Preliminary Thoughts on “New” Forms of Media, Technology, and Race

Most of us are probably familiar with the 1979 Buggles tune, “Video Killed the Radio Star.” In the synth-heavy and somewhat campy song, the group sings in saccharine yet nostalgia tones about a shift from the experience of radio to TV. The lyrics both melancholy and strangely robotic are reminiscent of a failed or at least very changed romantic relationship: “we can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far” and “pictures came and broke your heart, put the blame on VCR.” The song is perched awkwardly yet sweetly between old and new media, genre, styles. I bring it up because the “oh oh”s were caught in my head while I read this week about Caribbean music in the digital age. Though the musical connections might be non-existent, the ambivalent attitudes toward changing musical media seemed to dovetail. And the Buggles came to mind again when I watched the interview of Tessanne Chin who appeared on the popular radio show “Sway in the Morning.” Here was a “radio star” Sway who has not been killed by video, but has actually found success as a radio host and his show is also on digital video (an even newer form of media than the Buggle’s VCR). I actually remember Sway from his time as a host and correspondent on different MTV programs. In his case, video made the radio star. A similar trajectory toward increased recognition vis a vis changing technologies is charted in the Houghton and Bonneville article on Dancehall economy in the digital age. The authors note that in the 1990’s videos and CDs helped spread dancehall sensibility, often inflected through hip-hop, across the Caribbean and the Caribbean diaspora. While this might be a positive change for the artists seeking more global recognition, I read a trace of nostalgia in the authors’ note that the Jamaican soundsystem model was being displaced as the center.

The connections and blurred lines between forms of “old” and “new” media persisted as I watched the interview and came to know more about Chin. Tessanne Chin is the 2013 winner of TV competition show The Voice, sign of how the music industry and individual aspiring musicians rely on spectacular TV competitions and the narrative form of a season to promote themselves to large audiences. (Spoiler alert for Empire, season 2 episode 3) Sway’s radio show, broadcast as well on Youtube, is given another layer of mediation in a recent appearance of Sway on the extremely popular TV drama, Empire. In the episode Sway plays himself as a host of “Sway in the Morning” who is drawn into a feud between two record label heads who are looking to use his show to launch their own artists. “Sway in the Morning” it should also be noted is broadcast on satellite radio, a lucrative melding of radio and digital spaces/audiences.

An interesting research question would be how these overlapping forms of media and entertainment are all different technologies for the representation of racial difference and even larger meta-conversations about race. I’m also intrigued by how we might read this as how the technology (and technologies?) of race might interact with forms of media technology. How can people “do” race differently by using different media? The question of how Chin does race is a somewhat awkward subtext of her radio segment where there was focus on Chin as a mixed-race performer who has a Jamaican accent. This is an accent, it is implied, which is not often associated with a Chinese surname or a light-skinned mixed race person. Sway claims that “The world hadn’t seen anything like you” because the majority of people were not familiar with Jamaica as a plural society and as Sway says “how that came to be.” I haven’t articulated a full thought around it yet but this Youtube radio segment seems to be a cluster of different formations of race, media, technology, and public discourse.

I found Sway’s statement “The world hadn’t seen anything like you” a curious reference to global awareness and visuality that I situate in the digital age that Houghton and Bonneville are describing. These authors address the contradictions of an increased global visual presence and economic success. “Dancehall e-commerce barely exists as such but the web and other digital technology have connected artists, selectors, and dancers to a much larger arena for live shows, in effect extending the potential space of the dancehall…” (2). At the same time, blogs and social media are creating “informal virtual mirrors of the mom-and-pop networks” (2). These statements and trends indicated there might not be such a sure line between old and new media.

3 comments

  1. In response to these productive conversations concerning technological encounters and expectations, I would like to add a brief addendum, or consideration. I find the discussions here concerning affect transmission and its dispersal over various mediums fascinating, and Maxine, you describe video as less intimate than a radio performer, however in looking back over my own history, I’ve watched so many more video performances than listened to radio performances. This is, to a great deal, due to my own placement in time and location. Having lived during a period when tv was very entrenched, and been witness to the rise of the internet, and all that means (I remember when youtube didn’t have commercials!), I think I exist as a predominately visual, rather than aural, consumer. I think I might find the intimacy you refer to more easily in a video (for instance Facebook videos of friend’s babies) than aurally (a similar recording). This isn’t to challenge your claim, rather, I wonder how much of our encounters with models of technological dispersion and uptake depend on our historical facticicity, the very placedness of ourselves within technological backgrounds of particular (and differing) makeups. And while I remain consistently surprised that I teach students who were not alive at the same time as Kurt Cobain (MTV being one aspect of my own personal techno/biographical background), new forms of technology and technological consumption, will continue to alter future preferred forms of consumption, and the ways in which relate to, or prefer, certain models over others.

  2. Chy

    Obviously, a big part of initial (visual) judgment is related to racial expectations, stereotypes, and so on. I’m left wondering about the potential to “sound like something other than what you look like” so awkwardly described in the Tessanne Chin interview; does this undermine racial stereotypes/racist assumptions, or reify them?

    I think it can do both. I’ve been in SEVERAL situations where people were surprised at hearing the sound of my voice and seeing me. Most of the time, it was awkward and uncomfortable. However, it could open up a space for discussion. Asking questions like “why are you surprised by my visual representation” or “how did you think I should sound” may inspire some introspection and reflection. However, the burden is on the misrepresented person to perform a service, which I am not comfortable with. For me personally, I take it case-by-case. If I feel like it, I’ll engage. If not, I won’t address it.

    Another good question is how might technology play a role in distorting stereotypes. Perhaps it’s the same question, though, because I’ve had phone conversations and been, again, met with shock or surprise in a person-to-person meeting. Perhaps it is the same question. I think that this, again, goes back to an oft-repeated belief of mine–technology is just another expression of textual performance. Ultimately, people plug in their beliefs, share them with a larger amount of people, look for the answers they already “know,” and perhaps learn nothing new. Obviously, the digital environment is also a space for growth and opportunity–if you’re already looking for it. I’m not sure that it can magically grow alternate cognition pathways in the brain.
    Wow, that’s cynical.
    -CS

  3. Maxine

    Returning to this blog post after a few weeks of reading, I thought this passage from Murray’s introduction was actually a really lovely way of illustrating the (sometimes paradoxical) movements of old and new media:

    “My paternal grandmother, who started life in a Russian shtetl, jumped in terror when she heard that disembodied speech, thinking it must be a dybbuk or ghost. Yet only a few decades later, I sat in my crib, as my mother fondly reports, calmly enraptured by the voice of Arthur Godfrey. Today, My husband collects tapes of old Bob and Ray programs, which we listen to on long car trips, savoring the intimacy of what now seems like a touchingly low-tech format.”

    The idea of “intimacy” is maybe particularly interesting when thinking about radio — the first technology to really come “into the living room,” right? So listening to someone in your home is an interesting way to develop an intimacy without having ever seen the person.

    To me, video seems less intimate (though of course we may be lamenting the good old nostalgic days of video when we have in-home holograms). The radio performer has more space to create a persona that’s affectively connected to the viewer — who might be dismissive of the same person if they saw them. (I actually read an interview recently with someone who had worked as a phone sex operator, producing an auditory simulation of “sexy” while in sweatpants at a call center.)

    Obviously, a big part of initial (visual) judgment is related to racial expectations, stereotypes, and so on. I’m left wondering about the potential to “sound like something other than what you look like” so awkwardly described in the Tessanne Chin interview; does this undermine racial stereotypes/racist assumptions, or reify them?

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