Music video commentaries (5) – Kanye West

Kanye West, Runaway (Kanye West, 2010)

Runaway pushes the boundaries of the music video, turning it into a 34-minute (including credits) short film. West conceived the story and directed the film; among his many collaborators is Hype Williams, who is credited with the screenplay. The film contains an extended version of West’s song Runaway, together with other songs from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), arguably his best album, and one that seems to be coming from a very dark place; the songs are filled with misery, fear, and self-reproach.
Runaway has a loose narrative. It concerns Kanye’s relationship with a magical woman with wings (the model Selita Ebanks). She seems like, perhaps, an angel; but she is identified in the film as a bird, and specifically as a phoenix (the mythological bird that renews its life periodically by bursting into flames and reanimating itself from the ashes). At the beginning of the film, she crashes to earth; Kanye, driving through the forest, finds her unconscious and takes her home in his arms. We see her at home; then Kanye takes her out, first to see a Carnival-like procession, then to an elaborate banquet. Towards the end, she tells him she needs to leave and go home; at the end of the film, she burns/renews herself and ascends; Kanye cannot stop her.
The story is told less through dialogue and physical action – both of which are reduced to a minimum – than through a series of tableaus, often accompanied by songs from the album. The beginning of the film shows us shots both of Kanye driving and of him running through the woods – the latter shots turn out to be flash-forwards to when Kanye futilely runs after the phoenix at the end of the film. During this opening portion, we hear a selection from Mozart (Lacrimosa, a passage about tears and lamentation from his Requiem Mass), and Nicki Minaj gives a voiceover (in a British accent, for some reason) about the perils of fame. We then see the phoenix in Kanye’s house, twitching on the couch, and watching a TV news broadcast about her crash. Kanye (shown in a separate shot) tells her never to trust the media. The phoenix seems both innocent and curious. Human things are a puzzle to her. She communes with animals connoting innocence (sheep, rabbit, deer) in Kanye’s enclosed inner courtyard; and she dances, as if discovering how to do so, as Kanye plays a song for her (Power, but without the vocals) on a sampler. The implications of all this part of the film are Edenic: the phoenix is innocent, awakening into a marvelous new world.
We next see the odd Carnivalesque procession, with a marching band, some dancers, and fireworks in the background. Kanye and the phoenix look on in wonder. The procession carries a huge carnival float of Michael Jackson. The music is Kanye’s song All of the Lights (we saw an entirely separate video for this song, directed by Hype Williams, earlier in the semester). But at the end of the procession, there are marchers in Ku Klux Klan hoods (more or less: the hoods are red, and resonate with medieval Catholic festivals, I think from Spain; but the relation to KKK hoods is unavoidable). This tableau moves us away from innocence, and towards a sense of the complexity (including racism and other evil) of the actual world. We also see the phoenix playing with a cup, as if she were figuring out for the very first time what it does, and how to use it. Despite her initial innocence, she is descending into the fallen world.
The centerpiece of the film is the elaborate banquet sequence. In an enormous hall, there is a long banquet table, with white chairs and a white tablecloth. All the guests are black people dressed in fancy white. Well back from the table stand the servers, all white people, also dressed entirely in white. Kanye enters, wearing white and purple, with the phoenix who is bedecked with jewelry etc (in the early sequences, she was close to naked). We see people gossiping at the appearance of the phoenix. Kanye’s song Devil in a New Dress plays on the soundtrack, with its talk of the opposed realities of Jesus and the Devil. One of the guests turns to Kanye and tells him, “Your girlfriend is really beautiful. Do you know she’s a bird?” Kanye awkwardly replies that he hadn’t noticed. The man continues, more or less mumbling so that he can barely be heard, “I mean, like, leave the monkey in the zoo.” The whole scene is disturbing, all the more so in that the guests mostly mask their scorn behind smiles and whispers.
This leads into the song “Runaway” itself. Kanye starts by playing the piano, then a whole crew of ballerinas, dressed in black leotards and tutus, and mostly white people (I thought I saw one Asian among them) do a ballet interpretation of the song, while Kanye stands on top of the piano and sings/raps (i.e.lip syncs). The song is extended with an instrumental coda during which we see a solo dance by one of the ballerinas. I am not sure what to make of the choreography here. But the song itself is lacerating and self-lacerating, with Kanye talking about his own inadequcies in relationships, and also offering a “toast to the douchebags… the assholes… the scumbags… the jerkoffs.” (The diners all join him in this toast).
After this lengthy musical number, we return to the awkwardness of the formal dinner. Servers put the main dishes on the table; they deposit an elaborately prepared turkey in front of Kanye and the phoenix. She starts screaming – a bird reacting to the murder of another bird – and the guests all leave. This is accompanied by Kanye’s song Hell of a Life (though, according to Wikipedia, there is also a version of the film where this song is replaced by Monster. Both songs are filled with horror).
The phoenix screams continue while we cut to a shot of the explosion/fire from the beginning (or the end?) of the film. Another Kanye song then comes up on the soundtrack — Blame Game, with a lyrical piano, and half-sung lyrics about a couple arguing and blaming one another — while the phoenix sits again in the Edenic inner garden with the peaceful animals, while (in a separate shot) Kanye stares at her from inside the house, through a floor to ceiling window. This cuts to a shot of clouds gathering, as the song dies away.
Next, we see Kanye and the phoenix, in silhouette with the clouds and the redness of (presumably) the sunset behind them, sitting on the edge of the roof of Kanye’s house. She tells him — this is the only time she speaks in the entire film — that she hates the way the world she has found herself in detests and destroys anything new; she says that statues (and presumably works of art more generally) are the remains of phoenixes that were frozen into stone, and not allowed to consume and regenerate themselves. (As she says this, the camera moves slowly around the ballerinas from the banquet scene, themselves frozen into immobility). Another song from the album begins to play: Lost in the World, which opens as a soft ballad before it builds to a more rocking climax with love lyrics. This song plays in full, for the rest of the film. As it continues playing, we get very stylized shots of the phoenix moving back and forth, lit with a reddish sunset glow, as she apparently makes love with Kanye. These shots fade in and out, and they are replaced by another shot of the explosion, only this time in slow motion. The song continues as we cut to daytime, and Kanye wakes up on the roof alone. He sees that she is missing, and runs into the forest where he met her originally. Here we have the same running scenes that we also saw at the very beginning of the movie. But he is too late; the shots of him running are intercut with shots of the fiery explosion; the phoenix has been reborn, and rises through the flames. The next time, we see her flying above the treetops, and rising ever higher into the sky. The song continues as we cut to the credits, and segues into the album’s final track, Who Will Survive in America (which is built around a sample of from Gil Scott-Heron (one of the precursors of hip hop, whose poetry-with-jazz-accompaniment, and militant lyrics, made a powerful impression in the 1970s).
What does it all mean? Kanye West takes substantial portions of his album, and re-situates them in a new narrative that is conveyed mostly by visual means. You would never be able to derive this story by just listening to the album; but the album’s sounds and words are powerfully expressive in their new context. The story doesn’t come from the songs’ lyrics, but it does come out of, and powerfully uses, all the songs’ emotions. If music videos in general are, on the deepest level, about the resonances (both emotional and cognitive) between sounds and images, then Kanye West has put together these resonances in an astonishingly powerful and original new way. His story of loving and losing the phoenix, being inspired by her, but also misunderstanding her, and suffering from how she is misunderstood by others, is a powerful (and fairly clear) allegory of the creative process (and admittedly, it still partakes of the sexist tradition, going back at least to ancient Greece, where the man is the creator, and the woman can only be his inspiration or muse); but the way the story interacts with, and is inflected by, the musical set pieces, gives it a power and depth that are unique.

Kanye West, Love Lockdown (Simon Henwood, 2008)

This is a beautifully stylized video for a song from 808 and Heartbreak, Kanye West’s most depressive album, made after a big breakup and the death of his mother. The album is so named due to its emotional themes, on the one hand, and its prominent use of synthesizers such as the Roland TR-808 drum machine, on the other. The 808 has been heavily used in dance music to create reverberating low-bass, wobbling percussive sounds that cannot be mistaken for the more flexible beats of a human drummer. As for West’s singing voice, it is spookily altered by the heavy use of Auto-Tune. This software was originally invented in order to correct errors by singers who failed to hit the proper pitch. But hip hop producers quickly discovered that you could get strange and resonant effects by messing with the settings. It could make singers and rappers sound robotic, or science-fictionally alien. Here West uses it to make his voice reverberate, so that he sounds alienated from himself: this both expresses his depression, and puts us at an odd distance from it. We both share his feeling, and yet realize that such a feeling puts him at so extreme a remove — with such a sense of loneliness — that he cannot reach us, and we cannot feel his pain enough to truly empathize with him.

The video works to accentuate this mood of alienation and distance. Kayne remains far away from us, because in his grief he is already distant from himself. The video is shot in extreme widescreen, and mostly in white. Kanye wears a white shirt and jacket, and off-white pants. His apartment is also nearly all white — both furniture and walls — in an elegantly minimalist way. This washed-out white seems to convey a sense of blankness and loss (rather than racial whiteness). First we see Kanye sitting on the couch, and then moving slowly to the window; he looks out through the white slats. Later we see him leaning back against the kitchen sink in his elegant kitchen. Still later, we see him crouching, nearly motionless, in a corner. And at the end of the video, he is back on the couch, curled up on his side, almost in fetal position. All the while, the camera observes him from a distance: from behind, or from the ceiling, and then pans away from him, and over the apartment towards the window. It pans slowly away from him, across an empty white wall. This is where the other figures in the video come in. They are dancers, warriors, and musicians, all dressed in ceremonial African garb. They were presumably shot against a green screen, but they are composited in so that they appear against the white walls. The crowd of dancers increases in size every time we return to them during the video. There are also individual dancers, shot from a closer camera, who pose or move slowly in time with the rhythm of the song. Their appearance is less bleached-out than that of Kanye’s apartment, but the color palette remains subdued – until two female dancers enter the video, entirely covered in body paint: bright blue, against which reddish abstract patterns stand out. Their vibrant brighness is startling in the context of the rest of the video. (There are also some brief shots of an object that I cannot identify, but part of which is bright red – it has been suggested that this is a spaceship, and that the whole video, with its white-on-white, is an homage to the final sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001). The video resonates strongly with the way the music is a sad ballad amplified by its rhythmic reverberations. The dancers, and especially the two women in blue seem to open the prospect of a new vitality. But the video leaves us in Kanye’s mostly empty apartment; though he is huddled in fetal position, we don’t get to see anything like a cosmic metamorphosis and rebirth (such as happens at the very end of 2001). Maybe the video, with its African references, points toward such a rebirth — but we are left still waiting for its accomplishment.

Kanye West, Monster (Jake Nava, 2011)

Monster is a song from Kanye West’s album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (MBDTF), but he released a video for it that stands entirely separate from the Runaway long-form video (or short film). The director is Jake Nava, who also directed a number of videos for Beyoncé, as well as (subsequently) Shades of Cool and High on the Beach for Lana Del Rey. The video was controversial, denounced for misogyny and banned for a time from MTV and YouTube. The song is a noisy, growling banger. Besides Kanye’s own verses, there are guest raps from Rick Ross, Jay-Z, and Nicki Minaj. The song takes a long-time hip hop tradition — boasting that ‘I’m the best’, and dissing the competition (other rappers) — and heightens it by systematically including horror movie references and metaphors. Hence the repeated chorus, “Everybody knows I’m a motherfucking monster.” The line evidently refers both to Kanye’s rapping prowess, and to his own self-lacerating self-investigation (a them throughout MBDTF). The video is dark and murky; it is saturated with images alluding to famous horror movies. For instance, we see zombies outside the window (as in Night of the Living Dead), mutilated, hanged, and decapitated women’s bodies (as in the early 2000s Saw franchise), as well as mad-scientist and vampire stereotypes that could have come from many sources. The tortured and murdered women, of course, are what sparked charges of misogyny against the video. And these charges obviously have considerable validity. Except that Nicki Minaj’s bravura performance, both of the song and in the video, changes everything. Monster is structured like an old-fashioned rap battle: Rick Ross, Kanye, Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj are all in a contest to see who can top whom, and who is the baddest rapper of them all. Most listeners have considered Minaj to be the victor; and this is true visually as well as sonically. Minaj appears in the video as both the vampire/torturer AND as her female victim. Minaj is known for adopting multiple personas in her raps; here, as the vampire she is “Roman Zolanski” (an aggressively unhinged, sometimes male and sometimes female alter ego, here dressed in black latex, with outrageously high heels, with fangs, and brandishing a sword), and as the victim, with the pink wig and wearing a wedding dress, she is “Harajuku Barbie” (the softly feminine alter ego; the name, of course, refers both to the well-known doll with its exaggerated feminine features, and to the fashion district of Tokyo). These personas exaggerate cliches about gender identity, and blast them into hyperspace. As Minaj’s vocal and visual performance switches back and forth between the two personas, it is hard to tell whether Roman is going to bite Barbie with vampire fangs, decapitate her, or have sex with her.

Kanye West, Fade (Eli Linnetz, 2018)

The song seems to be about the waning of a love affair (“I can feel it fade…”). It is composed around an incredibly funky bass line, together with brief vocal fragments, mostly from 1970s bands. The song is razor-sharp and filled with discontinuities, as various fragments either fade in and out with lots of reverb, or start and stop unexpectedly. The music video is dance-oriented, rather than striving to represent the lyrics in any manner. The dancer is Teyana Taylor, a singer signed to West’s record label. Her dancing, choreographed by Jae Blaze, Derek Watkins and Guapo, is extremely visceral. She dances amidst gym equipment, and a lot of her moves seem like bits and pieces from exercise routines. The movie Flashdance (1983) is an obvious reference point. But the director Eli Linnetz (interviewed here) mentions other reference points, and says in particular that he also “pulled a lot of references from ’70s and ’80s porn… That was less about the imagery and more about the texture of the skin, the oiliness.” And indeed, as we watch the video, Teyana Taylor’s skin is lovingly illuminated (something that usually only happens in the movies with white women). We also see her sweat. This accentuates the physicality of her dance performance. She is really butch, and she really commands the screen: this is in sharp contrast to the usual portrayals of sexy female backup dancers in hip hop videos, and indeed to the general ways women are objectified in Hollywood films. At the end of the video, we see the aftermath of the work-out: Taylor is nude in the shower, in some shots by herself, and in other shots sensually entwined with her real-life husband, the basketball player Iman Shumpert. Then the enigmatic final shot shows Taylor with a (prosthetic) feline (lion) face, alongside Shumpert, and with their baby (eight months old at the time), amidst a flock of sheep. This shot has been much commented but never explained; your guess is as good as mine.

Kanye West, Famous (Eli Linnetz, 2018)

I won’t say much about this video aside from noting how it is really a conceptual art piece. The song is just about three minutes long, while the video runs for almost 11 minutes. The song is notorious because of West’s line about Taylor Swift, referring to the altercation when he disrupted her award presentation at the Grammys: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/ Why? I made that bitch famous.” There’s a recording of a phone call West made to Swift, in which he supposedly got her permission to use these lines (but he didn’t tell her he was going to call her a “bitch’). The video created its own semi-scandal with its portrait of a huge bed in which West and his wife Kim Kardashian are sleeping, alongside Taylor Swift, West’s ex Amber Rose, Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Rihanna, and Chris Brown, among others. These visuals were a take-off on a 2008 painting called “The Sleepers,” by New York artist Vincent Desiderio. The most interesting thing I have read about the video is Desiderio’s own account of being summoned to meet Kanye and see the video prior to its public release, which you can read here. There is also an informative interview with Desiderio here. In short, Desiderio loved how West had sampled and remixed his art.

Music video commentaries (4) – Rihanna

Here are the latest notes for my music videos class.

Rihanna has done so much that I can only give a small selection of her videos here. Earlier in the semester, we have already watched Pour It Up (Rihanna, 2013), Sledgehammer (Floria Sigismondi, 2016), two versions of Stay (Sophie Muller, 2013), and two versions of David Guetta, f. Rihanna, “Who’s That Chick? (Jonas Akerlund, 2011).

Umbrella (Chris Applebaum, 2007). Rihanna already had two albums and half a dozen music videos under her belt before this single from her third album. But Umbrella was her first mega-hit, the song and video that established her as a major artist. It is in order to introduce her to a wider audience that Jay-Z presents her at the beginning of the video. I think that the video closely follows the logic of introducing Rihanna, as well as adhering to the structure of the song. I will explain this by giving a more detailed formal account than I usually do. We get a series of images of Rihanna, each one presented in multiple edits before we move on to the rest. The video starts with Rihanna seated in profile and wearing a large hat, with backlighting and smoke effects; this image alternates with that of Jay-Z and backing dancers on a stage, in front of digitally sylized streaks of rain. We cut to Rihanna whenever her “eh…eh” punctuates Jay-Z’s rap. When the first verse of song proper begins, we switch to close medium shots of Rihanna wearing all black (latex?) and dancing, which quickly rack in and out of focus. When the song reaches the chorus, Rihanna is seen in an all-white outfit; full body shots of her dancing alternate with closeups of her face, while the screen is awash with digital effects of water washing over her image. In the second half of the chorus (when she famously sings “umbrella-ella-ella-eh-eh-eh) the digital effects continue, together with a return to quick movements in-and-out-of-focus, and face closeups alternating with full-body shots; but Rihanna is now dressed in black, with her dance including en-pointe ballet steps, and with her holding an umbrella and using it as a sort of dance partner (unavoidably recalling Gene Kelley in Singin’ in the Rain). At the next verse of the song, Rihanna is now seen indoors, dancing in a space backed by wood panels and chandeliers; she still holds the umbrella, but she now wears a tight dress with buttons across the front and fishnet stockings. This setting and costume continue into the first half of the chorus. But when we get to the “ella-ella-etc” second half of the chorus, we are introduced to an extraordinary new series of images: Rihanna nude, and her body entirely covered with silver paint (this is the most famous series of images in the video). She is no longer dancing, but instead gives us a series of near-poses (she moves her arms, or her head, but not her entire body): she is crouched like a runner waiting to start a race, or her upper torso and face are doubled, facing each other across the screen, or her body is framed by a large triangle. These flash by quickly, almost in black-and-white, and sometimes with alternating negatives. The next part of the song is the bridge, and for this section, we have closeups of Rihanna’s face as she looks directly into the camera; again, the editing is rapid, Rihanna facing right and left in alternating shots. Then we come to the final chorus, and the video pulls out all the stops: now we see Rihanna for the first time with backup dancers. She is wearing black pants, and a black vest with a silver-white tie, and once again holding the umbrella and using it as a prop. During this section with the backup dancers, the screen is once more awash in digital effects: white streaks in back of the dancers that provide a stylized image of rain, and splashes on the soundstage floor, which seems to be covered in an inch or so of water. During the outro, as the song fades out, we see more shots of Rihanna in front of the stylized digital rain; in some shots she seems to be ascending into the air while everything is blurry; in other shots, she is on the stage, and beckoning to the camera/audience, wearing white partial gloves. — If you are interested in thinking about this video in greater detail, and especially in questions of how it portrays race and gender, see Robin James’ article “Robo-Diva”, accessible with your Wayne State ID here: https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/doi/full/10.1111/j.1533-1598.2008.00171.x

Disturbia (Anthony Mandler,2008) This is one of sixteen music videos that Anthony Mandler directed for Rihanna between 2007 and 2012. (Mandler has an extensive videography for other major artists as well). I wrote about this video at great length in my book, so I will only summarize briefly here. The video takes place in what looks like a Victorian insane asylum, with all the brutal images (archaic torture devices and jail cells) that such a location implies. (In the past, students have compared this look to that of the video game “Silent Hill,” which is set in a similar location). Rihanna appears both as the apparent director of the asylum, and as some of the patients. Most of the video is dark and murky, aside from the highlights on Rihanna’s face. This fits well with the lyrics of the song, which speak of sexual jealousy and torment that the singer cannot escape from, as well as the music, with a brutally insistent beat. The one exception to this overall look is in the first half of the chorus, when the vocals also soar: we see a group of dancers holding up Rihanna’s body, as if it were a human sacrifice, into bright orange light streaming from above and behind. The rest of the time, the images of Rihanna’s various iterations are disrupted by various densly layered superimpositions: streaks of light (simulating scratches on film stock), flames, multiple images, and so on. There are also a number of horrifically memorable weird images: Rihanna held by chains, on all fours, and snarling; Rihanna with her lower arms apparently burrowed into the wall itself, while spiders crawl over her upper arms. All in all, the video gives us an astonishing nightmare vision.

Rehab (Anthony Mandler, 2008) This is another video directed by Anthony Mandler; the song is composed and produced by Timbaland (best known for his work with Missy Elliott and with Justin Timberlake), and contains vocals by Timberlake as well as by Rihanna. The lyrics concern a relationship gone bad; the singer compares her ex-lover to a drug she was addicted to, which is why she has to go into rehab to get over it. The video consists largely of Rihanna and Timberlake in sultry poses. It is set in the desert. We see Rihanna walking in slow motion and then (clad in green bikini top and shorts) leaning against a red convertible. Timberlake rides towards her on a motorcycle; he arrives just as the music proper begins, gets off the motorcycle and takes off his helmet. He is clad entirely in black, including a leather jacket over a tank top. Also in slow motion, he moves over to an outdoor shower, rinses himself off, then approaches Rihanna. Nothing really happens in the video; Rihanna appears in different costumes, and Timberlake is seen both with and without the leather jacket. Quite unusually for mainstream music videos, Timberlake is objectified by the camera as a sexual object at least as much as Rihanna is. The two of them stalk around one another, and at times embrace one another, but they both move glacially, often keeping poses for longer than would be ‘natural’. Rihanna and Justin both exhibit a smoldering sexual passion that never quite ignites. The video is incredibly striking visually; color shots alternates with black-and-white one. The colors are highly saturated at some points, and diffuse at others; in both these registers, they are pushed almost to the point of abstraction. The black and white image is generally clear, but often slowed down. The color image is continually disrupted, or at least nuanced, by lens flare and other sorts of vibrant reflections in the preternaturally clear desert air. There is a greenish tint to the sunlight, a purplish glow inside Rihanna’s trailer, and an evanscent reddish gleam illuminating the performers’ faces in outdoor nighttime scenes. This video is one of my favorites, because of the way that everything feels suspended, as if it were on the verge of some climax (sexual or narrative, or both) that never quite arrives.

Rude Boy (Melina Matsoukas, 2011) Melina Matsoukas has directed videos for both Rihanna and Beyoncé (most notably Formation); most recently, she was the director of the great 2019 film Queen and Slim. The song is upbeat and filled with Jamaican and other West Indian beats and inflections (reflecting Rihanna’s roots in Barbados). The lyrics are filled with sexual swagger and innuendo; Rihanna taking control of the sexual action, and tauntingly asking her man, “can you get it up?… are you big enough?” The video, unlike anything else of Rihanna’s that we have seen, is aggressively graphical. Cut-out images of Rihanna dancing, and/or playing percussion, and/or riding a motorcycle or a variety of stuffed animals (all this presumably shot in front of a green screen) are juxtaposed with other graphic elements, including bright, zigzagged colors, a backdrop representing a giant boombox or a sound system’s enormous speakers, and words scrawled graffiti-style across the screen. Most of the time, Rihanna appears alone, but sometimes her image is accompanied by those of male models. Often Rihanna’s image is split or multiplied into identical or mirror-image figures, sometimes of different sizes, sometimes of different colors, sometimes of different degrees of transparency. And often these multiple Rihanna images are jerked quickly back and forth like an animated GIF (or like the visual equivalent of turntable scratching). There are also detached closeups of Rihanna’s lips, at one point multiplying and graphically stylized in the manner of an Andy Warhol painting. During the song’s bridge, Rihanna is dressed in a black-and-white bodysuit filled with the sorts of semi-abstract swirls we find in Keith Haring’s paintings; the background is also a Haring-esque design; and Rihanna is seated on a stuffed zebra, with its black-and-white stripes resonating with the Haring swirls. The return of the final chorus also returns us to the vibrant, colorful graphics of the earlier portions of the video. All in all, the rhythms of both song and video are unyieldingly hard; but also exuberant, energetic, and excessive.

S&M (Melina Matsoukas, 2011) Another pushing-the-boundaries video directed by Melina Matsoukas. Rihanna mostly appears as a dominatrix, with various outfits and hairstyles. (Though there is also a sequence near the end where she is seen bound up). The lyrics reference sex directly, but in the visuals Rihanna’s s&m relationship is mostly with the press. One central repeating image in the video shows her in front of a room, wrapped in plastic, while the reporters interviewing her all have gags in their mouths. (Though there is also a sequence with Rihanna walking a man like a dog). The music is upbeat electro, and the actions depicted in the video come off more as comedic excess than as a serious exploration of the dynamics of BDSM. And let’s not forget the shots in which Rihanna simulates oral sex with a banana and with strawberries. Alll in all, Rihanna is challenging taboos — but playfully, rather than with anguish and tragic intensity. It’s her way of saying, in effect, ‘I can do whatever the fuck I want, and have fun doing it too.’ This is an empowering statement for a black woman — though it might not be for the likes of, say, Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, or Brett Kavanaugh. The whole point of the video, it seems to me, is that powerful white men get away with stuff all the time, whereas minorities (like black women) get held to a very different standard. Here is a good article, written shortly after the video’s initial release, about the hypocrisy and double standard that were revealed by the controversy over the video,

We Found Love (Melina Matsoukas, 2012) Another video by Melina Matsoukas. The song was written and produced by Calvin Harris; it is based around one insanely catchy short riff (accompanying the line “we found love in a hopeless place”) repeated over and over again. (Calvin Harris appears briefly in the video, DJing at a rave, at approximately 2:06 and 2:10). There are two stretches in the song where we hear an accelerating soar — the rhythm pounded out more and more insistently, with synthesized sounds repeated at an ever-higher and higher pitch — followed by an abrupt drop (1:45-2:00, and 3:37-3:52). These soars are common in 21st century EDM (electronic dance music); they are one of Calvin Harris’ specialties, and he rarely does them better than he does here. A soar like this suggests mounting sexual excitement, culminating in a moment of orgasmic release. Note how the video’s editing follows the music by becoming more and more frenetic during these two stretches of the song: the shot lengths become shorter and shorter, and also much less linear. Quick shots of Rihanna and her boyfriend (played by the mixed-race model and boxer Dudley O’Shaughnessy) having sex (in the first sequence) or arguing (in the second sequence) are interspersed with shots of fireworks, of drugs (pills floating through the air; the lit tip of a joint in extreme closeup), of crowds in big cities moving at accelerated speeds, of the pupil of an eye dilating (again in extreme closeup; dilated pupils are often taken as a sign of drug use, though they can have other causes), and (in the second sequence) of a nuclear explosion.
Aside from this, the video gives us an entire mini-narrative. Though some critics have compared the videos to various movies about obsessive sexual relationships and substance abuse, what is striking to me is how the story is told without making use of narrative film conventions. Instead, Matsoukas uses radical montage, built up over the insistently repetitive nature of the song. Before the song proper begins, we get slow piano music and a voiceover (by the British actress Agyness Deyn) that foreshadows the entire video, with its reflections on love and loss, and on how good and bad moments in an intense relationship seem inextricable from one another: when it’s over, “you almost wish that you could have all that bad stuff back, so that you could have the good.” There is a montage that includes shots of council housing (UK housing developments for poor people) alongside shots from scenes that we will see in more detail later; but the shot lengths are much longer than they will be in the video proper (they match the slowness of the piano music and the spoken narration at this point).
At 0:45, a shot of lighting and sound of thunder signal the beginning of the song proper. This shot is quickly cut with one in which the strobe of the lightning is superimposed over Rihanna standing against the wall in a bedroom; then we cut quickly to a video game screen. Through the rest of the video, we see the relationship between Rihanna and her boyfriend in fragments. The earlier parts of the video show them deeply focused on one another, first playfully and then more intensely sexually; these shots are increasingly interspersed with representations of drug use (e.g., lighting up multiple joints at once, blowing pot smoke into one anothers’ throats, closeups of a pill bottle being opened and of the pills themselves) and of other illicit acts (e.g. shoplifting). In the later parts of the video, these sorts of shots are increasingly accompanied or replaced by ones of the couple arguing or even fighting, of them sulking at one another, of them in separate shots, both pouting or looking angry, in order to emphasize their separation. These are also accompanied by quick shots of police lights, of a building imploding, and of surreal images, like the one of Rihanna puking up streamers (4:03-4:04). There are also shots where Rihanna singing is superimposed upon background images of clouds or fire (the important thing here being that Rihanna is not in the background locations, but the separateness and semi-transparency of the two shots is emphasized – a similar thing was done in Mandler’s video for Disturbia, discussed above). The work of telling the story is done through montage, without necessarily having linear relations from shot to shot. Instead, the frequencies of the various sorts of shots change in the course of the video. The last sequence of the video is the closest we get to linearity, as Rihanna enters their apartment, sees the boyfriend passed out on the floor, and gathers her stuff; he wakes up and grabs her leg in an effort to get her to stay, but she hits him with her bag and leaves. Even this sequence, though, is cut with blurry shots of light strobing over Rihanna’s face, and with several closer shots of Rihanna singing (evidently not in the same location as where the action is taking place. Finally, the music ends. We get one final shot — held for about five seconds and then fading — of Rihanna sitting scrunched up in a corner of her room, head in her hands, facing the wall.
There are still a lot of things in the video I have not mentioned — a complete shot breakdown would be much longer — but I hope I have said enough to show how the music-video-montage style of narrating really works (many videos do similar things, but Matsoukas does it with particular skill and emotional force), and how different it is from other kinds of cinematic storytelling. The music video works because of how it modulates emotional ups and downs so powerfully through audiovisual means. Rihanna and Matsoukas convey a vision that is at once deeply romantic and ecstatic, and yet also utterly desolate.

Bitch Better Have My Money (Rihanna & Megaforce, 2015) This is an amazing and weird song and video. The video, with its extreme violence, was certainly intended to provoke controversy and outrage, and it succeeded (see, for example the horrified review here. But what such critics didn’t get was how Rihanna is playing with, and messing with, quite familiar movie tropes: above all, the genre of revenge fantasy. (Think of most of Quentin Tarantino’s films, for instance). Rihanna links this tradition to the frequent hip hop theme of demanding to get paid (for some earlier examples, mostly involving male rappers, see here.) This also relates back to the financial self-sufficiency theme in Rihanna’s video for Pour It Up, which we discussed (at looked at some readings about) earlier in the semester.
Of course, as always with music videos, we need to consider the music and other sound alongside the lyrics. The video is seven minutes long, much longer than the audio of the song by itself. At the beginning and the end, we hear nature noises accompanying the shot (only fully revealed at the end) of Rihanna lying in the case filled with money. There are also diegetic sounds as Rihanna drives through the night with the trunk. There is also elevator music playing (with sarcastic implications) while the accountant’s wife (played by Rachel Roberts), white and affluent, finishes getting ready to go out. The song itself has a harsh rhythm, and repeated lyrics (the title of the song) over some really bizarre sounds: what Robin James aptly describes as a “woozy carousel synth loop.” During the time the song is playing, we see the kidnapping of the accountant’s wife; although some of these scenes are sadistic in content, they have a comedic edge to them. As Rihanna and her associates move and manipulate the kidnap victim — for instance making her appear to wave when a cop walks by — I was reminded several times of the 1989 grotesque comedy film Weekend at Bernie’s. The shots of extreme luxury (as when they are on the yacht), and the shots of drinking liquor from the bottle and smoking from a bong, also recall many (usually male-dominated) hip hop videos, even as here they are being enjoyed by Rihanna and her all-woman gang of kidnappers. Though Rihanna messes with the kidnapped wife, the latter part of the video, and of the song, deals instead with her violent revenge against the accountant himself (played by Mads Mikkelsen, a Danish actor probably best known in the US for his role as Hannibal Lecter in the TV series Hannibal). An onscreen note identifies this character, rather than his wife, as the “bitch” the song refers to (while we see this, the catch-phrase of the song is phase-shifted so it sounds like a deep masculine voice). He is helpless, bound in an easy chair, while Rihanna takes her time looking over her various tools of torture. All in all, Rihanna is taking images from revenge fantasy movies and macho hip hop videos, and reclaiming them for her all-woman crew over the nightmare-dementia of the song.
There’s a lot more to say about this video, but I will stop here. For a more complex and more complete take on the video than I am able to offer, see the discussion by the philosopher and music theorist Robin James; part one of her discussion here – the page also contains links to the other two parts.

Calvin Harris f. Rihanna, This is What You Came For (Emil Nava, 2016) This, like We Found Love, is a collaboration between Rihanna and Calvin Harris, but this time Harris gets the main credit, with Rihanna as the featured artist. The song is an exuberant club dance number. (Fun fact: the song was actually written by Harris in collaboration with Taylor Swift). The video is directed by Emil Nava, who has done over a dozen videos for Harris, together with work for other well-known artists. The video opens with a glitchy video test signal, and then it gives us several distant views of an enormous cube, standing in various wilderness settings, but also at one point seemingly on a soundstage, surrounded by strobing spotlights. For most of the video, we see Rihanna singing and dancing either inside the cube, or just in front of it. All five walls of the cube (aside from the open, sixth side where the camera is located), behind, above, and wrapping around Rihanna, are video screens depicting everything from the wilderness outside to crowds at a rave, to different abstract colors. The colors may remind us of Director X’s video for Drake’s Hotline Bling (2015). But that video’s cube was sleek and minimal, restricted to glowing in various pure colors. In contrast, This is What You Came For expresses a go-for-broke maximalism; even when there are only colors on the wall, they contain mixed and varying hues. At times, it is hard to determine whether the images are projected on the walls of the cube, or whether the cube is just transparent, showing us what lies outside it. (There are also some shots of a car under the strobe lights; it does not seem to be inside the cube). On the other hand, though Rihanna seems to be dancing and walking inside the cube, more physical than whatever might be projected on the walls, her image also occasionally glitches, reminding us that it is a video construction as well. Overall, the video blurs the line between what is ‘really’ there and what is just a computer-generated imagery. The song seems to celebrate the technological possibilities of continual transformation.
A close reading of the video by Brad Osborn, including a careful breakdown of its visual and musical parameters, can be downloaded here.

Music video commentaries (3)

Here are some more music video commentaries from my class, focusing on Lady Gaga (treated rather sketchily, I’m afraid) and Lana Del Rey (about whom I think I did a somewhat better job).

Lady Gaga, Paparazzi (Jonas Åkerlund, 2009); Telephone (Jonas Åkerlund, 2010); Alejandro (Steven Klein, 2010); Born This Way (Nick Knight, 2011)

I find it hard to write about these videos, just because Lady Gaga is so familiar, and has been so frequently talked about already. Earlier in the semester we saw her new video Stupid Love (Daniel Askill, 2020), and for comparison we looked at her (now) classic Bad Romance (Francis Lawrence, 2009). The four videos listed here date from around the same time as Bad Romance; this period (2009-2011) is arguably Lady Gaga’s peak (though all her work is interesting). Paparazzi and its sequel Telephone are directed by the Swedish director Jonas Åkerlund, who has made many videos for many well-known artists, as well as concert documentaries and some low-budget action and crime thrillers. (I really like his 2002 movie Spun (a crime/comedy about meth addiction, starring Jason Schwartzman). With your Wayne State credentials, you can read an interview with Åkerlund, which has some interesting insights on his approach to directing music videos, here.

The directors of the other two videos are both primarily fashion photographers; it is not surprising that Lady Gaga, with her interest in high fashion, would recruit them to make videos. Steven Klein, in particular, has worked a lot with Madonna, who is clearly one of Lady Gaga’s biggest influences.

All four of these videos are wonderfully excessive: I mean this in terms of length, of ambition, and of their presentation of Gaga’s persona. They all showcase Lady Gaga in so extreme a way that their songs (taking up only half of the action time) almost seem incidental. It is almost as if Lady Gaga is trying to invent a whole new art form, neither music video nor movie but something in between.

Gaga’s costumes are outrageously over the top; she displays herself in ridiculous erotic tableaus; her attitudes are highly campy and yet ferocious. Paparazzi parodies the conventions of old Hollywood melodrama, with its luxurious mansion and its lurid scenario of Gaga’s boyfriend throwing her over the balcony, her return in wheelchair and crutches (which somehow only manages to make her overall look even more perverse), and her revenge by poisoning him. The sequel, Telephone, instead parodies low-budget exploitation films, with its women-in-prison scenario, Gaga’s sashying about as if she owned the place, the fake beaver shot (a scrambled flash of Gaga’s crotch), the crime spree with Beyoncé in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pussy Wagon” (from the Kill Bill movies), and — once again — the revenge poisoning of an unfaithful boyfried. (Beyoncé’s guest appearance in Gaga’s song and video coincides with Gaga’s appearance in Beyoncé’s Video Phone, which we watched earlier in the semester).

Alejandro takes the stylization even further. The video is filled with queer iconography, but it also has a quasi-military theme, with a lot of men in formation marching. It is definitely referencing Cabaret, the Broadway musical that Bob Fosse made into a film in 1972; but the black-and-white portions, and some of the costumes, also remind me of a less well-known film, Guy Maddin’s Archangel (1990), with its absurdist, hyper-melodramatic evocation of World War I (see this image, for instance). The machine guns coming out of Gaga’s breasts are memorable. We also have suggestions of s&m (as in the scenes where Gaga is humping a man chained to the bed) and — in a manner that recalls Madonna, but pushes things still further — Catholic blasphemy (the red nun’s outfit Gaga wears – not only is it pretty sexualized, but there is the scene where Gaga swallows a rosary, which was protested by some Catholic groups).

Born This Way presents us with a whole cosmic mythology as the carrier for Gaga’s pro-LGBTQ+ message. I won’t try to analyze the symbolism in this video, or its borrowings from surrealist art – there is a good rundown on all these matters here. But at the same time that it has a political message, the video also glorifies Lady Gaga herself, making her bigger than life. Arguably, the goal of most music videos is to give the artist iconic presence – Gaga can say that she has pushed this further than ever before.

Lana Del Rey, Video Games (Lana Del Rey, 2011); Born to Die (Yoanne Lemoine, 2011); National Anthem (Anthony Mandler, 2012; Summertime Sadness ((Kyne Newman & Spencer Susser, 2012); Shades of Cool (Jake Nava, 2014); High By the Beach (Jake Nava, 2015); Doin’ Time (Rich Lee, 2019)

Lana Del Rey has been exploring a consistent aesthetic for over a decade; and once again, we have an artist whose videos contribute as much to her expression as does the music in itself. Del Rey’s songs tend to be downbeat and melancholy, filled with feelings of loss and nostalgia, and idealized images of lost glamour. This can be quite complicated, for what does it mean to be nostalgic for a time that you never experienced in the first place? Del Rey, who was born in 1985, often fills her songs and videos with references to the 1950s, and to the old Hollywood that collapsed after that decade. She seems to be obsessed with images of femininity from the 1950s, which is to say from before the second wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s. It is a mythical 1950s: not the same as what anybody who was alive at that time ever actually lived through, but an era as it presented itself in movies and rock music. This mythical 1950s was a time when women were placed on a pedestal but had very little real power, and were pretty much expected to be passive, to have no career ambitions, to be objectified as sex objects. It is unclear how to interpret this; it is somehow wrong either to say that it is “sincere” or to say that it is “ironic.” Del Rey seems to be valuing a status of unfulfilled desire; she wants to be glamorous and beautiful, and she wants to be loved by the sort of male icon (bad boys on motorcycles in 1950s movies) who are desirable precisely because they are unattainable, seemingly so self-contained that they never manifest vulnerability or need.

Lana Del Rey’s earlier videos were self-directed, and self-posted on YouTube before she had a record contract. Video Games was the first one to get widespread notice. It combines shots of Del Rey singing the song with lots of old footage (or footage which is made grainy to appear old – for instance, there is lots of skateboarding footage, but skateboarding didn’t really become popular until the 1970s; of course, video games themselves didn’t exist in the 1950s). We see movie stars, Los Angeles streets, stars on the Hollywood Boulevard pavement, the Hollywood sign itself, and so on. The song expresses romantic longing, while the video feels like a collage of broken-down fragments. Del Rey seems to be yearning for a past that never actually existed, but that is a construction of popular culture.

Born to Die is much higher-budget, and was the first video Del Rey made with record company support and a professional director. We see shots of Del Rey and her bare-chested, heavily tattooed boyfriend (played by the model Bradley Soileau) – another image of male strength and inaccessibility. We see them cuddling in front of an enormous American flag at the start and end of the video. In between, we see them making out in a car, lying on a bed, and finally with a dead and bloodied Del Rey being held in the boyfriend’s arms, at night, while fires rage in the background. No particular time is suggested, but the vintage automobile suggests (once again) the 1950s. These scenes are intercut with shots of Del Rey lip syncing as she sits on a throne, in a white gown, with a crown-like headdress, in an ornate, old European chapel, with tigers to either side of her. Romantic longing is linked to stasis and death.

National Anthem is eight minutes long, so (like some of the Lady Gaga videos we discussed before), it goes beyond being just the presentation of a single song, but is considerably more ambitious). Del Rey had the original concept for the video, and wrote the treatment. The final video is directed by Anthony Mandler, who has also directed videos for Rihanna and other major stars. Everything in the video is keyed to the Presidency of John F Kennedy (elected 1960, assassinated 1963). Del Rey first appears as the actress and sex symbol Marilyn Monroe, re-enacting a famous performance from 1962, in which Monroe sang “Happy Birthday” to JFK (Monroe and Kennedy were rumored to have had an affair). This sequence is shot in black and white, reminiscent of TV footage from the time. The rest of the video is shot in color, but with a graininess, simulated scratches, and aspect ratio that are all reminiscent of old low-quality, 8mm film. Here Del Rey appears in the role of JFK’s wife Jacqueline Kennedy (later Onassis). She was famous for bringing glamour to the White House. We see her in various domestic and official sequences; the end of the video mimics the famous Zapruder film (the only existing photographic record of JKF’s actual assassination – we see Kennedy’s head explode from the bullet, and Jackie both reaching to cradle his head and then climbing in panic over the back of the car). So in this respect, through her identification with both Monroe and Jackie Kennedy, the video is another one of Del Rey’s evocations of lost, tragic glamour. Whatever the truth behind the Kennedy assassination, the event quickly became mythologized as the moment that the United States lost its innocence, or the facade of normalcy that dominated the 1950s, and descended into chaos and violence. What complicates all this, of course, is that the role of the smooth, sexy, charming, and charismatic JFK is played by the rapper ASAP Rocky. The video dates from the Obama administration, but it imagines a Black Presidency fifty years before. The myth of the JFK administration as a happier time is pushed even further with the counterfactual dream that racism was already overcome in that period (in fact, Kennedy’s presidency coincided with the struggles of the early Civil Rights movement; the Civil Rights Act, banning racial segregation, was not passed until after his death in 1964, and the Supreme Court did not rule against anti-miscegenation laws until 1967). All this suggests that the magical past Del Rey yearns for in the song not only is long gone, but didn’t really exist in the first place. While the lyrics of the song bitterly tell us that “money is the anthem of success” and in fact rules everything, the video turns to national mythology in its effort to imagine a better time, while also acknowledging that this better time has never really existed.

Summertime Sadness is another downbeat, melancholy song. We see shots of Del Rey and another woman (played by Jamie King, whose husband Kyle Newman co-directed the video) who seem to be a couple. There are repeated quick shots of both of them smiling at times, together and apart; but they both look sad for most of the video. The time sequence of the video is entirely non-linear, but at different points both women seem to commit suicide, throwing themselves, separately, into the abyss. There is one shot of a Jesus-crucifixion statue, and afterwards we see Del Rey jumping with her arms outstretched in the same pose. We also see repeated shots of Del Rey floating downwards in slow motion after jumping, but we do not see any bodies hitting the ground -instead, some sort of manufactured object falls and shatters on the floor at about 3:48. The video goes even further than Del Rey’s earlier ones in making the image unclear: it is often blurry, softly focused or out of focus, discolored, disrupted by lens flare, scratched as if age-damaged, and so on. We also see repeated images of clouds and fog. Most videos seem to unfold in a heightened present moment – even if the song invokes memories, and the visuals involve flashbacks, the present-time intensity of what whe hear and see makes us feel like the song/video is NOW. But Summertime Sadness — quite unusually — really feels like it is happening in the past tense: the visual blur and instability, the nonlinear timeline, and the depressive, minor-key feel of the song, all come together to create this impression.

In Shades of Cool, Del Rey’s desire is focused upon an unattainable male figure. She loves him for his “cool”, but this attitude is what makes him emotionally unavailable. In the song’s lyrics, Del Rey both boasts that “when he calls, he calls for me and not for you,” and confesses that “I can’t break through your world,” can’t finally reach him. In the video, this male object of desire (played by Mark Mahoney, a famed tattoo artist) is much older than Del Rey, and seems to look past her with his blank stare, even when they are together. Where he stands out clearly for most of the video, Del Rey is usually shot in superimposition with other images, often dark and blurry ones. There are also the swimming pool scenes: here we see Del Rey’s image clearly, but he doesn’t seem even to see her when she swims past behind the glass; he is encased in a blue glow — and there are some shots with him in front of the glass window showing an underwater part of the swimming pool, but she doesn’t appear at all. (There is an alternate “director’s cut” of the video in which Del Rey drowns at the bottom of the swimming pool, but it has been suppressed – there’s an article about it here, but the link to the video itself no longer works. As with so many of Del Rey’s songs and videos, Shades of Cool seems to depict a desire that is incapable of being satisfied. I wrote about this video at greater length in my book.

High By the Beach stands out for its unexpected juxtapositions. The lyrics dramatize a kiss-off to an ex: she’s tired of his demands and his bullshit, and “all I wanna do is get high by the beach.” But the video turns the song into Del Rey’s equivalent of Lady Gaga’s complaint about intrusive paparazzi. Del Rey wanders idly through a modernist vacation house below a freeway and right by the water; but her dreamy solitude is disrupted by a hovering helicoptor, with a photographer within. She runs — followed by a handheld camera — along a passageway, down the stairs, and out to the rocks by the water, from where she retrieves a guitar case; she runs back upstairs, opens up the case, retrieves a large anti-aircraft gun (??? I know nothing about firearms, but people have told me that this is an entirely fictional weapon, rather than an identifiable model) and shoots the helicopter, which bursts into flames. This is a fantasy wish fulfillment, in contrast to the unachievable desires of so many of the other songs and videos. At 4:30, close to the end of the video, after all the debris from the helicopter have scattered, we see a piece of paper on the rocks which contains, handwritten, the final lines of the song (which Del Rey raps rather than sings, almost indiscernibly because her voice is drowned by the instrumentation): “Anyone can start again/ Not through love, but through revenge/ Through the fire, we’re born again/ Peace by vengeance, brings the end.” But the waves come in, and when they retreat again, the paper has been washed away.

Doin’ Time is Lana Del Rey’s cover of a 1996 song by the band Sublime. This song itself incorporates the melody and lyrics of George Gershwin’s old standard Summertime (1934). The video portrays Del Rey as a gigantic woman, walking across Los Angeles to the beach (presumably referencing the 1958 low-budget science fiction film Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman). But this itself turns out to be a movie playing at a drive-in in the 1950s. Del Rey appears here too; when her boyfriend starts making out with another girl, the gigantic Del Rey steps out of the movie frame and into the drive-in to wreak revenge. The playful self-referentiality of this video allows Del Rey to embody a more upbeat song, while still registering her most common themes (1950s stylings, jealousy and unfulfillment, etc.).

Music video commentaries (2)

Here are some more music video commentaries, shared with my online class.

Kylie Minogue, All the Lovers (Joseph Kahn, 2010)

I have written about this video in my book Digital Music Videos. The video is inspired by the work of the artist Spencer Tunick, who recruits large numbers of people to assemble nude as living statues in prominent public places; he records the results as photographs or videos. Here we have a Tunick-like assemblage of people who form an enormous pyramid; they come together as a group rather than standing out as individuals. But the scene is sexualized in an un-Tunick-like way. The participants are not entirely nude, but they strip down to their underware and make out with one another in all sorts of gender combinations. In contrast to the anonymous togetherness of all the other participants, Kylie Minogue is the only person separated out as a distinct individual. She appears on the top of the pyramid, held up by all the others, but separate from all of them, as a kind of love goddess. This is a comment on her charisma as a pop superstar. Minogue said that the video “paid homage to her gay audience who helped propel her initial success.” Visually, the video is dominated by the color white: the clothes of the participants, the doves (birds that were sacred to the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite), the horse, the balloons, the elephant float. In Anglo-American culture, white is often taken to denote purity and chastity (as well as having racial connotations). But here it is turned into a symbol of sexual desire, shared by people of all races and all genders. The video is a utopian vision of happiness: through the pop magic of Kylie Minogue, everything is subsumed in an erotic glow.

Boogie, N**** Needs (Gina Gammell and Riley Keough, 2016)

Boogie is a rapper from Compton, California, a contemporary of Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples. Gina Gammell is a producer, and Riley Keough an actress; they run a production company together, and have directed several music videos. The song is heartfelt and semi-autobiographical; Boogie talks about sex and drugs and poverty, but also about his hope to build a better life for himself and his child. The song ends with the recording of a voice message from a woman (his mother?) reminding him that “I’m thinking about you and I love you.” The video is low-budget and fairly minimal, but quite striking. It is set in an art gallery, with its traditional white walls. Boogie first appears alone in the gallery, and pulls himself up onto a pedestal. His t-shirt is soaked with blood, and he pulls it up to reveal a bullet wound. A second instance of Boogie stands on another pedestal, with a black eye and holding a sleeping child in his arms. Both Boogies stand nearly motionless on their pedestals, as if they were statues. They are surrounded by evidently well-to-do white people, evidently visitors to the art gallery. who walk slowly about them or stand contemplating them. When we see the whole gallery like this, both Boogie-statues are much smaller than life-size. Shots of the whole gallery alternate with shots in which one or the other iteration of Boogie raps (lip synchs) looking directly at the camera; but this direct contact with the viewer is accompanied by the heads of gallery spectators, whose larger size is thus again emphasized. The video is organized by the contrast between the humanity and subjectivity of the rapper, and the way that the spectacle of his pain is turned into an art object for the enjoyment of white patrons. African American theorists like Saidiya Hartman and Fred Moten have written about how, in American culture from slavery times to the present, the spectacle of black suffering has become a commodified spectacle from which white audiences derive enjoyment, even as they are ostensibly empathizing with the black victims. I have no idea if Boogie himself is familiar with this work, but he is nonetheless making much the same point in his video. As we watch the video, we are put into the same position as the art gallery spectators, even though Boogie is addressing us directly. Is there a way for us to respond to him? or are we just in the position of contemplating his pain from a distance?
It is worth noting that the rapper Vince Staples has made two music videos that offer similar themes: Senorita, (Ian Pons Jewell, 2015), which ends with the violent events of the video being observed by a middle-class white family ensconced safely behind a wall of glass, and FUN! (Calmatic, 2018), which shows events in Staples’ neighborhood as being watched by a white teenage boy through an app much like Google Earth.
The idea of the musician as a statue is also taken up (though in a very different way) in the music video for St. Vincent’s Cheerleader (Hiro Murai, 2012).

Sophie, Faceshopping (Sophie and Aaron Chan, 2018)

Sophie is an electronic musician and DJ, a trans woman from the UK. Faceshopping, like much of her work, calls attention to the artificiality and flexibility of our notions of identity (gender identity, in the first place, but other forms of identity as well). The song, a collaboration with Canadian musician Cecile Believe, is aggressively dissonant, with heavy rhythms and (except in the bridge section) nearly no melody. The spoken refrain of the song creates multiple meanings through wordplay: “My face is the front of shop/ My face is the real shop front/ My shop is the face I front/ I’m real when I shop my face.” The front is the surface of an object that is shown to the world, but ‘fronting’ as a slang expression means putting on a false appearance. Shopping is consumer activity, but it is also short for ‘photoshopping’, using computer software to change appearances. Sophie is continually changing her appearance, both (perhaps?) through plastic surgery, and (in the video) through software image transformations. What’s most “real” about her is this very artificiality. Physical attributes, as well as surface visual ones and social ones, are malleable, rather than being pre-given once and for all. The video is low-budget, but high-tech. It is really just a lyric video (pictorially presenting the lyrics of the song, in a series of still images and transformations), but an uncommonly complex one. The image of a face is violently distorted in the course of the video, and the lyrics are conveyed in different fonts, often to ironic effect (note that the word “real” is written in the same font as one of the most famous commericial images, the Coca-Cola logo). With its harsh rhythms, rapid image changes, and extreme transformations, this song and video tell us, in a powerfully visceral way, that (to quote the novelist Philip Pullman), “nothing is natural any more and nothing is artificial. It’s a false dichotomy, and we should forget about it.” At the same time, though, we live in a consumer society where everything is for sale, so Sophie’s changing identity is also a product for sale, or a brand. To my mind, it is this combination of heartful expression (of Sophie’s trans experience) and extreme cynicism (about the way everything is turned into a brand for sale) — two things that normally do not go together — is what makes the song and video so powerful. A recent article about this video, by the music video scholar Mathias Bonde Korsgaard, is available through the Wayne State Library; after logging in with your Wayne State ID, you can find it here: https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/docview/2363210712.

Taylor Swift, Blank Space (Joseph Kahn, 2014)

This is the first of eight music videos that Joseph Kahn directed for Taylor Swift; they are all good, but this remains my favorite. The song is an ironic response to criticism Swift received on the Internet for her reputation of dumping boyfriends almost as quickly as she acqured them. The video depicts an ironic cycle, as Swift first swoons over her boyfriend, then gets angry at him and kicks him out, only for another, nearly identical one to be waiting in the wings. What makes the video so effective, I think, are its over-the-top, surrealistic touches. There’s the extreme luxury of Swift’s mansion: unbelievably sumptuous, with way too much space, and filled not only with expensive furniture and works of art, but also animals including (wtf?) a deer. There are lots of romantic cliches, including horseback riding, a picnic in the grass, carving their names and a heart into a tree, and Swift painting a portrait of her beau. Then there is Swift’s revenge, when her boy spends too much time gazing at his mobile phone (which she drops into the water with a faux-innocent “oops” face). There’s a big knife, and a golf club with which Swift attacks the man’s car. Also she defaces the portrait she had painted, and even tries to rub out the writing on the tree trunk. And then there’s that apple which she offers him: we see her biting into it, but he’s the one who tries to spit it out of his mouth as if he had been poisoned. And also my favorite single detail in the whole video: Swift stabs her big knife into a (birthday?) cake, and it oozes blood.

Anohni, Drone Bomb Me (Nabil Elderkin, 2016)

The singer Anohni is a trans woman, born in the UK, but grew up mostly in the US. Nabil Elderkin is a widely accomplished video director (earlier in the semester, we saw his video for FKA twigs’ Two Weeks). The song is a protest against the drone bombing campaigns directed by the US military in various parts of the world. The lyrics evoke death and destruction; but the singing is drenched in longing, as if this were a love song; Anohni speaks as the victim of the bombing, but also as somebody who feels partly responsible for it. “I have a glint in my eye, I think I wanna die/ I wanna die/ I wanna be the apple of your eye…” According to Anohni, “It’s a love song from the perspective of a girl in Afghanistan, say a nine-year-old girl whose family’s been killed by a drone bomb… She is kind of looking up at the sky, and she’s gotten herself to a place where she just wants to be killed by a drone bomb too.” Anohni herself does not appear in this video; the main actor is the supermodel Naomi Campbell. We see Campbell seated in a chair (which looks to me almost like an electric chair); we also see her standing with a Statue-of-Liberty crown on her head, slowly waving her arms, or sometimes with arms outstretched as if she were being crucified. Campbell lip syncs the song, but imperfectly; she misses several lines, and tears are streaming down her face. The video’s lighting is dark and somber; shots of Campbell’s entire body (either standing, or sitting in the chair) alternate with extreme closeups of her face, or even of just her eyes. There are also shots of dancers, dressed in black, and in a fairly dark setting. The dancers writhe around in silhouette; when we can see their faces, they are either ferocious or filled with fear. Towards the end, the dancers lie in a heap on the ground, as if they have been killed by the drone bombs. It’s a stark, despairing song and video, which offers us no relief, no way to avoid a sense of our own complicity and responsibility.

Brockhampton, Sugar (Kevin Abstract, 2019)

Brockhampton is a self-described “boy band”, with multiple members both black and white, and both gay and straight. They have made lots of interesting videos, most of them — like this one — directed by the band’s leader (to the extent that anyone is), Kevin Abstract. Sugar is basically a sweet and tender r&b love song: “Do you love me, love me, love me?” There are four band members singing on the track; plus the chorus is delivered by a non-member, the indy-rocker Ryan Beatty. The video, though, is really out there; it does not exactly illustrate the lyrics. The video’s look is garish and kitschy. It starts out with almost pornographic images of a boy and girl having sex in a cheap apartment, while a crude cartoon Sun looks on grumpily. But then… a space alien intrudes, and kills the boy with a single shotgun blast. We zoom in on the dead boy’s eyes to see another band member (Matt Champion) in the flames of Hell, prodded by a grinning Devil. Other members of the band show up in the room where the video began, wearing hazmat suits, and they all lip sync some of the lyrics (but the alien does as well). Kevin Abstract appears on the ceiling, enmeshed in some gross green goo, which looks to me sort of like a cross between jello and cellophane. Some of the goo drips down and lands on the face of another band member (Bearface) lying on the floor; it also drips from the nostrils of a moose head mounted on the wall. The camera slowly and patiently moves around the singers in circles. All in all, it’s quite a trip.
I should mention that there is also a second, much more straightforward video for this song: it mostly just shows the singers, one by one, on a soundstage. Except that there is also a lot of play with mirrors, showing us the other side of the room, with crew, camera, and lights. And there is also a sequence shot from a distance and showing us the entire space: the members of the band run around and do acrobatic tumbles. It says something that this playfully self-referential video is the non-weird version of the song.

Kesha, My Own Dance (Allie Avital, 2019)

In Joseph Kahn’s 2011 movie Detention, one of the characters says: “I find your lack of faith in Kesha’s durability disturbing.” But Kesha has endured; she’s a survivor. Kesha had her first hits over a decade ago; her persona was that of the party girl, ready for any sort of excess. But her career got sidetracked when she accused her producer, Dr. Luke, of sexual harrassment, assault, and abuse. He denied the allegations, and prevented her for several years from working on her music with anyone else. When she was finally able to release new music, she wrote songs about recovering from abuse and from an eating disorder, and finding ways to take charge of her own life and her own narrative. Now, she finally feels able to return to the hedonistic themes of her earlier work; the song was described by one critic as “implicating everyone who wanted her to get back to her old sound while still, to some extent, getting back to her old sound.” The video is directed by the brilliant Allie Avital (we will see some of her work with Moses Sumney later in the semester). For the rest, I cannot do better than to just repeat what I wrote about this video in an earlier blog posting: “I described this video on twitter as being “ferocious and abject, all at once”; the director favorited and re-tweeted me. The song, with its poppy melody matched to a brutal beat, is Kesha’s kiss-off to her haters: don’t tell me what to do, “don’t circumcise my circumstance” (!!!). The video shows a tacky Los Angeles apartment complex; Kesha is out of generic dry cereal, so she sashays over to the convenience store, passing apartments with creepy twins out of The Shining, musclemen exercizing and making out, furry sex orgies, narcissists chilling by the pool, and other iconic instances of sleazy Los Angeles night life. And the video ends (as it must) with Kesha submerging herself in a kiddie pool filled with generic milk and cereal. Wow.”

Music video commentaries (1)

Since my music videos class has moved online due to the coronavirus, instead of talking about particular music videos in real time with my class, I am posting remarks on all the assigned videos for the students to read and respond to. The list of videos we are watching for the rest of the semester is here.
Since other people besides my students might be interested, I am posting all my discussion notes here on the blog.
Here is the first installment:

THEESatisfaction, Q.U.E.E.N.S. (dream hampton, 2012)

THEESatisfaction was a two-woman hip hop group from Seattle (consisting of Stasia “Stas” Irons and Catherine “Cat” Harris-White). The director of the video, dream hampton, is a filmmaker who mostly makes political documentaries. The video was inspired by a painting called “A Moment’s Pleasure Number 2″ by the artist Mickalene Thomas. The musicians say: “A lot of beautiful black women are in it. We cast 20 beautiful black women – and a variety. It’s just not something that is seen often… we kind of wanted to take the media into our own hands. Cause we don’t see a lot of black women being highlighted in a certain way on television – music videos in particular. It’s usually just one shade or one type all the time. So we wanted to fuck around with it.” The song features a relaxed groove, with repeated lyrics: “don’t funk with my groove… you’d better bring yourself.” It’s about being together, in a pleasant and perhaps slightly buzzed state, and staying that way. The video is set in a single apartment; it just shows Stas and Cat, and other black women, relaxing and partying. There are lots of closeups of beauty preparation, usually with one woman helping another: lipstick being applied, hair being done, jewelry and gloves being put on. There are also both closeups and longer shots of one or two women, both the band members and others, looking straight at the camera. There are slow-motion shots of dancing in the main room, as the camera weaves through, and of people passing one another through the apartment’s narrow corridors. And there are shots that are almost like tableaux vivants, showing Stas and Cat, or all the women in the video, posed and reposed on the couch and on the floor, clapping to the music but otherwise fairly still. The camera both contemplates the women, and moves among them; it does not aggressively objectify them as sex objects (in the manner of mainstream cinema, whose “male gaze” has been described by feminist film theorists). The video creates a kind of utopia, a space and time for self-love, self-cultivation, and communal feeling (both friendly and perhaps erotic), apart from the real-world stresses of racism, sexism, homophobia, and economic necessity.

Massive Attack, Splitting the Atom (Edouard Salier, 2009) and Take It There (Hiro Murai, 2016)

Massive Attack is a trip-hop group from Bristol, UK; they have been intermittently active since the early 1990s. They have made a lot of interesting music videos, almost none of which feature the band itself performing. We saw their 1994 video Protection (directed by Michel Gondry) earlier in the semester. These are two of their most powerful videos of the past decade. Both videos are based on slow, melancholy songs. Splitting the Atom is entirely computer-generated animation. There is an implicit narrative: we move in three dimensions through a science-fictional city that seems to have been attacked by some sort of monster (which we see toward the end). The city itself seems to be frozen in time: almost nothing moves; fragments from an explosion are suspended in mid-air. Instead, the (virtual) camera moves through the scene. We start out with what looks like rock formations (these are the polyhedrons that are the basic building blocks of 3D computer animation); then we pass through the city, which gradually becomes more and more cluttered, as the animation becomes more and more detailed. Toward the end, we reach the dead monster. The video is entirely in grayscale, except for two flashes of red: one glimmering from the eye of the dead monster, and the other a flash at the very end of the video, that seems to be an explosion obliterating everything. If you are interested, I published an article about this video, available here.
Take It There is directed by Hiro Murai, who has also directed powerful videos for Donald Glover and others. The video features the actor John Hawkes (best known for his role in the TV series Deadwood). He seems to be drunk, sick, or wounded, as he wanders through a deserted city at night, barely able to walk. Occasionally he is joined by four women dancers, all dressed in black. The video moves back and forth between naturalistic behavior (Hawkes’ lurching walk) and highly stylized moves (as the dancers’ motions synchronize with Hawkes’ stumbling). The movement is choreographed by Ryan Heffington, whose work we have already seen in Sia’s dance videos with Maddie Ziegler, and in Christine and the Queens’ 15-minute video suite La vita nuova. In the second half of the video, Hawkes finds himself prostrate in an emptied swimming pool, surrounded by the dancers who lift him up as if they were animating him; here the video moves more fully into the realm of dance, although Hawkes’ character is still evidently sick or disabled. He even smiles for a moment as he dances; though at the end, when the dancers leave, he collapses once more. The video as a whole creates an overwhelming portrait of the state of fatigue, or of being suspended between life and death. I have also published a chapter on this video, in my book Digital Music Videos.

Chet Faker, Gold (Hiro Murai, 2014)

This is another video directed by Hiro Murai, and choreographed by Ryan Heffington. Chet Faker (who now performs under his real name, Nick Murphy) is an Australian singer-songwriter. Gold is a love song, though a somewhat odd one: it sounds more plaintive than exultant, and the singer’s voice is processed differently in different parts of the song. Some online commentators suggest that the highly idealized love lyrics are in fact cynically ironic. The video doesn’t illustrate the lyrics in any obvious way. It takes place at night, on a deserted road; the camera is in a moving car (presumably – we never see the car itself, only the view in front of it, illuminated by the headlights). The video seems to be a single take, though this is partly faked: there are hidden cuts, when the camera looks downward just at the road, and when it sweeps horizontally across the darkness. For most of the video, the car and camera are moving backwards. The director says that “there is almost no post-work involved in this video… there’re total of 4 shots combined together for the final video.” The dancers are three young women on roller skates; they emerge out of the darkness, gliding towards the car, and do their moves while the car continues to move backwards away from them. In the last minute of the video, the car turns away from the dancers, turning an entire 180 degrees; in the headlights, we see the road ahead blocked by another car, facing sideways across both lanes, which has been damaged in an accident; the singer lip-syncs from the front passenger seat. A deer (not alive, presumably stuffed?) stands motionless, behind and next to the car. Perhaps the car hit the deer, causing the accident? but that doesn’t explain its placement behind the car, which is damaged in the front. In any case, the effect is absurdist and surreal. The car then turns again, another 180 degrees, and starts to move forwards instead of backwards. The dancers are once again illuminated; but as the song ends, they skate away from the car, disappearing back into the darkness from which they emerged. The skate dancing is fairly abstract, and I find it hard to assign it any specific meaning — aside from being amazed at the dancers’ smoothness and virtuosity. But the empty road in the darkness feels deeply mysterious, with the camera tracking the center yellow-black stripe, and the music initially consisting of a bass line and hand claps. The skaters emerge as the singer’s voice does, and as additional layers of instrumentation are added. The overall effect is rathe poignant, as the beauty of the dance reveals itself for a brief time, and then (after we have seen the weird tableau of the accident) withdraws back into the darkness.

Shabazz Palaces, #Cake (Hiro Murai, 2014)

This is yet another video directed by Hiro Murai. Shabazz Palaces is a hip hop duo from Seattle, consisting of Ishmael Butler (a rapper who was one of the founding members of Digable Planets, a jazzy hip hop trio from the early 1990s) and Tendai Maraire (a multi-instrumentalist, originally from Zimbabwe, whose other band, Chimurenga Renaissance, combines American hip hop sounds with traditional Zimbabwean music). Their overall stance could be characterized as Afrofuturist (with science fictional takes on Black themes, setting both an imagined future and an archaic past against the pressures and oppressions of the present moment). In any case, Shabazz Palaces’ music tends to be oblique and spacey, with discontinuous textures, riffs and voices fading in and out, and enigmatic lyrics. #Cake is one of their more accessible songs, thanks to the repeated bass figure and vocal riff (“eating cake”). Murai’s visuals work to match the enigmatic density (and yet ligher-than-air slipperiness) of the music. (With a video like this, it is better to simply describe what we see and hear, rather than pushing too hard for specific meanings). The video has a dark, muted color palette, and features quick cuts between multiple shots that seem to be matched graphically (through visual similarities across the cut from shot to shot) rather than according to any narrative logic. We see a man running through empty city streets at night; sometimes we see his feet, sometimes his face, sometimes his whole body at a vast distance. We do not know who or what he might be running from. Part of the time we see him running in slow motion, which suggests a kind of stasis as in a nightmare: no matter how fast he runs, he doesn’t really get anywhere. These shots are intercut with lots of shots of interiors, vast spaces with high ceilings, broken objects scattered about, and graffiti on the walls. They seem to be the deserted ruins of factories, studios, workshops, or gymnasiums. These spaces are mostly dark, but either they have searchlights passing over them intermittently, or else they have distant windows admitting spots of daylight from outside. The camera often tilts, or stays motionless at odd angles. Enigmatic, oversized objects appear in these spaces: a pair of snakes, a statue of (I think?) some Asian goddess, an enormous rotating crown, the silhouetted figure or shadow of a dancer with horned headdress, and even the head of Ishmael Butler as he raps. There are also near-dark extreme closeups as the camera circles around Butler as he raps. At several points in the song, the musical textures shift and Butler’s rapping voice is replaced by the singing of a female vocalist (Catherine Harris-White from THEESatisfaction). These changes are also marked visually. The first time she sings, the camera goes blurry; then the runner stops and contemplates the reposing figure of a gigantic (100 feet tall?) nude woman. The second time Harris-White sings, the image of the runner is inverted; he seems to be running in the sky, with the lights of the night-time city glimmering below him. (At first he is running upside down; then he seems to be floating rightside up in the sky). We also see shots of the enormous woman walking through the city, as the sky lightens with the coming of day. All in all, the video conveys a mood that is disquieting, but also shot through with moments of wonder.

Flying Lotus, Until the Quiet Comes (Kahlil Joseph, 2012)

This is not a conventional music video, but a short film using as its soundtrack snippets from three songs on Flying Lotus’ album Until the Quiet Comes. Flying Lotus is an electronic producer from Los Angeles; earlier in the semester we watched Hiro Murai’s video for his song Never Catch Me (which postdates, and was certainly influenced by, the current video). Kahlil Joseph is an independet filmmaker – here is a good article on his work. Joseph has done music videos and short films for other artists including Shabazz Palaces and Sampha; he also worked extensively on Beyoncé’s Lemonade, which we will be watching later in the semester. Until the Quiet Comes is less than four minutes long, but it is both world-encompassing and devastating. We have an implicit story, conveyed in ravishing images, about the murders of young black men, shot in the Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts, Los Angeles. Surveillance helicopters fly overhead. The video is punctuated by images of water: images that are perhaps symbolic of change and rebirth. But we also see dead bodies floating in the water. Kids play in the fields surrounding the projects. There’s a quick traveling shot (at 1:24) of a young man and a boy sharing a bag of Cheetos. These are the people whose deaths we witness in the course of the video. The time scheme is nonlinear, however. Before that shot, we see the boy (Solomon Gibbs) pretending to shoot a gun, miming the actions with his fingers. But the gunshot somehow becomes real; we see its ricochets, and eventually the boy is hit. We see him fall in a rustle of juxtaposed shots, and then we get still images of him dead on the ground, a cascade of blood bubbling out from his body, and then smeared beside him, as in an abstract painting, as the camera looks from above. In the latter part of the video, we see the young man — played by the dancer Storyboard P — dead on the ground, at night from a gunshot wound (though we do not see the moment of his being shot). Images of his dead body are cut together with shots water, and of his corpse floating underwater. There’s a shot of somebody sitting in the passenger seat of a car (this is actually Flying Lotus himself). Then we cut back to the body, which twitches, animates itself, and rises up from the ground. The rest of the video is centered upon Storyboard P.’s dancing, which has a jerky, zombie-like quality, but somehow is fluid and graceful at the same time. (The article I linked to above says that one of the inspirations for Storyboard P.’s dance style is stop-motion animation). He dances his way, sometimes moving backwards and sometimes forwards, sometimes also in slow motion (or with body movements that resemble slow motion), past people in the neighborhood and ultimately into the car we saw earlier, which bounces (it’s a lowrider) and eventually drives away. How do we take this seeming resurection? While Storyboard P. is dancing, all the people he passes stand almost stock-still. This contrast between motion and stillness seems to structure the video in all sorts of ways. The video ends with a shot of the dead body floating in water, from below while the sun is visible above. Then there is a shot of the neighborhood at night, with emergency vehicles flashing their lights. Then a final shot of bubbling, flowing water, echoing the first shot of the video. All in all, this short film is a tone poem, based in social reality but lifted by color and composition into a realm of abstract beauty. It is filled with sadness and horror, but also love and (perhaps even) hope.