Portrait of a Cliché
The moaning woman is not just hazardous because of its “white-guyed” representation of its native culture. We’ve heard it so many times that it could accurately be labeled a trope or a cliché. Can a cliché ever be truly effective?
Cliché’s are, by nature, very predictable—and an effective score often hinges on its unpredictability. “There’s an element of surprise that you’re always trying to create for the audience,” says Beal. “If things seem too expected and too [much of] what you’re anticipating, you lose the ability to really give the audience an experience of something proprietary.”
Gladiator was effective, perhaps, because no one expected it. But then proverbial sales of the moaning woman gesture went through the roof, and it seems like every other film has one in their proverbial house.
Who doesn’t laugh every time they hear James Horner’s danger motif? It may be a completely effective—even appropriate—use in whatever film you’re watching, but its sheer abundance in his oeuvre undermines its efficacy. The same goes for the moaning woman. It takes the observant filmgoer out of the film; its omnipresence in modern film music is simply too distracting. It takes an otherwise serious or even tragic moment and often turns it into a joke.
The moaning woman is, in many ways, worse than the danger motif (or any other instrumental cliché), because of just how upfront a vocal solo is in a score. “The thing about the voice,” says Beal, “is that it really brings the score much further forward in the listener’s consciousness. It’s hard to have a vocal element and have it sort of fade away in the background. I think it has to do with the physiology of the human psyche and the voice being the ultimate instrument, that as soon as you hear the voice your ear just latches on to it in a way that it probably doesn’t in other underscore-type textures.”
“A little bit goes an awful long way,” he says soberly.
The Final Moan
Have filmmakers and composers finally seen the error of their ways? With the exceptions of Steve Jablonsky’s desert-themed Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen and John Debney’s Middle East-leaning The Stoning [and Moaning?] of Soraya M., the moaning woman has not been featured in any prominent score so far this year (to my knowledge). Could it be that she has wailed her last breath?
Theodore Shapiro, who thinks he may have helped put the “nail in the coffin” when he satirized the gesture in Tropic Thunder, doubts it is completely dead. “Nobody ever has the last word on how things can be done,” he says. “And that’s what we’re all striving to do, is find a way to rearrange the elements and come out with something fresh.”
“I think that certain stylistic elements have a longer lifespan than others,” Shapiro continues. “In a sense, the ideas that are as bold and more instantly recognizable as that one probably have a shorter lifespan before people start picking up on it.”
“Like anything else it’ll get passed by,” weighs in Doug Adams. “We’re sort of back to the giant drum sound from the Zimmer school again, aren’t we? Batman certainly bled over to Star Trek—you’ve got Giacchino using giant drums and whacking coke signs and stuff. I kind of feel like moaning woman may have played out.”
The new trend du jour also seems to be the touted string soloist—recent films like The Village, Memoirs of a Geisha, Defiance, Iris and The Soloist boast a celebrated solo violinist or cellist. Even Hans Zimmer shared billing with Joshua Bell on this summer’s Angels & Demons.
“Moaning woman got replaced by moaning string player,” Adams says.
So much more could be said about trends and clichés in film music. Why do they occur? Who is to blame? Do they work? But what eventually surfaces with any trend, from those of us who are actually listening, is a cry for innovation.
“That’s the thing with film music always,” adds Adams. “The simplest, most ripped-off things always work—it just depends on whether you want to bring any artistry to it.” Adams contends that if a composer is working on a quality film, “you should be serving the needs of that project not the tropes of that genre.”
The conclusion of the matter is that this gesture can be done tastefully, appropriately, intelligently and effectively. In the hands of a skilled composer it can notch up the drama or transport the viewer to another world (or at least another country). Perhaps, in time, it will make more infrequent and thus surprising appearances—rendering it much more powerful.
But for now it is simply too commonplace and too cheaply stapled to too many scores to have its intended impact. Its dangers range from making a score predictable and forgettable, to transforming a serious score into a parody.
With the exception of Lisbeth Scott lampooning herself, the only place I want to hear the moaning woman for now is a birthing ward. So, realistically, not at all.