Originally published 1996 | Updated here 2001.07.15 & 2004.01.30
Text queens who also dig music videos have a way to combine those passions: Closed-captioned music videos. Yes, that’s “captioned” as in for deaf viewers, and no, you don’t have to be deaf to enjoy them. In fact, hearing viewers have something of an advantage: You can follow audio and textual tracks simultaneously, and if the video itself includes typography, the fun is that much greater.
Closed-captioning is a system of transmitting encoded captions along with a conventional TV picture. The caption codes reside on a line of the TV picture just above the visible area (it’s Line 21, Field 1, in case you’re curious). You need a decoder to turn the captions into visible words. Since July 1993, all TVs manufactured for sale in the U.S. with screens 13″ or larger have been required to carry decoder chips as standard equipment. (You can still buy old-style external caption decoders.) Those built-in decoders, along with some external models, meet fancy new technical standards and are capable of supercool typographic feats - various colours, blinking, animation, scrolling, and the like – using a single font that tends to vary by TV manufacturer and model. But by industry consensus, those advanced features aren’t scheduled to be fully phased-in until 2002.
What are we stuck with in the meantime? An embarrassment of riches, really: Captioned videos from nearly every major U.S. record label using an already-good-enough technology. The floodgates opened for captioned videos back in ’89, when the hard-of-hearing daughter of American 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 Records 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. Since then the Geffen empire and a few big-name rap indies have been about the only holdouts in captioning; most other labels caption most everything they produce.
The goal in captioning a video is to represent every word that’s sung or spoken therein. (Editing lyrics is verboten for copyright reasons.) But captions have to be transmitted before they can be displayed, and at a piddling two characters per second, sometimes the barrage of words will bump up against the speed limit of caption transmission. So you’ll occasionally see the lyrics of backup singers uncaptioned or only intermittently captioned, or (here’s the fun part) captioned in conjunction with the main singing – two threads of captions on the screen simultaneously.
It’s in cases like those that highly literate hearing captioning viewers can get the most from the experience. Imagine: You’re listening to the lyrics and the music and following the video itself and reading the captions as they are displayed more or less in time with the music. Despite what you may have been led to believe – hearing people have been conditioned for the last ten years to reject captions as “distracting,” which is why they’re closed in the first place – it is possible to follow all those stimuli at once without problems. It takes a bit of practice, but after a couple of weeks of watching all kinds of programming with captions on, you’ll be accustomed to the multimodal sensation of watching, listening, and reading.
Captions cannot shine shit. They cannot rehabilitate an uninteresting or slipshod song or video. Nor, conversely, can lousy captions add to a good or excellent video despite the captions’ lousiness. But for the broad middle range of OK videos with OK captions, the latter certainly does enhance the former for literate hearing viewers. And those rare gems known as typographic videos up the ante even more, since you can then follow the onscreen type, the action of the video (which may itself involve typography, as in signage), the captions, the music, and the lyrics.
Unfortunately, typographic videos are few and far between, and only a couple have been captioned – R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” and Van Halen’s “Right Now” are the prime examples of captioned typographic videos. The grandparent of them all, Talking Heads’s “Nothing but Flowers,” remains uncaptioned, as are R.E.M.’s “Fall on Me” and some lesser titles.
While captioned videos can be seen in the U.S. and Canada (though not very often there, since Canadian branch offices of U.S. labels are generally incapable of getting a captioned dub of a video into Canada), they’re a virtually-unknown concept in other countries. In the first place, not all industrialized nations have captioning systems; the systems that do exist are generally incompatible. Captioning is not as well-developed, popular, or culturally ingrained outside of North America as inside; for example, it’s been only within the last two years that U.K. advertisers have been captioning their TV commercials, while captioned commercials have been a major cash cow for U.S. and Canadian captioners since day zero.
If there aren’t captioned videos where you live even though a captioning technology is in place, push for change. A few powerful directors, artists, or record-label personnel might be all it takes to get the local industry in the habit of captioning videos. Sure, they’re of immense value to deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers, who after all have as much of a right to enjoy all aspects of popular culture as hearing people, but captioned videos are a source of artistic interest in themselves.