Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Bouncing ball o’ the ’90s

Don’t be fooled by imitations: The “subtitled” version of Snow’s “Informer” video now making the rounds on MTV is an inelegant, imprecise way to read along with the music. You’ll find a far better rendering in the closed-captioned version of the video.

Yes, that’s closed-captioning, as in for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. Though captioning music videos doesn’t directly lead to the increased sales that motivate the music industry, most major labels have captioned their videos for about the last four years (at about $300 apiece) as a gesture of inclusion. The trend began when the hard-of-hearing daughter of record producer Ed Stasium (Living Colour, Ramones, the Smithereens) complained about being shut out of her father’s work; a few phone calls later, Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality” broke the dam as the first captioned video to air as such on MTV. Upwards of 600 videos, comprising acts as diverse as Wilson Phillips and Nine Inch Nails, have had the treatment.

In captioned form, you miss nary a word of Snow’s faux-Jamaican patois; for copyright reasons song lyrics are never altered in closed-captioning. But the “subtitled” version, produced by the video’s director, George Seminara, commits the sin of cleaning up the rapper’s grammar – nearly eliminating, for example, Snow’s use of object pronouns as subjects (me for I, them for they). Lingo like that, reminiscent of Superman’s Bizarro doppelgänger, is part of the fun of “Informer,” and you don’t have to listen too closely to notice the poor match between the “subtitles” and the actual lyrics. (Snow’s manager, Steve Salem, says he didn’t even know the video was captioned in the first place, or he would have had the captions displayed for everyone to see.)

Presently you need a special $150 decoder to make captions visible, but starting this July, by [U.S.] law all new TVs with screens at least 13′ or larger will come equipped with decoder chips as standard equipment, meaning anyone will have access to captions at the push of a button. New caption-capable TVs will offer nicer fonts, more characters (like accents for French and Spanish), and plenty of colors. With over 20 million new TVs bought each year, captioning is poised for an explosion into hearing households just as it serves ever more deaf people.

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Captioned music videos → Bouncing ball o’ the ’90s (captioned music videos I)

First of three articles on captioned music videos (second, third)

Originally published 1993 | Updated here 2001.07.15, 2003.09.15

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