I Sat Through all of the 1D Documentary and All I Got was this Lousy Blog Post

Image credit: Zap2it

Image credit: Zap2it

7-year-olds are cultural omnivores, taking in everything around them. It’s only later that they sort through what they’ve accumulated to figure out what they like and don’t like. Right now, my 7-year-old has been soaking up a lot of music, trying to figure out what she likes and what she doesn’t. She wavers between two basic categories of pop music — what we call “love songs” and “heartbreak songs.”

So, for example, Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”? That’s a love song, of course:

And Adele’s “Someone Like You”?:

So much heartbreak.

I explained to my daughter that sometimes the distinction between “love song” and “heartbreak song” is difficult to discern. The other day I introduced her to one of my all-time favorite “heartbreak songs,” the Bob Dylan classic “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” But before I played her the original, I played her this cover (which I love):

After a few bars she looked confused, “This doesn’t sound like a heartbreak song,” she told me. “I know,” I said, “but you have to listen to the words.” So I played her Joan Baez’s cover and we both closed our eyes (really, we did) and listened:

“So long honey, baby
Where I’m bound, I can’t tell
Goodbye’s too good a word, babe
So I’ll just say fare thee well

I ain’t saying you treated me unkind
You coulda done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right.”

We talked about the meaning of that last line — “But don’t think twice, it’s all right” — and whether the singer really meant it or not. Was it really “all right?” My 7-year-old thought not. She asked to hear the original:

“That was so much sadder,” she told me, and then added “I like this one the best.”

My daughter’s into love songs and heartbreak songs but she also inherited her mother’s love for kitsch. So it follows that the 7-year-old is really into Toto. We have a boom box/I-Pod combo in our kitchen and on most days my daughter can be found scrolling through song titles, searching out her favorites, and singing along. She’s been singing “Rosanna” so often lately, in fact, that she’s taught it to her best friend during their shared 20 minute commute to school. I feel a little bad about this — like I’m passing my kitsch-love on to my child who is then passing it on to her friends. But Toto has taught my daughter a valuable lesson and it is this: don’t judge a book by it’s cover, or “Oh My God, is this what Toto looks like?”

Like this:

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and this:

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and this:

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Isn’t that a great lesson? But then I told her: though you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover,  a pretty face doesn’t hurt things either. That brings us to the main topic of today’s blog post: One Direction.

You were getting worried, weren’t you, that I pulled a bait-and-switch and that this blog post was actually a think piece about listening to love songs and heartbreak songs with my kid and not a review of the new 3-D hit, One Direction: This is Us ?

Relax. I got this.

My daughter has been marginally interested in One Direction for about a year now. We first discovered “What Makes You Beautiful” in the summer of 2012 and the song soon made it’s way onto the holy I-Pod. From there it was a slippery slope to kitchen floor dance parties during which we loudly sang the chorus:

“Baby you light up my world like nobody else,
The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed,
But when you smile at the ground it ain’t hard to tell,
You don’t know,
Oh, oh,
You don’t know you’re beautiful”

We all sang along and we loved it. We had no choice: completely ignoring “What Makes You Beautiful”‘s lyrics, which validate the persistent popularity of “Who me? Pretty?” female characters like Twilight‘s Bella Swan, the feeling of the song is infectious. I mean, as a love song it’s pretty fantastic. But that’s not why I took my daughter to see One Direction: This is Us on Labor Day. The decision was made, rather impulsively, last week, when One Direction went on the America’s Got Talent results show in order to promote the film and perform the single “Best Song Ever”:

When the One Direction boys — Harry, Niall, Liam, Louis, and Zayn — walked on stage my daughter was immediately enchanted even though I was sure that she had never heard “Best Song Ever,” the song they performed (which incidentally, is not the best song ever — it’s merely “okay”). She’s not a 1D fan (and neither am I) but she was mesmerized. We both were. We were entertained.

As soon as the performance ended there was SO. MUCH. SCREAMING and then a trailer for the 1D movie. I turned to my 7-year-old daughter, because, really, we had no choice in the matter. There is no reordering of events that would conclude with us not seeing One Direction: This is Us. “We’ll go Monday,” I say.

***

New Direction, pictured with Simon Cowell on The X Factor Image credit: zimbio.com

New Direction, pictured with Simon Cowell on The X Factor
Image credit: zimbio.com

One Direction: This is Us is not, technically speaking, very good. We hear the boilerplate narrative — a story of five ordinary boys who tried out for The X-Factor, lost, then found themselves with a recording contract and 10 million records sold. We learn that the boys “can’t believe!” they’re famous. They lean over balconies to control the volume of their swooning fans’ screams like orchestra conductors. This happens multiple times and it’s meant to show us that One Direction is REALLY FAMOUS. In many countries. Can you believe it? The boys — who genuinely seem to like each other — even have an earnest chat around a campfire about their fame and what life will be like when the fame is gone. It’s like having a chat with One Direction’s publicist. And no, I wasn’t expecting more than that. Because why would One Direction want to derail this train? I’m onboard — toot! toot!

There are a few moments, of course, that disrupted this master narrative, and I’d like to think that Morgan Spurlock (he of the brilliant, important Supersize Me) temporarily awoke from the lobotomy that must be responsible for the rest of the movie and decided to do something interesting. For example, in many scenes we see the boys playing the role of merry pranksters (and how we all do love the antics of young white males!): running away from body guards who then have to chase them (because it’s their job) and toss them over their shoulders, and plant them back in safe territory. The bodyguards tell the camera that boys will be boys, and that this is life on tour, but I detected weariness in their eyes. Those eyes are saying “Enough already.”

http://giphy.com/gifs/W0AuVJgtxfz44

And in at least one scene I’m pretty sure Harry Styles is very drunk — which is the only whiff of alcohol in the film. These boys sleep, call their mums, get mobbed by fans, and fret over who they can trust to really like them for who they are and not because they’re celebrities. But they don’t drink and they don’t have girlfriends (only exes). Fiances certainly never appear. There’s also a touching scene in which the boys’ mothers look over the merchandise on sale at a concert venue. One of the mothers purchases a cardboard cut-out of her son, Liam (I think? It’s so hard for me to keep the names straight), because she explains (with tears brimming in her eyes!), she never gets to see him in person. Later in the film, Liam (or maybe Louis?) goes home for a visit and is surprised to find himself already there. I enjoyed these moments, because they felt real to me, and I need that realness in a documentary.

Image credit: EW.com

Image credit: EW.com

There was also this scene in which Simon Cowell is explaining how One Direction’s popularity was due in part to British girls and social media. We then see footage of different excited fans bragging about how many tweets they wrote about the band. They are so very excited and earnest about their role in 1D’s success. They’re certain of it. And, for a moment, I feel their power. In the next shot Cowell says he can’t explain the band’s appeal among girls because: “I’m not a neuroscientist.” Spurlock then cuts to a white-coated doctor holding a model of the human brain. The nueroscientist points out how certain kinds of music cause the brain to release dopamine. “They’re not crazy,” he says, “just happy.” In other words, One Direction: This is Us is validating this particular kind of fan love — a love that is so often invalidated.

Dina Gachman chronicles her experience watching the film over at The Hairpin and describes the fans this way:

“I should stop being so judgmental.

Their fans are insane.

These fans really love them.

Pre-teen girl lust is the most powerful force in the universe.

I hope they’re saving their money.”

Yes, they are powerful. In One Direction: This is Us we meet a girl who says “They sing our feelings.” It was around this time that I started to think maybe all this movie needed for me to enjoy it was to remember that word: happy. It was also around this time that my daughter leaned in to me and whispered “I don’t really see how this is a movie.”

What I think she meant is, One Direction: This is Us has no real story, and what it does tell us, we already knew. But that doesn’t matter. When, towards the end of the film, Harry finished singing a love song (does it matter which one?) and looked out at his audience of screaming fans and also at me and my daughter, and he told us all: “I want to kiss every one of you!”  I believed him. Not because I want to actually kiss a child who is, seriously, young enough to be my son. No, not that. What I mean is: I believed the dream of the love song and the heartbreak song and of someone singing your feelings.

A True Story About Being White

Editor’s note: I apologize for my long absence, dear readers, but I started a true story blog back in May, Tell Us A Story, and that has monopolized all of my summer blogging time. I promise to return to this blog in the fall, with my usual posts about film, TV and popular culture. In the meantime though, I have a different kind of true story to tell.

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After the devastating ruling in the George Zimmerman case I read a post by the Crunk Feminist Collective in which they asked:

“Calling all white feminists allies: Where are y’all? <looking far and wide> Your silence around the Zimmerman Trial speaks volumes. Six white women (some say five) decided that a young Black man was responsible for his own murder, and they believed that a young Black woman could not be a credible witness. Where is your (OUT)RAGE?! Where is *your* intersectional analysis about white privilege, that not only calls out the operations of racism, but the particularly gendered operations of racism in the hands of these white women jurors? Where is the accountability? Where is the allyship? Why AGAIN do we have to ask you to show up? It is time for y’all to do the work. We refuse. We are tired. We are choosing to take care of ourselves and our communities. “

I took these words personally because these words are personal. They are directed at me and they fill me with shame. So I am trying to not be silent. With all the talk this summer about what it means to be a young black male in America, I thought I would write about what it means to be a young white male in America. I’m going to tell you a story about my son and being white in America when it’s dark outside. It isn’t much, I know, but it’s what I have right now.

***

My husband and I are both originally from the Northeast (New York and Pennsylvania, respectively) but we currently live in North Carolina, due to the somewhat bizarre and unforgiving nature of the academic job market. Don’t get me wrong, I have actually come to love many things about my new Southern home: the heat, the complete absence of winter, the way people wait and hold the door open for you, even when you are a good fifty paces behind them. I even like being called “ma’am.” But there are drawbacks to our Southern location. Obviously, North Carolina’s stance on marriage equality, abortion, voter rights, religious freedom, etc.. etc. is garbage. But that’s a different post all together. The other problem with living here is, of course, that my husband and I are 400-600 miles away from our families. This means that we travel a lot, especially in the summertime. This is a story about one of those trips.

A few weeks ago my husband and I packed up our minivan and our kids and headed for central Pennsylvania. We take I-95 North, a highway which always seems to be plagued with construction, traffic delays and accidents, which means that a trip that should take 6 hours often takes 8 hours. To avoid these delays, we usually try to drive during off-peak hours, leaving around 6pm and arriving around midnight. On this particular trip, my husband and I were delighted to be getting off  the D.C. beltway, onto 270, around 10pm. That meant we would reach our beds by 11:30pm. We were in the midst of high-fiving each other when our 3-year-old son, who only speaks in capslock, announced “I GOTTA MAKE POOPY.” Our faces fell.  270 exists to get people on to and off of the beltway, not for potty breaks. All of the nearby exits led to gated communities and medical parks. There would be no easily accessible bathrooms for many miles.

“Hey buddy, can you try to hold it for a little bit?” my husband asked. “SURE” yelled our son. But ten minutes later he bellowed “I CAN’T TAKE MUCH MORE OF THIS,” a turn of phrase he has recently learned and which he tries to use whenever possible. We sighed and took the next exit, knowing that locating a bathroom at 10 pm in the Maryland suburbs was going to be a challenge. We drove for miles and miles, seeing nothing. “I NEED TO GO POOPY” the 3-year-old periodically reminded us. “I know, honey, we’re trying.” Finally, after 15 minutes of frantic searching, we spotted a group of men playing baseball in front of what appeared to be a recreational center. I suggested we check it out, reasoning that these men would probably need a bathroom break at some point during their game. But as we drove through the complex we could find nothing. “Not even a port-a-potty?” I lamented. “I WILL GO IN THE PORT-A-POTTY” said the 3-year-old. “I know buddy. But there’s no port-a-potty.”

As we were about to turn around and leave, our goal of reaching bed by midnight now a distant memory, I saw a woman sitting in an SUV, talking on her cell phone. “Wait! Look over there! I’ll bet that woman can tell us where a bathroom is!” My husband stopped the minivan and I grabbed my son and headed over.

At this point, I should probably tell you a little bit about my son. My son is adorable: he has big blue eyes, curly brown hair, and a friendly smile. People go apeshit for my son. They stop me in grocery stores and on the streets to comment on his appearance: “Look at those curls! Look at those baby blues!” It happens so often, in fact, that it embarrasses me. I don’t say that to brag, because I have nothing to do with his good looks (he looks nothing like me). And he has nothing to do with his good looks either. He was just born that way. He’s lucky.

So it’s 10 pm on a Thursday night in a Maryland suburb and my very cute son and I approach the woman in the SUV. “Excuse me?” I say, tentatively, because she is on her phone “We’re looking for a bathroom?” The woman raises a finger, indicating that she heard me, and says good-bye to whomever was the on the other line. “I’m sorry to bother you. It’s just that my son really needs to use the bathroom and we’ve been driving around…” “Come with me” she says, leading us to an alley behind the rec center. It is only now that I see that this woman is wearing a blue custodial uniform and a name tag. She works in the rec center and she is going to use her key to let us in. “What good fortune!” I thought to myself.

The alley is dark and garbage cans line the brick walls. “I JUST NEED A PORT-A-POTTY!” the 3-year-old offers. “It’s okay,” I tell him, “the nice lady is taking us to the potty.” We finally enter the building and I immediately see a sign for the women’s locker room. “Thank you so much!” I tell the custodian, as I head inside. “Oh no!” she says, shaking her head, “You don’t go in there. It’s DIRTY,” she explains. I look again at the locker room and see that this is where the rec center staff probably goes to change and shower. “You follow me,” she says, and leads us down a series of hallways, until we reach another set of bathrooms. “See?” she says, “Clean.” I nod and head inside “Thank you SO much!” I repeat. I’m starting to feel a little guilty now, as this is getting to be a lot of trouble for her.

When we emerge from the bathroom 10 minutes later I am surprised to see that the custodian has waited for us at the end of the hall. But of course she had to wait — she let us in with her key, we were now her responsibility. We follow her out of the rec center, and I repeat my thanks. “You feel better now?” she asks my son, smiling, placing her finger tips to his. “Such pretty hair,” she adds. “THANK YOU” my son replies, in capslock. And then we get back into our minivan. “People are so nice,” I tell my husband, as I buckle the 3-year-old  into his carseat. “That woman probably wanted nothing more than to go home, take a shower and go to bed after a day of work, but instead she spent 20 minutes helping a stranger and her son get to a bathroom.” My husband nods in agreement.

As our roadtrip resumed, I continued to think about this encounter and the kindness of strangers. But then I thought about something else. I thought about how this scenario would have played out if I had not been a white woman with a blue-eyed son, emerging from a minivan. You see, this incident happened just 5 days after George Zimmerman’s acquittal, in which jurors decided that being young and not-white and male is inherently threatening, that being all of these things meant that Zimmerman had a right to feel threatened by Trayvon Martin and to “stand his ground.” Indeed, if I had I been a young, African American father whose 3-year-old son needed to use the potty at 10pm in some Maryland suburb, I would have had to think twice before approaching this woman in the parking lot. I would have needed to be careful not “scare” her. I would  have needed to demonstrate to her that I was not a threat. And then, maybe, maybe, my son could use those nice clean bathrooms in the rec center.

But of course, I didn’t need to worry about any of that at 10 pm on a Thursday night in the Maryland suburbs. When I approached that woman in her car, I did so without considering my skin color or my son’s skin color. I rarely need to consider my skin color. All I needed to do was be white and the world curved itself around my needs.  And this is how things are going to be for the rest of my son’s life. He is white, he is male, and he comes from an upper-middle class home. The world is open to him — all he needs to do is decide what he wants. I’m not saying that he won’t have struggles. His life will be hard at times, in the way all peoples’ lives are hard at times. But his difficulties will likely be unrelated to his race or his gender. He will be playing life at its “lowest difficulty setting” and, really, good for him. He’s lucky.

The same is basically true for my 7-year-old daughter, though of course, she will have to fight a few battles that my son won’t, just because she’s a woman. For example, when she goes to a pizza parlor to pick up a tray of manicotti, the men who work there will offer to carry it for her, and even after she tells them, twice, that it really isn’t heavy and she can manage it just fine, thank you very much, they will take it anyway and start carrying it to the door until she says, a little too loudly, “REALLY. IT’S FINE. PLEASE GIVE IT TO ME.” And then they’ll hand her the manicotti and wonder, silently, why some women can’t just accept a little help now and then. And she’ll carry the manicotti, which isn’t very heavy (really) out to her car and she’ll try not to be annoyed at those men because they were just doing what they’ve been trained to do, which is to help white women who seem like they can’t help themselves. She is a virtue that requires protection. This is annoying, sure. But her life won’t be too hard, her difficulty setting being only a little higher than her brother’s. 

I’m writing this because I know our world is filled with all sorts of kind people, like that custodian who looked at me and at my sweet boy and decided to help us out, even though she didn’t have to. For the most part, this is how I experience the world and those experiences show me that the world can be a kind place. But as my family and I made our way up 270, I couldn’t help but think of Trayvon Martin’s family, and how different the world must look to them.

This post is a drop in the bucket. It’s an attempt to talk about being white, which is something white people don’t do very often. This post is me being not-silent. Thanks for listening.

Congratulations! It’s a Beautiful Baby Blog!

LAST UNICORN

Some people have their first child and then decide “This is quite enough excitement for me.” Other people think “I want five of these!” It’s the same with long-running projects (kind of). I started this blog back in 2009, as a reward for completing my first book manuscript. Well, two weeks ago I got tenure (yay!) and therefore decided it was time for another present. I decided to start another blog. But instead of raising this blog baby by myself, I decided to enlist the help of two of my dearest friends from graduate school. And I decided to make it a blog about true stories, even though I haven’t done any creative writing since 1999. But don’t let that frighten you away — my coeditors are real MFAs so they’ll keep me in check!

To check out our mission statement, click here.

I’d love it if you’d check out this new blog project, read my first story (posted today!), comment, share and, if you’re feeling frisky, submit a story of your own.

Everyone has a story to tell.

To read “This is a Dead Cat Story,” click here.

 

Teaching this Old Horse some New Teaching Tricks

Me, inspiring my students (from fanpop.com)

Me, inspiring my students
(from fanpop.com)

This semester I have experimented a lot with my teaching and classroom policies. While implementing new policies certainly adds more work (and frustration) to an already busy semester, my hope is to find the right mix of assignments and policies so that ultimately, running my class is less work and less frustration. One policy I tried out was changing my approach to student absences. In the past my absence policy has been that students could miss 3 classes over the course of the semester with no penalty. After 3 absences, I deduct 10 points (aka, a full letter grade) from their final grades  for each additional missed class. Though I think this policy is quite generous, it created a lot of headaches for me. Students would be cavalier about missing classes early in the semester (missing 3 within the first 6 weeks of the semester) and then, when cold/flu season hit the campus (and it always does), they would miss even more classes and then beg forgiveness. I once had a student  show up in my class looking like the Crypt Keeper. When I asked her why she came to class when she was clearly very ill and contagious she said that she had used up all of her absences and didn’t want to fail my class. Another student showed up to class drunk (very drunk)  for the same reason. This led me to become the “absence judge, jury and executioner”: I would have to determine  how the student would make up the additional absences in a way that was fair to the students who did the work and  showed up every day . I also had to determine which truant students would have an opportunity to make up their absences. Does a sick aunt warrant missing 3 additional classes? What about a really bad break up? A court date?

Me, dealing with truancy from liketotally80s.com

Me, dealing with truancy
from liketotally80s.com

This process is exhausting to describe and, I assure you, even more exhausting when experienced in real life. I have so much to do with my job and policing absences made me cuckoo-bananas. So this semester, after consulting with many other professors, I came up with a new plan. Students were still allowed to miss 3 classes without penalty. But then, I added this paragraph to my syllabus:

Students may “make up” missed classes by turning in a 4 page paper that describes, in detail, what was discussed in class during the missed day. This requires obtaining the notes of at least 2 classmates and piecing together the missed lecture/class discussion from these notes and from discussions with classmates (i.e., NOT me). If the missed class is a Tuesday, the paper should also discuss the reading assignment. If the missed class is a Thursday, the paper must discuss the week’s assigned film. This paper MUST be turned in within 2 weeks of the missed class. This is the ONLY way to “make up” a missed class. You must take care of obtaining notes from classmates on your own. After 2 weeks, the absence will be counted. THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS TO THIS POLICY.

This semester I had approximately 30 students and in that entire group, only 2 students missed more than 3 classes. One of the students missed many classes early on and took it upon himself to withdraw from my class. He actually apologized for his truancy and then said he hoped to try to take my class again in the future. There was no whining or pleading (and there usually is in these situations). He took responsibility for absences and removed himself from my classroom. I was actually shocked by how maturely my student handled the situation — it was kind of like interacting with a real adult! The 2nd student, who missed 4 classes, just turned in his make up paper. Again, this student did not attempt to make excuses for the classes he missed. He just turned in his paper and that was that. I say this because I have never had a semester at East Carolina University where students have attended classes so regularly. I could attribute this to the fact that I taught 2 upper-level seminars filled almost entirely with film minors who were invested in the class and its material — that probably helped. But I also think that having an absence policy that removed the weight of policing student attendance from my shoulders to their shoulders may have also helped. I also think that I have been making the mistake of coddling my students a bit too much. If I start treating them more like independent adults, they will act that way. Or at least, that is how it went down this semester.

The other change I made this semester was to the way I managed the students’ reading assignments. I had been finding that even in classes filled with my best students, there was a reading problem. That is, students weren’t doing the weekly reading assignments.

It got so bad last semester that I finally just asked my students point-blank “Why aren’t you reading?” And they told me. They felt the reading assignments were either too long or they didn’t see the need or value in reading them on the days when I didn’t go over the reading in detail in class ( in my day we did 50 pages of reading for a class, the professor didn’t discuss it with us and WE LIKED IT! but I digress….). So I listened to this feedback and changed things up. This semester I taught shorter essays (10-20 pages tops) and I also required the students to compose 3 tweets about the week’s reading and post them to Twitter every Monday, using the course hashtag. Here is an excerpt from the assignment I handed out at the beginning of the semester:

Guidelines for Twitter Use in ENGL3901

General Requirements

-You must post at least 3 tweets each week by 5pm every Monday (the earliest you may post is AFTER 5pm on the previous Monday)

For example:

-you must read the following short pieces by Jan 22 [Geoffrey Nowell-Smith “After the War,” pp. 436-443; Geoffrey Nowell-Smith “Transformation of the Hollywood System,” pp. 443-451]

so the tweets about that reading are due anytime BETWEEN 5pm on Jan 15th and 5pm on Jan 22

-You may do all 3 tweets in one sitting or spread them out over the course of a week

-All tweets MUST include the hashtag #E3901 so that the class (and your professor) will be able to see them

-All tweets must contain at least one substantial piece of information on or about the week’s reading assignment

As with the adoption of any new technology, there was a learning curve involved in using Twitter for classroom credit. Over half the students had never used Twitter before and therefore were not accustomed to its 140 character limit. I also had to send out weekly reminders for the first few weeks of class. But by the end of the semester I was surprised to see that the students kept up with this assignment and that they were actually processing the reading in useful ways. Being forced to take a complex idea and express it in 140 characters forces the student to engage with the material more deeply than if s/he had simply read the assignment and then put it down (or not read it at all!). I also think that having to account for their reading labor (and it IS labor) publicly — to the professor and to classroom peers — made the students realize the value and importance of the weekly reading assignments.

last semester

last semester

I actually wrote about this experience — as well as my experiences using blogs in the classroom — in a new short piece over at MediaCommons. If you’d like to learn more about the value of social media in the media studies classroom, you can click the link below. Please comment!

Click here to read “Mind Expanders and Multimodal Students”

So while instituting new policies has been time-consuming — both in planning, executing and documenting — overall, I am really happy with the results. I have a tendency to “mother hen” my students. I check in and remind them of deadlines, I poke and prod, and ultimately I wear myself out. I think I must wear them out too. Both the new absence policy and the incorporation of Twitter to encourage reading in the classroom has shifted some of those burdens from my shoulders to my students’ shoulders (where it belongs). This was most apparent when I realized that no one had emailed me this semester to explain why s/he had missed class and why I should count a particular absence as “excused” (in my class there is no such thing as an “excused” absence, unless the university tells me so).  I feel like students took more ownership of attendance and engagement with their reading assignments. When I teach a 100-person Introduction to Film course this fall (a course with a notoriously high absence rate and low reading engagement rate), I will be interested to see how these new policies work. Til then though, I am going to go ahead and give myself a soul clap:

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“To Dance Again!”: Affect, Genre, and the HARRY POTTER Franchise

Cast of the A VERY POTTER MUSICAL and A VERY POTTER SEQUEL

Cast of the A VERY POTTER MUSICAL and A VERY POTTER SEQUEL

This week I attended the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Chicago. I decided to share the paper I presented there as part of the panel, “Affect in the Age of Transmedia Storytelling” on this blog in an effort to make research that was presented to just 20-25 people (not a bad turn out for one of the first panels of the 5 day conference!), available for a wider audience. My paper was originally titled “‘Falling in Love with Hermione Granger': Affect, Genre, and the Harry Potter Franchise” but I ultimately did not have time to discuss the song, “Granger Danger” in this brief paper (a note that drew at at least one “Booooo!” from the audience when announced), so I changed the title for this post to reflect that omission.

To watch “Granger Danger” start at the 2 minute mark

Other than the title change and some added clips (yay internet!), the  paper below  is what I presented last Wednesday. I welcome any feedback.

A screen shot of my panel from the SCMS 2014 conference program.

A screen shot of my panel from the SCMS 2014 conference program.

********

“To Dance Again!”: Affect, Genre, and the Harry Potter Franchise

I want to begin this discussion of affect in the transmedia franchise by discussing a scene from A Very Potter Musical, a full length stage musical written, directed and performed by a group of University of Michigan performing arts students and recorded and broadcast online via YouTube in 2009. The show has 14 original numbers and over 9 million page views. The scene you are about to watch is a recreation of a significant moment from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire –when Lord Voldemort finally reclaims a human body after more than 11 years of painful disembodiment. What is the first item on Voldemort’s evil agenda? Why, to dance of course!

Begin watching “To Dance Again!” at the 3 minute mark:

In this number Voldemort usefully describes how music can compel the body to dance, even when the brain rejects the idea:

“The other boys would laugh and jeer

But I’d catch em tappin their toes.

‘Cause when Id start to sway

they’d get carried away.

And oh, how the feeling grows…”

These lines—and the whole number for that matter, highlight the relationship between affect and music—how the compulsion to sing or dance is frequently pre-cognitive.

Joe Walker as Lord Voldemort

Joe Walker as Lord Voldemort

In “Serial Bodies,” Shane Denson defines affect as “the privileged but fleeting moments, when narrative continuity breaks down and the images on the screen resonate materially, unthinkingly, or pre-reflectively with the viewer’s autoaffective sensations.” Denson then goes on to cite Linda Williams’ famous essay on body genres,  “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” in which she argues that when watching horror films, pornography or melodramas, “the body of the spectator is caught up in an almost involuntary mimicry of the emotion or sensation of the body onscreen” (144). Though Williams makes a passing reference to musicals in her list of potential body genres, the musical is rarely discussed in terms of its relationship to affect. However, the instinct to sing or dance to a catchy tune is frequently takes place just before our conscious mind reminds us that such an impulse could lead to public humiliation.

I am also using affect in this talk to reference the very real emotional connections between fans and the texts they love. In fact, the syntax of the musical favors emotion in that the genre’s most valued characters are those who sing and dance because they love it so much–because the pure bliss of performance cannot be resisted. Those characters who sing and dance purely for money or who overthink their art are usually proven to be villains, or at the very least, in need of reformation.

For example, in The Bandwagon (1953), Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) is only able to create a successful show when he stops aiming for “high brow” status and just makes a show filled with music and dance:

So what does a singing and dancing Lord Voldemort have to do with transmedia franchises and affect, the subject of today’s panel? By translating key plot events from the Harry Potter franchise into musical numbers, I am arguing that A Very Potter Musical transforms the fantasy franchise’s key opposition between good and evil to the musical’s own preoccupation with joie de vivre over monetary gain. In her study of Roswell fandom and genre in fan discourse, Louisa Stein argues that fans “use generic codes as points of identification with story and character, making fictional narratives and characters personally meaningful or resonant through processes of genre personalization” (2.4). Likewise for fans of the musical, A Very Potter Musical offers an affective entry point into the vast narratological universe of Harry Potter, making the franchise more personally meaningful. This is not to say that Potter films and books don’t generate affect in their audiences, but rather that the structures of the musical create new opportunities for affect among Potter fans (and of course, for Potter fans who dislike musicals, AVPM will not provide any form of engagement because they won’t seek it out).

Screen Shot 2013-03-10 at 9.12.01 PM

As a transmedia franchise that includes 7 novels, 8 blockbuster films, a Disney theme park, toys, videogames and countless other product tie-ins, Harry Potter fandom is necessarily broad, heterogeneous, and expressed through a range of media platforms: thousands of fan-created websites, newsletters, slash, conventions, a thriving genre of Harry Potter­-themed rock music known as “wrock,” and even an activist group known as the Harry Potter Alliance. A Very Potter Musical, which seems to straddle the spaces between fan fiction, wrock, and possibly even filk, disguises its budget limitations with winking musical performances, self reflexivity, and the unabashed passion of its actors. Fan love fills in production gaps and adorns the visible seams of this otherwise amateur production. The lengths that fans will go to express their adoration for a beloved text have been well-documented by fan studies scholars like Henry Jenkins, who describes fan fiction as “a celebration of intense emotional commitments and the religious fervor that links fandom to its roots in fanaticism” (251). Thus for scholars of fan studies, AVPM is nothing new. However, for a scholar of film genres like myself, the show is quite useful for understanding the role that genre—specifically the musical–plays in the relationship between fandom, transmedia franchises and affect.

Watch Darren Criss (Harry Potter) and Joey Richter (Ron Weasley) perform “Goin Back to Hogwarts” with some fans. Note the moment when the fans chime in at the 55 second mark and Darren Criss’ reaction:

One way that AVPM creates an intimate relationship between fan and text is by transforming the multibillion dollar Harry Potter transmedia franchise—the ultimate form of mass culture–back into folk culture. Whereas folk art is an expression of the community who is also its audience, mass art is disseminated to its audience already made, articulating its values for them. However, as so many fan studies scholars have noted, fan fiction allows fans to convert mass culture back into folk culture. I would add that by explicitly relying on the syntax and semantics of the musical, AVPM is even more adept at creating the sense that mass art is folk art. Jane Feuer argues that: “In basing its value system on community, the producing and consuming functions served by the passage of musical entertainment from folk to popular to mass status are rejoined through the genre’s rhetoric” (3).

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For example, film musicals often offer up images of the diegetic audience to compensate for the “lost liveness” of the stage, serving as a serving as a stand in for the film audience’s subjectivity (27). Many Hollywood musicals include a diegetic audience that cues the non-digetic audience in about how to feel about a performance—if they clap and cheer, the performance was successful. If they sit silently in their seats, the performance was a bust. A similar effect is created when watching the streaming video of the live stage performance of AVPM. As you heard in the “To Dance Again!” number, the laughter, applause, and hoots of appreciation stemming from the live, diegetic audience solidifies the non-diegetic audience’s understanding that these low budget performances are, in fact, successful — even when it is difficult to hear some of the actors’ lines and jokes are lost. This is especially important for something broadcast over the internet, since most viewers of AVPM are likely watching on their computer screens, alone. The diegetic audience thus serves as a viewing companion, reassuring us about when to laugh or applaud.

Screen Shot 2013-03-10 at 9.35.39 PM

Likewise, Feuer argues that many musicals include characters who are not supposed to be professional singers and dancers but who instead sing and dance for the love of it. This use of “amateurs” gives us the feeling that stars are singing and dancing on screen because they love to, not because they are being paid to do so. By masking this professionalism, the musical’s performers are closer to us, the amateurs in the audience. AVPM offers a similar experience, only the performers we are watching really are amateurs in that the show itself is a labor of love rather than a profit-generating venture.

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This feeling is bolstered by the show’s shoddy production values. For example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the evil Lord Voldemort attempts to revive his body by attaching what little remains of his soul to the simpering Professor Quirrell. In the book, and even more so in the film adaptation, this melding of two men—skull to skull–is a horrifying spectacle. However, in AVPM the inability to create a CGI monster and the need to improvise becomes one of the show’s best gags.

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We marvel, not at Rowling’s fantastical prose nor at the wonders of CGI, but at the cleverness of the students who have put on this show.

Watch the big reveal here:

When watching AVPM the amateurish costumes and sets, the imperfect sound and image quality, and the occasional mistakes, lets us know we know we are watching Harry Potter fans who are just like us—rather than seasoned professionals. Such moments work, to quote Feuer again, to “pierce through the barrier of the screen” (1). So while AVPM is not spontaneous (clearly it was rehearsed and well though-out), its imperfections create the feeling of spontaneity, which is so central to the task of making mass art appear as folk art. Furthermore, Glen Creeber argues that the rawness of online video and the solitary viewing conditions it generates creates a sense of intimacy and authenticity not found in cinema or television. He argues that the “homemade” aesthetic of webcam images creates the “profound intimacy of the image” (598).

Watch Harry Potter face off with a Hungarian Horntail at the 1 minute mark:

In addition to creating intimacy between fan and text, A Very Potter Musical—due to the genre’s focus on the joys of song–creates an affective relationship between viewer and text. For example, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter’s participation in the Triwizard Tournament leads him to engage in battle with a Hungarian Horntail, a fierce breed of dragon. Harry ultimately defeats the Horntail with his exceptional broom-flying skills. And in the film adaptation, we get to see this fantastical scene come to life through the magic of CGI. However, in AVPM, Harry defeats the dragon by summoning his guitar, not his broom, and then by performing an emo ballad about the futility of hand-to-hand combat entitled “Hey Dragon”.

Watch the number here:

The song concludes with the lyrics:

“I can’t defeat thee

So please don’t eat me

All I can do

Is sing a song for you.”

The dragon is eventually lulled to sleep by Harry’s song. Harry thus relies on the power of music—rather than magic—to win a seemingly insurmountable challenge. So while this musical number is a practical way to disguise the absence of state of the art special effects, it also highlights the way that music can impact the body, turning a fierce dragon into a purring kitten. The consumption of spectacle is a pleasure central to the Potter franchise but in AVPM these are replaced with the pleasures of musical performance.

 Like most examples of fan fiction, AVPM also highlights aspects of the Potterverse that may not be apparent in the novels, films and officially licensed paratexts, but which fans desire. For example, in the books, secondary character Ginny Weasley is defined almost entirely in relation to her older brother, Ron, and her love interest, Harry. Likewise, Ginny’s romantic relationship with Harry is primarily understood through Harry’s point of view. For example, in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Rowling describes Harry’s budding feelings for Ginny in this way:

Screen Shot 2013-03-10 at 9.47.13 PM

Likewise, the films cue us in to Harry’s desires via longing close ups or by frequently putting Ginny in a position to be rescued by Harry. This is such a prevalent plot twist, in fact, that wrock band Harry and the Potters wrote a song about it:

The fan knows little of Ginny’s interiority, other than through bits of dialogue or the occasional longing glance at Harry:

Screen Shot 2013-03-12 at 12.04.14 AM

In AVPM, however, Ginny performs the torch song “Harry,” which puts a literal and metaphoric spotlight on what it feels like to be in love with the Boy Who Lived.


Watch “Harry” here, performed by Ginny Weasley (Jaime Lyn Beatty)

Ginny’s moving performance, in which she dances awkwardly with Harry’s guitar—a proxy for her absent love object—provides a renewed emotional connection with this secondary character. And Ginny’s performance—which is passionate but imperfect as she struggles to hit her big notes—creates an affective relationship with this character that may not have been possible when watching the Potter films. The goosebumps that appear on my arms as Ginny sings, are a testament to the way that music generates an affective viewing experience.

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Here again we can see how the choice of genre—the musical—allows Potter fans an entry point into the transmedia franchise that is personal and intimate. Indeed, there are numerous covers of “Harry” on YouTube, a testament to the way that AVPM allows Potter fans a different, more embodied way, to express their fandom.

Watch my favorite fan covers of “Harry” here:

One thing all of these performances share is a nervous, almost giddy, sense of joy—we can trace the joy expressed in the original AVPM performance as it is then translated and transmuted through each fan video—a domino effect of pure love. Likewise, the comments on each video are generally supportive, with the Potter fan community coming together to support each new iteration of the original fan text.

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In this way, AVPM fandom appears to mimic that of the wrock community. Suzanne Scott argues that wrock, unlike filk, “mimics a conventional performer/audience dialectic rather than a collective creative enterprise when performed.”

Screen Shot 2013-03-10 at 9.56.29 PM

Although there is a separation between performer and audience here, I believe that the significance of AVPM lies in the affective relationships it facilitates between fan and text, even if the text’s various performers are performing online with one another, as opposed to face to face in a filk song circle.

Screen Shot 2013-03-10 at 9.57.03 PM

 In conclusion, A Very Potter Musical translates the fan’s love of the Harry Potter storyworld and its characters into a series of musical numbers that fans can then sing themselves. By depicting bodies that must express themselves through song and dance, A Very Potter Musical is an ideal venue for understanding the importance of affect in fan fiction. AVPM demonstrates the way that mass culture can be transmuted back into folk culture, thereby offering fans of the transmedia franchise a personalized, emotional engagement.

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Works Consulted

Creeber, Glen. “It’s Not TV, it’s Online Drama: The Return of the Intimate Screen.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 14.6: (2011): 591-606

Denson, Shane. “Serial Bodies: Corporeal Engagement in Long-Form Serial Television.” Media Initiative 22 Feb 2013 http://medieninitiative.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/serial-bodies/

Feuer, Jane. The Hollywood Musical, 2nd Ed. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1993.

Jenkins, Henry. 2012. “‘Cultural Acupuncture': Fan Activism and the Harry Potter Alliance.” In “Transformative Works and Fan Activism,” edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10. doi:10.3983/twc.2012.0305.

——-. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

———. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2005.

Scott, Suzanne. “Revenge of the Fan Boy: Convergence Culture and the Politics of Incorporation.” Diss. University of Southern California, 2011. Online.

Stein, Louisa Ellen. 2008. “Emotions-Only” versus “Special People”: Genre in fan discourse. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1. http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/43.

Tatum, Melissa L. 2009. “Identity and authenticity in the filk community.” Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2009.0139.

Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess.” The Film Genre Reader III. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. 141-159.

Smash Talkin: A Roundtable on the SMASH Season 2 Premiere

This roundtable, focusing on the season 2 premiere of NBC’s Smash (which aired on February 5th), arose in response to a recent article “How “Smash” Became TV’s Biggest Train Wreck” by Kate Arthur. Though the article accurately addresses many of the problems in Smash’s first season (Emory Cohen’s dead performance as marijuana addict, Leo, Ellis’ unexplained and over-the-top villainy, Debra Messing’s scarves), it also pins most of the series’ failures onto the Season 1 showrunner, Theresa Rebeck (who apparently also likes scarves). So one goal of this roundtable was to identify what changes, if any, have been made to season 2 with its new showrunner, Josh Safran (of Gossip Girl fame).

Another question that was raised by those of us who read this article was: was Smash’s first season really “TV’s Biggest Trainwreck” or are the people who watch (or rather who “hate watch”) Smash simply unaccustomed to rhythms of the musical? The six academics participating in this roundtable are all fans of the musical genre and therefore, never saw Smash’s narrative as a failure since we were never watching the show for its narrative in the first place. But are great numbers enough to keep viewers around for season 2? Let’s find out…

***

The roundtable started off discussing what was great about the season 2 premiere:

Overall Narrative Structure


Alfred Martin: I do like that they’ve seemed to cut out all the extraneous plot and really focused in on the show and aren’t dinking around with Julia’s (Debra Messing) marriage. And thank GOD they seem to have gotten rid of her HORRIBLE son (Emery Cohen).

Kyra Hunting:  I understand that many people feel that the show didn’t work because of the narrative or that the show worked despite the narrative on the strength of the musical numbers, cast, etc. But here is the thing: I LOVE the narrative – and so do many of my colleagues who are big fans of classical Hollywood musical. I feel like the disconnect for many is that a musical narrative logic is being imposed on a television environment. At its core I feel like Smash is a sexed up, knives out version of a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musical – New York is a pretty big barn – but hey lets put on a show!

No More Scarves


Amanda Ann Klein:
I wasn’t all that bothered by Julia’s (Debra Messing) scarf-wearing in season 1 but now that her scarves are gone I like Julia more. Coincidence? I think not.

Jennifer Lynn Jones:
I honestly never noticed the scarves either, although I feel that I subconsciously registered that the costume designers were signifying that Julia was approaching “a certain age.” Thinking back on it now, that and some other Julia plot points are bugging me, like too many offstage domestic dramas being heaped on her plate. And why can’t Julia be reaching “a certain age” and still be fabulous? Maybe scarfless Julia will be. Maybe that’s something to look forward to.

Alfred: I never noticed the scarves either.  I find it interesting that (and I can’t remember from last season if) Debra Messing got top billing last season.

Amanda: Her scarves got top billing.

Jennifer Hudson

"Girl, you're making me look bad!""Then maybe you better hit the road?"Image source:http://www.salon.com/2013/02/05/hate_watching_smash_is_one_of_lifes_great_pleasures/

“Girl, you’re making me look bad!”
“Then maybe you better hit the road?”
Image source:
http://www.salon.com/2013/02/05/hate_watching_smash_is_one_of_lifes_great_pleasures/


Amanda:
The best number of the night was definitely Jennifer Hudson’s first number, “Mama Makes Three,” in the musical within a musical, Beautiful (though I thought it was hilarious that Karen [Katherine McPhee] described Hudson’s character in the show as “this sweet 1950s Aretha/Etta James type but she has this really overbearing mother.”). I personally love musical numbers that are set on an actual stage and this one was really fun: costumes, dancers, etc. This is what I want from my musicals!  All I wrote in my notebook during this number was “WOMAN CAN SING.” On a related note, Katherine McPhee must never ever, ever sing another duet with Jennifer Hudson (“On Broadway”). Never.

Jennifer: I agree! Just hearing J.Hud in the previews for the next episode gave me chills.

Alfred:  Why does the black lady have to be connected to Aretha Franklin and Etta James?  But Jennifer Hudson looks and sounds AMAZING (I’ve loved her since her days on American Idol).  The first scene shown seems to suggest that she is starring in a “black” musical, which I think is really interesting given this show. Really?  She’s getting ready to star in a revival of The Wiz?  This role seems to be trading on clichés big time, particularly with this character. The song “On Broadway” should just simply be barred from anyone singing it ever.  It’s a horrible song that is locked in its specific temporal moment (and I always see the opening of All That Jazz in my head whenever I hear it). Also, her character doesn’t seem to be integral to the story.  I’ll be really interested to see how (and if) they integrate her more deeply into the story.

Sad Julia & Sad Derek

"So Karen, have I mentioned that your my muse? Let's get naked."Image source:http://www.salon.com/2013/02/05/hate_watching_smash_is_one_of_lifes_great_pleasures/

“So Karen, have I mentioned that your my muse? Let’s get naked.”
Image source:
http://www.salon.com/2013/02/05/hate_watching_smash_is_one_of_lifes_great_pleasures/

Amanda: I’m glad Julia is getting a divorce and I’m glad that Derek (Jack Davenport) is realizing that maybe women only sleep with him because their jobs depend on it.

Alfred: For me, it’s less about getting rid of the scarves and more about them having gotten rid of her husband, Frank (Brian D’arcy James).  As much as I liked Brian D’arcy James in Next to Normal on Broadway, he was underutilized and annoying as hell in Smash.  I’m not sure about them going down this Will & Grace retread with Julia and Tom (Christian Borle) planning to live together.

Kelli Marshall: I kinda like that Derek is realizing this too, but that “Robert Palmer” number was just…too much.

Jennifer: No, the Palmer-style Eurythmics song did not work for me either, but can we really imagine a kinder, gentler Derek? And would we really want one? Dickishness is half his charm, the rest obviously being accent and scruffy hair. I think he does a good job with that bad boy charmer role. As director, he rides the line between leader and villain well.

Kyra: Derek without Dickishness and arrogance hardly seems like Derek at all. It seem odd to me that this never occurred to him before and while I really like him having to deal with the consequences of his actions, I don’t want him to become a saint.

Amanda: I agree the “Would I Lie to You?” number was odd. But I believe it was the only “fantasy” number in the first two episodes of season 2 and so for that reason, I was glad to see it. I read somewhere that the show is trying to get away from these numbers, as they are the ones most likely to turn off audiences who don’t like musicals. I think that if you view a spontaneous Bollywood number ( “A Thousand and One Nights”) as odd simply because it was inspired by the eating of Indian food (to name one example of a fantasy number that was skewered by fans last season), then you probably don’t like musicals all that much. So why are you watching this show then, haters? Musicals need the flimsiest of excuses to launch into a number. This is the point of a musical, no? I really enjoyed Karen’s Bollywood fantasy number from Season 1. If you can get past the ethnocentrism of the piece, it had all the elements of a great number: beautiful costumes and make up, fun choreography, and loads and loads of performers. I thought it was aware of its own campiness and embraced it. I loved it. Click here to watch.

Kelli:  I like the way you think, Klein! I’ve repressed my love for and enjoyment of the Bollywood number on The Twitter Machine (and the like) so I would not be reamed in public. I did, however, show it to my Cinema History course last spring when we discussed America’s appropriation of Bollywood. Also showed a Zumba workout video, if you’re interested. ;-)

Megan Hilty

Amanda: Hilty’s last number, “They Just Keep Moving the Line,” performed at the Generic Theater Association Event (you know, the one filled with “Broadway Bigwigs”) was amazing. I will sit through 90 minutes of bullshit narrative to hear this woman sing.

Kelli: Indeed, girl. Indeed. Hilty ain’t messin’ around.

Jennifer: Yep. I wasn’t always on Ivy’s team, but this and all the sorrow they’re heaping on her now are definitely getting me there.

Kyra: I never disliked Karen the way many did, but I do think the best possible thing about the stupid Hipster musical is Karen could move on to that, the sort of Songs For A New World thing her voice might work for, and Ivy could finally go back to being Marilyn. Derek splitting these two projects might be interesting to and would take Karen/Ivy’s rivalry in a novel direction.

Alfred: I really disliked Ivy until two things happened:  One, it was revealed that her TV mother is Bernadette Peters; Two, she became one of the more complexly-written characters on the show.  And she is really acting the crap out of that character.  And indeed, this episode started when she SLAYED that song.  That voice?!?!?!?

The Bad

Katharine McPhee

Amanda: I loved McPhee during her season of American Idol, maybe because she performed mostly pop music? But on Smash, which is mostly focused on broadway music, her voice just never sounds as strong as it needs to be. It’s almost impossible to believe that she would be cast in the lead role of Bombshell, over Megan Hilty. I don’t buy the excuse that she is Derek’s “muse.” Or does “muse” just mean “someone I want to screw”? If so, she is totally Derek’s “muse.” That plot, which was so central to season 1, was always the most problematic one for me. But it seems like that will be less of an issue for this season, which is a plus.

Jennifer: I’ve had several conversations with different people about McPhee’s character Karen, though, especially comparing her to Ivy. Most people I’ve spoken to about the contrast between Karen and Ivy don’t seem to get why Karen would even be in the running against Ivy, something that Rachel Shukert brought up during Julie Klausne’s special Smash-themed podcast episode “How Was Your Smash.” Ivy seems to look so much more like Marilyn Monroe, and has those great Broadway pipes to boot. However, there’s a certain vulnerability in Karen that I think really resonates with Monroe and often gets overlooked, so for that reason, I’ve pretty much been pulling for Karen all along. However, I found her whinier and more cloying in these first two episodes, so we’ll see how it goes for the second season.

Kyra: Jennifer, I really really share some of your feelings about Karen and her vulnerability. I saw below that she is Norma Jean, and Norma Jean after all was the core that made Marilyn so appealing. I also think the assumption that her voice couldn’t be a broadway one depends on a pretty narrow understanding of a broadway voice. Ivy definitely has the more traditional belt but I’ve certainly seen modern musicals with the quieter/poppier sound that Karen has. Nonetheless, I think this has been such a flashpoint for people, and so often used to deny realism, that breaking the Ivy/Karen Marilyn competition might be necessary.

Amanda: Well said, Jennifer and Kyra. I understand this reasoning but for me, broadway numbers are about being BIG! BIG! BIG! I want big emotion, big drama and big pipes. This is why I was so disappointed with Anne Hathaway’s performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” in Les Miserables ( 2012, Tom Hooper). [http://vimeo.com/57307781] Her voice sounded pretty and her acting was moving but I don’t care about all of those things when I’m listening to that song. When Fantine sings “I Dreamed a Dream” I want it to bore into my soul: I want her pain and rage over her lover’s betrayal and consequences of that betrayal to crescendo into a big, full throated burst of song. I don’t want quiet in my musicals. One exception: Once (2006, John Carney)

Alfred: I’m just happy that the other characters have stopped calling McPhee “Iowa.”  I kind of think she makes sense as Marilyn because she has a kind of lightweight, breathy voice that I think is more suited for what the role is in my head and seems to be more “realistically” (as if that word even makes sense in the world of Smash) rooted in the person she is supposed to be portraying.  All that having been said, I just don’t think McPhee is ready for the role she’s been thrust into.  For me, she just doesn’t have the chops to carry a show (or the show within the show).

Karen’s Hipster Love Interest

Amanda: What singer/songwriter living in New York City and working on composing a musical doesn’t  want people to hear his work, especially when those people are in a position to help him? Jimmy (Jeremy Jordan) tells Karen “I write for myself” and “I don’t need other people to tell me I’m good.” Ridiculous. I declare shenanigans on this hipster character.

Jennifer: This guy? Too much. The fact that they namecheck The Strokes, even just to mock Karen, gives the tell that these writers don’t know from hipsters. And how many hipsters are writing musical theater anyway? Nonetheless, I do like the idea of having more than one musical being staged for the show, and I love the idea of these shows competing against each other. That seems fitting for Broadway in a sense: competing for space, competing for talent, competing for attention and audiences. And if the new musical brings in more songs, ALL THE BETTER.

Alfred: More importantly, what an awkward way to let the viewer know that he is “fair game” for Karen as a love interest than to have his gay pal declare his heterosexuality.  Is it too soon to ask for this dude to be written out?  His whole “too cool for school” act is old already and we’re only two hours in.  It would seem, as y’all have said before, that someone writing a musical would really be a lot more open to people who could drum up opportunities for him rather than being an asshole hipster.

Amanda:  [raises fist in anger] HIPSTERS!!!

Too Much Talky, Not Enough Singy

Amanda: In an effort to mend the narrative and character issues from season 1, I think Josh Safran decided to frontload all the narrative changes and focus less on the musical performances (and just giving a few solo/duet performances at that, very few group numbers with dancing). At least I’m hoping this was the case. Because if it’s not, I am not sure I’ll continue to watch. The narrative in this show isn’t strong enough to keep me around–there are better melodramas out there.

Jennifer: I’m a little worried that the remaining staff have taken too many of the criticisms to heart and gone to what might seem like safer zones. That might mean fewer numbers, or numbers more motivated by the musical. That might also mean going in a more familiar direction with Debra Messing’s character, Julia. I got antsy when I noticed how many “Grace” (of Will and Grace) moments there seemed to be in the second episode: moving in with her gay best friend after the end of a failed relationship, taking to the bed with her misery and not bathing enough, even doing Grace’s little “d’oh” sound at one point. Having looked back over the first season a bit and re-read a lot of the recent commentaries, I will agree that Julia was probably given too many of the plot points and paring some back may have been a wise choice, but I don’t think taking Debra Messing back to Grace will make the show any better.

Alfred:
One of the things that made Smash so great in the first season is that it did not rely so heavly on covers (a la Glee) and instead produced some really top notch Broadway songs (“History is Made at Night” is an AMAZING song).  It seems like the notes (from these first two episodes) have been to try to make it more like Glee because the theory (I think) might be that by doing cover songs, it gives viewers a point of entry.  Instead, it’s just sucked all the air out of the room and as we saw from the overnights, the ratings were no bueno.  And someone breaking into song at a party wouldn’t be told to shut the hell up?

Kelli: I’ll admit it: the premiere was not good. I’m not sure if this shift is a result of all the backlash from Season 1, i.e., setting up new storylines to compensate for those we’re losing (Ellis, Frank and Leo), introducing new characters such as the douchebag bartender/lyricist and his amiable friend/co-worker, generally fixing what the creators assumed (or TV critics and social media kept telling them?) was “broken.” Whatever the reason, the episode didn’t work for me overall.

On the Shift from Season 1 to Season 2:

Karen Petruska: I’m not sure how helpful I’ll be–I didn’t watch all of last season, and I had a strongly negative reaction to the first hour of the new season premiere. So, I used to work in theatre.  And I hate these people on Smash.  I hate their petty problems, I hate their fakeness, I hate their sham stakes.  I hate them all.  I would never hate watch this show because I don’t enjoy hating.  

How is it that they completely miss the allure of theatre?  The work in the rehearsal room? Best part.  Television seems to have transformed the theatre into these big production numbers–all flash, no substance.  It is the work, the sweat, the tears, the failed attempts, the successful guesses–that’s what is interesting.  Oh, and all those chorus people in the background? They matter.  They make up the heart of the show.  Focusing on the stars in theatre is dumb–it makes zero sense.  Sure, in film it makes sense.  Even in television, it may make sense.  But in theatre?  Nope.  You are only as good as the person across from you.  If their energy saps, your energy saps.  If they can’t look at you with a genuine reaction, you can’t be in the moment.

Amanda: Karen, I think it’s really interesting having you in this conversation since you didn’t watch the first season. I will say that we did see a bit more of the “work, the sweat, the tears, the failed attempts, the successful guesses” of putting on a show in season 1. We see Tom (Christian Borle) and Julia composing songs and trying them out. We watch Karen learning how to become a better dancer. We see the cast workshopping the numbers and trying out different routines. One thing we do not see much of though, is what life is like for the members of the chorus. Sam (Leslie Odom, Jr.) gets a bit of a spotlight at the end of season 1, but only because he is dating Tom (and once he started to get more screen time we knew he was going to be Tom’s next love interest). All of this is to say that I think the season 2 premiere was highly focused on critics’ problems with the show and, consequently, not very interested in pulling in new viewers like yourself.

Kelli:
Yes, one of my favorite things about season 1 is the repetition of the numbers during rehearsals, workshopping, etc. The viewer gets to learn the numbers alongside the cast members–and the duplication of them from episode to episode makes it feel as though the toil, practice, etc. is legit.

Amanda:
Yes! By the end of season 1 I felt like I was getting to know the numbers and starting to fall in love with them (like listening to an album a few times before you really start to love it), and I got excited when I started to recognize the numbers. That’s quite a feat for original music. I’ve said this a few times on Twitter: I would pay to see Bombshell. Even without Megan Hilty and the others in it.

Kyra: Agreed, and the struggles the show is having would be the perfect opportunity to go back to that. Workshopping scenes that didn’t work, changing numbers, trying to sell themselves to new investors…it would have fit this new narrative so easily, but no sign in sight. The best moment in the two new episodes was the one moment Ivy did a number from the show.

Karen:
And I will never, ever, ever buy Katherine McPhee.  Her character (based on the few episodes I have seen) is timid, weak, and way too “aw, shucks.”  She’s like the person on reality TV who kills it every week yet still pretends to be surprised by their praise–and that has been blown up to be her entire character trait.  I’m from the midwest.  Have these writers ever met anyone from the midwest? So I hate this show because nothing in it seems real.  Or sincere.

On Switching Showrunners

"All of my powers are found in my scarves"Image source:http://offstageleft.com/?paged=3

“All of my powers are found in my scarves”
Image source:
http://offstageleft.com/?paged=3

Karen: In terms of journalism, it is more of a gossip piece than anything else, but I think there are interesting things to read between the lines.  This is a clash of culture, in some ways.  But I am intrigued that everyone resisted Rebeck’s  seeming authority as a writer.  As if a writer should not want to protect their work–that seems an awfully cruel treatment of a writer.  But in television we praise showrunners and ignore all other writers in the room.  So showrunners get blamed, too. Why the show sucked in the ratings could be a lot of things, but who wants to watch a show that has the stink of an old, smelly sock?  They needed a radical shift–like, for example, firing McPhee.  It wouldn’t have been her fault, necessarily, but it would have been news.  And it could have prompted curiosity–more than firing a relatively unknown showrunner.

Jennifer: Smash had everything going for it: It had the famous director. It had the best producers for adapting stage to screen. It had the Tony-award winning songwriting team. It had great–even some legendary–Broadway performers. It had the network’s full backing. And at the beginning it had the critics’ love. And then over the course of the first season, it failed to deliver because of one megalomaniacal old crone who couldn’t see that all her ideas were shit.

That may be the legend, but I’m not buying it. Not that there weren’t problems in the first season. However, laying the blame for all those misses at the feet of one person, the only woman in a team of nine executive producers, is fallacious, even if her name is the one under the marquee in the opening credits. From the initial promos alone, we know that her name wasn’t the one being used to sell the program anyway; her name wasn’t being dragged out until there needed to be a scapegoat. The plight of the female showrunner has been an ongoing story over the past few years, as there are so few in the industry but of late so many of those have been raked over the coals and thrown under the bus.

Last thoughts?

Image source: http://mashable.com/2012/04/09/turn-ellis-from-smash-into-a-meme/

Image source: 

Kyra: The two biggest potential pitfalls of the show that I see for many viewers is the pacing and the stakes and both work for me if you accept some musical logics. I feel like the stakes and therefore the narrative are high enough for me because in my world who gets the part, or what number makes it into the show really does feel like life or death stakes. 

The season two reboot, however, worried me. Certainly I’m not sad to see Ellis (Jaime Cepero) go, and I can only hope that ditching the romantic partners means ditching some of the excess narrative that distracts from the shows larger focus. But I totally agree with Karen that we need much more time in the studio, at the piano, rehearsal, etc. It is, when its at its best, a backstage show and these two episodes pretty much took away our backstage. I can see the eventual value of the Hipster guy’s musical in bringing in a different musical theater style, one better suited to Katherine McPhee’s voice, but right now it seems a weird detour. Most worrying to me, as Amanda points out, there is a lack of well-integrated musical numbers. There aren’t enough numbers and very very few pull their narrative and emotional weight. Josh Safran seems to want to stick with largely diegetic realistic musical moments (with limited exceptions) and they often feel small (not in the good intimate way). Ivy at the end of the second episode gives a hint of the possibility of the magic. But I fear Safran is going to make this a show about a musical and not a musical television show, clearly a risky proposition for the critical mass but one that I had come to love.

Kelli: “It is, when its at its best, a backstage show and these two episodes pretty much took away our backstage.” I like this point very much, Kyra. It’s not necessarily narrative coherence or complex characterization I’m seeking when I watch Smash (or Glee, Top Hat, Grease, or *gasp* Singin’ in the Rain for that matter). Rather, I need spectacle. And I’d appreciate it if a few of said numbers were integrated (not sung onstage or in a dream state). See, for example, the pilot’s “Let Me Be Your Star,” which--in spite of its (and the show’s) clichéd contrasting of blonde girl/brunette girl–is just about as perfect a closing number as one could hope for. Through montage, crosscutting, and the pairing of McPhee and Hilty (at home, on the street, onstage), it so nicely sets up the stories and, more importantly, the caliber of numbers to come.

Last night’s episode, however, didn’t leave me feeling this hopeful…or impressed. Thus, if 2.1 is what we’re going to get after the infamous showrunner-swap and “the most involved reboot of the TV season” to quote EW (Jan. 11), I think I’d rather stick with Season 1, Julia’s scarves included.

Kyra: Kelli, I completely agree with the above. “Let Me Be Your Star” was exactly the number I was thinking of missing in the first two episodes. It was just the right amount of diegetic and fantasy, did tons of narrative and emotional work, and was just a great number. There was nothing like that last night.

Jennifer: 

In Denise Martin’s “How Smash Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Hate-Watchers” she writes:

“Numbers will either be grounded in reality… or entirely in the clouds. Safran likes fantasy sequences so long as they make sense in the context of the characters…. But no more sudden singing and dancing in the bowling alley. ‘I am against bursting out into song,’ Safran said.”

I cite Safran’s “rules”  because I just don’t think that he gets it, and I’m not sure that any of these kinds of changes are going to make much of a difference in the critical reception of the show. Like Kelli wrote above, musicals aren’t about narrative coherence, and they’re not about rules either. Even when music and dancing are “motivated” by a performance storyline, so much of the pleasure is in the opportunities for the extraordinary in the everyday from the unexpected performance Did that guy not even see Fame? Musicals aren’t about fantasy that makes “sense.” They’re about the fantastic and the impossible, the hoping against hope that all will work out, that you’ll get the part, that you’ll be the star, even when all the odds are stacked against you. Putting parameters on the performances sounds a bit like taking the musical out of the musical. I’m not yet willing to claim that that’s the intent or the result, but it does put a damper on the proceedings, and I think we’ve seen some of that in these first two episodes.

***

So, what did you think of the second season premiere of Smash? We’d love to hear your thoughts below.

About the Roundtable:

The roundtable,  just after this post went live. Image source:http://bobbyriverstv.blogspot.com/2012/03/on-band-wagon-with-nanette-fabray.html

The roundtable, just after this post went live.
Image source:
http://bobbyriverstv.blogspot.com/2012/03/on-band-wagon-with-nanette-fabray.html

Kyra Hunting  is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison where she is completing a dissertation entitled: “Genre Trouble: Cultural Difference and Contemporary Genre TV.” Her work has appeared in The Journal of Popular Culture, Transformative Works and Culture and Communication Review she blogs at and co-edits the media blog Antenna: Responses to Media and Culture. You can find me at: http://wisc.academia.edu/KHunting.

Jennifer Lynn Jones is a doctoral candidate in Film and Media Studies at Indiana University’s Communication and Culture program, writing a dissertation on celebrity, convergence, and corpulence (in short, “fat stars”).

Amanda Ann Klein is an Assistant Professor of film studies at East Carolina University. She recently published her first book, American Film Cycles: Reframing Genres, Screening Social Problems, and Defining Subcultures (University of Texas Press, 2011). You can follow her on  Twitter: @AmandaAnnKlein or read her blog: Judgmental Observer.

Kelli Marshall is a lecturer of Media and Cinema Studies at DePaul University. When she’s not teaching or live-tweeting Smash, Kelli researches two rather disparate fields: Shakespeare in film and popular culture, and the film musical, specifically the star image and work of Hollywood song-and-dance man Gene Kelly. Follow Kelli on Twitter at @kellimarshall and/or read more about her take on TV/film (and her adventures in higher ed) on her blog, MediAcademia.

Alfred L. Martin. Jr. is a PhD Candidate in Media Studies at the University of Texas -Austin where he studies race and sexuality on television. He currently serves as Co-Managing Editor for Flow, the Department of Radio-Television-Film’s online media journal.

Karen Petruska received her PhD in moving image studies from Georgia State University in 2012. She is currently a Postdoctoral Teaching Associate at Northeastern University. Her scholarly interests include television studies, media industry studies, new media, and feminist studies.

MTV Reality Programming & the Labor of Identity Construction

Note to the reader: Below is a work in progress. I am sharing it here in the hopes of generating discussion and recommendations for further reading and research. 

American children born after 1980 are the largest, most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history. They have seen an African American be reelected as the President of the United States of America. Many high schools now have Gay-Straight Alliance clubs (even as the bullying of gay students continues). Thus, Millennials are often labeled as “post racial,” “post gender,” or “pomosexual,” as if they have solved the eternal problem of human difference that none of us, stretching back for centuries, have been able to solve. However, according to studies conducted by the Applied Research Center, today’s youth still see race (and identity in general):

“The majority of people in our focus groups continue to see racism at work in multiple areas of American life, particularly in criminal justice and employment. When asked in the abstract if race is still a significant factor, a minority of our focus group participants initially said that they don’t believe it is—and some young people clearly believe that class matters more. But when asked to discuss the impact, or lack thereof, that race and racism have within specific systems and institutions, a large majority asserted that race continues to matter deeply.”

Indeed, in my experiences working with Millennials in the classroom, I have found that they are quite eager to self identify by race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and sexuality. In fact, the more invisible the identity, the more eager they are to make it visible. There seems to be a heightened interest in identity, defining its parameters and its meanings. Here I am defining “identity” in very simple terms:  it is a vision of yourself that is based on actual traits (your race, gender, sexual preference, nationality, etc.) but which you might also inflate or redefine to suit your vision of yourself (or how you hope to envision yourself). It is rooted in the material conditions of lived experience and also highly constructed. It is thrust upon the individual but also, quite often, carefully selected by the individual.

As someone who studies media images for a living, I see similar evidence of the Millennial struggle with identity happening in a very specific location: MTV reality programming. MTV describes itself as “the world’s premier youth entertainment brand” and “the cultural home of the millennial generation, music fans and artists, and a pioneer in creating innovative programming for young people.” When it first premiered in 1981 it was a 24 hour music video jukebox (and my favorite thing ever). MTV began producing original non-music programming as early as 1987 with its TV-centered game show Remote Control. Other programming, including Singled Out, Just Say Julie, and The State followed, thus aligning MTV’s content with something other than music. The success of the reality television series, The Real World, in 1991 cemented MTV’s move towards non-music based programming. Between 1995 and 2000, the number of music videos aired on the channel dropped by 36% (Hay). Now MTV is primarily known for creating original, non-musical content. Specifically, MTV likes to produces reality shows about segments of the contemporary youth demographic–the very demographic that is watching MTV.

And what I have learned from watching a lot of MTV’s reality programming is that the youth featured on these shows continue to grapple with racial /gender/sexual/class difference. Cast members on MTV’s most highly rated reality shows (Jersey Shore, Teen Mom, The Hills, The Real World, and now Buckwild) willingly serve as synecdoches for their ethnic group, their subculture, their class, their gender, their sexuality, their religion, or their region of the U.S. I agree with Michael Hirschcorn, who offers a lengthy defense of reality programming in The Atlantic:

“Reality shows steal the story structure and pacing of scripted television, but leave behind the canned plots and characters. They have the visceral impact of documentary reportage without the self-importance and general lugubriousness. Where documentaries must construct their narratives from found matter, reality TV can place real people in artificial surroundings designed for maximum emotional impact.”

When, for example, a cast member on The Real World defends a racist/sexist/homophobic comment in an “on the fly” (OTF) interview with the standard “Hey I’m just being real!” excuse, he is, in fact, being real. In other words, he is performing the identity he was cast to perform and which, he feels, he has the duty to perform since he was in fact cast on the show to perform that very identity.

Jersey Shore’s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino is perhaps the best example of MTV’s labor of identity construction (a runner up would be the Shannon family from Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, certainly an integral part of the poetics of TLC). Mike understands that he needs a single identity—that of the guido—in order to thrive on the series. Mike is defined by his abdominal muscles or rather Mike’s abdominal muscles tell us what kind of man he is—a man who is capable of performing the obsessive compulsive grooming ritual known as “Gym. Tan. Laundry” (aka, “GTL”):

I doubt that Mike GTLs as much as he claims to. But it only matters that he claims to GTL. In Jersey Shore and other MTV reality shows, the subject is in charge of defining himself before the camera. Mike tells us that GTLing makes him a guido and so the ritual becomes a clear marker of his identity. As a white American of European ancestry, Mike has the ability to choose his ethnic identity. He can take up a “symbolic ethnicity,” which Herbert Gans defines as “a nostalgic allegiance to the culture of the immigrant generation, or that of the old country; a love for and a pride in a tradition that can be felt without having to be incorporated in everyday behavior” (9). Mike’s identity functions as an “ethnic pull” rather than as a “racial push.” He chooses to be a guido and constructs the parameters of this identity. Nancy Franklin explains the necessity of the utterance in the creation of the reality TV persona “Like all reality-show participants, Pauly D, The Situation, and the others speak in categorical certainties. They know things for sure, then those things blow up in their faces, then they hate those things and take about three seconds to find new things to believe in.” And Mike believes in GTL. Without it, he is unemployed. That’s because clear identity construction is central to the appeal of MTV’s current programming.

Imagine the following scene: a group of roommates have just come home from a night of drinking. An argument soon erupts between two of the female roommates over who gets to have guests in the house; there is only room for seven guests and the house is at capacity. When an urban, African American character named Brianna becomes irate that her friends cannot come inside, her white, Christian, Southern roommate, Kim, replies, “Let’s not get ghetto. Be…normal.” The women then exchange expletives and threaten each other with physical harm. In the next scene, Kim explains the fight to her roommate, Sarah, who is also white: “I don’t care where you’re from, if you’re from the most inner city…” and here she pauses to grimace, “blackville. You don’t act like that.” Sarah, who has, thus far, been a sympathetic listener, giggles nervously and advises, “Maybe you should watch what you say…just a little?”

Had this scene been in a film or a scripted television show about a group of strangers who move in together, we would likely find these conversations unbelievable. We would roll our eyes at Kim’s over-the-top, racially-inflected villainy and cry foul: “Come on, who would say that? A real person wouldn’t say that!” But when we hear Kim say this exact line to Brianna (in an episode of The Real World XX: Hollywood), we know it is real (or realish) and therefore we must engage with this very real racism:

[You can watch the entire scene here: http://www.mtv.com/videos/misc/225650/lets-not-get-ghetto.jhtml]

Kim’s statements implicitly align Brianna’s behavior in this situation—her anger, her willingness to swear and make physical threats—as rooted in her class and her race (i.e., she acts this way because she comes from “the ghetto”) rather than the more plausible explanation: that Brianna is simply a hothead (like so many other young people who have been cast in the series. In fact, being a hothead is one of the primary criteria for snagging a spot in the show’s cast). Kim makes the racial and class bias of her comments explicit when she labels the nation’s “inner cities,” a location where people apparently behave in the most distasteful of fashions, “Blackville.”  Yes, Blackville. LaToya Peterson over at Racialicous calls this scene (and others like it) “hit and run racial commentary” because it dredges up problematic racial prejudices without truly engaging with them. She is nostalgic for earlier incarnations of The Real World and Road Rules (ah Road Rules!) when characters who got into heated arguments would have “an actual conversation where they were both screaming and both making very good points, and both walking away determined to do their own thing. Growth. Development. An actual exchange of ideas.”

Though Peterson sees such scenes as indicative of a new kind of reality programming on MTV, where cast members (who were cast precisely so that they would say something like this) make a racist statement and then are chastised and asked to repent (rather than engaging in a productive dialogue about how and why they came to acquire such a racist/sexist/homophobic vision of the world), this kind of dialogue has been MTV’s bread and butter since it first started airing The Real World over 20 years ago. As Jon Kraszewski argues, “The Real World does not simply locate the reality of a racist statement and neutrally deliver it to an audience. Although not scripted, the show actively constructs what reality and racism are for its audience through a variety of production practices” (179). In The Real World (and other MTV programs), intolerance stems from identity. One is racist because one is from the South. One is sexist because one is a male jock. And over the course of a show these individuals are informed that their identities have led them astray–that they are in fact racist or sexist–but now they will know better! Yes, as outrageous as Kim’s comments are, they are nothing new for The Real World.

Currently, I am embarking on a new research project that seeks to understand the contours of MTV’s new cultural terrain, the images it creates for youth audiences, and the way Millennials consume and interact with its programming. Though I have written quite a lot about MTV programs like The Hills, Teen Mom, and Jersey Shore over the last few years, I am only now starting to think about these programs in relation to each other and how MTV understands youth selfhood.  I imagine (I hope!) that this project will grow richer and more complicated as I move through it, but for now I’d like to outline how MTV has fostered what I see as a new poetics of being-in-the-world. While MTV initially catered to Generation X, a generation of passive spectators, Millennials are a generation of active spectators. For them, MTV is an “identity workbook”: cast members speak their differences openly, try on different identities, and pick fights in order to see how these identities play out and to what effect. The Jersey Shore cast members actively and self-consciously constructs “guido” identities for themselves while those on Buckwild tell MTV’s cameras what it means to be “country.” Thus, the difference between the MTV of 1981 and the MTV of today is not simply the difference between music videos and reality TV—the difference is in the way MTV conceives of youth selfhood. Instead of watching and observing, MTV’s contemporary youth audience is generating the identities they consume on screen, and marking out what they believe it means to be an African American, a Southerner, a Christian, a homosexual, or a transgender youth in America today.

This is not to say that Generation X (and I am speaking here not of actual people, but the image of this generation that exists in popular culture) was not also interested in identity, but we rarely took an active role in its construction. Exhausted or embarrassed by our parent’s endless spouts of energy and their marches for equality, we preferred (prefer) to toss our hands in the air and declare things to be “racist” or “sexist,” complain about it, maybe even blog about it (ahem!), but ultimately we don’t do anything. The image of this generation appearing in popular culture is one of apathy and spectatorship. As Jonathan I. Oake writes “Thus, the deviance of Xer subcultural subjectivity lies in its perverse privileging of ‘watching’ over ‘doing.’ While baby boomers are mythologized as those who made history, Xer identity is presided over by the trope of the ‘slacker’: the indolent, apathetic, couch-dwelling TV addict” (86-87).

But Millennials, like the Baby Boomers, are a generation of doers. Or rather, they “do” by “being.” They project themselves into the world—through social media, blogs and yes, through reality television. For this reason, Adam Wilson calls them the “Laptop Generation”: “If the 1980s was the Me generation — marked by consumerism and an obsession with personal needs (Give me hair gel! Give me cocaine!) — then we are living in the iGeneration, in which the self is projected back toward the world via social media.” This generation wrangles with our divisions, even if they lack the language and the critical distance to do so in a way that pleases us.

Take for example, Buckwild, MTV’s new series about West Virginia youth that premiered this week to respectable ratings. MTV is turning its cameras to this region of the country to capitalize, no doubt, on the recent cycle of hillbilly-sploitation (Hillbilly Handfishing, Swamp People, Bayou Billionaires, Rocket City Rednecks, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, etc). The difference, of course, is that MTV presents this subculture from the point of view of Millennials. And, as in all of MTV’s recent reality shows, it centers on a clear definition of identity. To see what I mean, let’s pause and take a look at the trailer for MTV’s new identity series, Buckwild:

It is fitting that the Buckwild trailer opens with a sign that reads “Welcome to West Virginia: Wild and Wonderful” since for so many of MTV’s programs (Laguna Beach, The Hills, The City, Jersey Shore) location breeds identity. It is also crucial that the trailer is narrated by one of the show’s cast members since all of these programs are about self-construction. As we hear the narration, “West Virginia is a place founded on freedom. For me and my friends, that means the freedom to do whatever the fuck we want!”  we see a montage of youthful hi-jinx: bridge diving, tubing, “mudding,” drinking and shooting firearms. In some ways these activities are region-specific—driving off-road vehicles through the mud and skinny-dipping in the local swimming hole are not activities in which Lauren Conrad (The Hills) or Snooki (Jersey Shore) are likely to participate. And yet, for all its specificity, this Buckwild trailer is also highly generic: we have a group of unemployed or underemployed young people in their late teens and early twenties drinking, having sex, and passing the time, believing that their way of life, their identities, are unique enough to warrant the presence of constant camera surveillance. “We’re young, free and Buckwild,” our narrator concludes. But she could have just as easily said “We’re young, free and Jersey Shore!” or “We’re young, free and living in The Hills!” In this way, MTV’s identity project works to both highlight and eradicate differences in contemporary youth cultures.

MTV is not shy about its identity project. Every series has a distinctive look marked by its cinematography, editing, lighting, and/or soundtrack choices. For example, as I have argued elsewhere, The Hills, Laguna Beach, and The City employ a seamless cinematic style—including the use of widescreen, shot/reverse shot sequences, high key lighting, and telephoto lenses—mirrors its cast members’ positions as wealthy white consumers living in a fantasy world. By contrast, Jersey Shore, with its out-of-focus shots, visible leaders, and 70s brothel-chic house, all give the impression that the text (and the people contained within that text) are sleaze. Programs like Making the Band employ “bling” style editing, a surface layer of glitz that mimics the ambitions of the gamedoc’s participants. And Buckwild aims for a naturalist aesthetic, with cast members filmed primarily against the backdrop of leafless trees, mud holes or open green spaces. Buckwild defines West Virginians as naturalists: individuals with little money who must rely on nature for their amusements.

Even MTV programs like The Real World, which maintain the aesthetics we typically associate with documentary realism (long takes, mobile framing, imperfect sound and lighting quality), cast members speak their difference openly so that by the end of each new season premiere most of the cast has aligned themselves with a particular identity: the homosexual, the homophobe, the African American, the racist, the Christian, the foreigner, the Midwestern one, the city child, the girl with a history of abuse, the boy who is borderline abusive, etc. These cast members are not simply participants in a reality show—they are also its progeny. MTV cast members were suckled at the teats of reality television and they understand how identity works within its confines. Identity must be visible if it is to mean anything. And so Jersey Shore’s The Situation must “GTL” in order to be a guido (and to keep his job performing guido-ness) and Buckwild’s Shaine tells what it means to live in the “holler” and go “muddin” (in order to keep his job performing West Virginia-ness). Identity is lucrative today.

So a poetics of MTV is, simply, an engagement with American identities as they constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed. We film ourselves, we watch ourselves, we hate ourselves, we write about ourselves, and then we film ourselves again. It is our challenge to watch these programs and parse through the identity politics they present. I am not trying to argue that MTV is taking premeditated strides towards mending our broken social bonds. Rather, MTV is doing what it has always done—it is filling a gap, in this case, our desire to figure out what identity means in a society that really wants to believe it is post-identity.

Works Cited

Gans, Herbert. “Symbolic Ethnicity: The Future of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in America.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 2:1 (1979): 1-20.

Hay, Carla. “Proper Role of Music TV Debated in U.S.” Billboard. 17 Feb 2o01. Web. 10 Jan 2013.

Kraszewski, Jon. “Country Hicks and Urban Cliques: Mediating Race, Reality, and Liberalism on MTV’s The Real World.” Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture. Eds. Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette. New York: NYU Press, 2004. 179-196.

Oake, Jonathan I. “Reality Bites and Generation X as Spectator.” The Velvet Light Trap 53 (2004): 83-97.