Saturday, April 25, 2009

Susan Boyle's Transformation: We Have Met The Ugly Duckling And He Is Us

Turnabout is fair play as Susan Boyle turns Les Mis into Les Millions in her now famous YouTube fairy tale.

The Susan Boyle video clip that currently is reaching new viewer heights on YouTube exhibits aspects implying post-production tinkering (or at least extensive pre-production planning) which moves it from the realm of real time cinema verité to preconceived narrative.
The way Boyle's stunning performance is preceded with shots of her in the waiting room, the contrast of her plebeian appearance with the glamour and celebrity of the judges, even her song choice creates a specific effect. Is it a coincidence that this would-be ugly duckling chose as her performance piece Fantine's swan song from Les Miserables?

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.

Imagine after that lengthy and somewhat embarrassing introduction, Ms. Boyle had begun singing "Oklahoma!" or "Luck Be A Lady Tonight!" The audience reaction might have been quite different.
The presentation and contemplation of transformation is a key characteristic of mythology, properly understood. Myths and fairy tales use a magical transformation as a standard narrative device. The ugly ducking transforms into the beautiful swan. The kitchen drudge transforms into the beautiful princess. The frog transforms into the handsome prince. What is different about the Boyle YouTube video, which might be called a Twitter fairy tale, is that it is we, the audience, that is transformed, not the protagonist.
Using multiple shots of the Britain's Got Talent judges, hosts, and audience, this video narrative clearly documents their (and by extension our) transformation from ugly critics to enthusiastic supporters. By contrast, Susan Boyle herself remains unchanged, except in our eyes. This reversal of transformational aspect as a narrative device is what makes this video so compelling, and I believe it could only happen in our television-weaned, computer-enhanced, social networking era.
Particular storytelling techniques shape themselves to the available medium. In distinguishing the "light through" aspect of the video image vs. the "light on" nature of movies, Marshall McLuhan observed that with television (and by extension the computer monitor) the viewer is the screen. New media present opportunities to tell old stories in a new way, and from a different vantage point. The salient feature of this Twitter-Tale is that it replaces the protagonist with the audience as the object of transformation. We have met the ugly duckling and he is us.

Monday, April 6, 2009

A Model Media Ecologist

Under the tutelage of professors Neil Postman, Terry Moran and Christine Nystrom, it was the practice in the 1970's of New York University's Program in Media Ecology to hold annual graduate student conferences where each doctoral class picked one member to deliver a "State of the Class" address.

At the fall 1976 Conference, my own Class of 1977 decided to do something different. I had access to a Sony reel to reel black and white Betamax recorder and a camera, and so instead of one class member giving a 30 minute address, each of us in the Class of '77 prepared up to five minutes on video tape of our own personal metaphor for What is Media Ecology? A Model Media Ecologist was my contribution. (I still have the complete video of the Class of '77 if anyone is interested.)

I sang it to the tune of Gilbert & Sullivan's A Modern Major General. I also used a lot of props to add visual humor to the comic lyrics. For instance, when I sang the line "I also know the difference 'tween me and a theologist" I put on a clerical collar. It is worthwhile to click on the link to view the original recording:

I'm proud to say that Casey M.K. Lum has included A Model Media Ecologist at the beginning of his history of Media Ecology, Perspectives on Culture, Technology and Communication: The Media Ecology Tradition published by Hampton Press. No, I don't get any royalties, although I think I should.*

For those of you who haven't already downloaded A Model Media Ecologist from iTunes, here are the lyrics (modified slightly to bring them into the 21st Century):

A Model Media Ecologist

I am the very model of a Media Ecologist
I also sense the difference 'tween me and a theologist
I've read a bit of Mumford and a little of McLuhan
I also have a fair idea what Watslavik is doing.

Of Levi-Strauss and Jacques Ellul I seem to have a smattering.
The work of Ames and Cantril I am very often flattering.
I'm versed in Systems Theory and in models mathematical
Which I'll dispute with you until the start of my sabbatical.

I know how Shannon-Weaver strove to overcome their channel noise.
I'm well aware that Hayakawa hung out with the Senate boys.
Although it would be better to have been an anthropologist
I am the very model of a Media Ecologist!
I can recite the history of radio and telephone.
As well as why it is Korzybski's ghost is never left alone.
I've studied silent language and the biases of media,
Of Structuralistic notions I'ma real encyclopedia.

I've learned proxemics, kinesics, linguistics styles polemical.
I know why Greeks were oral and why monks were academical.
Then I'll recite five verses from a Bible made by Guternberg,
And guess the probability you know the work of Heisenberg.

Why TV is immediate, massaging your right hemisphere,
While functioning discursively is bound someday to disappear.
Although it would be better to have been an icthyologist,
I am the very model of a Media Ecologist!

When I can tell the difference 'tween "dub" and "dupe" and "master tape";
When I can tell a hot film splicer from a waffle plate;
When showing films or video no longer gets the best of me;
When I can show awareness of the workings of 'lectricity;

When laser beams and holograms no longer seem so magical;
When my attempt to splice a tape does not turn out so tragical;
In short when I've a smattering of modern day technology,
Then I'll feel better saying I know Media Ecology!

For my modern hardware training, though I'm plucky and advertury,
Has only been brought down to the beginning of last century!
Although it would be better to have been a gynecologist,
I am the very model of a Media Ecologist!

*BTW. As a published poet (see above), in 2005 I claimed the title of Media Ecology Association Poet Laureate. However, after reading Lance Strate's body of work, as published at his own MySpace blog "Lance Strate's Blogversed" (available here) I hereby abdicate in his favor!