Researchers uncover unconscious biases in the music of Carmen Sandiego

LAWRENCE — According to contributing authors in a new book on music for animation, some versions of the popular educational franchise Carmen Sandiego serve to “corroborate the power structures connoted in exoticist and imperialist narratives.”

University of Kansas School of Music doctoral candidate T.J. Laws-Nicola and their co-author, Brent Ferguson, who holds a doctorate in music theory from KU, wrote the chapter “Who on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? Two Case Studies in Aural Identity” in the new book “The Intersection of Animation, Video Games, and Music: Making Movement Sing” (Routledge), edited by Lisa Scoggin and Dana Plank.

Laws-Nicola and Ferguson wrote that the composers who scored the 1992 deluxe version of the video game “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” (WWCS) and the 1994 animated series “Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego?” (WECS) have chosen motifs that function as “an ironic set of musical chains — binding Carmen sonically where she is otherwise free.”

A Carmen Sandiego cosplayer at the 2012 San Diego Comic Con. Credit: William Tung via Wikimedia Commons.

Carmen Sandiego is an antihero in the game’s universe. As Nicola and Ferguson wrote, players “travel the Earth as an A.C.M.E. (The Agency to Classify and Monitor Evildoers) agent capturing villains of the organization V.I.L.E. (Villain's International League of Evil), which is led by Sandiego.” She is, they wrote, nonspecifically Latinx in ethnicity.

“It's part of my dissertation research,” Laws-Nicola said. “I look at animation, and in particular bad women, women antagonists, and how they're treated sonically. I'm looking at what the trends are and the unconscious bias we have when we're listening to and also creating sounds.”

In the two Carmen Sandiego series they studied, Laws-Nicola said, “There are all of these intentional or unintentional power structures being put out on display.

“The whole series is sort of a cat-and-mouse game between her organization and A.C.M.E. ... and there are a lot of symbols and ways you can take it. I don't necessarily say that the animators of the game or the show expressly wanted Carmen thought of as an imperialist symbol. But often, when you create something, once you show it to the world, your intent doesn't really matter so much as how it’s interpreted by those that consume what you've made. I just felt that there was a way to look at this sort of animation or show critically, which is how we how we approach things.”

The authors make particular note of exoticism in the theme song for WECS, which is an adaptation of a song in Mozart’s opera “The Abduction of the Seraglio.”

“The opening title theme for the show is a rock adaptation of the end of Act 1,” Laws-Nicola said. “It's a big finale number from the opera. The Pasha, who is the antagonist of the opera because he stole the protagonist’s love interest — physically kidnapped and kept her — comes in with his entire crew  ...

It's done in the Alla Turca style, which was very popular at the time. Mozart was well known for creating or contributing to the creation of this style, which musically connoted the Turkish Janissaries. Typical aspects were lots of cymbals or percussion and big chorus-type numbers. An audience watching ‘The Abduction of the Seraglio’ at that time would have felt that that number was exotic, in part because the antagonist is supposed to be foreign, but also because the musical style was markedly different than anything else in the opera.

“The show uses an adaptation of that same theme. They just update it, which adds this extra layer. The song is already exoticist, and you have it filtered through a pop adaptation for a theme song for a thief who goes around the world stealing things. It just seemed like really tongue-in-cheek. A bit on the nose, if you will.

“Whether or not Mozart respected the Turkish Janissaries, there's an exoticist connotation that is developed on top of all of this,” Laws-Nicola said. “So this connotation of thieving or taking what isn't yours, or the keeping the racial purity of women, these are all sort of undertones and connotations of this exoticist style. And when you toss that in with a children show, and the woman antagonist happens to be a thief ... you buy into that negative connotation, intentional or not. What we were trying to get at in the article is that the song’s a whole jam, and you can still enjoy the show. But keep in mind that the sonic layer of what's being done here isn't completely innocent.”

Image: A Carmen Sandiego cosplayer at the 2012 San Diego Comic Con. Credit: William Tung via Wikimedia Commons.

Mon, 08/14/2023


Rick Hellman

Media Contacts

Rick Hellman

KU News Service