Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Voodoo in Popular Music: Linguistic Semantics’ Influence on Identity and Stereotype Formation

Voodoo in Popular Music: Linguistic Semantics’ Influence on Identity and Stereotype Formation

Kimberly Oliver

Voodoo is widely recognized in popular media culture, although the religion that voodoo caricaturizes, fewer have heard of – Vodou, which was brought to Louisiana from Haiti in the 1790s. Hollywood has been portraying this African diaspora religion in largely incorrect and pejorative terms since its first zombie movie in 1932. Media has a noted influence on identity and stereotype formation of self and others in contemporary U.S. culture. Media messages influence ideas of what is considered normal, or of value, as opposed to deviant, or eccentric, in dominant culture. As previous research has shown that “emerging adults” in the United States spend most of their media time on the internet and listening to music, it is important to understand the messages imparted through these particular types of media and the impact those messages can have on identity and stereotype formation. This paper attempts to analyze the linguistic semantics associated with Voodoo in contemporary music and the messages being communicated about its practice and adherents. Linguistic data, representing themes associated with Voodoo in pop culture, is examined from song lyrics with the word Voodoo in the title. The data is analyzed using Joel Sherzer’s idea of linguistic forms and the use of ordinary words in performative contexts of language to show their conveyed meaning in the discourse of popular music to those consuming the messages. The conclusion shows evidence of stereotyping which is false and usually pejorative and thus contributes to negative self and group identity formation.

April 6, 2015 - Posted by | abstract


  1. Quite a spectrum of associations available, from Cole Porter’s “do do that voodoo that you do so well”– where he’s going for the witty triple rhyme– to Mac Rebenack (aka Dr John, “the Night Tripper”) in his “gris-gris” voodoo high priest incarnation (“je suis le Grand Zombie”). I point this out because neither of these songs has “voodoo” in its title.
    Have fun with Jimi Hendrix! Pejorative? We should be so lucky.

    Comment by Dan Harrison | April 6, 2015 | Reply

  2. This is a very interesting topic. I would like to know more if the songs and song lyrics with the word “Voodoo” in the title all belong within the same genre of music, and what this says about the genre itself and its targeted listeners. I feel that future research could also be inclusive of this music and how it is used within television shows or movies. For example, American Horror Story had a season called “Coven” where the theme was voodoo and witches, of which Stevie Nicks and her music played a role.

    Comment by Liz Bonora | April 19, 2015 | Reply

  3. I’ve never thought of the remnant evidence of the centuries old fear of voodoo in terms of musical lyrics before. This is an interesting way of looking at the situation. Will you be covering the historical influences that caused the negative misimpressions or will you just be focusing on the expression in music?

    Comment by Madeleine Seidel | April 20, 2015 | Reply

  4. This topic is very interesting. I think it is very likely that a good number of the songs will contain elements of “stereotyping,” but it makes me wonder if any of the artists who write/sing these songs have any real connection to Voodoo or is it the continuous influences of the media like songs and movies. I look forward to reading it.

    Comment by Erika Carrillo | April 21, 2015 | Reply

  5. You have a good argument for claiming negative stereotypes are reinforced through music and the popular media. My own work has shown that social media in particular is rife with pejorative and negative perspectives that are usually not based in fact. I will enjoy seeing how you trace the evolution of vodou in North America through music.

    Comment by Laura Cunningham | April 21, 2015 | Reply

  6. Very cool study. Misrepresentation through media is infamously common. Personally, I do not know a lot about voodoo but your research study sounds very interesting and I find the abstract to be very informative. I think it would be interesting to know how music shapes ideas about voodoo. Also, I would be curious to know how would it compare with music from Haiti.

    Comment by Krist Bollano | April 21, 2015 | Reply

  7. The power that media has, specifically music in reinforcing negative stereotypes is widely seen in other cultures as well, as you may know, African American music culture gets a lot of attention for reinforcing negative stereotypes and images of black women. I see how your argument that negative stereotypes are reinforce through music and popular media is very much true because there are many examples of this.

    Comment by Theia | April 21, 2015 | Reply

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