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The Depth of the Hole: Intertextuality and Tom Waits's "Way Down in the Hole"

From: Criticism
Volume 52, Number 3-4, Summer/Fall 2010
pp. 461-485 | 10.1353/crt.2010.0050

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The opening theme music for HBO's series The Wire is a song written by Tom Waits entitled "Way Down in the Hole" (1987). Each year during the series' five-season run, the producers selected or solicited a different version of the song. As a series, The Wire is often interpreted as lacking a space for representations of black spirituality. Each of the five seasons features complex institutional characterizations and explorations of the Street, the Port, the Law, the Hall (i.e., politics), the School, and/or the Paper (i.e., media). Through these institutional characters and the individual characters that inhabit, construct, and confront them, The Wire depicts urban America, writ large across the canvas of cultural and existential identity. For all of its institutional complexity, The Wire then serially marginalizes black spirituality in favor of realism, naturalism, and some may argue, nihilism. "Way Down in the Hole" is a paratextual narrative that embodies this marginalization and creates a potential space for viewers (and listeners) of the show, one that frames each episode and the entire run, through literary and spiritual black musical contexts. The multiple versions of "Way Down in the Hole" ultimately function as a marginalized repository for the literary and spiritual narratives that are connected to the series—narratives that become legible via intertextual analyses and in turn render visible The Wire's least visible entities: black spirituality and the Black Church.

In an attempt to engage this marginality and its attendant space for black literary and spiritual content, I critically engage various versions of "Way Down in the Hole," the numerous artists who perform the song, and the spiritual aesthetics central to each version of the song. Moreover, each artist's interpretation or treatment of this song constitutes an intertextual relationship with developments in African American music. Thus, "Way Down in the Hole" is an African American musical text—an Afro-blues spiritual text, to be precise. In several instances, specific lyrics function as intertext with and to multiple narratives within African American culture, including sociolinguistic phenomena, spirituality, and African American literary history. Generally speaking, intertextuality, a term coined by Julia Kristeva, refers to the ways in which language almost universally refers to itself. However, there are limited forms of intertextuality that include quotations, deliberate allusions, and various other linguistic connections and relationships. The analysis in this essay employs a limited type of narrative intertextuality as opposed to the universal intertextuality favored by various scholars such as Kristeva, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida. This limited, critically deliberate intertextuality includes the cinematic variety found in the opening montages of The Wire, only briefly glossed in this essay; the relationship amongst the various "Way Down(s)"; developments in African American music; and certain lyrics of the song that engender connections to African American literary history and spirituality. This limited intertextual model challenges viewers and listeners to consider how lyrical language, artistic experience, and musical genre function integrally to produce thematic suggestions not readily apparent in the narratives of the series itself. As a result of its apparent absence from the show, or at least its deliberately backgrounded or marginalized presence within the show, the Black Church, particularly manifestations of black spirituality, exists in the spiritual narrativity of the various versions of the show's theme song. The legibility of the Black Church (in The Wire) then, a central institution in the black American experience, relies on the audibility of multiple intertextual connections between versions of "Way Down in the Hole" and the artistic tools of African American cultural production. These multiple instances of intertextuality suggest a thematically grounded Afro-blues spiritual sensibility operating within and amongst the narratives of this critically acclaimed dramatic series.

Intertextuality is but one element upon which The Wire's interpretability as a novel or work of literary significance might be established. At least one other narrative element, the paratextual nature or positioning of the series' theme song, lends additional plausibility to novelistic and/or narrative-oriented interpretations of The Wire. "Paratextuality" is a term defined by narratologist Gérard Genette, who states that "peritext" and "epitext" together constitute the "paratextuality" of a novel or collection of texts. Paratextuality is defined as "those...