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Semiotic Theory and the Futility of Bowdlerising Lyrics

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A decade ago I was alert enough to the portrayal of race in music to be squeamish about a quartet of white women taking on the character of a mixed-race prostitute in song. Looking back, I take my past self’s points about the mitigating European context of both the version of the song the quartet were responding to and their audience’s frame of reference. But I also note it’s been a good long time since I withdrew that particular chart from circulation.

Bowdlerising the lyrics was not enough to ‘rescue’ that song, and today’s task is to articulate why that is so often the case. Much of the theoretical groundwork for this has appeared in past blog posts, but sometimes it’s useful to draw ideas together to shed light on continuing debates about how to handle songs which encode values we may no longer wish to align ourselves with.

The key issue lies in the distinction between denotation and connotation in how meaning works. Denotation gives you a direct line from signifier to signified: this word carries this lexical meaning. Connotation takes you round the block: the signifier triggers a wider set of cultural associations that those familiar with that culture will understand implicitly without naming them directly. There are useful cross-references to be made here with both Prototype Theory and Kahneman’s System 1 thinking.

So, the original lyrics to ‘Darkness on the Delta’ referred to the ‘darkies singing soft and low’. That is denotation: the word tells us specifically about the demographic of enslaved Black people imagined, in the myths of post-reconstruction Lost Cause narratives, to have been happy on the plantations.

The version of the song published by the Barbershop Harmony Society in the second volume of polecats changes this line to ‘voices singing soft and low’. And on the face of it, that removes the racism.

But the problem is that removing denotation leaves the rest of the connotative web intact. The very phrase ‘soft and low’ is so typically used to evoke the ‘happy darkie’ stereotype in other songs that it can stand alone to evoke the image without directly naming it. Surround it with references to fields of cotton, the muddy Mississippi, and levees to lounge on and the fictional world leaps into full technicolour. The myth remains even when described with less overtly derogatory names.

(And it is the myth that gives the insults their power. ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me’ is a saying that doesn’t imagine the name-calling being backed up by literal sticks and stones. Replacing the names with euphemisms does not necessarily remove the threat.)

The musical and lyrical thumbprints of racial stereotypes are like cockcroaches. If you see one, there are probably a dozen more hiding just out of view.

This is the same kind of associative process I traced in the East Asian musical stereotypes evoked when we used to call the Icicle 7th the Chinese 7th, and in the cartoonish pianistic blackface of ‘The Golliwog’s Cakewalk’. In all cases, the problem is that the stereotypes aren’t confined to the individual place where we spot them, but are maintained in an intertextual network of reference that provides the overall context of understanding.

Indeed, I had not really grasped how over-determined the nostalgic Dixie imaginary was until I read John Bush Jones’s account of Tin Pan Alley’s contribution to this cultural artefact. The same images circulate and recirculate through the songs he examines, going beyond cliché to the point of hack. (Quite apart from the insight I gained into the mythical nature of the depicted past through this book, I found myself rather disappointed in the startling levels of unoriginality that went into its construction.)

There remains the problem of course of people whose cultural knowledge of this associative world is partial or superficial not realising that what they are singing can trigger nasty associations in those who are more informed. I don’t think, for example, that I had really grasped quite how the lyrics ‘Swing high, swing low,’ could act derogatively until I had seen footage of a teenage Julie Garland singing ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ in full blackface.

Learning to understand these associations will be an ongoing project of course. The key thing is that we embrace it. When some people resist looking into the intertext to see the shameful associations of songs they have hitherto loved, you can understand their reluctance. It would be so much easier if a song was just a song, and if investing what it says on the surface with your own, innocent, interpretation worked to convey what you wished it meant.

But not knowing isn’t just innocence, it’s a product of having the nice kind of life in which these stereotypes have never been used against you. I am reminded of the horse ridden by the Electric Monk in Douglas Adams’s first Dirk Gently novel:

They [horses] have always understood a great deal more than they let on. It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion about them.

On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever.

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