By using a certain kind of music, it can place you in a certain physical space. When a movie want to place a viewer in a certain country, the sound designers and music composers often use very stereotypical musical choice. This, I would argue, applies more to huge movies with large budgets, where it is more important to make sure the audience likes it rather than smaller low-budget independent movies. Although, the use of music to illustrate a country or culture can often be problematic. It simplifies the culture and country in question and narrows it down to one specific image, this applies more to non-western cultures. I’ll explain why further down.
There are so many examples from Hollywood where countries and different cultures are stereotyped, it would take years to go through them all. One fairly recent example is from the movie ‘Blended’, a movie hardly even worthy of an explanation of the plot, but it plays on all kinds of stereotypes not just racial. Gender stereotypes can be seen for instance. Although I will be making an example out of their stereotypical portraitation of the african culture.
Take a look at the clip below.
In this clip, not only are they referring to South Africa as Africa a bunch of times, they have stereotyped and simplified the diversity of the african culture into a single one through the use of clothes, accents, dances, music and environment. One main thing that places us in ‘Africa’ is via the choice of music. The use of, what most people would perceive as, ‘traditional’ african music instantly places us in Africa. (I really don’t agree to simplify and refer a single country as equal and similar to a whole continent, but since the stereotype being conveyed here is an ‘african’ stereotype I am gonna use the term to underline this notion). As with the use of any music in this way, wether or not it is African stereotypes, Asian, Indian, Latin or any other, to stereotype a culture it is problematic. From a composers point of view I do see this as an easy way out, and an almost guaranteed way to make sure the audience are all on the same page, making sure they understand which part of the world they are placed in. But as I said earlier, it induces a simplified and often wrong picture of the country portrayed.
Maybe you are asking yourself why the use of ‘traditional music’ from the country being portrayed, is not the best way to place a viewer in that country? Why it’s wrong to use traditional folk music to do this? There problem is this.
When portraying a western country from a western point of view, it seldom works with the use of ‘traditional music’ because we know that a western country has more than one traditional type of music. Sure maybe Swedish folk music or American country would place you in those countries, but the way these countries are portrayed is often not as a simplified and one layered country as the non-western countries would be portrayed. But since media, meaning both the film industry but also news and reports from across the globe, first of all refer one country in Africa as Africa, and secondly show us a very singled view and stereotypical picture of what the western countries would perceive Africa as we are fed with the image that is how that specific county is. So the problem isn’t really the use of traditional music, but more so when it’s the ONLY music being used. Although I would argue that the use of the music in combination with the visual stereotypical portraytion is more the problem.
Mahadeo & McKinney are arguing in their article ‘Media representation of Africa: Still the same old story?’ of how the portraytion is harming Africa. First, they say that Africa is often referred to as one country which reduces the many hundred different cultures into one. There is a problem in seeing the one perspective of the country. While there’s an image of Africa as a war zone, poor and far behind on development in media reporting, the portraitation of Africa as the one in the movie ‘Blended’, only adds to a simplistic image of a whole continent.
I won’t way to deep into this subject, but the point I do want to make is this. Music and politics can and are closely related, especially in combination with images and movies. So having a blog writing about sound and image without raising this question would feel a bit wrong to me.