The Show Must Go On

Where It’s At: I Got Two Turn Tables and a Microphone

Welcome back! History 389: “People Get Ready: American Cultural History” will now be rebranded as “History 389: The Show Must Go On.”

I promised when we evacuated campus, I will do everything in my power to make this transition as smooth as possible for you. I will try to make our learning experience enjoyable. I will be inviting famous historians and artists to join our conversation through recorded interviews, conversations, and mini-lectures to keep things more dynamic on the digital front. I am taking inspiration from the millions of educators and performers who provided educational content and entertainment in times of American crisis like the USO and soldier shows who carried out large scale productions during World War II and Vietnam (see Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam, above).

We will inevitably have to adapt our syllabus and learning style to work under these new circumstances. Sadly, there are many topics I cannot teach online due to copyright violation issues, forcing us into a more low-tech version of this class as I seek out versions of our multimedia and visual primary sources that are in the public domain. There are also sensitivity issues. I can lecture about blackface or lynching as disturbing forms of historical entertainment in the confines of a lecture hall where we can have an honest conversation in the privacy of a classroom, but due to the way white supremacists hijack and reappropriate historical material online and the way data is recorded through Zoom, I cannot distribute new archival material from my own research that is sensitive out of context or could end up in the wrong hands.

In the spirit of trying to keep things upbeat, I wanted to open our new unit with one of the most famous dance sequences in American cinema and musical theater history, “Make ‘Em Laugh” from the smash hit Singin’ In the Rain (1952).

Singin’ In the Rain is a classic American film set in the late 1920s about a megastar Hollywood “it” couple from the silent film era (when over the top and exaggerated physical comedy and theatrics were needed to project film narrative visually). They make a bumpy but comical transition into “talkies,” or films with synchronized sound. The problem: Hollywood’s leading lady has a horrible voice no one wants to hear, so the production company goes to great lengths to dub her performances and prevent the American public from ever hearing her authentic self. And of course, there is a juicy love story! The film stars Gene Kelly, Deborah Reynolds (yes, Princess Leia’s mother), and Donald O’Connor. The theme of the song we will watch below is based on the classic performance ideology the “show must go on!” This scene comes mid-film when the discouraged characters don’t believe they’ll ever be able to figure out the new film technology the production company is thrusting upon them mid-shoot. They decide the only way forward is to play up the absurdity of it all and turn a tragic script into a screwball comedy.

Sound relevant?

I invited Professor Brian Herrera from the Theater Department to join us in setting the scene.

Here is the elocution scene we briefly discuss.

Primary Source: “Make ‘Em Laugh” from Singin’ In the Rain (1952)


I want you to watch this clip at least three times and practice analyzing motion picture cinematically. See what you notice. Take notes so we can talk about it as a group. It’s hard, at first, to retrain your eye to notice the editorial seams in film, but with practice, you’ll get the hang of it.

  • Costuming, makeup, and set design: What does the clothing and make up tell you about each character and their relationships with each other? What does the set look like and what does it tell you about the story?
  • Camera angles, speed, and composition: How is the position of the camera angle emphasizing or deemphasizing elements of the scene? How is speed and zoom used? What about framing? Does the camera pan or stay still? What is the perspective? How does this impact your emotional reaction to the film?
  • Use of color: Is the film in black and white? Are there any color palettes used throughout the film? For example, does the movie have a warm, rosy glow or a darker, bluish hue? How does this set the mood? Why did they make this choice?
  • Music and sound: Does the soundtrack develop the scene? What non-spoken sounds are important in this scene? Is silence used as a cinematic tool and, if so, how? What is going on with sound overall?
  • Physical movement: What is going on in this choreography? What is the pacing like? Which parts of the body are emphasized? How does the lead performer relate to the other actors and set physically? What words would you use to describe the physical movement you are seeing? List them.

Precept Agenda for March 23-27 

We will resume normal precept times via Zoom on Eastern Standard Time. From now on, I will distribute a precept agenda so we can minimize confusion as we transition online. I ask that you please review Princeton’s class conduct policies. They extend to our online world. I also ask that you please do not screenshot or share images of our class to protect the privacy rights of your fellow classmates, their families, and private spaces.

  • Welcome back. Any questions or concerns?
  • Found Object Presentations for the week.
  • Pedestrianism debate (We will sort you into the pro/ and against teams now that we are digital. I recommend communicating with each other, even if it’s just via Google Docs to collect some of your thoughts. The “breakout discussion rooms” on Zoom are inelegant at best, so it’s easier if you coordinate before we’re together)
  • Discuss “Make ‘Em Laugh” and analyzing film techniques for the first time as a group
  • Discuss Phil Deloria’s Indians in Unexpected Places. 

Discussion and Guided Reading Questions for Indians in Unexpected Places

  • What power does the trope of cultural expectation hold in popular culture?
  • Deloria specializes in Native life from roughly 1870 to 1940 but argues the turn of the twentieth century holds a unique significance in Native American history and racial representation. Why? What changed? What major events frame his argument?
  • We discussed the very clear “characters” or “stereotypes” of African Americans found in blackface. What are the caricatures that Deloria identifies for Native Americans? Can you think of other examples of these stereotypes you’ve encountered in your own consumption of popular culture?
  • How is native violence gendered in its representation? What role does “authenticity” play?
  • What differences and similarities do you see for Native representation across the different genres Deloria discusses including Wild West shows, early film, organized sports, etc.?
  • Select one previous reading from the semester and use it to expand on one aspect or theme of Phil Deloria’s Indians in Unexpected Places. When you put them side by side how do the two complement each other? Please come prepared to discuss this with details. 

Precept Assignments – Due 3/23 for everyone 

Assignment 1: Deloria’s argument works because modern Americans have developed a common cultural language, set of expectations, and traditions as a people. You just lived through an unprecedented moment in American history and were a part of the largest emergency evacuation of higher education that has ever occurred. We are now all a part of the largest experiment in digital humanities and online education that has ever taken place. You are also now experiencing the opposite cultural experience from the Gold Rush and Civil War photographic generations: right at the moment you were becoming fully independent, a national event thrust many of you back to family networks or caregivers scattered around the world or you suddenly found yourself unable to leave. You were forcibly separated from your friends, partners, teams, clubs, and housemates and are doing your best to stay connected through other means–more than likely you are staying connected through forms of cultural technology.

Your written assignment this week is to write about what happened in your own words. I (Professor Barnes) am not your audience. I want you to write this for yourself as an honest historical record. I want you to include photographs, text messages, screenshots, whatever you feel you need to include so it is accurate and whole. I want you to address two things somewhere in your letter, diary entry, poem, play, or whatever it is you want to write: 1) What cultural expectations of American life have you now lost and how do you feel about it? This could include graduation, sports, a dance, dorm life, parties, an internship, a performance, Spring Break, Coachella, whatever it is you are now missing. And 2) what forms of culture have you turned to or thought about in this time of disruption? How are you entertaining yourself? How are you engaging in American culture wherever you are.

Please e-mail these to me by midnight EST March 23rd. Clearly label in your subject line “You can read this,” and I will. Or clearly label your subject “Private” and I will simply mark off that you have done the exercise and then delete it. 

Assignment 2: The Quarantine Playlist. Sometimes the best way to engage in American cultural history is to make a playlist. Please contribute at least one Youtube link to a song, movie scene, podcast, whatever you want to this Google Doc. No theme or restrictions. Just what you want to share with everyone. I know I could appreciate a good laugh.

Lecture Lab – 3/24 Analyzing Songs in Historical Context 

Traditionally, the second half of this course aggressively turns to developing skills like analyzing and reconstructing film, songs, television, Andy Warhol Brillo Boxes, you name it. Because many of you are still displaced and trying to resettle, on Tuesday, March 24th at 1:30 PM EST I will hold a Zoom “lecture lab.” We won’t have a formal lecture with key terms because I worry too many of you are still in transit. Though, as always, any multimedia content on this webpage can be used as part of your final projects. Are you still reading this? Excellent! Please send Prof. Barnes an e-mail with a gif of your favorite animal. We will do a deep dive into song analysis and context. To prepare, please listen to the following songs multiple times. I know this is very new for many of you, but do what you can to pay attention to song form, lyrics, lyrics in relation to sound, instrumentation and arrangement, phrasing, vocal timbre, and what is happening visually in the filmed performances. Take notes on what you notice lyrically, musically, visually and think critically about when these different versions were recorded. What is the context? What changes?

To get you started, I recorded a conversation between myself and Kim Nalley who is a colleague of mine at UC Berkeley and world-famous jazz and blues singer. Listen to her analysis of “Mississippi Goddamn” and “Why (The King of Love Is Dead) by Nina Simone.

Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” (1964)

Here are the lyrics. I encourage you to follow along and try to identify the major historical events and allusions being made Kim Nalley and I are talking about in our conversation.

Nina Simone’s Why (The King of Love Is Dead) (1968)

  1. Now that you have an understanding of Nina Simone’s larger historical context, read the lyrics to both songs slowly. Can you pinpoint which Civil Rights events, struggles, and problems are being alluded to in each verse?
  2. What social issues are being addressed in these songs? What connections can you make to our own historical context?
  3. Compare and contrast the mood and tone in both songs. How is that being conveyed through sound?
  4. What literary or rhetorical devices can you identify in these songs like similes, metaphors, or rhetorical questions?

Song Sets for Our Lecture Lab 

Below, you will find multiple versions of the same song recorded in different historical moments and in new genres. Listen to them multiple times. Take notes comparing and contrasting them. Our meeting on Tuesday 3/24 will focus exclusively on what you come up with so come prepared.

Song 1: “Hounddog” 

First recorded by Big Mama Thornton in 1952 followed by Elvis in 1956. I apologize for the low image quality on the Elvis performance. Welcome to what television looked like in the 1950s!


Song 2: “We’ve Only Just Begun”

“We’ve Only Just Begun” was first recorded as a jingle for The Crocker Bank in 1970. It was expanded into a number one hit by The Carpenters later that year. The following year, Curtis Mayfield covered it in 1971.

Song 3: California Dreamin’

This song was originally written by John and Michelle Phillips and recorded by Barry McGuire, but most Americans heard it in 1965 when it became a top hit for The Mamas and the Papas (both Michelle and John are members and perform it below). Eddie Hazel recorded a cover of it in 1977. Both are below.

Rhae Lynn Barnes is an Assistant Professor of American Cultural History at Princeton University (2018-) and President of the Andrew W. Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography. She is the co-founder and C.E.O. of U.S. History Scene and an Executive Advisor to the documentary series "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War" (now streaming PBS, 2019).