P.O.V. No.22 - On Documentary Film

Danish Top Politicians Underscored

Iben Have

On the 22nd of April 2003, the documentary about the Danish prime minister, Fogh bag facaden, was aired by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, DR 1. (Literally the title means "Fogh Behind the Façade," but the program's official English title is "The Road to Europe.") The following day the same channel showed another documentary Mogens og magten ("Mogens and Power") and thereby gave the same amount of audio-visibility to the opposition leader. Since then Danish public service television has broadcast at least another seven documentary portraits of top Danish politicians. [1] Four of them deal primarily with the general election campaign that preceded the parliamentary elections on February 8, 2005.

Portraying currently active top politicians is not new in Danish television documentaries but the intervals between the broadcasts of this type of documentary have decreased during the last few years, and I believe it makes sense to describe it as a documentary sub-genre; a sub-genre that arises alongside an increasing demand on politicians' visibility in the media and an increasing focus on the person behind the politician. The tendency toward the personalization of politics and an interest in backstage politics are reflected in a wide range of Danish media products today: (auto-)biographies and fiction, fiction films and homepages. [2] Together with politicians' media performances in talk- and game shows this tendency blurs the boundaries between private and public, between politics and entertainment, and between the political leader and the media celebrity (Corner & Pels 2003).

Style, personality, appearance and authenticity have become important qualities for a politician in a modern democracy in which citizens have become political consumers who no longer buy ideological party packages but vote for a person they find genuine and in whom they feel confidence. Journalistic documentary programmes in general have a great influence on the formation of public opinion, and portraying functioning top politicians in this serious normative, journalistic documentary genre in national television's primetime gives the programmes an important democratic role. No statistics show as yet how much these portraits influence the polls, but respected political commentators pointed to Fogh bag facaden, when explaining why the Liberal Party lost 8% of their (mostly women) voters in the year after the film was broadcast. The film portrayed Fogh as a strong chief negotiator but also as a cold-hearted, arrogant man with an extreme focus on precision and control.

Not only is the style of the mediated politician important for the recipient's impression, but also the way the presentation of the politician is orchestrated by the audiovisual style of the documentary. This essay will focus on one of the aesthetic style elements, the underscore music, in order to raise some questions about non-verbal political communication in modern democratic society.

The aestheticized and emotionalized politician
The documentary portraits of politicians illustrate and are themselves examples of the mutual dependency between politicians and journalists/media. Showing the backstage life of a celebrity is considered suitable material for television. On the other hand it is a unique opportunity for the politician to achieve visibility in the media for more than the usual few seconds in a news interview. And visibility in the media, personalization and aesthetification are a condition you cannot afford to deny as a politician today (Thompson 1995). This dilemma is a main theme in most of the portraits. The press release for Evas store udfordring ("Eva's Big Challenge") presents the production in this way under the headline "Politics and emotions":

Eva's Big Challenge is the story about the marked change happening in Danish politics during the last decades. Today ministers do not only have to be clever, visionary and powerful politicians with insight in a special area. The ministers of today must appeal to the hearts of the Danes with their whole life and life story. Politics is not just sold with arguments, it is also necessary to reach the voters' feelings. Therefore it is essential how politicians look, how they live their lives, how their families look, how they are together with their children, and it is of crucial importance that they are capable of communicating exactly the right message about themselves in the media. [] Television 2 follows the struggle of Eva Kjer Hansen to break through the media as a future top politician. [My translation from the Danish.]

And the press release for Lykketoft finale points to the same changes in political communication:

Lykketoft finale is a film about a political system in a period of rapid change. The presentation, the political slogan, has defeated the political argument. Mogens Lykketoft is trapped between his idealistic self-image and the press' portrayal of him as an elitist power-seeker. In this way the film unfolds the modern Danish election campaign as a media spectacle, where the form and the presentation are crucial. The political consensus is created from the ability to speak in headlines in front of the camera. Lykketoft finale is the exit of the idealist. [My translation from the Danish.]

Thus the programmes thematize how orchestrating the politicians' image in the media is a constant balancing act between the private and the public, emotion and reason, style and substance. But at the same time the documentaries themselves are media exposures of politicians in a genre that itself balances between each pair of concepts. A genre that builds on credibility, objectivity and impartiality, but also wants to reach under the skin of the recipients, and therefore uses a number of aesthetic devices for achieving an emotional involvement.

Music is one of those aesthetic devices that are usually said to be eminently capable of generating or reinforcing feelings and emotions in audio-visual media. How and why it does so is however seldom considered. This very same ability often gives rise to a critical attitude towards using music as an aesthetic device in serious documentaries. It is accused of being a means of manipulation, undermining the objectivity and authenticity that are so essential to the genre. But judgements of that kind are due to a very one-sided definition of the factual and documentary genre. Accentuating the impartial, objective presentation overlooks and ignores the fact that emotions, experiences and aesthetic appreciation play a central role with regard to experiencing reality. I believe the feeling of manipulation arises particularly because recipients are not familiar with how and what underscore music communicates. When we consider audio-visual media consumption, most people in the modern world are extremely able listeners, as far as decoding background music in films and television is concerned. However, we are rarely aware of this ability because it takes place at a pre-reflective level of consciousness.

I have earlier carried out a theoretical and analytical study to investigate and conceptualise some of the cognitive and emotional structures underlying our intuitive experience and appreciation of background music in an audio-visual narrative exposition (Have 2004). In the following I will briefly point to links between music and emotion and argue that music can add a kind of reality dimension to documentaries, representing some qualities of experience that cannot be communicated only visually and orally.

Different communicative levels in underscore music
Music develops in time as do film and television, and has a natural structuring function in the narrative progress making beginnings, endings, connections and special points. But the structural function can never stand alone. The expressive and communicative potentials of the music will always accompany it. Despite the non-representational, abstract nature of musical expressiveness, I believe it is possible to point to some inter-subjective structures in the perception of music - both cognitive and emotional - which derive from common bodily and cultural experience. I will argue that we fundamentally experience musical expressivity on the basis of our bodily, physical experience of movement, objects and intensity. It is these qualities that guide the metaphorical descriptions of music as heavy, light, grainy, smooth, suspense-filled or releasing, or descriptions of tones as high or deep, or scales as rising or declining, which again can relate to fundamental cultural values such as "up is good," "down is bad," "light is good," "dark is bad," etc. (cf. Lakoff & Johnson 1980). The metaphorical experience of musical structures has a direct relation to experience of the emotional structures - not categorical emotions as we usually understand them, such as fear, joy, love, hate, etc., but a continual, dynamic flow of feelings, which we experience as tensions and relaxations, as flowing, exploding, fading, bursting, dull, energetic, etc. The developmental psychologist Daniel N. Stern calls these feelings vitality affects (Stern 1985), and even though he developed the term in a totally different context when studying the non-verbal communication between mother and child, I will argue that it can be used to explain the intimate connection between music and emotions. We fundamentally experience musical structures as auditive vitality contours of movement, objects and intensity, which we intuitively transform to vitality affects - whether we register them as belonging to a person or a situation in a film or feel them ourselves, or both. When these structures function in combination with moving images and a narrative, more focused experiences of categorical emotions can arise, because this context enables us to understand the structures in relation to a person or a situation (cf. Langkjær 2000). Music alone cannot communicate Lykketoft's nervousness before he makes his speech (cf. the analysis below) but it can communicate nuances like tensions, trembling and the rawness of this feeling, and thus make the feeling more real and the experience more vital.

Underscore music can also generate culturally coded para-musical associations - coding that to a great extent is made and/or reinforced in the audio-visual media. For example when the finale movement of Beethoven's symphony No. 9 (now known as the EU hymn, "Ode an die Freude") associates to the EU, or as traditional classical music connotates high class and sophisticated culture; or when a bossa rhythm connotates South America, or a didgeridoo evokes Australia; or when specific jingles connotate the sitcom Friends, a weather report or a special shampoo from a commercial. We can also talk about a more indexical level of musical meaning when tones sound like rain falling or heartbeats; or about a more personal level when a particular tune reminds us of an old love affair.

So the way the music generates meaning is complex and dynamic and it becomes even more so in the audio-visual context where it interacts with other levels of meaning both in time and space. And just as the music works as a chameleon that changes colour according to where it is moving along, it also colours the context and makes a difference for the reception.

The Sound of Danish Top Politicians
I have listened to the underscore music - and whenever possible tried to identify it - in five documentaries from the Danish Broadcasting Corporation and TV2, which portray functioning Danish top-politicians. The diagram on p. 46 lists relevant data about the programmes and their music, and summarizes the analysis. Considering the length of this essay it will be a brief review and short analytical description of the musical communication at different levels. The following review of the five programmes will not be uniform, since it is a work in progress.

In Fogh bag facaden the music is pre-composed, symphonic classical-romantic music. The music plays in 20% of the programme and is heard 28 times in the form of four themes that were composed respectively by Beethoven, Rossini, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. The rising grandiose Beethoven Finale ("Ode an die Freude") with choir and full symphonic orchestra is only used at the beginning of the documentary, celebrating the official announcement of the enlargement of EU and the speech by Fogh Rasmussen. The documentary's most restrained theme is from Rossini's Stabat Mater; gloomy church music with a dark and muddy tone, generating suspense in the sequences of news montages from various European television channels. The Tchaikovsky theme, "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from the ballet The Nutcracker is played on a special instrument, a celeste, sounding like small bells or like children's mechanical musical boxes. The theme is only used once, when a restless Fogh Rasmussen is waiting for the national leaders of Italy and Finland outside the meeting room, impatiently keeping an eye on his watch. The music here emphasizes and reinforces the focus on mechanical time but also childish teasing. The last and most interesting theme is the one by Shostakovich. We never get behind the façade of the private person Fogh Rasmussen in this documentary, but only behind the façade of the political processes. Most of the time he is surrounded by many people, but the scenes where he is most alone and private, in Goffman's words most "backstage," (for example in his office or running in a park in Berlin) we hear the theme from Shostakovich's "Vals No. 2" from Jazz Suite No. 2. It is an ambiguous theme, at one and the same time communicating something sad, with the declining minor scales and dark brass instrument, and something comical and decadent, with the circus-like saxophone and the waltz rhythm. Together with a close-up on Fogh Rasmussen's face in a thoughtful moment, the theme could have generated a feeling of getting closer to the man, but the camera keeps a distance, and it is the comical aspects that become apparent, for example in the scene where the elevator does not arrive, or the one with the bodyguards exercising with Fogh in the park, and one of them can't keep up with the others. This music was also used as the main theme in Kubrick's film Eyes Wide Shut with Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise and associations from this film might influence the reception further.

Generally the music in Fogh bag facaden does not generate emotional intimacy but ironic distance, which corresponds to the general impression of Fogh Rasmussen in this documentary. The music helps us keep a distance to the Prime Minister. It does not take us under his skin but celebrates him from the outside. And as such the music is very different from other kinds of television documentary underscore.

In Mogens og magten the music is the exact opposite of Fogh's. It is simple electronic music played and composed by Jens Krøyer and improvised over anthems of the Social Democrats. The music fills about 25% of the programme and is heard 20 times. The melody is mostly played with a delicate flute sound, and the music thus seems a contrast to the story. Unlike the other four, this documentary is critical, leaving Mogens Lykketoft in a bad light. In the introductory scene, Lykketoft and his wife Jytte are interviewed about the necessary "brutality" and "cold-bloodedness" you must have when working as a politician, and about Lykketoft's hot temper. And the programme is introduced with the text "Welcome to the double regicide," which refers to Lykketoft being the head of two chairman battles in 1992 and now again in 2002. At the same time we hear this lonely powerless flute melody in a declining movement, which generates a counterbalance to the verbal level and signal from the beginning that the power of this politician is weak. As in the Beethoven example the music in this introduction has different levels of meaning. First and most obviously we hear a melody that we may recognize as "Danmark for folket" ("Denmark for the people"), which is an anthem of the Social Democrats and is therefore very easily connected with Lykketoft as a leader of that party. But the musical structures also communicate the more hidden level of meaning described above.

Lykketoft Finale also portrays Mogens Lykketoft, but leaves a very different impression of the man. The (probably original) music is composed by Søren Siegumfeldt and we hear five different themes, turning up a total of 12 times and filling about 20% of the programme. The most identifiable theme, which is used most frequently, is a relatively loud, slow, sad and simple melody for cello and viola in a minor key - a melody that hesitantly tries to move upwards in triads but after three attempts gives up. This theme occurs in the recurring sequences where Lykketoft prepares his farewell speech in his apartment, when his party lost the election in 2005. The structures of the music support the main message of the film: a lonely politician, who fights for the good cause but fails (cf. the quotation from the press release above). The music promotes a feeling of authenticity via the acoustic dark string sound, but not like the symphonic music in Fogh bag facaden. The music is delicate and fragile and the friction between the bow and the strings makes a trembling, rough sound. In the five portraits this is the one where the music takes us closest to the private person behind the politician, and might even be a source of the feeling of sympathy for the man.

In Evas store udfordring it has not been possible for me to trace the origin of the music and TV2 does not have the information. The music is heard about 35 times and fills 68% of the programme, and we hear three different themes, generally following the narrative themes and segments. We follow the young Minister of Social Affairs and Gender Equality and - also important to remember - the mother of three younger children. When Eva Kjer Hansen is with her family in her home in Southern Jutland we hear a laid back electric guitar, some underlying synthesizer sounds and a dominating drum beat. This music (with more or less drum dominance) represents the most typical music in Danish TV documentaries (Have 2004). In the scenes of her working life among colleagues and journalists at Christiansborg (the Danish parliament building), the music is usually aggressive hard rock accentuating the fast-paced and rough life of a top politician. The third space connects the two others and establishes a kind of meta-level in the documentary, during interviews made in the official car between Eva Kjer Hansen's home and Christiansborg on Election Day, the 8th of February 2005. These scenes are accompanied by single piano tones with plenty of space-effect together with deep drones, while Eva Kjer Hansen in close-up reflects upon her divided life, the demands of media visibility and why she agreed to make this programme. The diegetic sounds are toned down; light is misty and blue-tinted and promotes together with the music a space for emotional resonance and reflection about Eva Kjer Hansen's opinions. A very honest and authentic space is created - almost sacred.

In Ballets dronning we follow Pia Kjærsgaard, the leader of the controversial, right-wing but powerful Danish People's Party. She is accompanied by five motifs all from the track "Uberholen hat kein zweck" from the album Mafia by the Danish hybrid band EPO-555. The music is heard more than 20 times and fills almost 40% of the programme. The motifs have the same character even though they are different. A mix of "real" instruments and electronic effects and synthesizers gives the music a very modern sound in addition to the ambient, dreaming, meditativeness. It thereby has similarities with the "home theme" in Evas store udfordring and TV documentary music in general. It is characteristic that this kind of semantically open music does not generate para-musical associations but mostly communicates via the musical expressiveness and vitality affects. In this case it is a constant vibrating unrest and introverted loneliness, most of the time attached to Pia Kjærsgaard, but not in an empathetic way like the dark strings in Lykketoft finale. The electronic non-melodic sounds keep us at a certain distance to identifiable emotions. Like the celeste-theme's marking of Fogh's focus on time, a rising piano scale points three times to Pia Kjærsgaard's vanity, playing when she is doing her hair or make-up in moments of "backstage" acting. In a key scene all the party leaders are together with the press in a relaxed bar after a TV election debate, but all turn their back to Pia Kjærsgaard. The diegetic sound fades out, and a musical theme consisting of two motifs occupies the auditive space. Just after Lykketoft, Fogh and Bendtsen (leader of the Conservative People's Party) turn their backs to her, a happy, jumping flute-motif is replaced by a slow violin-motif reminiscent of the cello-theme from Lykketoft Finale. The vitality affects communicated by slowly playing strings are able to generate a sad, melancholy mood, and in this scene they are immediately attached to the emotional state of Pia Kjærsgaard in such a way that the viewer might very easily feel a moment of pity for her.

This brief sketch shows how differently the politicians are underscored, and how that can influence the reception of the respective programmes. But music is just one aesthetic device among such other factors as light, cutting, scenography, sound effects, voice-over, camera movement, etc., that all interact in reinforcing emotions and situations, generating sympathy, identification and intimacy, ironic distance and reflection. The music's communicative role changes dynamically in the narrative flow, and the reception depends on a number of subjective factors as well: the viewer's political conviction and preconceived attitudes towards the politician, the viewer's general state of mind, the physical situation, etc.

At a general level the music adds a further dimension of vitality and thereby creates a more realistic exposition. Often the auditive vitality affects are experienced in relation to the emotional states of the politician, and as such are experienced as deeply integrated in the narrative level. But the music can also be experienced as having a more distanced relation to the narrative, as a voice of the producer, making a comment (cf. most of the music in Fogh bag facaden). Finally the music can establish an auditive space of reflection and evaluation, both emotional and intellectual. That happens especially when there simultaneously is a pause at the verbal and visual level, and in transitions from one scene to another - a very common way of using music in TV documentaries (Have 2004).

Programme Portrait Underscore music
Fogh bag facaden(Fogh Behind the Facade)

Christoffer Guldbrandsen, DR 1, 22/4 2003
Heroic portrait of Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen (the Liberal Party) leading the negotiations for the enlargement of EU during three weeks in December 2002. Symphonic classical-romantic music
Beethoven, Symphony No. 9, Finale movement.
Shostakovich, Jazz-suite 2, "Vals No. 2".
Rossini, Stabat Mater.
Tchaikovsky, "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy", The Nutcracker.
Mogens og magten
(Mogens and the Power)

Poul Martinsen,
DR-dokumentar, 23/4 2003
A critical portrait of the leader of the Social Democrats, Mogens Lykketoft, following him during the change of party leadership in November 2002. Electronic flute and some jazzy improvisations.
Played and composed by Jens Krøyer over anthems of the Social Democrats.
Lykketoft finale

Christoffer Guldbrandsen,
DR 2, 22/5 2005
A sad portrait of the leader of the Social Democrats, Mogens Lykketoft during the last weeks of the election campaign, January 2005. Slow dark string music
Composed by Søren Siegumfeldt. Arrangement for cello and viola.
Evas store udfordring.
(Eva's Big Challenge)

Lars Høj,
TV 2 Reportage, 30/5 2005
A portrait of the young Minister for Social Affairs and for Gender Equality, Eva Kjer Hansen (the Liberal Party) showing a life divided between family and career, and following her from her ministerial appointment in August 2004 to the election in 2005. Lounge music, hard rock and dreamy piano
(Origin unknown).
Ballets Dronning
(The Queen of the Ball)

Helle Faber,
TV 2 dok., 30/1 2006
A heroic portrait of a powerful, self-willed and vain leader of the Danish Peoples' Party, Pia Kjærsgaard. The queen that no one will dance with. Following her for three weeks during the election campaign, January 2005. Modern electronic ambient music
EPO-555, "Uberholen hat kein zweck", from the album Mafia.
A mix between the rhythm-boxes of the 80's and dreamy shoegazer music.

Questions in a broader context
Even though the underscore music seems very harmless in the five portraits, these brief analytical observations are a part of the more general debate about the aesthetification and personalisation of politics and politicians in the media - and what consequences this may have for democracy. A debate about how far we as private citizens vote more for a private person than for his or her political ideology, and furthermore about the degree to which complex political problems are reduced to a question of personal and emotional confidence in an eloquent, well dressed and "well sounding" politician. This is something that gives rise to the worries of pessimists about the decline of the public and de-democratization. But from a more positive position you can argue that political emotionalization and aesthetification in the media have a potential for democratization in that they make politicians, political issues and processes more accessible to more citizens. And underscore music has a unique ability to promote emotional engagement, which from my point of view, is better than no engagement at all. But there are still some critical questions to be raised.

The feeling of sympathy and identification may not be very far from a feeling of confidence and trust, which is essential for representative democracy. And is it possible to disagree with a person for whom you feel empathy? When Lykketoft is making his speech in Lykketoft finale (a speech which has been accompanied by dark strings through the whole programme), can we as recipients avoid believing in him and thinking he is right? And when Eva Kjer Hansen in the car-sequences is surrounded by the pure space of dreamy music and blue light, does that not make her words sound more openhearted and her person appear more trustworthy - also when we hear her speak as a politician outside the documentary? Therefore it is important to reflect upon the means by which these portraits are orchestrated, and try to analyse what is communicated, also at a non-verbal and non-visual level.

Another related question concerns the degree to which aesthetics and emotions shape our confidence and trust in politicians. If you look at the portrayals in some of these documentaries, style and feelings often count more than argument. Lykketoft could not succeed via political arguments, because he denied the importance of form. And Eva Kjer Hansen might have become a minister because as a young mother from Southern Jutland she fits into the image the Prime Minister and his government are trying to rebuild after losing the many female voters in the aftermath of Fogh bag Facaden, and not because of her knowledge and stances. But we still need to know more about whether and how these aesthetic and emotional factors influence voters.

1 In addition to the five documentaries mentioned in this article (cf. the diagram on p. 46), other broadcasts of this kind include Mimis sidste valg ("Mimi's Last Election," Michael Noer, 2005), Exit Brixtofte (Guldbrandsen, 2002) and De første ("The First," Guld-brandsen, 2001).

2 Cf. the novels Kronprinsessen ("The Crown Princess," 2002, also made as a TV drama in 2006), Kongemordet ("The Murder of the King," 2005) by Hanne Vibeke Holst, the biography The Fabulous Four (Hans Mortensen, 2005), the movie Kongekabale ("King's Game," Nikolaj Arcel, 2004) and a number of autobiographies and personal homepages.


Bondebjerg, Ib. "Politics Backstage,"article in press, 2006.

Corner & Pels. Media and the Restyling of Politics. London 2003.

Have, Iben, Det musikalske underspil. En undersøgelse af underlægningsmusikkens betydning, belyst gennem den journalistiske tv-dokumentar. Ph.D. dissertation, Aarhus University 2004.

Johnson, Mark. The Body in the Mind. The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago 1987.

Lakoff & Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago 1980.

Langkjær, Birger. Den lyttende tilskuer. København 2000.

Stern, Daniel N. The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York 1985.

Stern, Daniel N. "Vitality Contours: The Temporal Contour of Feelings as a Basic Unit for Constructing the Infant's Social Experience." Rochat, Philippe (ed.). Early Social Cognition. London 1999.

Thompson, John B. The Media and Modernity. Cambridge 1995.

to the top of the page