‘Rock‘n’roll’s evil doll’: the Female Popular Music Genre of Barbie Rock – Rock Chugg

Abstract: Fostering male tradition in popular music, rock’n’roll history often underrated the early Girl Group chart-topping era of 1958-63 after Elvis and before Beatlemania. By the 1990s-2000s, Riot Grrrl and Girl Power success was again devalued by that homosocial music scene. Beset by neoliberal managerialism, even academic and market research played it safe, recognising corporatist Indie and nationalist Brit-Pop, while Riot Grrrl revolt into Girl Power style components of a new female genre went unrecognised. Consecutive social exclusion (Riot Grrrl) and social capital (Girl Power) factors in the sound, dubbed Barbie Rock from stereotyped songs, like global hit ‘Barbie Girl’ (1997-8) were intensified by the shifting role of primary and secondary definers in digital media. For popular music, such shifts included 1) rock-press computerisation; 2) moral panic news; and 3) video monopoly. Illustrated with quotes from Barbie Rock fanzine Polymer, the paper culminates in an in-between Riot Grrrl and Girl Power case study of Barbie Rock front-woman, Caroline Finch. The high profile of female pop music today (‘rock’n’roll’s’), although demonised (‘evil’), confirms the ongoing influence of this 1990s genre on a now digitalised era of the plasticised body (‘doll’).


Barbie, Barbie, still in her teens
Bell of the parties, a tom boy in jeans

                                      ‘Barbie’ – The Beach Boys, 1962

Figure 1: Polymer News 

Figure 1: Polymer News

Introduction: ‘rock’n’roll’s evil doll’[1]

Apparently nothing new happened in 1990s music. ‘I shall not be discussing new genres’ says genre expert Negus, ‘this would require the lucky researcher to be in the right time and place to chart their emergence’ (1999: 29). If we take the risk society seriously, that ‘time and place’ has disappeared into the virtual reality of an information age. Even postmodern criticism is unsure of the extent to which contemporary ‘art’ is ‘mediocrity squared. It claims to be bad – “I am bad! I am bad!” – and it truly is bad.’ (Lotringer, 2005). The prevailing view finds entire cultural scenes, let alone popular music, in lockstep vicious recycle mode. Yet a revolution turned counter-revolution, keen to dismiss new female music as dissipated ‘victim-babes’ (Greer, 1999) or incongruous as ‘a camel on a bicycle’ (Raphael, 1995), is met with ‘Riot Grrrl’ resistance (Riley, 1994) and ‘Spice Girl’[2] dissent (Lumby, 1998). While self-exclusion glossed by token inclusion maybe the virtual failure of ‘Barbie Rock’ (see part 4 below), what men don’t know and Grrrl Power understands is that for rock‘n’roll this is also its actual success.

My illustrative data for the Barbie Rock genre was captured in opened-ended research from primary sources. Tanner endorses musical genres as ‘better addressed with more qualitative research’ (2008: 189). In this case over fifty musicians, writers and experts were interviewed in Polymer magazine between 1997 and 2002. Semi-structured and tailored questions, snowballed from celebrity participants, drew diverse reactions to the sexed genre, ranging from fanatical gusto to detached cool. Attentive to notoriety, it was considered true to their initial fanzine sample to ‘spell out’ the names of participants, with reference to Bourdieu’s precedent (1988: 278). Artefact of intense independent and mainstream media activism (fanzine to glossy magazine), Barbie Rock integrated original low fi ‘potty mouthed’ Brat Mobile Riot Grrrls with high tech ‘wanna be’ Spice Girls Power. Théberge corroborates magazines, ‘as a central element in the “framing” of popular musical forms’ (1991a: 271).

Formulated in a context of hung-parliament cartels, the notion of ‘social exclusion’ unites Blair’s New Labour to Giddens’ Third Way, linking a potential for improved poverty studies with criteria like ‘non-participation’. In practice, contradictory accounts noted the social wage benefiting low-income groups while high-income group levels fell (Bradshaw, 2004: 173). Or alternately, loss of the public realm, social individual and democracy based collective provision (Hall, 2005: 328). Predictably, events like increased economic polarisation and exclusion,[3] uncorrected by token multicultural inclusion or mutual obligation, largely confirm the latter view. Less a non-participatory than anti-intellectual check on popular culture, utopian neoliberal policy moved business cycles away from subversions dear to rock-press turned academics (Reynolds, 1988), now co-opted in education rehab. Stale formats from industry models of 1980s ‘Indie’ underculture (Hesmondhalgh, 1999: 35) consoled post-genre quietism accompanied by neutralising trivia, like the TV ‘rock quiz’. Against these general factors of resistance to new genre subcultures Hesmondhalgh concedes particulars, like an ‘increased policing of copyright, in ways that have favoured the oligopolistic corporations dominating cultural production, actually inhibits creativity rather than promotes it’ (2007: 88). Such life experience pressures on primary and secondary media definers, overriding female music innovation, displaced a normally creative function of both the rock-press and musician alike:

No, rock’n’roll has no future, absolutely not! – Craig N. Pearce, journalist (Quatro)[4]

Sorry, are like you suggesting that the Paradise Motel can be referred to as ‘Barbie Girl’? – Merida Sussex, Paradise Motel (Stone)

Figure 2: Polymer Stone

Figure 2: Polymer Stone

Addressing the theme of social exclusion directly, Bayton itemised ‘“constraints” facing the potential female musician’ as ‘material’ (money, equipment, transport) and ‘ideological’ (hegemonic masculinity and femininity). ‘What was interesting was the way in which women are able to overcome or evade…exclusion’ (1998: 189). Interestingly, she suggested ‘escapes’ or ‘resistances’ (role models, feminism and lesbianism) centred on theories of symbolic interactionism. Contextualising the argument further, here I suggest that the social ‘exclusion’ of significant genre experience was determined not only by the classic sexism targets of feminism, but the refractions of popular music by new technology. Explored below, these are described as institutional driven rock-press computerisation; moral panic reportage; and video monopoly. Based on ideas from Baudelaire to Bataille, such shifts are haunted by Baudrillardian ‘evil’ or demonisation of women (‘Lilith’). Whether already noted as industry/culture problems of ‘production’ (Negus, 1998), or ‘commodification’ by the male ‘producer/record company/music business’ (Stras, 2010: 3) this sexed nexus also facilitates the first female genre of popular music.

I bought her a full length Barbie silver fox,

But she just lies in her Barbie box

                     ‘Barbie’ – Shower Scene From Psycho, 1986


1 Rock-press computerisation: speak no evil

Founded on the ‘existence of valuable relationships’, Bradshaw argues that ‘social capital does not seem to be particularly related to poverty, possibly because the poor have more time to maintain them’ (2004: 184). Cultural industry data shows that most ‘genre’ pop artists live on low incomes in semi-poverty, buoyed by a successful ‘star system’,[5] comprised of marketing formats to counter unpredictable sales. However, the raw material of music is exchangeable form, not ‘industrial’ content or ‘consumer’ style. The expert or ‘primary definer’ (Hall et al., 1978) and management or ‘entrepreneur’ (Martinelli, 1994), value-add to these music forms recorded from studio or live performance. In official male-dominated pop decades from the 1950s for example, rock journalism (‘hacks’) in this role credibly claimed to operate outside vested economic or political interests. But since the professionalisation of writing or ‘routinisation of innovation’ (Martinelli, 1994: 480) effect of internet technicism (‘hackers’), biopower fragmentation and niche marketing have led to social exclusion and music sales decline (Mathieson, 2006). Factors perpetuating a homosocial trend of ‘exclusion of femininity from rock’ (Davies, 2001).

Both the ‘corporate strategy’ focused concept of Indie genres (Hesmondhalgh, 1999), and academic ‘theory’ of genres (Fabbri, 1980: 6) overlook the creative role of primary definers or cultural intermediaries (Negus, 1999: 18). For Hesmondhalgh, Bourdieu’s ‘cultural intermediary’ concept is ‘confusing and unhelpful’ (2007: 67). Harley and Botsman’s ‘No payola and the cocktail set’ examined this function in the heyday of a pre-internet, extra-institutional and under-theorised rock-press (1982). After three decades of rock’n’roll genres, the 1980s academic finally itemised this journalistic discourse of ‘hacks’ as downplaying the ideological and commercial outcomes of popular music writing in terms of airplay, sales and popularity (‘historicising, idolising and posing’). For these researchers, the Sex Pistols were approved on ‘tactical’ grounds, unlike romantic ‘Punk’ recycling charismatic ideology of race-music Rockabilly and vitalism Psychedelia. Punk hagiography only repeated this personality cult logic of the 1950s and 1960s. Ensuing 1980s Post-Punk parent versus subculture readings were also seen as trapped ‘within an overworked and useless construction of power’ (1982: 252). However, Harley and Botsman’s reservation about an entrepreneur rock-press is finally offset by the self-conscious reflexive method of Londoners Paul Morley and Ian Penman. In journalism similar to Australian Craig N. Pearce or American Lester Bangs, this rock-writer-as-intellectual as its vital media illusion preceded the internet techicism Diaspora.

According to sociology, ‘the weakening of the role of the innovative entrepreneur is seen as a basic factor, although not the only one, of the crisis of capitalism’ (Martinelli, 1994: 479). Conversely, cultural studies visualise the role of institutional ‘primary definer’ as ultimately vested by, ‘branches of the state and its fields of operation – through the formal separation of powers; in the communications field it is mediated by the protocols of balance, objectivity and impartiality’ (Hall et al., 1978: 220). With a variable supply of social capital, stringer to freelance rock-press journalism shuttled between these commercial entrepreneur to state primary definer roles. ‘Definition of rock journalism: People who can’t write, doing interviews with people who can’t think, in order to prepare articles for people who can’t read’ (Zappa and Occhiogrosso, 1990: 221). Recognised as its highpoint, the contrasting 1980s reflexive rock-press ushered in, ‘the progressive decay of the entrepreneurial function by virtue of the routinisation of innovation’ (Martinelli, 1994: 478-9). Although trivialised as ‘thin cultural studies’ (Beilharz, 1995: 133) and ‘the cultural turn’ (de la Fuente, 2007: 120), while it lasted, the professionalisation transition that succeeded this flashy journalism did actually deliver some valuable insights into popular music.[6]

Rather than ‘romantic Punks’ or ‘parent versus subculture’, with ‘increasing reliance on “expert” opinion’, today’s ‘professional’ tends to overlook the ‘popular consciousness’ (Abbot-Chapman, 2007: 242). Opposite of the ‘sociologism’ that claims a ‘genre community’ is ‘always…conscious of their precise role in musical reality’ (Fabbri, 1980: 6), this rock-press devaluation thwarts participants from self-defining their primary knowledge based on lived experience. Thus routinised female music goes ‘unreported in the [rock] press’ (Bayton, 1998: 78):

Barbie Rock! Very good – what’s that? – Caroline Kennedy, Dead Star (Hex)

Sure, if they want to call it Barbie Rock, then call it Barbie Rock! – Ian Meldrum, journalist (Hex)\

In the 1990s, the professionalisation or ‘bureaucratisation’ (Brett, 1991) of writing was driven by an internet technicist computerisation overseen by university research. Unlike New Zealand, Australian sociology is university centred (Germov and McGee, 2005). Bayton refers to radio Disc Jockeys as the significant rock‘n’roll gatekeeper. But the ‘hegemonic’ male journalism she identifies (1998: 3) is today fuelled by an ex-Cold War internet over-researched as computerisation. On it women are routinely devalued in ‘sexual’ terms. By arguing ‘we can no longer speak Evil’ (or a demonised female music genre), Baudrillard refers to this computerisation (2009: 97). In the above quotes from Caroline or Ian, the effect is validation doubt about a devaluated genre experience (cf. ‘degenerate’ modernist art militarily repressed until 1945 (Bradbury and McFarlane, 1976)). In Australian contemporary journalistic and scholarly studies of rock‘n’roll appearing after Riot Grrrl and Girl Power, the female genre is not acknowledged. The authors paid their dues in the 1990s street press (Mathieson, 2000), 1980s news media (Breen, 1999) and 1970s rock-press (Walker, 1996). While Mathieson joined the corporation, describing the ‘Indie’ music scene interestingly as a ‘Sell In’,[7] Breen and Walker were later to hitch their stars to the university. Contrasting this commercial or institutional cooptation, the new as yet unidentified genre would remain viable if seen ‘as a tacitly condoned mechanism of Subversion and foil to State control’ (Chugg, 1989: 64).

She’s very smart,

She can dance well,
bang, bang,

Twist Barbie

’Twist Barbie’ – Shonen Knife, 1992

Figure 3: Polymer Inner City

Figure 3: Polymer Inner City

2 Moral panic news: hear no evil

Unlike genetic or animal research for drug based solutions of ‘social inclusion’ (Bonner, 2006: 4), while noting such ‘behaviourist ideological baggage’, Bradshaw argues cogently that ‘social inclusion is not necessarily the opposite of social exclusion – though the emphasis of the state as agent is welcome’ (2004: 184). But like privatisation creep, such interventions can cause social exclusion. For example, Hubert shows how technology is ‘creating a new category of socially excluded children’, also suggesting that ‘people who are medically cured in Western terms may not return’ from ‘social death’ (2000: 3-4). In Australia, this logic is demonstrated by a high-incidence of child abuse in the whole community on the one hand (Herald Sun, 2007); and the indigenous peoples nominated as scapegoat on the other. Clearly such ‘relegation of people to nature’ behaviourism appears a ‘way of legitimating exploitation and exclusion from civilised society’ (Hubert, 2000: 5). The initiating moral panic debuted on television (ABC, 2006) amplified by the press (Age, 2006) then military intervention (Age, 2007), eventually earned under-reported opposition from the UN. Similar disproportionate media reaction was already noted in the mid-90s as, ‘moral panic in response to rock and roll more generally’ (Grossberg, 1995: 368).

Developing the work of Cohen (1973), Hall et al. (1978: 222) frame ‘moral panics’ as a crisis of consent or ‘hegemony’, at times escalating into ‘general panic’ when, ‘all dissensual breaks in the society’ are perceived as threats to ‘law and order’. Media definers, ‘play a crucial but secondary role in reproducing the definitions of those who have privileged access, as of right, to the media as “accredited sources”’ (1978: 58). Two decades later, McRobbie and Thornton argue that subculture and genre ‘marketing strategy’ functions of moral panics are ‘priceless PR campaigns’ (1995: 565). However, unequal readerships of large circulation dailies compared to limited distribution fanzines contradict this thesis. The experience of fanzines, like Polymer, Thunderpussy, or Riot Grrrl is a case in point. Each gained only a small circulation despite huge music chart sales. Yet by including such demonised minority ‘folk devils’, moral panics present a smallest number utilitarian calculus tailored to the ‘biopower’ set theory of primary definers (Foucault, 1981). These xenophobic primary definitions of sex, race, class or age bring ‘life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations’, submitting ‘life integrated into the techniques that govern and administer it’ (1981: 143). McRobbie later refits this ‘biopolitical strategy’ set theory (2007: 730) for post-feminist ‘Top Girls’ to deconstruct revived sexism in Blair’s New Britain. Conversely, ‘Barbie Rock’ is a way of subverting stigmatising stereotypes, like ‘virgin, mother, and prostitute’ (Stras, 2010: 4):

That’s why heavy metal’s become so popular, because it’s tribal. Female rock stars they come and they go, but they never seem to leave a mark – Dr Pepper, journalist (Stone)

I actually agree with you. I think that there is more interesting, the most interesting bands at the moment are either female led or have got girls in them – Justine Frischman, Elastica/Suede (Hex)

The measure of women’s significant success in rock‘n’roll, a female genre was already anticipated as far back as the 1980s. Saxophonist Louise Brooks of critically acclaimed group The Laughing Clowns believed, ‘barring incredible turns to the right, that is a trend that will continue. Quite possibly, women conceptualise differently, but if so, it’s quite invisible’ (Shien, 1987: 84). Yet key events, like a ‘Women in Rock’ issue of Rolling Stone (1997) gave the nod (if seen as ‘pitifully small’ after Destiny’s Child and The Spice Girls’ triumph – Stras, 2010: 5) while dodging the genre. In the bigger picture, a ‘social inclusion’ military Intervention on demonised aboriginals (lower socio-economic class ‘social death’ by a discredited ‘race’ scientism) confirm ‘incredible turns to the right’ fears. Unjustly blamed for the larger ‘white’ society in denial. Similarly, media sexism that reduces women musicians, for example to ‘glamour shots’ (Bayton, 1998: 14) deactivates their female popular music genre. The quoted biopolitical doubts of David, Justine and Louise are vindicated. For Baudrillard, the evil demon of media images occurs as a ‘precession’ of the real by models. These ‘invert the causal and logical order of the real and its reproduction’ (1984: 13). For instance, if not for homage to aboriginal Buried Country (Walker, 2000), 1990s Barbie Rock assimilated to 1970s Punk by Australia’s ‘pre-eminent critic and historian’ with inaccuracies like ‘1991: The Year Punk Broke’ (Walker, 1996: 280) may also have telescoped his oeuvre into demonisation.

I’m a Barbie girl in the Barbie world,

Life in plastic it’s fantastic

‘Barbie Girl’ – Aqua, 1997

Figure 4: Polymer Thing

Figure 4: Polymer Thing

3 Video monopoly: see no evil

According to the social theory of Daly and Silver (2008), social capital and social exclusion can be at once opposites (rather than inclusion) and interchangeable; one the antidote (to the other) and both merged into a continuum. Ultimately, ‘social capital may actually increase social exclusion’ (2008: 556). Resisting assimilation, they also retain the distinction between cultural studies (social capital) and sociology (social exclusion). In social practice, Bourdieu’s example of a relational ‘hiatus’ between the ‘statutory expectations’ of déclassé academics with devalued social capital and lack of ‘opportunity’ leading to social exclusion, explains the student unrest of ‘May 1968’ (1988: 163). Baudrillard’s cultural example is the ‘virtual’ music ‘restored to technical perfection’ by excluding ‘noise and static’ that has to reinvest in some noise to restore musical capital (2007: 28). Bayton finds such ‘a relational hiatus’ in Riot Grrrl technophobia of live and studio ‘technical skills’ restored by technophile training (1998: 7). Reynolds and Press similarly describe Riot Grrrl creativity as limited to music ‘content’ that excludes ‘form’ (1995: 187). This polarisation of social exclusion and social capital coheres as the limit of lo fi Riot Grrrl technophobic content, opposed to hi tech Girl Power technophile form and interposed by a relational hiatus of Barbie Rock technical skills. Like ‘social’ media adapted to female ends, the genre of 1990s rock‘n’roll lies here.

The horizon of all popular music, in Jazz (for Riot Grrrl, Tracy Chapman’s roots music) sociologists argue that, ‘objects do not possess sociality, people do, and it is through the embodied nature of inter-subjective human social action that objects come to have contingent relevance’ (Gibson, 2006: 185). Gibson locates this relationship between normative frameworks of performance and limiting parameters of musical instruments, creatively minimised by musicians who reach sufficient degrees of technical facility for improvisation. Contrarily, for cultural studies, ‘the technical mastery of space and time contributes not only to the rationalisation of musical production, but also to the creation of a myth of community’ (Théberge, 1991: 110). Rather than inter-subjectivity, Théberge highlights both the simulation of community through increasing spatial rationalisation of audio material in separation recording, and the star-system driven and cost efficiency control of overdubbing (for Girl Power, Destiny’s Child’s dance music). In this mode, creative improvisation is reconstructed in the studio, refuting the classless ‘myths of technology’ technicism of ‘McLuhanesque’ leftists (1991). Today this digitally anatomised community, when ‘social control’ over women and ‘sexist jokes abound’ (Bayton, 1998: 6), has again been profoundly transformed by, ‘the predominance of music videos in the marketplace’ (Théberge, 1991: 109).

Banks traces the ‘incorporation’ of live and recorded popular music into a video monopolised ‘market place’ back to the arrival of privatised cable channel, MTV (1998: 293). This raised a small 23% percentile of top 100 Billboard acts with videos in 1981 to 97% by 1989 (295). Hesmondhalgh confirms the 1990s transition to a two-dimensional ‘stabilizing pop mainstream oriented towards video promotion, and synergies with visual mass media.’ Like Polymer participants, Indie labels were ‘determinedly against these commercial methods’ (1999: 38) for ‘trivialising them, and dealing with them solely in terms of their physical attractiveness’ (Bayton, 1998: 25):

It’s OK to play music if you’re a beautiful girl, and I felt like it was getting a bit too much of that image – Laura McFarlane, Sleater Kinny/Ninety Nine (Vee)

I think I’d be comfier with ‘Barbie Rock’ if it turned out that really you were talking about the strange new breed of boys that seem to have no hormones and no sperm count – Paul Morley, journalist (Hex)

Reviving 1960s Psychedelic versus 1970s Punk role-set conflict and simulating slick TV advertising, by the 1990s visual clips had replaced live tours as the means of self-promotion, modelled on performance (‘authentic’) and concept (‘synthetic’) formats now feted in annual video awards (Banks, 1998: 295). With privatisation creep prioritising money-making visuals over musical talent (303), the ‘hot’ 3D sound of radio was digitised into ‘cool’ 2D sight of TV, unreceptive to the Barbie Rock limit genres of Riot Grrrl revolt into Girl Power style. Grossberg reads the ‘hip attitude’ of TV as a ‘refusal to take anything…seriously’ (1995: 376), where the ‘explicit conjunction of images and songs seems to multiply the possibilities of interpretation’ (370)[8]. The neutral mood, affect or emotion standing apart from ideas. A neutrality Breen (1999) ascribed to the Girl Power pop of Kylie Minogue, supposedly eclipsed by Midnight Oil’s Brit-Pop style nationalism.[9] ‘Where rock was considered to rely on a set of established practices based on musicianship and a relationship to audience, pop was a disposable image of little lasting value’ (1999: 67). But if TV ‘screens out’ new genres or sexual inequality evils (Baudrillard, 2007: 78), it also facilitated free to air music in Australia. Albeit excluded in late-late night programs, like the ABC’s Rage or ‘youth’ radio JJJ biopower. At least complete ‘commercialisation’ (Hesmondhalgh, 2007: 305) failed to eventuate.

Kids don’t like me,

Moms are mad,

I’m going off the market,

‘Cause I look so sad

’Bitterness Barbie’ – Lunachicks, 1995

Figure 5: Polymer Vee

Figure 5: Polymer Vee

4 Barbie Rock and sexism: beyond good and evil

Social exclusion is a ‘multidimensional concept’ (Bonner, 2006; Hubert, 2000), that tends to ‘deflect attention from ever-increasing income inequality and class conflict’ (Daly and Silver, 2008: 554) or poor social capital. Poverty measures of ‘physical’ or ‘financial’ capital are enhanced, social exclusion theory argues, by non-participation indicators of ‘discrimination, chronic ill health, geographical location or cultural identification’ (Burchardt et al., 2002: 6). Women own one per cent of ‘physical’ titled land and are seventy per cent of the world’s ‘financial’ poor (MX, 2008)[10], making ‘cultural identification’ (in this case ‘genre’) indicators more relevant, in the context of popular music. Frith (2001: 46) and Hesmondhalgh (2007: 23) define genres as a record label method or ‘format’ for coping with risk. The ‘irrational’ behaviours of audience ‘taste’ or artistic ‘talent’ in the ‘star system’. Similarly Breen (1991: 193-4) refers to a ‘pre-existing system’ of market fact versus authenticity fiction. For Bayton (1998: 15) the ‘objectification of performers’ derives from this ‘star system’ (‘creating product loyalty’ and ‘simplifying promotion’) as ‘another record company strategy to secure profits’. Proof of powerless media in technophile times, Barbie Rock escaped notice because of such ‘cultural’, ‘irrational’, ‘pre-existing’ or ‘loyalty’ factors. Since the 1950s race-culture of Rockabilly and Doo-Wop, 1960s counterculture Psychedelia of Surf to Folk, 1970s subculture Punk fused with Reggae, and 1980s underculture Swamp joined to Hip-Hop, reconciliation of such opposites has defined rock’n’roll. By the 1990s, homieculture Riot Grrrl and Girl Power linked Barbie Rock through a series of ‘answer records’ (a ‘bizarre’ tradition for Dawson and Propes, 1992: 132), like ‘Twist Barbie’, ‘Barbie USA’, ‘Bitterness Barbie’, ‘Barbie Girl’, ‘Barbie Be Happy’ and ‘Career Barbie’.[11]

Not without precedent, the bridging phase between the fadeout of Rockabilly in 1959 and British Invasion by 1963 was important for more than Keitley’s sexist reference to a ‘lost spirit of rock‘n’roll’ (2001: 118). This was also a moment of ‘exciting and energetic “girl groups”’ (Gaar, 1992) with chart-topping songs, like The Bobbettes, The Chantels, The Chiffons, The Crystals, The Dixie Cups, The Exciters, The Ronnettes, and The Shirelles. Music primary definers tend to dismiss these ‘in-between years’ of rock‘n’roll, when popular music suffered a supposed ‘near death experience’ (Keitley, 2001: 116; Birch, 1987: 165). Devaluation of female success in ‘monetarily dry’ times hid a reality of controlled artists, withheld royalties and ‘black’ women excluded by secondary definer media (busy re-racialising a newsworthy Watts Riot). The Ed Sullivan Show, for instance showcased both a ‘white’ 1950s Elvis and 1960s Beatles. ‘Radio may have been colour blind but television was not: none of the black girl groups of the early ‘60s appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show no matter how many hits they had, whereas a minor contender like Britain’s Cliff Richard, who had only two U.S. Top 40 hits at the time, appeared three times’ (Gaar, 1992: 51). So much for confident claims that ‘rock and roll has always been on television’ (Grossberg, 1995: 371).

Viewed in this way, while Stras concedes ‘the genre’s seemingly contradictory historic importance as a fostering ground for feminine and racial equality’ (2010: 21), the Girl Groups of enlightened scholarship based on biopolitical race, class, age or sexual identities seem to reiterate an ‘evil’ problematic of mistaking effects for causes (Baudrillard, 1984: 13). Stras’ assent to agist ‘rites of passage’ from ‘girl’ to ‘woman’, for example leaves her idea of ‘adolescence’, now complicit with ‘adult’ moral panic, open to charges of propaganda for the very sexual inequality evils that she criticises. Launched during this Girl Group era and seen as the paradigm ‘of young girls’ aspirations and fantasies’, Barbie™ the doll ‘embodied a fixed ideal of emerging womanhood for the English-speaking world’ (2010: 15). This identity neutral ‘respectability’ was an unattainable norm. Stras argued that the only option open to Girl Groups was to ‘dissemble’ their nature. Pretending to do/think one thing, while actually doing/thinking another (2010: 19). Much later, a plastic era of Riot Grrrl lo fi, Girl Power hi tech or Barbie Rock technical skills emerges to decode that ‘essentialised myth of woman tied to nature’ (Toffoletti, 2007: 79).

Surpassing 1960s Girl Group success and sexist discrimination on a larger scale over a longer period, the 1990s saw another social exclusion of the new female Heavy Metal meets Girl Group emergent style. Increasingly eclipsed by new technology and over-invested ‘poor chic’ cinema, MTV-centric privatised ‘cable’ television shifted music priorities from audio to telegenic visuals. Homan (2007) and Mathieson (2000) note how less profitable radio turned to ‘standardised playlists’, while record companies kept to the research based ‘objective repertoires’ of 1980s Rap or 1970s Punk. Yet the female counter-practice, registered in both chart success and innovation, spanned Olympia’s early self-misspelt ‘Riot Grrrl’[12] to ‘Girl Power’ global hit ‘Barbie Girl’ by Denmark’s Aqua. A ‘homie’ (cf. Hip Hop curfew neologism, ‘homegirl’) glocalised genre cross-section would include the popular success of Aqua, Breeders, Cardigans, Cub, Destiny’s Child, Donnas, Echobelly, Elastica,[13] Killing Heidi, Shonen Knife, Skunk Anansie, Spice Girls, Superjesus and Tiddas. Male bands could only offer passé feeding contexts (Nirvana, Pixies, Suede, Living Color) of retro subgenres, such as Punk-Metal,[14] Grunge or Britpop. But if the experience was certain, like Punk, dissensus not consensus was a norm for many participants:

No, evil ha ha…I have a big problem with females in music at the moment, if you’re talking about your, in my eyes, Barbies – Ella Hooper, Killing Heidi (Hex)

The ‘Barbie’ part I can see, the horror [Heavy Metal] I don’t – there is psychological horror, but I think horror is the wrong word to put on it…terror is more like it – Greil Marcus, journalist (Hex)

‘Specular’ (Irigaray, 1985) Riot Grrrl’s many Heavy Metal cover-versions allocated bands like Heart, the Runaways and Girls School as significant influences, disturbing this alleged misogynist boysclub genre with intuitive ‘cool grrrls’.[15] Going further, Girl Power ‘overmimed’ media secondary definitions, untying the definitive gaze of MTV clips with a reflexive awareness that ‘to define “woman” is necessarily to essentialise her’ (Moi, 1985: 139; Straw, 2001; and coolgrrrls.com, 1998). A presentation of self, like symbolic interactionist stigma logic (Goffman, 1979), rock’n’roll genre formation from 1950s ‘Rockabilly’ (variant of hillbilly), 1960s ‘Psychedelia’ (mental hallucinations), 1970s ‘Punk’ (prison putdown), and 1980s ‘Swamp’ (country urbanism) to 1990s ‘Barbie’ (plastic female) displaced and reversed a once mild pejorative term.[16] Hebdige traces this progression back to inverted labelling of ‘black’, ‘funk’, ‘superbad’ and ‘jazz’ (1980: 62-3). Sensing the very real community demand for a subversive female genre in 1998, Rock’n’roll Highschool recording studio’s Stephanie Bourke suggested, ‘it would be great if someone could bring us all together…the scene is definitely there for it’ (Polymer ‘Stone’: 15). While rarely recognised by media secondary definers, pop culture slang and entrepreneur primary definitions do occasionally transmute into mass genre accreditation. Subcultures seeking publicity or ‘street cred’ are criticised for cultivating moral panic (McRobbie and Thornton, 1995: 572). Even Barbie™ doll copyright holder Mattel Corp, after unsuccessful litigation against Aqua (The Beat, 1997), now capitalise with authorised Barbie Party Mix CDs. Yet as Elastica discovered, ‘intellectual property rights are the motor driving much of the music business’ (Breen, 1999: 70).[17] According to Baudrillard, translation of evil (or sexual demonisation) into mere ‘misfortune’ can lead to, ‘a whole culture of misfortune, of recrimination, repentance, compassion and victimhood’ (2007: 145).

In the industry of romance,

New ways to enhance,

Her beauty,

My little doll,

Beauty comes from the soul

‘Barbie Be Happy’ – Essential Logic, 1998

Figure 6: Dissent, Linoleum [with permission from Universal Music]

Figure 6: Dissent, Linoleum [with permission from Universal Music]

5 Dissent: the compact disc

‘Of crucial importance’ to a sociology of rock, album reviews ‘seek simultaneously to provide a consumer guide, to comment on a culture, and to explore personal tastes’ (Frith, 2001: 174). In terms of a consumer guide’, Straw suggests, ‘the genre as the context within which records were meaningful accompanied the rise of the “serious” record review’. That ‘generic economy’, drawn according to Straw from ‘film criticism’ important to academia (2001: 103), might also be traced to Jazz writing. But because ‘most journalists are male’ reviewers, Bayton argues that ‘a hegemonic masculine view tends to predominate in the music press’ (1998: 3). Her comment on the culture’ notes 1990s music as, ‘a genuine female youth subculture with the explicit aim of moving in all areas of the rock world’ (3). A ‘lucky researcher in the right time and place’ (Negus, 1999: 29), I[18] too discovered ‘an attempt was made to create an organised network amongst all-girl bands, via fanzines’ (Bayton, 1998: 75). This distinguished Barbie Rock from the genre symbiosis of Heavy Metal for which, Straw (2001) argues, ‘audiences do not constitute a musical subculture’. Conversely, Metal’s devotion to rock‘n’roll cover versions (rebutting ‘consistent noninvocation of rock history/mythology’ charges – 102-3) is consolidated by the Grrrls own genuine delight in Metal covers. With such reference groups of Punk-Metal cementing Riot Grrrl to Girl Power, exploring personal tastes’ in the 1990s amounts to Barbie Rock Invasion of ‘the most male dominated of rock forms’ (109).


Yeah, I mean I’m not familiar with the Linoleum LP you’re talking about, so I can’t really comment on that – John Peel, journalist (Hex)

Barbie Rock?! Hahahaha…tell me, which exponents of Barbie Rock do you feature? – Caroline Finch, Linoleum (Vee)

As the title suggests, Linoleum’s first album (1997) is sexed dissent to rock’n’roll mythology. Summing-up Barbie Rock, singer Caroline Finch says, ‘Dissent is a different way of looking at things, and it’s a different way of song-writing and bringing up things that other people know but don’t usually bring up from a female perspective’ (Finch, 1999: 35). Linoleum encountered the same obstacle course experienced by more high-profile groups, like Elastica (settling out of court with flattered Punk bands, Wire and The Stranglers). ‘We had problems in Australia certainly because another band called “Linoleum” showed up out of the blue…I think they’d put a single out a while before us, and they started demanding huge amounts of money from us for our name. So I know we had quite a lot of difficulty in Australia getting press and things, because we recently weren’t really allowed to be called Linoleum out there. That was a bit of problem. Yeah I think the industry is in a bit of a mess at the moment’ (34). Riot Grrrls were also banned by popular music media (recalling a blanked out Sex Pistols at No. 1) for manifestos, ejected male slam dancers or heckler abuse texta scrawled on bodies. ‘I wonder, I mean there doesn’t seem to be a lot of coverage of female bands.’ Yes, the rock-press also practise social exclusion of music.

Musically, Linoleum’s Barbie Rock vector surrounded Caroline’s cutesy high-pitch to contralto vocals, delivered as rapping Girl Power overmime segués into room tipping specular Riot Grrrl in 4/4. An under-rated lead guitarist for these unidentified times, musician Paul Jones’ high-action manoeuvring wrung out the Heavy Metal power chord with duck walk riffs, surf licks, and free-form feedback. ‘Paul’s got a good set of new pedals and things, so there’s some interesting sounds on our new stuff. But they’re still coming out of the guitar, even if they don’t sound like it. I think that Paul’s particularly good at playing his guitar so that it doesn’t sound like a guitar sometimes. He plays not exactly in a traditional way, so I think that’s how come we get those results’ (34). Caroline’s rhythm converging on Paul’s created the classic dynamic duo of rock’n’roll guitars, only interrupted by Dave’s snap to deep rumble drum or Grunge fuzz faithful bass of Emma. A white noise, wall of sound energy that, ‘takes power out of the hands of the dangerous people…and puts it back into the people who are being creative.’

American producers Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade (also veterans of Hole and The Pixies) engineered and mixed in multi-layered studio flow a creation upgraded to vinyl quality audio depth. The Erik Nitschean-style Mod red, white and blue sleeve design, backed with fresco secco group miniatures, was initially packaged in real lino. ‘The fact that it’s quite tacky and it’s…I love linoleum because it’s not what it appears to be. Especially when it looks like a very glamorous floor and it’s not. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen our records that are packaged in linoleum? We didn’t make that many of them. Ever since we first started up all our flyers, and our first singles were actually packaged in floor covering, which is quite fantastic.’ (37). Track listings for this floored Barbie Rock genius explored matters of masochist masquerade [‘Marquis’], alienation shock [‘Dissent’], risk chic [‘Dangerous Shoes’], social snobbism [‘On a Tuesday’], remote control [‘Restriction’], substance abuse [‘She’s Sick’], post-modern angst [‘Unresolved’], and ad hominem [‘Smear’]. ‘It’s certainly a view of dysfunctional relationships, there’s a questioning of things that don’t work, and I find all these kind of issues more interesting’ (35).

Yeah I wanna be like her,

Ride the bus in my underwear

’Career Barbie’ – The Kowalskis, 2002

Figure 7: Polymer Hex

Figure 7: Polymer Hex

Concluding remarks

Recent music research on sexed subgenre revolutions has examined both Riot Grrrl (Schilt, 2004) and Girl Power (Martin, 2006; Strong, 2007). But this is the first to recognise their interconnection as phases in the key 1990s genre of Barbie Rock, while avoiding assimilation to established genres (but see Riley, 1994; Lumby, 1998; Chugg, 2005). The unidentified factors (Parts 1-3 above) behind social exclusion and social capital until now pre-empting full recognition as a popular music genre are, in a word (detected earlier by Hesmondhalgh), ‘technicism’. In this gatekeeper scenario, 1) a ‘computerisation’ of cultural intermediaries like rock-press hacks succeeded by primary definer world-wide web hackers, 2) accompanied by secondary definer media ‘moral panic’ implosion, and 3) 3D radio freeze-frame to 2D ‘video dominated’ freeze-out (if not ‘cool’), overshadows the all but not seen and not heard infant terrible genre. Technology has ‘inhibited creativity’ (Hesmondhalgh, 2007: 88). However, whether at odds with fashionable iconoclastic slogans like, ‘down with genres’ (Deleuze and Parnet, 1987: 17), this new technology has also empowered creativity. As the very fact of Barbie Rock demonstrates (Toffoletti, 2007).

Yet there is another tendency, apparently inescapable in even the most enlightened works of men, at times unheard by women (Part 4). The men are easy to find (check out Lester Bangs’ ‘Back Door Man and Women in Bondage’). But when Reynolds and Press portray Riot Grrrl’s Huggy Bear ‘in full awareness of its connotations’ as ‘“asking for it”’ (1995: 331). Or female Bayton argues a Girl Power audience would be, ‘only too delighted to give her [Courtney Love] an ironic f***’ (1998: 79), a sense that such projective hysteria stems from internalised sexism is hard to avoid. In that case, men who ‘determine the marketplace’ (Stras, 2010: 4) are uncontested (but see Part 5) rivalling ‘evil speaking evil’ or evil speaking good (including my mere maleness?) noted by Baudrillard (2010: 39). The theory of evil is a leitmotif for ‘the conspiracy of art’ or demonisation of Barbie Rock. In this ‘obstacle race’ of unsung female artists, indicating a ‘social exclusion’ by the arts, the ‘impotent’ (Baudrillard, 1996: 122) hysteria of male ‘rape’ appears the most fitting explanatory metaphor because, ‘it is no longer decency that is threatened with violation, but sex, or rather sexist idiocy, “which takes the law into its own hands”’ (122).[19] Nevertheless, as even their Satanic Majesties, The Rolling Stones signify with their latest best of Grrr, the lived experience of rock’n’roll – from Riot Grrrl to Girl Power – lives on in the music of Barbie Rock.

Most people would look at it as sarcastic right now; cause like no one really talks about it in the genuine sense anymore, even though I love mine – Donna A, The Donnas (Hex)


Acknowlegements: Thanks to Jo Grant from NEIS [New Enterprise Incentive Scheme]; Stephanie Bourke of Rock n roll Highschool; Jacqueline Gallagher at Monash University. Also special thanks to Farrago [University of Melbourne], and Rabelais [Latrobe University] for supporting Polymer.



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[1] A song by Captain Beefheart, ‘Rock’n’roll’s Evil Doll’ (1974) encapsulates male fear of women in music for even the most enlightened artist.

[2] Riot Grrrl is an ‘underground feminist punk rock movement’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riot_grrrl) according to Wikipedia; whereas Girl Power, ‘as a term of empowerment, expressed a cultural phenomenon of the 1990s and early 2000s’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/girl_power).

[3] Ten per cent of national income redistributed from labour to capital (Frankel, 2001: 24).

[4] Quotations are from Polymer back-issues: News (1998), Stone (1998), Inner City (1998), Thing (1998), Vee (1999) and Hex (2000-1).

[5] ‘It’s always useful to remember…that the history of popular music is really traced through the losers rather than the winners, because there are far more of those’, says John Peel (Hex, 2000-1: 30)

[6] For outstanding cultural studies typical of this period, see Grossberg (1984); Straw (2001); and Brophy (1987).

[7] See also Hesmondhalgh (1999: 36) on ‘sell out’ and ‘burn out’.

[8] See Chugg (2007)

[9] Alternately:

Australian avant garde rock then, starts and finishes with the fact that the people born and/or living in Australia make Australian avante garde rock. But such a subcategory carries no mysterious subcultural traits that can differentiate its content and substance from avant garde rock around the world. It is no wonder that groups from Seattle, Brussells, Cornwall, Vancouver and Canberra can provide remarkably similar work without ever having heard each other’s work, simply by plugging into the same historical sources and references from both the histories of art and rock. As in so many instances, “Australianism” might work as a qualification but not a description – (Brophy 1987, pp. 140-1)

[10] I argue that the concept of ‘social exclusion’ retains relevance in cultural contexts.

[11] By Shonen Knife (Japan, 1992), Gloo Girls (USA, 1994), The Lunachicks (USA, 1995), Aqua (Denmark, 1997), Essential Logic (UK, 1998) and The Kowalskis (USA, 2002), respectively. (Now even crossing-over to Country, with Unknown Hinson’s ‘Barbie Q’, and Jack Ingram’s ‘Barbie Doll’)

[12] For ‘grrl’ or ‘grrrl’ spelling, see Raphael (1995: xxiii).

[13] Destiny’s Child was the most successful US female group; Elastica’s album became the fastest selling debut in the UK, et cetera.

[14] Contrasting Punk, Straw highlights Heavy Metal’s ‘triumph of craft production…“empty” virtuosity and self-indulgence’ (2001: 100).

[15] Barbie Rockers covering Heavy Metal include: Babes from Toyland, Baby Animals, The Breeders, Belly, The Cardigans, The Clouds, Concrete Blonde, The Corrs, Daphne and Celeste, The Donnas, Lita Ford, Fur, L7, Linoleum, Ninety Nine, Nitocris, Rebeccas Empire and Superjesus.

[16] For another commodity research double entendre, see Ritzer’s (2004) ‘McDonaldisation’ (itself labelled ‘McWeberian’).

[17] A well-known example is Girl Group, the Chiffons’ ‘He’s So Fine’ plagiarised by ex-Beatle George Harrison – later disclaimed by Chiffons members citing label legal pressures (see also Rimmer, 2007: 40-53).

[18] A mere male.

[19] In this context, ‘sexist idiocy’ is determined by technicism: ‘has not rape perhaps become the unacknowledged by-product of a technological emergency that is becoming routinised?’ (Virilio, 2005: 70)



Biographical Note: Rock Chugg is a freelance sociologist from Melbourne, with recent research appearing in publications like Continuum, Refractory, and Meanjin.

Volume 26


  1. “Children should play with dead things”: transforming Frankenstein in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie –  Erin Hawley
  2. “You gave me no choice”: A queer reading of Mordred’s journey to villainy and struggle for identity in BBC’s Merlin  –  Joseph Brennan
  3. Days of YouTube-ing Days of Heaven: Participatory Culture and the Fan Trailer  –  Kyle R. McDaniel
  4. When a Good Girl Goes to War: Claire Adams Mackinnon and Her Service During World War IHeather L. Robinson 
  5. ‘Rock‘n’roll’s evil doll’: the Female Popular Music Genre of Barbie Rock  –  Rock Chugg
  6. Morality, Mortality and Materialism: an Art Historian Watches Mad Men – Catherine Wilkins
  7. Playing At Work  –  Samuel Tobin
  8. 1970s Disaster Films: The Star In Jeopardy Nathan Smith



Reaching for the Screen in Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Lights in the Sky’ – Katheryn Wright

Abstract: During the Nine Inch Nails’ Lights in the Sky tour in 2008, Trent Reznor made use of two semi-transparent stealth screens layered in front of a third screen through which the band performed the second and third acts of the show. A stealth screen is made from reflective elements linked together like a chain, and can appear either transparent or opaque depending upon the lighting. When these screens appear onstage during the concert, attention shifts from Reznor’s body in performance to his physical interactions with the surrounding screens. The screens are not only spaces for the projection of images, but physical objects Reznor interacts with during the course of the show. Reznor plays a game of hide-and-seek with his audience using screens to reveal and conceal his body. The downstage screen also transforms into a touch interface, where Reznor experiments with its responsiveness. Both hide-and-seek and the play of responsivity in NIN’s performance echoes the everyday interactions people have with their screen technologies. As such, the NIN’s Lights in the Sky tour maps emerging bodily habituations forming through the materiality of the screen.

Nine Inch Nails performing ’31 Ghosts IV’ during their 2008 Lights In The Sky Over North America Tour.

“We may debate whether our society is a society of spectacle or of simulation, but, undoubtedly, it is a society of the screen” (Manovich 94). In this quote from The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich recognizes the central role screen technologies play in the digital era. This “society of the screen” has taken on new life over the past decade. A few examples: Mirjam Struppek organized the first international conference about the aesthetic and political potential of urban screens in 2005. Released in 2007, the Apple iPhone brought multi-touch technology to a mass audience; a multi-touch surface can respond to two or more inputs, increasing the functionality of touch screen (or trackpad) devices like the iPhone. That same year, American Express sponsored a program for cardholders during the U.S. Open where attendees were issued handheld televisions to carry around with them during the event to enhance the live experience of tennis. In 2008, life on a spaceship involved living through your own personal screen in the post-apocalyptic film, Wall-E. And, the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 featured Olympic gold-metal gymnast Li Ning traversing the inner rim of the stadium with a media surface unfolded to display images from the torch’s journey across China behind him.

These brief descriptions capture artists, scholars, entrepreneurs, and athletes challenging what the screen can do. Scott McQuire traces the migration of the television set from the domestic spaces of the home to urban spaces of the city, a shift that has developed alongside the rise of global networks and the mobilization of media (2). McQuire and Sean Cubitt argue that contemporary forms of sociality occur through the materiality of screen technology as an architectural façade, a virtual interface, or a personal companion (McQuire 48, Cubitt 105). Uta Casparay, Erkki Huhtamo, and Cubitt trace the material histories of the historical precursors to urban screens and outdoor advertising. Experimental artworks incorporating large-scale video like Krzysztof Wodiczko’s projections on historical monuments or smaller scale interactive pieces like Chris Jordan’s Chrono Beam (2011) has received recent critical attention in the way they interrogate the intersection between the embodied spectator and the ephemeral politics of public displays (Susik 113-114, 118). In addition to advertising displays and experimental art projections, experiments with emerging screen practices are also going on in popular forms of entertainment, especially rock concerts. Trent Reznor, lead singer and driving force behind Nine Inch Nails (NIN), has written and performed industrial rock music for more than two decades, and since the height of his popularity in the nineties has extended his creative pursuits to include digital imaging, remixing, online distribution, and most recently composing for movies including Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). Added to this list are his experiments with screen technologies.

For NIN’s Lights in the Sky tour, Reznor introduced a new twist to the second act of each concert by adding two semi-transparent stealth screens positioned in front of a third screen (Gardiner par. 10). Because a stealth screen is made from reflective elements linked together like a chain, the combination of projection and light cues can make it appear both transparent and opaque at the same time. These screens function not only as spaces for the projection of animations or images, but material objects Reznor interacts with during the course of the show. The screens in Lights in the Sky are an extension of the design concept for his previous tour, Live: With Teeth, where Reznor used a big screen to display video footage throughout the concert. Lights in the Sky (designed by Reznor and Rob Sheridan, the artistic director, with lighting designer Roy Bennett and the company Moment Factory) combines laser technologies, particle-based animation that runs off several Linux-based devices, choreographed staged lighting, a high-resolution  n, and the two semitransparent stealth screens. In addition to these major elements, the production includes a closed circuit camera system streamed live through the Linux-based computer terminal and preprogrammed song cues controlled by the artistic director and lighting designer via the motherboard.

The collection of screens, lighting, animation, and sound create a media environment that Reznor moves within for the rest of the concert. Trent Reznor’s body is the critical touchstone around which every element in the performance revolves. For fans, rock concerts are about being in the moment and presence of the star. Reznor’s introduction of stealth screens during the concert creates an awkward situation where the people there to see NIN perform live do so through a technological interface. When I attended a live performance on September 29, 2008 in Jacksonville, FL, there were two primary types of interactions that occurred between Reznor, the transparent screens onstage, and audience. First, Reznor engages in a game of hide-and-seek where the screen is used to both reveal and conceal his body from the audience. Second, the play of responsivity between his physical actions and digital imagery creates a visual continuity between screen projections and his body in motion that reverberates through the venue. These interactions at the concert echo the habituations people develop as they use the variety of screen technologies at their disposal, making NIN’s Lights in the Sky a compelling case study to explore a privileged moment in time and space when the cultural significance of the screen is in flux.


The lights go out as the screens lower across the stage. Spectators murmur and wait for Reznor to reappear and begin the second set, but he does not immediately come back onto the stage. Instead, a blue field of light begins accompanied by some drums and a xylophone. The silhouettes of Reznor flanked on either side by the other members of the band appear behind the transparent screen. Only after the instrumental section has been going on for a few minutes, additional light floods the stage and spectators realize which body belongs to Reznor.

In this opening sequence to the second act of the show, the stealth screen initially masks and then dramatically reveals Reznor’s position on the stage. During the “Greater Good” track from the album Year Zero, the downstage stealth screen displays what looks like a time-lapsed recording of bacteria growing, pulsating, in a Petri dish – a mound of digital particles. For the first thirty seconds of the performance, these animations appear onscreen while Reznor is nowhere to be found. Then, extremely subtly, Reznor’s silhouette backs into the stage in front of the left corner of the screen. Dwarfed by the vastness of the stealth screen, he faces the offstage wing crouched over in a profile position. He is barely visible and remains completely out of view to many. After several beats, the movement of the digital particles takes the shape of Reznor’s face; the extreme close-up is a video recorded by an offstage camera. During this segment, Reznor’s body overlaps the live feed of his physical image being projected onto the stealth screen. He appears onscreen and onstage at the same time. Reznor hides. The audience seeks. This game adds an intriguing twist for the audience who came to hear and see NIN in person. Rather than getting to see the band perform for the entire set, the lead singer disappears from the stage for fairly large chunks of time. They perform songs like “Greater Good” behind the stealth screen and out of sight from the audience. As such, Reznor controls how much the audience sees him, on and offscreen, during the show.

During the performance of “Survivalism” in the third act of the concert, a closed-circuit camera system installed around the premises records live footage of the audience and projects it onto the big screen. In what looks like a collection of monitors located in a security station, spectators watch themselves watching NIN. This sequence is about the ubiquity of surveillance technologies contemporary American culture, but the audience cannot hide among the screens like Reznor can. Even so, those watching can use their mobile devices to capture the live event as it unfolds in real time. Smartphones enable audience members to communicate ideas and information via text, voice, image, and video. They can send what they record at the concert to NIN’s website. Ironically, audience members also use these same devices to capture a better view than they have while standing, zooming in to get a closer look at the action. The power Reznor has over his visibility onstage dissipates as the territory of the media environment expands into the World Wide Web. Although Reznor plays with the audience in terms of his physical visibility, the overall performance hinges on its technological infrastructure. The production team cannot always manage software, and screens at the venue. Computer glitches continued to crop into the flow of the performances during the tour, including when I saw it. In Jacksonville, animations on the stealth screen kept flickering on and off and, during the final “Head Like a Hole” encore, the red “NIN” symbol flashing on the downstage stealth screen had a part of an “N” chopped off. These glitches form a digital reality outside of any single person’s control. Spectators have no influence over their bodies on display.

When Reznor plays hide-and-seek with his audience using the screens surrounding him, this communicative act challenges the implied materiality of screen space. Critical discussions about the spatial relations of the screen media emerge in apparatus theory of the 1970s. Jean-Louis Baudry argues that the screen is simultaneously a mirror and frame that produces ideological distance between the conscious spectator and the dreamworld of the cinema (352 – 353). Manovich echoes the logic of apparatus theory in his cultural history of screen technologies where he distinguishes between the classical screen (Renaissance perspectival painting), dynamic screen (film and television), and the screen in real time (computer) (96). In all of these cases, “The act of cutting reality into a sign and nothingness simultaneously doubles the viewing subject who now exists in two spaces: the familiar space of his/her real body and the virtual space of an image within the screen” (106). For Baudry and Manovich, the screen marks a border between two qualitatively different spaces that may speak to each other in dynamic in provocative ways as decades of compelling scholarship in media and cultural studies has proven, yet they remain separate. The screen is important in as much as it frames the point-of-view of someone looking through it at whatever movie or show they happen to be watching.

Reznor’s game challenges the implied separation between real and virtual space that Baudry and Manovich trace in their respective theories. Establishing a connection between the spectacle and spectators through the screen transforms the display space into something more than a window frame to a virtual world. Reznor uses to the screen to shield himself from view, and to reveal his presence to the crowd. The juxtaposition between the stealth screen’s transparency and opacity highlights the basic attributes of its materiality. Its surface conceals and reveals as much as the edges frame what is on it. The stealth screen is like the cape a magician uses to hide the bag of tricks from the audience. The turn, however, is when the onscreen spectacle bleeds into the physical space the screen occupies. Through hide-and-seek, Reznor occupies a modular media space. So, too, do audience members who use their screened devices to get a better view of the show. Media scholar Adriana de Souza e Silva explains how “from the merging of mixed reality and augmented spaces, mobility, and sociability arises a hybrid reality…a hybrid space is not constructed by technology. It is built by the connection of mobility and communication and materialized by social networks developed simultaneously in physical and digital spaces” (265 − 266). She describes what others have called augmented space, simulacra, computer-mediated reality, or multimedia environments: concepts with varied connotations that attempt to describe the blending of physical and digital spaces. Reznor experiments with what communication feels like within these spaces that De Souza e Silva among others attempt to explicate. Ironically, the space between virtual and actual space symbolized by the screen for Baudry and Manovich seems to migrate to the body of the user, who in the case of the Lights in the Sky performance is Reznor and not the audience watching him.


A white field of particles fills the screen at the beginning of “Only” from the album With Teeth. A small opening grows out from the center to reveal Reznor’s body. The closer he moves toward the screen, the larger the opening. He walks across the stage, and the opening follows him. He moves upstage and the opening closes.  The field gives way to a violent streaming of digital noise that momentarily reveals the rest of the band playing behind Reznor. The white field returns to view. Again, Reznor paces across the stage as the opening follows him wherever he goes. The drummer comes out onstage and lights up a series of boxes by touching each individual square.

This transitional sequence leads into the performance “Echoplex” when the initial beat he establishes by touching the boxes merges into the song’s introduction. The drummer returns at its conclusion to deactivate the light boxes.

In these two instances, the onstage stealth screens transform into touch screens when lasers running along the back of the screens indicate their position. The animations generated in real-time record their physical movement in relation to the screen to produce the illusion of a haptic interface. Even if the performers do not actually touch anything, the sequences establish a sense of continuity between onscreen and offscreen through the responsivity of the screen. Responsivity refers to the quality of the digital connection between onscreen and offscreen. The screen interfaces of popular technologies like the iPhone react to the touch of a finger or pen. Touch screens work by layering two surfaces with an electric current or laser beam sandwiched between them. When somebody touches the surface of the outer screen, the flow of the current or beam is interrupted and signals the device to react in that particular spot. Slightly different from the touch screen, the remote responsiveness of game consoles like Nintendo’s Wiimote and Xbox’s Kinnect depend on a remote sensor or motion control. Reznor experiments with both types of responsiveness during the performance.

Reznor draws the second type of responsivity for the performance of “Terrible Lie” in the third act. At this point in the show, the three screens have changed position. The stealth screens have been raised to allow for Reznor and the band to move more freely on the stage. However, they remain staggered so as to continue to project images, although intensities would probably be the better term at this point given that approximately 90% of what is onscreen are bursts of color and light. Amorphous red, orange and yellow particles flash on the three screens in the same rhythmic patterns of the song. These animations translate auditory and haptic cues (rock music performed live can be felt just as much as it is heard) into visualizations. These sensory translations, like synesthesia, extend the aesthetic possibilities of live performance. Reznor becomes connected to the (digital, screened, animated) world through the responsivity of his onstage environment. The responsiveness between body and screen draws disparate elements of the performance together into a single rhythm during the course of the show.

During the concert, Reznor appears to cross through the frame of the screen. Even though he never actually steps through it, the animations create the illusion of breaking through the screen’s surface. The stealth screen offers a way to cross the frame that separates the spatial reality of the viewer from the virtual space of representation. The formal separation between real and virtual space plays a pivotal role in Western aesthetics. Writing about this divide, Anne Friedberg traces the cultural history of what she calls the “virtual window” to Renaissance perspectival painting, where the viewer is situated in front of a framed surface. Reznor challenges this tradition by linking the physical and digital through his body. Although screens continue to situate the perspective of the viewer towards onscreen content, Reznor temporarily acts as a node through which the onscreen and offscreen converge. Reznor frames the visual content for the audience by moving towards and away from the stealth screen. He determines the path of the real-time particle animations during the show. Still, he never actually crosses through the frame of the screen. This crossing is an illusion; Reznor remains trapped behind the screen in order for that illusion to work. To cross the frame of the screen is transgressive within the field of modern aesthetics, much like breaking through the imaginary “fourth wall” of the stage, but the interplay between screen and body during the concert translates into an optical effect for everyone watching where Reznor is, himself, on display. Like a painting or film, this performance can only be accessed through a proscenium, a frame, which separates the spectacle from those watching it.

Similar to the responsivity of the touch screen, the integration of sensory components during the show cultivates a sense of continuity between actual and virtual through Reznor’s body. He acts like a remote control for the live action onstage, altering the sense of presence throughout the venue. Every aspect of the concert feels connected, and nobody can get out of it because the surveillance cameras make everyone visible. This feeling of connection continues when video recorded with mobile devices extend into online archives after the concert. The attempt to capture the “live” experience through media by fans reinforces the responsivity that Reznor draws on throughout the second and third acts. After each concert concludes, NIN’s website archives fan videos and chats in an effort to collect the individualized performances together into the broader context of the tour. Like the multiple elements of the live show combining through the responsiveness of the screen, information comes together through the human-computer interface. Mobile devices enable spectators to participate in the concert by recording and archiving the live event. The website clearly organizes its galleries according to concert and tour dates so visitors can easily navigate through the streaming videos. The feeling of connection cultivated through the play of responsivity during the show was reignited when audiences come together to construct their own narrative about the tour through the documentary Another Version of the Truth: The Gift that was produced by fans and distributed through NIN.com.

From my perspective in the crowd, interacting with his audience through the stealth screens seems almost like a spiritual experience for Reznor, who is the obvious centerpiece around which the hybrid reality is constructed. He stands behind the screen and soaks up the spectacle while the audience looks on. For me, however, the experience was ultimately frustrating because the spontaneity and singular intimacy of a rock concert, that feel and smell of bodies cramming next to you in a collective push towards the stage, is lost. We were left watching NIN interact with cutting-edge screen technologies onstage without access to it. Even though the animations and lighting cues were generated live, the concert began to feel closer to performance art (like one of Wodiczko’s projections) than a rock concert. It is the same feeling I have when I watch someone text at the table at lunch, for instance. The person is there, but not in the same way as they would have been otherwise.
Screens for Sale

The Lights in the Sky tour combines industrial-alternative rock, live performance, new media technologies, real-time animation, ticketholders, critics, and fans like myself into a symbolic act of a body reaching out to touch the screen. The game of hide-and-seek and play of responsivity represent different ways people interact with the screens around them. A commercial for the Blackberry Storm smartphone released in November 2008 (and running throughout the following year) illustrates how the appeal of interacting with a screen interface, much like the games Reznor plays, stems from the symbolic act of crossing through its frame. This commercial sells the idea that by simply touching a screen you can connect more efficiently, immediately, and directly with what’s important in your life. The multi-touch interface allows users to make contact with their social networks through a phone, yet the commercial itself acknowledges the reality of the interface, the semi-transparent field at the center of the composition, as the primary point of access. Reznor stands behind his stealth screen; the woman stands behind a rectangular plane and faces forward as she navigates through the textural space of the graphic user interface. Different from Reznor’s live performance, however, is what happens afterward. Animations like the boy with a kite, rock concert, and photographs explode from the frame rather than being projected onto a screen. Touching the interface releases the three-dimensionality of life as it unfolds in real time. The advertisement suggests all we need is a Blackberry Storm to make our experience of the world more real, an ideology that continues to shape narratives about technology in the 21st century. Still, the promise represented by the screen remains tempered by the frame of the television set or YouTube video player. The life falling out from the flat plane, activated through touch, can only be perceived by sitting in front or standing behind another screen, another interface.

Being connected and simultaneously in sync with each other through actual and virtual space creates a sense of presence rooted in the modularity of media space. This spatial arrangement appears to situate the body as a locus of control, benefiting artists like Reznor who embraces the emancipatory promise of new media technology and multinational telecommunications companies like Research in Motion Limited (RIM), the makers of Blackberry, who hope to sell the need to connect with others by touching a really cool screen on your smartphone. Still, like anybody who uses a smartphone will eventually find out, Trent Reznor’s ability to control the terms of his physical interactions with the screens around him is a fantasy. His financial investment, celebrity status, and social positioning coupled with the obvious fact that he and his band are the only people allowed onstage during the concert make him a privileged participant. Reznor chooses what to release on the website. Reznor manages the NIN’s brand. The title of the documentary is called “the gift” because he released high-quality digital recordings to his fans so they could make the documentary. Still, this fantasy – the fantasy of control and connection – is something that commercials for new media technologies ranging from smartphones and video games to Project Glass from Google X continue to promote. Reznor’s onstage encounter with his screens during the Lights in the Sky tour represents a time and place when this fantasy was just beginning to enter into the mainstream, when the potentiality of hybrid reality is being tested within the volatile boundaries of popular culture, and before the games Reznor plays were written into the teleological narrative of technological change.



“Another Version of the Truth: The Gift.” Nin.thisonisonus.org. Web. 14 Oct. 2011.

Baudry, Jean-Louis. “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 5th Edition. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford University Press, USA, 1998. 345 – 355. Print.

Caspary, Uta. “Digital Media as Ornament in Contemporary Architectural Facades.” Urban Screens Reader. Eds. Scott McQuire, Meredith Martin, and Sabine Niederer. Institute of Network Cultures: Amsterdam, 2009. 65 – 74.

Cubbit, Sean. “LED Technology and the Shaping of Culture.” Urban Screens Reader. Eds. Scott McQuire, Meredith Martin, and Sabine Niederer. Institute of Network Cultures: Amsterdam, 2009. 97 – 108.

De Souza e Silva, Adriana. “From Cyber to Hybrid.” Space and Culture 9.3 (2006): 261 –278. Web. 19 Aug. 2010.

Easybakechicken. “Nine Inch Nails – Lights in the Sky Tour – Echoplex – Trent Speaks.” YouTube. Web. 14 October 2011.

Friedberg, Anne. The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft. The MIT Press, 2009. Print.

Gardiner, Bryan. “NIN Dazzles With Lasers, LEDs and Stealth Screens.” 13 Sept. 2008. Web. 14 Oct. 2011.

Huhtamo, Erkki. “Messages on the Wall: An Archeology of Public Media Displays.” Urban Screens Reader. Eds. Scott McQuire, Meredith Martin, and Sabine Niederer. Institute of Network Cultures: Amsterdam, 2009. 15 – 28.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. The MIT Press, 2002. Print.

Mattssnet. “Blackberry Storm – Feel Your Passion – Hot Girl.” YouTube. Web. 14 October 2011.

McQuire, Scott. “Mobility, Cosmopolitanism, and Public Space in the Media City.” Urban Screens Reader. Eds. Scott McQuire, Meredith Martin, and Sabine Niederer. Institute of Network Cultures: Amsterdam, 2009. 45 – 64.

–. “The Politics of Public Space in the Media City.” First Monday. Web. 14 October 2011.

“Nin.com [the Official Nine Inch Nails Website].” 13 Sept. 2008. Web. 14 October 2011.

Shelterslullabies. “Nine Inch Nails – Only (Lights In The Sky Tour).” YouTube. Web. 14 October 2011.

Shelterslullabies. “Nine Inch Nails – Survivalism (Lights In The Sky 2008).” YouTube. Web. 14 October 2011.

Susik, Abigail. “The Screen Politics of Architectural Light Projection.” Public 23: 45 (June 2012): 106 – 119.

Vacantenigma. “Nine Inch Nails – The Greater Good – Philly, PA – 8-29-08.” YouTube. Web. 14 October 2011.


On Cinema, Stars, Boleros y Comedia: Contesting Cold War Repression through Mexican American Popular Culture in the pages of La Opinion – Soledad Vidal

Abstract: This article explores the role that La Opinion, a Mexican American press that rose to meet the growing needs of Mexicans of first and second generation in the U.S. Southwest, played in addressing migrants through a pedagogy of ethnic consciousness. It is argued that through Mexican forms of entertainment that addressed audiences in a familiar Spanish language, the paper enabled the community to simultaneously be immigrants, Mexican and American subjects. Helping promote Mexican entertainment niches, La Opinion encouraged audiences to visit the cine Mejicano to preserve culture, support the Mexican film industry during labor strikes, and enjoy relief from Cold War-related layoffs, union demonstrations and increased discrimination.

Figure 1: José Pedro Infante Cruz, better known as Pedro Infante, the famous actor and singer of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema

“Mexico, dearly beloved, if I die far away from you
let them say that I’m just sleeping and
may they bring me back home to you.”
                  ~ Jorge Negrete

Suburbanization, coupled with the decline of public transportation, affected 1950s entertainment patterns across the United States as suburban families traded their love affair with the big screen for the privacy of television viewership in single family homes. As suburbia spread, those who did not have access to transportation found it increasingly difficult to reach downtown centers and go to the movies.  Despite the postwar growth of the U.S. suburbs, Mexican immigrants continued to move into and revitalize urban ethnic neighborhoods transforming Los Angeles entertainment sites into their own. La Opinion, a Mexican American press that rose to meet the growing needs of Mexicans of first and second generation in the U.S. Southwest addressed migrants through a pedagogy of ethnic consciousness. The paper emerged as a form of immigrant support system and a coping institution that addressed themes centered on the economic, social and racial assimilation problems that resulted from World War II. Since 1900s, Mexican immigrants, more than any other group, had served as the backbone of the American Southwestern economy responding to America’s vacancies in labor.[1] As Mexican Americans joined the ranks of the National Guard, the Army reserve, enlisted in the United States Military, and signed agricultural agreements to tend U.S. fields, they relocated north providing a service to the United States and laying the roots of community in the process.

La Opinion celebrated Mexican political and civic contributions to claim a stake in Americanism during the Cold War period. However, the paper also revealed its vision to help establish a Mexican community that reflected in many ways the Mexican homeland that migrants left behind.  Through Mexican forms of entertainment that addressed audiences in a familiar Spanish language, the paper enabled the community to simultaneously be immigrants, Mexican and American subjects. Mexican American entertainment and more specifically, the “Cine” (movie) section of the paper emerged as the most resistant to assimilative rhetoric and as the paper’s most visible stronghold of Mexican cultural heritage. La Opinion reserved its popular cultural pages to appeal to the Mexican community’s desire to assimilate into American society within a space of Mexican cultural affirmation. Movie-goers who lived and labored in Los Angeles turned to Mexican entertainment to fill a void in Mexican representation in U.S. cinema and to cope with the nostalgia of missing home.

La Opinion’s entertainment section revealed a deep affection for Mexican performers showcasing Mexican actors, mariachi singers and comedians in glamorous downtown movie houses in Los Angeles. Through “painful self-recognitions” as captured in satires, critiques, political commentary and melodramas, Mexican entertainers connected Mexican American audiences to their homeland.[2] During this period, Hollywood catered to middle-class and American-born patrons. Through location, thematic content and cost of attendance the United States film industry demonstrated “a general indifference toward the treatment of Hispanic themes.”[3]  Yet La Opinion reveals that Los Angeles’ Mexican-descent readers responded to the absence of representation in mainstream Hollywood productions through the creation and support of their own cultural niche. Lining the Los Angeles historic center, movie palaces like the Million Dollar and the Mayan emerged as centers of Latin American showcase.[4] Located at Broadway and 3rd Street in Los Angeles, the Million Dollar’s lobby was decorated with large posters from beloved 1950s stars such as Pedro Infante, El Trio Los Panchos, Cantinflas and Tin Tan.  Mexicans living in Los Angeles flocked to local Los Angeles movie houses to watch stage shows featuring Mexico’s biggest stars. The experience of dressing up in style, waiting in line for over an hour, and cheering on their favorite actors revealed the role of Mexican entertainment to a truly integrated community. Bruce Corwin, the president of Metropolitan Theaters company that leased the Million Dollar on and off in the 1940s remembered the excitement of parents, grandparents and children as they awaited the shows. “To them,” stated Corwin, “the Million Dollar was a magical name” eliciting memories of larger-than-life stars.[5]

The Cine (cinema) section of La Opinion promoted and affirmed cultural productions from Mexico by encouraging local Mexican communities to seek Mexican entertainment at local glamorous houses. Frank Fouce, who leased the Million Dollar Theater in 1949, is credited from saving it from downtown’s decline by refocusing entertainment to suit the Hispanic community’s tastes.[6] By the 1950s, the postwar push to the suburbs turned the Million Dollar theater from a Hollywood movie house where Charlie Chaplin had once performed into a showcase of Mexican talent.

Helping promote Mexican entertainment niches, La Opinion published big advertisements on upcoming stars and musical and comedic tours. The paper also delved into popular gossip about las estrellas (movie stars) hooking readers by leaking stories about undercover romances and ego-fueled confrontations between divas and idols. Whether viewers stepped out to watch Un Divorcio (Emilio Gomez Muriel, 1953), Salt of the Earth (Herbert J. Biberman, 1954), or Los Hijos de Maria Morales (Fernando de Fuentes, 1952) among many other Mexican productions, La Opinion encouraged audiences to visit the cine Mejicano to preserve culture, support the Mexican film industry during labor strikes, and enjoy relief from Cold War-related layoffs, union demonstrations and increased discrimination. Mexican comedies in particular played more than an entertainment role. They were promoted by La Opinion as healing mechanisms and uplifting popular culture venues that helped the Mexican American community cope with layoffs in transportation and the food industries.[7] In June 11, 1950, for example, the Cine section praised the movie “Enredate y Veras” (Get Entangled and See, Carlos Orellana, 1948), claiming that while the community was affected by the tram and bread maker strikes, “Mexican humor [was] the best antidote to temporary unemployment.” In the process of prescribing film as a treatment for economic uncertainty, La Opinion advanced two important goals: promoting the financial prosperity of local business by helping raise film attendance to local Mexican theaters, and serving as a defender of the Mexican migrants facing discrimination during the Cold-War period.

Figure 2: A poster advertising Mexican Cinema features at Los Angeles’ Million Dollar Theater

During and shortly after World War II, Mexican cinema inside Mexico received a boost, as the war lessened foreign competition in filmmaking, and the U.S. focused its films on war-related themes that, according to film critics writing for La Opinion in 1954, “were disliked and deemed distasteful by Mexican audiences.”[8] During its Golden Era, Mexican cinema had achieved a level of economic, artistic, and popular success unprecedented in any other Latin American country.[9] Spanning roughly from 1935 to 1955, Mexico’s Golden Era witnessed a vast expansion of the Mexican film industry across Latin America in a manner comparable to the influence of Hollywood on the English-speaking world. By 1948, Mexico had out-produced filmmakers throughout Latin America with approximately 2.5 million tickets sold with foreign sales amounting to 75 percent of admissions.[10] Mexican film during this period focused on narratives of belonging that emphasized moral teachings, social problems, and the melodrama, a genre of film that delved deep into personal relationships and, more pointedly, on problems rooted in the family.

Mexico’s focus on the family resulted from influences stemming from the aftermath of World War II, as Hollywood filmmakers working in a variety of genres from westerns to thrillers turned to the family. The genre to most effectively address the institution of the family was the melodrama. The box-office success of Mexican films continued after the end of World War II when Mexican cinema became focused on commercial films. Mexican melodrama idealized Mexican life and emphasized the importance of family and national unity at a time of economic and social crisis.[11] As Jackie Byars explains, Hollywood melodramas also assumed various shapes, such as patriarchal melodrama; maternal melodrama, typically set in a community of women and children where the patriarch is absent; and lover-centered melodrama which most directly “laid bare the family’s internal contradictions.”[12] Big stars such as Marga Lopez, whom La Opinion described as “la artista argentina del cine mexicano” (the argentine artist of Mexico’s cinema), played numerous leading roles in melodramas helping to usher in the golden age of Mexican female depictions. Revered by La Opinion as one of Mexico’s most talented stars, Marga Lopez left an imprint in melodrama through her masterful performances as a loving, suffering wife. Born in Argentina, she arrived in Mexico when she was a young girl and made her film debut with German Valdes “Tin Tan” in El Hijo Desobediente (The Disobedient Child) directed by Humberto Gomez Landero in 1945. Her performances led to four Ariels (Mexican awards in film). After establishing herself as a great dame of Mexican cinema, Lopez became a Mexican citizen in 1955, eventually transitioning her career from film into TV telenovelas (soap operas).[13] In the period that preceded Lopez, female roles had pushed beyond the traditional fiery, frivolous, and sensual senoritas, for stronger parts that cast Mexican women in bolder roles.[14] However, by the 1950s the quality of female roles entered into a period of decline, as the narrative of the family returned women to the home.[15]

Family melodramas, also known as maternal melodramas, women’s films, or “weepies” centered on the problems of love, sexuality, and parenting.[16] Typically promoting a female centered plot, “weepies” addressed a female audience and focused on women, their lives, and their relationships with other women, a trend that feminist film theorist Nancy Chodorow argues was significant considering that women had been marginalized in other film genres.[17] Un Divorcio, (A Divorce, directed by Emilio Gomez Muriel, 1953) a Mexican film starring Marga Lopez and Carlos Moctezuma, was revered in La Opinion as an example of a superb melodrama that delved into maternal problems, women’s conflicts, and the dangerous threat of divorce.

Un Divorcio’s lead actor, Carlos Lopez de Moctezuma, who played the stoic patriarch in the film, was regularly featured in the Cine section of the press. “Our villain,” as La Opinion warmly referred to him, had built a prosperous film career by being cast as a “malo” (antihero); a personality trait that contrasted “his radiant personality.”[18] In an interview with La Opinion, Moctezuma revealed that his career in acting had started with his love for theater. Yet due to the flexibility of the Mexican entertainment industry, where theater and film actors frequently crossed over, Moctezuma eventually chose film, appearing in more than 96 motion pictures throughout his career.

I went to the movies to earn money and then lost it taking theater roles. In the end, I gave up my love for theater, choosing film. I cannot complain. I have built a long career in film, even though I have always been cast in villain roles. The industry classified me in that role and I have adapted to it and very happily obliged.[19]

Villain or hero, La Opinion adored Moctezuma and frequently published candid interviews with Mexico’s favorite stars. However, the early 1950’s film critic’s corner of La Opinion addressed problems inherent in the protection of a star-studded system that featured the same actors who, while dear to the Mexican viewership, appeared to monopolize roles leaving no room for new talent.[20]   On October 11, 1952, La Opinion film critics pleaded with the Mexican film industry to make room for fresh talent:

We need young actresses and actors. There is a crisis in young acting talent. The lack of new young actors is affecting theaters and movies that now operate at a minimal capacity. In our movies one rarely sees young actors. Instead, we are exposed to the same actors in many repeated roles. These beloved stars, who started their film careers in their youth are now aging yet they are still playing the same protagonist roles. This is not going to be attractive for much longer, as leading stars become grandparents, yet keep playing seductive roles. Even though the beautiful stars are photogenic, their souls are aged and this affects film.[21]

The article added that young talent was rarely cast in protagonist roles. Relegated mostly to secondary parts, young actors, stated La Opinion, “fear taking leading roles.” For their part, movie producers, too, worried that promoting new talent would affect ticket sales as the public, unfamiliar with new talent, would be hesitant to watch films with unknown actors. La Opinion disagreed with the old model that protected a few acting elite and instead advocated change.  “So then,” stated the paper, “we continue with our antiquated movie cast of 10 or even 15 years ago as if time has stood still.” Movie viewers, stated the columnist, “are tired of the same old faces. They can even anticipate the actor’s facial gestures, the dropping of the eyes, their punch lines, their melodramatic acting style and at times even predict the next line. The only thing that changes is wardrobe.” Pressing for a change, the paper argued that “we need new young talent now. We have a serious problem facing the future of our film. If things keep going as they are, we will find ourselves without talent 30 years from now.”[22]

La Opinion boldly critiqued aspects of Mexican film that could potentially affect Mexico’s reputation as a respectable cinematographic industry. When it came to favorite genres, the paper praised melodramas as “Mexico’s movie genre that captured Mexico’s history and its people.”[23] However, during the 1950s La Opinion also advertised a new film genre: the social protest picture, which emerged as a reaction to the Cold War practice of blacklisting actors and technicians who worked on anti-capitalistic films. While La Opinion promoted itself as a progressive, pro-liberal press, the Cine section revealed some internal ideological contradictions, as the paper supported both capitalistic practices as well as films that critiqued U.S. discrimination against Mexican Americans. One of the most advertised social problem films was Herbert Biberman’s Salt of the Earth. The film focused on the 1951 strike by a branch of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers operating in Baynard, New Mexico. At the core of its message, the film highlighted the sacrifices of the miners who challenged the Empire Zinc Corporation over wages and working conditions. Salt of the Earth triggered the suppression of both the film and the Mexican labor union at the height of Cold War America.[24] In order to produce the film, Biberman recruited the services of blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson and also enlisted actual members of the local union who had participated in the strike. Miners and their families agreed to participate in the film as long as Biberman allowed them a measure of control over the script to ensure its accuracy in the representation of the mining community.[25] The members of Local 890 insisted on a portrayal that would reveal how they came together as a community to counter oppression from Anglo interests. As a condition of performing, the miners refused to play into any gendered stereotypes that referenced machismo, subordination of women, illiteracy, ignorance, or weakness. Biberman accepted the miners’ requests and thus began production of the story. Salt of the Earth would be told through the eyes and experiences of Esperanza Quintero, played by Mexican actress, Rosaura Revueltas. The film emphasized the exploitation of Mexican employees through low wages, poor safety conditions and inadequate housing. Led by Esperanza Quintero, miner women, too, organized, fought and picketed for improved conditions.

Figure 3: Rosaura Revueltas in Salt of the Earth.

Reporting on the film, La Opinion published an interview with Revueltas on October 12, 1952. In this interview, Revueltas told journalist Pedro Martinez that she was headed to Hollywood to “take part in a film that due to its social content will be tremendously transcendental.” Martinez reported that the U.S. was interested in keeping a close eye on Revuelta’s film since “this movie will raise the question of discrimination of humble Mexican miners who work in the mines of New Mexico.” Martinez warned that “this movie will not show in the U.S. due to its drastic censorship.” Praising Revueltas and Salt of the Earth, La Opinion lauded the film’s “realistic style similar to Italian films,” and added that Salt of the Earth was filmed on site and without fake sets.  At the conclusion of the interview, La Opinion thanked Revuelta for bravely taking the role and for helping to bring justice to hard-working Mexican Americans.

               Salt of the Earth’s story explored many firsts, addressing the struggles of Mexican American miners, while also highlighting gender inequality within the same community. Anglo abuse and Mexican gender inequality emerged as themes that revealed dual systems of abuse.  While initially welcoming women’s participation in all aspects of the strike, the film showed that Mexican male miners initially resisted women’s public roles. However, when workers won the strike in the end, the men realized that they, too, had contributed to their community’s abuse. The film, which premiered in 1954, was immediately censored in the U.S. The film was produced independently from the Hollywood studio system during the hysteria of the Cold War and was virtually banned from ever being shown in the U.S. In 1954, however, the film played briefly in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.  It was released in Canada and in Europe to widespread acclaim, and was shown again in the U.S. in 1965. Salt of the Earth’s repression revealed the pervasive impact of Cold War ideology in Hollywood productions. The film’s depiction of Mexican American mine workers’ struggles in the copper mines of New Mexico exposed the U.S. government’s harassment of labor unionism, particularly targeting the Mexican American workers in the early 1950s. [26]

In addition to workplace violations, the film exposed gender inequality in the Mexican American community through the central character of Esperanza. Salt of the Earth highlighted women’s participation in the strikes through various roles including public activities, letter writing, and picketing. According to Deborah Rosenfelt, Salt of the Earth addressed domesticity and child rearing as important political issues. The film condemned macho attitudes as women battled to subvert their inferior places within the family and the community.[27] The picture was shot in 1953 and underwent many battles in its effort to reach completion and distribution. Salt of the Earth fought a string of uphill battles including boycotts, congressional red baiting, local vigilantism and lockouts from Hollywood’s technical facilities.[28] While the film was well received abroad, it was denied regular commercial distribution in the United States but was advertised as showing in local Mexican theaters in La Opinion. Pirated copies of the film found their way to colleges and communities where audiences gathered to view the forbidden film’s stories of worker rights and gender equality. [29]

During her interview with La Opinion Rosaura Revueltas confessed that she had waited all her life to play Esperanza.[30]  In her recollections, she mentioned that production of the film had been postponed several times; however, the producer, director and crew refused to give up on the important story. This film came close to Revuelta’s heart. Growing up in a miner family, Revueltas learned firsthand of the miners’ struggles and sorrows. Her upbringing, she told the press, developed her social conscience and passion to understand the nature of inequality and injustice. “From the moment I became an actress I longed to play a role to honor “my people,” recalled Revueltas.[31] When Salt of the Earth came into production she accepted without hesitation and began dreaming of her role as Esperanza, the miner’s wife she would portray in the film. When asked about the censorship of the film, Revueltas remembered being interrogated on several occasions by U.S. immigration officials who visited the lodge in Silver City where the cast and crew were staying. “They wanted to see my passport,” said Revueltas, and, she added, “they came to arrest me on the grounds that my passport lacked an admission seal. They told me that it was not serious that I could return to work the next day if a $500 bond was posted in El Paso” On March, 22, 1954, La Opinion reported on the censorship of the film under the title “Censura en Sal de La Tierra.”[32] (Censorship in Salt of the Earth). The article stated that the movie had been filmed in U.S. territory and, echoing Revuelta’s recollections, it had been interrupted under Washington’s order because “the U.S. government felt that the dialogue had communistic undertones and tendencies.”  Actress Rosaura Revueltas was deported after being detained for hours, stated La Opinion. The unfinished scenes were completed at a later time.[33]

Revueltas recalled interrogations into her political allegiance; specifically, if she was a member of the communist party and if she was doing a communist film. In her memoir, Revueltas revealed that producer Paul Jarrico followed her to El Paso to post the bond. As a result of her leading role in Salt of the Earth, Revueltas states that she was described as a “dangerous woman” who belonged in Mexico. Due to the political pressure demanding that she leave, Rosaura returned to Mexico while filmmakers continued on with the film. “I carried home with me the spirit that had made this picture possible, the determination that would see it completed, and the inner assurance that a handful of ignorant and frightened men could never prevent its being shown to the peoples of the world.” [34] According to La Opinion, after much review, Mexico had authorized Mexican audiences to see the film once Spanish subtitles were added.[35]

La Opinion celebrated Mexican leading actresses and actors, such as Rosaura Revueltas, even when controversial stories surrounded their favorite stars. In addition to promoting Mexican estrellas, La Opinion advertised Mexican musicians touring the U.S. Southwest with equal zeal and support. In the year 1950, for fifty cents a ticket, La Opinion encouraged audience members to attend affordable Mexican performances. The Trio Los Panchos was reviewed by the press as a popular traveling act from Mexico playing at the Los Angeles Teatro Mason where they were received with “open arms.”[36] La Opinion praised the group’s big personalities, saying that they knew “how to capture an audience right from the start. Their voices are sweet and expressive, the tone is emotional and their lyrics profound.”[37]  Discussing the group’s performance, La Opinion argued that the musicians’ appeal stemmed from their “masterful interpretation of a variety of Latin American music.” However, La Opinion liked the Trio Los Panchos best when “playing their own melodies and songs.” The incredible fan based generated by the Trio’s stemmed from the group’s struggles. Their songs reminded Mexican-descent fans of Mexican culture and traditions. “When they go home,” stated La Opinion, “Mexico inspires them to write and play new lyrics, and we benefit here when they play them in the United States.[38]

Part of their appeal resulted from their ability to play a variety of Spanish music that included the Argentinean tango, the Colombian cumbia, the pasodoble from Spain and samba from Brazil. The group earned labels such as “the ambassadors of romantic music,” masking the  group’s battle with depression, the isolation that came from leaving home and “the hell of drugs and alcohol,” that afflicted the musicians as a result of feeling rootless and at times dejected. [39] Throughout their sixty-year history the trio developed a unique style known as “the pachista style,” three voices, two guitars and a requinto, an instrument invented by one of the group’s members, Alfredo Gil. The Trio Los Panchos performed at local Los Angeles’ theaters, receiving accolades by La Opinion music reviewers. The group initially came together in New York in 1944, singing popular Mexican corridos and rancheras, yet later, the group gained international fame throughout Latin America and Spain with romantic boleros. At a time of Cold War discrimination against immigrants, The Trio came to the U.S. with dreams of conquering the country through their song. Their popularity with the Mexican community in the U.S. did not go unnoticed.  The U.S. military invited the group to help raise the spirits of soldiers serving in the war.  As a result, the group received contracts and invitations to perform in many venues, including combat zones where U.S. soldiers were stationed.

As Mexican Americans enlisted into the ranks of the U.S. military to demonstrate support of US defense goals, Mexican entertainers realized, too, that music could also be used to respond to the patriotic call of service. The U.S. had created a program to entertain and support injured soldiers in combat. In order to participate; however, La Opinion reported that Mexican performers had to become U.S. citizens and renounce their Mexican citizenship. In the case of El Trio, musician Hernando was already a citizen through his Puerto Rican heritage; however the remaining members temporarily embraced American citizenship in order to perform in military camps earning high praise from the press.[40]  Following the war, the musicians returned to Mexico to find that they could not work there due to their US status. In a show of allegiance to Mexico, they renounced their U.S citizenship and renationalized themselves as Mexicans.

Figure 4: El Trio Los Panchos

La Opinion celebrated the group as a truly Mexican band and announced shows, locations and the accessibility of entry fees.  Through advertisements that praised Mexican style, culture and community La Opinion helped the careers of Mexican entertainers on the other side of the border. The film industry in Mexico capitalized on El Trio’s popularity and signed them to appear in over thirty three movies.[41] Alternating between recordings, live shows and tours, El Trio performed in California during the 1950s decade for 14 weeks, making a reported twenty thousand dollars per week.[42] The group participated in an extensive tour that started in 1944 and lasted through 1951. Commenting on the tour, La Opinion referred to the group as “the most perfect musical trio in America.”[43] Their ability to play multiple Spanish style songs led their appeal to reach the east coast, capturing audiences in New York, especially Puertoricans and Dominicans. In 1948 the group relocated to Mexico, where they were received with open arms by Jorge Negrete, a beloved member of the Mexican acting dynasty.

Jorge Negrete received frequent praise on the pages of La Opinion. Like the case of El Trio, Mexican audiences in Los Angeles embraced Negrete’s love of Mexico, which he poured into his songs. Negrete’s music echoed the familiar sentiments of homesickness felt by working-class immigrants living in the U.S. Fiercely nationalistic, Negrete poured his love of Mexico into his songs: “Mexico will always be first and foremost….Mexico, dearly beloved, if I die far away from you let them say that I’m just sleeping and may they bring me back home to you.”[44] Adored in Mexico as in the U.S. southwest, Negrete embodied Mexican regionalism, traditional customs, inspiration and hope. “A profoundly loved man,” as his daughter described him, he helped to raise the reputation of Mexico’s cinematographic industry and “prevented the chaos within it.” Negrete would prove instrumental in the development of Mexico’s international film recognition. He contributed to the spreading of Mexico’s artistic industry within the international market, especially while leading as the president of the acting association in Mexico. Negrete would help El Trio singers expand their careers into film. In turn, the group remained thankful for Negrete’s support, especially when Negrete battled cirrhosis, which ultimately cost him his life.[45] When Negrete became gravely ill, the group visited him in the hospital, a touching meeting captured by La Opinion which quoted Negrete scolding El Trio for their bad habits: “You, gentlemen, who have abused alcohol, drugs and been bandits in this life look so healthy, and me I have been a sober man and this fatal illness falls upon me. Why?” He was described as a “corajudo” (quick tempered man) who took everything to heart.  When Negrete died in Houston in 1953, his remains were sent to Mexico, as Negrete had always wished. The popular actor died as he was preparing for a week long engagement at the Million Dollar. Reports of his death prompted an outpour of grief, as fans rushed to the theater and the Cedar-Sinai medical center hoping that news of his death had been nothing but malicious rumors. La Opinion reported on his illness, keeping an anxious community apprised of the decaying health of their beloved star.

On August 28, 1953, Mexican comedic superstar Mario Moreno Cantiflas, sent Jorge Negrete,  his “best regards and wishes for a speedy recovery.” “Strange,” stated La Opinion, “since Mario Moreno Cantinflas and Negrete were not speaking.”[46] While La Opinion’s entertainment section hailed the virtues of its beloved artistic Mexican talents, the paper also enjoyed reporting on animosities between the stars, highlighting disagreements between performers and uncovering secret romances and explosive outbursts on set.  The paper’s frequent commentary on Mexican entertainers’ moral character helped to propel popular actors into rising stardom. When entertainer Mario Moreno Cantinflas visited the dying Negrete at the hospital, La Opinion stated that Cantinflas’ visit had been “thoughtful, well received and kind.”

At the height of his popularity, La Opinion praised Jorge Negrete’s films and also published gossip on his whereabouts and his presumed romances. On August 28, 1953, La Opinion broke the undercover romance with Mexican diva, Maria Felix who was said to be promised to another. “Even though Maria Felix is engaged to Carlos Thompson, she and Negrete are living a happy romance which, our sources tell us, will lead them to the altar.”[47] In the gossip column, La Opinion asked, “Can you believe that Maria Felix, a woman with beauty, money and fame would settle for Jorge Negrete? She’s been picking him up every night after his film Tal Para Cual ( To Each Their Own, Rogelio A Gonzalez, 1953). She’s been driving a luxurious car and trying to hide so no one will know she’s in love with him.” While La Opinion had declared Maria Felix “out of Negrete’s league,” Felix married him, becoming his third wife and staying with him until his death. Heartbroken, Maria Felix oversaw an honorable burial for her husband in Mexico as had been his wish. She would reject a Mexican DC-3 airplane sent by the Mexican government to bring Negrete’s remain back to Mexico, deeming the aircraft  “unsuitable” to carry Negrete and to his legacy. [48]

La Opinion’s mixed reviews of Negrete, his life and his work echoed the star’s contentious reputation in Mexico where he was both loved and abhorred. In Mexico, Negrete had boldly taken on the film industry’s biggest battles regarding salary disputes emerging as the most vocal advocate of the film industry’s labor union. Negrete’s unwavering support of labor unions earned him both fans and enemies. As his daughter, Diana Negrete, recalls in the biography of her father, Negrete worked tirelessly for the creation of the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Produccion Cinematografica de la Republica Mexicana, a labor union that protected the rights of cinema employees in the republic of Mexico. Negrete longed to create a true brotherhood of Mexican and foreign actors across the world.[49] In 1951 La Opinion published a story retelling Negrete’s efforts to bring financial prosperity to all Mexican actors:

I am very committed to helping my fellow actors work within an environment of fairness, equity and justice. I am fighting their fight. The artistic field does not offer any support nor guarantee to actors and I do not think this is fair. I do not think that actors should be used as helpless lambs that labor themselves to the ground while others enrich their pockets at the actors’ expense.[50]

Negrete and Mexican popular comedian, Mario Moreno “Cantinflas stood out among La Opinion’s most talked about stars. Like the case of Negrete who through song and acts helped Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles recall nostalgic memories of home, Cantinflas would rise to stardom through his use of humor to elicit sympathy for the Mexican underdog. Mexican immigrants in the U.S. connected to Cantinflas’ portrayals of a Mexican working man struggling to survive. The comedian typically portrayed an outcast who accepted his socio-economic place in a harsh world while poking fun of the system that oppressed him. Through his use of double talk, jumbling together multiple conversations that typically undermined authority Cantinflas portrayed the shiftless migrant who triumphed through trickery over authorities in the United States.  In his book, Cantinflas and the Chaos of Mexican Modernity, Jeffrey M. Pilcher compared Cantinflas to Charlie Chaplin. As Pilcher put it, “Cantinflas represented the human debris of industrialization, rootless migrants to the big city who survived by their wits in a bewildering environment.”[51]  Mario Moreno Cantinflas, says Pilcher, became a symbol of Mexican national identity during Mexico’s transition from a traditional agrarian society to an industrial urban one.[52]

Through his popular performances advertised in La Opinion Cantinflas’ allowed Mexican working classes “a momentary release through laughter from the psychic demands and anxieties of masculine behavior.”[53] While his critics saw him as a symbol of the lowbrow Mexican working class, La Opinion celebrated him and promoted him enthusiastically throughout the 1950s. On March 23, 1954, he was listed as the actor earning the highest salary in Mexico. According to the Asociacion Nacional de Actores, Mario Moreno Cantinflas had earned an impressive one and a half million Mexican pesos between movies, theaters and tours in 1953 alone.[54] La Opinion helped to turn Cantinflas’ films into tremendous commercial successes in the U.S. Southwest. While intellectuals in Mexico critiqued his manner of speech, Cantinflas had a strong appeal with the masses and especially Mexican migrants and blue-collar workers. Prior to making it big, Cantinflas had experienced poverty in his childhood and occasionally gone hungry. His early struggles led the masses to embrace him.[55] Like Negrete who fought the fight of the lesser known actor, Cantinflas was concerned with the plight of the poor and used humor to critique and ridicule abusive leaders.

La Opinion helped Mexican comedians touring the U.S. to reach stardom.  Advertising performances with slogans such as “popular con precios populares,” (popular at affordable prices), Cantinflas’ artistic earnings were second by another popular entertainer German Valdes “Tin Tan,” who earned 200,000 Mexican pesos in 1952. However, despite advertising performances by Cantinflas and Tin Tan La Opinion frequently critiqued the stars on the same page. La Opinion movie experts referred to mass-appealing entertainers as low-brow comedians who tainted Mexico’s reputation as a reputable film house. The entertainment section of La Opinion captured the paper’s contradictions between profit advertisement for mass audience shows and La Opinion’s own stance on high brow and low brow Mexican film productions. During a critique of Tin Tan’s performance in Matenme Porque Me Muero (Kill Me Because I’m Dying) directed by Ismael Rodriguez, in 1951, an anonymous film reviewer stated that the film failed to entertain and would likely appeal to a very narrow margin.[56] The critic expressed his dislike for poor quality comedies and blamed the low brow comedic genre for giving Mexico a bad reputation in film-making.

Figure 5: Mexican popular comedian, Mario Moreno “Cantinflas”

“For those who do not care about refined themes and classical acting, then this film is a win. However, it is a true shame that Mexican comedies are limited to exploitative, grotesque sensualities or vulgarities that devalue the audience’s intellectual abilities and our morality. Film producers and participants who contribute to the making of Mexican films ought to know that the audience needs and wants more.”[57] The critic went on to argue that in the desire to make movies for popular appeal and the alluring quick profit motive, Mexican filmmakers “produce the worst form of propaganda against Mexico outside its republic.[58] However, not all film critics writing for La Opinion agreed with this judgment of Tin Tan or his comedic style. On January 9, 1952, Tin Tan’s El Ceniciento (Cinderell-o, directed by Gilberto Martinez Solares in 1952) was reviewed as “another triumph for Tin Tan who accomplished his primary goal as a performer: to make people laugh and laugh hard.” The critic praised Tin Tan stating that whether the characters he represented washed clothes or shined shoes, his performances focused on turning everyday situations into a comedy.[59]   Like the case of Cantinflas, Tin Tan had risen above cultural distinctions and “helped to unite audiences above languages because he mixed them in his speech. He rose above prejudice because he ignored it.”[60] His daughter described Tin Tan as a man who brought cultures together; who was able to “a matrimoniar a los Americans con los mexicanos” (to marry Americans with Mexicans).”[61]

Tin Tan developed a particular form of conduct, opting to ridicule himself to ease the antagonistic relationship between his mother, who was of humble Mexican background, and his grandmother, a woman of Italian descent who thought of herself of superior racial background. To cope with the racial and generational tensions at home, Tin Tan used humor as a defense mechanism, a reaction through which he was able to negate his reality and instead create another. His dedication to uplift discriminated workers through humor helped him to build a tremendous career as a Mexican comedic hero in the US southwest.  La Opinion routinely advertised Tin Tan’s performances through cartoonish images of the actor, portraying him with exaggerated big lips, a huge grin and baggy clothes.  He was considered one of the architects of Spanglish who popularized the image of the Pachuco, a Mexican American youth who belonged to neighborhood gangs. Tin Tan appeared in over one-hundred films and dubbed three of them for Walt Disney Studios.  La Opinion frequently referred to him as one of the most important Mexican entertainers of all time, and advertised his traveling act throughout Los Angeles’ venues.[62]

The Cine section of La Opinion helped readers connect and reflect upon a shared public culture. The actors and entertainers were widely known to the Mexican public who adored them. Mexican movies and actors were depicted as ambassadors of Mexican culture and represented in La Opinion as both popular and elite. Entertainers played a key role integrating the community through performances that recalled familiar Mexican problems. Promoted by La Opinion, Mexican stars journeyed to America were lucrative tours awaited them. And while La Opinion boosted attendance to films and shows, the paper’s film critics emerged as arbiters of taste attempting to sacrilize culture by establishing guidelines for the appropriate ways to read and analyze Mexican cinema. [63] Through advertisements and reviews La Opinion played a role in disciplining and training audiences. Thus, columnists contributed to the paper’s larger project of cultural uplift, “educating and refining a laborious people.”[64]

The community appreciated the accessibility of Mexican popular entertainment away from home. In a diverse nation, the criteria for Mexican culture’s aesthetic promoted Mexican cultural pride on the basis of separation and unwillingness to assimilate into Hollywood ways.  Movie critics and advice columnists were champions of Mexican culture promising both relief from disorder and an avenue to cultural legitimacy.  As audiences “escaped into culture” entertainment served as a mechanism that made it possible for Mexican audiences living and working in Los Angeles to retreat into their own private spaces and transform them through their own rules.[65] Attending the Teatros Mayan, Million Dollar and California allowed audiences to turn local spaces into enclaves of culture where audiences could indulge in their own cultural predilections and feel connected through performances that echoed familiar modes of behavior that were shared and commonly understood.  By promoting news, interviews, and gossip La Opinion helped Mexican performers traveling to the U.S. southwest to receive a cultural and sales boost. In the process, the paper hailed Mexicanness and encouraged the community to continue living and working in the U.S. without forgetting home.



La Opinion, (Los Angeles, California).

Los Angeles Times, (Los Angeles, California).


Alejandro, Julio. Un Divorcio. VHS. Directed by Emilio Gomez Muriel. Mexico, DF, Mexico: Argel Films, 1953.

Cortazar, Ernesto. Los Hijos de Maria Morales. VHS. Directed by Fernando de Fuentes, Mexico, DF, Mexico: Diana, S.A., 1952.

Cortazar, Ernesto. Tal Para Cual. VHS. Directed by Rogelio A Gonzalez. Mexico DF, Mexico: Mier Y Brooks Producciones,  1953.

De Urdimalas, Pedro. Matenme Porque Me Muero. VHS. Directed by Ismael Rodriguez, Mexico, DF, Mexico: Estudios Churubusco Azteca, SA., 1951.

Garcia, Juan. El Ceniciento. VHS. Directed by Gilberto Martinez Solares. Mexico DF, Mexico: Mier Y Brooks Producciones, 1952.

Gomez Landero, Humberto. El Hijo Desobediente. VHS. Directed by Humberto Gomez Landero. Mexico DF, Mexico: AS Films Producciones Grovas,  1945.

Wilson, Michael. Salt of the Earth. VHS. Directed by Herbert J. Biberman. Bayard New Mexico, USA: Independent Productions, 1954.


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Byars, Jackie. All that Hollywood Allows, Re-Reading Gender in the 1950s Melodrama. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Chacon, Ramon D.  “The Chicano Immigrant Press in Los Angeles: The Case of El Heraldo de Mexico, 1916-1920.” Journalism History 4:2 (1977): 48.

Chodorow, Nancy. Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

Correa, Armando. Legends en Español: The 100 Most Iconic Hispanic Entertainers of all Time. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2008.

Fernandez, Celina. Los Panchos. Madrid: Ediciones Martinez Roca, S.A., 2005.

Groves, Martha. “Restoration Planned for `Million Dollar Building Developer Buys Downtown Landmark.” Los Angeles Times (Pre-1997 Fulltext), Feb 10, 1989. http://search.proquest.com/docview/280596322?accountid=25347.

Gurza, Agustin. “Culture Mix: Million Dollar Dream; Robert Voskanian has Spent the Legendary Theaters Title Sum to Restore it as a Multicultural Venue.” Los Angeles Times, Apr 12, 2008. http://search.proquest.com/docview/422214580?accountid=25347.

Hershfield, Joanne .Mexican Cinema/Mexican Woman, 1940-1950. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 1996.

Johnson, Reed. “Culture Monster; The Global Stage; Many Faces of a Mysterious Land; Astrid Hadad Takes on the Highs and Lows of Mexico at the Million Dollar Theater,” Los Angeles Times, Oct 19, 2011. http://search.proquest.com/docview/898822916?accountid=25347

Keller, Gary D. Hispanics and United States Film: An Overview Handbook. Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Press, 1994.

Levine, Lawrence. Highbrow Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Lipsitz, George. Rainbow At Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Lorence, James J. The Suppression of Salt of the Earth. How Hollywood, Big Labor and, Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

Negrete, Diana. Jorge Negrete. Mexico, D.F: Editorial Diana, 1987.

Noriega, Chon. The Ethnic Eye. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Pilcher, Jeffrey M. Cantinflas And the Chaos of Mexican Modernity. Wilmington, DL: Scholarly Resources Inc. Wilmington, 2001.

Quintanilla, Michael. “Fashion Landmark / A World-Famous Store is Losing its Struggle to Survive.; Once Bustling, Now Bust; Victors, a Once-Popular Haberdashery, has Few Customers and is for Sale. the Downtown Buildings Widely Known Murals Tell of the Citys Rich Mexican Heritage. what Will Happen to them?” Los Angeles Times, Dec 25, 1998. http://search.proquest.com/docview/421355201?accountid=25347.

Rodriguez, Clara E. Latin Looks: Images of Latinas and Latinos in the U.S. Media. Boulder,CO: Westview Press, 1998

Rosenfelt, Deborah. Salt of the Earth. New York, NY: The Feminist Press, 1978.

Luis Rutiaga, Mario Moreno Cantinflas. D.F. México: Grupo Editorial Tomo, 2004.

Trevino, Joseph. “Million Dollar Theater Set to Reopen; Seeking New Life for the Former Showcase of Hollywood and Latino Stars, Managers Schedule Weekend Variety shows Catering to Hispanic Audiences,” Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1999. http://search.proquest.com/docview/421494147?accountid=25347 (accessed August 8, 2011).

Valdes Julian, Rosalia. La Historia Inedita de Tin Tan. D.F. México: Editorial Planeta Mexicana, 2003.

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[1] Ramon D. Chacon. “The Chicano Immigrant Press in Los Angeles: The Case of El Heraldo de Mexico, 1916-1920.” Journalism History 4:2 (1977): 48.

[2] Reed Johnson, “Culture Monster: The Global Stage; Many Faces of a Mysterious Land; Astrid Hadad Takes on the Highs and Lows of Mexico at the Million Dollar Theater,” Los Angeles Times, Oct 19, 2011. http://search.proquest.com/docview/898822916?accountid=25347 (accessed September 21, 2011).

[3] Gary D. Keller, Hispanics and United States Film: An Overview Handbook (Tempe: Bilingual Press, 1994), 9.

[4] La Opinion movie and entertainment section referred to the Mayan theater as El Maya. The historical landmark opened in 1927 in downtown Los Angeles. El Maya initially showcased musical comedies. By 1929, audiences attended the theater to watch Hollywood films. The popular theater transitioned into Spanish language films in the 1940s while continuing to host occasional stage shows. It was designed by Stiles O. Clements and Mexican artist and archeologist Francisco Cornejo was hired to sculpt the building’s Mexican, Mayan and Aztec motifs. The theater underwent renovations during the 1990s and now thrives as a nightclub.

[5] Joseph Trevino, “Million Dollar Theater Set to Reopen; Seeking New Life for the Former Showcase of Hollywood and Latino Stars, Managers Schedule Weekend Variety shows Catering to Hispanic Audiences,” Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1999. http://search.proquest.com/docview/421494147?accountid=25347 (accessed August 8, 2011).

[6] Joseph Trevino, Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1999.

[7] La Opinion, June 11, 1950.

[8] La Opinion, March 21, 1954.

[9] Joanne Hershfield, Mexican Cinema/Mexican Woman, 1940-1950 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006), 4.

[10] Hershfield, 4.

[11] Hollywood melodramas also critiqued women’s roles in the 1950s casting leading actresses as glamorous beauties caught in the conflict between careering and domesticity. See Dolores Tierney, “Silver Sling-Backs and Mexican Melodrama: Salon Mexico and Danzon,” Screen 38:4 Winter (1997): 361.

[12] Jackie Byars, All that Hollywood Allows, Re-Reading Gender in the 1950s Melodrama (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 93.

[13] Armando Correa, Legends en Español: The 100 Most Iconic Hispanic Entertainers of all Time (New York: Penguin Group, 2008), 114.

[14] Clara E. Rodriguez, Latin Looks: Images of Latinas and Latinos in the U.S. Media (Boulder: Westview Press, 1998), 131.

[15] Jackie Byars, All that Hollywood Allows, Re-Reading Gender in the 1950s Melodrama, (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 131.

[16] Byars, 54.

[17]  Nancy Chodorow, Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory (Polity Press: United Kingdom, 1989), 103.

[18] La Opinion, September 5, 1953.

[19] La Opinion, September 5, 1953.

[20] La Opinion, October 11, 1952.

[21] La Opinion, October 11, 1952.

[22] La Opinion, October 11, 1952.

[23] La Opinion, September 22, 1951.

[24] James J. Lorence, The Suppression of Salt of the Earth. How Hollywood, Big Labor and, Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999), 6.

[25] George Lipsitz, Rainbow At Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 293.

[26] Lorence, 9.

[27] Deborah Silverton Rosenfelt, Salt of the Earth (New York: The Feminist Press, 1978), 24.

[28] Rosenfelt, Salt of the Earth , 94.

[29] Rosenfelt, 94.

[30] La Opinion, October 18, 1952.

[31] Rosenfelt, 176.

[32] La Opinion, March 22, 1954.

[33] La Opinion, March 22, 1954.

[34] Rosenfelt, Salt of the Earth, 176.

[35] La Opinion, March 22, 1954.

[36] La Opinion, June 11, 1950.

[37] La Opinion, June 11, 1950.

[38] La Opinion, June 11, 1950.

[39] Celina Fernandez, Los Panchos (Madrid: Ediciones Martinez Roca, S.A., 2005), 35.

[40] Fernandez, Los Panchos, 34.

[41] Fernandez, Los Panchos, 43.

[42] La Opinion, November 17, 1950.

[43] La Opinion, November 17, 1950.

[44] Correa, Armando, Legends en Espanol: The 100 Most Iconic Hispanic Entertainers of all Time  (Penguin Group: New York, 2008), 146.

[45] La Opinion, August 22, 1953.

[46] La Opinion, August 28, 1953.

[47] La Opinion, August 28, 1953.

[48] La Opinion, August 28, 1953.

[49] Diana Negrete, Jorge Negrete (Mexico, D.F: Editorial Diana, 1987), 12.

[50] La Opinion, October 22, 1951.

[51] Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Cantinflas And the Chaos of Mexican Modernity (Delaware: Scholarly Resources Inc: Wilmington, 2001), xv.

[52] Pilcher,Cantinflas And the Chaos of Mexican Modernity, xvii.

[53] Pilcher, xviii.

[54] La Opinion, March 28, 1954.

[55] Luis Rutiaga, Mario Moreno Cantinflas (Mexico, D.F.: Grupo Editorial Tomo, 2004), 2.

[56] La Opinion, January 9, 1952.

[57] La Opinion, January 9, 1952.

[58] La Opinion, January 9, 1952.

[59] La Opinion, January 9, 1952.

[60] Rosalia Valdes Julian, La Historia Inedita de Tin Tan (Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Planeta Mexicana, 2003),12.

[61] Ibid, 12.

[62] Correa, Legends en Español, 88.

[63] For theories on the sacralization of culture, see Lawrence Levine, Highbrow Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 88.

[64] Levine, 201.

[65] Levine, Highbrow Lowbrow, 177.



Soledad Vidal is the author of “Politics, Community And Pleasure: The Making Of Mexican-American Cold War Narratives In The Pages Of La Opinion.” The dissertation is organized around the discourse of the American dream; specifically, how the desire for consumption, liberal citizenship and labor in post World War II America produced specific accounts of migration in the pages of La Opinion. Her research interests lie in print culture and immigrant histories. She currently works at Soka University of America as a Writing Center Manager and Visiting Assistant Professor in Rhetoric and Composition.


Blockbusters for the YouTube Generation: A new product of convergence culture – Kristy Hess and Lisa Waller

Abstract: While scholars have paid much attention to YouTube in a Web 2.0 environment, the YouTube blockbuster is yet to be discussed as part of this convergence culture. It differs from transmedia storytelling in that no single company owns or controls the characters or concepts. Once users have elevated videos with rich narrative qualities to the heights of fame within YouTube and other virtual social networks, they are taken from the YouTube archive by global commercial media and given new exchange values in traditional media forms such as books, films, television shows and ancillary products, using fragmented classical narrative techniques to do so. This paper traces the history of the blockbuster as a way of large commercial media adapting to social and technological change after World War II, to its refinements in the 1970s to cater for younger audiences and changes in the media landscape, to its most recent incarnation in YouTube. We argue that the economic and cultural values of the blockbuster are being transformed and refigured by the new form it has begun to take within convergence culture.


Susan Boyle is a dowdy, middle-aged Scottish singer with bushy eyebrows and frizzy dark hair. She was the “fairytale for the YouTube generation” (Wooley, 2010) in 2009 and now has one of the world’s fastest selling debut albums of all time. The story began when Boyle surprised audiences with her faultless rendition of Les Miserables’ “I dreamed a dream” on the hit reality television show Britain’s Got Talent. The Washington Post later reported that the judges and audience were “waiting for her to squawk like a duck” (McManus, 2009). Within hours of her performance, a snippet of footage was uploaded to YouTube by a computer user and shared among millions of people throughout the world. Another piece of footage, uploaded by the producers of the television show, has received almost 100 million hits. Boyle is now one of the world’s most recognizable faces, with guest television appearances, stories in newspapers and magazines, books and record deals. Ironically, the 48-year-old songstress had never heard of YouTube before her performance. She told one interviewer: “I hadn’t even seen a computer…Google what’s that? Is that some kind of gargle?” (Wooley, 2010).

This paper argues the Susan Boyle phenomenon is an example of an emerging media form – the YouTube blockbuster. Just like its cinematic forerunner, this is an example of large commercial media adapting to social and technological change. The two forms retain much in common and we will highlight the work of Marco Cucco (2009) to outline these similarities. Importantly, however, we aim to show how the two models differ within a convergence culture.  The traditional blockbuster model developed by Hollywood in the 1960s and `70s depends upon corporate media investing significant economic capital to produce and market a product with an expectation it will appeal to mass audiences and generate huge profits. Its production has always been controlled by single media conglomerates which make the final decisions on plot and character development as well as licensing agreements for ancillary products. Elana Shafrin (2004) argues that in recent times cinematic blockbusters have been “infused with new modes of authorship, production, marketing and consumption” (Shafrin, 2004, p.261). She uses case studies of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and George Lucas’ Star Wars franchises to discuss how a growing number of “active” or “participatory” fans (Jenkins, 1992) exhibit a sense of ownership that includes an investment in the creative development of these productions. Shafrin shows how internet clubs and websites have provided venues for fans to establish connections to Jackson and Spielberg and their evolving franchises through social gossip, artistic production and political activism.

The YouTube blockbuster is different because its character and plot development is not determined by a single media conglomerate, nor are the licensing agreements for its associated merchandise. It begins with huge interest within participatory media culture before the corporate media make any significant investment and it is dependent on both “bottom up” participatory culture as well as “top down” corporate media (Jenkins, 2006, p.242) to drive its production. Media scholars including Tiziana Terranova (2000), Andrew Ross (2009), Robert Gehl (2009) Banks & Humphreys (2008) and Banks & Deuze (2009) offer different perspectives in the debates surrounding co-creative labor and free labor, who controls content and information flows, who benefits and who profits. There is not space to work through these arguments here. YouTube does, however, provide an example of these complex, yet interdependent co-creative relationships as it thrives on its ability to function as both a business and cultural resource. YouTube has its own brand channel, provides transparent advertising platforms and offers advertising placements in frames on the site, but with its catchcry “Broadcast Yourself”™, it also provides a global stage for creative expression and is celebrated for its participatory culture. It allows everyone with an internet browser to produce, share, find and watch videos stored in its vast digital archive. It is the free, participatory culture of YouTube that is so attractive to “top down” corporate media. It offers a symbiosis with new media, as well as opportunities to build on YouTube success with a range of narratives and products. The YouTube blockbuster is unique within convergence culture as it has progressed from transmedia storytelling, the term used by Henry Jenkins (2006) to describe the ways in which the movie blockbuster production process changes when multimedia platforms are used to tell and sell a story. This paper also argues that a common feature of both old and new blockbusters is the use of narrative, even though it may be constructed in different ways. While classical Hollywood theorists claim narrative has been lost in the industrialisation of film culture, we will argue it is what helps bind new and old media in the production of the YouTube blockbuster.

Blockbuster production: A brief history

The term “blockbuster” is a synonym for something big and is commonly used to describe any cultural product that is a hugely popular commercial success, from art exhibitions to novels. However, it is most closely associated with film where the term was originally coined to describe a big budget production with mass popular appeal.

Cucco (2009) traces the blockbuster’s evolution in Hollywood to the 1940s and ‘50s when the industry was in a state of a crisis brought about by the large-scale, post-war demographic shift towards the new suburbs where there were very few cinemas. The baby boom reduced cinematographic consumption, and the birth of new media competition, especially television (Cucco, 2009, p 217), left movie houses struggling to attract audiences.

In the Studio Era of the 1950s and ‘60s Hollywood enjoyed some successes with films including Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia and The Sound of Music, but it was in the 1970s that it appeared to have found a concrete solution to its crisis with the release of films such as The GodFather (1972), Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1976). These were big budget films that recorded phenomenal takings at the box office – Jaws alone grossed $470.6 million in its initial release worldwide and cost $7 million to produce (Box Office Mojo, 2010). No three films had ever made so much money more quickly (Bordwell, 2006). They heralded the birth of the Hollywood blockbuster and provided a successful business model for media conglomerates to create big and expensive productions that could appeal to mass audiences and generate massive profits. According to film historian Thomas Schatz (2002), the emergence of the blockbuster signified what the New Hollywood was all about, that is “the studio’s eventual coming-to-terms with an increasingly fragmented entertainment industry – with its demographics and target audiences, its diversified multimedia conglomerates, its global markets and new delivery systems” (2002, p. 185). The rise of the blockbuster was met with strong criticism that such films signified the death of classical narrative and that Hollywood was relying on spectacle and special effects alone to tell and sell a story. Filmmaker Jean Douchet claimed post-classical cinema had given up on narrative and the image was “designed to violently impress by constantly inflating their spectacular qualities” (Buckland, 1999, p 178).  Schatz says film became:  “…so fast-paced and resolutely plot driven that character depth and development are scarcely on the narrative agenda and this emphasis on plot over character marks a significant departure from classical Hollywood” (Schatz, 2002, p. 194). Justin Wyatt (1994, p. 18) argues the cinematic blockbuster can be summarised on one sentence or image, usually called a logline, to make it easier to market. He gives examples from the 1980s including Flashdance (1983) and American Gigolo (1980), which were designed around the public’s taste and market research, and required a simplification of narrative in favor of the image as major appeal.

Most recently, Cucco (2009) has outlined three distinctive features of the cinematic blockbuster which we argue apply to the YouTube blockbuster as well. They include a high economic investment using both technology and human resources; a promise of a “spectacular” or something that is “must see”; and an ability to supplement the earnings from its audiovisual receipts with receipts from merchandising (Cucco, 2009, pp. 219-222). We will consider how each of these features applies to the YouTube blockbuster in this paper, beginning with the third feature – merchandising potential. This is best understood by considering how the blockbuster and ancillary products first came to co-exist.  Instead of competing with television, the blockbuster of the 1970s embraced it as a tool for massive advertising. The release of Jaws, for example, was preceded by a large-scale television promotional campaign to entice audiences. Gomery (1998) says the huge success of Jaws proved saturation advertising was the strategy that would redefine Hollywood (Gomery, 1998, p. 51). The print campaign featured a poster depicting a huge shark rising from the water towards an unsuspecting swimmer, while the radio and television ads exploited the well-known Jaws theme music (Schatz, 2002, p. 191). Bordwell (2006) argues that by the early 1980s, merchandising was added to extend the lifespan of the story beyond the cinema, so tie-ins with fast-food chains, automobile companies and lines of toys and apparel could keep selling the movie.

Scripts that lent themselves to mass marketing had a better chance of being acquired and screenwriters were encouraged to incorporate special effects. Unlike studio era productions, the megapicture could lead a robust afterlife on a soundtrack album, on cable channels and on video cassette. (Bordwell 2006, p.3)

The blockbuster strategy flourished within a new media environment where conglomerates controlled how and when a story could be produced and promoted across a range of mediums from television to the internet. Jenkins (2006) calls this “transmedia storytelling”. He uses the example of the 1999 Hollywood blockbuster The Matrix, which gives audiences pieces of the story and narrative through films, books and video games. Jenkins argues that within this idea:

Each medium does what it does best so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels and comics and its world might be explored and experienced through game play…such a multilayered approach to storytelling will enable a more complex, more sophisticated, more rewarding mode of narrative to emerge within the constraints of commercial entertainment (Jenkins, 2006, p. 105).

Although the story is told across mediums, Jenkins argues that transmedia storytelling still depends on a central media company selling the rights to unaffiliated third parties to manufacture products while licensing limits what can be done with the characters or concepts to protect the original property. The production of most ancillary media is achieved by a combination of labor but ultimately the licensor has “the power”, for example the production of “tie-in novels” (Clarke 2009) depends on freelance and supervisory labor but the licensor has ultimate control over timeframes, characters and narratives. This marks the most fundamental difference in the evolution of the YouTube blockbuster because no single company owns or controls the characters or concepts.

 Beyond transmedia storytelling

Cucco (2009) outlines the use of high economic investment using both technology and human resources as a feature of the blockbuster. To understand how this relates to the YouTube blockbuster, we must acknowledge the identities and forms of agency that underpin the success of products of convergence culture such as YouTube. While there is not space here to look closely at this debate, scholars have tended to focus their discussions on the political economy of media production or classical development versus dependency theories (Jenkins, 2006; Banks & Deuze, 2009; Gehl, 2009). There was always a clear division between the role of the producer and consumer in the traditional market-driven cinema model, but that division has blurred since the “people formerly known as the audience” began creating content, uploading photos and videos and sharing information online. Croteau (2006) suggests “mega media products, along with other forms of traditional media, will increasingly be competing for attention with a constantly changing population of literally millions of media producers” (Croteau, 2006, p. 343). The YouTube blockbuster highlights this interdependency. As van Dijck (2009) observes; “YouTube’s role as an internet trader in the options market for fame is unthinkable without a merger between old and new media” (van Dijck, 2009, p. 53).

The production of the YouTube blockbuster depends on a variety of human resources, motives and objectives. They include those responsible for hosting YouTube, the people who upload content online and those who view and pass on links to popular footage via email, blogs, websites, telephone and word of mouth. Global commercial media are also involved, and their role includes extending the life of YouTube footage beyond the online archive by creating new plot developments and ancillary products of their own.

In her research to assess the future of Web 2.0  social networking sites, Kylie Jarrett (2008, p. 132) highlights that it is the appeal of, and control provided by community structures rather than corporate intervention which is fundamental to the success of sites such as YouTube.  Burgess and Green (2009) describe a continnum of cultural participation in YouTube where:

…content is circulated and used without much regard to its source, it is valued and engaged with in specific ways according to its genre and its uses within the website as well as its relevance to the everyday lives of other users, rather than according to whether or not it was uploaded by a Hollywood studio, a web TV company or an amateur video blogger (Burgess & Green, 2009, p. 57).

YouTube is owned by Google, yet Google does not charge licensing fees to those who wish to upload content or enforce subscription fees on anyone who wishes to view material on the site. This allows for large-scale site traffic, providing people have internet access and can invest in the necessary equipment for video editing and uploading. It is YouTube’s role as a cultural resource that underpins the success of the YouTube blockbuster. The relatively free, participatory nature of YouTube is what attracts the interest of global media companies seeking to create their own exchange values from popular content. Often the original creator of material is not acknowledged in the archive and if copyright restrictions are unclear, anyone can take advantage of this ambiguity and control the way the content is developed outside of the archive.

This shows that the YouTube blockbuster has moved beyond Jenkins’ (2006) transmedia storytelling, which depends on a central media company driving production. It does, however, reinforce Cucco’s idea that the success of the blockbuster depends on its ability to generate merchandizing and ancillary products. Without this ability, there would be no large-scale investment in popular YouTube footage from global media.  This investment can range from deploying resources such as journalists to report on the phenomena for commercial media, to book deals, movie rights or merchandizing.

The ‘Singing Spinster’ spectacle

Boyle’s appearance on Britain’s Got Talent was first recorded and uploaded by computer users. There was no initial large-scale investment apart from the costs associated with the production of the reality talent show, but this hardly compares with the massive budgets afforded to create Hollywood blockbusters. The YouTube users who uploaded footage had made some minor investment with basic computer equipment and internet access to upload content onto what is considered a cultural resource. But there were no special effects or spectacle deployed on YouTube, in fact the footage of Boyle is grainy and poor quality and lasts for less than four minutes. Once footage was uploaded, news within the YouTube community spread like a virus. Boyle became a spectacle through viral videos, word of mouth and email. The first international news reports came after the YouTube footage had received millions of hits. Newspapers across the world were reporting less than 24 hours after her television appearance of her global success on YouTube with international headlines such as “Scottish spinster a world media sensation” (no author (a), 2009, p. 16) and “Unlikely singer is YouTube sensation” (Lyall, 2009, p. 1).

Large-scale economic investment in the Boyle phenomena was made after the footage was a massive hit in YouTube and corporate media saw value in its production outside of the archive. In the case of traditional media, it provided a chance to “gobble up its most promising prospects” for its own financial gain (Croteau, 2006). Until now corporate media has always had to take a gamble that their large-scale investment in blockbusters will pay off with audiences. They have had to rely on previously successful formulas and market research (Wyatt, 1994). In the case of YouTube phenomena, television stations and talk shows such as Oprah, newspapers across the globe from the Washington Post to The Australian, magazines and book publishers all sought a slice of Boyle only after the footage had been endorsed in YouTube on a grand scale. There were media reports in May 2009 that Catherine Zeta-Jones had asked about the film rights to the singer’s life story and that Oscar-winning film director James Cameron wanted to direct the film (no author (b), 2009, p. 54) Fremantle Media, the producer of Britain’s Got Talent which discovered Boyle, found even it was scrambling to maximise potential from the phenomena and it was only after millions of hits had been received that it negotiated to set up a YouTube channel and sell advertising around official Boyle clips.  The Sunday Times of London reported in April 2009 that more than £1 million in potential advertising income had been lost because no deal was in place before Boyle’s ‘I dreamed a dream’ was viewed more than 75 million times.

No single media conglomerate could control the way the Boyle footage was used outside of YouTube. Whereas J.K. Rowling can control the licensing agreements that govern how her creation Harry Potter is portrayed in merchandizing products, sequels and plot development, both internet users and global media can take the story surrounding a piece of YouTube footage in almost any direction they choose.

YouTube says in its corporate website that every minute a mind boggling 13 hours of video is uploaded and attracts millions of users and viewers. To understand why Boyle has become a YouTube blockbuster we must identify the qualities that make her ‘I dreamed a dream’ stand out from the millions of other video clips in the YouTube archive. The Boyle footage has attracted 300 million hits worldwide and its rich inter-textual narrative appears to differentiate it from other highly popular videos such as “Where the Hell is Matt”, which is not well known to traditional media audiences but has attracted more than 25 million hits and appeared on YouTube’s list of most popular clips. We argue that strong narrative qualities can elevate certain YouTube footage to blockbuster status. International audiences can identify with the story and the corporate media can use the narrative to extend the footage’s appeal beyond the YouTube archive.

Cucco emphasises that a common feature of the blockbuster is the need for a spectacle or something that is “must see”. The spectacle of the YouTube blockbuster is not the footage itself, but the hype created around the footage. We argue this is achieved through narrative techniques, which critics say has crumbled under the industrial weight of the blockbuster.

There are several noteworthy scholars who argue that contemporary Hollywood blockbusters still have narrative structure intact, regardless of quality. Kristin Thompson (1993) examined dozens of post 1960s films such as Jaws, Alien (1979) and GroundHog Day and found dense plot developments, rather than incoherent and fragmented ones. Schauer (2007) further argues that transmedia storytelling has the potential to improve upon the standard film narrative rather than fragment it to the point where it becomes obsolete. He argues that his study of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones was an important example of transmedia storytelling as ancillary products were part of director George Lucas’s marketing strategy from the beginning, but that the film still displayed strong connections to narrative.

The use of classical narratives within the global media has also been noted by scholars, particularly within the field of media and journalism. Traditional narrative themes are often used in news stories where journalists portray the hero, the villain, the damsel in distress. Bell (1991) calls journalists the professional storytellers of our age: “The fairy story starts: ‘Once upon a time’. The news story begins: ‘Fifteen people were injured today when a bus plunged’.” Stories define actors moving through sequences of events filled with victims, villains and heroes (Woodward, 1997). Propp (1975) is well known in media studies for identifying recurrent patterns, set characters and plot actions in all fairytales. The main characters include villain, donor, the helper, the princess, the dispatcher, the hero and the false hero.  More recently, Booker (2004) has outlined seven basic plots that are structural transformations of ancient tales: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, rebirth, comedy and tragedy. Carroll (2001) identifies and explores key stories or archetypes at the source of Western culture from the virtuous whore; the troubled hero; salvation by a god; soul-mate love; the mother; the value of work; fate; the origin of evil; and self-sacrifice.

In their research on news reporters’ use of YouTube, Hess and Waller (2009) argue that journalists create disjointed and hybrid narratives to extend the appeal of YouTube footage for their audiences. The way the news media use classical narrative and archetypes to create new exchange values from YouTube deserves attention, especially if we consider narratives in the media as simply a way of selling something (Fulton, 2005).

This paper aims to highlight that a strong connection to classical narrative is emerging as a key feature of the YouTube blockbuster. The story of Susan Boyle bears strong resemblance to those themes identified by Booker such as rags to riches and the classic folk tales Cinderella and Hans Christian Anderson’s The Ugly Duckling. The global media identified these themes and many stories retain some of the narrative structure of these tales with headlines such as “A life lesson on looks turns into the fairy-tale ending” from the Chicago Tribune and The Sunday Times in Singapore headline “Beauty in ‘Ugly Ducking’ Susan Boyle”. This extract from the British Daily Mirror also highlights the way the news media developed a storybook theme:

…The only man (Brian) to have kissed singing sensation Susan Boyle claimed yesterday it would be a privilege for any lucky guy. The Britain’s Got Talent wonder –nicknamed the Hairy Angel – now has millions of fans worldwide but revealed she has never found a man to love or kiss. “I never knew her to have a birthday party because she was busy caring for her mother,” Brian said. Brian also told how Susan, born with learning difficulties, was targeted by louts. He said: “They would call her names, throw snowballs at her door and dare each other to knock and run away”. (Daily Mirror, 2009).

British journalist Nicci Gerrard wrote a comment piece shortly after Susan Boyle was reportedly admitted to a celebrity rehab clinic after suffering an emotional breakdown in June 2009 (Cooper, 2009). In her article, “The Susan Boyle fairytale was just a fairytale” she writes:

Even this small human tragedy can be easily turned by those so adept in the manipulation of individual stories to fit the required narrative. In fact, it makes it even more gripping. You can be pretty sure that soon, brave Susan will be back — just in time for her album and autobiography (released before Christmas) … it’s actually nowhere near enough to have talent; you have to have a story. You have to be on a journey. You have to have suffered (makes you heroic) and you have to be redeemed (gives you that essential happy ending). You have to be able to cry and make others cry.


Only rare YouTube moments are imbued with qualities that not only attract millions of viewers, but have the potential as bankable products for media conglomerates that can ultimately propel them to blockbuster status.  This paper has focused on Susan Boyle, but there are other examples of this new form of blockbuster, such as “Christian the Lion”, which possesses the same kind of rich, universal narrative qualities as the Boyle story. This YouTube blockbuster captures a tale of remarkable love between beast and man in just a couple of minutes of low-quality, grainy 1970s footage in which the lion embraces its former owner. It has spawned best-selling books for children and adults, documentaries and massive international news media coverage and commentary.

The global reach of popular YouTube footage is unprecedented and YouTube phenomena such as the Susan Boyle footage can attract as much, if not more attention from fans and audiences than some of Hollywood’s most famous actors. Martin Conboy (2002) says the popular press survives on its ability to maintain a dialogue with contemporary cultural trends. So it comes as no surprise that YouTube, a new form of popular culture, attracts interest from global commercial media.

The YouTube blockbuster shares some of the features of its cinematic forerunner – most importantly, it has the “must see” quality that Cucco describes. It also attracts massive global audiences, offering opportunities to reap big profits from merchandizing and spin-off media products. But the nature of the hype that traditionally surrounded the blockbuster has been transformed and democratised by new media communities and technology. It is no longer a case of marketeers rolling out slick promotional campaigns designed around public taste and market research to build expectations for months before a blockbuster is released. The circulation of viral emails and links from social network sites alert increasingly large networks of people to the existence of “must see” YouTube footage and they are able to access it instantly. In the process, both the economic and cultural values of the blockbuster are being redefined. It was once under complete corporate control, big budgets and big profits were its hallmarks and slick production, spectacle and special effects were the drawcard. The YouTube blockbuster is first and foremost under YouTube user control, it’s relatively cheap to produce, the nature of the “spectacle” has changed and production values are relatively unimportant. Narrative is in the ascendancy.

The global commercial media is still coming to terms with the latest transformations of the media landscape in which corporate control is slipping. As in the post-war period and again in the 1970s, creative industries must find new ways to profit. The Susan Boyle blockbuster is an important example of the media redefining itself by finding ways to meet the challenges posed by the new cultural forms, delivery systems and diversification Web 2.0 presents. YouTube users make large investments of human capital and small investments in technology at the front end of the YouTube blockbuster, but media spectacle and big profits are still possible for the global commercial media when it takes the guaranteed popularity of a YouTube clip and can spin it into traditional media products such as news, documentaries, books, films and audio recordings.

But the YouTube blockbuster is a fragile entity and models of storytelling in convergence culture are evolving as rapidly as the technology itself. YouTube is both a business and a cultural resource co-created by its users and the larger in scale and demographic reach, “the more that is at stake and the more significant the tensions between labour, play, democracy and profiteering become” (Burgess & Green, 2009, pp. 35-36) Already there have been disputes over claims of copyright infringement with Viacom, and most recently Warner Bros’ battle over music video clips. It is YouTube’s role as a cultural resource that underpins the success of the blockbuster. If corporate interests intervene, for example, through the introduction of subscription fees, then the community framework which supports the blockbuster will surely weaken.

The blockbuster phenomenon highlights the synergies between new and old media in a convergence culture. No one can predict what the next blockbuster will be, nor can they orchestrate it, but what is certain is that unlikely stars will continue to be rocketed into this new media stratosphere such as the “Hairy Angel” Susan Boyle.


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Gerrard, N. (2009). The Susan Boyle fairytale was just a fairytale. The Age, June 3. Retrieved September 7, 2009, from http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/the-susan-boyle-fairytale-was-just-a-fairytale-20090602-bua5.html

Gomery, D. (1998) Hollywood corporate business practice and periodizing contemporary film history. In S. Neale & M. Smith (eds) Contemporary Hollywood Cinema, New York: Routledge, 47-57.

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Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: University Press.

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Kristy Hess is a Lecturer in Journalism in the School of Communication & Creative Arts at Deakin University. Her current research projects focus on social justice and the regional media; social capital and the media (PhD); parent/student learning partnerships to improve literacy; and developing national curriculum resources as part of the Reporting Diversity project. She has published articles in Asia Pacific Media Educator, Australian Journalism Review, and Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal. Email: kristy.hess@deakin.edu.au

Lisa Waller is a part-time journalism lecturer and a full-time Phd student in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University. As a recent graduate of Deakin’s Graduate Certificate of Higher Education and now a member of the GCHE advisory board, she is interested in the education of tertiary educators. She is also interested in curriculum and pedagogy in higher education, especially curriculum renewal and the scholarship of teaching in higher education. She has published articles in Asia Pacific Media Educator, Australian Journalism Review, and Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal.

“A series of emotional remembrances”: Echoes of Bernard Herrmann – Daniel Golding

1965 was not a good year for Bernard Herrmann. In his personal life, after fifteen years, his marriage to Lucy Anderson had ended in divorce. In his professional life, his career as a film composer was stagnating. Despite a decade of collaboration with director Alfred Hitchcock during the peak of his commercial success, including Psycho (1960), Vertigo (1958) and North By Northwest (1959), new composing assignments were running dry. Lionel Newman, the new head of music at Fox, told Herrmann that their producers didn’t want him – they were “running with the new kids.” (Smith 1991, 275) Herrmann and his style of composing were no longer popular in Hollywood, and Herrmann knew that Hitchcock was under pressure from his studio bosses to find another composer (Smith 1991, 268). They were to have only one further collaboration: the aborted score to Torn Curtain (1966), a definitive and bitter end to their creative and personal relationship. Hitchcock fired Herrmann during the first day of recording and they never worked together again.

While Herrmann seems to have looked towards Torn Curtain with what in retrospect seems a somewhat naïve optimism (“I feel certain it will be one of Hitch’s greatest films. I just know it will be so”, wrote Herrmann (Smith 1991, 270)), 1965 saw him enter into one of the darkest depressions of his life. Creatively, the result was the string quartet Echoes, one of Herrmann’s last concert-hall compositions. A note on the title of the work as printed on the full score is revealing: “The term ‘Echoes’ is meant to imply a series of nostalgic emotional remembrances” (Herrmann 1966).

Echoes is strongly reminiscent of Herrmann’s work with Hitchcock, and is probably intentionally so. As Smith notes, “While many of its memories remain private, others can be guessed by allusions to past works … the plucked signature of its opening is Psycho’s violent prelude, the crying violin harmonics of its coda, Vertigo’s lost Madeleine” (Smith 1991, 264-265). Was Herrmann attempting to eulogise his career? At this stage, Herrmann’s deepest wound stemmed from his divorce – the acrimonious conclusion to his Hitchcock collaboration was yet to come. Nonetheless, these “nostalgic remembrances”, while almost certainly referring to Herrmann’s personal life, equally apply to his body of work as a composer. In many ways, it was the echo that defined Herrmann’s work as Hitchcock’s composer – from the echo-like structure of his individual scores to the musical parallels and juxtapositions across his entire oeuvre for Hitchcock. In legacy, as well as in close analysis, Herrmann’s music for Hitchcock could not be better described than “a series of emotional remembrances.”

Nonetheless, repetition has often been cited in order to disparage and criticise the art of film music: perhaps most notably by Theodor Adorno, who in 1947 condemned film scores as “autonomous music [subject to] standardization within the industry” (Adorno and Eisler 1947, 3). According to Adorno, “no serious composer writes for the motion pictures for any other than money reasons,” (1947, 54) and “by the use of standard configurations, [film music] interprets the meaning of the action for the less intelligent members of the audience” (1947, 60). However, the scores of Herrmann challenge this argument: it is precisely because of repetition that his work for Hitchcock is meaningful and effective. In order to argue this, I will examine Herrmann’s use of repetition within three different planes: repetition within specific cues or motifs; repetition of these specific cues or motifs within an entire score; and repetition within his entire Hitchcock oeuvre. In these three instances, Herrmann’s scores counter the simplistic criticism of repetition (along with others of plagiarism which I shall discuss later) within film music and illustrate how the technique may be utilised to further meaning within, and beyond the film. It also draws attention to the auteur-like power that can be afforded to a film’s composer as well as (as is more usual) to the director, and therefore implicitly challenges the traditional status of Hitchcock as sole auteur of his films.

The auteur

Before I begin on Herrmann’s style and the analysis of his modes of repetition, a note on the Herrmann-Hitchcock relationship. Throughout his career, Hitchcock was acutely aware of the effect of music in his films, and would often create extensive annotations to a film’s script to send, as instructions, to his composer. According to Sullivan, “Hitchcock employed more musical styles and techniques than any director in history … one cannot fully understand Hitchcock’s movies without facing his music” (Sullivan 2006, xiii). Previous to Herrmann, Hitchcock had had numerous successes with film music, and his list of composers reads like the highlights of 20th Century film composition, including Franz Waxman, Miklos Rosza, Alfred Newman, Dimitri Tiomkin, Ron Goodwin, Maurice Jarre and John Williams. Hitchcock did not, however, always get what he wanted from his composers. This was most clearly illustrated in Herrmann’s scoring – against Hitchcock’s instructions – of the infamous shower scene in Psycho. “Improper suggestion, my boy, improper suggestion,” was Hitchcock’s clarification to Herrmann upon being reminded that he initially request there be no music in the now iconic sequence (Smith 1991, 240). These divergences did not always work out so amicably, however. Asked many years after the Torn Curtain split whether he would work with Herrmann again, Hitchcock is said to have replied: “Yes, if he’ll do as he’s told.” (Smith 1991, 274) This was far from an isolated incident with Hitchcock’s composers. Towards the end of their period of collaboration, Hitchcock sent a terse cable to Herrmann:

So often have I been asked, for example by [Dimitri] Tiomkin, to come and listen to a score and when I express my disapproval his hands were thrown up and with the cry of “But you can’t change anything now, it has all been orchestrated.” It is this kind of frustration that I am rather tired of. (Smith 1991, 269)

Yet despite Hitchcock’s later complaints, the autonomy of his composers was often on his own instigation. “As far as I’m concerned he does as he likes,” Hitchcock said in a joint interview with Herrmann in 1964 (Telescope, 1964).[1] Clearly, despite Hitchcock’s suggestions and guidelines, Herrmann routinely made his own decisions, as Jack Sullivan illustrates (Sullivan 2006).[2] Indeed, Hitchcock appreciated the skills of his composer and often allowed Herrmann long stretches of film without dialogue to compose for. Regarding the recreation sequence of Vertigo (1958) (“Scene d’Amour”[3]), Hitchcock told his composer, “We’ll just have you and the camera” (Sullivan 2006, 167). Indeed, the climax of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) could be viewed as Hitchcock’s testament to the power of music in film, as it is the diegetic music itself – Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Clouds cantata, written for Hitchcock’s original The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and in this case arranged by Herrmann – that anticipates and to some extent generates the narrative climax (a gunshot) for the audience. The on-stage conductor, of course, is Herrmann, in a Hitchcock-style cameo, musically creating another murder for Hitchcock. Even though this sequence is found merely in their second collaboration, the cameo – an indulgence afforded to no other Hitchcock composer – is indicative of Herrmann’s strong role in their projects.

Uncharacteristically, Hitchcock went as far as to acknowledge that “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.” (Smith 1991, 241). Hitchcock was usually reticent about crediting his collaborators with his successes, but according to Joseph Stephano, the screenwriter for Psycho, “Hitchcock gave [Herrmann] more credit than anyone else he ever spoke of.” (Smith 1991, 241)

Herrmann’s style

By their first collaboration, Herrmann was already a noted composer, and had written a number of celebrated scores such as Citizen Kane (1941), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941, for which he won his only Oscar), and The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). On a basic level, Herrmann’s approach to musical scoring differed greatly from those of his contemporaries. The first few decades of film scoring had seen composers like Erich Korngold and Max Steiner become the leaders within the film music industry, bringing with them a marked Viennese influence (with lavish and elaborate scores like Korngold’s 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood and Steiner’s 1933 King Kong) (Dickinson 2003, 1-13). The Wagnerian tradition of the leitmotif quickly become the popular mode of composition in Hollywood, whereby a melody is assigned to specific characters, places or ideas, and is played when that which it represented is on screen.[4] In contrast, and although Herrmann used the theory of musical association underpinning the leitmotif system in a number of his scores (including those for Hitchcock, but perhaps most effectively for Citizen Kane), he disliked leitmotif itself. Herrmann:

…I don’t like the leitmotif system. The short phrase is easier to follow for an audience, who listen with only half an ear. Don’t forget that the best they do is half an ear. You know, the reason I don’t like this tune business is that a tune has to have eight or sixteen bars, which limits you as a composer. Once you start, you’ve got to finish – eight or sixteen bars. Otherwise, the audience doesn’t know what the hell it’s all about. It’s putting handcuffs on yourself (Brown 1994, 291-292).

Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores are almost wholly vacant of traditional melody or “tunes”, and are instead populated by vast stretches of short patterns and impressionistic, ambient musical sketches. His approach was more of mood and tone: “In Hitchcock,” noted Herrmann, “one has to create a landscape for each film, whether it be the rainy night of Psycho or the turbulence of a picture such as Vertigo” (Herrmann 2004, Track 11). Indeed, ‘landscape’ seems the most appropriate term to describe Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores. Though there was at least one attempt to extract a pop hit from a Herrmann score (Marnie (1964), with dire consequences),[5] each film scored by Herrmann has more of an overall identity, or ‘sound’ than distinct melodies. Critics like Royal S. Brown and Graham Bruce have argued that this particular sound, unique to Herrmann’s Hitchcock work, is fuelled by a ‘Hitchcock chord’, a half-diminished seventh that dominates much of his music during this era (Bruce 1985, 117-121; Brown 1994, 148-174). Yet most immediate of these ‘sounds’ for Hitchcock is Herrmann’s use of orchestration: in Vertigo the harp speaks strongest of all the orchestra, while Psycho’s only accompaniment is the frantic and bare string section. Herrmann’s aborted score to Torn Curtain was to be his most adventurously orchestrated Hitchcock yet, calling for sixteen French horns and twelve flutes (Sullivan 2006, 281). “The sound of twelve flutes,” said Herrmann, “will be terrifying” (Sullivan 2006, 282).

Herrmann’s abandonment of melody was key to his success composing for Hitchcock. According to Brown, “melody is the most rational element of music” (Brown 1994, 154). Despite Hitchcock’s occasional complaints, then, we can see the lack of melody in Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores as supporting the irrationality often shown in Hitchcock’s films: the compulsion of Marnie Edgar, the phobias of Scottie Ferguson, and the split personality of Norman Bates. These are all musically supported via Herrmann’s landscape approach. Melody, as rationality, has no place in Hitchcock.

Repetition One: within specific cues of motifs

The notable musical ideas that are present in Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores often have a heavy focus on internal repetition. Frequently, sections of Herrmann’s music will consist of a short idea which is repeated in a number of different ways; used on the one hand to partially disguise this repetition, but on the other to aid the suspense and mood of obsession and cyclic falls, chases or journeys often found in Hitchcock. The most notable of these repetitious strategies are chromaticism[6] and instrumentation[7]. Perhaps the best example of these used in conjunction can be found in North By Northwest. Brown argues that the film contains:

not one example of anything that could be designated as a theme on a cue sheet … Instead, it is made up of numerous, brief motifs sewn together in sometimes audaciously chromatic harmonic progressions and presented in brilliant orchestral colors, with totally unhummable interval leaps being the order of the day. (Brown 1994, 159)

The ‘Journey’ cue, which is most often heard when protagonist Roger O. Thornhill is travelling, combines a chromatic, cyclic repetition with variations of instrumentation. ‘Journey’ is essentially a one bar pattern of sixteen semiquavers that could conceivably be repeated endlessly via chromatic descent, with no necessary resolution other than a continuation of the loop. This cue reappears in multiple forms throughout North By Northwest, and aside from the opening fandango, is probably the most memorable piece of music found in the film. The motif, as short and malleable as it is, suits the mood of the film perfectly: cyclic chromaticism here creates a driving feeling of perpetual movement, which for North By Northwest, translates as a sense of travelling endlessly without destination – a clear parallel with the film’s plot. The addition of varied instrumentation adds to this mood. In “The Auction”[8], the pattern is played interchangeably between the string section, and the clarinet section, before shifting to alternate between the flutes, strings and clarinets, seemingly changing instrument section every note. ‘Journey’ is played in a number of different ways throughout North By Northwest, and its various uses demonstrate Herrmann’s skills of subtle variation. The theme, while remaining melodically and harmonically intact, is played as foreboding (“The Airport”), as suspenseful and dynamic (“The Ledge”), and as frenzied and exciting (“The Police”).

Chromaticism is combined with ostinato[9] in many similar sequences in Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores. This ostinato/chromaticism figure first appears in The Man Who Knew Too Much, during the sequence where Jo and Ben McKenna (Doris Day and James Stewart) attempt to find their son at the Ambrose Chapel. A harp plays a steady ostinato on one note, while strings and clarinets alternate chromatic harmonies in thirds. This idea returns in Vertigo’s “Carlotta’s Portrait”, with an altered rhythm being played by a harp. This time, the rhythm of the ostinato is relates to the plot of the film, as it is a habanera, reflecting Carlotta’s Spanish origin and creating a musical presence for her. These sequences have much in common: they are both searching sequences, and the probing nature of both cues reflects this. Again, as in North By Northwest’s ‘Journey’, we may see the chromaticism as a strategy employed to encourage the feeling of travel without destination, though in this case, tweaked to suit the feeling of a search.

However, what is most interesting, and for our purposes important, is that chromaticism not only allows Herrmann to repeat short phrases endlessly, but it also augments the suspense and overall mood of a scene. It is a device of Herrmann’s ‘landscapes’, and we can see it as the first of Herrmann’s notable ‘echoes’.

Repetition Two: within an entire score

Herrmann’s use of repetitive, short phrases can also be seen to increase the feeling of psychological fixation within an entire score, often mirroring that of Hitchcock’s characters. This is the second level of repetition – that within an overall score. Herrmann’s repetitive use of short phrases can be seen to create a feeling of a myopic, tunnel viewpoint: a feeling of a single idea recurring again and again. Herrmann’s scores for Vertigo and Psycho best illustrate this mode of repetition. In Vertigo, the score is divided into roughly two sections. “Madeline’s Theme” which plays over a number of extended sequences, such as “Scotty Trails Madeleine” and “Beach”, dominates the first half of the film. However, after Madeline’s ‘death’ the landscape changes abruptly to focus almost exclusively on what Brown titles “The Love Waltz”, while “Madeline’s Theme” returns only occasionally (Brown 1994, 167). This “Love Waltz” perfectly illustrates Herrmann’s use of repetition to indicate mental fixation – it is, of course, a very short (only one bar long) phrase that, via chromaticism, can be repeated endlessly. The “Waltz” reaches its climax in the “Scene d’Amour” and leads us into an overblown variation of “Madeline’s Theme” in 6/8 timing. The music here has been described as “the gushiest Hitchcock music since Spellbound, and a potent rejoinder to the claim that Herrmann avoided Romantic hyperbole” (Sullivan 2006, 126). Howard Goodall, however, claims that this overstated nature was intentional: “Because we’re in a fantasy of Scotty’s making, the strings are unashamedly colourful and symphonic.” (Goodall 2004) Indeed, Herrmann’s use of vibrato in the string section is highly unusual. In contrast to his contemporaries, Herrmann usually required the strings to be played with little or no vibrato, as in the entirety of Psycho. Goodall suggests this disregard for vibrato was a first since the time of Mozart, (Goodall 2004) – though of course, as Midge rightfully asserts at Scotty’s rehabilitation clinic, “I don’t think Mozart’s going to help at all.” The “Scene d’Amour” is the musical climax of the film, and the counterfeit emotion felt by Herrmann’s strings, in support with the myopic repetition of the score, parallels the unreal passion felt by Scotty. The landscape of Vertigo is clearly populated with the echoes of nostalgic reminisces; and the melancholic and fixated character of the film’s score is almost wholly created by Herrmann’s repetitions.

Perhaps most famously, Herrmann’s score for Psycho relies on an overall feeling of repetition to create suspense and drive the meaning of the film. In particular, the musical structure of the film is extraordinary: not only is the film monochromatic in terms of its orchestration (the unaccompanied string section was chosen by Herrmann – “to compliment the back-and-white photography with a black-and-white score” (Smith 1991, 237)), but the entire score is largely based around a single musical thread which finds its basis almost exclusively in Psycho’s opening credits. Most notably, the ‘driving’ music (“Prelude”, “Flight”, “The Rainstorm”[10]) has its basis in only four notes, which leads Goodall to claim that Psycho used minimalist techniques ten years before composer Michael Nyman coined the term (Goodall 2004). Graham Bruce elaborates:

The majority of the musical cues in Psycho, as well as providing apt contributions to the specific scene, also set up, via a fabric of developments and variants of a number of motifs, structural relations within the film text as a whole (Bruce 1985, 184).

Perhaps Psycho then provides the best illustration of Herrmann’s repetitious musical ‘landscapes’ for Hitchcock. Though the “Prelude” of the film introduces (though often in oblique technical ways (Brown 1994, 162)) a large amount of the entire score, it also serves a more important role: to drive the narrative of the film from the first frame. Herrmann:

After the main title, nothing much happens in the picture, apparently, for 20 minutes or so. Appearances, of course, are deceiving, for in fact the drama starts immediately with the titles … I am firmly convinced, and so is Hitchcock, that after the main titles you know that something terrible must happen. The main title sequence tells you so, and that is its function: to set the drama. You don’t need cymbal crashes or records that don’t sell (Cameron 1980, 132).

This is perhaps the most important contribution made by Psycho’s score. That the film’s musical language is clearly placed from the very beginning is key: even though Marion is not murdered until one third of the way through the film, there is nevertheless an unease present that cannot be simply attributed to the visuals alone. Instead, we must attribute this feeling to Herrmann, the organic and in many ways limited structure of his score, and the overall cohesiveness of repetitious echoes to create his Psycho ‘landscape’.

Repetition Three: within Herrmann’s Hitchcock oeuvre

The third, and perhaps most unusual level of repetition utilised by Herrmann is intertextual. We have already seen this on a basic level in the similarity between the ostinato in The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo. However, we can also see this ostinato figure more broadly reflected throughout Herrmann’s Hitchcock work. This rhythm, initially representing the parent’s search for their child in The Man Who Knew Too Much, undergoes a minor metamorphosis for Vertigo and becomes a Spanish Habeñara rhythm (“Carlotta’s Portrait”), as we have noted. At its most aggressive, the Vertigo ostinato is joined by castanets (“Nightmare and Dawn”) to reinforce the imposing and decidedly Spanish figure of Carlotta (and perhaps her insanity) in Scotty’s search for Madeline (Kalinak n.d., 20). Yet further still, this figure also appears in Psycho, slightly changed again, as Norman watches Marion as she undresses (“The Peephole” – this time played on pizzicato strings) (Bruce 1985, 134). Even more interestingly, this figure reappears for the last time in a Hitchcock film four years later in Herrmann’s score for Marnie. This time, it appears in order to narrate the dialogue-less sequence where Marnie plots the Rutland’s theft as she types (“The Safe”) (Bruce 1985, 134).

There are several possible links we can draw from these instances of Herrmann’s ostinato. Most apparent are the themes of searching, and of looking or watching. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Ben and Jo McKenna search for their child; in Vertigo, Scotty searches and watches Madeline; in Psycho Norman watches Marion; and in Marnie we observe the process required to steal. These sequences are also largely silent outside of the non-diegetic music; indeed, the Vertigo sequence is one of the longest stretches of film without dialogue in all of Hitchcock’s work. These are sequences of what Hitchcock called “pure cinema” – that is, storytelling in purely visual terms (Truffaut 1984, 214-222). It is possible to suggest that Herrmann associated the subdued nature of his ostinato with the emphasis away from sound in these sequences. However, other commonalities between the instances suggest there was a distinct motive behind Herrmann’s implementations.[11]

Aside from the themes of searching and looking, we may also see the ostinato as an indication of insanity. Just as the McKennas are treated as mad by their friends and police in their desperation to retrieve Hank (“It was a crazy thing to do,” says Jo to Ben about traveling to the Ambrose Chappell), we can see a direct link to insanity in all other instances. The direct pairing of the ostinato with Carlotta in Vertigo is the clearest indication: not only did Carlotta commit suicide, but we are led to believe that Madeleine is suffering from a mental illness that makes her periodically believe she is Carlotta. The psychotic aspects of Psycho are obvious, yet musically it is the ostinato that lies at its heart. It is also Norman’s desire for Marion that sets the murder in motion, a desire made clear by the peephole sequence. As Toles argues, “Anything that his mother judges depraved must be dropped from the perceptual frame” (Toles 1999, 641). This is a neat intricacy of Herrmann’s Psycho landscape: for all the violent music in the film, it is one of the most subdued musical cues – the simple and quiet ostinato – that triggers Norman’s madness and renders murder unavoidable. Lastly, we can again clearly see madness at the heart of Marnie’s ostinato. Indeed, as Marnie’s thieving is the result of her neurotic compulsions, the plotting of her theft at Rutlands is perhaps one of the most overt symptoms of her illness in the film.

The ostinato is one element in a larger musical landscape for Hitchcock that defines Herrmann’s work with the director. The echoes found here are not just audible to the viewer via the context of the film: they are also within the metanarrative, viewer preconceptions and awareness of the film as a Hitchcock film. This is however a minor instance of self-appropriation: though we can see overt links between Herrmann’s various uses of the ostinato for Hitchcock, they are only general associations; thematic echoes that do not prompt an intellectual comparison so much as an emotional one. Nonetheless, Herrmann’s other instances of self-appropriation prove, as I shall show, to be much bolder. Perhaps the most audacious and meaningful example comes from Vertigo and North By Northwest.

Similarities between Vertigo and North By Northwest are rarely noted. Both films probably represent the apotheosis of major strains of Hitchcock’s work: on the one hand, the humorous adventure of North By Northwest and on the other, the somber psychological exploration of Vertigo. Yet, as Brown notes, “one of the most striking appearances of ‘Madeline’s Theme’ … does not occur in Vertigo but in North By Northwest” (Brown 1994, 166). It is interesting to note tonal and intervallic similarities between “Madeline’s Theme” and the love theme from North By Northwest, which already indicate some form of musical echo. However, Vertigo and North By Northwest are successive in the Herrmann/Hitchcock corpus (1958 and 1959 respectively), so it may be tempting to disregard the similarities as a symptom of an overworked composer returning to familiar material. Yet it is not until North By Northwest’s confrontation between Thornhill and Eve in her hotel room (“Reunion”) that Herrmann’s strategy becomes clear: he abandons the differences and features “Madeline’s Theme” in full. It is little wonder that Herrmann opted to sonically remember Vertigo to audiences at this point, as thematically this scene shares much in common with Hitchcock’s previous film. Both Eve (in North By Northwest) and Judy (in Vertigo) are forced to conceal their surprise on the unexpected arrival, at their hotel-room door, of the men they had plotted against. By musically referencing the events of Vertigo at this point of North By Northwest, Herrmann adds a deeper layer to understanding and interpreting the sequence. To compare the sequences is to compare both film’s characters and our perception of them: might we now view Eve and Madeleine as equally deceptive, and Thornhill as trapped as Scottie? This intertextual parallel only surfaces through Herrmann’s self-appropriation. It is a musical echo, and unlike that of the ostinato, it is designed to draw an intellectual, rather than an emotional comparison.

While the instance of “Madeline’s Theme” in North By Northwest is the most commonly noted, echoes of “Madeline’s Theme” are not limited to Vertigo and North By Northwest. Indeed, just as Herrmann prefigured his Hitchcock ostinato in The Trouble With Harry, a suggestion of “Madeline’s Theme” can be heard prior to Vertigo in The Wrong Man (1956). In The Wrong Man’s sanatorium sequences, where Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) despairs over the deteriorating mental state of his wife, Rose (Vera Miles), Herrmann uses a similar harmonic cadence and short melody to “Madeline’s Theme”, although this time in a minor key.[12] Musically, this suggests experimentation by Herrmann, or an early variation on a theme for this particular element of his Hitchcock landscape, which he would perfect later with Vertigo. Though the similarity between the two musical ideas is remarkable, the minor key of the motif in The Wrong Man is perhaps not as effective as the false happiness conveyed by the major setting of “Madeline’s Theme”. Unsurprisingly, however, it is in these sequences that The Wrong Man is most Vertigo-like, with mirroring themes of mental illness and a tragically broken connection between lovers. The psychological debilitation of the sanatorium theme is no less potent than that of “Madeline’s Theme”, however, and both films finish with these themes playing, imparting their full power over the now enervated minds of Scotty and of Rose.[13]

A full echo of “Madeline’s Theme” was to resurface one final time in Herrmann’s cancelled score for Torn Curtain. While ultimately Herrmann’s score was rejected by Hitchcock and unrecorded by Herrmann save for a few cues, we can hear from subsequent recordings that “Madeline’s Theme” was to reappear in “The Hill”. Designed to underscore Michael Armstrong’s (Paul Newman) silent moment of confession and love to Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) before both characters attempt to escape East Germany, we again hear a complete rendition of the Vertigo theme. The connection, had it been allowed to remain, is just as clear. Though neither character is suffering from mental illness as in Vertigo or The Wrong Man, throughout Torn Curtain Michael has been forced to plot against Sarah, and is now confessing his true motives – just as in North By Northwest and Vertigo.

Through his echoes of “Madeline’s Theme” in Vertigo, The Wrong Man, North By Northwest and Torn Curtain, Herrmann draws attention to some significant intertextual parallels that might otherwise remain unnoted. Yet this third mode of repetition could also be seen to draw our attention to the variations-on-a-theme style of filmmaking Hitchcock and Herrmann were engaged with at this point in their careers. It paints both Hitchcock and Herrmann as similarly fixated, clearly unable to get away from these ideas – on the one hand, psychological breakdown and a disruption between lovers; on the other, the musical threads that echo “Madeline’s Theme” – that permeate their work.

One other major instance of self-appropriation in Herrmann’s Hitchcock work remains,[14] though it resurfaces in a non-Hitchcock film.[15] The three-note “Madhouse” motif from Psycho – first used when Marion suggests that Mrs. Bates be retired to an institution, and continually used within the Psycho score to represent madness – reappears as the last notes of Herrmann’s final film: Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976). This, Bruce suggests, connects Norman and Travis Bickle: “a nicely ironic link between two killers – the one confined to an institution, the other elevated as a hero” (Bruce 1985, 200). Yet this motif also stems from Herrmann’s first major work as a composer: the fourth movement (“Interlude”) from his Symphonietta for Strings and Timpani from 1935. Much of Psycho’s score finds its initial threads in this piece, from the incessant driving theme heard in the film’s opening credits (“Prelude”) to the whirling dissonance of the discovery of Norman Bates (“Discovery”). The “Madhouse” motif is in the “Interlude” in its entirety, however – it is even in the same key, following the progression of F-Eb-D in the low strings. Interestingly, it remains in the same key for Taxi Driver as it is played as the final credit rolls, this time on Bass Clarinet and Bassoon. From some of the first most important notes he wrote, to the final notes he ever recorded (Herrmann died in his sleep after finishing the final recording session on Taxi Driver), this particular echo seems to have followed Bernard Herrmann throughout his entire career.


It would perhaps be easier to write these echoes off as simple self-plagiarism. Indeed, despite these clear intertextual links, Herrmann himself seems to have been fiercely resistant to claims of self-appropriation, or more strongly, self-plagiarism. A 1970 interview with Herrmann performed by The Los Angeles Free Press took a turn for the worse when the interviewer, Leslie Zador, suggested that Herrmann had re-used his own music:

LESLIE ZADOR: To give an example of what Mr. Herrmann is talking about, he wrote an opera called Wuthering Heights. Part of the music from act one, scene one, was in a film called The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

HERRMANN: No I didn’t, that’s completely false.

ZADOR: But it sounds just like it …


However disputed by Herrmann, these self-references did not go unnoticed by Hitchcock. In the same cable to Herrmann as his complaints regarding Dimitri Tiomkin and unchangeable scores, Hitchcock berated Herrmann for plagiarism:

I was extremely disappointed when I heard the score of Joy in the Morning, not only did I find it conforming to the old pattern but extremely reminiscent of the Marnie music. In fact, the theme was almost the same. (Smith 1991, 268)

In this instance, Hitchcock may well have been justified in his complaints. The score to Joy in the Morning, a 1965 drama directed by Alex Segal about young marriage, is strongly reminiscent of Marnie and other Herrmann works. “Thematically,” argues Smith, “the score is rarely original.” (Smith 1991, 264) It was Herrmann’s only score for 1965, and was written during the period of Herrmann’s divorce from his second wife. Smith notes the impact of the divorce on Herrmann’s creative output: “as his life reached crisis point, Herrmann seemed unable at times to compose new, fresh music.” (Smith 1991, 48) It is not especially unusual for film composers to re-use material; the composition process has always been pressured and often run to tight deadlines, creating instances where the quickest (or sometimes only) solution is to self-copy (Cooke 2008, 494-495). Some of the most admired scores in film history have contained such ‘borrowed’ music: Nino Rota’s The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola 1972) had its Academy Award nomination withdrawn after it was agreed that Rota had reused music from his Italian TV writing (Cooke 2008, 378); while John Williams’ Star Wars (George Lucas 1977) contains a note-for-note excerpt from the “Le Sacrifice” of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Claims of plagiarism are commonly leveled at film composers, and not just in Adorno’s denigration. New Yorker critic Alex Ross, in discussing James Horner’s Troy (Wolfgang Petersen 2004), made the following remarks:

There are two possible interpretative approaches to [James Horner’s] challenging opus. One is that Horner is presenting us with a kind of musical meta-narrative of deconstructive requotation … By reducing other people’s masterworks to cheap ditties, Horner shakes his fist at the suffocating weight of bourgeois culture … That’s one explanation. The other is that the man is a hack. (Ross 1998)

Despite scores like Joy in the Morning, it is difficult to come to the same conclusion in regards to Herrmann. As well as the release of Joy in the Morning, 1965 also saw the creation of Herrmann’s string quartet, Echoes, from which I take the title of this piece.[16] As already noted, Echoes is strongly reminiscent of the composer’s work with Hitchcock, and is probably intentionally so. As Smith notes, “While many of its memories remain private, others can be guessed by allusions to past works … the plucked signature of its opening is Psycho’s violent prelude, the crying violin harmonics of its coda, Vertigo’s lost Madeleine.” (Smith 1991, 264-265) These are not the lazy shorthand of a film composer under pressure. Echoes is a concert hall piece: these are significant and conscious invocations in an art-music context. Evidently, Herrmann was able to use the echoes of his entire work as a composer to make emotional and intellectual links in this one concert hall piece. There is much to indicate that he was employing the same technique with “Madeline’s Theme” and the “Madhouse” motif, and little to suggest otherwise. Perhaps it is only fair to give Hitchcock himself the final word on the issue of plagiarism, taken from an interview to promote his final film, Family Plot. Asked about the Hitchcock “vein” of filmmaking, and reminded that “people accused Picasso of repeating himself,” Hitchcock offered a fitting rejoinder: “Self-plagiarism is style.” (Gilliatt 1976)

If, as I have argued, we accept that the instances noted in this paper are conscious “echoes,” then we must conclude that Bernard Herrmann was an innovator not just in film music, but also in the film industry itself. Indeed, just as the later “film school” generation of directors (whose enfant terrible, Martin Scorsese, received Herrmann’s final, self-referential notes) was careful to visually link their films with prior landmarks in cinema, Herrmann was clearly able (via his collaboration with Hitchcock) to link his films sonically. These allusions betray a more intelligent purpose than a simple lack of creativity; these echoes throw thematic patterns in the Herrmann-Hitchcock oeuvre into stark relief, often offering a revealing commentary that the images alone do not. As Smith suggests, these quotations “demonstrate the internal consistency and distinctive personality of Herrmann’s work, a sign of artistic maturity rather than fatigue.” (Smith 1991, 48)

Yet these echoes also reveal the depth of aesthetic repetition that lay at the heart of Herrmann’s music for Hitchcock, from the echo-like structure of his individual scores to the musical parallels and juxtapositions across his entire oeuvre for Hitchcock. Herrmann’s scores counter the simplistic criticism of repetition so often bluntly levelled at film music in general and illustrate how the technique may be utilised to deepen meaning within, and beyond an individual film. We can now also clearly see the auteur-like power that can be afforded to a film’s composer as well as to the director. Though no serious argument could be made that Herrmann was the sole author of his films, we may see through the examples provided that his was an authorial power with the ability to create and change meaning beyond the control of the director – even a director as exacting as Hitchcock. Thus, as I have argued, it is precisely because of repetition, and not in spite of it, that Herrmann’s work for Hitchcock is meaningful and effective. To return one final time to his string quartet, we can see just how apt a eulogy, if it was indeed intended as one, Echoes was. In legacy, as well as in close analysis, Herrmann’s music for Hitchcock could not be better described than as “a series of emotional remembrances.”



Herrmann, Bernard. Sinfonietta for Strings. 1935.

—. Echoes: String Quartet. 1965.

—. North By Northwest: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [Audio CD]. By Bernard Herrmann. Turner Entertainment, 1995.

—. “Bernard Herrmann on Film Music”. Bernard Herrmann Film Scores: From Citizen Kane to Taxi Driver [Audio CD]. Burbank: WEA Corporation, 2004.

Mathieson, Muir. Vertigo: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [Audio CD].  By Bernard Herrmann. California: Varese Sarabande, 1996.

McNeely, Joel. Psycho: Original Motion Picture Score [Audio CD]. By Bernard Herrmann. California: Varese Sarabande, 1997.

Ravel, Maurice. Bolero. 1928.

Stravinsky, Igor. The Rite of Spring. 1913.


Cooper, Merian C., and Schoedsack, Ernest B. King Kong, 1933.

Coppola, Francis Ford. The Godfather, 1972.

Curtiz, Michael. The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938.

De Palma, Brian. Obsession, 1976.

Dieterle, William. The Devil and Daniel Webster, 1941.

Endfield, Cy. Mysterious Island, 1961.

Fleming, Victor. Gone With The Wind, 1939.

Goodall, Howard. Howard Goodalls’ Twentieth Century Greats: Bernard Herrmann. Channel Four, 2004.

Hitchcock, Alfred. The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934.

—. Spellbound, 1945.

—. The Trouble With Harry, 1955.

—. The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956.

—. The Wrong Man, 1956.

—. Vertigo, 1958.

—. North By Northwest, 1959.

—. Psycho, 1960.

—. Torn Curtain, 1966.

—. Marnie, 1964.

—. Family Plot, 1976.

Jackson, Peter. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001.

Lucas, George. Star Wars, 1977.

Markle, Fletcher. “Telescope: A Talk With Hitchcock”, CBC Television, 1964. Transcript available at <http://folk.uib.no/smkgg/midi/soundtrackweb/herrmann/articles/transcript_telescope/>, accessed 11 November 2010.

Petersen, Wolfgang. Troy, 2004.

Scorsese, Martin. Taxi Driver, 1976.

Segal, Alex. Joy In The Morning, 1965.

Welles, Orson. Citizen Kane, 1941.

Wise, Robert. The Day The Earth Stood Still, 1951.

Written Word

Adorno, Theodor and Hanns Eisler. Composing for the Films. New York: Oxford University Press, 1947.

Brown, Royal S. Overtones and Undertones: Reading Film Music. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994.

Bruce, Graham. Bernard Herrmann: Film Music and Narrative. Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1985.

Cameron, Evan, ed. Sound and the Cinema: The coming of sound to American film. Pleasantville: Redgrave Publishing, 1980.

Cooke, Mervyn. A History of Film Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Dickinson, Kay. “Introduction.” Movie Music, The Film Reader. Ed. Kay Dickinson. London: Routledge, 2003. 1-13.

Gilliatt, Penelope. “Hitchcock: A Great Original.” The Observer. 8 August 1976, 17.

Kalinak, Kathryn. “The Language of Music: A Brief Analysis of Vertigo.” Movie Music: The Film Reader. Ed. Kay Dickinson. n.d. 15-23.

Ross, Alex. “Oscar Scores.” The New Yorker. 9 March 1998. Accessed 11 January 2011 <http://www.therestisnoise.com/2004/05/oscar_scores.html>.

Smith, Steven C. A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991.

Sullivan, Jack. Hitchcock’s Music. Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2006.

Toles, George. “’If Thine Eye Offend Thee…’: Psycho and the Art of Infection”, New Literary History 3/15 (1984) 631-351.

Truffaut, François. Hitchcock. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.

Wrobel, William. “Self Borrowing in the Music of Bernard Herrmann.” The Journal of Film Music 1.2/3 (2003).


[1] However, Hitchcock then went on to accuse composers – “not necessarily by Mr. Herrmann, but by other musicians” – of being completely inflexible.

[2] Of note is Sullivan’s account of how Herrmann directly disobeyed Hitchcock’s desire to have “increasingly comic” music while Scotty trails Madeleine in the first half of Vertigo.

[3] All Vertigo tracks referenced are from Muir Mathieson, Vertigo: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, by Bernard Herrmann, California: Varese Sarabande, 1996.

[4] Steiner paid particularly slavish attention to the leitmotif system in his work on Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939), and is an excellent example, as there is a theme for almost every character, minor or major. For more recent examples, the work of John Williams (most notably in the Star Wars series 1977-2005) and Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001, 2002, 2003) provide excellent use of the leitmotif. Interestingly, Williams, who was a friend of Herrmann’s, scored Hitchcock’s final film, Family Plot (1976).

[5] Nat King Cole recorded a version of Herrmann’s Marnie theme set to lyrics, but it was quickly forgotten. As Sullivan notes, “a frigid, hallucinating kleptomaniac was not exactly the ideal subject for a pop love song.” (Sullivan 2006, 276)

[6] Chromaticism, in this instance means the use of notes, or chords that are directly sequential within the western twelve-note scale.

[7] In this sense used synonymously with ‘orchestration’, meaning the compositional use of one or more instruments. Herrmann was known for unique instrumentation before and outside of his Hitchcock work: he used the pioneering electronic instrument, the Theremin, in his score for The Day The Earth Stood Still; he also utilised modern technology to make previously impossible combinations, such as bass flute and kettle drums in his score for Mysterious Island (Cy Endfield, 1961).

[8] All North By Northwest tracks referenced are from Bernard Herrmann, North By Northwest: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, by Bernard Herrmann, Turner Entertainment, 1995.

[9] An ostinato is a phrase that is continuously repeated in the same musical voice. It may be a complete melody, or at least a melodic phrase; however, most commonly, it is a monotonic rhythm, and it is this usage that is applied in this essay. Perhaps the most famous monotonic ostinato is from Ravel’s Bolero.

[10] All Psycho tracks referenced are from Joel McNeely, Psycho: Original Motion Picture Score, by Bernard Herrmann, California: Varese Sarabande, 1997.

[11] While the first appearance of this musical thread appears in The Man Who Knew Too Much, it is certainly prefigured in the first Hitchcock/Herrmann collaboration, The Trouble With Harry (1955). Though it appears for less than a minute (in a cue fittingly titled “Ostinato”, played during the final nighttime exhumation of Harry), and differs from the other implementations in that it features the harp ostinato between two pitches rather than one, the movement of the strings around the figure is unmistakable.

[12] For The Wrong Man, Herrmann uses the minor iv-i7 cadence in the clarinets while an oboe plays the Vertigo-like melody descending from the 2nd degree of the scale. For Vertigo, the cadence is the major VI-I7 in the strings with the melody descending from the 2nd degree of the scale. Harmonically, these are closely related patterns.

[13] Interestingly, Vera Miles, who was Hitchcock’s original choice for Madeline/Judy in Vertigo, plays Rose Balestrero.

[14] Numerous other examples can be found throughout Herrmann’s entire oeuvre, though his self-appropriation within his Hitchcock scores appears to be more limited. For an exhaustive list, see Wrobel 2003.

[15] We could also examine Herrmann’s score to Brian De Palma’s Obsession (1976); however, that score (or rather, the entire film) can be viewed as a homage or even pastiche of Vertigo, and therefore in-depth analysis is less likely to be as revealing.

[16] It is worth noting that Echoes is also the name of the Bernard Herrmann Society’s Journal.


Daniel Golding is a Ph.D. candidate researching the articulation of videogame spaces in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. He has also lectured and tutored in Screen Studies, has edited the gaming blog RedKingsDream and entertainment online magazine Empty Pocket Media. He also writes a monthly ‘Game Theory’ column for Australia’s oldest independent videogames magazine, Hyper. Email: <dangoldingis@gmail.com>



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