This American Life

This American Life Powers: Activate!

The entire structure, content and execution of the “Superpowers” episode of This American Life, seems to deal with one overall prevailing theme of fear and insecurity. Each section of this four-part program looks to address this theme in a slightly different way that builds off of the previous act.

This American Life begins to explore this theme right away in the prologue, which features the host, Ira Glass, and a comic book artist, Chris Ware. The prologue isn’t in an interview format, like the following three segments, but is almost a call and response type discussion. Glass will make a statement, which complements (not compliments) the story being told, to which Ware’s voice comes in to continue the train of though from the host. It’s not question/answer, more like two similar narratives are being told, playing off of one another.

The prologue addresses the theme of fear and insecurity in the opening lines by Glass “when we were weak, we told ourselves to be strong…” Ware continues this sentiment not only in his story of being “the most loathed kid in his class,” but also in his tone of voice. When he talks about his childhood experiences, he stutters, speaks softly, and doesn’t particularly speak with conviction. His voice doesn’t conjure up an image of a grown man, rather we can still hear and envision that child who thought wearing superhero costumers under his clothing would give him power.

After the prologue the next three segments follow a similar format, but tells the narrative theme in a different fashion. The first real portion of the program uses more of an interview technique than the prologue.  In the intro John Hodgman discusses a question he posed to people and what that question meant. The progression of the section goes from whimsical and humorous (who doesn’t want to be “Going to Paris Man) to dark and reflective in fairly short order. From the simple original question posed in the segment, respondents feel like they are revealing deep dark secrets about themselves. The theme of insecurity and is overt in this section, with responses like: “It all has to do it guile. Wanting to be invisible means that you’re a more guileful person. If you want to fly, it means you’re guileless. And I think the reason that I’m so conflicted about flying versus invisibility is that I have guile. But I really wish that I didn’t.” But more than just the words, the way they are spoken have significant meaning.

Just like the introduction, the way this section utilizes voice is as important as the narrative. The people who respond to the questions have audible hesitation in their voice, it cracks and some can’t even respond to Hodgman’s questions. Even the host of the segment doesn’t seem to use his normal voice, instead of a higher pitched tone that can be heard in his standup, he speaks very low and deliberate tone. This could be because he felt that it gave more gravitas to the story, or even maybe that a deep, soft spoken voice would elicit the image of a psychiatrist, posing this superhero question on patients.

The reason I focused on these two particular segments is because they seem to represent the program as a whole. Each part of “Superpowers” is slightly different from the part preceding it, but contains enough of the same format to tie everything together. All four of the sections of this piece utilize sound of voice (both narrator and subject), and musical cues to break up the discussion. Even the last segment, which is a radical departure from the previous segments in terms of structure, contains these elements.

Instead of having an interviewer ask questions and subjects respond, only to have their voice crack, or pause to indicate hesitation, the character in the story ranges from cool and collected (talking about his new rocketship), to wild and out of control (describing how Superman does literally nothing). His tone goes from deep and smooth to shrill in the same sentence. Whenever this change happens it’s at a point in the story at which sees the character facing a crisis, a fear of something he doesn’t understand. Why doesn’t Superman do anything? Why doesn’t Superman look at him? Why does everybody love Superman? These phrases are said in an exacerbated manner, out of breath and fearful. Once he rationalizes these thoughts, it goes back to smooth and controlled, (Superman doesn’t do anything because he’s always superman, Superman doesn’t look at him because he thinks “I’m not worth his time,” people love Superman because they don’t realize how much of a fake he is). Even if the listener is not paying attention to what is being said, they can still hear the fear, frustration and doubt in the subjects voice.

It’s the tone of voice, the shift in the spoken sound that drives the narrative of Superpowers home. The content of each section brings up the fear and insecurities of everyday life, but it’s the way the content is read that brings it alive. If the entire program were read in John Hodgeman’s low assured voice, the listener would never get the full picture. This is what I hope to take away from this exercise, and incorporate into my project: the power of voice as a narrative tool.



Shifting Tones in This American Life

This episode of NPR’s This American Life contains a prologue and four acts focused on superpowers and the interactions between real life people and the superheroes of their fantasies. 

Listening to This American Life, I noticed a pattern in the tone of the show. Almost all of the segments started with very lighthearted touches before gradually shifting to the more serious unifying element of the piece. Act One, for example, had comedian John Hodgman pose a seemingly whimsical question to friends: Would you rather have the power to turn invisible or to fly? Interviews with unnamed friends talking about sneaking into places, stealing, going to bars, or not having to ride the bus are interspersed and there is a fun, easygoing attitude to it. The unifying narration of John Hodgman, though, drives the piece forward and soon the characters start to examine the underlying human desires that drive their wishes for invisibility and flight. At which point the interviews revealing the darker explorations people had of the powers: voyeurism, spying, arrogance, etc. This shift in tone over time through carefully planned voice over narration and the arrangements of conversations seems to be an excellent way of getting an audience’s attention before leading them to a serious exploration of who we are as people.
These tonal shifts appear in the other acts and act four especially uses a number of sonic techniques to shift from the comedic to the serious. Glynn Washington’s highly conversational tone and use of slang devolve serious comic tropes into the absurd. One example that had me laughing was when he said, “So I trailed Superman in my special seein’ everything machine.” In a comic book I’m sure that would have a long imposing name, but his more practical, true to life title provides an ironic contrast to super-villain severity. Moreover, he also employs sound effects to parallel his narration. Crowd noises will appear when he talks about crowds, a shriek plays in the background when Superman shrieks, and other parallels appear in his broadcast. So along with music and the various feelings that music can excite in an audience, Washington’s diction, voice, and paralleling background sounds converge to create shifting moods in the audience as his piece moves from lighthearted comic book jokes to an analysis of the darker aspects of the Superman character.
I want to keep these uses of sound in mind when I make my sound project, because they can make my project engaging for audiences by creating subtle changes in mood and emotion that ultimately lead to my point.
Question: I wrote at length about sound paralleling narrative, but what effects do you think sound contrasting the narrative could have? For instance, what if someone took serious love poetry and interspersed it with crowds laughing? Does something like this fit with your project?