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Music with Attitudes: Musical Layers and Counter Narrative in Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’

Production still from Jordan Peele's Us (2019)

In early march 2019, Us was released, Jordan Peele’s sophomore effort, following his very successful and surprising break-out hit Get Out. With his feature debut, Peele manifested himself as one of the most interesting directors within a group of Afro-American filmmakers that made a significant impact in the last few years. Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street could Talk) and the rather overrated Ryan Coogler (Black Panther) are also part of this ‘New Black Wave’ in American cinema.

Us not only managed to be another box-office smash hit (246 million dollar globally on a modest 20 million dollar budget) it also illustrates Peele’s growing skills as a director—both thematically and formally. While Get Out offered a refreshing take on genre tropes and dissected Afro-American identity in a daring way, Us builds upon these ideas and adds new layers. Especially the way music is used to build a double (or counter) narrative is a fascinating element that puts Us apart from most genre fare. Functioning as a companion piece to the earlier article on photogénie by Patrick Preziosi—on the use of music in Barry Jenkins’ films—, research by professor Jeff Smith—a specialist in studies on film music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—and articles by Anke Brouwers and Christopher Sieving, this text will address the way Peele uses music and look at the interaction between filmic image and the use of (well known) pop music—as Sieving puts it, “a largely undertheorized subject in film studies.”

Us (Jordan Peele, 2019)

The Others

Before taking on musical layers and the way they are constructed in Us, first a quick look at the actual narrative and how it sets up the themes that the music will play off against.

Us opens with a prologue in which a VHS-cassette of the 1984 schlock-fest C.H.U.D. (Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers) anchors the scene firmly in time. This video rental favorite from the early eighties, deals with slimy creatures living in the New York City sewer system that are wreaking havoc on the population. A similar idea is at the core of Us, which tells the story of a model Afro-American family that is attacked by ‘doubles’ in their holiday home. These perfect evil copies of the family members bolster a deep hatred and grudge against their upper world counterparts. As it turns out, families all around the country are faced with these grim subterranean dwellers that have decided to enter the world above. These doubles are no longer willing to live in the tunnels beneath the cities, where they were apparently once left behind as part of a government experiment gone awry. The exact causality is rather vague and it is abundantly clear that the intruders are symbolic representations rather than logical threats.

The menace that these ‘rejects from below’ represent, can be summed up by the biblical verse that keeps being referenced throughout the film: Jeremiah 11:11, a verse prophesying the terrible disasters that will be bestowed upon humanity and the deafness of the deity in regard to pleas for clemency. The lengthy prologue introduces the viewers to the nightmarish events that traumatize a young girl, who has become the mother of two when the story jumps to the present day. Returning to her birth home, memories of the childhood horrors she witnessed in the hall of mirrors return and materialize in a frightening way when the ‘mirror people’ from below appear at her doorstep. It doesn’t take long for the viewer to realize what is happening and the power of Peele’s film lays in the way these standard genre tactics serve the social critique that is at the core of the film. The doubles define themselves as ‘people who were denied a proper existence’ and who literally had to spend their lives in the gutter. While Get Out dealt with issues of camouflaged and structured (latent) racism in a direct way, Us spins a web of metaphorical references, covering a much broader field than its predecessor: the film clearly addresses the Afro-American community, but the underground dwellers, claiming their rights, could represent any minority group in the modern USA, a country marked by the deeply dividing thresholds of social stratification.

It is no coincidence that the connecting passage between the upper world and its subterranean counterpart is situated on a fairground—not only do fairgrounds bring with them a certain element of mystery, they also represent the illusion of the unified American (leisure) culture (it is exactly this illusion the musical choices tackle, as I will argue) that clouds the fact that the United States as a country consists of dozens of different ‘worlds’—geographically as well as more metaphorically—kept together by the shared symbol of the flag, but intersected by sharply dividing lines of race, social status and heritage, that cut across all boundaries. Like its predecessor, Us manages not to get bogged down in thematic entanglement and still offers a virtuoso game with genre elements. The standard templates of the ‘home invasion movie’ in which (seemingly) innocent families are terrorized by brutal invaders are tweaked and modified to serve the thematic concerns, while still retaining their frightful power. This leads to a surprising climax that deepens and broadens the social commentary. Music plays a pivotal role in that finale and the use of certain recurring musical themes significantly alters and subverts the issues of racism and class stratification that Peele is exploring here. This peculiar use of music can be linked to the kind of counter-narrative strategy that Christopher Sieving has talked about when addressing the music in the 1973 ‘blaxploitation’ hit Super Fly (Gordon Parks Jr., 1972).

Luniz Feat. Michael Marshall: I Got 5 on It (1995)

Surfers, Gangstas and Superstars

As Patrick Preziozi put it in his earlier photogénie article on the use of music in Barry Jenkins’ films, the music the acclaimed Moonlight director uses, gets distorted formally and in its meaning, thus making it possible for the musical score or a song to unearth hidden elements within the images or the diegesis. The same goes for Us, which evokes several extra layers of comprehension and meaning by the use of seemingly random songs that are however part of a well developed overall musical framework.

During the prologue, the young female protagonist wears a Michael Jackson Thriller t-shirt, a rather ironic statement, given the fact that this icon of Afro-American music tried everything to be perceived as being as white as possible. This idea of the Afro-American culture being appropriated (in Jackson’s case he arguably instigated this process himself by denying his ‘black’ identity) and being denied its own identity can be found throughout the movie: in the white mask the ‘mirror son’ wears to cover his face, as well as in the choice of music, most notably in the use of the hit ‘I got Five on It’ by Luniz as a kind of ‘leitmotiv’. This song is a model example of ‘institutionalized Afro-American Culture’ that has been stripped from any political or social relevance and only serves a homogenizing cultural narrative that links ‘black culture’ to drug abuse and several other stereotypes (issues we will se again when we come to Gordon Parks’ Super Fly). It is a song that epitomizes the appropriation into popular culture of Afro-American musicians, a process that accelerated considerably from the early eighties onwards. Michael Jackson played a pivotal role (his self-inflicted ‘whitewash’ came later), as did Prince. Chaz Ebert—widow of film critic Roger Ebert and a spokesperson when it comes to Afro-American culture in movies—wrote a piece on the latter in honor of Purple Rain‘s 30th anniversary and noted: “He also changed what was acceptable behavior for a Black man. It was okay for him to ride a motorcycle as his only mode of transportation while freely toting his guitar. In the end, he still got the girl. But, most importantly, he got himself.”

The Luniz hit—released in 1995—represents a (pop)music culture that has fully appropriated the elements Chaz Ebert mentions as being fresh and new anno 1984 and transformed them into clichés: the savvy Afro-American ‘gangsta boys’ singing about drugs (in covert terms obviously) and projecting the exact lifestyle that is expected of them. The discussion in Us that accompanies the first appearance of the song has the daughter acknowledging these concepts and the father denying them. As it turns out this will be a foreshadowing of things to come as the father will have to regain his ‘roots’ in order to survive the night that lays ahead: the safe, numbed down and appropriated cultural elements will resurface in their rawest form.

That ‘raw form’ also surfaces in the use of another song, one that contrasts the Luniz hit: N.W.A’s (Niggaz Wit Attitudes) ’Fuck tha Police’. Released on the revolutionary 1988 album Straight Outta Compton, the song is on the other side of the spectrum and brutally evokes the underlying frustration and aggression that the Luniz song tries to cover up and minimize.

If the Luniz song represents the tamed version of acceptable Afro-American culture, N.W.A uncovers the feelings of frustration, anger and loss that are obscured by the glossy appropriated form. In interviews Peele commented on the fact that the song’s meaning in the film is bifurcated: on the one hand it is handled as a morbid joke—it is played when an electronic gadget misinterprets one of the inhabitant’s request to call the police—on the other hand the song adds an extra layer of meaning to the scene and what came before. This additional meaning comments on the way the broader cultural environment appropriates certain elements from the Afro-American cultural identity and strips them of all possible controversy or meaning. This seemingly perfect process of assimilation obscures the true social reality hidden underneath.

In interviews, the director has also highlighted the importance of another song in the movie—played in the same scene as ‘Fuck tha Police’: ‘Good Vibrations’ by the Beach Boys. Obviously, the use of the 1966 classic is not without meaning either: it is common knowledge that the group members—contradicting the popular mythology crafted around the band—actually had nothing to do with surf culture and were by no means experienced surfers. It is precisely this element that comes into play during the harrowing scene in which the song is played: clearly echoing Get Out, the whole scene is centered around a white family that presents itself as being the pinnacle of politically correctness when it comes to dealing with issues of race and class, but actually is part of the backbone of the system that upholds these lines of segregation. A song by surfers who never actually surfed, thus becomes the soundtrack to the brutal demise of self-proclaimed cultural idealists that lack the stamina to back up their own ideas. It is this kind of layered approach, that puts Us in line with a long running tradition to be found in films directed by Afro-American directors, of using music and songs as a kind of ‘counter narrative’, as I will argue below.

The contrast between surface values and what they are actually hiding returns in the explicit reference to the ‘hands across America’ event. Promoting the idea of uniting all classes and races in a continent-spanning chain of people holding hands, the endeavor in the end mainly promoted artificial sentiment, the institutionalized moral values of the Regan-era and various commercial ends, rather than symbolizing an honest interest in racial or social integration. Turning the tables on mass culture appropriating racial issues, Peele now does the same, as Tyler Coates —senior cultural editor at Esquire Magazine, pointed out: “In the final shot of Us, Jordan Peele reframes the awareness campaign to show that Americans actually often turn a blind eye to the social ills that exist—quite literally—just below our country’s surface.”

Rounding out the remarkable use of songs in Us is the ingenious touch Peele adds in the ‘finale’, when the Luniz hit returns, now in a more unpolished, raw version (referred to as the ‘tethered mix’) that liberates the song from its machismo and racial stereotypes and by doing so—again turning the tables on cultural appropriation—allows it to unmask the exact process it represents in its original form. In an article written for Snapshots magazine, Anke Brouwers pointed out that Barry Jenkins did pretty much the same on the soundtrack for Moonlight: adding a new timbre and rhythm to an existing piece of music, thus culturally appropriating it and changing its meaning. This subtle change in the exact role a song/music plays within the framework of a movie can be twisted around and used as some kind of ‘musical counter narrative’, a concept developed by Christopher Sieving.

Super Fly (Gordon Parks Jr., 1972) soundtrack album cover

Super Sonics

Christopher Sieving worked with Professor Jeff Smith of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a specialist in studies on film music, and published an article in The Journal of Popular Music Studies entitled ‘Super Sonics: Song Score and Counter-Narration in Super Fly’, that analyzed the way the songs in the infamous blaxploitation hit Super Fly constituted a narrative that actually counters large parts of the movies’ subtle and less subtle messages.

Without resorting here to repeating all of Sieving’s arguments, the author states that the soundtrack in Gordon Parks’ 1972 Super Fly—filled with popular songs by Curtis Mayfield—largely undermines some of the themes and hidden layers that are present in the film. According to Sieving—building upon the work of music critic Greil Marcus—“Mayfield’s score undermines the romanticization of the black heroes’ drug dealing antics, consciously acting the role of a dissenting Greek chorus.” The article lists several examples where the Mayfield’s songs run counter to the glamorization inherent in the film and act as a form of ‘criticism’. Obviously—Sieving also mentions this—there’s a form of play at work here between the director and composer, an element that is absent in Us. It is clear that Peele himself selected the songs, so there can be no double-dealing composer here, undermining his vision. What is at work in both movies however, is the fact that the songs/music comment on the way Afro-American culture is appropriated, creating what Smith and Sieving call a ‘counter narrative’ that is different from the one in the images and the film itself.

Super Fly was part of a movement that, while for the first time presenting Afro-Americans as viable ‘heroes’, still adhered to the same prejudices that existed in more regular Hollywood fare. It is interesting to compare eg. a figure such as Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, or Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle in The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971) to their counterparts in blaxploitation films. The former are rebels that defy authority but in the end still represent the conservative impulse that struck the US when, as Burroughs put it, “the great wave of counterculture finally broke and rolled back.” The protagonists of Super Fly, Shaft (Parks, 1971) or Cleopatra Jones (Jack Starrett, 1973) stand on the other side of the line, representing exactly the stereotypes of a culture that their ‘white’ counterparts are out to combat, a culture associated with drug abuse and the loss of moral values in the modern cities. In this way blaxploitation was as much liberation as it was condemnation. Super Fly plays into these tropes, while—as Sieving explains—Mayfield undermined them. When the movie glorifies the dangerous perks of drug dealing, Mayfield used his songs to tell a more nuanced tale. If Super Fly spearheaded appropriation of Afro-American culture, the songs rebelled and refused to be just an acknowledging background.

In Us the same dialogue is set up between movie and accompanying songs: while the characters in the film are haunted by the ghosts of things that have been buried for too long, the songs are there to remind us that through a process of appropriation, cultural elements have been reduced to the status of paraphernalia: exquisite but harmless, charming and exotic, but moot.

Peele manages to capture the subtlety of the densely layered web of meanings that is spun this way, in powerful and disturbing imagery that feeds on primal fears, most clearly what Noël Carroll described—in The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart—as one of the fundamental building blocks of the horror genre: “the fear for the integrity of one’s own (bodily) being.” ‘Being’ here is both physical (to live in the upper world or down in the catacombs) as well as cultural (class and race) in is indeed threatened in Us in numerous ways. The songs on the soundtrack emphasize this and add yet another meaning to the horror onscreen.

 

References

Brouwers, Anke (2019), ‘In het Licht van de maneschijn zien zwarte jongens blauw’ in Snapshots (April 2019), 100 – 104

Carroll, Noël (1990), The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart, Routledge, New York & London

Sieving, Christopher (2001), ‘Super Sonics: Song Score as Counter Narrative in Super Fly’ in Journal of Popular Music Studies 13, 77 – 91

Smith, Jeff, personal e-mail correspondence, March 2019

Willman, Chris (2019), ‘Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ Music: How the Beach Boys and N.W.A came to anchor a great Horror Playlist’, in Variety, web, last visited on April 8, 2019