Next time you buy a television set, get ready for an added dimension to your viewing: Since July 1993, [U.S.] federal law has required every TV with a screen 13″ in diameter or larger to come equipped with chips to decode closed captions as standard equipment. “Big deal,” you say. “I’m not deaf, so why should I care?” Because now you can read TV instead of just watching it, fool. And what better place to start than music videos?
Yes, music videos. Like every other TV genre you can name – series, pay cable, commercials, newscasts, NBA games, whatever – each year hundreds of music videos are captioned, ostensibly for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers but now, with decoder-equipped TVs the norm, for with-it hearing people too. The floodgates opened for captioned videos back in ‘89, when the hard-of-hearing daughter of record producer Ed Stasium complained that she was being shut out of her daddy’s work. A few phone calls later, Stasium, then working on Living Colour’s Vivid, had convinced Columbia to send the video “Cult of Personality” to the New York office of the Caption Center, an arm of Boston PBS Überstation WGBH that’s known for its well-executed captions.
It took some sweet-talking for MTV, BET, and other broadcasters to remove technical roadblocks that interfered with broadcasting the caption codes (they’re transmitted on a line of the TV picture just above the visible area, and you need a decoder to turn them into onscreen words), but those problems have been ironed out and captioned videos are par for the course these days. Something like 600 or 700 videos have gotten the treatment. Most every new video from most every major label is captioned (cost is a piddling $280 to $400 per video), with the work done by the Caption Center or the rival National Captioning Institute (NCI). (Rap mega-indies like Tommy Boy and Def Jam remain conspicuously absent from the list. Get with the program, people.)
Tune into a captioned video and you’ll see every word rendered in text. This alone is a boon; with captions, you’d never be misled into thinking Jimi Hendrix was singing “‘scuse me while I kiss this guy.” Captioned lyrics are divvied up into chunks that appear more or less in conjunction with the syntax of the words, the rhythm of the song, and the cuts of the video. Synchronizing the three is often a judgement call, so if you see captions popping up at moments that seem “too early” or “too late,” cut the captioners some slack.
Indeed, pop music is tough to caption. If it’s not one thing, it’s another: Sometimes the song ain’t even in English but sounds like it is – for example, the Sugarcubes’ “Hit” contains some sentences mixing Icelandic and English that NCI mistakenly converted to nonsense English. Sometimes the simple onslaught of words gets in the way, as in rap and techno videos, which have a habit of bumping up against the speed limit of caption transmission (it’s sixty characters per second, if you must know); in that case you may see several blocks of captions at once. Sometimes captioners have to figure out a way to turn patois into comprehensible captions; you ain’t lived till you’ve read Snow singing “Informer, you no say that a me Snow I’m going blame/A licky boom boom down.” “In the case of real Jamaican-style stuff,” explains the Caption Center’s Jill Black, “we’ve actually had Jamaican people come in and listen to tapes and asked them, ‘What are they saying?’ Because to the untrained ear it’s sometimes a barrage of syllables.”
While captions add a textual dimension to anything, for some videos the fit is brilliant. Van Halen’s typographic video “Right Now,” despite its uninspired lyrics, is a fantasia of visual wordplay with concurrent captions, onscreen titles, and acting. Ditto for R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.” And white-on-black captions (the new built-in decoders allow more colours, use of which will be phased in over time) are a restrained counterpoint to the stained-glass Gilbert & George tribute in Inspiral Carpets’ “This is How it Feels.” But watch CC videos for a while and you’ll come up with your own faves. After all, captioning is a good way to boost literacy for hearing people with reading problems, and that’s all to the good. But it’s among highly literate hearing people with multi-track minds that captioning will really take off. To watch a video and hear the words and read them all at once is sublime.
Originally published 1994 | Updated here 2001.07.15