“All the Evil Music Has:” Musical Representations of the Vamp in Interwar American Popular Media
Date of Degree
Kendra Preston Leonard
Vampires, American popular music, gender, race, remediation, Theda Bara
This dissertation explores the vamp as a symbol of sociosexual deviance in film and American popular music of the 1910s and ‘20s. Abbreviated from vampire, “vamp” came to be used as a term for sexually voracious and predatory women in the early 20th century. Following the unprecedented success of the 1915 film A Fool There Was, vamps then became a staple in American popular media. My project examines the process of remediation and cultural dissemination at the dawn of mass media via the vamp in music. Vamps were pervasive in cinematic accompaniment, vaudeville, jazz, and Tin Pan Alley which I survey as evidence of the reliance of old and new media upon one another for material in an increasingly commercial industry. My work also makes an intervention in discussions of gender and race in the 1910s and ‘20s, as the vamp was a specifically female and Othered figure who marked the era. Vamp songs, I argue, represented a nexus of ideas about race, gender, and class. Musically, they were tied to jazz and all its associations with Blackness and femininity, both vilified and celebrated, in American culture. How vamps were represented in media for middle-class (and ostensibly white) consumers indicates both a covert fascination with the transgressive, but also a backlash to gains made by women and people of color in the West.
In my exploration of the vamp’s remediation, I draw on a critical thought and scholarship from a range of fields including literature, music analysis, American history, and film, media, and gender studies. Remediating the vamp brought out various attributes in individual mediums, which I argue can be interpreted not as evidence of the vamp as a vapid tchotchke for sexual gratification, but rather a powerful symbol of alterity for women and minorities in interwar America.
Schulenburg, Martha, "“All the Evil Music Has:” Musical Representations of the Vamp in Interwar American Popular Media" (2023). CUNY Academic Works.