Mafia III and the Soundtrack of History

Source:, resized. Mafia III (2016)

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.

Source:‑8.56.06-AM-e1479403316372.jpg, resized. Kong: Skull Island (2017)

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.

Source:https://s‑, re-sized. Forrest Gump (1994)

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 [1], 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.

Source:, re-sized Scorpio Rising (1964).

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.”

Source:, resized. Scorpio Rising (1964).

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.

Source:, resized. Scorpio Rising (1964).

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.

Source:, resized. Mafia III (2016).

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.

Source:, resized. Mafia III (2016).

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.

Source:, resized. Mafia III (2016).

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,” [2] 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.

Source:, resized. Mafia III (2016).

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.

  • [1] Foucault, Michel. “Introduction.” The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Langauge. Trans. Alan Sheridan Smith. New York: Vitage, 2010. 5. Print.
  • [2] 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.