Eleven days prior to being asked to write a piece on the theme of photographs, my dog of thirteen years died. Being the sole member of my family living away from home on a continual basis – home being Dungarvan, a relatively small harbour town on the south coast of Ireland – I found my connection to him in the final three months of his life both affecting and peculiar. I say this because during the post-Christmas period in which I was physically absent from him, I harnessed a new kind of relationship through fraternising with a Facebook profile created on his behalf. This profile was maintained collectively by my mother and two younger sisters, and it was here that they, or “Bruno”, would regularly post status updates and contribute reflections on various issues, images or videos, all the while invoking an endearing doggie persona, and in the process accumulating upwards of three hundred online acquaintances. For one not accustomed to the potential vehemence of family-pet relations, or to the routinely lighthearted nature of online social networking, I acknowledge how such behaviour might appear as somewhat trivial. My assertion, however, is that, at the root of any amusement or emotional sustenance that arose in me on account of these online exchanges, was undoubtedly the investment that I placed – that which I continue to place – in the integrity of photographs and images, or, more specifically, in their capacity to provide durable and majestic testaments to one’s identity (or identities), irrespective of whether the creature being represented is human or non-human. Therefore, the idea that my mother and sisters were the individuals behind the text-based aspects of Bruno’s online persona was less significant than the potency enacted through the various visual incarnations of the boy himself as made public through his Facebook profile.

It is tempting to say something more on this notion of the public as it relates to photography, for “public” and “private”, as joint concepts, are usually paramount to any discussion that touches upon the social function of the internet, and that of social media, in particular. As already suggested, Bruno’s presence online came only towards the very end of his life (the timing was largely incidental, and was not deliberate), meaning that it was not until then that his image became known and disseminated to a much wider community of people beyond our immediate network of family and friends. Hence, if most of his existence was lived as per usual, conducted exclusively in the “real” world of domestic normality, well beyond the awareness of distant others, his last few months – for those of us who were close to him, at least – was marked by a definite sense of public disclosure, even celebration. An important outcome of this was that, with the establishment of his Facebook account, there came a greater impetus among members of my family to capture his image, with the intention of sharing photographs with his mass of online companions. For instance, when the snow fell at home in December, shortly before I was due to arrive back for the Christmas holidays, my sisters accompanied Bruno to the garden, where they carried out a veritable photo shoot with him as the primary subject, thus producing a number of distinctive images that became amongst the most prominently visible online. One could interpret this as the social function of the internet essentially informing and transforming the means by which we ourselves value our regular lived experience. The potential of sharing with outsiders what might otherwise be regarded as a private occurrence therefore initiates a change in how some of us approach our day-to-day existence. Hence, while I accept that these arguments are not limited to the mere consideration of visual imagery, the act of taking and uploading photographs is clearly a dominant component in this cultural ritual of sharing.

The final point that needs addressing is that of memory. Bruno’s sudden decline in health and subsequent passing meant that, for myself, stranded away from home, self-immersion in photographs and the recollections evoked in them became a crucial part of the grieving process. Turning my disquiet not only to images already on Facebook, I also began frantically to scour a number of external USB devices in the possibility of uncovering any older photos of Bruno that had long since evaded my consciousness. As turbulent as these moments were emotionally, the search not only helped in keeping my mind occupied, but also allowed me to advance a visual testament of his life, underlining once more my trust in the sustaining qualities of the image. Of course, what one finds is that digital files – at least in my case, as I imagine in those of many others – offer only a partial representation of a known visual history, and further time is always needed to attempt a more wholesome restoration. The conversion of “real” photographs – those ones you can touch – to esoteric computerised pixels, together with the increased public dissemination guaranteed by this evolution, might well be a means of immortalising the image, even if Walter Benjamin argues that the uniqueness of the image, its aura, therefore comes into jeopardy. Similarly, I cannot help but feel that the ubiquity of the image poses no barrier to the memories hovering beneath. In an exchange with “Bruno” in February, just less than two months before his death, I approached him with a quotation from Daniel Herwitz’s book, The Star as Icon: Celebrity in the Age of Mass Consumption (2008), where I stated: “It becomes a task of art, journalism, culture to keep the power in the image alive, the aura profound. Otherwise the image loses its force, fading like a worn cloth.” Bruno’s reply – “liked” by four fellow Facebook users – came as follows: “I will never fade. My profound image will be remembered in the hearts and minds of all that know me.”

I wonder if the average consumers on the street assume pop star Rihanna to be American. How many of them are aware that she was in fact born and raised in Saint Michael, Barbados? The manner in which she has been predominantly implicated as an exponent of black American R&B, to be considered systematically alongside the likes of Beyoncé, speaks to a kind of cultural eclipsing, whereby an archetype for the American R&B songstress has already been set in place, potentially inhabitable by any woman from the outside whose looks, mannerisms, and voice match the established criteria. It should be noted, of course, that Barbados is an Anglophone country – more economically developed than most of its neighbouring Caribbean islands – and one must assume that the influence of mainstream pop and R&B from the United States is highly pervasive among the young population. I was not surprised to learn that, upon first auditioning for American songwriter and producer Evan Rogers in 2003, Rihanna performed a rendition of the ballad ‘Emotion’, as recorded famously by Destiny’s Child. It was this audition that ultimately provided the impetus for her relocation to the States a year later. The rest, as they say, is up on Wikipedia.

By identifying Rihanna as satisfying some pre-existing paradigm, I do not mean to suggest that she has not successfully transgressed that stereotype since her initial rise to fame in 2005 with ‘Pon de Replay’. This first single differs from almost all of her subsequent hits in that it works in a Jamaican-derived dancehall style (as popularised internationally by Sean Paul), delivered in an idiomatic form of Caribbean English. Commenting on the song’s lyrical style at the time of its release, Rihanna states: ‘It’s just language that we speak in Barbados. It’s broken English. Pon is on, de means the, so it’s just basically telling the DJ to put my song on the replay.’ She also speaks of the significance of the title of her first album, Music of the Sun: ‘The word sun represents my culture where I’m from, the Caribbean. It represents me. So the album consists of music of the sun.’ (The full text of this interview can be found here.)

Going by this first release, then, it would appear that Rihanna’s Caribbean heritage is referenced freely as a means of distinguishing her from her contemporaries. This invites the question of why on her two albums that follow – A Girl Like Me and Good Girl Gone Bad – this aspect of her image becomes increasingly downplayed. Granted, A Girl Like Me features two tracks that are strongly indebted to this influence: ‘Dem Haters’ is a down-tempo reggae-tinged number featuring fellow Barbadian singer Dwane Husbands, while ‘Break It Off’, with Sean Paul, is an energetic fusion of dancehall and mainstream pop. While this last song became the fourth and final single from the album, it featured no accompanying music video, and only came after the major hits ‘SOS’ and ‘Unfaithful’ had already provided the era’s definitive images of Rihanna as a thoroughly Americanised black pop icon. On the other hand, Good Girl Gone Bad, the record which would cement her place among the most preeminent music stars on the planet, is purged altogether of any overt Caribbean musical influences. One could reason that these developments reflect upon dancehall’s general decline in mainstream popularity since Sean Paul’s career peaked in the earlier half of ’00s, reinforced in turn by the rise of more technologically sophisticated forms of R&B, as exemplified by Timbaland’s work with Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado.

This omission of Caribbean-derived styles is re-perpetuated on Rihanna’s latest release, Rated R – at least in terms of purely musical content. By contrast, the video for the recent single ‘Rude Boy’ can easily be read as a renewal of her aesthetic identification with Afro-Caribbean culture. (Indeed, it is the explicit nature of this visual homage which served as the instigator for my writing of this piece.) Here, the viewer is overwhelmed with a blistering collage of various colours – reds, yellows, greens – that instantly cultivate resemblances to the dynamic fashions of the African diasporic community. Rihanna herself is adorned with a grass skirt of red, yellow and green for much of the video. At other moments she is draped with ethnic scarf-like garments, one of which signifies the markings of the white cheetah. Wild animals feature heavily throughout; images of lions wearing crowns are evoked continuously, and the entirety of the song’s bridge section is devoted to a black-and-white zebra theme, thus creating an alignment with a tribal past. One interpretation of this dependance on animal and tribal imagery is that by placing an emphasis on the primal, the natural, and the untamed, the song’s blatantly sexual theme – ‘Come here, rude boy/ Boy, can you get it up? / Come here, rude boy / Boy, is you big enough?’ – is given even greater resonance. The animalistic portrayal of human bodies in the video (and in particular the dominant role given to Rihanna’s hips and buttocks) again implies a raw sexual dimension inherent to Africans and to those of the African diaspora. (This portrayal of Africans as sexually illustrious is a prevalent means that Westerners have of exoticising the racial ‘other’. Rihanna herself, as it appears, has no reservations about perpetuating such a view.) A further nod to Afro-Caribbean culture is Rihanna’s mock playing of a stand-up drum kit featuring steelpan drums, instruments which originated in Trinidad and Tobago but are used extensively in Afro-Caribbean musics such as calypso.

Speaking more generally on Rihanna’s career and image, the increased level of creative autonomy which she seems to have commanded since approximately the time that Good Girl Gone Bad was replaced with Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded in the summer of 2008 (marked subsequently by the release of the singles ‘Disturbia’ and ‘Rehab’), and the adoption of a new, ‘darker’ visual style (perhaps the most radical change of all has been the detachment of herself from the traditional long tresses of the R&B diva, adopting an increasingly distinctive cropped hairstyle), seems to have created a new self-assertive platform from which a more fully-realised statement of her own identity can be performed. The video for ‘Rude Boy’ – regardless of the fact that the song itself is still keeping very much in line with modern American R&B – stands as the most convincing, most ‘authentic’ invocation of her cultural past.

Continuing in the reflective vein of my last piece, I’ve been thinking off-and-on lately about the extent to which one’s musical ideologies and fixations are a product of exposures to certain kinds of musics during the formative years of one’s life. As a budding music academic, I’ve often felt a certain degree of anxiety and inadequacy over the predominantly absent role that classical music played in my social upbringing. Neither of my parents is really musical (although there’s a strong affinity amongst my uncles on my mother’s side for playing guitar and singing), classical music was rarely heard in my primary school (although my camp headmaster was a noted fan of opera, and of Verdi in particular), and, perhaps most tellingly, I’m Irish. What was classical music for most of us but another symbol of the ‘high culture’ brought to bear by the noble British gentry during the era of colonialisation?

Classical music, then, has always represented somewhat of an ‘other’, regardless of how hard I’ve tried to make the music a part of myself. It’s not alone in this struggle, however, as I’ve had a very similar sort of relationship with jazz throughout the years. Ironically, I could probably say the same for Irish traditional music, although my understanding of this music seems to be a lot more ‘intuitive’. It’s always experienced as being ‘close to home’ and a part of my heritage. Whether or not I actively seek it out for sensual enjoyment is negligible in this respect.

Thinking about my childhood years, each time I attempt to formulate the exact circumstances which led to music becoming a dominant ideological force in my life, my memory is drawn toward a small collection of hazy, but equally poignant, experiential remnants.

There was David, the son of Theresa, the woman who babysat me from the ages of one to eleven while my mother would work. It was through his imposing teen-aged influence that I was first exposed to MTV circa 1995. Although the mid-’90s is frequently cited as a golden era for music video, the clip that usually stands out in my mind as the first to really command my attention is REM’s ‘Drive’. In fact, I find the brooding, black-and-white imagery of that video more vivid to recall than the song itself.

There was Jason, the boy who lived across the road from me and who was for several years my closest friend. At some point an acoustic guitar turned up in his house, along with a small Casio keyboard. The presence of these two still-exotic instruments would prove to be a matter of instant revelation for myself personally. The fact that my technical knowledge of playing music was non-existent up to that point (granted I’d probably strummed and banged around on my uncles’ guitars and tom toms, and had most likely tinkered with the old upright piano in my grandmother’s  sitting room from time to time), it was upon the first encounter with that acoustic guitar in Jason’s house that I attempted to know an instrument and to construct some semblance of a melody. Without fingering a single note on the fretboard, I set about writing my first song. (Perhaps this is what happens to most people who pick up a guitar for the first time, when they’re content enough just to learn the individual sonorities of the strings, not daring to complicate the issue further by introducing a second – and most likely weaker – member to the action.)

Ironically, I would not return to self-educating myself as a guitarist for some time, for it was the Casio keyboard and not the guitar that eventually sustained my interest. My reasoning is that because Jason was receiving lessons in electronic keyboard at the time, I could draw upon his already-established knowledge of basic chordal structures, supported in theory by the notated repertoire of songs contained in his grade book(s). (Remember these? Oh God! My only guess is that during the ’80s and ’90s setting your child up with keyboard tuition signified some ‘cooler’, more contemporary, and financially preferable alternative to proper piano lessons.) It was not long before I had persuaded my mother to buy for me a keyboard of my own (a much bigger, more advanced model than Jason’s, should I add!), and to set me down the same path of keyboard scholarship that Jason had undertaken a year or so before. (If I could somehow re-embody myself at age ten, I would demand that my parents get me a real classical piano teacher. I would even make do with practising on a keyboard if a piano proved to be too unviable an acquisition.)

Returning to the issue raised at the beginning of this post, that of formative exposure, I would like to address further the impact that MTV had on my early musical consumption. As I have mentioned, growing up in a household where my parents were not musical, and where the playing of musical recordings was not much of a regular event (copied cassettes were still abundant; the Sony ‘ghetto blaster’ I received for Christmas in 1995 was the first CD player to enter our house), the musical influences I received through my family were minimal, to say the least. Being the eldest child, I had no senior siblings to turn to for guidance, and so I often found myself left to my own devices. It is not surprising that the first albums I owned, all released and purchased in 1995, are by artists who were major figures on MTV during the same period: Michael Jackson’s HIStory (I believe this is officially the first; I bought it on cassette in a shopping centre during my first trip to Dublin when I went to visit my uncle and his new wife), along with Bon Jovi’s These Days and East 17’s Up All Night (both on CD, received as Santa presents to accompany my new ‘ghetto blaster’; Bon Jovi is notable for being my favourite band in the world at the time).

This brings  me to where I am today, in an academic institution in the north of England, where I am frequently bombarded with fellow music students bustling along to be on time for their various orchestral rehearsals and recitals. I, on the other hand, am busy plotting the details of my next written assignment – an extended essay on some aspect of the racial and/or sexual subjectivities as exemplified in the music of Michael Jackson. Yet, why should I be anxious? After all, we’ve been together for such a long time…

YouTube and Nostalgia

February 14, 2010

In my first post I mentioned a module I’m currently sitting in on, entitled Ritual, Remembrance and Recorded Sound. Well, last week Ian Biddle delivered a compelling lecture which dealt with the role of the archive as a space in which we store data we wish to safeguard for posterity. A large component of this discussion considered the use of digital media and the internet as modern-day archives, where our anxieties over the possibility of forgetting past events, or of being inhibited from renewing our experience of them at a later stage, is compounded through the ever-encroaching threat of ‘data memory loss’. While the technologies have become increasingly sophisticated, the paranoia felt towards the possibility of loss has remained, only manifested in new ways. Where once we obsessed over musical disks becoming distorted, scratched, or contaminated with dust and fingerprints, now we squirm at the prospect of our boot drive crashing, setting up an intimidating obstacle for many as we seek to redeem lost reservoirs of valuable data. An example of a related phenomenon would be that, as I write this, I’m experiencing a compulsion to click the ‘Save Draft’ button at regular intervals, fearing that there might be a power shortage or computer error which leads to my text being condemned to electronic oblivion. [Click.]

The internet, then, can be interpreted as a kind of universal archive, where vast streams of collected human knowledge and experience are made accessible to immense populations of people from disparate regions of the globe. Logistical barriers which previously made ownership and authorship of knowledge more clearly defined have subsided to a considerable extent, creating a space wherein data flows freely and equally from peer to peer.

This brings me to the case of YouTube, an incredibly powerful  resource which opens up an ever-growing archive (albeit a rather disarrayed, anarchic archive) of visual and aural material, the richness and diversity of which has the potential to captivate the individual for as long s/he will allow him- or herself to be immersed. Although it is frequently the case that people visit the site purely to browse new or previously ‘uncharted’ content, it equally grants one the opportunity to uncover materials encountered at some point in the past which have since that moment either been forgotten or proven impossible to access at will. YouTube, then, surely represents one of the most fervent spaces for feelings of nostalgia to thrive that mankind has ever produced.

Let me present two very different nostalgic gems of mine that YouTube has allowed me to seize and pin-down in my own personal archive, namely my Favourites page.

  • Ryan Giggs’ goal against Arsenal in extra time of the FA Cup semi-final replay, 1999. I remember jumping uncontrollably around my best friend’s living room when it went in, almost struggling to come to terms with the unfathomable genius that had just unfolded before my eyes. I remember going home, still reeling from the excitement, and accidentally knocking my garage door off its hinges. (Actually, don’t hold me to the accuracy of this last point. I recall the significance of the garage door, and I’m certain that I knocked it off its hinges at some point, but it is possible that two distinct memories have been conflated in my head. If only I’d had a camera-equipped mobile phone to record the action!)
  • The Japanese-animated The Adventures of Pinocchio from 1984, I believe. I grew up watching a VHS tape of this film with my younger sister. If I remember correctly, we received the video through a rep’s promotion in my parents’ pharmacy. I’m fairly certain that it’s still buried somewhere at home, but our VHS player has – as predictable in the age of DVD – been redundant for a long time. Encouragingly, however, when I went to retrieve this video from YouTube, I noticed that someone has uploaded the entire film in installments, so one of these nights I may have to get under the covers with my laptop and take a virtual trip down memory lane.

Pink Rhinestones

February 13, 2010

While I take a temporary respite from my college work, relaxing back with a glass of cold chardonnay, I want to reflect briefly on my new-found interest in country music. This fresh curiosity is undoubtedly rooted in my recent exposure while a student on Richard Elliott’s courses. Although I’ve flirted with the genre in the past, it has never been in any sustained capacity – an all-too-familiar state of affairs as a consequence of my jack-of-all-trades nature. The week I spent in Saskatchewan, Canada, in 2004 surely accounts for my deepest immersion, for it was here I first encountered in person real North American country living, first performed country music in any sort of credible fashion, first heard of the name Merle Haggard.

I would be lying if I claimed that I’ve reapproached country music without any sort of preconstructed bias, especially when there’s evidence branded unambiguously across my YouTube Favourites page that suggests there’s a very particular era and stylistic niche of country music to which I am drawn. This could be summarised as predominantly 1970s, ‘soft-shell’, ballad-driven country with a woman front of stage. Their accents are soft and alluring, their ranges are pristine, their faces are pretty – Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, are you listening? When Dolly Parton takes over – all brash, blonde and obnoxious – is usually where the seduction ends.

How did I come to start my own blog?

Well, the impetus originated when one of my teachers at Newcastle University, Dr Richard Elliott, informed us students of his idea to publish a blog to accompany a module he is currently presenting in collaboration with Dr Nanette de Jong and Dr Ian Biddle. That module – Ritual, Remembrance and Recorded Sound – has been assembled as a platform in order to address issues pertinent to a body of research that all three are aiming to develop and subsequently publish in a unified volume. That blog – Technologies of Memory: Ritual, Remembrance and Recorded Sound – was established here on WordPress, accessible to any student involved in the course who wishes to put forward ideas relating to topics raised in class. Although I myself am unlikely to have the time in the near future to engage with these issues in a substantial way (I am only present on the course as an auditor, and thus the majority of my focus lies in other areas), I naturally want to remain abreast of progress made by my teachers and fellow students.

It is for these reasons that I was drawn to WordPress a number of weeks ago, and since then the prospect of having a blog of my own to house whatever idiosyncratic ramblings that might surface has appeared more and more attractive. Regardless of whether or not these postings draw any sort of readership beyond my own eyes, the act of writing in itself should bring its own rewards, whether they be mentally or emotionally therapeutic, or, conversely, shaped by egotism and self-aggrandisement, or – what is most likely – encompassing both of these aspects. At this moment I cannot predict confidently what the writing process will generate in terms of subject matter, but it is likely that my perspective will be swayed by those interests which occupy me most on a day-to-day basis. Discounting myself as a self-contained interest, these can probably be ranked like so:

  1. Music. I am currently working towards an MA in musicology, with a specialism in the field of popular music studies. Aside from my reading-and-writing, research-oriented academic pursuits, I have a healthy interest in composition (mainly songwriting) and performance. Of course, I also advocate listening for its own sake.
  2. Football. By this I mean soccer, in case there are any Americans who might wander by these pages. My commitments lie foremost with my national side, the Republic of Ireland, but I’m also an avid Manchester United supporter.
  3. Everything else? Current affairs, media, film, literature… Let’s find out together.

Yes, the writing should be rewarding. For now, however, there’s a different kind of writing that requires more urgent attention.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.