Whistle While You Werk: The Sounds of “Zola”

Pings, whistles, and the sound of limbo

If you put your lips together, even the worst whistlers among us can conjure the recent past. A little warble to pull you back half a decade ago, before Twitter phased out its little toot of a notification sound. On its own, the little sonic signal is cute, albeit flat, indicating interaction and engagement. But in Zola, the film directed by Janicza Bravo, co-written by Jeremy O. Harris, and based on the tweets by A’Ziah “Zola” King, a little whistle goes a long way.

The slight flute-like sound couldn’t not be in the film, restrains itself from saturating its aesthetic in digital user interfaces, allowing the audience to be grounded in the actions of its cast of characters: Zola (Taylour Paige), Stefani (Riley Keough), X (Colman Domingo), and Derek (Nicholas Braun). Part of Bravo’s original pitch to executives to ensure King’s inclusion, she told NPR, “It was also like a wink for A’Ziah.” Bravo continued, “When she’s watching that movie, I want to remind her that she’s why we’re here. So it is a nod and a bow to her and to her source material.”

And though the familiar, yet bygone trill does gesture at the film’s fidelity to the source text, the significance of Zola’s sounds extend beyond that; a tell-tale sign of a world becoming shaped irrevocably by social media, a platform that thrives on a paradox of thrill and flatness, a recognition of understanding, or even desire, a temptation to explore dangerous parts of yourself or others. In a way, the digital fife couldn’t possibly bear the weight of the sounds in Zola, much like the thread itself necessarily nearly burst with its melange of emotions, actions, feelings, and subtexts.

Zola often feels like a digital remix of the tale of Orpheus, the prodigious instrument playing replaced by her incredible stripping, Stefani cast as her toxic white Eurydice, with the hypnotic music turned to the symphony of whistles and pings sent between Zola and Stefani, the descent into Hell rewritten as… the joke writes itself. But the first time that the wall of skirls fills the speakers in the film is when Zola and Stefani meet each other’s gaze at the restaurant Zola works at in the beginning of the film. There is a cascade of little wheezes and warbles, each insinuated tweet sounding like a love letter, a coquettish wink, a meet cute that straddles the anonymity and ephemerality of The Shop Around the Corner and the tactility of When Harry Met Sally… They lock gazes again not long after, as they “vibe over [their] hoeism” in an employees only area: but it’s not the onscreen heart graphic that does the work of transforming the place, even the emotional context, of the interaction, it’s the sound. The lights flicker on and off until Zola and Stefani and staring at one another along a hall of mirrors, a void of looking and looking at someone looking. The familiar chirp is revised, music box-like, a bell tolling the crossing of a new threshold. The camera pans left and right to see the women’s gazes in the mirror, at times super imposing their bodies onto one another, like everyone can be anyone on the Internet.

But they can’t, can they? Like the journey into the Underworld, isn’t that assertion a little bit of a trap? The sound is the bait. And bait feels good. It’s a jolt, the sound. That trill is a spark.

Zola travels through an in-between space, one of a physical world that is continually altered by digital communication, spaces where expression is limitless but must also at some point reconcile with the material politics of the landscape outside of that world. By which I mean, the dings and whooshes that the two send to one another early in the film are ecstatic, a dynamic that vibrates with a courtship that blooms in a space unanchored by the pain of reality. Even though they’ve met in person, and despite the tactile nature of their magnetism together, it’s a relationship that may feel at its safest in the most amorphous settings. It’s like a parasocial relationship in person, one built upon a persona fleshed out by profiles, avatars, texts, and tweets that would be crushed by the spiky, maybe fatal aspects of a person.

There’s other sounds, too, like Stefani’s ringtone that sounds like an alarm more for Zola than for herself, and X’s ringtone which sings of acquiring money. There’s an ironic scroll sound during a montage of clients that Stefani sees in a hotel room. But nothing sticks out quite like the reminder that this is a story that vacillates between its artifice and its authenticity, that tweet and text sounds suggest both real communication and an unreal grasping of what is being communicated.

The Internet is Black and white, in the sense that much of it has been crucially influenced and shaped by modes and aesthetics of Blackness, and how white, and non-Black people of color, use (and profit) from those aesthetics. But the pitch of the Internet is its alleged meritocracy and its democratization, the illusion that the components of one’s identity can be washed away (an illusion that regularly breaks if you are, indeed, publicly belonging to any marginalized community). There’s a sense that part of the journey to the depths of the Internet in Zola is a yearning for this fantasy to remain intact, that Twitter or Tumblr or whatever would be expansive to contain the complicated, fraught desire between people who are both twinning — mirroring each other’s image, persona swapping, finding the parts of themselves that they most desire in the other and vice versa — but deeply aware of the impossibility of that kind of method of expressing or exploring (queer) desire.

Queerness in Zola heartbreakingly tiptoes towards the aspirational. As the trip that Zola goes on with Stefani, her pimp, and her boyfriend gets increasingly out of control, she still looks back towards Stefani, like trying to escort her from the Underworld. If queerness is indeed boundary breaking, a challenge and a riposte to the constrictions of heteronormativity, isn’t the Internet, some place like Twitter, where it should find its freedom? That’s the discrepancy here, all indicated by the sounds of a place Zola and Stefani cannot possibly be. Blackness and whiteness are tangled up with one another in the film, a temptation and a dare when they’re on the ground, figuring out who to be for each other and how. But the stain of whiteness is too great for even the Internet to erase its ills. Right before the end, Zola, once again, begs Stefani to leave, telling her she can take the money and run, a last ditch effort to find a way out of Hell. But she looked back, and now there’s no getting out. There’s a last whistle at the end of the film, the last indicator of an unreal real world that you can’t get out of. That Zola can’t get out of. It’s a little trill, but that little bird can’t possibly bear the weight of all that meaning on its tiny wings.

Snarkoleptic. Queer monster. Amateur critic. Professional snob. Writer person. I am relieved to know that I am not a golem. Words in Slate, GQ, the NYTimes, etc