Of mice and music: Image, soundtrack and historical possibility | Intellect Skip to content
Volume 6, Issue 1-2
  • ISSN: 1751-4193
  • E-ISSN: 1751-4207



Jazz and animation enjoyed an organic relationship in what was the developmental period for both forms. During the Jazz Age, from the 1920s to the early 1930s, jazz provided frequent animation soundtracks. For the most popular and enduring cartoon characters, it was their music of choice. Two forms with clear structural similarities of syncopation and rhythm temporarily merged. Together they created a timescape or representational space that critically challenged taken for granted relationships with the modern(ist) world. In an anti-realist attack on modernism, animated characters asked critical questions of their audience in a similar way to Brecht’s epic theatre. In an alliance with jazz, they unmasked hidden aspects of society and its technological marvels in a questioning, revealing and confrontational manner. The article takes a phenomenological ‘letterbox’ approach to the period. Three case studies of early animation and jazz, Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop, are employed to demonstrate a distinctive collaboration between the visual and sonic. The article argues that the comparatively marginalized position of two improvised forms allowed for the development of a critical artistic movement identified by the Frankfurt School. In particular, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno recognized that popular or ‘low art’ was not merely a reflection of economic life but constituted a conscious, active force for change. The subterranean and often subversive values of the animation–jazz alliance were quickly recuperated, but for a limited period offered a resistance that ran counter to established taste and the bourgeois appropriation of ‘high art’.


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