Recently I settled myself down to watch the PBS program Nature. This particular documentary was entitled “Lobo, The Wolf That Changed America.” Telling the story of the bounty hunter Ernest Thompson Seton and his battles with Lobo, the “King of the Currumpaw,” this episode promised to be interesting, if not a little depressing as well. Now I’m not an idiot savant. You give me a hunter armed with guns, arsenic-tainted meat and leg hold traps and I pretty much get the idea where this story is going. I might not like it, but I do know where this story is going.
Everything was proceeding as I expected up to the point where Mr. Seton shoots and kills Lobo’s mate, the lovely Blanca, when suddenly this sad, sappy Celtic music started oozing from the speakers. I forced myself to sit through this musical weeping and just prayed that it wouldn’t get worse. Of course, it did. After using Blanca’s body as a lure, Mr. Seton finally traps Lobo. He hauls the wolf back to camp where the wolf dies. Again, another horrid swell of sad music. I choked back another wave of nausea and wondered if the episode’s music director was some sort of sadist. Pandering to the downright weepy, this music director claimed every opportunity to slap on the musical choke chain and all I wanted to do is crawl into the dark shadows under some heavy piece of furniture and growl.
What has happened to us? Or, better yet, what is being done to us through the unrestrained abuse of music through film and television? The above might be a heavy-handed example, but have we become so stupid as to need emotional markers throughout the movies and television shows we watch? The use of music in movies and television is intended to support the content, so why are we being beaten about the snout with some of this overemotional garbage? I’m not naïve enough to think that music directors will ever stop the use of loud flourishes whenever there is some movie miracle or the swell of strings of romance when the lovers meet or the heart-pounding rhythms that accompany most car chases. But do we really need so much emotional direction in documentaries? Are we not capable of finding sadness or outrage through the content without these emotional turn signals?
I’ve found that most of this sappy music abuse occurs during nature documentaries. I’m not immune to an animal’s suffering or death, but I don’t really need to be told that animal suffering is sad. I get it. I also get the idea that we need people to be conscious of the disastrous effects we humans have on animals and their habitats, but I can’t help but think that music directors often overplay their hand. I’ve changed channels when I felt the music was way over the top in documentaries, so I wonder how many other people hear that sad music and do the same.
There’s also something a little patronizing about these emotional signals. It’s as if there is another person standing over me and saying, “Hey, dummy, this is the part where your eyes tear up.” I suppose there is some director out there right now telling the music person, “We need sadder music here. I want those kiddies throwing themselves on the floor as that bear crosses the road.” Of course, I can’t imagine what it’s like putting on your music resume that your song was used when the baby seal was eaten up by the big orca.
I guess my point is that we’re being musically coerced with emotion; we’re being told what to feel and when. I think the type of people who watch PBS’s Nature is a fairly intelligent set of people and do care about the environment; if they didn’t it would be a hunting show complete with twangy Hillbilly licks backing up the action. Musical editorializing is dangerous in that it forces us not to think but only feel what someone else wants us to feel. It’s turning rational people into overemotional goo. It says we don’t get to make our own decisions about how we view or feel about an issue.
I guess I’ll just have to ready with my finger on the mute button because Orangutan Island is on.