Robin James is a philosopher who writes about popular music. She is the author of, among other books, Resilience and Melancholy (about how Rihanna’s refusal of positivity undermines the neoliberal recuperation of feminism) and The Sonic Episteme (a warning against the neoliberal resonances of the ‘ontological’ turn in sound studies — I have taken to heart her critique of tendencies in ‘theory’ that I am otherwise too easily seduced by). Her latest book, The Future of Rock and Roll, is somewhat different from the previous ones — it is largely a history of 97X WOXY, an independent radio station from Oxford, Ohio that broadcast from 1983 until 2004, and then online until 2010, and that — under the slogan “The Future of Rock and Roll” — offered a broader variety of music than nearly all other US radio stations. I have never lived in that area of the country, and never heard of the station before. But in James’ account, it was far more diverse in the sort of popular music it played than “alternative rock” or “indie rock” stations ever are. WOXY refused to just repeat a small number of songs over and over, in the ways that nearly all commercial radio stations (regardless of genre) tend to do. James gives detailed information on just what music the station played — which gratified my inner music nerd, and made me sorry I had never heard the station in its heyday. But beyond that, James writes about how the station succeeded for several decades (before ultimately ceasing due to the neoliberal economic conditions that oppress us all) because it nurtured a community of listeners, and was grounded in a philosophy that understood true independence as being enabled precisely by serving and helping to sustain such a community. Instead of the neoliberal “freedom from” (the simple absence of regulations), the station emphasized “freedom to” — the sort of creativity that can happen when people support one another. This positive sort of freedom — “the idea that true independence is possible only if you practice it with and for other people” — is generally stifled by the alienating hyperindividualism of the mainstream American idea of merely negative freedom. Things like exciting musical creation, and exploration of new aesthetic forms, do not happen in a vacuum — they require the backing of a scene, a community of people who are open to and interested in such developments. Mainstream commercial radio, despite all its changes over the decades, is not open to or supportive of such a scene or community. WOXY was a for-profit business, but its owners and staff were committed to their vision of independence and diversity (rather than just seeking to maximize profit, regardless of content). Although WOXY eventually stopped broadcasting, its community of fans continued its activities in various formats (podcasts, online discussion boards, etc.). James both gives a detailed history of the station, explicates its philosophy, and the way its community worked, in great detail, and draws lessons from all this about the possibilities for continued projects of independence in our current neoliberal world, when nearly every activity, no matter how niche or how unusual, gets recuperated and milked for profit by the 1% at the expense of all the rest of us. The Future of Rock and Roll is inspirational in the way that it gives us hope, and even provides something of a blueprint for change, in a very unpleasant and otherwise despairing time.
Music videos, 2019: I don’t do top ten lists, because my viewing/listening is just too limited. There could well be — and indeed, there undoubtably are — great videos made this year that I haven’t seen and don’t know about. So here are my favorite music videos of 2019: an entirely subjective list. I mention artist, song(s), and (director in parentheses). Most of the comments are fairly short; a few are somewhat longer. (I can’t help it, I always get carried away when it comes to FKA twigs). The videos are not listed in any particular order. (If I see any additional ones that I really like, after this has been posted, I will add them).
(I am not doing a favorite films list at all this year, because there is so much I haven’t seen. But this list should bear witness that there is at least as much invention and creativity overall in music videos going on right now as there is in movies and in television series).
NOW UPDATED WITH LINKS!
- Solange, When I Get Home (Solange). This is a long-form video, incorporating most of an entire album, in the manner of Beyoncé (Lemonade), Janelle Monae (Dirty Computer) and Tierra Whack (Whack World) in previous years. It is pretty impressive on first viewing, though I haven’t watched it enough yet to really comment.
- FKA twigs, Cellophane (Andrew Thomas Huang). The first sounds we hear, before the song begins, are applause and the metallic click of high heels. The music, once it begins, is quite spare: FKA twigs’ high-pitched, breathless singing is accompanied just by a few piano chords and irregular percussion. The whole song is an erotic lament: “And I just want to feel you’re there,” with the “I…” drawn out; or in the chorus: “Why won’t you do it for me/ When all I do is for you?” FKA twigs walks backstage, peers through a curtain, then passes through and displays her body to an audience we hear but do not see. Once we get through the curtain, the stage is immaculate: sepia-toned and highly reflective. FKA twigs flexes on the ground, and then starts pole dancing. She wraps her body around the pole, ascends, turns herself upside down, exchanges places with her own reflection. Audience forgotten, she rises along the pole into an open sky, where she meets her cyborg insect doppelgänger. The contact is fatal: she falls, falls, falls, her body still rotating wildly, sometimes around the pole, other times through air, at one point maybe even through water. The camera work is gorgeous: sometimes blurry, sometimes with strobe effects, sometimes circling rapidly around her, other times contemplating as she seems to float gracefullyh downwards. Finally she falls through a hole in the earth. She lands in a large circle of richly oozing, ochre-colored mud or clay. Masked women crawl toward her, and rub the ochre substance all over her body. Behind the song, we hear twigs coughing and panting. The panting continues for a few seconds after the music ends, while the camera fixes on a close-up of twigs’ face. The video is mythical and carnal, all at once. We seem to have moved through a ritual of ascent, descent, and grounding, or of death and (perhaps) rebirth; but despite the performativity of the pole dance, and the special effects of the ascent and the fall, we are left with the shocking intimacy of FKA twigs’ body and voice.
- FKA twigs, Holy Terrain (FKA twigs and Nick Walker); Home With You (FKA twigs). FKA twigs has made some of the best music videos of any artist, consistently, all the way back to her debut in 2012. This year she released two other videos besides Cellophane, both self-directed or self-co-directed, and both really good, even if Cellophane overshines them.
- Tierra Whack, Unemployed (Cat Solen). This is the only video Tierra Whack released this year. But the combination of gross and whimsical horror is totally her sensibility. She seems to be a captive chef, and the food talks back to her, or at least shows terror when she tries to prepare it. Have you ever had a nightmare about potatoes?
- Yves Tumor, Lifetime (Floria Sigismondi). The music feels viscous, yet with violently dislocating rhythms. The visuals are as baroque as anything Sigismondi has ever done: dark hues, extravagant costumes, glitch editing, a dance of yearning and confinement; it feels like an odd but intense ritual for some unknown religion. Yves Tumor is alternately dressed in drag, and pulled upon by multiple ropes while wearing devil’s horns.
- Stormzy, Vossi Bop (Henry Scholfield). Rapture: delirious and mostly mobile long takes, matched across multiple London locations, as Stormzy raps and dances with a backing crew of hundreds. Inspirational. “Fuck the government and fuck Boris.”
- Chemical Brothers, Got to Keep On (Michel Gondry and Olivier Gondry). The music could have been beamed in from thirty years ago; the multicultural dancers, with their moves and the costumes, at first seem equally, charmingly retro, until… something happens… alien metamorphoses, but somehow still joyous.
- Brockhampton, Sugar (Kevin Abstract). Coitus interruptus, a grumpy cartoon Sun, alien sex terrorism, green goo with the consistency of jello, the kitschy flames of hell, spinning cameras, suggestions of flight in a balloon, and the yearning-r&b vocals of the world’s greatest boy band: “Do you love me, love me, love me?”
- Haim, Summer Girl; Now I’m In It; Hallelujah (Paul Thomas Anderson). Haim is a really good band whose music just doesn’t resonate emotionally with me very much; Paul Thomas Anderson is a great filmmaker whose movies I admire more than love. But Anderson made three music videos for Haim this year, and they are all beautiful and evocative: loopily performative, showcasing the charisma of the Haim sisters, and adding to the storehouse of my cinematic (imaginary) vision of Los Angeles.
- Moses Sumney, Virile (Moses Sumney). Moses Sumney dances frenetically, bare-chested, in a meat locker (though the space is occasionally seems to be dressed as a sort of perverse shrine to dead meat). His body tenses and spasms, as if he were at war with himself. (The lyrics and the harsh music suggest that he is at war with the suffocating social stereotype of masculinity, which he hates, but within which he is trapped). The camera bobs and weaves around him, aiming for his torso, almost like a boxer; and the harshly chopped-up editing adds more layers of discomfort. The latter portion of the video shows Sumney running through a field, while menacing (CGI) insect swarms roil the sky behind him. And it ends with Sumney lying on the ground, the camera moving in on his face and torso, as beetles crawl over every inch of his flesh. Astonishing and devastating.
- Kesha, My Own Dance (Allie Avital). 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.
- Billie Eilish, bury a friend (Michael Chaves); bad guy (Dave Meyers); you should see me in a crown (Takashi Murakami); all the good girls go to hell (Rich Lee); xanny (Billie Eilish). Billie Eilish released five music videos in 2019, and they are all great. What’s more, though they are all made by different directors, and even though one of them is anime, they all project a consistent aesthetic. Along with the minimal, skewed bass lines, the childlike singsong melodies, and the vocals that are both whispery (suggesting intimacy) and heavily electronically processed (suggesting alienation), we get goth horror tropes, sometimes pushed to the point of absurdity; stark color schemes, sometimes minimal, nearly black and white, other times garishly contrasting; a kind of wallowing in morbid materiality (blood from a nosebleed; slick and thick oil stains, flames); and acts of impersonal aggression (hypodermic syringes plunged into Eilish’s back, burning cigarettes stubbed out against her face).
- Matt Ox f. Chief Keef, Jetlag (Al Kalyk). I am tempted to say that, in this video, Al Kalyk does for digital post-processing today pretty much what Eisenstein did for silent film editing ninety years ago. I leave it to others to consider which director offers a more severe critique of capitalism.
- James Massiah, Natural Born Killers (Ride for Me) (Ian Pons Jewell). The world reaches its solar climax or heat death: exhaustion and extermination. The ever-inventive Ian Pons Jewell shows us amazing architectural tableaus of human bodies, exquisitely lit, oozing with sweat, on the edge of transformation, in various postures of stasis and liquefaction.
- Christine and the Queens, Comme si (David Wilson). A fantastic solo dance video, set in a natural pool fed by a waterfall. It starts with a visual allusion to Millais’ (in)famous painting of Ophelia; but this Ophelia rises from the dead, as Christine says, “to express her desire and madness with exhilaration” through an amazing dance in which she jumps and splashes, shadowboxes, and moves with wild gestures, emulating Krump dance style. There are long, fluid takes at first, but by the end the camera is also dancing and lunging, while waterspouts explode out of the pool. And Christine herself has never looked more butch, androgynous, or trans (I am not sure which is the best word here).
- Clipping, All in Your Head (C. Prinz). I don’t really understand this video, or know how to describe the experience of watching it. Clipping’s barrage of noise and feedback, and savage rapping by Daveed Diggs, is supplemented by black womens’ voices: the deranged preaching of Robyn Hood and the yearning pseudo-gospel of Counterfeit Madison. The Clipping men themselves don’t appear in the video, but Robyn Hood and Counterfeit Madison do: the former refracted into multiple mirror images, while we spy upon the latter through a glory hole. The video also features two other black women performers, Jazz Washington and Jantae Spinks. We see one or the other of them twirling their long braid like a lasso, gyrating in front of a car, in multiple iterations stapled to the walls as living sculptures, and walking down a corridor, carrying a hooded hawk at some moments, and a living flame at other moments. The editing is as fractured as the sound. The video is both haunting and disruptive, even though you wouldn’t usually expect these qualities to fit well together.
- Charli XCX f. Christine and the Queens, Gone (Colin Solal Cardo). The song is a beat-heavy feminist anthem, angry but ultimately affirmative. Charli and Christine dance intimately together. Colin Solal Cardo, who has made great videos for both artists separately, pulls out all the stops. We have both artists bound with ropes on top of a car (but escaping); we have rapid-fire dance montages; we have banks of harsh lights; we have artificial rain pouring from the ceiling; we have a ring of fire. It’s almost a parody of the spectacular grandiosity of so many (male) rock performances and videos; but the absolute, furious conviction of the artists and the director pulls it off.
- 21 Savage f. J. Cole. a lot (Aisultan Seitov).Double consciousness, and double actuality. Scenes of an African American family reunion, with all its joys, affirmations, and aspirations, are intercut with briefer shots of police murders, incarceration, criminal activity, etc. A sweet soul sample underlies 21 Savage and J. Cole rapping about the harshness of their lives. “How many times did you cheat? – A lot. How many times did you lie? – A lot… I’d rather be broke in jail than be dead and rich.” It’s worth noting that 21 Savage has been harrassed by ICE (he was born in the UK, though he grew up mostly in Atlanta), and that the video’s director comes from Kazakhstan: what we call the American Dream is most fervently believed in and pursued by the very people whom the current regime seeks to exclude or imprison.
- Lana Del Rey, Doin’ Time (Rich Lee). I find this fantasia irresistible. Giant, movie-monster Lana, enjoying the summertime as she strides over LA, comes to the aid of 1950s Lana at the drive-in. It’s corny, it’s cheesy, it’s archly self-reflexive, and it’s too disingenuous by far — but it works.
- Flying Lotus, f. Denzel Curry, Black Balloons Reprise (Jack Begert). Flying Lotus and Denzel Curry have both separately released music videos with horror-film and surrealist imagery before. And Curry has released two previous songs/videos that center upon the menacing image of the black balloon. Here, the combination of Lotus’s electronic sounds and Curry’s desperate vocalizations is dense and implosive — both sonically and visually. The video is a quick nightmare tour of Los Angeles, as a mouth grows on the back of Curry’s hand, and a Christian cross radiates from his chest. He also draws figures directly on the screen: cubes and pentagrams within which he then finds himself imprisoned. Black balloons rise into the air, expand, blaze and give off smoke, and change their skins; often these metamorphoses flow across the screen while Curry himself seems trapped as a still image.
- Kelsey Lu, Foreign Car (Vincent Haycock). This video is very nearly a series of static tableaus, as the singer poses, wearing extravagant costumes, and usually surrounded by gorgeous bare-chested men. Though sometimes we just get contemplative glimpses of a man or men by themselves; and sometimes Lu poses in front of a bright red Ferrari (presumably the “foreign car” of the title). Lu is easily as glamorous as any of the men — though they are clearly spectacles for her delectation, rather than the reverse. (Also, Lu disdains to shave her underarm hair).
- Sevdaliza, Martyr (Marlou Fernanda and Sevdaliza). The song lies somewhere between angry and mournful, with sparse instrumentation (mostly violin), brooding vocals, and lyrics about abandoned love. The video is in black and white, the frame mostly quite dark except for the light on Sevdaliza’s face and (sometimes) arms. The fluidly-edited shots are from a variety of angles: but they are always close to Sevdaliza’s body, ranging only narrowly from regular closeups (we see all of her body as she crouches hunched up on the floor) to extreme closeups (her face filling the frame). Sevdaliza does not lip-sync the song; instead, all she does is slowly writhe and twist, in a kind of minimal or not-quite dance. The effect is smothering: extreme intimacy as we feel so physically close to Sevdaliza as she expresses emotion directly; yet we still somehow remain at a vast distance from her inaccessible inner self. Like the lover she addresses in the song, we have abandoned her.
Here is a rough list of my favorite music videos for 2018. It was complied fairly casually, so I may well have forgotten something. As for the order, the top three are definitely my three absolute favorites of the year; from 4 on down, the order is more or less arbitrary.
Tierra Whack, “Whack World” (Thibaut Duverneix)
Childish Gambino, “This is America” (Hiro Murai)
Janelle Monae, “Dirty Computer” (the entire 46-minute “emotion picture,” directed by Andrew Donoho and others; also the individual videos, such as “Make Me Feel,” directed by Alan Ferguson)
Taylor Swift, “Delicate” (Joseph Kahn)
Anthony Roth Costanzo, “Liquid Days” (Mark Romanek)
Billie Eilish, “when the party’s over” (Carlos Lopez Estrada)
Moses Sumney, “Quarrel” (Allie Avital & Moses Sumney)
Sophie, “Faceshopping” (Aaron Chan & Sophie)
Vince Staples, “FUN!” (Calmatic)
Mitski, “Washing Machine Heart” (Zia Anger)
The Carters, “Apeshit” (Ricky Saiz)
Cardi B., “Money” (Jora Frantzis)
Clams Casino, “Healing” (Timothy Saccenti)
Flasher, “Material” (Nick Roney)
Jay Rock, “King’s Dead” (The Little Homies)
Kendrick Lamar & SZA, “All the Stars” (Dave Meyers & the Little Homies)
Brockhampton, “1997 Diana” (Kevin Abstract)
Noname, “Blaxploitation” (Alex Lill)
The Weeknd, “Call Out My Name” (Grant Singer)
Troy Sivan, “My My My” (Grant Singer)
This was rejected for publication, so I thought I might as well post it here. It is a discussion of the music video for “Kerala” (2016), a track by Bonobo (Simon Green), directed by Bison (Dave Bullivant).
The music itself is midtempo electronica (125 bpm), fairly bright and relaxed. It’s an instrumental track, mostly strings and percussion, with wordless vocals (a repeated “hey yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah” sampled from the chorus of Brandy’s 1994 song “Baby”) added in the second half. “Kerala” starts out sparse, but becomes increasingly dense as instrumental layers are added, one at a time. These layers occasionally stutter or syncopate, but usually stay on the beat. The samples wash through the song in repeating loops, invoking the ebb and flow of (not very funky) dancing. At the same time, the piece’s changing textures do suggest a limited degree of narrative progression. As the sounds thicken, a simple two-chord alternation is fleshed out into an almost-melody. Bonobo avoids the dramatic soars and drops of mainstream EDM; but the song does build in intensity, with occasional lighter interludes. There’s no climax, however; rather, the track ends with an extended coda, allowing its energy to slowly dissipate. All in all, “Kerala” walks a fine line between putting the listener into a hypnotic trance and sounding, well, cheerily chintzy.
Why does the track have this particular title? Kerala is a state in southwest India. It is best known, internationally, for the fact that it has been under Communist Party rule for most of the past sixty years, and that it has flourished as a result. (According to Wikipedia, Kerala has the highest Human Development Index, the highest literacy rate, and the highest life expectancy of any state in India). Bonobo says in an interview, however, that he named the track because the state is an important stopping-place for birds from North Asia, migrating south for the winter. In any case, “Kerala” is drawn from an album called Migration (2017), whose sonic palette is diversified with touches of “world music.” With such a soundscape, Bonobo might well be accused of musical tourism or colonialism. But I am willing to accept at face value his claim that the album is not really engaged in appropriating cool sounds from the developing world. Rather, as its title indicates, the album is concerned with passages from one place to another. Bonobo is more interested in shifting identities, and in the process of transit itself, than he is in identifying, or appropriating and laying claim to, fixed points of origin and destination. He says on the album’s Bandcamp page that he is fascinated by “how one person will take an influence from one part of the world and move with that influence and affect another part of the world. Over time, the identities of places evolve.”
If Bonobo’s music evokes passages and transitions, then Bison’s video for “Kerala” itself performs an additional act of transfer, moving the track into an entirely new register. On the most obvious and literal level, the video is set in London, rather than Kerala. But Bison transforms the song in more complex ways as well, radically altering its mood and its import. The video for “Kerala” shows a woman (played by Gemma Arterton) in a state of absolute panic. She runs through a park, past some shops, down a street, and up to the roof of a high-rise building. The video begins with a shot of the sky, seen through the crowns of some trees, accompanied by the background noise of birds and traffic. The camera descends through branches, and down the trunk of a tree. As the first layer of music fades in — a loop of two alternating, arpeggiated guitar chords — the camera circles around the tree and closes in on Arterton. She is squatting with her back against the trunk, shaking and panting in fear, with her eyes closed. A second instrumental loop begins: a short synthesized drum roll, one long beat and three short. At the very first beat, Arterton jerks herself upwards and abruptly opens her eyes. She pulls herself to her feet and begins to run. The camera backs away from her, keeping her face in focus, while the background goes blurry.
From this point on, the video employs a remarkable visual stutter effect. There’s a jump cut at every return of the opening beat of the drum roll, which is looped continually throughout the song. (The drum roll is sometimes syncopated or phased slightly, but it remains the track’s most fundamental and steady pulse). This means that there is a visual discontinuity roughly every second. But where most cinematic jump cuts tend to elide a few seconds of action, pulling us slightly forward in time, Bison instead uses these cuts to repeat action, jumping backwards in time. The image track’s repetitions answer to the repeating loops out of which the music is constructed. But these image repetitions, unlike the sound loops, are never total. At each strong beat, the cut brings us back to partway through the previous shot. For each second of elapsed time, we are pulled back something like half a second. Each new shot repeats the latter portion of the previous shot, and then extends a bit further — at which point it is interrupted and partly repeated by yet another shot.
The video’s action is therefore cut into overlapping segments. Each gesture is broken into multiple iterations: Arterton spinning around, glancing back anxiously over her shoulder, running and stumbling and recovering and running on. She turns a little, then the frame jerks back, then she turns a little more… The rapid cuts produce an uneasy feeling of speed and agitation. At the same time, the reversions and repetitions stretch things out: actions unfold with a dreamlike slowness, and the simplest gesture seems to turn into a Sisyphean task. We never get a moment to relax, but we also never break free of the nightmarish sense that time has somehow congealed, and become an impediment that can only be overcome through titanic effort. This amounts to a violent reinterpretation of the relaxed back-and-forth dance rhythm of Bonobo’s track. Instead of measuring repeated motion, time in Bison’s video seems to hold back motion, preventing it from accomplishing itself. Zeno’s arrow gets stuck at every point along its flight.
These jump cuts break up what would otherwise be three long takes with a highly mobile handheld camera. This is evidenced by several reconstructions on YouTube which remove the repetitions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsUmw52LIOI and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sy5cbn3mKIM.
In the first of the jump cuts, Arterton stares towards the sky, as if looking at something beyond and behind the camera. She runs away from whatever it is she sees, while still fearfully glancing backwards at it. She bumps into a businessman walking along a path, jostles him, stumbles back, grabs at him to avoid falling, and whirls around as the camera moves to keep her in frame. The businessman waves his arms in remonstration, but Arterton turns away from him and runs forward along the path. The camera pulls back as she heads in its direction; it keeps her in focus as the background once again devolves into a blur.
The second section of the video (corresponding to the second long take) starts at 1:35, when the choral vocal sample is heard on the track for the first time. We get a brief respite from the drum loop, and therefore also from the jump cuts. Arterton is hunched up against a wall, her eyes closed, with an anguished expression. For about ten seconds, we see her face in extreme closeup; the camera is jittery, but without a break. Starting at about 1:47, when the drum loop resumes, Arterton opens her eyes again and stands up; the camera pulls back from her, and the jump cuts resume. As Arterton runs, she shakes herself away from various people who try to grab her, whether in order to help and comfort her, or to restrain her. At one point, she bumps into a man holding a bag of chips; as she jostles him, the chips pop out of his hands and fly through the air. At another point, she momentarily stares at a television in the window of a shop, which is playing footage of her running, from a slightly later section of the video. (The television appears between 2:21 and 2:30; it shows a sequence that itself appears between 2:50 and 3:00). She eventually turns a corner, and runs down the street without any more interference. The jump cuts continue, but the camera ceases to follow her as she draws further and further away.
The final section of the video (corresponding to what would be, if not for the jump cuts, the third long take) coincides with what I have called the song’s coda. The instrumentation becomes sparser and lighter; eventually, tones are held for longer intervals, until they gradually fade away. Arterton emerges onto the roof of a tall building; she runs to the edge, still frequently glancing backwards in terror. She looks down at the ground, turns away, and collapses into a heap, her hands holding her head in despair. The camera then passes her by, instead gliding over the edge of the roof. It shows us, way down on the ground, a parking lot eerily filled with people standing motionlessly in rows, in an orderly grid, looking upwards. The jump cuts finally cease. The video ends by reversing the movement with which it began. The camera pans upwards from the parking lot, to take in the London skyline shortly before sunset. The music is replaced by traffic and other city noises; an enormous swarm of black dots (birds? or something more sinister?) swirls menacingly on the horizon.
Aside from this main action, there are many subtle, creepy background details scattered throughout the video. You can only notice them by paying close attention to the background; it took repeated viewings for me to find them. The director says in an interview that he thinks of them as “easter eggs,” like the ones hidden in DVDs or pieces of software. These glitches are rare at the beginning of the video, but they become more frequent as it proceeds. Online fans have obsessively scrutinized the video in order to pick out these anomalies, on websites like Reddit. For instance, when Arterton is running through the park, a rock in the far distance appears to levitate (1:08-1:30). Later, a metal gate on the side of a building suddenly buckles inwards as Arterton passes it (2:02-2:05). Still later, as Arterton is running down the block, a parked car changes color with each looped repetition (3:02-3:16). A man seems to be suspended in midair, arms stretched out (3:06-3:20). A fire breaks out on an upper floor of a high rise council building (3:19-3:22).
These signs and portents only last for a few seconds each, but together they help to account for Arterton’s panic. For they suggest that something is seriously wrong, either with the world or with the way that we are perceiving of the world. Fan theories online are split between subjective explanations (Arterton’s character is suffering from drug hallucinations, or from a schizophrenic breakdown) and objective ones (she is witnessing an alien invasion, or even The Rapture). In the same interview I cited before, Bison says that he “like[s] everyone else’s theories about it – I think they’re really interesting.” He does not endorse any particular interpretation as being definitively correct, but he says that the range of responses gave him “all the stuff that I wanted, really – I kept it purposefully open.”
It is crucial to note that the bystanders in the video do not notice any of these glitches; even Arterton’s character doesn’t necessarily see them, since she is usually looking in a different direction. In effect, the anomalies only exist for us, the viewers of the video. (This is even literally the case, since they were evidently added in post-production). The looping repetition of footage would also seem to be something that we experience, rather than a process that Arterton’s character is going through. In addition, we never actually get to see just what it is that so terrifies Arterton’s character. She is always staring (or in one case, pointing – 2:35-2:38) out of frame. Even when she glances backwards, more or less towards the camera, she is not looking towards its actual position, but rather beyond it (as it were, over its shoulder). In other words, Arterton is condemned (Cassandra-like) to witness what she is unable to share with anyone else: visions that even the camera is unable to show us. It is only at the very end of the video, on the roof, when the camera abandons Arterton, that it pans down and shows us what she might have been looking at a moment before: the enigmatic sight of people lined up motionlessly in the parking lot.
We are therefore closed off from Arterton’s character. We cannot really “identify” with her; we see her staring, but the reverse shot of whatever she is staring at is systematically withheld from us. Indeed, we only get near enough to see her face in close-up at the two moments when her eyes are closed. As soon as she opens her eyes again, the camera pulls away, even as the jump cuts resume. By closing her eyes, Arterton’s character refuses the horrific vision with which she has been cursed. As Bison says, this is what makes her “the one fighting against” whatever it is she sees; “she did have power, she knew that if she shut her eyes she could have an element of control.” But in thus closing her eyes when the camera holds her in a close-up, Arterton also refuses any sort of reciprocity with the camera’s own gaze, or beyond it with the gaze of the video’s spectators.
The video, then, is neither purely objective (creating a consistent fictional world) nor purely subjective (giving us the perceptions of Arterton’s character, or putting us in her position). Instead, it is something in between; the video engages in a sort of free indirect discourse. Pier Paolo Pasolini introduced this literary term into the theorization of cinema. A novel engages in free indirect discourse when its omniscient, third-person narration takes on some of the linguistic and subjective characteristics of the character it is describing. We do not get all the way to a first-person voice or point of view, but the impersonal narration nonetheless seeems to be tinged by the traces of that first person. The novel’s creator takes on some of the characteristics of what she has created. According to Pasolini, something similar happens in movies when the director “looks at the world by immersing himself in his neurotic protagonist,” to the point that the director “has substituted in toto for the worldview of [the protagonist] his own delirious view of aesthetics.” We find ourselves in a strange position in between subjectivity and objectivity, in between the first person and the third person, and in between the existential suffering of the character and the expressive aestheticism of the director.
This situation is perhaps even more complicated in the case of “Kerala.” For the ambiguity between Bison’s point of view and that of Arterton’s character is doubled by a similar ambiguity between Bison’s perspective and Bonobo’s. The video translates its implicit narrative into formal terms, by means of its glitches, its looping repetitions, and its refusal to align gazes. These strategies are tinged by the protagonist’s experiences, but they do not work in any direct way to convey those experiences to us. Rather, they alienate us from those experiences, by refusing any possibility of representing them. On a meta-level, however, this process is itself analogous to the way that Arterton’s character is radically self-alienated. For her very experience is one of the failure of experience: that is to say, of being unable to bear, let alone to grasp, the events that are nonetheless being imposed upon her, and that she is forced to witness. In a similar manner, the video closely follows the formal articulations of the music for which it provides an image track, giving visual equivalents for changes of rhythm and timbre. But at the same time, the video does not express the feelings conveyed by the music in any straightforward way. To the contrary, it denatures and uproots those feelings. Bonobo’s “Kerala”, heard by itself, is a bright and inviting track. It idealizes migration as a sort of open, equal exchange, as influences fluidly move from one place to another. But Bison’s video insists instead upon the impossibility of any such exchange. It envisions the flow of influences from one place to another as a traumatic, irreversible process of irreparable loss.
Mark Abel’s book Groove: An Aesthetics of Measured Time, recently published in the Historical Materialsm book series, offers a new musicological and philosophical account of groove music — which is to say nearly all popular music, in the US and the Americas, and increasingly in other parts of the world as well, for the past hundred years — since at least the start of the 20th century. Ultimately, Abel offers an Adornoesque defense of the very mass-industrially-produced music that Adorno himself despised. This in itself is incredibly useful, given how much of a stumbling-block Adorno has been for decades when it comes to thinking about music — you simply can’t dismiss him, but there are good reasons for refusing to go along with him.
However, Abel’s book aims for a comprehensiveness which means that it actually does much more than that — while I am unwilling to follow Abel all the way, I find that he contributes powerfully to my thoughts about music (given, of course, that I am not a musician, and lack all but the most rudimentary musical training).
Abel starts by giving an overall definition of groove music — one that goes well beyond the relatively feeble attempts at definition that he cites from musical encyclopedias and from past commentators. According to Abel, groove is characterized by four crucial elements:
- Measure, or metronymic time
- ‘Deep metricality’ or multi-levelled meter
- A backbeat
All these characteristics are crucial. Much traditional music from around the world is rhythmical, but not metric. Traditional West African music, for instance, is polyrhythmic (many rhythms going on at the same time), but not metric; there may be an implicit pulse, but there are no measures, and there is no underlying organization of strong and weak beats. Only European music of the last five hundred years or so is really divided into measures, with a strong emphasis on the first beat of each measure (one-two-three-four). And Western music tends to exhibit fractal patterns (though Abel doesn’t actually use the word “fractal”) of metric organization on multiple levels (think of four-bar blues, or of ABAB song forms). Beyond this, neither syncopation (playing against the regular pattern of the beat) nor a back beat (actually a particular form of syncopation, “an emphasis on the off-beats of the bar (beats two and four) and often the off-beats of other metrical levels as well”) would be possible: if the music is not metric in the first place then it cannot play against the regular meter. This means that polyrhythms in funk and other African American music actually work quite differently from polyrhythms in traditional African music, the latter not having metric regularity in the first place, and therefore not having syncopated violations of this regularity either).
On this basis, Abel rejects common claims about the fundamentally African source of American popular music – he says that there are multiple hybrid sources, and that it is essentialistic to insist upon African sounds in particular. This is one of the instances where, even though Abel has a point, he greatly overstates it, protesting way too much against attributions of Africanness to blues, jazz, funk, etc. Abel’s underlying point is the Marxist one (which I don’t disagree with) that modes of production are determinant in the last instance — but here he could really use a bit more flexibility before getting to that last instance. Indeed, Abel is so over-the-top in his denial of there being any sort of specifically African vibe to groove music that he goes so far as to rank the Average White Band as highly as he does James Brown when it comes to funk (in one of the exceedingly rare cases in the book where he mentions particular musicians at all). Many readers will understandably be ready to throw the book down in disgust at this point; which would be unfortunate, since the book really does have a lot to offer.
Abel’s definition of groove is exceedingly broad; and this is both a strength and a weakness. A strength, because it enables him to make wide-ranging observations about popular music of the 20th and 21st centuries, ones that hold across multiple genres. But a weakness as well, because it means that he is unable to recognize or acknowledge the many singular inventions that, within this broad framework, have diversified popular music so remarkably over the past hundred-and-some-odd years.
Abel’s other major point, which I find entirely convincing, is his demonstation (citing a wide range of historians and theorists) of how metric time — time conceived as an empty and homogeneous linear successions — is a product, not just of modern scientific technologies (like the ever-more accurate clocks that have been made since the 17th century), but specifically of capitalism, with its ubiquitous organization of commodity production, its appropriation of labor power as a commodity, and its need for the close measurement of time both in order to discipline workers, and as a mesure of value more generally (since the value of labor power, and of all commodities, is determined in the last instance by “socially necessary labor time”).
Abel makes the historical case for detailed time-measurement as central to capitalist relations, to the point that capitalism could not function without it. This argument is enough of a commonplace that Abel spends a lot more effort and pages on it than is strictly necessary (but I guess what seems a commonplace to anyone with any sort of even semi-Marxist intellectual formation might not be so to others). The importance of the argument is that the underlying structure of capitalism can explain why metric organization is so central to Western music of the last five hundred years or so, while it is absent from other historical forms and traditions of music. Metric organization is central to European classical music, and it is picked up with a vengeance in the groove of popular music ever since sound recording techniques became widespread.
This gets to the heart of Abel’s argument with and against Adorno. 20th- and 21st century philosophies of music necessarily rely on a kind of metaphysics of time that has been central to modernity. Abel says that the time theories of Bergson, Husserl, etc., are idealist, because they do not bring their understanding of time back to the capitalist conditions that generated it. I am much more willing to accept a certain sort of metaphysics than Abel is — thinkers like Bergson and Husserl are vitally important in the ways that they articulate how we experience time, and how this subjective experience relates to other, “objective” modes of registering time (including the scientific and capitalist-industrial ones). Musical experience necessarily involves time-experience on a deep level; and Abel in effect acknowledges this by going over Bergsonian and phenomenological accounts of temporality in great detail.
Both Bergson and Husserl (the latter of whose ideas about time are extended into the consideration of music especially by Alfred Schutz) contrast an authentic inner time sense to the external and spatialized objective measurement of homogeneous, empty time by the sciences. Abel argues that Adorno’s observations on modern art music and popular music (two damaged halves of what should be a whole) are in fact organized by this metaphysical distinction. (I am here using “metaphysical” in a non-pejorative sense, even if Abel is not). The authenticity of personal, inner time is violated by the way that industrial monopoly capitalism subjects everything unremittingly to the commodified standardization that rests, on its deepest level, on the homogenization of measured time. Adorno views 19th-century classical music (Beethoven above all) through the way that it resists homogeneous time, and insteads opens up the experience both of real inner time (which is ultimately Bergsonian duration) and of historical time (which capitalism suppresses by installing an eternal now, and a temporal repetitiveness which denies that the future can be in any real sense different from the present).
[The question of how inner time as duration, and historical time as collective experience, can relate to one another is itself an additional difficult one — I don’t find Abel’s attempts to resolve this entirely convincing, and I don’t think anyone else has really resolved it either. Most Marxists have tended to disdain Bergson on the grounds that his idea of duration is an ahistorical one; but I think that Abel is right in implying — though he never says this directly, and might well reject it — that no modernist defense of any richer sense of time than the empty capitalist one can avoid taking an at least partly Bergsonian stance].
For Adorno, 20th-century classical music struggles, with greater or lesser success, with the same issue of time experience. To simplify a little, for Adorno 20th century classical music at its most successful (e.g. in the earlier Schoenberg, according to Adorno), resists the universal capitalistic imposition of metrical time by refusing meter as much as possible, and by drawing on (or retreating to) the few areas of culture that have not yet been entirely overwhelmed by metrical regularity. For Adorno, all popular music — everything that has a groove, in Abel’s terminology — capitulates to the regularity of meter, and this is what ultimately stands behind Adorno’s criticisms of popular music as conformist and formulaic, as merely filling up a pre-existing form, as offering only trite and inconsequential minor variations which never affect the basic underlying tyranny of meter as commodified or Taylorized time, etc.
Abel’s counter-argument to all this is that it is precisely by being metrical with a vengeance, by using meter in a far more intense way than classical music ever did, and therefore by proliferating syncopations against a metric beat which is the dialectical condition for these violations of metrical logic to take place — it is by doing all this that groove music at its best is able to subvert homogeneous clock time or commodity time.
Thus it is by means of Adorno’s own dialectical logic that Abel defends the emancipatory possibilities of groove music; and even suggests that the 20th century classical music that Adorno at least ambivalently championed only represents a conservative retreat, since it simply disengages from metric time rather than working inside it to challenge it. Groove music at its best
provides an antidote to Adorno’s, and indeed Jameson’s, pessimistic position that resistance to reification can only emerge from spheres of humanity which have not yet fallen fully under the sway of commodification, of which there remain precious few, by directing our attention to the possibilities of fracture from within.
[Abel’s argument parallels my own argument as to why rapid-editing lowbrow films like Gamer and Detention are much better responses to our 21st century media situation than are the slow cinema films championed by many cineastes].
Abel’s thesis seems to me to be essential for any understanding of the multifarious modes in which popular music works today (as well as how it did in the past century). This remains the case even though Abel declines to give anything in the way of specific examples, or even to differentiate between the somewhat different strategies of different popular-music genres, as well as of the increasingly prevalent hybridizations among these genres.
And, to make it as specific as possible: Abel’s thesis makes a lot of sense in the specific case of Afrofuturist music, and more generally of Afro-diasporic music of the Black Atlantic — and this despite Abel’s refusal to attribute any particular degree of “Africanness” to groove music. Note how Afrofuturism calls on science fiction both to describe the experience of oppression (the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans was like an alien abduction) AND to describe future prospects of liberation (Sun Ra’s vision of outer space; George Clinton’s Mothership; etc.). And these are not matters just of discursive elaboration, but are also built into the musical structure of grooves, which both make you a “slave to the rhythm” and offer dancing as liberation, as both body expression and as the experience of funky syncopations.
This is why it is too bad that Abel limits the scope of his argument by rejecting or ignoring not only any privileging of African musical traditions, but also any form of theorization that calls upon this. Abel’s own theorization of how the groove can provide liberation from metric enslavement precisely by intensifying it, by turning the eternal now of capitalist realism into an experience of overfull NOWNESS, draws on Walter Benjamin’s notion of Jetztzeit (nowtime). Abel concludes that,
in contrast to non-groove pulsed music, where many notes occur between the beats, every musical event in groove music is also a beat at some level of the metric hierarchy. This gives each event/beat the character of intense, pregnant presentness — a nowtime — which is lacking in the narrative-style art music tradition.
All this seems fine to me; but Abel would only have strengthened his own argument if he were willing to draw upon formulations like James Snead’s understanding of the way repetition works in black music (he explicitly rejects Snead, and doesn’t even mention thinkers like Tricia Rose and Fred Moten).
There is also the problem — for me, at least — that Abel contends that his own vision of the liberatory temporal potential of the groove “is interestingly at odds with the vision of temporal freedom which emerged earlier from Bergsonian thinkers like Deleuze as well as Jameson’s celebration of temporal incommensurability.” I would like to see more of a confluence than an opposition here — for reasons that I will conclude by explaining.
At heart I remain, as I have long been, a Deleuzian. But to my mind the absolutely worst thing about Deleuze — both in his solo works and in his works with Guattari — is his anti-metrical (and therefore anti-groove) bias when it comes to music. Even when D & G deal with musical repetition in the “Refrain” chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, they insist that the deterritorializing thrust of music must come from the rejection of meter; they insist upon a fundamental opposition between rhythm and meter, instead of allowing for the metric (and also, therefore, cross-metric and anti-metric) rhythms of modern popular music. Their ideal is the pulseless time of Aeon, manifested to a degree in such French modernist composers as Messaien and Boulez. Deleuze and Guattari have no room in their vision (or should I say their audition?) for funk or the groove. Abel rightly traces this position back to Bergson, and shrewdly notes that Deleuze’s high-culture modernism in this respect is actually quite similar to Adorno’s.
One might wish that Deleuze had applied the insights of Difference and Repetition to an analysis of groove music. But unfortunately, any sort of metrical repetition is necessarily, for Deleuze, something like what Bergson denounces as the spatialization of time. (Deleuze rescues the cinema from this aspect of Bergson’s polemic, but he never similarly rescues funk or post-1960 dance music, or even rock ‘n’ roll).
I think that, as Abel explicitly suggests, the problem goes back to Bergson himself. Bergson’s musical analogue for duration (durée) is always melody, which he describes as a continuity that cannot be broken without changing its very nature; it cannot be quantified without altering its qualitative being. Groove music is, as Abel argues, both intensive and extensive, both rhythmic and metrical, both qualitative and quantitative; it breaks down the oppositions between these pairs that Bergson and Deleuze both so strongly insist upon. Their formulations imply a line of flight from capitalism’s imposition of linear, empty, homogeneous time; but for that very reason, they never engage with it directly.
As an alternative to these sorts of formulations, Abel refers to a musicologist whom I had never previously heard of, Victor Zuckerkandl. According to Abel, Zuckerkandl is also deeply influenced by Bergson, but he moves in a very different direction than Deleuze does (or than Adorno does, for that matter). Zuckerkandl agrees with Bergson’s major thesis that time = duration = indivisible change. But he applies this insight to rhythm and meter, as well as to melody. That is to say,
Zuckerkandl argues that the conventional explanation of meter is wrong. Meter is not produced from a pattern of strong and weak accents as it is conventionally explained, but is much better understood as oscillation. Psychological experiments show that a series of equally spaced pulses are perceived not as 1-2-3-4-5 etc., but as 1-2-1-2 etc. where ‘2’ is not number two but ‘away-from-one’. What this implies is that at the heart of meter is a cyclical motion or wave comprising a motion of ‘to-fro’ or ‘away-back’, and that the standard understanding of causality in meter must be reversed: ‘it is not a differentiation of accents which produces meter, it is meter which produces a differentiation of accents.’
This means that meter cannot be opposed to free rhythm in the way that Bergson does implicitly, and Deleuze does explicitly. Rather,
There are forces at work within meter which impart to a tone a different rhythmic impulse depending upon which phase of the metric cycle it falls and which make the counting of beats unnecessary. Metrical order is a dynamic order so that while, as we have seen, for Zuckerkandl, ‘melody [is] motion in the dynamic field of tones, rhythm [is] motion in the dynamic field of meter’.
In short, meter is a wave phenomenon, and “like other kinds of wave, metric waves are not about equality but about kinetic impulse.” In this way, when meter — however much its origin lies in the capitalist homogenization of time — is taken up, not only by Western concert music, but even more so by jazz, funk, and other sorts of groove music, it releases an energy that no capitalist expropriation of surplus value is able entirely to contain. [This is the answer, incidentally, to the question that the FBI agents ask Sun Ra when they kidnap him in the movie Space is the Place: “C’mon, Ra, how do you convert your harmonic progressions into energy?”].
In effect, Zuckerkandl deconstructs the duality between rhythm and meter, or between intensive and extensive, by Bergsonizing (if I may use that expression) the latter as well as the former. Meter is a field and a wave, rather than an emptily homogeneous form of measurement. Zuckerkandl even says, following this, that “The wave is not an event in time, but an event of time.” To listen to music is to experience time itself (in a way that seems to anticipate what Deleuze says about modernist cinema, the cinema of the time-image. But just as we experience time in its pure state, not only in Antonioni’s long takes, but equally (though I am not sure that Deleuze would have accepted this) in Tony Scott’s hyperactive editing, so we experience time in its pure state not only in Boulez’s floating, non-metric melodic lines, but equally — or I would want to say, even more intensely — in the pulses and syncopations of Miles Davis’ On the Corner, my candidate for the greatest piece of music ever recorded.
Obviously I need to read Zuckerkandl. I should note, though, that there are other paths beyond Bergson, which maintain his insights about intensive time without thereby accepting his dualism of time and space, or of intensive and extensive. Another one, not mentioned by Abel, is that of Gaston Bachelard in his books Intuition of the Instant and Dialectic of Duration. Bachelard argues that duration is radically multiple and discontinuous, rather than being the unbreakable continuity insisted upon by Bergson. Bachelard proposes the analogy of duration as rhythm, instead of Bergson’s duration as melody. By insisting on the multiple repetitions and variations of rhythm, Bachelard makes it possible for us to unite rhythm and meter in the ways groove music does, instead of making Deleuze’s absolute opposition between them.
Steve Goodman takes this up in his important book Sonic Warfare, in the course of dealing with the ways that bass and rhythm in dance music are at once despotic and liberating (rather than being only the former, as a strict Deleuzian argument would have to maintain). Goodman also proposes a Whiteheadian ontology of vibration, in place of the Bergsonian ontology of light that we find in Deleuze’s Cinema volumes.
I may seem to be drifting far away from Abel’s book at this point. But the virtue of Groove is precisely that it pushes us to consider groove music in a new manner, one that can accommodate the insights of both Deleuze and Adorno without having to embrace their incompletions and biases. I would add here, that we can read and benefit from Groove without having to embrace Abel’s own incompletions and biases either; I refer not only to his rejection of Afrofuturist currents, but also to his unfortunate claim that “‘dance music’ composed on computers” cannot be liberating in the manner of other groove music, because supposedly it “is blind to the concept of individual parts and tends towards total centralisation.” Here Abel evinces the same Adornoesque prejudice that he rightly demystifies elsewhere.
I won’t deny that Groove is sometimes a frustrating book. I wish that there had been more (or indeed, any) concrete examples, and that there had been less citation of some not-all-that-relevant theorists (like Postone and Sohn-Rethel). But I still found Groove a thought-provoking and stimulating book, one that is highly relevant to my own search for the secrets of “Funkentelechy Versus the Placebo Syndrome.”
“Papi Pacify” is a song from FKA twigs’ EP2, which was released in 2013. The song is produced by Arca (who has also recently worked with Kanye West, Björk, and Kelela). The music video for “Papi Pacify” is co-directed by FKA twigs and Tom Beard (who has worked with twigs a number of other times, as well as directing videos for Florence and the Machine and other indie British bands). The song might be described as a ghostly hybrid of trip hop and r&b. The synthesized music features a lot of rumbling sound in the bass register, together with violent and irregular percussive banging. But “Papi Pacify” is also rather slow in tempo; this makes it feel close to ambient music — with its suspended, floating quality — despite the insistent punctuation of the percussion. Like a lot of recent EDM (electronic dance music), the song is devoid of tonal shifts; but it moves between different gradations of intensity, building to a climax through changes in timbre and a thickening of the sound.
In “Papi Pacify,” as in most of her music, FKA twigs’ voice is heavily processed, so that it resonates like yet another electronic instrument. She sings in a high register, contrasting with the instrumental sound. Her voice is also drawn out and amplified, with considerable reverb. There’s a breathless, floating intensity to twigs’ singing, which moves beyond actual words into drawn-out cries of “mmm” and “ahhh.” I cannot avoid hearing this voice as if it were speaking in a near-whisper — even though it stands out, quite loud, at the forefront of the mix.
The emotional tone of the song fluctuates between plaintiveness and outright pleading. The lyrics are deeply ambivalent: twigs begs her lover to “pacify our love,” and “clarify our love,” by assuring her of his faithfulness even if he does not mean it. Empty, lying reassurances are better than none at all. The song is thus about deception and dependency. The singer wills herself to continue trusting her lover, even though she knows that he has already betrayed her. In this way, twigs simultaneously disavows and fuels her own erotic-romantic disquiet.
I cannot really imagine dancing to a song like “Papi Pacify,” despite its formal similarities to EDM. For twigs’ and Arca’s music is just too rhythmically irregular and disruptive — not to mention too slow and depressive — to be easily danceable. The off-rhythms convey imbalance and tension, even as the song’s overall tempo, and its harmonic stasis, create a sense of paralysis.
However, dance is central to FKA twigs’ art, and especially to her music videos. “Papi Pacify” is not literally dance-based, in the way that many of twigs’ other videos are. But the play of the figures on the screen — the movement of their bodies, and even of their hands — is highly rhythmic, suggesting a sort of dance. Even if the gestures and postures in this video are not actually arranged by a choreographer, they still seem to be “choreographed” via cinematography and editing.
The music video for “Papi Pacify” is shot in black and white. It is composed entirely of images of the faces and upper bodies of FKA twigs and her male partner. (I haven’t been able to find any credits identifying this performer). The only bright lighting in the video shines directly on twigs’ face, and on her elaborately sculpted nails. Though the male partner is never illuminated as brightly as twigs is, we do get to clearly see his face and torso. His sexy, muscular, and athletic bulk stands out against twigs’ thin and flexible body. The crisp, gorgeously high-contrast black-and-white cinematography brings out the flesh tones of the two performers. Both twigs and her partner are black; but she is relatively light-skinned, while he is much darker. The video’s up-front beautification of black bodies stands in deliberate opposition to the traditional cinema’s almost exclusive obsession with pale white skin (and its concomitant myths of white female “purity”).
Like many music videos, “Papi Pacify” alternates between two separate series of images. The first series shows twigs engaged erotically with her partner. The second series, in contrast, shows twigs by herself; she wears an ornate necklace and her body is covered with glitter. The first series is confined to medium shots that show us the performers’ faces and upper bodies. But the second series varies from extreme closeups of twigs’ eyes to shots that show us her entire face and torso.
However, these two series of images do not correspond, as they often do in music videos, to two separate locations. This is because the video as a whole offers us no sense of location. In both series of images, the human figures emerge from a murky, undifferentiated background. The darkness behind them is too vague and undefined to seem like any sort of actual place. In other words, the video has no settings, whether real or simulated. The action of the human figures can only be situated within, or upon, the electronic screen itself.
This means that the video is effectively non-diegetic. We respond to the bodies we see, as to the music we hear; but we cannot take what we see and hear as a represented action (or series of actions) in a delimited space. We are rather presented, I would like to say, with a mode of digital and electronic presence that cannot be translated or resolved into analog, representational terms. The bodies of twigs and her partner are not absented in favor of their signifying images, as would be the case in a movie (at least according to traditional film theory). Rather, these bodies impinge upon the screen, and thereby present themselves directly to us, precisely as forces and pulsations.
The video is intensely erotic, even though it doesn’t show us twigs’ breasts, or the genitalia of either actor. For much of the video, the man either has his hands around twigs’ throat, or else sticks his fingers deep into her mouth and down her throat. At times, twigs almost seems to be on the point of choking. In the YouTube comments to the video, there are fierce arguments as to whether this is a representation of abuse, or whether it is rather a positive depiction of consensual BDSM. But as my students pointed out when we discussed it in class, what the video actually shows us is fairly mild, in terms of the actual practices of consensual BDSM.
If the video feels so visceral and intense, this is not just because of the actions that it literally depicts, but also because of the extreme intimacy that it expresses. In every shot, twigs is close to the camera. In the shots that include the male partner, he is always positioned just slightly above and behind her. There is almost no physical distance between the two of them; he is always holding her. They also stare into each other’s eyes, and seem closely attentive to each other’s sightest movements and gestures.
But twigs does not just exchange glances with her partner. At other times, though he continues to look at her, she closes her eyes in apparent sexual abandon. And even more frequently, she stares directly at the camera. This means that there is also no sense of distance between twigs and the viewer. She seems to be imploring us, or even perhaps exchanging glances with us: in any case, she include us within the video’s flows, its acts of bodily exchange.
Some YouTube commentators say that twigs looks desperate and begging for rescue, and that this is why she stares into the camera. But I myself am unable to see it this way. For me as for many other commentators, twigs’ gaze and facial expressions rather imply trust and acceptance. Indeed, they sometimes come close to ecstasy.
The video is all about intimacy and proximity: between twigs and her partner, and also between twigs and us. There isn’t enough distance between twigs and the viewer to allow for the objectifying effect of the usual cinematic gaze. Video bodies operate according to a different — and more immediate — logic than film bodies do. We are just too close to the lovers to be able to respond voyeuristically to what they do.
Extreme intimacy can of course be suffocating, as much as it can be ecstatic and fulfilling. The video, like the song itself, expresses both of these at once, in a sort of oxymoronic tension. The music and the images lack any forward movement towards a conclusion; there is rather an intensification that at the same time stands in place. At the same time, the sounds and images alike are too tense and off-kilter to suggest any sort of equilibrium or stasis.
The video’s presentation of physical contact to the point of suffocation may well go along with what I have called the breathlessness of twigs’ singing. It is worth noting, however, that the video mostly avoids lip syncing. There are some moments when twigs mouths the words — or nonverbal cries — of the song, but more often she does not. Most music videos (except for the ones that directly document or mimic live performance) tend, in varying degrees, to self-consciously call attention to their use of lip-syncing. “Papi Pacify” pushes quite strongly in this direction. The occasional moments of synchronization fix our attention on twigs’ face and figure. But because she only lip syncs occasionally, we are spared both the pretense that she is actually performing the song, and the opposite pretense that the action of the video is somehow “really” happening independently of the song. This is yet another reason why I consider the video to be non-diegetic and non-representational.
All these tendencies are further amplified by the complex editing of the video. Instead of progressive action, we are given what might be called a series of jump cuts, presenting the same scenes over and over again from a variety of slightly different angles. The camera sometimes modifies its position very slightly, but otherwise it never moves. A lot of the action — the touching and embracing — seems to take place in slow motion. A few times there is extremely rapid cutting and flashing, which gives an oddly disjointed rhythmic effect in contrast to the overall slowness of the song.
Most strikingly, many of the shots in the video are run in loops, forwards and backwards a number of times, sort of like an animated GIF. This seems to happen especially when the partner is pushing his fingers into twigs’ mouth and down her throat. This looping repetition results both in a sense of dreamlike slowness, and in the impression that these actions are not just done once and for all, but rather are repeated over and over. The effect is something like that evoked by the use of the imperfect tense in many languages (though, unfortunately, this form does not really exist in English).
“Papi Pacify” leaves us floating in a strange erotic time, which is not the time of everyday life, but also not the “time in its pure state” of Bergsonian duration. It is rather an uneven, pulsed time, which ebbs and flows in irregular waves. It’s a highly sexualized time. But it is also quite emphatically not the time that leads teleologically to the culmination of male orgasm. We are in a realm of different sexual practices here: one that we might well call “feminine” — but perhaps not, since it is too irregular, too uncertain, and also too intimate, to fit easily on either side of the conventional male/female binary. I would like to say, also, that this is a kind of digital and electronic time: one that is not intrinsic to our new technologies in any essentialistic sense, but that could not have been accessed without them.
Jérémie Saindon’s music video for Allie X’s “Catch” is a Surrealist assault on the senses. We see Allie X in numerous discomfiting poses, all within a sleek, mininal, faux-modernist space. At some points in the video, Allie X’s body is buried in a pile of intertwined, and seemingly inanimate, nudes. At others, her body hangs suspended from the ceiling in what looks like an art exhibition space, pierced by many long spikes. At still other points, she stands nude on a pedestal like a sculpture on display, with her hair draped entirely over her face.
We also see Allie X lying splayed out on a dissection table, half of her body replaced by a life-size plastic anatomical model — the kind that opens up to display replicas of the internal organs. And once, just before the video’s three minute mark, her body appears strewn all over the floor, sliced into four separate parts — head and torso, midriff, thighs, and lower legs — all of which are twitching on their own. At other moments, Allie X stands naked except for a sort of white veil or headdress, extending upward in a cone, and completely covering her face. There is just one opening in the headdress, for her mouth; a viscous white fluid oozes out from it. In still other shots, Allie X lies on the floor surrounded by overlaid images of butterflies. At the end of the video, another butterfly emerges from a sort of metallic coccoon in her mouth.
The video is also deeply concerned with eyes, and with vision. In many shots, Allie X wears sunglasses, or else eyeglasses whose lenses have been replaced by a dense pink flowery growth. This is consistent with Allie X’s previous videos and art projects, in the course of which (according to James Rickman) the singer “never… revealed her eyes” at all. At certain points in the “Catch” video, Allie X finally does unveil her eyes to the camera. But these eyes don’t stare soulfully out at us. Rather, they blink; or else they glare, or ponder without expression. There are several shots in which Allie X lies on a couch, wearing a leaf-print onesie jumpsuit; she looks towards a replica of herself reclining on the floor, whom we see from the back. Then she closes her eyes and opens her mouth wide, holding a replica eyeball between her lips.
I’m reminded, of course, of other Surrealist aggressions against vision, starting with Buñuel’s razor slicing an eyeball. The Surrealists were also obsessed with the nude female body, which they often depicted dead or dismembered or bound in abject poses (think, for example, of Hans Bellmer’s dolls). Allie X detourns these Surrealist tropes for her own ends. Although her body is mutilated and abjected throughout the video, it is not presented as a spectacle for some sadistic, controlling “male gaze.” Rather, Allie X clearly remains in control; she positively assaults us with these grotesque body images. Even when she is naked, we are denied access to her body and her eyes. However uncomfortably near to us this body comes, and even as it is literally and metaphorically opened up, it remains entirely opaque and unreadable. And the circuit of the gaze between her and us is blocked, even when her eyes are visible.
In the video, Allie X only lip synchs occasionally; her efforts to do so are deliberately formulaic and desultory. Because of this, her voice does not seem to be grounded in her body; even when it soars, it is just another layer of the electronic mix. Allie X’s singing is expressive, but also at the same time oddly detached. On all levels, and despite its aggressive display, the music video refuses contact. We are neither able to identify with Allie X, nor objectify her as a sexual figure. We are made all too familiar with her agitation and distress; but at the same time she denies us any intimacy.
The video picks up all these qualities from the song itself. “Catch” is a synth pop tune. It is bouncy and propulsive; but it is not warm. It walks a thin line between mechanical repetition and gleefully upbeat expression. Renato Pagnani aptly describes the song as “a relentless and immediate sugar rush with a slight metallic aftertaste.” The lyrics speak of being victimized by a lover who toyed with the singer’s affections: “turns out you shut me up for fun/ You got away with murder/ Leave me at a loss for the words/… I was devastated by the pain.” But the song does not wallow in romantic lament. It’s too fast and jittery for any such sentiments. Rather, Allie X compares sexual obsession to heroin addiction. “You stuck a needle right into that vein,” she says to the lover who callously abandoned her after getting her hooked. In any case, she doesn’t want to get clean, but only to find a more reliable source for the drug that takes away her pain: “I’m screaming, begging for the one/ That won’t just shoot me up for fun.” And in the song’s coldly exultant refrain, Allie X promises revenge on her betrayer with the incessantly repeated phrase: “just wait until I catch my breath.”
I still haven’t mentioned the most intense and powerful thing about the music video, which is its relentless, jittery visual rhythm. The image is never still. Nearly every sequence consists of images that quickly loop like an animated GIF, or that flash back and forth between two stills like a stuttering repetitive jump cut. (Indeed, Allie X has posted a number of animated GIFs from the video on her Tumblr). On close examination, the organization of the video is quite complex. Sometimes the entire image loops; sometimes the looping figure is composited into a background that remains still, or that loops with a different rhythm. Sometimes the looping figure moves around in a circle, while other times it jerks back and forth, and still other times it just twitches faintly. Then there are the times when Allie X’s figure does not itself move; but the camera pans violently one way and then the other, or the background flashes from one configuration to another and back again, or two separate images are alternated rapidly.
The video thus renders for us a world in continual agitation. The motion is sometimes more violent and sometimes less; it is sometimes more all-embracing and other times restricted to a few figures. But the image is never completely still. The video for “Catch” is in constant, tumultuous motion, even though it doesn’t take us anywhere, but remains within the same physical space. It is almost as if the video were extending our vision beyond the human scale, by making perceptible to us the incessant molecular turmoil that underlies even the most stable objects. (This helps to explain why the video, like certain films by Kubrick, Cronenberg, and Palfi, combines visceral body agitation with inhumanly icy, formalist distancing effects).
In general, the video for “Catch” effaces the difference between movement by figures in the frame, movement of the camera itself (reframing), and movement effected through fast montage or alternation of frames. Bodies may move, or the camera may move, or motion may be added by means of digital compositing and scanning. Digital processing muddies the conventional distinctions between mise en scene (what is captured by the camera), cinematography (what the camera itself does) and montage (what is done to the material recorded by the camera afterwards). However these movements are produced, they are all equivalent in the spectator’s experience.
The video is almost a compendium of the various ways that images can be looped, alternated, and set into motion. In this way, it exemplifies the database aesthetic that Lev Manovich describes as central to digital media. There is no linear progression among these visual forms, but only a combinatorial display of different configurations, one after another. The underlying logic of a database, as Manovich argues, is spatial rather than temporal. The many possible permutations can only be presented one at a time, in succession; but in such a “spatialized narrative,” there is no rationale for any one particular order rather than another.
This spatialized visual logic is of course complicated by the way that music is an irreducibly temporal form. The video for “Catch” has no storyline, and no logic of development, aside from that provided by the song’s lyrics and its verse-bridge-chorus structure. But the rhythm of the video’s visual jerks and twitches is closely related to the beat of the music. While the visual twitching doesn’t coordinate precisely with the song’s bass line, it does remain closely attuned to it, in a sort of visual syncopation. For this reason, the video’s loops and repetitions do not produce anything like a sense of stable cycles. There is no suggestion of underlying regularity, but only a continually throbbing pulse. We might well say, following Deleuze, that “the unequal in itself” is the only thing that gets repeated, or that returns, in this video. Both sonically and visually, the unevenness of the beat keeps on coming back and pushing us forward.
Saindon’s video exemplifies a new regime of audiovisual images. Time is not just the measure of motion, as is the case in the films of what Deleuze calls the movement-image. But neither is time unveiled in its pure state, as happens in the films of what Deleuze calls the time-image. Rather, we find a different articulation of time and space — and also of sound and vision — than is the case in either of Deleuze’s two image regimes. Time and space are intricated together — and even exchange their roles and characteristics — in the course of the music video’s twitchy rhythms. “Catch” jams the sensori-motor circuits of the movement-image, but it also undermines the “pure optical and sound situations” of the time-image. Instead, it drags us into a strange new realm of micro-perceptions and micro-affects, all subordinated to the song’s and video’s underlying pulse.
For the last several years, I have been trying to think about the ways that relations of time and space, and of sound and image, are altered as a result of new digital technologies. I have pondered this by looking at and listening to both recent movies and music videos. One big difference, of course, is that with music videos the soundtrack always comes first; while this is rarely the case in movies. But I think that both movies and music videos in recent years have given more weight to the sonic dimension than was the case before. I try to work through the issues of time/space and sound/image systematically, more or less, in my discussion of Eduoard Salier’s video for Massive Attack’s “Splitting the Atom.” And, in my discussion of Joseph Kahn’s film Detention, I consider how this rearticulation of space and time leads to the need for a new, third sort of image in Deleuze’s taxonomy, after the movement-image and the time-image. The Spanish film theorist Sergi Sanchez suggests calling this new kind of image, that results from digital technologies, the “no-time image.” Although it arises out of Deleuze’s time-image, in which “time in its pure state” is liberated from movement and made present in its own right, this third image treats time quite differently. Digital video is a medium of simultaneity, not only because it allows for instantaneous transmission, but also because (even when it is not broadcast and viewed instantaneously) it tends to replace montage (temporal juxtaposition) with compositing (allowing for disparate things or images to be placed together in the same frame). (Besides Sanchez, Lev Manovich has also written extensively about this).
There is definitely a sort of temporality to the new digital-video image; space dominates time, in a way, but without being reducible either to the “spatialization” of time denounced by Bergson and Deleuze, or the durational time exalted by Bergson and Deleuze. The temporality of the new digital audiovisual image is quite different from either the temporality that is measured by movement (Deleuze’s movement-image) or the temporality that frees itself from movement and presents itself as pure duration (Deleuze’s time-image). David Rodowick is not wrong to claim that the digital does not really involve duration; he is only wrong to condemn it for not doing so, instead of trying to work out what the digital audiovisual image does do. There’s a weird split, because it takes time to present, or to explore, the composited screen of the “no-time” image; and because, in this situation, modulations of sound (which is unavoidably temporal) take precedence over modulations of vision. Hence the curious time-of-no-time rhythms we find in “Splitting the Atom”, and in the 19-years-of-detention sequence of Detention.
I think we find another, inventive instance of this in the beautiful new video for the song “Let It Be” by Labrinth (Timothy McKenzie). (The song has no connection, as far as I can tell, with the classic Beatles song of the same title). The video is directed by the duo known as Us (Christopher Barrett and Luke Taylor). The video consists in an apparent single take, which moves through a single warehouse space. The camera glides and stops and zooms in and circles around and twists and turns and swoops, as it moves through this space. In different parts of the warehouse space, we have different groupings of fixtures and furniture, like the decors of various rooms in a home and in a recording studio, but all incomplete and without walls or ceiling — each setting is just a certain amount of furniture, surrounded by empty expanses of floor. In each of these spaces, we see Labrinth and his bandmates and friends engaged in various activities, ranging from composing the song, to recording it in multiple stages (singing, guitar, drumming, and horn section, all separately, to having a business pitch meeting, to buying a car, and then shooting a music video that features the singer getting out of the car, to people just hanging in the living room. There is even a scene of a postman delivering mail by putting it through a slot in the front door (but the front door stands by itself in one section of the warehouse); and another of Labrinth standing alone in his kitchen drinking coffee, with the sink filled to the brim with dirty cups.
All these events must have been dispersed in time and space when they “really” happened; but in the video they are all happening at once in the same location, with the secondary temporality of the camera exploring them. Usually the camera just contemplates one of these scenarios at a time, but sometimes (and especially when the camera is gliding between them) we see several scenes on the screen at once, or other scenes in the background when one is in the foreground. A whole history — the singer’s life, on the one hand, and his specific experience of composing, pitching, recording, producing, and making a video for the song, on the other — is compressed (or better, composited) within the confines of the warehouse (which provides, as it were, bare-bones simulacra of all the locations), and within the confines of the video itself, as we watch it unfold in its single camera movement. The camera never holds still for very long; it is usually gliding, but it is always steady and never jerky or agitated. (Presumably, the videomakers used motion control to shoot all of the parts of the video separately, but make sure they could be composited together seamlessly — as is suggested here).
The song itself is a beautiful, heartfelt and expressive neo-soul number. It starts plaintively, but builds to a dramatic conclusion. The lyrics suggest a mix of struggle and fatalism — the singer has done his best, but he doesn’t have total control and reaches a point where he just needs to “let it be” and have whatever happens, happen. At the end of the video, lights go out and then flash on and off — all the other scenes have disappeared, and the camera zooms in on Labrinth, standing alone, in a circle of spotlights in the otherwise dark space. We are left with just the performer, performing — after having seen all the layers of work, preparation and construction, and subjective experience that made the performance possible. Everything is framed within the temporality and rhythms of the song, with its repetitions (verse and chorus) as well as its build-up to a crescendo of culmination; though the video begins before the song does (the camera glides across the floor before the music starts), and continues to zoom in and then hold on the image of Labyrinth lit up in the otherwise darkness for a few seconds after the music ends.
There’s a whole nexus of feeling and experiencing here — but (as Rodowick might well say) it cannot be characterized as duration in the Bergsonian and Proustian and Deleuzian and Antonioniesque sense. It’s a quite different mode of temporalization, or of “experience” — though one for which I don’t have the right words yet. It’s implosive rather than expansive, not “a bit of time in its pure state” (Deleuze paraphrasing Proust) so much as a concatenation of things and processes that don’t really fit together or “harmonize” (literally or metaphorically? I’m not sure) with one another, and yet somehow coexist nonetheless. I would want to resist a phenomenological vocabulary here as well as a Deleuzian one — there is none of the “commutative reversibility” between spectator and screen described by Vivan Sobchack, or “attunment” evoked so powerfully by my colleage Scott Richmond. It’s rather something both more abstract, and yet less reflexive, than any of that. I’d want to think of it, rather, in terms of the (often non-human) affordances of new digital technologies, in the ways that (for instance) Mark B. N. Hansen has been looking at — but I don’t quite see the way of working this out yet. In any case, I think that “Let It Be”, like “Splitting the Atom” and Detention, is a harbinger of a new sort of techno-social sensibility — one that (to paraphrase what Deleuze wrote in a different but analogous context) we may at least hope will not prove worse than the previous ones.
Next week, I will be speaking in New York at this conference. For reasons I do not understand, they have asked for all the papers to be submitted in advance, and say they will give them out to whoever comes to hear the talks. To my mind, this makes the conference itself superfluous — why sit through a bunch of talks, when you can read them much more easily and quickly? But whatever.
In any case, here is my talk on “The Aesthetics of Workflow.” My initial plan was much more ambitious — in addition to speaking about Anthony Mandler’s video for Rihanna’s “Disturbia”, I was also going to discuss two other music videos: Grant Singer’s video for Sky Ferreira’s “Night Time, My Time”, and Tom Beard and FKA twigs’ video for FKA twigs’ “Papi Pacify”. Part of the idea was to discuss videos for women singers at three levels of the music industry: superstar (Rihanna), emerging (& so far) midlevel artist (Sky Ferreira), and little-known independent (FKA twigs). All three videos are poweful and challenging, but I think that the different economic scales makes for different modes of expression as well.
However, this was not to be. So far I haven’t had enough time to write about these other two videos. And even if I had, I would end up with a talk that would probably be two hours long — something much better read than delivered live. So I will leave these two additional videos for later consideration. (I should add, however, that I showed “Night Time, My Time” to my Intro to Film students. One of them remarked, in response, that he would play this video at the end of a party, when he wanted to get everyone to leave. I take this as a strong compliment to the video — and I hope that Ferreira and Singer would take the comment in this spirit as well).
As for what I have written already, I feel like I haven’t really gotten to the bottom of this. There’s a lot more to say about Rihanna; and, as always when I write about music videos, I feel self-conscious about my inability to say enough about the music in formalist terms.
But anyway, here’s the text of my talk, in two parts:
“Workflow” is a term that is increasingly being used today in digital audiovisual production. In the words of the film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky:
“Workflow” describes the relationship between production and post-production — shooting and editing. A workflow encompasses everything from the hard drives on which image data is recorded to the final delivery of the film for distribution. Workflow theories emphasize flexibility and maneuverability.
Vishnevetsky’s point is not just that the term “workflow” is increasingly being used by film- and videomakers themselves, in order to designate how they employ digital tools; but also, and just as importantly, that the new practices designated by the term need to be analyzed by critics and theorists of audiovisual media. Recent developments in digital technology have not only led to radical changes in film and video production methods; they have also led to new audiovisual formal structures and styles — or more loosely, to a new sort of “look and feel” for audiovisual artifacts.
Of course, this workflow “look and feel” is far from universal; and there is no necessary correspondence between technologies of production and final products. Neoliberal economic activity in general is organized on the basis of supposed “flexibility and maneuverability.” Even when they are making works that still look and sound like older, more traditional productions, Film- and videomakers employ workflow methods in order to save time and money, cut corners, and respond quickly to frequent demands from clients. There are also artists — Michel Gondry is a good example — who exhibit a laudable streak of stubborn perversity: they go out of their way to produce works in which digital-seeming effects are in fact created through older, analog means.
Nonetheless, the new technologies and production practices of workflow offer new affordances to film- and videomakers. They open the way for new expressive possibilities — even though these possibilities are often not taken up. As Stanley Cavell puts it in relation to film, “the aesthetic possibilities of a medium are not givens…. Only the art itself can discover its possibilities, and the discovery of a new possibility is the discovery of a new medium.” Similarly, the potential expressive uses of today’s new digital technologies cannot be known in advance; they can only be discovered or invented, and then elaborated, in the course of actual audiovisual production. At their best, the technologies and practices of workflow lead to a new audiovisual aesthetic.
Vishnevetsky refers to “workflow” mostly in the context of digital cinema: his article explicitly discusses recent movies by David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh. But I am more interested in looking instead at contemporary music videos. There are several reasons for this. On a personal level, working with music videos allows me to combine my enthusiasm as a pop music fan (despite my lack of musical training) with my more formal concerns as a scholar of audiovisual media. On a more distanced level, music videos fascinate me because they are so complexly overdetermined. Something like Italian operas in the 19th century, or Broadway and MGM musicals in the 20th, music videos are a hybrid, impure form — and indeed a necessarily compromised one. They almost never have the status of independent, self-subsistent works. Even more than other pop-cultural forms, they are subject to the whims of marketers and publicists. They are based upon pre-existing musical material, which usually wasn’t created with them in mind. They most often serve the derivative purposes of advertising the songs for which they were made, and of contributing to the larger-than-life, transmedia personae of their performers. In addition, music videos frequently remediate older media contents: alluding to, sampling and recombining, or unambiguously plagiarizing material from movies, television, fashion photography, and experimental art. Music videos thus always remain illustrative and externally referential — the cardinal sins according to modernist theories of art.
And yet, despite all this — or is it rather because of all this? — music videos are often deeply self-reflexive, and strikingly innovative in form and technique. They push the latest production technologies to their limits; and they experiment with new modes of visualization and expression. Precisely because their sonic content already comes ready-made, and because they are of such limited length, they do not need to conform to older modes of audiovisual organization. They are free to ignore Hollywood mainstays like narrative structures and continuity conventions. Even before the rise of digital sound and image technologies, Michel Chion noted that music videos exhibited “a joyous rhetoric of images,” made possible by the fact that “the image is conspicuously attaching itself to some music that was sufficient to itself.” Music videos are strictly speaking superfluous — and this is what gives them a space for free invention. Chion adds that, in many music videos, “the rapid succession of shots creates a sense of visual polyphony and even of simultaneity, even as we see only a single image at a time.”
If this was already the case when Chion was writing in 1990, it is even more fully so today, in the age of digital workflow. As Vishnevetsky notes, the chief characteristic of the workflow aesthetic is that it blurs the line between production and post-production. Of course, this makes it easier for film- and videomakers to change their minds, and to recast all their material even at the last moment. But workflow practices also have ontological consequences, because they erase the distinction between those aspects of audiovisual material that are actually placed before the camera and sound recorder, and those that are subsequently invented, added, or altered on the computer. The very nature of audiovisual construction and reproduction is thereby put into question.
In other words, the whole issue of cinematic realism, so fervently debated on both sides for much of the twentieth century, loses its relevance in the age of workflow. It no longer makes sense to distinguish, as André Bazin did, between a self-subsistent reality that is indexically captured by the mechanistic recording apparatus of the cinema, and an “image,” defined as “everything that the depiction of a thing on the screen can add to the thing itself.”
Rather, the real itself is always in production — just as Deleuze and Guattari already intimated in the 1970s. Sonic and visual material is continually being worked and reworked: in the physical spaces before the camera and sound recorder, in these mechanisms’ own processes of capture and transmission, in the digital transformations accomplished through the computer, and in our own subjective acts of perception, reception, and synthesis. All of these are equally “real”: they are best thought of as particular stages in the never-ending adventure of materials. Thanks to the recent digital technologies epitomized by workflow, these diverse stages of actuality now interpenetrate one another more than ever before. This does not mean that Bazin has been discredited by the non-indexical nature of digital audiovisual capture. To the contrary, he is more in the right than he even knew: “the image may be out of focus, distorted, devoid of colour and without documentary value; nevertheless, it has been created out of the ontology of the model. It is the model.”
When I teach Introduction to Film (which I do every semester) much of my effort is spent explaining to students the basic formal structures of mise en scène, cinematography, and editing. These can be understood as, respectively, that which is presented before the camera, that which the camera itself does, and that which is subsequently assembled out of the material recorded by the camera. Mise en scène, cinematography, and editing are crucial categories for film studies, because they refer at once to operations performed in the course of making the film, and to formal aspects of the completed film as it is experienced by its audience.
Now, filmmakers have often played fast and loose with these categories, exploiting their ambiguities and loopholes. Long takes by Hitchcock and Welles, for instance, work to express through camera movement and framing alone what usually needs to be conveyed by means of editing. Godard’s calculated violations of continuity editing rules depend, for their effect, upon our unconscious expectations that these rules will be maintained. But if classical filmmaking established such basic formal categories, and modernist filmmaking troubled their boundaries, the most adventurous recent audiovisual production seems to dispense with them altogether. It is not just that there are new ways of putting together moving image sequences during post-production, but also that the resulting sequences look and sound differently than heretofore, and are organized by an entirely different logic. For instance, the rapid editing of many music videos, and of “chaos cinema” action sequences, bears a certain formal resemblance to 1920s Soviet montage; but the aesthetic aims of contemporary music video directors, no less than their technological means of production, are quite distant from those of Vertov and Eisenstein.
Contemporary music videos are quite strikingly different, not just from traditional cinema, but even from the “MTV-style” videos of the genre’s first decade, the 1980s. Carol Vernallis notes, for instance, how our experience of color in music videos, and of the textures of such diffuse substances as “dust, water, smoke, and clouds,” has been transformed by the use of DI (digital intermediate), a process that only came into common use after 2005 or so. Now that color and texture can be controlled and transformed on a pixel-by-pixel basis, Vernallis says, “each element is marked off so clearly it is almost as if we were examining the video’s detail through a magnifying glass.” Digital compositing already allows for image juxtapositions that are simultaneous, instead of (as in radical cinematic montage) sequential. But DI raises this multiplicity to a higher power, rendering for us something like the perception of machines, or of insect-style compound eyes. Vernallis adds that DI also allows video directors to do things like “cut quickly” from “an extreme wide-angle shot” to “an extreme closeup,” or “cut three or four fast shots around the face at well-judged off-angles” (here she refers in particular to the work of Jonas Åkerlund). These fast edits are generally “hard to see”; but they create a subliminal sense of “deeper immersion” for the viewer.
The new workflow aesthetics affects audiovisual production and reception alike; it works equally on the level of the “subject,” and on that of the “object.” On the one hand, it simulates and stimulates new modes of subjective perception; on the other, it produces new configurations of the objects being perceived.
I turn now to a music video that epitomizes the aesthetics of workflow. Anthony Mandler’s 2008 video for Rihanna’s song “Disturbia” is so densely layered and cluttered and compressed that it seems to require a whole new formal language to do it justice. The proliferation of images in the video definitely gives us a sense of what Chion calls “visual polyphony.” What is more, we do not see just “a single image at a time”; the video is literally polyphonic — or better, polyoptic — in that images are continually being layered transparently over one another. However, as befits the song, this “visual rhetoric” is oppressive rather than “joyous.” It suggests visual overload, more than promiscuous multiplication.
It would be impossible to do a conventional shot breakdown of this video; images proliferate and propagate in ways that do not conform to the traditional logic of cinematography and editing. At times, Rihanna’s face or figure detaches into two images, one of which jitters and shakes as if it were trying to break free from itself — or as if the camera itself were having some sort of seizure. There are also quick movements in and out of focus. Sometimes images are doubled by layering; usually a detail like Rihanna’s face in closeup is placed semi-transparently on top of a broader scene. The overall effect is at once unstable and claustrophobic.
At still other times, barbed wire and spider web patterns are splayed across Rihanna’s skin. The video’s images fade into one another as well as appearing on top of one another. There is also a lot of rapid cutting, without fades, not only between scenes that show the singer in different locales and wearing different costumes (as is common in music videos), but also among fragments of individual scenes or set-ups. Almost everything is presented frontally (as is also a common practice in music videos), but the way that the images are both fragmented and juxtaposed nonetheless disrupts any stable sense of perspective.
The video’s setting looks like a Victorian insane asylum. This impression is reinforced by the sound effects — dissonant arpeggios accompanied by creaking sounds — in the first thirty seconds of the video, before the song proper begins. My students found the video’s visual decor reminiscent of that in the computer game and movie series Silent Hill; but I think this is a matter, not of homage or direct imitation, but simply of the fact that both works draw upon the same Victorian-asylum imagery. In the video, in any case, Rihanna appears in numerous roles: she is both the director of the asylum, and a number of imprisoned patients.
In the former role, she is seated in an enormous rotating chair. She wears a sort of Victorian bondage wear, with black dress and knee-high boots, and long nails in black nail polish. She fans herself while turning in the chair, or walks about languidly and pats the head of a docile prisoner. Rihanna is also surrounded by strong, menacing figures. An enormous man with an eyepatch and a black-and-white striped prison uniform turns some large, creaky mechanical wheels; another large man, shirtless, beats out the song’s brutal rhythm on two enormous drums. While sitting in the chair, Rihanna is also assaulted by her own double: a feral female figure, on all fours, with wrists bound together and a punkish shock of blonde hair, who snarls and lunges at her, like a bad pet.
Meanwhile, Rihanna takes on multiple guises in her role as a patient-cum-prisoner in the asylum. She is caged in a jail cell, with straight blonde hair and empty zombie eyes. In other sequences, she pulls furiously upon chains that bind her ankles together and rivet her arms to a peg in the floor; or she jerks about violently while seemingly confined within an empty bedframe. Another sequence suggests slavery, as she stands chained to a pillar, with a collar around her neck, hands bound behind her back, and grease smeared on her naked shoulder. In the latter part of the video, we see her hanging immobilized in a corridor, her lower arms stuck inside the walls, and a tarantula on her upper arm, near her shoulder. We see also her splayed out, behind latticework, making love to a life-sized male mannequin; and in other shots, wearing what looks like an Indian headdress.
Most of these images are composed in dark tones, often approaching a monochrome dark blue. The darkness is only relieved by the highlighting of Rihanna’s face. Sometimes, however, there are horizontal bars of illumination or patches of color at the back of the set. In addition, the relatively dark images are continually interrupted by vertical streaks of light that seem to erupt out of the screen; or else by flames in the foreground, that ostentatiously do not fit into the same space as the rest of the image. One recurring sequence, however, is violently illuminated, in contrast to everything else in the video: the screen is bathed from above and behind in a glaring white and orange light. Rihanna’s prone body is held up into the light by a group of backlit dancers, perhaps suggesting a human sacrifice.
The song “Disturbia” is about mental anguish: the lyrics suggest paranoia, unbearable compulsion, and other such ugly feelings. “A disease of the mind,/ It can control you,” Rihanna sings, “I feel like a monster.” And again, in a line that seems to set forth the visual strategy of the video: “It’s like the darkness is the light.” I am inclined to give this line its full weight, as a statement of via negativa mysticism. The song is an affective expression, but it isn’t the representation of a mental state. For the very condition of feelings like these is that they cannot be represented, or brought into the light of full consciousness. Rihanna — or her persona in this song — suffers precisely from the absence, and the impossibility, of illumination. And this is the ironic situation that the song and video strive to “represent.”
It is worth noting that “Distubia” was co-written by Chris Brown, who passed it on to Rihanna after originally having planned to record it himself. Even though the song and video were released before the horrific incident in which Brown beat up Rihanna, it is hard not to regard “Disturbia” in the context of this subsequent history. The lyrics do not explicitly state any cause for the compulsion and paranoia that they express; but these symptoms can easily be interpreted as the effects of jealousy or a broken relationship. Robin James, writing specifically about Rihanna’s 2012 album Unapologetic, discusses the singer’s embrace of “melancholic damage,” and her absolute refusal of any narrative of recovery and resilience in the wake of the assault. I think that such a “damaged” and willfully unapologetic stance is already evident in “Disturbia,” both the song and the video.
“Disturbia” is undeniably a very catchy song, and it was a big dance hit when it was first released in 2008. The song was even described by one critic at the time (Alex Fletcher) as “a fun-packed electro treat filled with sizzling beats and crazy vocal effects.” Another critic (Fraser McAlpine), despite admiring “the spooky, gothy sounds in the first 30 seconds of the video,” and praising what he calls “Rihanna’s icy whine,” nonetheless complains that overall “Disturbia” is “FAR too chirpy a tune to suit the parade of Marilyn Manson fetish-wear and leathery bedlam which accompanies it” in the video.
Nonetheless, I think that the video responds to, and indeed brings out, disturbing undercurrents that already exist in the song. “Disturbia” is dominated by a harsh and pounding beat, which lacks the brightness and bounciness of similarly repetitive bass lines in electro tunes (such as that in “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” by Eiffel 65, which McAlpine compares to that of “Disturbia”). The harshness of the song’s rhythm is reinforced, not only by the “Bum bum be-dum bum bum be-dum bum” repeated refrain, but even more by the video’s choreography. Rihanna and her surrounding figures dance with spastic jerks of the head or of the whole body, emphasizing the beat’s relentless, inorganic regularity. There is no smooth or graceful movement here; everything is shaped by violent constraints.
This sort of dancing works in tandem with the twitching of the camera, the image juxtapositions, and the aggressive editing. All in all, Mandler’s metamorphosing images closely respond to the musical elements of the song: both its shifts of register and its propulsive force. But the hyperactive image track also leads us to notice different aspects of the sound than we might have done otherwise. In particular, it draws our attention to the song’s treatment of Rihanna’s voice, with its Autotune vocoder-like effects, and its surprising changes of vocal register. In short, we don’t hear the music of “Disturbia” in the same way when we watch the video, as we would without it.
The video for “Disturbia” uses the resources of workflow aesthetics in order both to track the song’s rhythmic intensities, and to follow the logic of the via negativa outlined by the song’s lyrics. In other words, the video “visualizes” an emotional state that is first presented acoustically, and that — strictly speaking — is not susceptible to visualization. The video assaults our senses with too thick an agglomeration of too many images. And yet these all tend to collapse into a black hole of negativity, or a night in which all cows are black. The ultimate effect of the video’s profusion is not psychedelic plenitude, but rather an amplification of darkness and obliqueness.
Rihanna clearly has a place in the genealogy of Afrofuturism. She is a robo-diva, as Robin James describes her, picking up on a term originally coined by Tom Breihan. James sees Rihanna’s self-robotization as a gesture of resistance: a way of refusing white patriarchy’s normative identification of itself with the human per se. In opposition to this, Stan Hawkins “perceive[s] Rihanna’s subjectivizing of the posthuman body as primarily nonemancipatory.” Actually, these positions are not necessarily in contradiction with one another, since the figure of the robot in Afrofuturism has long pointed in both directions at once: towards slavery, but also towards a “machine mythology” that rejects “the human” as “a pointless and treacherous category” of oppression (Kodwo Eshun).
But the technologies of workflow, as evidenced in the video for “Disturbia,” operate, I think, in something of a transversal register, in contrast to either of these directions. For what is at issue is not just “Rihanna’s subjectivizing of the posthuman body,” but also a correlative desubjectivizing of what it might mean to perceive her body. Workflow aesthetics, in both its production and its reception, operates on a fine microlevel. It allows for the most minute perceptual discriminations: one hue from another, one grain of sound from another, one pixel or one millisecond from another. These distinctions, like Leibniz’s petites perceptions, fall beneath the threshold of human recognition and voluntary action. We feel them, we are affected by them; but we cannot grasp them or comprehend them. In this way, an inhuman, machinic mode of experiencing is substituted for our own. Pop music is always about the most basic human emotions, at least as they are validated within our culture: love and sex, romance and rivalry, hatred and jealousy, ecstasy and pain. But insofar as the medium is the message, we are now experiencing even these conditions in ways that extend beyond and beneath our subjectivity.