May 7, 2005

freaked out about the iPod

by Mary Flanagan · , 7:52 pm

After spending several hours in the Apple Store Soho a week ago and being bombarded with the classic dancing silhouettes from various ipod ad campaigns from all directions, I must disclose my discomfort with depictions of the body, race, the individual, and general ‘hipness’ these campaigns infuse into the sale of albeit charming products.
various ipod ad images

I was a visitor to Apple Soho the day after the New York Times reported that 50 iPods have been stolen on NYC subways this year due to owners being easily identifiable (the distinctive white earbuds). Luckily, iPod theft represents a smaller number than cell phone theft on the subway… This is also after realising that with over 10 million iPods sold in Feb 2005 every single person in this city, and then some, could wear the thin white sash as a badge of honour. There are great figures online for the success of the iPod, such as “1.79 iPods sold every minute in 2003” and 300 million downloads from the music store marking an extreme shift in technology and cultural distribution/consumption. In fact we now have fans making ads for Apple.

I could write an entire essay about this (and either should, or someone may have already done so). Please talk a moment to take another look at the U2 music-video-ad and the iPod Shuffle ad
featuring the song “Jerk It Out” by The Caesars.

The separation of body and song, or more specifically, body and voice in media are compelling sites for questioning representation altogether. In the iPod ads, the faceless, featureless dancing afro-wearing women or dread-locked “shadow’ male dancers– literally with their identities erased save for hair and jewellery as markers of race—gyrate to U2 and other primarily white pop music groups.

more pod ads
Somehow the ads eerily remind me of the Hollywood “dubbing” phenomenon. African American filmmaker, writer and director Julie Dash explored these issues in her 1983 film Illusions, in which an African American woman, passing for white, works in Hollywood alongside an African American woman who does not pass and dubs songs for white actresses in the film industry. In real life, this kind of ventriloquism was common: for example, Nina Mae McKinney, a black actress, appeared in the film Reckless (1935) only via voice: she was the singer who in fact dubbed Jean Harlow’s songs in the film. Etta Moten Barnett, a singer who appeared in the 1942 production of ‘Porgy and Bess, dubbed for Barbara Stanwyck, Ginger Rogers and other actresses. She is also the earnest black singer in the Busby Berkeley musical The Gold Diggers of 1933,’ (belting out “Remember My Forgotten Man,” the huge war spectacle and appeared in the film– but she was not even listed in the credits). Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to Washington and she was the first black woman to sing in the White House.

A strange inversion of this trend was the singing in Otto Preminger’s adaptation of the opera Carmen, Carmen Jones (1954). Marilyn Horne (white) was the singing voice for Dorothy Dandridge (African American) Harry Belafonte was also dubbed in this film. In this case, a white
opera singer works to affect a ‘jazzy’ African American vernacular singing style as the voice of an African American actress. Marilyn Horn also was the voice for a Asian actress in “Flower Drum Song.”
((Mick Hurbis-Cherrier, filmmaker and film scholar, Hunter College, and Jeff Smith, Black Faces, White Voices: The Politics Of Dubbing In Carmen Jones. The Velvet Light Trap 51 (2003) pp. 29-42))

an ipod

There is something significant– and odd –at stake in this mix of gender, racial, and cultural dislocation / ventriloquism / eradication of features in favour of the silhouette together with the magical promise of solitary transcendence promoted by the funky, dancing, lonely figures marking meaning of the iPod. The advertising for this product seems to foreground assumptions about race, music, and popular culture, selling products to primarily privileged individuals while projecting the urban techno-dance-hipster as potentially a silhouette of color. I hope this stirs the discussion pot.