Book ReviewsNo. 97, Spring 2014

Review of Carol Vernallis. 2013. Unruly Media: YouTube, Music Video, and the New Digital Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press.

Abstract

“I love the media swirl,” begins Carol Vernallis’s (2013) Unruly Media. In this exploratory, whirlwind, and sometimes frustrating volume, Vernallis acts as an exuberant tour guide through the bleeding edges of twentieth– and twenty–first–century media content. Vernallis cares deeply about the material under scrutiny in her book—pop culture artifacts from the “Sneezing Baby Panda” video to Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 Moulin Rouge!—and the thesis of Unruly Media is, in part, that these objects are worthy of serious scholarly attention. Outing herself so blatantly as a fan of her material is a bold scholarly move, and, despite weaknesses in Unruly Media’s argumentation and execution, Vernallis’s call for further, rigorous, interdisciplinary attention to music video and other contemporary audiovisual phenomena is one that deserves to be heeded by scholars across a wide spectrum of disciplinary backgrounds.

In Unruly Media, Vernallis triangulates a contemporary audiovisual aesthetic paradigm, emerging from music video and feeding into other media forms and genres—specifically, YouTube and digital cinema. Vernallis dubs this paradigm “intensified audiovisual aesthetics,” and argues for specific investigation of the “musical” qualities and parameters of these genres. In many respects, Unruly Media fits squarely into Vernallis’s body of work, from her 2004 Experiencing Music Video, to her work as editor of The Oxford Handbook of Sound and Image in Digital Media and The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics. While Vernallis’s disciplinary roots in film theory clearly resonate through Unruly Media’s attunement to issues of narrative and the visual parameters of media, Vernallis’s work is anything but silent, championing the audio of the audiovisual. Her analyses of pop culture artifacts always take sonic features into account, often using sound, music, or “musicality” as an entry point into the reading of a particular scene or video.

When a reader is swept along in the unrelenting current of evocative metaphor and wide–ranging association, Vernallis’s prose is exhilarating. Her writing is vivid, distinctive, perhaps even “musical” in its striking juxtapositions and giddy tumultuousness. But as soon as one is jolted out of this stream by a moment of skepticism or critical inquiry, Unruly Media’s mode of address can quickly become frustrating, obstructive, baffling. Key concepts are rarely explicitly theorized; the reader is left to glean the meanings of terms like “flow,” “musicality,” or even “music video” through context and Vernallis’s varied usage. Additionally, the analyses in Unruly Media assume a single vantage point, indicated by a near–ubiquitous use of the pronoun “we.” We hear a set of sounds, we experience a scene in a movie, we escape from our day jobs into the three–minute stasis of a YouTube clip. This collective second person is accompanied throughout the book by the also near–ubiquitous “might”/“may be”/“perhaps” auxiliary verb constructions. One assumes that the perpetual “perhaps”es are an attempt to mitigate the singular and privileged subject position enunciated by the “we,” but this once again is never explicitly laid out; the whole complex highlights the precariousness of Vernallis’s aesthetic arguments, but never grounds that precariousness in a—potentially quite productive—theorization of the author’s own vantage point. Might we experience some primal fear upon viewing the “Badger Song” on YouTube? Sure—but we might not. Any such distance between the reader’s own perspective and Unruly Media’s ubiquitous “we” opens up a productive and tantalizing space, in which the plurality of spectator experience in the digital age manifests as a site for much–needed scholarship.