*Note: If you find this article interesting or want to learn a bit more about this topic, this video explores the same topic:
It isn’t hard to see that popular media and culture play a significant role in the perpetuation and creation of prejudice. Most mainstream protagonists are white. Native islanders in movies like Pirates of the Caribbean are portrayed as cannibals. Villainous creatures in movies like Lord of the Rings are shown with darker skin than the rest of the cast. These issues vary in intensity and detectability, but are all relatively easy to pinpoint. What happens when it’s not so obvious? What happens when the problem isn’t visual?
Prejudice doesn’t cease to exist just because we can’t see it. While it is easy to see different types of racist caricatures or stereotypes on screen, the score from a film often reflects the same messages as the visuals. The score just slips past us easier. Looking closer at the sounds behind some of the most popular and iconic movies, we find there are a variety of ways in which soundtracks can deliver and perpetuate prejudice. Here are just a few.
The use of music from other cultures in western films can usually be classified as cultural appropriation. The practice of “borrowing” aspects of a culture, particularly a marginalized culture, for use as a part of mainstream culture can be harmful to the cultures being “borrowed” from. While the term cultural appropriation can be applied to most uses of music from other cultures in film music, almost every instance of appropriation in film music can also be categorized as orientalism or imperialism, more specific ways of using aspects of other cultures.
Imperialism, sometimes called colonialism, occurs in soundtracks when music from another culture is used, but is “framed” by western sounds to make it sound more familiar to the western ear. The 2016 soundtrack to Moana provides an example of imperialism. Disney advertised this movie as representative because Disney hired Polynesian artists to take part in the creative process. While this may be a step in the right direction for Disney, all of the Polynesian sounds are surrounded by typical western film music. The notes that open the movie, playing as we see the typical Disney opening, are indeed a Polynesian call to the deity Tulou before they depart on a voyage. If you listen closer, however, you will hear the drone of cellos and basses. As the sequence progresses, Polynesian drums join in and a choir of men and women’s voices join in, all the while accompanied by Western instruments and sounds. Although it is subtle, the traditional Polynesian music is never allowed control. Likewise, the group of Polynesian artists and culture bearers named the “Oceanic Trust” formed for this film was never allowed the power to make decisions about what music ended up in the film. By framing all Polynesian sounds with western orchestral and film score sounds, western audiences may subconsciously receive the idea that all music that isn’t western must be normalized, assimilated, and “tamed” before it can be placed into a film for western consumption. Perhaps this also reflects the possibility that Disney believes that nothing purely non-western is acceptable for mainstream entertainment.
Another Disney film that has similar problems with imperialism is Frozen, both I and II. The first film imitated the sound of a Yoik, music important to the indigenous Sami people of Scandinavia, in the opening song, Vuelie. In the second film, Disney made an effort to make up for this act of appropriation by working with the Sami government to create a culturally representative and appropriate film. Even though Disney collaborated with the Sami government, Disney was still in charge of what music ended up in the film. The use of the Yoik in Frozen is also significant because the Yoik has had to be brought to prominence through use in western contexts. When Scandinavia was colonized, indigenous groups had to suppress the Yoik as Christian explorers denounced it. The Yoik has never truly recovered from the suppression it suffered because of Christian explorers. Disney made an effort to make their movie representative of the reality of this culture, but all of the Sami sounds still have to find a “home” in western sounds for this movie’s use.
Imperialism isn’t the only way film scores can appropriate, stereotype, and misuse cultural music. Orientalism is another. In film music, orientalism is evident when non-western sounds are used to create a feeling of “other”. Without regard to where the sounds originated, music is borrowed from other cultures to signify to the audience that the setting has changed or that something is going on that is out of the ordinary. It can also be used to signify exoticness.
The 2009 film Avatar is a perfect example of orientalism. Ethnomusicologist Wanda Bryant was hired to work on the film with the composer, James Horner. He asked her to find sounds that would be unfamiliar to the typical western movie audience. Bryant and Horner dove deeply into indigenous sounds to find the perfect sounds to create a new musical culture. This would be less of a problem if the cultures they used were given some influence over the music used, had power in the creative process, or even if they were given some credit as the origin of the music, but the Wikipedia page for the Avatar soundtrack only briefly mentions Bryant and does not provide any mention of the cultures Bryant and Horner “borrowed” music from. This makes it look like Bryant and Horner’s only goal was to get “exotic” sounds for the film to invoke the idea of the Na’vi people being “other”.
John Williams applies some of the same scoring tactics of orientalism in his score for Star Wars, particularly in character themes. Much of John Willaims’s Star Wars score is composed of individual themes and leitmotifs that represent certain characters. Two of these themes in particular use orientalism and take it a step further in the wrong direction. The first is Emperor Palpatine’s theme. Music theorist Frank Lehman describes the sound of the song as “ in a kind of violation of natural musical law.” Lehman goes on to say, “The brooding, wordless male chorus that intones Palpatine’s theme reinforces the sense of eldritch [sinister] unease that the character exudes.” This “brooding, wordless male chorus” Lehman is referencing is Tibetan throat singing, a style of singing that is used by Tibetan Buddhist monks during rituals, as well as by many other non-western cultures. Williams is not only using this technique to indicate otherness, but also giving that otherness a sense of “unease”. Whether or not this was his intention, Williams’s theme for Emperor Palaptine uses a non-western singing technique to signify villainy.
The other instance from Star Wars is the iconic Duel of the Fates piece. Duel of the Fates is a theme that first appears in The Phantom Menace and accompanies a battle between good and evil, the conflict between the Sith Darth Maul and the Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice. The lyrics to Duel of the Fates come from the Welsh poem Cad Goddeau but are sung in Sanskrit, the ancient language of Hinduism. Williams uses Sanskrit to orientalize this duel, to make it feel “alien” and uses that “alien” feeling to heighten the conflict and tension.
Another film that uses orientalism is Disney’s 1998 Mulan. Although there is not a lot of information on the origin of sounds used in Mulan to evoke the “exoticness” of the location, Earle Hagen quoted Jerry Goldsmith, composer of the Mulan score, as saying, ““One-time” dramatic scoring serves composers as a common tactic for signaling or reinforcing “exotic” geographic locations: “If we see a picture shot in China, we immediately have the fourths and gongs going”.” Hagen and Goldsmith are acknowledging the effectiveness of orientalism in film score. Hagen goes on to say, “What is ethnic is what Hollywood has made ethnic. . . . The ethnic-Oriental is particularly worth talking about because if one were to give the pure ethnological answer musically, they [the director and producer?] would throw it out in a second.” ”1 This quote suggests that western popular culture has the power to define what a specific culture looks like. That, in turn, suggests that all cultures only exist for the consumption of white culture. This centers white culture at the expense of all others.
The songs sung in Mulan sound like western pop music or musical theater. The pop covers of the songs done for the credits for both the 1998 and 2020 versions of the film were by pop singer Christina Aguilera. There are many non-white, Asian pop singers that Disney could have selected to include for the covers during the credits. In the 2020, live-action remake of the film, the actress Liu Yifei who plays Mulan sings Reflection for the credits, but this version of the song is played at the end of the credits rather than towards the beginning.
Let’s visit one last film: The Hobbit. In The Desolation of Smaug, the composer Howard Shore was asked by the director to orientalize Smaug. Peter Jackson, director of The Hobbit, wanted to emphasize the easterness of Smaug, orientalizing him and associating his eastern otherness with his sinister qualities.
In all of these scenarios, and in many more, there are a couple of things that are important to remember. First, it matters why any film borrows music from another culture. Do they intend to make it representative? Are they putting in a good faith effort and doing research? Or are they just orientalizing and imperializing music “because it sounds good”?
The second thing to remember is that it also matters who has the power in any situation where one group is consulting another to use something that is a part of their culture. Almost always, the power should be with the group that is being borrowed from, especially if they are a minority. This way, they get to choose how they are being represented, rather than being at the mercy of white culture.
I’d like to end by saying that I am not an expert in this field. I have done research, but I am neither an ethnomusicologist nor a person of color, so my word should not be taken as representative of the views of those who could be harmed by the topics I discuss. My hope in researching this topic was that I would learn more about myself, learn more about my culture and the things I enjoy, and encourage others to do the same for themselves, because knowledge is an important step on the way to a mindset that is empathetic towards and considerate of the lives of others.
I encourage you to be critical of the media you consume and the things you enjoy. What power do they have to be harmful? Once you’ve figured that out, the question becomes whether or not you should continue to consume whatever media it is you enjoy, but have found fault in. My opinion is that if I can’t consume it without falling into harmful biases and prejudices, then I don’t. However, if I can and want to continue to consume it, I do with the knowledge of what is going on and the ways it can affect me. Music is powerful, even if we don’t realize it. There are a lot of great ways to appreciate music that belongs to a culture other than your own. Listening to it and learning more about it and its history are just a few. We have to be careful, though, about the ways that we create and consume music. Just because we can’t see the music in films doesn’t mean that the prejudice it reflects isn’t harmful.
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“Music Note Bokeh” by all that improbable blue is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/