The Handmaid’s Tale and the Art of Stating (Sounding) the Obvious

I recently finished my second watch of Hulu’s TV series adaptation of The Handmaid’s TaleI’ve been a fan of the book since I read it as a teenager, and it’s something that’s stayed with me; “nolite te bastardes carborundorum” was a phrase that helped me through the bleak aftermath of Trump’s election last year. It’s a book that’s all about the way that the system can grind you down, but unlike something like 1984, seems to suggest that there’s always room for hope. The TV show takes this even further, illuminating the various small victories the main character Offred (Elisabeth Moss) achieves in a way the book can’t: in her smug smirk as she walks away from the house, and especially, in its choice of music in those moments.

The Handmaid’s Tale has been lauded as well-shot, well-written and well-acted, but one place where critics haven’t been so kind is its choice of music. Mostly the point is that it’s “too obvious,” and kind of cheapens the impact when a show all about The Patriarchy ends with the classic feminist anthem Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” (1963). The one that made me roll my eyes was Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ “American Girl” (1977) over the season finale’s end credits, which to me mocked the ambiguity of the episode’s ending (similar to the book’s). There’s also “White Rabbit” (1967) by the Jefferson Airplane, a song I love and have sung at many a Rock Band or karaoke night, being used when Offred first enters Jezebels, the secret Playboyesque “gentlemen’s club” for government officials and foreign dignitaries. Along with it being on-the-nose for a descent into a den of sin, the song’s more about drugs than sex–the primary thing Jezebels has on offer.

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Overall, though, I’m more positive about The Handmaid’s Tale’s music than a lot of critics. I was less so on re-watch, where I could see it all coming, but I still didn’t find them as jarring as I felt like I should. That surprised me. I’m generally someone who likes musical choices to shock me, or at least give me something to think about–not just to go where I expect them to go. I bring it up a lot with my favorite example of “it’s more about how you use music in film than the music itself”: Forrest Gump. I love the ’60s rock music that fills its soundtrack, but not when it’s spitting back like a parrot the actions or dialogue we just saw/heard. (Granted, I have a ton of other issues with that film, too, but the music is one of the most glaring.) For more on that, see this essay. Going back to The Handmaid’s Tale, it helped me illuminate where obviousness works–and doesn’t–in film music.

I think there are three primary ways to use it. The one that most clearly applies to The Handmaid’s Tale is catharsis. The Handmaid’s Tale is a brutal show, and it throws you into the deep end of this deeply misogynistic, homophobic, and otherwise cruel world and asks you to understand why the characters have come to view this as normal. While we’re spared moments like Janine’s (Madeline Brewer) eye-gouging, we see others, like the cattle prods used on disobedient Handmaids, or when a man gets his hand cut off as punishment for adultery. And sometimes the implications are all you need, as in Ofglen’s (Alexis Bledel) horrifying fate at the end of episode 3 (that I’m not going to describe because you should go in as cold as possible if you haven’t seen it yet). The really obvious pop music cues seem designed to confirm our horror. While the Handmaids’ retainer Aunt Lydia insists that this is the new normal, and the Handmaids and Jezebels seem to have adapted to varying degrees, the music reminds us that we don’t have to accept that. We aren’t in that world. In the case of “You Don’t Own Me” it does that very directly, but with something like “American Girl” it’s a more subtle reminder reawakening us to the real world we live in–particularly given that the America of the title no longer exists, replaced by Gilead. (in that sense, it’s reminiscent of the use of Beethoven 5 in the penultimate episode of Fullmetal Alchemist (2003), an aural cue that we’ve crossed over the gate into the Real World.) Overall, the effect is emotional catharsis that reminds us that the show is on our side, even if its characters and world are not.

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A second place where obviousness is justified is when the message needs to be that obvious, when the possibility that some viewers won’t get it is more troubling than it coming off too preachy. An example of this is LGBT romantic arcs that use cliché romantic music cues that might come across as “schmaltzy” when applied to a heterosexual couple, but it needs to be done so the more obtuse viewers aren’t confused–especially if the creators are restricted in what they can convey through visuals or dialogue. (The best recent example of this is Yuri!!! on Ice, but this shows up in Western media, too, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Glee.) One could make an argument that The Handmaid’s Tale does this with the ending of episode 3, where Ofglen’s scream dissolves into Jay Reatard’s furious “Waiting for Something” (2006), which extends and validates her anger. I’d say this is closer to “catharsis,” but it could be that some of why it’s such a horrific fate could be lost to viewers who don’t share her anatomy. The musical framing–along with the sound of her scream–makes that much clearer, as it needs to be.

The last one is campwhich doesn’t apply to this show except that some of its sloppier musical choices can unintentionally come off that way. (The triumphant instrumental music at the end of episode 4, with June’s line “We are Handmaids. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches,” falls into this for me, especially with how the framing seems to suggest she’s found some power in being a Handmaid. She hasn’t–not yet, at least–and it cheapens the smallness and hollowness of the victories she has achieved.) But The Obvious–pointing it out and then stretching it as far as it will go–is at the heart of camp, and the music should follow suit.

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Perhaps why this all comes off as so jarring in The Handmaid’s Tale is that the show prefers subtlety in its visual language. As Anne Helen Petersen put it in this excellent piece for Buzzfeed, it’s full of the “female glance”: the camera often briefly considers something and then flits away, with no dialogue to explain that choice, leaving the viewer to consider it in a similar way to the characters. It directly follows certain characters’ (mainly Offred’s) line of sight much of the time, another decision fraught with ambiguity: are we just following the character or is there still a reason for the camera focusing the way it is? And why in this moment?

Yet the sound-world of The Handmaid’s Tale is never this careful or subtle–and I don’t just mean in terms of the music. The dialogue also interrupts the carefully cloistered world of Gilead, filled as it is with June’s inner monologue, with Handmaids and other women breaking decorum with each other into swear words that would be otherwise forbidden. Taken together with the music, it forms a strange sort of audiovisual counterpoint, where it’s less that they disagree with each other than take wildly different approaches to get there. Whether that division ultimately works is up to you.

Anyway, hello again. Long time no see! I’ve decided to finally go back to using my blog, after a long hiatus. I’m not done talking about anime–I have several anime-themed posts planned for the near future, in fact–but I’ve been watching more non-anime television and film this year, so I’ll be posting more about those than I previously did. A lot of these will also be shorter, quicker takes, which I hope is cool! Please let me know what you think in the comments, if you’re still reading.

The Boys of Summer…And Fall: Change, Nostalgia and Pet Sounds

I once had a dream, so I packed up and split for the city / I soon found out that my lonely life wasn’t so pretty – The Beach Boys, “That’s Not Me”


Music is the medium I know the most about and have the most feelings about; it’s what I study as my “career”, after all, as a musicologist, and it’s the one I’ve had the most experience in actually creating. I also have the most formal “training” in it, with the exception of maybe my many literature classes as a kid. Actually, scratch even that – by high school, I was taking more music classes than English classes. While I’ve used this blog mostly for anime at this point, I also created it partly to get some more non-academic music writing of mine out there–once I decided that I wasn’t into turning my love of classic rock into a video review show. (Yep, that was something I considered doing once upon a time, even bought a digital camera for it. Original, I know!)

One of my ideas for a review series was something called “Album Alchemy”, where I examined famous rock albums as a way of discussing the idea of an album as an entity unto itself vs. a collection of songs. Yeah, the title is silly, and reflects how far up the Fullmetal Alchemist fandom’s butt I was at the time, but the idea of being able to break apart the album into chunks and yet still see it as a concrete whole is why it’s a fascinating medium to me. Unlike the symphony or concerto, the album was originally conceived as nothing but clumps of a band’s latest hits, and then over time came to be seen as a cohesive work. And it’s gone backward and forward throughout its history between those two extremes, breaking down and coming together again, like an alchemist’s transmutations. See, it worked, and it was alliterative!

The phrase “concept album” gets bandied about quite a bit, and every pop music critic and scholar has a different idea of which work from the mid-1960s was the “first” to go there. In truth, while a lot of these albums feel like single works to us emotionally because of how we experienced them, there isn’t much to “connect” them when you look at the individual parts and how they fit together. Sgt. Pepper is the most obvious example here: besides the first two tracks and the “Sgt. Pepper” reprise, there’s not much that collection of songs have in common when it comes to either musical style or lyrical content. They just happen to flow into each other very well. And now that it’s been released in something close to how it was originally intended, we can judge the Beach Boys’ “answer” to it, Smile, and find that it’s much the same. Smile has more lyrical and musical motifs that repeat throughout, connecting the works in a similar way that the Beatles would do with the second side of Abbey Road. But there are still plenty of songs in there that don’t fit the apparent “concept”.

The whole idea even poses the question of what is supposed to unite the “concept album” in the first place. Similar subject matter in the lyrics? Similar musical style? The answer is usually the former or both, and for that, it makes sense to look a little earlier in the Beach Boys’ career: to their baroque-pop magnum opus Pet Sounds. Probably the single most influential album from that era along with Sgt. Pepper and The Velvet Underground & Nico, I’m surprised by how little Pet Sounds is brought into the “concept album” discussion compared to its contemporaries. Pet Sounds and other works in the “baroque pop” genre–most notably Love’s Forever Changes, The Kinks’ The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle–feel the closest to the “concept album’s”‘ classical soulmate, the “song cycle”.

The “song cycles” first popularized in the 19th-century by classical composers such as Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann were like “concept albums” in that each song was united by a similar idea (often telling a story, in fact) while at the same time, each individual piece could work on its own. The individual songs from Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise and Schumann’s Dichterliebe are easily excerpted for their own performances, where the movements of a symphony or sonata don’t always work. And yet, they flow into each other and often tell a story–but not necessarily in the obvious way that, say, The Who’s Tommy does. The baroque-pop albums mentioned above are their closest relative in rock music, in my opinion, sharing a theme or story without always being obvious about it.

Pet Sounds makes such an interesting entry in the Beach Boys canon because it feels like a radical departure from their previous music. You can hear a little bit of the transition, but not in the way that the Beatles’ Rubber Soul begat Revolver, despite being quite different albums. The Beach Boys had made contemplative, personal music before, but never stuff that plunged as deep as a lot of Pet Sounds did. “In My Room” and “The Warmth of the Sun” don’t sound out-of-place among their typical “cars, girls and surfing” fare, but Pet Sounds selections like “Here Today” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” cut a little too close to feel right playing at the beach. As such, while the Beach Boys’ usual “greatest hits” always felt inappropriate to listen to at any time other than summertime when I was a teen in Detroit, Pet Sounds was my album for the lonely days of autumn and winter. And that album–along with Odessey and Oracle, its British twin in both style and substance–was one of the ones I played the most my freshman year of college, when I struggled with a lot of the dilemmas expressed in its lyrics.

I always wondered if my association of these albums with change, transitions, and nostalgia/fear-of-change was due to my personal experiences with them. Baroque pop, for whatever reason, has marked a lot of the “transitions” in my life. I discovered Village Green Preservation Society when I started high school, Pet Sounds and Odessey and Oracle when I started college, and Forever Changes when I started grad school. But in fact, so many of these albums are singularly obsessed with change, the way that we adapt to it–for good or for bad–and our anxieties about it. Pet Sounds was the first, and it’s interesting how its musical aspects as well as its lyrics helped to define so much of what came later in the genre.

Pet Sounds starts off with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, a song that yearns for change–for the singer to grow up and move on in life so he and his beloved can get together. It ends with a song, “Caroline No”, that bemoans the negative effects of change, of how time has negatively affected his beloved. (It’s interesting if one views this album like a song cycle in the vein of Winterreise, and thinks of them as being the same woman.) Along the way, there are the usual songs about new relationships, and ones breaking up, that we expect from the Beach Boys and also go with the theme, but also more universal dilemmas that have less to do with romance, those of young adults first learning to live on their own (“That’s Not Me”) or of struggling with changes in your personal philosophy (“I Know There’s An Answer”). Even when they have the pretext of being about romance, the songs speak to a deeper uneasiness (“You Still Believe In Me”); the “romance” framing comes off as simply a way to make the pill easier to swallow for their listeners.

The Beach Boys’ music supports this fixation on changes and their transitions, as well as their interpersonal nature. While the album still has plenty of the group’s famous vocal harmonies, the focus is far more on solo singing, with the harmonies as backdrop or variations on the melody (“You Still Believe In Me” is a great example of the latter). It makes the song feel more intimate, like it’s being sung directly to the listener, straight from their heart. More importantly, the harmonic and melodic structure of the songs is more ambiguous. The songs’ phrases are more likely to end on unresolved chords, or imperfect cadences. The melodies dwell more on dissonant tones. It creates an anxiety and ambiguity that make it clear why so many fans of the Beach Boys’ earlier, poppier, “sunnier” music find Pet Sounds difficult to contend with–and also, why Pet Sounds has its own, artier audience who aren’t so into the surf tunes. Along with the differences in instrumentation (less guitars, more pianos, brass and strings), Pet Sounds is truly a new beast. The Beach Boys would continue to explore some of this on Smile, but not entirely; Smile uses far more of their signature three-part harmonies, while also plunging even further than Pet Sounds did into dissonant chord progressions and odd instrument combos.

The baroque pop that followed them continued the theme of change, if not always expressing it to quite the same degree in terms of their musical style. The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle is far more direct about how its songs deal with transitions, giving specific examples of different people coping with change in their lives, from the very first track: “Care of Cell 44″, about a convict yearning for his release so he can return to his beloved, and expecting nothing will be different. Erik Adams at The A.V. Club wrote a good post about the disturbing subtext here: the unexpressed reality that, of course, it’s unlikely that things will remain the same after he’s been in prison for this time. (As anyone who watches Orange is the New Black knows, it’s not the kind of experience that leaves you unchanged.) Others include “Maybe After He’s Gone”, where the singer hopes that after his beloved’s new guy leaves, she’ll return to him (another unlikely prospect); “Brief Candles”, about how people cling to memories; and “I Want Her She Wants Me”, about the anxieties of a new relationship. (That song has its own subtext, too – the singer constantly repeating how happy he is while only briefly dwelling on worries about his girlfriend’s baggage.) The songs seemingly cover the full range from positive to negative change: from the hopeful “This Will Be Our Year” to “Changes”, which echoes “Caroline No” in bemoaning how a former love interest has changed for the worse.  But it’s notable that even a lot of the “happier” songs are betrayed by their harmonic structure, like how the cheery “Friends of Mine” ends harmonically unresolved on its way to the end of the album. There’s an overall feeling of melancholy here, going even further than Pet Sounds‘s, as even the sunnier moments all feel fleeting, or even delusional.

All of this is interesting to analyze in the context of the 1960s. This was an era when change of every variety–political, cultural, social–was in the air, as young people rejected the mores they were raised with by protesting and rioting in the streets, or “dropping out” by running away to form their own countercultural communities. All of these bands were deeply imbedded in either the American or British counterculture, and thus well-aware of–and even part of–what was going on. It’s interesting, though, that instead of these songs eagerly embracing change, they spoke to anxiety about it. They were curious about how the world was shifting, but even more afraid or, at least, apprehensive. Considering the cultural perception of the 1960s counterculture is that they eagerly embraced change and progression, it’s interesting that much of their music says otherwise.

Specifically, I remember years ago reading an article about The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society in MOJO magazine, where they spoke to how “unusual” the album’s seemingly-conservative attitude was for the year it was made, 1968. They said it could’ve been made three years earlier, or today–“any year but 1968”. I have to disagree with that assessment, though. 1968 was the year when the counterculture really began to turn ugly in the eyes of the general population, as more peaceful protests gave way to riots, and it became clear with high-profile cases like the following year’s Manson murders that a lot of the “counterculture” was really just power-mad adults taking advantage of idealistic young people. Across the Atlantic from The Kinks, it was the year that Nixon’s “Silent Majority” pushed conservatism back into the White House. It makes sense that 1968 would be the year of the baroque-pop album that most blatantly yearned for an earlier, simpler time. Village Green Preservation Society is mostly focused on negative change to people and places (“Village Green”, “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains” and “Do You Remember Walter”) and the ways we desperately try to preserve the past (the title track, “Picture Book” and “People Take Pictures of Each Other”). And most of this in the musical language of baroque-pop, especially as far as instrumentation.

Yet, like most great art, this music was as universal as it was a reflection of the anxieties of its time. Even though The Kinks’ songs were specifically about the cultural shifts of mid-1960s Britain, there was enough similarity to my mid-2000s Midwestern suburban adolescence that I could hear myself in them. The Beach Boys’ and The Zombies’ anxieties about the broader transitions we make in life dug into my own difficulties in figuring out who I was and learning to be independent during my first year of college, my first year away from home. Though the particular varieties of change that we go through shift themselves throughout time, change itself is always a constant. And this music of changes has stuck with me, through every transition, every period of uncertainty in my life.

So, there you have it: my first music post on here. Expect more in the future, though not all of them will necessarily be as personal as this one. I’m going through another uncertain, transitionary period in my life, and I wanted to write a little bit about why Pet Sounds spoke to me. Also, please give me some feedback in the comments, since I’m not used to writing about music for a more general, less “scholarly” audience – but I’d like to do more of it here!