Monday, June 2, 2008

Music from the Parks: An Anthropologist's View

The 1992 book Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World and America is an anthropologist's take on everything Walt Disney World. Stephen M. Fjellman explores art, architecture, government, politics, consumerism, music, Kodak Picture Spots, and anything else that might be deemed remotely cultural. I will write up a formal review of this book sometime in the future.

Fjellman dedicates roughly four pages of the book to the music that we hear in Walt Disney World. Throughout the book, he is very cynical about American consumerism and how Disney and the various sponsors prey on this attribute of its guests. This section on music is no different. Fjellman starts:

"Many attractions at WDW have musical signatures. Although they differ somewhat in style in the various theme parks, they perform a similar set of rhetorical functions. Most of the show music at the Magic Kingdom is infantilizing. The themes suggest that adults performing nefarious and violent activities, as at the Pirates of the Caribbean, are just like children whose mommies and daddies will tuck them into bed after their adventures. The ghosts and goblins at the Haunted Mansion are not to be taken seriously; the possibilities of supernatural terror are punctuated with humor and general silliness. The theme from It's a Small World presents 'a world of laughter' in which fractious adults do not exist. Although initially separated by continents, child dolls join together in the last room -- dressed in white -- in a sentiment internationalism."

He goes on to say that tunes in the Magic Kingdom are like "obnoxious commercial jingles" and he relates "It's a Small World" to water torture. He lumps "One Little Spark" with the Magic Kingdom music. He does hit the head on the mark though in describing the themed lands as "experiential envelopes" where visitors are inserted to experience a created world where music and sound help complete the illusion.

Moving on to EPCOT Center, Fjellman notes that the songs are simply there to remind us about the dreams of Americans -- "fun, freedom, creativity" -- and then show us how the sponsors' commercial products can fulfill those dreams. For example, "Tomorrow's Child" from the AT&T-sponsored Spaceship Earth simply tells us that we will "have an exciting, communicative future." He also tells us that "Listen to the Land" preaches exactly the opposite of what the ride teaches us. The song wants us to make peace with nature while the ride focuses on controlling nature by manipulating it, tricking it, and beating it into submission. One positive note comes from Kitchen Kabaret, where people who lived through the 1930's - 1950's will be able to identify with the various allusions to musical styles and performers of that era.

I must say that I am a bit perplexed by Fjellman's assessment. He fails to note that the music is intended largely for guests' entertainment. His academic lens has turned the focus to control and consumerism -- how can Disney and its corporate partners make us believe that we need to consume the ideas and products that they are presenting. He only briefly implies the music's function in place-making, escape, and whimsy. He also completely ignores the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park and World Showcase. The omission of World Showcase is especially troubling given that a good amount of text in this book relates to cultural elements and how they are conveyed -- though through a happy lens -- by Disney in an effort to educate the guests. There are several instance in World Showcase where a country's music is used to teach about its heritage and culture.

Perhaps I am missing something. Maybe I am just jaded by my love for the parks. But it seems that Fjellman has read into the purpose of the music too much. It seems he is assigning intent that does not exist, or perhaps intent that was a secondary rather than primary reason for creating the music from the parks.


Biblioadonis aka George said...

I agree with your assessment. When Vynil Leaves came out, there was not a lot written about it. It was also when Disney and Eisner were just embarking on the Disney Decade (also known as a store after every ride and a hotel on every corner)... so ...

But I agree. The music is far more potent than discussed by Fjellman.

Rusty said...

I too found Fjellman's commentary too cynical and perhaps too filled with a pseudo-marxist antipathy toward all things capitalist/business. He went on and on about "commodification." and I feel his dialectical deconstruction tendencies kept him from finding the wonder in Walt Disney World.

FoxxFur said...

I've not read Vinyl Leaves (I'm not really in the market for or economically stable enough to afford its' secondary market price), but now I want to. His standpoint may be distanced but his observations are valid: as a person attempting a scholarly perspective in my own writings I find his view to be sympathetic to what constitutes good academic writing. Yes, the music is there to entertain you; as the stated goal of the park, there is *no need to reiterate this goal*. Star Wars is there to entertain you. The job of the critic is to discover or discuss *what else* it does.

As I've said I haven't read it but my general impression of the book is that it's the only real criticism of the *mode* of the parks put into print; much of what I've encountered has been too panderous or too slanderous. Maybe someday when I can afford Nickel Tour and half of the other books on Disney out there I'll pick this up.

Craig Wheeler said...

I do agree with you. I am not trying to completely fault Fjellman (although now that I re-read my post it does come off as entirely negative). I'm not quite through reading the book yet, but the themes that I mentioned are present throughout -- consumerism, the Disney-fication of history to make it more appealing to the masses.

I just think that, with the sharp stance he took, he could have spent a few more pages exploring the subject. I still feel that he assigned intent without really explaining how or why he came to his conclusions.

I picked up this book a couple months ago on eBay for under $10. I think it is reasonable if you don't go for a first edition hard-cover.

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