of authority, and from within an ideology of excess […] the fan’s relation to culture in fact opens up a range of political possibilities and it is often on the field of affective relations that political struggles intersect with popular concerns. In fact, the affective is a crucial dimension of the organisation of political struggle. (Grossberg, 1992: 64) Fans in this regard have been at the forefront of campaigns linked to Buffy that regard the Buffyverse as something that they have a stake in. For instance websites were mounted to protest about the death of the popular character Doyle in the episode “Hero” (1, 9) of Angel who was replaced by the unpopular Wesley both in the show and in the credits. This led to a spate of Doyle denial websites such as “The Department of Denial” culminating in the wholesale rewriting of the 1999-2000 season of Angel on March 17, 2000 that signalled the premiere of a counter-cultural collaborative fan effort, Angel: the Cyber Series , where Doyle never dies. Similarly on the 27th and 28th of May, 2000, fans of Doyle played by Glenn Quinn assembled at various sites for an online conference, to address Doyle slash fiction and address avenues to lobby Fox to resurrect Doyle. Such operations may seem juvenile but Fox takes them very seriously and is very proprietorial about its shows that also include The X Files .
Consequently as Ellen Ross points out on May 13, 2000, fans across the World Wide Web closed their sites for one day, as a protest against the efforts of 20th Century Fox to restrict the use of copyrighted content on fan websites. This “Operation: Blackout” found support from another, related fan campaign, “The Buffy Bringers” who provide Buffy information and materials free of charge. As Ross continues the Bringers protested against the cease-and-desist letters from Fox which demanded the shutdown of fan sites using sounds, images and/or transcripts from Buffy episodes. The Bringers allied with the May 13 blackout in a blitzkrieg of letter-writing, e-mails and faxes to defend fan sites (Ross, 2002a,c,d). What seems to me of interest here is that those ideal responses that a televisual text seems to actively solicit begin to recoil back on the producers as a threat.
In conclusion I want to address the musical episode “Once More With Feeling” that I believe brings together many of the strands running through this article. I acknowledge in advance that this will risk a close reading of the type I have criticised above but again I want to underline that I am addressing this episode in terms of entertainment, a reading that is then galvanised by the fact that it seems to me this episode in particular speaks to a certain type of consumer, namely the fan. To demonstrate I undertook a survey of over 700 Buffy oriented fan websites.
Fan sites are activated according to affect more often than not explicitly libidinal attachments to specific characters. However, the only individual episode represented among the 700 is “Once More With Feeling” with some half dozen websites devoted to this episode alone providing basic information and transcripts of the lyrics. “Once More With Feeling” is the flagship of season 6 as evidenced by the fact that it was originally aired on November 6th 2001 in the US when there is a strong seasonal tendency towards stay-at-home viewing that coincides with a slate of serial specials. In this episode a demon named Sweet is conjured by Xander on the premises that “I just thought there were gonna be dances and songs [.] get a happy ending”. The effects of this invocation are determined by the fact that the residents of Sunnydale begin to burst into song. This would then be the wish-fulfilment dimension to Jameson’s dialectical analysis.
In sympathy, Richard Dyer explicitly cites the musical as exemplifying certain utopian desires. Dyer continues that as opposed to dreariness, scarcity, exhaustion, manipulation and fragmentation musicals offer intensity; abundance; energy, transparency and community. Utopian genres of this spirit do not then rely on the mechanics of narrative causation but rather elicit affect that speaks to the fan. However, the reverse side of Jameson’s dialectic requires repression and containment and this is provided by the narrative as realisation of the unnatural quality of the music. The narrative thus pathologises a certain excess of pleasure in the songs that explicitly relates its operation to illicit sex (Tara’s song to Willow is euphemistically coded by Xander as sex) therefore to jouissance and ultimately to death via spontaneous combustion. I want to think this operation in terms of a strategic attempt to contain the pleasures of the text that is not entirely convincing on a narrative level, that in turn suggests that wish-fulfilment may here be more potent that repression. This is to say that the episode invokes the music demon and music as demonic (connoted as a dangerous element) to provoke affect, but that it must also simultaneously limit the degree to which such pleasure is sanctioned by various narrative ruses. To exemplify this procedure I will return to the narrative.
Ultimately the demon kidnaps Dawn who he proposes to marry according to the rules of the invocation. The Scoobies turn up and it is pointed out that there has been a misunderstanding and that Xander and not Dawn conjured the demon whereupon the demon leaves. The episode is therefore resolved on the level of a technicality as if there was some need to invent a deus ex machina that was not itself present in the narrative. Analogously the text itself requires a get out clause to defuse and contain the excess that is constitutive of the musical as utopia. It is in this regard that the narrative itself is a secondary backdrop for the sheer entertainment value of the songs (sung by the cast themselves and written by Whedon) yet the narrative returns with force in the conclusion to arrest the fun. This suppression of music is further advanced by the understanding that utopia and music as utopia is anti-narrative. As Dyer writes the musical as entertainment “presents […] what utopia would feel like rather than how it would be organised.” (222).
The entertainment musical as utopia does not provide a political programme as argued by Wall, Zyrd and Daugherty but rather presents a de facto already achieved utopia. In this respect Dyer’s analysis explains why entertainment works. Nothing wrong with that seemingly as Dawn argues “It’s all kinda romantic [.] songs, dancing around what’s gonna be wrong with that.” However as utopia there is nothing for the Scoobies to do and a problem has to be manufactured. There is therefore a realisation that the characters are under a spell of pleasure that must be broken for narrative to resume and for the series to continue. This double bind is further certified by the intertextuality of the episode. When Dawn is initially kidnapped she and the masked henchmen of Sweet perform a dance routine. The mise en scene and the choreography deliberately, it seems to me, evoke the rape scene of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) that similarly demonised the musical by being accompanied by a rendition of “Singin’ in the Rain”. Music as utopian and therefore demonic interferes and distracts from the day-to-day experience of living, suffering and living as struggle.
Indeed the significance of the episode within the series is to drag Buffy back from heaven/Utopia and into the real world of struggle and slaying. As Dyer continues “At our worse sense of it, entertainment provides alternatives to capitalism which will be provided by capitalism. (229) Or as Buffy sings “Don’t give me songs, give me something to sing about.” Music as affect then lacks content. The distraction of the utopian musical does not solve any of the iniquities of late capitalism but rather offers a palliative compensation. The musical suspends narrative and in so doing action and political change. As Jameson explains apropos of Utopia: History is the most intense experience of this unique fusion of time and the event, temporality and action; history is choice, freedom, and failure all at once, inevitable failure but not death. Utopia is set at a height from which those changes are no longer visible [.] A state of society that does not need history or historical struggle lies beyond much that is precious to us in individual as well as collective existence. (Jameson, 1994: 123). In this respect Dyer reserves his commendation for On the Town (1949) that “shows people making utopia rather than just showing them from time to time finding themselves in it.” (232). “Once More With Feeling” then seems to me to at once demon-strate what Utopia would feel like and at the same time realises that it is necessary to earn this feeling by re-asserting the need to make utopia by withdrawal from fantasy. However this narrative sleight of hand is only partially successful. As Dyer explains, “to draw attention to the gap between what is and what could be, is ideologically speaking, playing with fire.” (Dyer, 1985: 229).
As Sweet the music demon iterates certain customers fail to be convinced by a return to the normalcy of narrative, “All these melodies/ They go on too long [.]/ Uh, then that energy Starts to come on/ Way too strong.” He continues “Some Customers/ Just start combusting/ That’s the penalty when life is just a song.” This formulation again relates deviant consumption to some customers in my formulation fans where there is more feeling and this excess of pleasure is troped as dangerous and incendiary. Beyond Jameson’s dialectical model of mass culture it seems to me then that the relation of appropriation and disappropriation between producer and consumer is deconstructed and therefore not reducible to a dialectic. It could therefore be argued that the greater the risk inscribed into the text the more effective/affective is the entertainment. In order to be effective Buffy needs to be affective and in doing so it must continuously breach its own conditions of existence.
The use of the term risk here is designed specifically to incorporate both ends of the message spectrum whereby risk is written into the encoded text itself as demonstrated by the courting of slash fiction. However, such risk also involves a determined if delicate counter-cultural potential whereby such openness and the stimulation of affect can lead to consumer activism. In this regard I want to consider that Buffy is simultaneously designed to maximise consumption yet also operates as a site of contestation via the realm of fandom where the very excess of the surplus pleasures derived from consumption serve to threaten the private and copyrighted integrity of the corporate model.
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