Sonic Persuasion – Reading Sound in the Recorded Age
University of Illinois Press, Champaign, IL, 2011
For Greg Goodale, no sound is innocent and Sonic Persuasion reads like a handbook on how to examine aural documents with a critical ear able to discern the lures, subterfuges and manipulations orchestrated by corporations, advertisers and politicians – as Goodale puts it: to read sound, that is, to listen, instead of just to hear sounds. To achieve this, one shall be aware of the consequences of invisibility, the tricks of sonic persuasion and the benefits of the sonorous envelope. Goodale is assistant professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University, Boston, MA, where he teaches Rhetoric and Persuasion and conducts advocacy workshops. He studied Law and Communication, is a defender of disabled people and animal rights, and a politically opinionated gentleman who served as congressional aide to Democrat representative Leslie Byrne.
As chapter 2 and 4 of Sonic Persuasion aptly demonstrate, recording technology is by nature racially biased, because of the accents, the elocution, the expectations of the public or simply by the degree of tolerance – or lack thereof – of the times. Hence the invisibility inflicted on some black artists performing on disc or on radio, while white artists could turn invisibility to their advantage. For instance, in the 19th century, political speeches were recorded by professional actors, not by politicians themselves, and a concern for effeminate or shrill voices led to a preference for manly and oratory style. Accordingly, Abraham Lincoln‘s famous 1903 Gettysburg address was recorded and circulated with the deep voice of actor Len Spencer. But the invisibility resulting from the recorded voice and radio broadcasts was not just a consequence of the new medium. For black artists, it also resulted from the anonymousness imposed by recording companies complying with the segregational laws or producer and consumer’s prejudices, in a racist environment where the Ku Klux Klan was tolerated by the US government.
But in turn, artists themselves have been using their recorded voice to persuade or make believe, like the fake news bulletins and pretended Martian invasion of Mercury Theater’s War of the Worlds, 1938. Billie Holiday could persuade listeners she wasn’t black when using a straight voice in the song Your Mother’s Son-In-Law, 1933, instead of her typically black syncopated voice in Strange Fruit, 1939, where she uses many vocal tricks – like syllable elision, rhythm change, unusual pronunciation and intonation– to keep the audience listening to the gruesome lyrics of the song. CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow, reporting from London during WWII, could help persuade America of the necessity to help Europe with the sounds of air-raid sirens and foot steps in his legendary London After Dark broadcast, 1940. Air-raid sirens and falling bomb sounds re-emerged during the Cold War period as anxious, paranoid sounds used to convince US citizens of the necessity of nuclear weapons to balance USSR’s own armament, particularly in the Duck and Cover propaganda film of 1951. In turn, the sound of a falling bomb was hilariously caricatured by Chuck Jones in an episode from the Roadrunner cartoon series in 1952, and this sound will endlessly underline Vile E. Coyote’s repeated falling in the series. Though not mentioned by Goodale, the cartoon’s relentless frolicking and energy owes much to composer Carl Stallig and Foley artist Treg Brown, who created the sound effects of all Warner Bros Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies cartoons (see Lucky Psychic Hut for a collection of Roadrunner soundtracks). Pictures of the bombing reappeared in the 1964 Daisy ad to persuade people to vote for Lyndon B. Johnson, along other tricky sound effects used by Tony Schwartz in this controversial ad. Conversely, Goodale also detects sonic manipulation in the absence of sound in the silent pictures of the Pentagon’s bomb videos of Irak during the Persian Gulf War in 1991 (p126) – which is not necessarily a paradox, rather a continuation of the Pentagon’s manipulative use of media.
During the first half of the 20th century, the sound of clocks, trains and machines pervading everyone’s life disturbed and infuriated people. Blues singer Bukka White famously imitated the locomotive’s bell, brake and engine sounds with his guitar in his heart-wrenching song Special Streamline, 1940, in which, despite the feeling of loss, deprivation and pain the lyrics convey, the singer is adjusting to industrial noises. Maybe what helped people cope with the incessant urban noise was the sonorous envelope, an aura of familiar, immersive sounds in which to find comfort and gain some sense of identity in a time when “the accelerating velocity of humanity […] threatens to tear souls apart” (Goodale p55). Inspired by French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu‘s psychic envelope concept in The Skin-Ego, 1987, the sonorous envelope according to Goodale includes everything from the roaring of a crowd, ubiquitous radio waves, sounds coming from the stage in a theater, and even Hitler’s calculated, fear mongering speeches, among other examples. Even one’s own voice can spread a sonorous envelope, since “we use our voices to protect ourselves from threats”, writes Goodale on his blog.
In the last chapter, the author sums up the reference books on sound criticism written in the 20th century, but his selection, as well as his source material for Sonic Persuasion in general, seems a bit univocal. “The best work on sound has consistently been written from within the Marxist tradition”, writes Goodale (p144), and one can’t help but hope for examples from outside this canon. For instance, the invisibility concept would have benefited from a comparison with disembodiment, a concept examined by various sound and media theorists like Allen S. Weiss in Breathless: Sound recording, disembodiment, and the transformation of lyrical nostalgia in 2002, and Brandon LaBelle in Background Noise in 2006, among others. If we are to “resist exploitation of sound by modern playwrights, politicians and corporations” (p147), it would seem necessary to adopt a less biased doctrine as Goodale’s. The merits of Sonic Persuasion are to be found elsewhere: in the minute attention to speech and pronunciation, in the way the author scrutinizes the political use of sound from the early days of recording, and in his delightful rendition of the Cold War propaganda era in pure sonic terms.