Stay with me: I’m going to go from Radiohead videos to Powerpoint presentations in three paragraphs or less.
Listening to Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song,” I can’t help but think of the song’s video, which, as I recall, is basically a cartoon man swimming to the bottom of the ocean to watch television. You know, typical Radiohead melancholy/forbodding/end of the world stuff. But here’s the thing: I’ve seen the video just one time, and that was seven years ago when the record came out. But that video is burned into my head, just like the video for “Creep” or any other damned video I’ve ever seen.
This is why I don’t like videos or soundtracks: because the audio-video connection, once made, doesn’t ever seem to dissolve. And I don’t like it. The beauty of music, to me, is its meaning to the individual (especially something as indecipherable as Radiohead’s post-OK Computer work). I hear a tune, and have my own picture of what it “looks like,” and that look is important to the relevance of that tune to my life. The band made the song, but I made it into something important to me. Maybe Thom Yorke wants me to think of a cartoon man at the bottom of the sea when I hear “Pyramid Song,” but he has just robbed me of the opportunity of relating that song more directly to my own world.
And maybe the same thing is true of text and image when we present it as historians. Let’s say I do as my students command and have a visual presentation for every lecture. I throw up an image of sharecroppers while talking about Reconstruction. And maybe, probably, that helps students understand what I’m trying to say, what I’m trying to get across. But maybe I’ve also just prevented students from exploring the various meanings of Reconstruction in American history. Maybe I’ve short-circuited part of their brain that would have though more deeply about Reconstruction. I’ve burned a particular image of Reconstruction in their brains, and it won’t go away.
Or maybe I’m just too lazy to prepare visual presentations. In any case, the image/sound/text connection is strong, and I wonder if we take seriously enough its power.
p.s. Pyramid Song = dark, amazing beauty that makes me glad to be alive while also wondering about death. Plus that wicked off-tempo piano. Genius.