Karen Tongson

Karen Tongson is the author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press, 2011), co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Popular Music Studies, and co-series editor for Postmillennial Pop, a book series at NYU Press. An Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at USC, Tongson is currently at work on two projects: a short book about karaoke, and a longer monograph about performers in the Pacific Rim/Desert West "leisure circuit."



"Drive and Sounds of the '80s Metropolis"

Praised for its neo-noir visual aesthetic, and brooding urbanity, the 2011 sleeper hit, Drive, also captured audiences’ ears with its moody, electronic soundtrack scored by Red Hot Chili Peppers alum-turned-film-composer, Cliff Martinez. The film also showcases tracks from 80s-influenced French and French-Canadian electropop artists, Kavinsky (feat. Lovefoxx) and DJ College (feat. the Montreal based duo, Electric Youth), turning the latter’s “A Real Hero” into the film’s keynote. But the question remains: why does it seem to make so much sense, aesthetically and thematically, to have Drive--a film set in contemporary Los Angeles--sound like the synthy 1980s? What is it about Drive’s soundtrack that tells us something about how we may have imagined hearing 80s urbanity? And what does Giorgio Moroder have to do with all of this?

The 80s was a golden era of sorts for dark, dystopic film and TV about Los Angeles and other “post-urban” edge cities like Miami. Films like Blue Thunder, Blade Runner, Less Than Zero, and To Live and Die in L.A. (to name just a few), as well as the era’s iconic TV crime drama, Miami Vice, explored the damaged masculinities wrought by (sub)urban, postindustrial sprawl. “Tropical” cities on the coastal frontiers of the U.S., like L.A. and Miami, were class-stratified; at once segregated and miscegenated, and at once urban and dispersed. Basically, 80s films about edge-city dystopia and masculinity achieved what 70s cinema did for east-coast (NY) urban decay, white ethnicity and masculinity, by exposing the damages wrought by post-industrialization, and the Reagan-era reification of American masculinity. While none of the dystopic Los Angeles films listed above were scored by Giorgio Moroder—and as far as I know, he only scored one film about L.A. specifically, American Gigolo—he created a signature sound for 80s cinema about these social reconfigurations in films featuring the (white) working classes (Flashdance, Over the Top, American Gigolo), immigrant aspiration (Scarface), and the search for "connectivity" despite technological alienation and post-urban dispersal (Electric Dreams).

This talk will explore how Drive echoes the Moroder sound—sprinkled with a little Jan Hammer—in its audiovisual effort to revisit these themes in the wake of the “Great Recession." Drive, I argue, opens musical, auditory pathways to genealogies of post-urban masculinity from the 1980s onward through synth music: through the rhythmical thrill and driving” tempo of the instrument’s percussiveness, as well as through its melancholic, caterwauly undertones.