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Sonic Stereotypes: Jazz and Racial Signification in American Film and Television Soundtracks

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This paper examines the use of jazz in contemporary American film and television soundtracks. Through processes of cultural signification, jazz music frequently maps racialized meaning onto the narrative. Often, a “black” jazz aesthetic signifies social and sexual deviance, while a “white” jazz aesthetic signifies elegance and high-culture. Such associations reinforce racial boundaries and essentialist stereotypes by perpetuating a dichotomy in which “blackness” figures as culturally dangerous (e.g. sexually deviant, unrestrained, threatening, and low-class) and “whiteness” as elite and culturally superior (e.g. civilized, educated, and high-class). To demonstrate this, the soundtracks of Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999); Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s American Horror Story: Coven (2013); and, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa’s Homeland (2011) are examined. These examples are then compared to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989), a film featuring sympathetic representations of African American identity. In Lee’s film, jazz challenges—rather than reinforces—racial discourse; a characteristic likely linked to Lee’s background as an African American with parents involved in the arts, black literature, and jazz composition. By comparing Lee’s alternative use of jazz to the preceding examples, it is argued that the use of the genre in film and television soundtracks as a stereotyping device reflects racial biases prominent in contemporary culture.


Jazz, Race, Signification, Film, Soundtracks

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