It may be cynical, but your claim is certainly a valid one, Aaron - and there is at least an ounce of opportunism here (if not more). Your comment has me thinking back to the post-9/11 pop landscape, where Bowie peers such as McCartney, Mellencamp, Springsteen, et al. penned songs to mark the cultural moment. None of these really stuck. At best, they became new favorites within the artist’s already dedicated fanbase (Springsteen), in others, the songs were generally panned.
In Bowie’s case, a song already revered as a ‘classic’ simply gets imbued with new cultural meaning. That is, it’s already cleared the hurdle of familiarity (and now I see some connections to Leanne’s post).
I appreciate your comment, Aaron, in particular, “I wondered what it means when that reference to the original is lost, and I appreciate that you’ve provided one answer to that in your post: appropriation. Whereas recontextualization seems to imply that the connection to the original context is in some ways left intact, even as the item is moved into a new context, appropriation importantly reminds us of the lines of power that also pervade the original items as embedded in their context.”
I think the ‘appropriation consideration’ is a crucial element in understanding most popular culture today — music and all other forms of media. Because while think of certain artists or their work as transcending boundaries (which of course, is a good thing), we still have to ask ourselves what happens to the messages once those boundaries are crossed. And yes, because both the author and audience have power, there may be information that is repeatedly getting lost in translation.
Other interesting (music specific) examples would be what’s happening with the “Running Man” right now. It’s actually a combination of quite a few issues (original song + original dance name + new dance + no reference to the original dance) and seeing a rapid popularity spike.
As someone that listened to the original “Too Close” in the limo as I made my way to prom in 1998, I quite enjoyed the recontextualization in the form of “Why You Always Lying.” For me, that enjoyment is entirely wrapped up in the pleasure of the reference to the original, which was the subject of one of my questions on Leanne’s post from Wednesday. I wondered what it means when that reference to the original is lost, and I appreciate that you’ve provided one answer to that in your post: appropriation. Whereas recontextualization seems to imply that the connection to the original context is in some ways left intact, even as the item is moved into a new context, appropriation importantly reminds us of the lines of power that also pervade the original items as embedded in their context.
It’s also interesting to think about that in terms of Zack’s post about Bowie, and Bowie’s constant recontextualization of his own song. How does Bowie’s power as the author of his song intersect with the power of the audience to interpret that song? In asserting his right to recontextualize the song as its author, is Bowie appropriating the song which he should have rightly abandoned to the hands of his audience? Author power vs. audience power. Thank you for bringing power (and through it race and other identity categories articulated through power), via appropriation, into the conversation.
Along the lines of appropriation and perhaps reappropriation, this Harlem Shake video seems, well, appropriate :-) https://youtu.be/Mdeu5aGwwWI
Thanks for the comments, Mike. Your connection to theater and opera is especially salient - the ways in which musical motifs representing certain characters are reprised and reframed absolutely allows for the kind of drastic shift in tone discussed in the post. Those types of recontextualizations are contained within a fixed narrative, of course. However, there is perhaps something to be said for the ways in which songs such as “‘Heroes’” shift within the more fluid contexts of cultural and historical narratives. Food for thought - thank you!
What an excellent case and writeup, Leanne.
As you note, there are so many layers here. In relation to the discussion of audience, I think that awareness of the original matters only in that it allows access to a different dimension of ghostliness. Certainly, the performance and production of the Sonic Youth version have their own ghostly aesthetics; I don’t think that processing these aesthetics (and the song’s use in the trailer) are contingent upon awareness or familiarity with the original. However, familiarity with the original allows access to another layer of ghostliness.
I think that this is typically true of recontextualized oldies in film. We don’t need to be familiar with “Stuck in the Middle With You” or Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” to process their cinematic appropriations. However, having that familiarity adds another layer of text and associations to process.
Lastly on the matter of ghostliness - your piece reminded me of Laura Shearing’s (2014) article on The Beatles’ “Free as a Bird,” as well as Blanco & Peeren’s (2010) book Popular Ghosts: The Haunted Spaces of Everyday Culture.
This is a great example of recontextualization, thank you Zack.
Did ‘“Heroes”’ shifting in response to “the more fluid contexts of cultural and historical narratives,” or in response to the shifting needs of an aging Rockstar desiring to remake himself in response to those shifting contexts? Perhaps I’m betraying a certain cynicism, but couldn’t we also read this as the work of an opportunistic musician doing whatever to stay in the limelight, even if that means “selling out” his earlier works? Given that Bowie retained a certain cache even through all of this would seem to undercut that reading, but it’s worth asking.
I also have to wonder if there were different audience responses to these recontextualizations? I’m thinking of Fiske’s reworking of popular culture to stem from the site of audience reception and use rather than at the site of production (2010). It seems like we could reread Bowie’s rereading/recontextualization of his own songs through the framework of Fiske’s definition of popular culture, but with Bowie himself as the audience putting his own song to use to respond to his embedded needs (I’m thinking of Fiske on his own use of the “New Newlyweds” gameshow, though he’s of course not the creator of that show as well as the audience doing the recontextualizing). All that is to say, what do we learn from Bowie’s shifting interpretation of his own song , both about Bowie and the social context in which he finds it makes sense to shift the meaning of the song?
Thanks for drawing the connection between the shared and unshared in the experience of watching a trailer, that gives another dimension to the way the song might “haunt” us.
This may be a stretch, but reading the exchange also makes me want to revisit the time period from which the songs originate. Why an “oldie” of the Carpenters instead of, say, a cover of a hip-hop song or some other contemporary genre? I can’t help thinking that, instead of signifying an “increasing appetite for nostalgia in popular culture,” it signifies a kind of anti-nostalgia; old is scary!
I love the posthumous twist you’ve added here, and I think you’re spot on. I suppose one main difference in this most recent recontextualization is that it’s been prescribed for/onto Bowie rather than by him, as in the previous reinterpretations. Thanks for your thoughts, and for piquing my interest in your work - I look forward to exploring!
Yes, the knowing and not knowing or seeing and not seeing definitely part of why it works so well. Thanks for your comment and for bringing Luhrmann’s ad into this discussion, it has a very similar feeling. We tend to think of our cinematic experiences as personal ones rather than shared ones – even though we’re aware of its shared nature.
Since I’m not a music theorist or a musician, I’d be really interested if this style of cover is arranged/composed in a specific way for the very effect we’re discussing. The use of ‘slowed down’ covers is a commonplace trailer trick. Of course, as this clip illustrates, the origin of it comes in foreign-language trailers to bridge the language barrier for global distribution, but I think it’s become equally commonplace in contemporary trailers for all films. I think this practice also opens up some interesting ideas about legitimating certain kinds of music and making them ‘cool’ through covering them. Just like the Sonic Youth interpretation, I think the Grease cover in the Chanel add is a great example of this trend. It certainly forces us to reconsider the hierarchies of a value within music and the importance given to some genres of music over others within popular culture and criticism.
What an interesting trajectory — from ironic, to iconic, to earnest anthem. Now I’m trying to think of other examples that do something similar….
What immediately comes to mind are instances in movies/musicals of a lighthearted song moving from carefree to grave when repeated in a different moment of a narrative. (And of course we could find the same sort of device in, say, opera). I’m thinking of the two incarnations of “The Glory of Love” that bookend the movie Beaches, or the two versions of “I’ll Cover You” in Rent. In each of these instances, an originally optimistic, forward-looking song becomes something mournful after a death. But these don’t capture the same sense of the sarcastic becoming the sincere that Zack finds in Bowie.
(I also have to note, since I just commented about Baz Luhrmann in response to Leanne’s post, that ‘Heroes’ got the Baz treatment in Moulin Rouge’s Elephant Love Medley…. )