Video, Music, Text, Analysis

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.


2 thoughts on “Video, Music, Text, Analysis

  1. Maybe … I’ve burned a particular image of Reconstruction in their brains, and it won’t go away.

    That’s an intriguing point. I’ve become convinced that the proper role of PowerPoint (or Apple Keynote) in teaching history is as a means to project images and perhaps video, never bullet points. But this raises a question about the downside of associating an image with a concept, whether with a slide show, poster, or software.

    One thing to consider is that not every student responds the same way (the old point about visual learners vs. other kinds). It may be that some learners will always link images with concepts in their minds, but it doesn’t follow that the concept can’t become more nuanced, even if the picture remains static. Sort of like the word “Reconstruction” itself: It’s a signifier for a concept that is flat and lifeless when we first encounter it, but the more we learn, the more significant that word “Reconstruction” becomes. For visual learners, maybe the image of sharecroppers also becomes linked both to the label “Reconstruction” and to a gradually deepening pool of personal historical knowledge.

  2. A good point, alarob. I think one takeaway for me is to be much more careful about the images and video I choose to present to students, and not just because the right image can contain a lot of meaning, but because the wrong image, might, perhaps, do some sort of damage to one’s historical understanding. Most obviously, I’m talking about anachronism–showing a photo of a slave while talking about 17th century Virginia. The other takeaway is that the text/analysis that goes along with the image must also be more nuanced, as you say–that when I show a painting of a plantation, I must also get students to think about smaller farms that had 1-2 slaves, for instance.
    Thanks for stopping by. I read your blog, but I’m afraid I haven’t developed a skill for thoughtful commentary quite yet!

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