The music of a time and place often becomes the defining aspect of a culture moment – even more so after that moment has passed. When you think of the 1950’s, chances are you hear Elvis or Buddy Holly; psychedelic rock is the ‘60s, disco is the ‘70s, and so on. When you hear that music, you aren’t just feeling what that particular song makes you feel, you’re feeling what that whole aesthetic and cultural era makes you feel.
Licensed music in media often uses the music of a moment to create a cultural–historical shorthand. It works like a shortcut for building emotional themes. “Fortunate Son” plays against a shot of a young man in a jungle, and suddenly the audience has a very pointed understanding of how they’re supposed to feel. That media wants to take all of the culturally and historically loaded feelings we have about Vietnam – or at least, a certain pop cultural idea of Vietnam – and attach them transitively to this new thing. By applying itself to a cultural canon, it can use the groundwork laid by that canon to establish itself in a more intimate or evocative way.
Licensed music has been used this way so frequently and for so long that, whether we know it or not, we’re conditioned to anticipate it. Modern pop cultural reproduction has created mythologized ideas of actual periods and moments that have become thoroughly detached from their actual historical grounding. I was born in 1992, but I have an almost reflexive recollection of feelings specific to the Vietnam war.
Much as I’d like to argue that these feelings are the result of learning about the war, its context, and its implications for how we think about American values, in reality it has more to do with the fact that I grew up with endless funhouse mirror evocations of Vietnam in media. Likewise, these feelings have nothing to do with the Vietnam war itself and everything to do with the legacy of Vietnam in the art and media I’ve been surrounded by.
In a postmodern, media-dominated world, it can feel as though cultural memory is history – or at least, it’s replaced history. Historical truths are fluid and complicated; hard to pin down. Narrative isn’t nearly as difficult: America’s lost innocence, the end of an era. Juxtaposed with the dramatic imagery and music of the era, the symbolism becomes so tempting that it’s difficult not to be taken in by it. Whatever the hippie movement, Watergate, the Black Panthers, or Woodstock were, what they are now is almost certainly something else entirely: a story we tell, over and over, about where we came from. Becoming increasingly complicated and simplistic at the same time, as different agendas recast it in their own image.
Every work of media that invokes a historical period is necessarily doing this on some level. However, not all media is doing it the same way, nor for the same reasons. A lot of faux-historical media uses licensed music to apply how you feel about an era to their work. It’s what we’re trained to expect. Rarely, a work subvert this usage, and the ubiquity of licensed music’s typical place in media makes its subversion powerful.
In The Archeology of Knowledge , Foucault writes,
The most radical discontinuities are the breaks effected by a work of theoretical transformation ‘which establishes a science by detaching it from the ideology of its past and by revealing this past as ideological.’
Sometimes, licensed music may be applied to a work of media not to make you feel about the media the way you feel about the culture represented in the music, but to make you feel about that culture what you feel about the new media.
The new work simultaneously changes the way we feel about a cultural perception forever, and reveals the often insidious ideology behind what was making us feel that way. This media uses the same techniques that altered and simplified our cultural perspective to begin to do the work of freeing us from that perspective. Kenneth Anger’s experimental film Scorpio Rising is a famous example of using licensed music to comment on culture. When it released in 1964 it was considered controversial and shocking, both for its explicit footage of homosexually-charged acts and for its transformative, dark portrayal of American culture. Music is absolutely critical to Scorpio Rising, as it is to Mafia III. In fact, as we’ll see later, 2K Games’ Mafia III attempts to use its music like no videogame has before: in the same way Scorpio Rising did, to transform our understanding of culture and history.
The apparently non-fictional Scorpio Rising follows a group of young male “greasers,” including the eponymous “Scorpio” (Scorpio being the astrological sign governing “genitalia and machines,” Anger comments in an interview) as they meticulously prepare their motorcycles, hair, and clothing for a night out with their biker gang.
We get an intimate view into the private lives of these young men as they prepare in their garages and basements, surrounded by the sacred iconography of their culture: headshots of James Dean and Marlon Brando, framed license plates, personalized and elaborate costumes of leather and chains, cigarettes, hairspray. The camera pans lovingly (and yeah, sexually) over the motorcycles, lingering over each component as it’s tinkered with or re-attached.
There’s no dialogue in Scorpio Rising – or any other audio for that matter – except for the licensed soundtrack of iconic 1960’s pop. Songs like Elvis Presley’s “(You’re the) Devil in Disguise” and The Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back.” These classic, Americana songs juxtapose images of these classic, Americana men.
The viewer is meant to understand that what they’re looking at is the quintessential American male – the rebellious, confident, aimless young men immortalized in media and cultural memory. This music is their music; it was written for them, about them. It’s their story. They’re American culture, personified. Scorpio snorts a finger of crystal meth and dons his marine helmet on his way out the door.
The young men meet and ride their bikes to an abandoned house. As they pull up many of them pull on Halloween masks. Inside, they meet more men, and begin to engage in first a playful mock-sexual orgy, then what seems to be a gang hazing or initiation, culminating in a highly symbolic mockery of the ritual of sacrament in which Scorpio, in full fascist regalia, pees into his marine helmet.
Images of Jesus Christ, Hitler, movie stars, and children’s toys flash across the screen. The camera often jerks erratically, but the same licensed soundtrack continues at the exact pace throughout. Young men apply hot mustard to an initiate’s genitals beneath a Nazi flag, to Kris Jensen’s “Torture.” The film ends with the death of a rider in a dirt bike race, set to Surfaris’ “Wipeout.”
Scorpio Rising is the perfect example of using licensed music to subvert what licensed music is used for. The film defies you to ever hear one of these songs the same way again, while at the same time totally preserving what those songs mean to us. The young men – whether they’re angry repressed homosexuals, neo-nazis, or just working class bikers – are still the quintessential Americans we think of when we hear this music. Scorpio Rising “reveals the past as ideological” by forcing us to expand what what we think about when we think about Americana culture. These subcultural elements have always been a part of America – as much as the music the scenes play out against.
These elements of masculinity, fascism, cult mentality, and homosexuality are inexorably linked with American culture. They were produced by it and produce it, as much as music, baseball, or apple pie. The fact that these elements are swept under the rug, when they are every bit as important as any others, should be suspicious to us.
Why are certain heteronormative, conservative, traditional standards of American culture portrayed so frequently by media, when subcultures that refute that idea’s dominance exist – have always existed? When the very music we consider “classic” was essentially written for it? Why would media choose to feature certain ideas and not others? What is it trying to say? Director Kenneth Anger called Scorpio Rising “a death mirror held up to American culture.” The film changes the way we think about American culture, media, and history. And it does it using a licensed soundtrack.
You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with a AAA videogame that released last year to lukewarm reviews. That’s fair. Though they’re very different media with very different ideas and contexts, I believe Mafia III at least attempts to do in videogames what Scorpio Rising did in film.
Like Scorpio Rising, Mafia III sets iconic music in new contexts to make us to re-examine the worn tropes of war stories, crime stories, and black experiences in America – not only in videogames, but in media and culture writ large. Mafia III wants to appeal – consciously or unconsciously – to a gamer, in order to make them understand that America’s ideology, values, and people are not how they’ve been portrayed in much of popular culture.
Mafia III’s docudrama-style framing signals its ambitions early. A documentary-style framing device places Mafia III’s story squarely in the cultural-historical “moment” it means to critique. In addition, by interviewing a cast of characters from the life and times of Lincoln Clay throughout the game, Mafia III is able to do something Scorpio Rising also had to do. In order for the musical-cultural subversion to land they have to legitimately critique their hero and story. It’s not enough to simply make Lincoln, a black man, into the hero of the typical pulpy veteran-on-a-rampage storyline; Mafia III has to dive into the mentality and psychology behind that rampage. It needs to unpack why Lincoln felt compelled to take over the mafia for himself, without glorifying or condemning him for it.
Mafia III does an admirable job of complicating the narrative the player will have come into the game expecting. Everyone is familiar with the trope of the veteran thrust back into conflict story from films like Rambo or Taxi Driver. Lincoln’s story hits all of the same beats, but they’re just re-contextualized enough to give them an important new depth. Instead of focusing on his time in the war, the early hours of the game focus on Lincoln’s life back home – his life as a black man in America.
Instead of returning to a world that he can’t understand, the black mafia gang violence Lincoln grew up into in his neighborhood in New Bordeaux makes more sense than ever. If anything, Lincoln’s combat skills help him re-acclimate, as he finds a way to apply himself and gain status and belonging among his old family. When Lincoln inevitably loses that family, it’s not because he had become too bloodthirsty or traumatized to relate to them.
In fact, it’s because Lincoln wasn’t bloodthirsty enough. When antagonist and mob kingpin Sal Marcano tells Lincoln he should run the black mob in his adopted father’s stead, Lincoln refuses out of loyalty. Then, after manipulating the black mob and Lincoln into getting him what he needs from them, Marcano kills Lincoln’s family, shoots Lincoln in the head, and leaves him for dead.
Early in the game, we’re told that Lincoln actually volunteered to join the army, because he had hoped he could find “a place where he belonged” there. Instead of finding that place, Lincoln learned how to kill. Returning home, Sal Marcano deprived Lincoln of the place where he belonged again. When Lincoln awakens from his coma, he makes the fateful decision that sets the stage for the rest of the game. Instead of simply killing Sal Marcano, Lincoln wants to unmake him: to deprive him of the place where he belongs and the world he made for himself. Lincoln decides he’s going to dismantle Sal Marcano’s mafia.
Just as Sal Marcano’s decision to betray the black mafia was racially motivated, Lincoln’s decision is, as well. The black communities of New Bourdeaux struggle to create a space for themselves in a society that doesn’t want them. The year is 1968, and segregation is alive and well. People in nice neighborhoods will ask Lincoln what he’s doing there as he walks by. Standing idly too long in front of a cop will bring Lincoln heat for “loitering.” Enemies hurl racial slurs at you as you fight them. Sal Marcano killed Sammy, Lincoln’s adopted father and the head of the black mob, because he knew he could get away with it. He didn’t think of Sammy as a partner, he thought of him as a tool to be used and discarded.
Lincoln’s wartime experiences and his experience as a black man in 1960’s America are conflated in an interesting way; in both, every day is a struggle to survive in a world that wants you gone. For the black community of New Bourdeaux, every day is war. Vietnam gave Lincoln a talent for war; like a vocabulary to express himself, but it wasn’t another culture that made him – it was America. When Lincoln makes the decision to declare war on Marcano, it’s not greed, vanity, or even just vengeance. It’s necessity. Lincoln couldn’t find his place in the marines, and when he found it back home, Marcano stole it from him. Lincoln realized he would never find a place for himself; he had to force the world to make one for him. War may have given Lincoln the means to it, but the plan and its execution were something he learned from being black, and struggling just to exist.
The game that follows largely plays straight the “veteran rampage” tropes you’d expect, but with this groundwork laid, the tropes – and the music we associate with them – take on a totally different meaning. Lincoln is a quintessential American pulp antihero. Lincoln is also a black man on a mission that’s explicitly racially motivated and driven. Lincoln’s character and psyche is variously deconstructed by the characters interviewed in the docudrama cutaways, but he’s also the hero of the story, and the power fantasy character the player embodies.
Mafia III works as a subversive statement simply by being a classic American story and a classic videogame power fantasy, while also being a game that confronts racism and what it takes for a black man to survive in America head-on. It’s not just that the classic Vietnam-era, Americana music that blasts out of Lincoln’s radio and plays over several pivotal cutscenes still feels completely relevant. It’s that they feel more relevant in this context than they ever has before. Before Marcano betrays him, we hear Lincoln gleefully singing the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law” as if it were his own ballad, written for his legendary exploits. He even replaces the lyrics: “I’m robbing people with a six gun/I fought the law and
the law won the law lost.” The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” kicks in the moment Lincoln is shot in the head. We watch through Lincoln’s eyes as Marcano kills his family, and the Stone’s nihilistic anthem predicts and reflects Lincoln’s own “darkness.” While Lincoln recovers from his wound, we watch years pass in the form of a montage set (of course) to Credence’s “Bad Moon Rising”. We watch the television announce the assassination of JFK over Father James’ shoulder as the priest dabs Lincoln’s fevered forehead. Meanwhile, “I see a bad moon rising/I see trouble on the way.” The symbolism isn’t exactly subtle; Lincoln is the bad moon rising, coming to bring trouble.
Songs like the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun,” Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” or Three Dog Night’s “One is the Loneliest Number” don’t just evoke the same old cultural feelings they always have; they’re elevated by Lincoln’s story as much as they elevate it. You’ll play as Lincoln, driving down a Louisiana highway on his way to commit biblical acts of violence, and your radio plays: “There is a house in New Orleans/they call the Rising Sun/and it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy/and, God, I know, I’m one.” These songs sound like they could have been written for Lincoln Clay. After all, in a lot of ways, they were.
In his famous work on the nature of art and criticism “Tradition and the Individual Talent,”  TS Eliot writes,
What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.
Lincoln Clay readjusts our understanding of the “existing whole” of the cultural Vietnam, simply by being introduced into it.
His story about trying to find the American dream is at once totally familiar and radically new. The music we hear over the radio in his car is old, and it sounds new. Shamefully, telling an archetypal American story about a black man is enough to disrupt foundational ideas about American ideology – revealing them as exactly that, an ideology. When we hear the music we know and love in a whole new way, and understand that it’s Lincoln’s story that makes us hear it that way, Mafia III shows us that the story of the struggle of black America is the story of America. It always has been.
Like Scorpio Rising, Mafia III will change the way you hear the music in it. It reveals what a story our understanding of the past is, and replaces it with a better one. Cultural memory may still supplant history as the building blocks of who we are, but we can at least form those building blocks into more human shapes. The next time you hear “Fortunate Son” in a movie or on a greatest hits radio station, you might find yourself picturing that less fortunate “son.” You might find that his face has changed.
-  Foucault, Michel. “Introduction.” The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Langauge. Trans. Alan Sheridan Smith. New York: Vitage, 2010. 5. Print.
-  Eliot, Thomas Sterns. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1921. N. pag. Bartleby.com. Bartleby.com, July 1996. Web.