My Listening Post

Me today at Enterprise Square, listening
I have always enjoyed eavesdropping.

Not the spying-on-what-you're-saying-about-me variety, but more of an academic, creative kind of espionage where I imagine listening in on authors, across time, space, genre, sometimes the grave, discussing a topic of my choice.

It's a bit dangerous, this practice of combining what this writer wrote with what that speaker later said, or what this observer on this author said with what that person subsequently posted or painted. Risky, obviously, because I am hosting the debate in my own mind without direct access for clarification to the principals I imagine to be encountering each other. It can get crowded, and crowds make for not getting right what you think you are hearing.

But it's a fun kind of daring. And it makes the literature review I am building for my final assignment on the meaning of the Duckett Cookie Episode (when not blogging about building a literature review for my final assignment on the meaning of the Duckett Cookie Episode) more enjoyable.

Quickly, for those who have forgotten the Duckett Cookie Episode (if that's possible): A couple of years ago, then-president of Alberta Health Services, Stephen Duckett, was asked by reporters if he would stop to answer some questions about emergency room protocols in Alberta hospitals. Infamously, he responded by refusing, but refusing in a novel way. He repeated that he was eating his cookie and that the media were ridiculous for wanting to talk to him when in 30 minutes they could attend a media conference hosted by a lesser health official. A few days and a few hundred thousand YouTube views later, Duckett was fired. Watch the original video here:

My ongoing goal as a student in the University of Alberta's Master of Arts in Communication and Technology program is to better understand what really is going on in that episode, what it teaches us about how we  communicate, and what we're doing when we communicate in this way.

And that has led me to consider the power of humor in modern political discourse and the power of mashup artists who employ humor in their work of recombination. There is something about the spreadability of humor and the way viruses recombine that intrigues me enough to spend the next six months trying to get this right, or not quite wrong enough.

Anyways, and quite unexpectedly, I have been reading a lot about things like online parody videos and intertextuality and remix videos. One of the "classics" is the Public Service Administration's (PSA) compelling "Bass Motives" mashup of Hillary Clinton's "3 AM" video, where she had attacked fellow Democratic candidate Barack Obama's fitness for the Oval Office. As viewers see innocent children sleeping, they hear the voice of an ominous narrator intone, "It's 3 AM and the phone in the White House is ringing. Something is happening in the world." The viewer is invited to substitute his or her real fear for the vague "something," drawing the conclusion that Clinton, with her knowledge of world affairs, is best able to keep the children sleeping safe and sound. In the PSA response, that ominous narrator is actually in the bedroom, headphones on and microphones. The first lesson is that fear is constructed for political purposes.

Chuck Tryon of Fayetteville State University adds another lesson: "We then see the father of the child explaining the role of 'ominous narrators' in appealing to these fears. In addition, the use of an adult male in the role of the child helps to literalize the ways in which Americans are infantilized by political arguments based solely on fear."

With Tryon's help, it struck me that the PSA mashup wasn't just a slapdown message back to the makers of the Clinton "3AM" video. It was also a critical comment to his audience, especially the ones who laugh, about the manufactured immaturity of the American political discourse based on fear.

Could a subtext be extracted in similar fashion from any of the Duckett Cookie mashups?

Tryon, I think
The mashup producer nicknamed rmthespian produced two Duckett mashups, one titled "C is for cookie-Dr. Stephen Duckett. Mash up with the Cookie Monster/Duckett" and a companion text titled "Goodbye Goodbye Dr. Duckett." In each, video from CTV Edmonton of the Duckett interview is combined with images of Muppets and music from Sesame Street to produce a devastating critique of, what? Of Duckett's humorous, mechanical behaviour, no doubt. But is rmthespian also saying something else?

I don't know who Kelly Rudisill is, whether Kelly is he Kelly or she Kelly, but I found in a Google Scholar search a 2006 paper by Rudisill titled "C Is For Cookie." The author argues that pre-literate children respond well to the simple, pleasing music and rhythm and repetition of learning songs delivered by, in this case, Cookie Monster.

"This melodic sequence creates similarities between the phrases, which makes singing and remembering the melody very easy," Rudisill says.

Back to rmthespian. By choosing the Muppets for us to see and hear, is the mashup producer also saying that the level of mediated discourse on health care issues in Alberta had sunk to a level so low, that it had become so elementary that the Muppets were equal players with media question askers and expert bureaucrats? Did a viewer both get a good laugh and indict him or herself by finding it humorous? Was that the intention, or an intention, of the mashup author? Does it matter if it wasn't?

After all this listening to the imaginary conversation between Tryon and rmthespian and Rudisill, it's time to go away and keep working on my own mashup, er, report on their thoughts.  


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