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Reviewed by:
  • Vocal Tracks: Performance and Sound Media
  • Jennifer Fleeger
Vocal Tracks: Performance and Sound Media, Jacob Smith . Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2008, 294 pp.

Recent publications on media sound have tended to excavate the cultural context of the machine, leaving the texts it produced by the wayside. Vocal Tracks corrects this trend by pairing case studies of sound equipment with the vocal styles that arose alongside them. As such, Jacob Smith's book is a distinctive contribution to the study of sound, for he cares just as much for the effects of performance as he does for the creation of sound-producing instruments. Smith situates his research within the field of sound studies, an area that, after coming into focus during the last two decades, calls for exactly the kind of unifying approach represented by the author's methodology. Smith constructs a cultural history of various sound technologies by integrating the tools of textual analysis with the work of performance theory, represented throughout the book largely through the weight of Erving Goffman's terminology. Unique for the diversity of its objects (in addition to film and television, Smith addresses the obscene phonograph recording, prank telephone call, hidden microphone, laugh track, and melodramatic radio voice) as well as for the seriousness of the author's attention to acting and vocal production, Vocal Tracks emerges as a model for genuine interdisciplinarity.

The six chapters in Vocal Tracks are divided into three parts that neatly reflect the three modes of performance on which Smith bases his analyses of media technologies. The first section considers the practice of "flooding out," a term coined by Erving Goffman to describe the moment when social behaviors fail, and the conversant becomes overwhelmed with emotion. In his opening chapter, Smith examines the meaning of laughter in an increasingly mediated culture. By incorporating early twentieth century laughing records and Edison's 1909 short film Laughing Gas in a discussion of the history of the laugh track, Smith not only explains the cultural significance of the recorded laugh, but also makes a significant contribution to the scant material available on television sound. In another example of "flooding out," Smith explores the so-called blue discs of the 1930s–50s. These "obscene" records inspired a number of relationships between participants that are carefully catalogued by the author. The most interesting aspect of this chapter, however, is its attention to the sonic performance of pleasure elided by Linda William's work on pornography. Because of both its theoretical significance and the precise stylistic analyses he produces, Smith's work on erotic performance contains his richest ideas.

The second part of Vocal Tracks is a bit more disconnected than the first, a fact that stems from its less tangible focus. Its two chapters on radio melodrama and phonography revisit Roland Barthes's notion of the "grain" of the voice, that elusive quality that exceeds adjectival authority and provokes the listener to jouissance. Following Alison McCracken's research on the radio crooner, Smith explores the impact of microphone technology on the development of melodrama. This is a welcome addition not only to studies of melodrama, which tend to be visually oriented, but also to work on dialogue, an aspect of film performance that, perhaps because of its associations with both writing and the stage, tends to escape thorough investigation. The author claims that the microphone's ability to capture subtle vocal inflections contributed to a modern mode of performance that [End Page 57] produced an intense emotional relationship between the speaker and the spectator. Smith furthers this argument in the following chapter where he extends Even Eisenberg's assertion that Enrico Caruso and Louis Armstrong constitute an amalgamated phonographic "icon." Smith identifies bel canto and the rasp as the limits along a continuum of timbre that is both racially and culturally significant. The previous chapter was concerned with the ability of the microphone to transmit the personal; this chapter deals with the relation between the phonograph, the body, and cultural identity.

Smith's final section takes up another of Goffman's ideas: "bugging the backstage," a technological means of revealing the "real" subject. The author positions Candid Microphone...


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pp. 57-58
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