The Female Voice in Subversive Soundtracks of the Counter-Culture Era.

After a recent viewing of Alan J. Pakula’s crime thriller, Klute (1971), something occurred at the back of my mind that connected the film with a number of others.  At first, I struggled with my memory as to what exactly it was about the film that was bringing other films of the era to mind; it could have been something more basic and obvious like the upsurge in popular edgy noir films at that time, as one of the films that instantly started to play over and over again in my head was Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971).  Then another film occurred to me, linking itself to Klute but not in the same genre; Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968).  It all of a sudden clicked.

In an essay for my second year of undergraduate study of music, I had used Rosemary’s Baby as a prime example of how horror film scores took a turn towards more popular and electronic routes in 1968; Polanski’s film was a case study for this, partly because of its use of scene setting jazz but mainly because of its use of the female voice in the musical score.  It had clicked.  Klute, Dirty Harry and Rosemary’s Baby (made only three years apart from each other) were all using a very particular type of female vocal voice in their soundtracks and nondiegetic scores.

For the first analysis of Rosemary’s Baby in 2011, I had argued that the voice in the score was there to signify the idea of the “mother’s voice”; a Freudian interplay with the narrative of poor Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow), forced through conspiracy and occultism to give birth to Satan’s son.  In hindsight of the wider use of this type of musical scoring, the female vocal presence now seems far more complex than this, admittedly already extravagant, reading: something far more subversive and problematic in regards to the portrayal of women and the insinuation of disquieting topics was going on.

Though it is not overly apparent at first, all three of these films deal with women or more specifically the abuse of them through a patriarchal triangle of abused trust, abused position, and abused ideology.  In spite of this, a careless female vocal is present in the soundtrack of all three, ranging from childlike nursery rhyme in Rosemary to hints at pleasurable states in Klute, and dreamy, subversive euphoria in Harry.  This is the era of the sexual revolution but in turn with that comes the abuse of it through the patriarchy and therefore the music to these films must reflect this and its various facets.

Rosemary’s Baby is the most thematically complex of the films, primarily because of the links with issues of motherhood and childbirth.  Coupled with sexual abuse[i] and the betrayal of a husband (John Cassavetes), the film is a mixture of a series of elements that could all have aspects read into the presence of the female voice in the soundtrack.  Krzysztof Komeda’s score has a multitude of options in what exactly to portray but he knowingly hints at the moral ambiguity of the era, allowing Farrow to sing the melody so associated with the film.  The childlike strangeness of this choice hints at the forced nature of motherhood on the main character; the “la la la’s” seeming distant but necessary and confused reflecting Rosemary’s feelings at the film’s conclusion.

This is somewhat different to the use found in Klute and Dirty Harry though has similar ties to female suppression by the male patriarchy.  Klute follows Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda:) an outwardly confident prostitute who is at the centre of a disappearance case being investigated by John Klute (Donald Sutherland).  Though Fonda’s character begins as strong, manipulative and confident, the film and the scenarios (or more specifically, the men) gradually break her down till she is the victim of a multitude of manipulations from pimps and stalkers.  The female voice on the soundtrack occupies two forms of thematic development.  The first is the re-enforcing of Daniels’ role as a seductress with the voice being read as potentially pleasurable (almost in a cloying seduction of the viewer).  The second is in the disturbing subversion of the reality of this underworld which consists of dangerous liaisons with disturbed characters, drug addiction, and murder.  In spite of these two separate ideas, the music does not technically change,  with the vocal presence presenting the same melody but over different visual and narrative contexts.

This era of the counter-culture is shown aesthetically to be a dangerous new world that appears to grant freedoms to the male patriarch well above any lawful or moral boundary.  Yet by using the voice in such a way, could it be read that the subversive nature of the societies in question are being blamed on the women and their newly portrayed sexual confidence?  Klute makes Fonda’s character seem very unsympathetic at first though her gradual evolution throughout the film (which incidentally keeps her own sexual confidence intact) argues against this reading somewhat.  Morally ambiguous lifestyles (drugs, prostitution, crime etc.) may be sound-tracked with a female vocal but its narrative counterpart in Fonda creates a thin but present thematic balance.

Dirty Harry on the other hand presents a more simplified portrait of the era but, in doing so, ironically complicates its readings with the hindsight of modern morality.  In spite of featuring largely male characters (with women being the victims of murder rather than anything else), the soundtrack again uses the female voice.  Lalo Schifrin’s score is deliberately evocative of the counter-culture movement, quite simply because the villain is a polarised cartoon of everything that could supposedly go wrong to someone with liberal views (this is most apparent in the music’s use of distorted bass, a typical trope of psychedelic rock at the time).  Don Siegel is quite open about the right-leaning political themes of the film but why, with the killer being a clear misogynist (amongst being a homophobe, a racist and an anti-Semite) is his leitmotif sound-tracked with a female voice?

This theme is most prescient in the film’s opening moment when Scorpio is setting up a rifle, ready to kill a women swimming in pool at the top of a sky-scraper.  It’s as if the killer impulse in him (which is never really explained though hinted at being a product of liberalism through his style, clothing, and a CND belt-buckle) is attributed to the voice of the woman; her voice becomes a signifier or even trigger of his murderous insanity which reoccurs later on the film when he kills or prepares to kill.  Again there is a potential reading here for blame of women though there is little in the narrative to suggest this as the main realisation.  The killer is not said to be frustrated with women or the relationships he has with them; he kills them for the political attention though the aesthetic choice is an odd one.

Inside the last two films, there is an uncomfortable , almost blasé association built between the horrors of the morally crumbling cities of America and the increase of female sexual confidence; it is clearly a theme of the films at the very least, if not a comment reflecting the misogyny of the era.  Looking back, it’s surprising to see the female voice used in such a way.  Describe the films in narrative terms to anyone before they’ve seen them and only Rosemary’s Baby would have logical potential to include such a musical choice.  The voice in general is left hinting at subversion with a wry eye and ear but, in hindsight of just how much the era would be defined by its increased, media-based sexism, it lends the films a strange mix that suggests the presence of something far more uncomfortable lurking beneath the surfaces of the era’s cities.

Adam Scovell

[i] Satan does after all technically rape the main character albeit in an ambiguous dream sequence only solidified and fully suggested as such in the film’s conclusion.

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