Remember that scene in Gladiator when Russell Crowe discovers the lifeless bodies of his wife and son? Try forgetting about how he distractingly gets snot all over his wife’s feet—it was a zeitgeist moment in film music. During that and a few other key scenes from Ridley Scott’s epic descended the now famous Lisa Gerrard wailing vocals, which subsequently ignited the trend, the phenomenon…the moaning woman.
The “moaning woman”—that cliché female vocalist wailing her wordless, ethnic dirge like an alto yodeler over the strains of the orchestra—can be heard in everything from The Prince of Egypt to Duma; 300 to The Gospel of John; Minority Report to Black Hawk Down. Nearly every major composer has tried their hand at it, and it has often appeared in almost cut-and-paste similarity. It’s even been parodied in the scores for Team America and Tropic Thunder. How and when did this technique claim such a monopoly on the market?
Let’s define terms. The “moaning woman,” for our purposes, is a female vocalist—typically an alto—performing an improvisatory, dirge-like melody. It is full of voice-cracking sorrow, and rarely attempts a go at any known language. Its primary function has been to lend a Middle Eastern or “ethnic” aura to a score. It is, essentially, the musical representation of a woman crying out in anguish or giving birth.
The craze can arguably be traced back to Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator. The use of wordless female vocals in film music goes back much farther (think Morricone), but in Gladiator Zimmer and Gerrard employed this very niche style of ethnic singing (wailing, moaning) that struck a chord with moviegoers and composers, and the aftershocks are still quaking cinema walls today.
Moaning woman expert (and composer) Jeff Beal links the genesis of the phenomenon to the popularity of new age and world music in the 1980s. “I think that was the decade where we became enamored with all sorts of indigenous gestures,” Beal says. Before Gladiator even came out, the technique was “already starting to percolate up.”
Doug Adams, a recognized authority on the moaning woman, remembers first noticing prominent female vocals in Wojciech Kilar’s Dracula. “It was such an unusual thing to have a film score where the performer was so noticeable, especially in a vocal way like that,” Adams says. “And then it kind of caught on as sort of a kitsch thing; Goldenthal would use it here and there for something that was out of control, or even Elfman. I always felt that sort of got cross-pollinated with the world music trend.”
“At some point,” Adams continues, “it just became, everybody has to use something that doesn’t sound western just to prove that it’s somehow exotic. It doesn’t matter if it actually matches anything in the piece. Those two things really fell together to get to the point where Gladiator could be forced upon the world and accepted.”
The musical phenomenon is surely also a reflection of the politics and world events of our times. As conflict and subsequent interest in the Middle East intensified, American filmmakers began dealing more and more with the locale and its related subjects. Composers followed suit and grabbed onto one of the more obvious traits of Middle Eastern music.
Is it effective? “It is a tremendously evocative sound,” Adams says. “It’s about as close as you can get to just yelling in the background. It’s a very primal form of self expression. The whole idea of this type of vocalization is really a beautiful thing in the proper context, in the native cultures. We only think of it as just this very base form of expression. It’s certainly very nuanced and very interesting.”
Raping and Pillaging
Most film score lovers would agree that the moaning woman is nearly always emotionally effective. The problem is that it is often a very shallow and unintelligent means of representing the Middle East, or simply anything “ethnic.”
“We’ve white-guyed this thing to death,” says Adams. “It doesn’t really have anything to do with the beauty that it has in its actual culture.”
Hollywood has long possessed the bad habit of raping and pillaging other cultures for musical ideas that tie a score to its film’s setting. Rather than intelligently studying and employing a foreign culture’s musical styles and traditions, composers have often opted for simply grabbing a musical instrument or idea that represents a surface level understanding of that culture’s music.
“That’s what we call the augmented second approach,” Adams explains. “If you throw an augmented second into your scale, it immediately becomes exotic.”
The shakuhachi is one of those famously overused and misused instruments that serve to give a score an “ethnic” flair. Just think about all of the bagpipes, didgeridoos and Arabian double harmonic scales that have been slapped onto an otherwise typical western, Hollywood score. The moaning woman falls into that same, time-honored tradition.
Is such loose adherence to the music of other cultures…wrong? Renowned moaning woman satirist Theodore Shapiro argues: “It’s not unethical. That’s been going on forever. You can hear the Turkish March in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth. That probably doesn’t sound too Turkish to people in Turkey. But it doesn’t make it an uninteresting moment of that symphony.”
“I think it can always be done in a way that is interesting and breathes life into music from another culture,” Shapiro continues. “There are times where it feels like exploitation. Ultimately it’s up to each artist to handle that material in a way that doesn’t feel like exploitation.”
The overuse of the moaning woman can certainly be blamed, to an extent, on directors and producers; the same directors and producers who clamor for the Media Ventures sound, and who generally clamor for a “more-of-the-same” musical approach with big cartoon dollar signs in their retinas. Any time there is a massive trend in film music, it is too easy to blame the composers. Composers are often hogtied to a temp track or told by a producer, with the cold end of a pistol to their head: “Give me Gladiator!”
Even John Williams has been swept up in the phenomenon, on display in Minority Report, Star Wars: Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith, and his haunting score for Munich. The latter score, while employing the familiar melismas of Lisbeth Scott, somehow still works superbly. Here is a film that is not just set in the area to which this vocal technique is native, but is—in the words of Jeff Beal—“such a languid and anguished story of moral compromise and horrible hatred, that you needed something that embodied that soul.” It is one of the rare occasions where the gesture is appropriate and entirely effective.
Doug Adams compares Williams’ usage of the moaning woman to “your grandpa buying a cell phone.” “You know everybody else has already done this,” he says, “and he’s finally just getting around to the cliché a little bit later than everyone else.”
But “Williams’ techniques almost transcend his style,” Adams argues. “Whatever he’s dealing with he elevates it, even if it’s something that began as a trope. And he’s a guy, if he’s going to do this, he doesn’t just trot it out. He does something with it.”