Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Musical ImagiNation: U.S.-Colombian Identity and the Latin Music Boom. By María Elena Cepeda.

New York: New York University Press, January 2010. Cloth: ISBN 978-0814716915, $65; paper: ISBN 978-0-8147-1692-2, $22. 272 pages.

Review by Sandra J. Fallon-Ludwig, Brandeis University

Although traditional forms of Latin music, such as salsa and merengue, are the subject of a large portion of musical scholarship, the impact of more commercial Latin music has received little scholarly attention. In Musical ImagiNation, María Elena Cepeda attempts to remedy this neglect in her discussion of contemporary rock en español, the evolution of the vallenato genre and the music of the female popular artist Shakira. Taking a transnational and transcultural approach to this music, Cepeda focuses on gender roles and multi-layered national influences, while also commenting on media perception of Latin artists and their commodification in the U.S. music industry.
Cepeda lays a strong foundation for her study with a chapter dedicated to Colombian history and the violence that led to the Colombian migration to New York and Miami. She also provides a vivid picture of the Miami musical scene, the dominance of the Cuban community, and the Estefans' perceived control of the music industry in Miami. The selective history of Latin music and the commercialization of Latin artists marketed as "newly discovered," despite their often long professional careers in Caribbean, Central or South American countries, are also discussed. In her first two chapters, Cepeda skillfully explores the dismantling and resemantization of popular culture as it relates to Latin and Latin-American music and artists.
After laying this foundation, Cepeda discusses three different artists and genres with a focus on the transnational and transcultural aspects of their music. She begins with Shakira, whose music reveals her Lebanese-Columbian and Caribbean-Columbian roots, and discusses her role not only as a Latina performer, but as a U.S. migrant, a female "cross-over" artist, and a popular music artist. Much of the discussion pertains to gender roles and to the sexual persona constructed by the U.S. music industry and perpetuated in the U.S. media. In her discussion of Andrea Echeverri of the rock group Aterciopelados, Cepeda provides an alternative vision of gender dynamics in the rock genre. Framed as the anti-Shakira, Echeverri was marketed in the second wave of Latin music in the United States – a wave specifically advertised as more “authentic.” Cepeda discusses individual song lyrics, the politics inherent in Echeverri's music, and how the female rocker defies the gendered representation presented to U.S. mainstream audiences. Shakira and Echeverri are presented as polar representations of the female artist, which seems inevitable given their respective genres, audiences, and industry marketing. Cepeda then returns to issues of race and national identity with her discussion of the vallenato genre and its transformation from a "low" music originating in the town of Valledupar on Colombia's Northern Atlantic to a commodified musical genre. Cepeda argues that musicians like Carlos Vives act as a cultural mediator, interpreting this music for elite (read light-skinned, upper-class audiences), and that the modern vallenato nullifies the Afro-Colombian and Afro-Caribbean contributions to the genre and to popular culture.
The weakest section of Musical ImagiNation is chapter 6, in which Cepeda discusses gender dynamics in music videos. Here, she returns to the subject of Shakira and analyzes two music videos: "La Tortura" and "Hips Don't Lie." Cepeda notes elements like belly-dance as evidence of Shakira's female-centered, Pan-Caribbean transnational identity. She then asserts that the visual imagery in each video challenges the traditional modes of gender and sexual representation usually found in the medium. However, this conclusion contradicts her earlier characterization of Shakira as an artist commodified and sexualized by the U.S. music industry and media. In chapter 2, Cepeda illustrated the ways in which Shakira succumbed to the traditional stereotypes of the Latina artist. This confusion may have been avoided if Cepeda had discussed these videos in conjunction with her previous discussion of Shakira, as she did with Andrea Echeverri in chapter 4.
Overall, Cepeda offers a valuable look at the perception of Latin and Latin-American music and the struggle to categorize and discuss this music in the current musicological scholarship. Issues of nationalism, gender, and commodification are at the forefront of her work, in which she attempts to overcome long-standing stereotypes related to Latin music and female performers in particular. Musical ImagiNation is a much-needed foray into commercial Latin music and opens the door for further discourse in this underrepresented area.

Dreams of Difference, Songs of the Same: The Musical Moment in Film. By Amy Herzog.

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, January 2010. Paper: ISBN 978-0-8166-6088-9, $25. 296 pages.

Review by Albin Lohr-Jones, Independent Scholar

Given the growing volume of writings on Gilles Deleuze and film – now ubiquitous at Deleuze studies conferences and in interdisciplinary essay collections dedicated to his work – one might wonder whether or not his role as an innovator of film criticism is beginning to eclipse his legacy as a philosopher. At the heart of this emergent field, however, lies an inescapable contradiction. Reflecting on the impact of his Cinema I: The Movement-Image (1983), Deleuze acknowledged that his turn toward thinking about film was largely accidental, and then only as a means of addressing specific philosophical problems to which examination of linguistic signs prohibited access. In the nearly 27 years since the publication of this book, the distinction between “philosophical concept” – on which Deleuze’s writings constantly ruminate – and critical methodology has become increasing blurred. The philosophical is, in Deleuze’s view, incompatible with the creative (artistic) act. Yet, notwithstanding this purely accidental origin of what has emerged as a Deleuzian mode film analysis, the discipline has and continues to witness a precipitous growth.
Amy Herzog’s Dreams of Difference, Songs of the Same: The Musical Moment in Film may be one of the more daring of the newest additions to this growing literature. Taking as its focus cinematic examples which utilize film-musical devices – a diverse range of “camp” and other genre hybrids deploying what Herzog labels the “musical moment” – her book is markedly ambitious. Rather than restricting the Deleuzian framework from which she examines these films to the Bergsonian/Peircean concept-base outlined in the Cinema books, Herzog adopts a different strategy. Taking as its central concern the varying modalities of repetition which operate coextensively within the “musical moment” (“repetition” here understood in its range of qualifications defined in Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition ), Herzog effectively reorients (and recontextualizes) key concepts from the Cinema books and from Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s collaborative opus A Thousand Plateaus. In itself, synthesizing these texts and attempting to construe consistency between the concepts they invoke can be a problematic undertaking. Yet Herzog’s sound command of Deleuzian thought, coupled with a keen awareness of the difficulties inherent in trying to synthesize (or conflate) Deleuze’s various writings, sets the stage for the clear and well-delimited studies comprising the body of her book.
Herzog is quite accurate in the introduction to her book in advising her readers that this is not a “genre study” in the proper sense. The focus of her investigations, rather, is of a more philosophical nature: to interrogate and explore what she identifies as “a fluid and malleable expressive form” constituting the “musical moment.” Neither purely musical (in the proper sense) nor wholly-integral to the visual narrative of a film, the musical moment names a site of dislocation, of radical disparity between a filmic-work’s temporal flow (linear development) and the disruptive excesses of diegetic musical material. Thus the musical moment embodies an irresolvable tension: one born of complex and often partial negotiations of both conservative and radical ideologies. In her words, these “moments are marked by a tendency to restructure spatiotemporal coordinates, to reconfigure the boundaries and operations of the human body, and to forge new relations between organic and inorganic elements within the frame.” Herzog’s analyses, consequently, seek to elucidate various ways in which these parameters (and the hierarchical thought that informs our normative, “classical” expectations of them) are frustrated in these singular and temporally un-assimilable instances marking the disruption of narrative progress.
At just over 200 pages (plus its introduction and conclusion), perhaps the only ways in which this book’s ambitions are thwarted are in its brevity and in its choice of examples. One gets the sense that her line of development, the trajectory of her argument, is occasionally abbreviated; and that a longer treatment (even if only a few additional pages in each chapter) would afford her the opportunity to elaborate more upon her observations. An ideal reader of this book (someone at least casually familiar with Deleuze’s writings) will no doubt fill in the missing pieces, supplementing Herzog’s observations with knowledge of the conceptual background from which her reasoning emerges. Despite the eloquence of her introductory notes on Deleuze’s philosophy – one of the best that this reviewer has read – the uninitiated reader may be at a slight disadvantage. Her examples are, for the most part, extremely effective in their diversity and their relevance: Godard’s and Preminger’s Carmen films (Chapter 2); Jacques Demy (Chapter 3); and Esther Williams, Busby Berkeley and Tsai Ming-liang (Chapter 4). The first chapter – on the proto-music video formats of the 1940’s “Soundies” and 1960’s “Scopitones”– however, seems slightly out of place. By focusing on the technologies themselves rather than on individual works, Herzog’s objective here suggests a different type of study. And though her application of the Deleuzian notion of “fabulation,” fits nicely with her analysis, and – as is the case throughout the book – her research is first-rate; the musical moments discussed here are less concrete than those in the following chapters.
In summary, Dreams of Difference, Songs of the Same represents advances on two fronts. First (and most immediately), in its simplicity and unadorned style, and through a varied choice of examples, Herzog makes a convincing argument in favor looking anew at how the key mechanisms of the film-musical style operate. But her book makes an important contribution in a more significant and purely theoretical direction. In advancing the notion of the musical moment – as clear and as useful in its conceptual import as the Deleuzian perspectives from which it derives its saliency – Herzog demonstrates the viability of philosophizing about cinematic signs in a way consistent with and complimentary to Deleuze’s philosophical pursuits. And, if one looks closely enough at the musical moment, as Herzog shows, one finds not merely a cinematic device, but rich – if ultimately inchoate – formation whose varying modulations provide a means of scrutinizing the technical, social and ideological resonances which configure them.
Dangerous Curves: Latina Bodies in the Media By Isabel Molina-Guzmán.

New York: New York University Press, February 2010.  Paper: ISBN 978-0814757369.  $22.  256 pages.

Review by Natchee Blu Barnd, California College of the Arts

 It seems fitting that I began writing this review on the release date of Jennifer Lopez’s latest and widely berated film The Back-Up Plan.  Just as her nickname “J-Lo” suggests a shorthand familiarity, her high-profile celebrity life most readily “embodies” the contradictions of dominant discourses about Latinas in the media.  While we have become accustomed to public discussions about Lopez’s career, love life, and body parts, her construction also symbolizes the broader colonized production of Latina subjectivities. 
Dangerous Curves balances Molina-Guzmán’s confessed status as a fan and consumer of popular culture (she briefly shares her family’s keen interest in Jennifer Lopez’s appearances) with her critical eye toward the racial, gender, and nation-building projects that shape and limit representational possibilities for Latinas in US media and the larger cultural sphere.  She tackles a broad spectrum of the “mediascape,” tracking dominant discourses of Latinas (re)produced through “newspapers, television news broadcasts, ethnic and racial minority newspapers, tabloids, magazines, film, television programs” as well as considering audience reception and disruption of such discourse through “blogs, Web sites, online discussion boards, and letters to editor.”  Molina-Guzmán organizes this array of sources around five case studies, each centered on one or more important Latina media figures. 
The first chapter revisits the enormous attention given to the repatriation of one-time Cuban refugee Elián González, focusing on the representational transformation of Cuban Americans from privileged “white ethnics” to marginalized “brown immigrants” through the figures of González’s late mother Elisabet Brottons and his media darling-turned-target cousin, Marisleysis.  Chapter two examines Jennifer Lopez’s widely-observed maneuver from dangerous urban blackness toward safe middle-class whiteness most noticeably signaled by her successive marriage/love partner choices, and actively shaped by raced and gendered tabloid narratives.  Next, Molina-Guzmán reads complex transnational discourses between the US and Mexico around Latinidad and “authenticity” generated by Salma Hayek’s berated/celebrated portrayal of Frida Kahlo.  The fourth chapter takes aim at the “sublimation” of ethnoracial identity in ABC’s popular series Ugly Betty, turning critical attention to the construction of its main character, played by America Ferrera.  The final study situates two fictional films – Maid in Manhattan (2002) and Spanglish (2004) – that narrate domestic workers as romantic comedy love interests, against the real world context of the gendered and racialized global circulation of immigrant labor.
The strength of Dangerous Curves lies in its attention to multiple forms of media which (re)produce dominant colonizing discourses about Latinas and Latinidad.  In addition, Molina-Guzmán provides an excellent reading of popular culture productions such as Ugly Betty and Frida (2002) which can too easily be read as completely progressive and outside the scope of racialized and gendered discourse.  These cases studies in particular also attend to heteronormativity through a highly productive queer reading of constructions of Latinidad.  The author’s efforts to incorporate audience engagement with these media texts presents an important reminder that viewers do not simply consume media, but maintain complex and contradictory relationships that both reinforce hegemonic projects and subvert them, yet always reflect the fluidity and instability of meaning-making practices. 
For teachers, Dangerous Curves provides a solid discursive analysis that can be immediately put to use for course lectures and class discussions on popular culture and the politics of representation.  More advanced undergraduate students and those interested in Latina representation will be excited to have a resource that treats recent media productions and still-popular media figures, especially compared to the now “distant” media and figures featured in Rosa Linda Fregoso’s Bronze Screen (1993) or Clara Rodriguez’s Heroes, Lovers, and Others (2008).  Within the larger scholarship of media and Latina/os, Dangerous Curves will effectively supplement works like Arlene Davila’s Latino Spin (2008) and Latinos, Inc. (2001), Leo Chavez’s The Latino Threat (2008), and Otto Santa Ana’s Brown Tide Rising (2002). 
There were a couple points of limitation that should be noted.  For me, the first chapter feels somewhat out of place in relation to the other four case studies examined, all of which focus on Latina superstars in popular media.  Although the Elián González story occurred within reasonable temporal proximity to the popular media case studies, its “pure” news media standing makes it less recycled and therefore seem more distant and isolated.  There are numerous moments in this chapter, and others, where news media representations are too quickly passed over without providing the reader a thorough look at the actual discourse being deployed in the articles and television news coverage.  In the rush to structure her critiques/examination, Molina-Guzmán tends to quickly paraphrase what ought to be thoroughly demonstrated.  Too often, I found myself wanting for a more sustained examination of the concrete examples in the production of these discursive regimes, something slightly more akin to Santa Ana’s analysis of the Los Angeles Times.  To be fair, the treatment fared better in chapters 3-5, where the focus remained on single popular culture “sites.”  To this point, I found the final two chapters to be the strongest and the most engaging.
I also found the audience reception angle somewhat overemphasized as a methodology, or else underutilized in practice.  The biggest concern here is that Molina-Guzmán’s excellent analysis is too open to criticism by those not easily convinced of the validity of her arguments.  While I fully support the work and trust her findings, the data for audience reception seemed sparse, sometimes incorporating only a handful of statements from blog or discussion-board writers.  While the small number of writers does not and cannot dismiss their agency in generating “symbolic ruptures” in the dominant discourse, it does leave the force of their often powerful critiques feeling less substantial.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture. By Alice Echols.
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, March 2010. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-393-06675-3, $26.95; paper: ISBN 978-0393338911, $16.95. 368 pages.
Review by Joseph E. Morgan, Brandeis University
After dominating American popular culture for the lion’s share of the 1970s, Disco suddenly lost its chic. This once liberating music and culture was abruptly derided in the American mainstream for its shallow consumption and crass embrace of lavish glitz. More recently, the pendulum has swung back as scholars of popular culture have erected a romanticized view of the glitterball culture. In her new book, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, Alice Echols stops the pendulum. With a nuanced interpretation of disco that recognizes the movement’s ability to accommodate the diversity of the American experience, gay, straight, black, or female, Echols has written a sophisticated and thrilling investigation of this oft-simplified music and culture.
One of the best aspects of Echols’s approach is the way she integrates the musical and social aspects of disco culture. In her first chapter “I Hear a Symphony: Black Masculinity and the Disco Turn” which takes us from James Brown to Barry White, and tracks the emergence of Disco from the insistent and whomping beat of Detroit’s Motown through the sumptuous Philadelphia sound, Echols locates a new form of Black masculinity as well as the prototype for disco’s 4/4 thump in a single track—Isaac Hayes’s “Theme from Shaft.” This example is telling of Echols’s style; the strength of this text is not its comprehensive coverage of everything disco, but instead its interpretive focus and ability to unpack the multiple meanings built within individual cultural moments.
Chapters Two, “More, More, More: One and Oneness in Gay Disco” and Four “The Homo Superiors: Disco and the Rise of Gay Macho” focus on the role that the music, clubs, dance floors, and culture played in the outing and evolution of gay culture. From the club managers who left the air conditioning off to encourage men to remove their shirts on the dance floor, to the D.J.s who accommodated their playlists to the “week’s drug of choice,” Echols identifies the interactions that facilitated the liberation of the movement. Particularly interesting is Echols’s description of the fashion that characterized the new gay macho. A coded “uniform of the plaid shirt and bomber jacket,” the look emerged both as a pragmatic necessity, “to identify ourselves to other gay people in a populace that wasn’t gay” and in reaction to the traditional image of the homosexual (126).
However, her view of gay disco is neither simple nor uncritical. For example, unlike most modern writers that emphasize the inclusive aspects of Disco culture, Echols also points to the racial segregation in New York’s fashionable Tenth Floor club where “the vibe was if you’re white you’re right, if you’re black stay back.” Her nuanced approach to the culture is refreshing, neither romanticizing nor vilifying. She closes her discussion with an all-too brief account of the arrival of “Saint’s Disease” (later known as AIDS) in the popular Saint’s nightclub in New York City, ending with a strong introduction to the effects of the epidemic, and the common interpretation of the disease as (at least) a moral imperative against gay culture.
Echols’s chapter on women in disco “Ladies’ Night: Women and Disco,” sandwiched between her chapters on homosexuality in disco, argues that by foregrounding female desire, disco was essentially progressive for the women’s movement, this despite the irony that “for many women the biggest problem with discos was not sexual harassment but gay men’s sexual indifference” (78). For example, she points to at least two critics who describe the typical form of a disco song’s instrumental break as a musical imitation of the female orgasm. She locates this characteristic in the instrumental break from what is perhaps the first disco track, Eddie Kendricks’s “Girl You Need a Change of Mind.” Echols’s narrative then shifts to the emergence of the black diva in disco, and traces the roots of disco’s black feminism (as she had with disco’s black masculinity) from the R&B artists from the early seventies. Thus the public personalities and musical identities of artists like Donna Summer and Labelle are shown to be influenced by the work of Sylvia Robinson and Jean Knight.
The sixth chapter, “One Nation under a Thump?: Disco and its Discontents” describes the fall of disco. The blanching and suburban commodification are cited as the primary death blows, but the contribution of reactionary “discophobes” and the broader conservative movement are also given their due responsibility. However, her coverage of the “Disco Sucks” movement and its orchestration by rock d.j.s is also given nuance. Indeed, Echols breaks new ground in disco literature when she acknowledges that “the rhetoric of discophobia suggests that anti-disco rockers were also critical of what they saw as disco’s perceived innocuousness and conventionality” (213). This viewpoint resists the common trope in modern scholarship that writes off the entire anti-disco movement as stereotypically based on homophobia and racism. The chapter ends as Echols attempts to come to terms with the influence of disco, citing the disco-rock hybrid that comprised so much eighties dance music. One example of this influence is found in the androgyny of Madonna, Prince, Grace Jones, and Annie Lennox, who built upon the “implicit queerness of seventies’ disco” for their looks (229).
In all, the book is a wonderful read. Echols’s account is that of an informant, and although she is quite aware of her own bias, it is when she is describing the progressivism of the Disco movement that her narrative sparkles. The perfect combination of fan and scholar, Echols’s account of the era and the book is very well researched (with over 50 pages of notes) and will go a long way towards fairly documenting the history and impact of Disco on American popular culture.

SW/TX PCA/ACA Conference Paper by Samira Nadkarni, University of Aberdeen, Scotland

“Is that a footnote, or are you just happy to see me?”: Examining Meta-narrative in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

“All that matters: taking matters into your own hands,” sings Dr. Horrible in the 2008 web series Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. The show, a social satire in three acts, seems to rely on certain established narratives to constitute itself, working through the audience's participation within an established framework, a media-savvy community that is able to understand throwaway comments and asides and the layering they are intended to provide. Yet the series and its associated musical commentary subverts and destabilizes these dominant ideologies, re-appropriating them to a new purpose, and thus this paper aims to discuss the presence and subversion of these meta-narratives. However the events of the actual “making-of” commentary itself, included only in the DVD edition, will be ignored in favour of focusing on the framework established by the scripted performance and its potential effects upon a media-fandom community.
The social satire contained within the series is simultaneously both, remarkably multi-faceted and yet almost simplistic in its depiction. Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is based upon the premise of a world filled with heroes and villains, focusing on Dr. Horrible and his nemesis Captain Hammer and their mutual love interest, Penny. In doing so, the show borrows from a number of stereotypes within the established universe of superhero comics; for example Dr. Horrible comments at the start of the series that he has hired a vocal coach because:
Dr. Horrible: A lot of guys ignore the laugh, and that's about standards. I mean, if you're going to get into the Evil League of Evil you have to have a memorable laugh. What, do you think Bad Horse didn't work on his whinny? His terrible death whinny.
Further examples include the self-proclaimed hero, Captain Hammer's invulnerability, his ability to continually best his nemesis, Dr. Horrible in battle, and as per established guidelines, that the hero ends up with the girl - in this case, do-gooder Penny. The audience's understanding of the series's underlying satire is predicated upon their knowledge of these stereotypes and the manipulation they undergo within the confines of the series. The viewer is compelled to place the events within a narrative that presumes the triumph of good over evil, i.e. within a dominant meta-narrative that is informed not only by the genre of the superhero universe, but also by a moral narrative propounded within society. Arguably, the series destabilizes these by revealing Captain Hammer to be the “corporate tool” of Dr. Horrible's early claims, whereas Dr. Horrible himself, while claiming to have “a PhD in horribleness,” is shown far more sympathetically. The audience realizes, as we are meant to, that Dr. Horrible (or Billy, his alter-ego) is in fact the (anti)hero of the piece. As in previous works such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Serenity and Dollhouse, co-writer and director Joss Whedon challenges these tropes and demonstrates that they are not as rigid as one might think; good and evil are simply matters of interpretation.
The term “meta-narrative” is used here with specific reference to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s assumption that there is in fact a representation of universal truth, one commonly but not exclusively associated with a positive ethico-political end, which, once communicated between a sender and an addressee would then be intellectually binding for all rational minds. This notion of meta-narratives was commonly associated with modernism, and it is possible to argue that in part by adopting the superhero genre, the golden age of which was considered to be in the 1930s and 40s, and placing it within a field that is almost aggressively post-modern, the show implies a continuing presence of meta-narratives, the old order challenged by Dr. Horrible. As he states, he is “destroying the status quo, because the status is not quo. The world is a mess and I just need to rule it.”
It is interesting to note that Lyotard believed that meta-narratives no longer had a legitimate place in the post-modern world, laying credence instead with micro-narratives, an argument he formulated based on Wittgenstein's theory of “language games.” This theory then argues that while there are no broad over-arching narratives, there are a number of smaller narratives or micro-narratives that society uses to regulate itself through linguistic conduct. Thus, in order to establish what one might term a certain ruling system, a unified narrative which consolidates people into a community, there is the requirement that there be a sense of shared understanding, that certain words be taken for certain things. Identity in this community is grounded around the “throwaways” in language, the agreed-upon clichés and commonplaces that are taken for granted. And it is that which is taken for commonplace, for unsaid, that allows for the formation of links between individuals and the formation of a community. What one encounters in this manner is the unsaid, a truth represented in pure form that will inevitably provoke a response. There remains no doubt about them; rationality and a shared sense of understanding ensure a reaction.[1]
However, it seems possible to argue that with the onset of a global culture and the amalgamation of a global community, there is once more the possibility of narratives that can no longer fall merely within the space of a micro-narrative. Rather, these narratives are assumed to be fact, enforced by a shared knowledge or shared history; a fact that when coupled with the globalizing influence of the media allows for the possibility of unified narratives or meta-narratives. Thus, within the global phenomenon that is television and the internet there is the propagation of an over-arching set of narratives, what one might term a media culture that compels certain common narratives among its viewers who use the same to validate themselves as part of an ongoing society, a community alive and responsive to these selves.
Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog then functions not merely within the space of a well-established narrative - the superhero genre - but also within a space where the viewer's own global culture is incorporated. The series is framed such that the audience is provided a certain amount of information through the recordings Dr. Horrible creates for his video blog, drawing the viewer into the events occurring and placing him or her among Dr. Horrible’s online followers, a list that includes not only other viewers within the audience of this film, but also fictional members such as Captain Hammer and the story-bound LAPD. In this manner, the lines between reality and fiction appear to blur. Moreover, this effect is propounded by the associated musical commentary which, while meant to provide what one might term “real” information such as the history of the show, the artistic process involved, anecdotes involving the cast and crew, or a deeper insight into the characters portrayed, instead displays a continued fictional confine, a scripted performance. This applies largely to the characterization of the actors involved, with this performance often blurring the lines between their character in the series and the supposed reality of themselves that they perform:
Nathan Fillion: Look there Felicia goes/ Another deal you couldn't close, yeah. ... I'm better/ Better than Neil/ At - where do I start?/ Romantic appeal./ We both went for Penny/ And who copped a feel?/ The true man of steel./ I'm better than Neil.[2]
It could be argued that the viewer is not only drawn into the patently fictional confine of the show, but that the commentary – elucidating real-time events such as the strike held by the Writer’s Guild of America (2007-08), Maurissa Tancharoen’s writing of Penny’s lines, and the cast and crews’ supposed fascination with the game of Ninja Ropes – also places the film within a reality external to itself. The viewer is led into a space within which the ideological discourse by which they navigate cannot be said to be informed merely by the narrative presented to them; the cultural discourse and basic social patterns that surround them will also play a role in the means of interpretation.

The show's attempts to establish itself within certain fields of narrative then seems to prioritize an analysis of the various communities depicted within its frame, as well as the series's own effects upon a media-fandom community both within and outside of this narrative. Arguably, by placing the series within the confines of the superhero genre, the viewer's attention is drawn not merely to the established social mores and the conventions of law and order, but also to the transgressions of, and ambivalence towards, these mores and conventions, the latter usually depicted by the villain in question. However, the show raises certain pivotal questions with regard to these transgressions, inquiring into the communities depicted and the transgressed social norms in question. It seems clear that both heroes and villains (represented by Captain Hammer and Dr. Horrible respectively) can be seen to be members of differing communities, each with its own social norms, hierarchy, and strictures. And while Captain Hammer adheres to the basic social patterns applied by “normal people” or society at large, Dr. Horrible in turn is merely adhering to the behavioral blueprint for his own community of evil-doers. This theory seems borne out by Dr. Horrible's attempts to advance to a higher status of villainy by entering the Evil League of Evil, and being unable to do so until passing an evaluation by Bad Horse, “the thoroughbred of sin,” in which he is ordered to perform “A heinous crime, a show of force/ (A murder would be nice, of course.)” Thus, while convention within this genre would dictate that the villain in question represent a force of anarchy, Dr. Horrible's efforts are still merely an attempt to conform.
Notably, unlike traditional formulations within the superhero comic genre, the villain in this case is not constituted within a Freudian parable as the id, nor is the hero representative of either the ego [as per the character of Batman] or the superego [as per the portrayal of Superman]. Rather, if one attempts to place the main characters within this formulation, it would appear that Captain Hammer, the supposed hero of the piece would represent the id, Dr. Horrible, the self-proclaimed villain would depict the ego, and finally, Penny, the moralistic do-gooder would take the place of the superego. Thus, we see Dr. Horrible agonize over his entry into the Evil League of Evil, an entry predicated upon the immoral act of murder:
Moist: Kill someone?
Dr. Horrible: Would you do it? To get into the Evil League of Evil?
Moist: Look at me, man. I’m Moist. At my most bad-ass I make people feel like they want to take a shower. I’m not E.L.E material.
Dr. Horrible: Killing’s not elegant or creative. It’s not my style.
Moist: You’ve got more than enough evil hours to get into the Henchman’s Union.
Dr. Horrible: Pshaw. I’m not a henchman. I’m Dr. Horrible. I have a P.H.D. in horribleness.
Moist: Is that the new catch phrase?
Dr. Horrible: I deserve to get in. You know I do. But killing? Really?
Moist: Hourglass says she knows a kid in Iowa that grows up to become president. That’d be big.
Dr. Horrible: I’m not gonna kill a little kid.
Moist: Smother an old lady.
Dr. Horrible: Do I even know you?
Meanwhile, Captain Hammer baits Dr. Horrible at the laundromat, informing him of his intent to sleep with the woman of his dreams purely because Dr. Horrible cares for her:
Captain Hammer: You got a little crush, don’t you Doc? Well that’s gonna make this hard to hear. See, later I’m gonna take little Penny back to my place, show her the Command Center, Hammer Cycle, maybe even the Ham-Jet. You think she likes me now? I’m gonna give Penny the night of her life. Just because you want her, and I get what you want. See, Penny’s giving it up. She’s givin’ it up hard, ‘cause she’s with Captain Hammer. And these (indicating his fists) are not the hammer. [Pause] The hammer is my penis.
Moreover, the characters of Dr. Horrible, a.k.a. Billy and Captain Hammer, seem to be closely associated with each other, so much so that the characterization of each appears curiously dependent upon the other. The viewer is first presented with this connection in the first act during “A Man's Gotta Do,” a song begun by Billy and yet, immediately after the first verse appropriated by Captain Hammer with the same refrain. This original co-dependency is then underlined by the fact that Captain Hammer decides to woo Penny beyond his usual seduction routines due to Dr. Horrible's crush on her, keeping her far longer than his other conquests simply because, as he says, he gets what Dr. Horrible wants. And most notably, at the climax of the series, at the very moment that Captain Hammer cannot help but feel, cannot help but be placed in a situation where he experiences real feeling for the first time, Billy claims that he no longer can.
It seems clear that the terms “hero” and “villain” within the series are not without a certain irony, and that in this particular case, the terms have then ceased their association with the traditional meanings. Rather, the destabilization of these signifiers within the field of the show appears to create what one might term a “pure signifier,” one that is freed from its previous associations at this point to be bound through the field of shared understanding to a new meaning within the media-fandom community that observes these fictional events. Thus, within this community of viewers, these terms and associations have taken on new meanings in the context of the series, i.e. a micro-narrative that is applicable within the context of a shared understanding.
Whedon's use of the superhero genre employs a further irony. Traditionally, superhero comics, especially those in the 1930s and 40s, were largely associated with the propaganda inherent in a war-torn and immediately post-war world. To accommodate their propagandistic function, communication was made as simple as possible with comics relying on rudimentary phrasing and formulaic plots. Whedon's representation of this genre, however, lacks this simplicity, with communication within and between various communities in the show being problematized, albeit for satiric or comic effect. For example in the case of Dr. Horrible (a.k.a. Billy) and Penny, the problem seems to arise either from his romantic interest in her:
Dr. Horrible: Love your hair.
Penny: What?
Dr. Horrible: No – I... love the... air.
or from his need to protect his identity as an evil villain; the need for subterfuge arising from his need to keep this side of himself hidden away from the moralistic do-gooder of his dreams:
Dr. Horrible: I wanna do great things, you know? I wanna be an achiever. Like Bad Horse…
Penny: The thoroughbred of sin?
Dr. Horrible: I meant Gandhi.
Subsequently, the viewer is given to note that this lack of communication is not restricted purely to the disparate communities of supposed good (or “normal”) and evil, as Captain Hammer also finds himself unable to effectively communicate with Penny due to excessive use of his signature metaphor:
Captain Hammer: Who wants to know what the Mayor is doing behind closed doors? He's signing over a certain building to a Caring Hands Group as a new homeless shelter.
Penny: Oh my God!
Captain Hammer: Yep. Apparently the only signature he needed was my fist. But with a pen in it. That I was signing with.
He also appears to fumble during his speech to the assembled crowd gathered to witness the opening of the shelter, pausing inappropriately during the opening to his speech:
Captain Hammer: I hate the homeless... ness problem that plagues our city.
The viewer is not exempt from this attempt at failed communication either. As previously stated, the viewer is drawn into the confines of the fictional space itself, made to assume the place of the audience. Thus, the viewer is included in the failure to communicate demonstrated both, by Dr. Horrible in his stuttering video blog entries, as well as the newscasters who announce:
Newscaster (female): It's a good day to be homeless.
Newscaster (male): [laughs] That it is.
This problematization of communication, while intended for satiric effect, then also simultaneously performs the function of interrupting any attempts to posit the series and its associations with the superhero genre as mere propaganda. The narrative undermines itself, its interruptions or effects revealing the ludicrous nature of modern communication, both within the series and in the viewer's own reality that relies so heavily on standardized phrasing and pithy metaphors.
Furthermore, it is possible to view Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog itself, along with Commentary! The Musical, as informing a meta-narrative of media by contrasting the relatively controlled media environment of television with the readily accessible broadcast media of the internet and its potential as a site for independent cinema.[3] The viewer's own knowledge of Joss Whedon's work with television, and his well-documented concerns regarding the creative constraints and lack of artistic control afforded to him lend credence to this theory.[4] There can be no doubt that the internet is currently one of the largest up and coming arenas for media with various web-series gaining rapid popularity such as The Guild (2007), We Need Girlfriends (2006), The Legend of Neil (2008), Dorm Life (2008) and many more. And as Carolyn Marvin presciently notes in her book When Old Technologies were New (1988):
For if it is the case, as it is fashionable to assert, that media give shape to the imaginative boundaries of modern communities, then the introduction of new media is a special historical occasion when patterns anchored in older media that have provided stable currency of social exchange are re-examined, challenged and defended.[5]
Thus, while television’s current meta-discourse is specific to modes of production, associated commercialism and viewership, it is possible that the growing popularity of the internet as a viable site for independent cinema would then place it in a position to challenge some of these discourses. For example, Dr. Horrible’s video blog can be seen to depict not only a means by which to propound individual cinema at costs far below those conventionally associated with works for television, but also a production that is free to view and available to a global audience. This would also mirror the production of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog which was marketed via Hulu.com, and was originally available free to viewers in its online format.[6] In this manner, it seems that while the web-series might have been written and produced in an effort to respond to the issues being raised by the strike held by the Writer’s Guild of America (2007-08), which affected television production, it also worked to disrupt the dominant meta-discourse of television. This entry into web-based production and distribution is an incursion that destabilizes television’s current monopoly.
All: As the fall turns into winter/ There appears a bunch of splinter / Groups who wonder what this inter -/ net is like.
While the tide is turning tepid/ And while the town is feeling trepi -/ datious time for us to step up/ to the mic.
We’ve got all these dynamite plots to use/ It’s time to light the fuse or lose/ The Strike.
Television’s ideological discourse is inextricably interwoven with commercial and promotional rationale, and it is clear that in order to succeed, where success is measured in terms of viewing figures and sales, one is forced to play to particular assumptions. As the chorus so clearly notes in the opening track “Commentary!”:
All: Everyone loves these “making-ofs”/ The story behind the scenes./ The way that we got that one cool shot./ And what it all means.
We’ll talk about the writing./ We’ll probably say “It’s great!”/ And the acting – so exciting./ Except for Nate.
Cast: Bring back the cast, we’ll have a blast/ Discussing the days of yore./ Moments like these sell DVDs.
Writers: We need to sell more./ We’ve only sold four.
It seems that the musical commentary’s clear mocking of these assumptions appears to adhere to the promotional logic so associated with current media culture, while simultaneously avoiding placing itself completely within this field. The performance both inhabits this commercial space, its intention clearly to appeal to the audience, while its satiric element seeks to disrupt. It mocks from this privileged yet dissenting position, playing both to and against the dominant meta-narrative of promotional culture so entrenched in film and television, forcing the audience to constantly re-assess.
As a result, the commentary acts as a footnote to the show itself, but not as convention would dictate. Instead, it inhabits the edge, the margins, and speaks with impunity from this position, its mockery all the more powerful for the fact that it speaks in response to an unasked question. The commentary presumes that “everyone loves these ‘making ofs’” and that “moments like these sell DVDs,” but what the audience is in fact confronted with is not the true making of, or even a proper discussion of the writing process. Instead, one encounters what one might almost term “throw away” tracks such as “10 Dollar Solo,” “Zack’s Rap,” “Ninja Ropes,” and “Steve’s Song.” Moreover, songs such as “All About Me,” “Nobody’s Asian in the Movies” and “Heart, Broken” all seem to undermine meta-narratives propounded by or within the media, dealing with issues as diverse as the urge for fame, potential racial discrimination, and the constant need for clarification of the artistic process.
Having discussed the commercial and promotional rationale so entrenched in current media culture, it then seems prudent to call particular attention to “Heart, Broken,” the eleventh track on Commentary! The Musical. Written primarily as a solo for Joss Whedon, it explores his despair at constantly being called upon to explain the narrative in question, the commentary expressing a castigation of the commodification of art and the artistic process. The song is arguably a classic example of a satiric attack on present day meta-narratives of fame and mass-production:
Joss Whedon: …[My heart’s] broken by the endless loads/ Of making-ofs and mobisodes/ The tie-ins, prequels, games and codes/ The audience buys/ The narrative dies/ Stretched and torn./ Hey, spoiler warning:
We’re gonna pick, pick/ Pick, pick, pick it apart./ Open it up to find the/ Tick, tick, tick of a heart./ A heart, broken.
Jed: Joss, why do you rail against the biz?/ You know that’s just the way it is/ You’re making everybody mis-
Zack: These out-of-date philosophies/ are for the dinner table, please./ We have to sell some DVDs.
Jed, Maurissa, Zack: Without these things you spit upon/ You’d find your fame and fanbase gone.
Maurissa: You’d be ignored at Comic-Con.
Joss: I sang some things I didn’t mean./ Okay, let’s talk about this scene./ I think it’s great how Ryan Green – / Oh no, this is no good./ I thought J-Mo would back my play/ Now Zack and they all say –
All: We’re gonna pick, pick/ Pick, pick, pick you apart./ Open you up and stop the/ tick, tick, tick of a heart./ A heart…
It seems that at this point, Whedon is not merely addressing the production houses and television syndicates that would place emphasis on the need for mass production, although these are no doubt represented within the song by the voices of Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed, and Zack Whedon. Potentially, Whedon is addressing the viewer, the audience at large. “Heart, Broken” is all but a call to arms against this commodification, albeit one firmly entrenched in irony.
Finally, the series seems to suggest, the choice lies with the viewer. Whedon’s subversive argument echoes Dr. Horrible’s own words - all that matters is taking matters into your own hands. It is possible to view Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog as Whedon's challenge to the authoritarian narratives that popular culture has set in place, the global phenomenon presenting us not only with the presence of these potential meta-narratives, but also the ability to evaluate and perhaps reject them. As Mila Bongco notes:
The world is very different from that of thirty years ago: the bases of power have shifted, and so have ways of understanding them. Old certainties have gone, though new and perhaps equally repressive authoritarianisms have emerged. These, in their turn, must be challenged.[7]


1. All song lyrics referenced from Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008) have been obtained from the official website: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture)http://www.drhorrible.com/linernotes.html [accessed on 28 December, 2009].
2. All song lyrics referenced from Commentary! The Musical, an additional feature of Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog (2008), have been obtained from the official website: Commentary! The Musicalhttp://www.drhorrible.com/commentary.html [accessed on 28 December, 2009].

Primary Sources:

Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, Dir. Joss Whedon (Hulu.com, 2008).

Secondary Sources:


Bongco, Mila, Reading Comics: Language, Culture, and the Concept of the Superhero in Comic Books(New York: Garland Publishing Inc, 2000).

Lyotard, Jean-Francois, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984; reprinted and translated from Les Editions de Minuit, 1979).
Marvin, Carolyn, When Old Technologies Were New (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).


Anna-Louse Milne, 'The Power of Dissimulation: “When You Are Only Three White Men...”, in Yale French Studies, No 106, The Power of Rhetoric, the Rhetoric of Power: Jean Paulhan's Fiction, Criticism and Editorial Activity (2004), pp. 109 – 124.

Online Content:

Commentary! The Musical http://www.drhorrible.com/commentary.html [accessed on 28 December, 2009].
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture)http://www.drhorrible.com/linernotes.html [accessed on 28 December, 2009].
Kushner, David, 'Joss Whedon Goes Where No TV Man Has Gone Before', in RollingStone.comhttp://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/25951789/joss_whedon_goes_where_no_tv_man_has_gone_before[accessed on 12 January, 2010].

PEOPLE Magazine, ‘Exclusive: Neil Patrick Harris tells PEOPLE he’s Gay’,http://www.people.com/people/article/0,26334,1554852,00.html [accessed on 30 December, 2009].
Whedon, Joss, in http://www.whedon.info/Joss-Whedon-s-Reaction-About-Angel.html [accessed 12 January, 2010].

[1] Anna-Louse Milne, 'The Power of Dissimulation: “When You Are Only Three White Men...”, in Yale French Studies, No 106, The Power of Rhetoric, the Rhetoric of Power: Jean Paulhan's Fiction, Criticism and Editorial Activity (2004), p. 120. Although Milne's argument is based on Jean Paulhan's fiction and criticism, the context of Milne's theory of the formulation of a community seems more than related to Wittgenstein's theory of “language games.”
[2] 'Better than Neil', Commentary! The Musical, in Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, Dir. Joss Whedon (Hulu.com, 2008). Nathan Fillion's lyrics here refer in the same manner to both Felicia Day as well as her character Penny, overlapping the two into a single entity. Furthermore, the viewer would also be aware that Neil Patrick Harris, having openly declared his homosexuality in People Magazine (Nov 3, 2006) would be unlikely to be interested in any pursuit of Felicia Day, unlike his fictional counterpart Dr. Horrible.http://www.people.com/people/article/0,26334,1554852,00.html [accessed on 30 December, 2009].
[3] David Kushner, 'Joss Whedon Goes Where No TV Man Has Gone Before', in RollingStone.comhttp://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/25951789/joss_whedon_goes_where_no_tv_man_has_gone_before[accessed on 12 January, 2010].
[4] While Joss Whedon's blog is no longer available online, certain websites have copies of his entries. I've chosen to access these instead in order to provide evidence for the statement I've chosen to make.http://www.whedon.info/Joss-Whedon-s-Reaction-About-Angel.html [accessed 12 January, 2010].
[5] Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 4.
[6] Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog was initially ad-supported and available to viewers free of charge via Hulu.com. However, the series is no longer available for free view outside of the United States of America and must be purchased in individual acts via iTunes or as a DVD.
[7] Mila Bongco, Reading Comics: Language, Culture, and the Concept of the Superhero in Comic Books(New York: Garland Publishing Inc, 2000), p. 94.