Singing appliances & reproductive labor

Here are some initial, very first-drafty thoughts: 

I moved last summer, and was fortunate enough to be able to sell my old washer and dryer and get brand new ones; the new apartment came with a fancy, nearly new dishwasher. Unlike my older, very basic models, all three of these appliances have branded ringtone-like jingles to indicate the end of a wash/dry/wash-and-dry cycle. These new appliances upgrade what has traditionally been a more mechanical sound like a buzzer or a beep into a full musical statement–my LG appliances even have an antecedent and consequent phrase (which are music theory terms for a common two-part phrase structure where the second half logically follows from the first).

The phrase is in F major. The first two measures are in the dominant (C), which is what conventionally comes right before the tonic in a standard tonal logic–the dominant represents the step before harmonic (kinda the musical version of narrative) resolution and the tonic represents harmonic resolution. The second two measures then proceed to resolve in the tonic, on an F at the very end. So this is a full phrase with a beginning, middle, and end constructed in the most typical and standard Western musical language. In the norms of that language, this is happy, light, and playful (which is how LG describes the sounds their appliances make on their website). The LG website says that the LG washing machine “play[s] a melody of cheerful sounds.” The internet seems to think it’s based on the English folk tune “The Lincolnshire Poacher,” which was set for voice and piano by Benjamin Britten in the mid 20th century; there are similarities between Britten’s melody and LG’s, but they’re not identical…”loosely based on” is the more accurate attribution. This tune has a history as a work song, though work of a very different sort: it has been a marching song for various British and American military regiments.

Samsung’s washers play Schubert’s “Die Forelle”–a 19th c leid that’s nominally about the eponymous trout being caught by a fisherman; however, because Schubert took the lyrics from a poem by Christian Schubart that uses the fish tale as a metaphor for women getting caught in the snares of predatory men, it also, interestingly, alludes to some fairly traditional hetero/sexual politics. I’ve heard GE washers and dryers, and they play an entirely different melody that I’ll have to transcribe sometime later.

Washers, dryers, and dishwashers all do reproductive labor. These chirpy little jingles chime in to that reproductive labor, working to shape the way users (and the members of their households) feel about the appliances and their work. These jingles are doing affective and emotional labor upon us as we use these appliances to do our regular reproductive labor.

As this ad industry piece on sonic branding explains, “Samsung and LG want to associate a happier brand emotion with the onerous task of doing laundry by offering a “victory” song when the washing and drying is complete…What better way to say, “now that wasn’t so bad, was it?” than by playing light, slightly anonymous traditional tunes that would stick in your brain each time you finished your chores?” From this perspective, the cheery jingles are designed to manipulate users’ emotional perception of brands: laundry is a chore, but LG sure isn’t! This read fits with the way the companies talk about their use of music. For example, LG’s website has a page called “The Playful Sounds of LG Home Appliances.” All these appliances are designed as work-saving devices, so it’s interesting that the first substantive word (that’s not an article) in this title, which is also the word that describes what sorts of sounds these are, is “playful.” I was raised as a girl and have been living in my own place since I got out of college, and let me tell you, though I played my fair share of house as a kid, real housework like laundry, vacuuming, and doing the dishes never feels like play. So from the get go this webpage uses sound to try to reframe work–namely, the work done by electric appliances–as play.

This use of music to redescribe unpaid labor as something playful or enjoyable has a very uncomfortable history. As Fredrick Douglass explains,

Slaves are generally expected to sing as well as to work. A silent slave is not liked by masters or overseers. “Make a noise,” “make a noise,” and “bear a hand,” are the words usually addressed to the slaves when there is silence amongst them. This may account for the almost constant singing heard in the southern states.

Beginning in slavery, there is a long tradition of African-American work songs, many of which evolved into blues songs. Douglass’s point is that slaves were required to sing, both to make it easier to surveil them and as evidence of their docility. As this scene from Mel Brook’s movie Blazing Saddles shows, white people often misinterpreted these songs as evidence of fun and play, and themselves took them as opportunities to be playful. When my washing machine sings me a short song so that I feel it is being playful rather than burdened by doing unpaid work for me, it’s repeating this same gesture. These songs, then, rehearse a script with a seriously troubling, danmning, and unjust past.

And that’s not the only awful script it rehearses. In 1966 the Rolling Stones released a song called “Mother’s Little Helper,” which was about the drugs like meprobemate and diazapam that were commonly prescribed housewives to help them cope with the soul-crushing feeling of being both stuck with and underappreciated for all of the reproductive labor involved in the patriarchal nuclear family. (Of course there’s a Liz Phair cover of this song!) It’s hard not to hear the appliance jingles’ forced chipper-ness as a kind of sonic Valium designed to make us feel better when we do chores because we have positive associations with the brand of appliance we use to for them. LG’s website describes the appliances as sonifying domestic bliss: “Have you heard the sounds of a happy family in a happy home? Those very sounds can be heard from the home appliances as well.” You don’t have to be a gender studies Ph.D. to know that ideas of “happy family” and “happy home” do a lot of ideological work for patriarchal racial capitalism.

If you are a gender studies Ph.D. then you’re probably familiar with Sara Ahmed’s analysis of the way “happiness is used to justify oppression” (2). Briefly, happiness is a way of enforcing hegemonic norms and relations. For example, vernacular ideas about what happiness is “give us images of a certain kind of life” (90), namely, a life that conforms to white supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchal ideals. The “American Dream” of property ownership, financial success, and family is one such idea of happiness. As Ahmed puts it, “the demand for happiness is increasingly articulated as a demand to return to social ideals” (7). The expectation and duty not to make others unhappy also enforces hegemonic norms and relations: it we ought not disturb others happiness with our abnormalities. Recent calls for “civility” in engaging Nazis are an example of this expectation. In both cases, “attributions of happiness might be how social norms and ideals become affective, as if relative proximity to those norms and ideals creates happiness” (11). The feeling of happiness is both the reward and the right of those who best conform to hegemonic norms and ideals.

Happiness, as Ahmed points out, is also part of the reproductive labor patriarchy expects from women. “Happiness is not so much what the housewife has but what she does” (53). The labor of happiness isn’t just managing other people’s emotions; it’s also doing the other, more traditional reproductive labor like cleaning and cooking, so that people’s basic needs are met and they can be happy because they are able to spend their time pursuing things they find fulfilling. “It is women’s duty to keep happiness in house…Any deviation from gender roles defined in terms of women being trained to make men happy is a deviation from the happiness of all” (55). When our household appliances sing chipper little jingles to us, they’re doing this part of the housewife’s job–now that appliances sing to us, they are doing both the nitty-gritty labor of cleaning and the affective labor of managing our feelings. Re-coding the bad feelings we have about oppression into good feelings about brands, these jaunty melodies take on yet another dimension of reproductive labor we disproportionately shove off on women, especially women of color.