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Post by Peyton Austin

What does an 18th-century Irish satirist and a 21st-century high school TV mockumentary have in common? A lot of shit, apparently.

Jonathan Swift, an Anglo-Irish writer from the 18th century, is most famous for his novel Gulliver’s Travels and infamous for his satires, and in particular his scatological poems. Yes, you read that correctly: Swift’s three scatological poems dramatically describes how disgusting the body can become and usually includes the catchphrase, “Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”

American Vandal’s recently released, second season follows the investigation of a vandal known as “The Turd Burgler,” a student who poisoned the school lemonade with laxatives and watches the shitshow (labeled “The Brownout”) unfold–and after posting videos of the event, forces everyone else to watch as well.

Both of these works are satires. Swift’s poems aim to satirize men who romanticize women to the point of idiocy, with varying degrees of success; American Vandal satirizes the the recent true crime fad (with immense success). While Swift’s satire leans towards the bitter and angry, American Vandal takes the more light-hearted route. Yet, despite the three-hundred years separating them, American Vandal seems to have taken a few notes out of Swift’s works.

One of these notes is the mixture of extreme exaggeration and hyper-realism. In Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver voyages to fantastical islands with giants, miniature peoples, and enlightened, talking horses–but Gulliver and his travels are made to look as realistic as possible. Swift purposefully imitated the frontispiece of travel narratives of his time, and began the novel with a letter from Gulliver swearing the story’s truth. American Vandal not only imitates this but doubles down on its realism in its second season. Instead of naming the show’s actual creators, the show’s credits say the show is “In Association with Hanover High school” (the show’s setting), the executive producer is Mr. Baxter (a character), and that it’s “Shot and Produced by Sam Ecklund and Peter Maldonado” (two main characters). The second season opens with protagonists Peter and Sam describing how Netflix “bought” the American Vandal documentary to explain why the show is on Netflix at all. Vimeo had made the documentary a staff pick. Netflix added higher quality everything to the series. Peter and Sam even appear on The Daily Show. The show wants you to believe these are real people making a real documentary, despite its outlandish premises.

The biggest commonality between American Vandal and Jonathan Swift is their shared interest in shit. Swift’s highly descriptive language surrounding scat received disgust from his contemporaries (and future readers as well). In “The Lady’s Dressing-Room,” Strephon steals into Celia’s room, opens her chamber pot, and discovers “A sudden universal Crew / Of human evils, upward flew” (85-86) and an “excremental Smell, / To taint the Parts from whence they fell” (111-112). And despite every kids’ horror at the events of The Brownout, American Vandal barrages the viewer with video after video of kids shitting themselves, their wailing, and the excrement itself. These acts are portrayed just long enough that it’s hard to tell exactly where the creators take disgust in such acts and where they take pleasure, if at all.

Most importantly, what Swift and American Vandal understand about shit is its potential and indeed its ability to expose us as human beings, in the most base way possible. We daily romanticize our lives and people around us. Shit reminds us that we’re “human” in the sense that we’re not perfect, that our bodies betray our sensibilities and romantic idealities and firmly remind us that we can be disgusting and imperfect. This is what Swift and American Vandal recognize: there is something about our physical insides–bile, acid, vomit, and most of all shit–that exposes our moral and psychological insides.

Swift employs shit to expose men as idiots for romanticizing women. The men of his stories believe women to be purely innocent and angelic and nothing more; their discoveries that women have bodily functions (or possibly, the same necessary functions as men) shocks them deeply. While Swift’s highly descriptive language and detail of the women’s bodies mires him in controversy, the poems invite us to laugh at the idiocy of the men who cannot fathom that women are human beings. “He soon would learn to think like me,” writes the cheeky narrator of “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” “And bless his ravish’d Eyes to see / Such Order from Confusion Sprung” (141-143).

American Vandal, or more accurately the Turd Burglar, creates the Brownout (and other shit-related crimes) to expose the student body for romanticizing ourselves. The Turd Burglar couldn’t handle the disconnect between his fellow students actual selves and their ideal self presented on social media. “We’re all full of shit,” the Turd Burglar says in episode eight. “You all pretend to lead these perfect, happy lives when you know you’re just as lonely as me.” American Vandal constantly uses this language of concealment, referring to social media as a mask, pretend, and fake. The resulting exposure of the student body via the Brownout implies that this exposure was revealing the true self and, consequently, almost necessary.

Forcing your classmates to shit themselves and posting those videos online, all to show how fake they are, seems excessive. It is excessive. Yet satire revels in exaggeration, so the plot driving season two of American Vandal fits perfectly. This is also a show that other critics call one of the most realistic high school shows on television (which it is). Perhaps that is why exaggeration and hyper-realism coincide together so seamlessly. Swift’s works and American Vandal prove that because so many things in satire are hyperbolic, the rest of it must be extremely realistic. We have to believe the satire. The realism makes the exaggeration less extreme; the exaggeration makes the realism doubtful. They work together to excite, raise doubts, and yes, expose.

And satire invites shit. In every other genre, shit, the body, and all its implications, are mostly taboo. Satire’s exaggeration is the genre where shit can finally find its place. Perhaps this is why one of the greatest satirists of the English world and American Vandal were attracted to this shit in the first place. Certainly the attraction to shit is not entirely on the fault of the creator. There is entertainment value in shit, as shown by the critical response to American Vandal’s second season. There is even wary or gross interest in Swift’s scat. There is an audience to such satires. “Poop is funny,” Sam says in episode three.

Entertainment was not Swift’s desire in creating his satires. “The chief end I propose to myself in all my labors is to vex the world rather than divert it,” Swift wrote in a letter to Alexander Pope. Swift was successful in his vexations. Many of them came from his political pamphlets, where he was not afraid to expose others for their beliefs or deeds. American Vandal, on the other hand, is entertainment, and successfully delights and disgusts. It does not make the show without its message, though. It always has a more forgiving look on its subjects than Swift ever did.

“We’re not the worst generation,” Peter concludes in the end of the second season. “We’re just the most exposed.”

Post by Eunice Shin

Music, literature, and film are often heavily connected, one medium referencing the other and vice versa. As an avid pop music listener and as an English major, I enjoy these connections, especially when they come in the form of allusions in the lyrics or in music videos. While I have to dig a little deeper for the lyrical allusions, with the visual form of the music video, these connections are made all the more obvious, especially when the concept for these music videos seems to come directly from the books. Whether it is because the song references the book itself or because the song mirrors the themes contained within the book, the added narrative element that accompanies each song really adds to the whole experience of the music, video and all. In honor of the retelling prompt for Westwind’s Flash Fiction contest, here are eight pop music videos with striking literary and film connections and contain a version of retelling.

1. Taylor Swift – “Love Story”

Of course, any list of music videos and literature has to contain Swift’s “Love Story” because of how blatantly literary it is. She references Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet directly in both the lyrics and the video, rewriting the tragic love story of young teenagers where Romeo and Juliet meet, marry each other, and die in the span of less than a week. Instead, Romeo somehow convinces Juliet’s father to forget about the longstanding feud between the Montagues and the Capulets and they get a happy ending. The video interestingly has a more Pride and Prejudice feel what with the dancing and the running in fields but the video does get the looking out of windows and love at first meetings part of the play down through the reinterpretation.

Taylor is no stranger to literary allusions. In her new album, she references The Great Gatsby, Kurt Vonnegut, and Dickens’ The Tale of Two Cities. Some other literary-related music Taylor Swift has done are “Blank Space” (with allusions to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Calypso from The Oddysey, and Twilight), “Ready For It” (with its sci-fi-esque imagery), and “You Belong with Me” (with the plot of what is probably a great many YA books).

2. Ariana Grande – “Right There”

Following the Romeo and Juliet train is Ariana Grande’s “Right There” which also seems to focus on the happy first meeting of the fated pair and little else. Reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann’s film Romeo+Juliet (and also his Gatsby coincidentally), Ariana (or Juliet, as the video prefaces with) frolics around a masquerade ball, meets Romeo, sings to him from a balcony, and ends up fully clothed in the pool with him, all while fluttering a fan. The song itself is about faithful and fated love, only one of which have been proven in the actual text, but really captures the feelings of young and impulsive love that the play portrays. Meanwhile, Big Sean (who is labeled as the Priest and not Friar Laurence) raps about the merits of his girl while chilling inside a church. Definitely a more faithful retelling of the iconic love tragedy than “Love Story.”

3. Pink – “Please Don’t Leave Me”

Moving away from the hopeful love and faithful promises that both Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande have portrayed as Juliet, Pink’s “Please Don’t Leave Me” is decidedly darker. For one, Pink moves away from the delicate and traditionally beautiful image of Juliet and Shakespeare altogether, choosing to go the Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery route instead. She locks her man in a room, inflicts various acts of violence on him, and prevents him from leaving through various tactics – just as Annie Wilkes does with Paul Sheldon. There’s also a nice nod to King’s The Shining, when Pink cuts a hole in the door with an ax and looks inside in true Jack fashion. All these horrifying actions take place while Pink apologetically croons to her lover and begs him not to leave her, adding a sinister edge to both the song and the video.

4. Twice – “What Is Love”

Twice’s infectious, bright jam about optimism and the naïve wish to experience love is crammed with all sorts of literary and film references about the different ways of finding love in books and movies. The music video shows the members enacting different parts of movies, taking inspiration from iconic scenes from The Princess Diaries, Ghost, La Boum, Pulp Fiction, Romeo and Juliet, Love Letter, La La Land, and Leon: The Professional. Through all of these references, they ask the question of “What Is Love” and all the feelings that come with it, mostly focusing on the pleasant aspects of it. Through these film references, Twice captures the wide range of what it means to be in love quite well, thus enhancing the video and the song through their reenactments of the films.

5. Iggy Azalea – “Fancy” (feat. Charli XCX)

Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” is an obvious tribute to the film Clueless, from the outfits, the setting, the actions and the people in the video reenact. Just as Clueless is a film about the wealth and status of Cher, Iggy Azalea’s song is similarly about wealth and status, more specifically Iggy’s own credibility. The music video hammers these themes home as it shows reenactments of iconic scenes such as the debate, the car ride on the freeway, the tennis courts, and the party. All that is absent is Josh and Cher’s lawyer father which only adds to the narrative of self-made success and emphasizes the 90’s icon that is Alicia Silverstone’s character. On a side note, Clueless is loosely based off of Jane Austen’s novel Emma which also contains the similar themes of wealth and societal standing.

6. BTS – “Blood Sweat & Tears”

BTS’s “Blood Sweat & Tears” is filled with art, aesthetically pleasing visuals, and bright contrasts of color. Given that Herman Hesse’s novel Demian heavily inspired the video, all of these choices come as no surprise. All of the cracks in the sculptures, the surplus of art, the organ playing, the images of wings and birds, the dialogue of “He too was a tempter,” and countless other images and scenes refer back to Demian and the characters within the novel. The song itself is about wanting and sacrificing everything for the pursuit of want regardless of whether it is wholesome or detrimental. This pursuit of want and the resulting discoveries connect back to Hesse’s novel which makes the song all the more complex and insightful on issues of love, success, and meaning.

7. Lana del Rey – “Tropico”

Lana Del Rey’s work is always brimming with literary allusions, ranging from Lolita to Carmen. In her short film “Tropico,” she performs her songs “Body Electric,” “Gods and Monsters,” and “Bel Air” to convey a Whitmanic ode. Within the short film, she uses figures like John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, and Jesus. Lana herself dresses as both Eve and Mary, using the religious figures to contrast and highlight the division between religion and the pursuit of the self while also combining the concepts of soul and body.  Referencing the Bible, Whitman, and others, she creates a complex relationship with the self and spirituality while seeming to celebrate herself and her body as Whitman encourages. The contrast between bright rosy colors and the dark shadows and dimly lit rooms within the video emphasizes the various divides the videos and the songs explore.

8. Michael Jackson – “Thriller”

Easily one of the most iconic videos in music history, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is a culmination of various horror movies and tropes packed into a video that is almost fourteen minutes long. Incorporating sinister monologues, acting bits, and dance sequences, “Thriller” embodies the lyrics that emphasize fright and terror. Borrowing from films like The Wolfman, Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead for the storyline and the scenes and from Citizen Kane for elements of camera movements, staging, montages, and lighting, Michael Jackson creates a compelling video that emphasizes the frightening aspects of his song, one that adds greatly to it.

With all of these retellings, reenactments, and allusions to bolster each song, the intersection of music, film, and literature is made all too obvious. Not only do these allusions add levels of meaning and complexity to each song they are used for, they also embody the creative spirit that comes with retelling and art, thus making them more than trite songs on the radio.

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