Counter-Voicing Politics

Barack Obama campaign support ads

published in Real Time No.112, Sydney, 2012

Coming from an inventive background in broadcast radio drama, it’s surprising how little Orson Welles’ first film Citizen Kane (1941) is acknowledged for its use of voice as its primary dramaturgical tool. It tells the story of Charles Foster Kane (played by Welles) who attempts to become the voice of America, spreading his word through syndicated newspapers, radio outlets and election rallies. There is hardly a single image in the film which is not predicated on an imaginative consideration of how to visualise voice—of how to depict the means by which a political figure pictures themselves and projects themselves in the act of declaring their principles and selling their platform. It’s not a simple matter of symbolism: Welles employed multiple microphones to map his staged spaces and allow his actors to dramatically shift space while being captured with clear fidelity by multiple microphones. Actor, orator and narrator, Welles thought radio to make cinema.

In the lead-up to the 2012 US Presidential Election, the Presidential Debate functioned as an old world ‘oratorium’: a gladiatorial battle staged with words. Like all debates—especially broadcast ones—it’s like martial arts in extreme slow motion. The opposite of any contact sport, the debate deploys words in place of swords. Instead of armour or insignia, the participants project themselves as opposing types. Obama gestures with sleeves rolled up, often poised as if sitting on an imaginary brown house stoop uptown. Romney hovers around, pacing the floor like a Baptist preacher, feigning exhaustion and exasperation. Whether or not their body language or their occupancy of space is a calculated manoeuvre, the semiotics remain. They cast themselves as characters on the political stage, dressing their words in performative garb.

The mediasphere is transformed into a political sound cloud around the time of elections. It’s a dense field of vocal noise. Sound waves criss-cross to form cross-hatched patterns of agitated energy. Much of this sound cloud is formed by repetition, which only adds to its permeation and congestion by looping views. To cut through it takes the kind of imagination Welles exhibited in his scripting and direction of Citizen Kane: he used voice as the material for his construction of a perspective on the topic of voice.

Such an approach is taken in a television advertisement for the Obama Campaign of 2012, produced and paid for by the Jewish Council for Education and Research. It features Samuel Jackson and is titled Wake The Fuck Up!. Inspired by his audiobook reading of Adam Mansbach’s Go The Fuck To Sleep (2011), it’s styled like a children’s tale in rhyming couplets. It tells the story of Little Susie who is concerned that her family—parents, siblings and grandparents—have become desensitised and apathetic, disengaging from the local political landscape as the presidential election looms. She urges them to wake up to their situation, noting clearly how their individual lives and needs are directly impacted should Obama not win the election due to Romney’s negative platform of cuts and obstructions to a wide range of social services.

Irrespective of the political bias, it’s a hilarious advertisement. When Susie’s family fobs her off with dismissives like “All politicians are the same”, Samuel Jackson suddenly appears from behind furniture, grabs the family member and retorts vehemently in their face. He demolishes their lazy logic—their unthinking reiteration of responses born of the political sound cloud which wears down peoples’ critical thinking. He does so by first repeating back to them their own line (“All politicians are the same?!?!”), emphasising with incredulity how stupid their response is. Jackson goes on to do a few rhyming lines which pose a counter-argument, finishing with the tag line, “Wake the fuck up”.

Once this advertisement was posted online, numerous pro-Romney/anti-Obama ‘video responses’ were mounted, most admonishing Samuel Jackson to “wake the fuck up”. None of them, though, had the power of a come-back line. All the responses seemed incognisant of the core of Samuel Jackson’s advertisement: here was a black man mystically invading the heartland of lazy unregistered non-voting white America. His expletive tag line is a self-parody of white perception of African-American vulgar argot. It’s like Eddie Murphy gate-crashing a Martha Stewart cooking demonstration. Jackson’s visual materialization within the family’s domestic domain symbolises how unfitting his occupancy is, yet how fitting is the presence of his voice.

The precursor to this type of playful political commercial is the remake of the famous “Whassap?” advertisement for Budweiser Beer. The original 1999 ad spearheaded a radical campaign by Budweiser—then mostly consumed by a white demographic—to target African-Americans. The ad is a riotous collapse of language, showing five young black males calling each other on the phone in their shared apartment. One rings up another, saying only “whassap?”, which is then repeated by another, who gets a third on the phone’s party-line, until all five are screaming “whassap?” simultaneously to each other. Exhausted, they proceed to have a Budweiser.

But in the lead-up to the Presidential Election of 2008, an unofficial campaign endorsement was mounted as a short film using all the black actors from the original Miller advertisement. Actually, those actors had all appeared in an even earlier short film, True (1998), directed by and starring Charles Stone III and friends. Stone was then contracted to direct the Budweiser ad. His 2008 ‘remake’ of the Budweiser ad is a re-voicing of his original short film. The characters look older and sound wiser: they certainly weren’t having a good time in the Bush administration years since drinking Buds. References are pointedly made to Iraq, the bank loan collapse, Hurricane Katrina, unprotected unemployment and debilitated health care. Instead of saying “whassap” to each other, they chime in with a chorus of screaming and wailing.

It’s funny, but it also rings with the painful truth of the plight which demographically defines the ‘black market’ originally targeted by Budweiser. Their collapse of language is now made to symbolise the failure of the Republican system under which they suffer. It concludes again with them all exhausted; but this time Stone takes a breath and answers the question. He looks at a television where Obama waves before a convention crowd. With drooped eyes, he manages a soft smile: “Change.” Three minutes of wailing and a single word. A poetic reduction of visualised voice, tracing the trajectory which marked Obama’s shift to occupy the Oval Office. It's not far removed from a portentous movie hinged on the utterance of a single word: “Rosebud”.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © Jewish Council for Education and Research, Budweiser & Charles Stone III.