Since my music videos class has moved online due to the coronavirus, instead of talking about particular music videos in real time with my class, I am posting remarks on all the assigned videos for the students to read and respond to. The list of videos we are watching for the rest of the semester is here.
Since other people besides my students might be interested, I am posting all my discussion notes here on the blog.
Here is the first installment:
THEESatisfaction was a two-woman hip hop group from Seattle (consisting of Stasia “Stas” Irons and Catherine “Cat” Harris-White). The director of the video, dream hampton, is a filmmaker who mostly makes political documentaries. The video was inspired by a painting called “A Moment’s Pleasure Number 2″ by the artist Mickalene Thomas. The musicians say: “A lot of beautiful black women are in it. We cast 20 beautiful black women – and a variety. It’s just not something that is seen often… we kind of wanted to take the media into our own hands. Cause we don’t see a lot of black women being highlighted in a certain way on television – music videos in particular. It’s usually just one shade or one type all the time. So we wanted to fuck around with it.” The song features a relaxed groove, with repeated lyrics: “don’t funk with my groove… you’d better bring yourself.” It’s about being together, in a pleasant and perhaps slightly buzzed state, and staying that way. The video is set in a single apartment; it just shows Stas and Cat, and other black women, relaxing and partying. There are lots of closeups of beauty preparation, usually with one woman helping another: lipstick being applied, hair being done, jewelry and gloves being put on. There are also both closeups and longer shots of one or two women, both the band members and others, looking straight at the camera. There are slow-motion shots of dancing in the main room, as the camera weaves through, and of people passing one another through the apartment’s narrow corridors. And there are shots that are almost like tableaux vivants, showing Stas and Cat, or all the women in the video, posed and reposed on the couch and on the floor, clapping to the music but otherwise fairly still. The camera both contemplates the women, and moves among them; it does not aggressively objectify them as sex objects (in the manner of mainstream cinema, whose “male gaze” has been described by feminist film theorists). The video creates a kind of utopia, a space and time for self-love, self-cultivation, and communal feeling (both friendly and perhaps erotic), apart from the real-world stresses of racism, sexism, homophobia, and economic necessity.
Massive Attack, Splitting the Atom (Edouard Salier, 2009) and Take It There (Hiro Murai, 2016)
Massive Attack is a trip-hop group from Bristol, UK; they have been intermittently active since the early 1990s. They have made a lot of interesting music videos, almost none of which feature the band itself performing. We saw their 1994 video Protection (directed by Michel Gondry) earlier in the semester. These are two of their most powerful videos of the past decade. Both videos are based on slow, melancholy songs. Splitting the Atom is entirely computer-generated animation. There is an implicit narrative: we move in three dimensions through a science-fictional city that seems to have been attacked by some sort of monster (which we see toward the end). The city itself seems to be frozen in time: almost nothing moves; fragments from an explosion are suspended in mid-air. Instead, the (virtual) camera moves through the scene. We start out with what looks like rock formations (these are the polyhedrons that are the basic building blocks of 3D computer animation); then we pass through the city, which gradually becomes more and more cluttered, as the animation becomes more and more detailed. Toward the end, we reach the dead monster. The video is entirely in grayscale, except for two flashes of red: one glimmering from the eye of the dead monster, and the other a flash at the very end of the video, that seems to be an explosion obliterating everything. If you are interested, I published an article about this video, available here.
Take It There is directed by Hiro Murai, who has also directed powerful videos for Donald Glover and others. The video features the actor John Hawkes (best known for his role in the TV series Deadwood). He seems to be drunk, sick, or wounded, as he wanders through a deserted city at night, barely able to walk. Occasionally he is joined by four women dancers, all dressed in black. The video moves back and forth between naturalistic behavior (Hawkes’ lurching walk) and highly stylized moves (as the dancers’ motions synchronize with Hawkes’ stumbling). The movement is choreographed by Ryan Heffington, whose work we have already seen in Sia’s dance videos with Maddie Ziegler, and in Christine and the Queens’ 15-minute video suite La vita nuova. In the second half of the video, Hawkes finds himself prostrate in an emptied swimming pool, surrounded by the dancers who lift him up as if they were animating him; here the video moves more fully into the realm of dance, although Hawkes’ character is still evidently sick or disabled. He even smiles for a moment as he dances; though at the end, when the dancers leave, he collapses once more. The video as a whole creates an overwhelming portrait of the state of fatigue, or of being suspended between life and death. I have also published a chapter on this video, in my book Digital Music Videos.
This is another video directed by Hiro Murai, and choreographed by Ryan Heffington. Chet Faker (who now performs under his real name, Nick Murphy) is an Australian singer-songwriter. Gold is a love song, though a somewhat odd one: it sounds more plaintive than exultant, and the singer’s voice is processed differently in different parts of the song. Some online commentators suggest that the highly idealized love lyrics are in fact cynically ironic. The video doesn’t illustrate the lyrics in any obvious way. It takes place at night, on a deserted road; the camera is in a moving car (presumably – we never see the car itself, only the view in front of it, illuminated by the headlights). The video seems to be a single take, though this is partly faked: there are hidden cuts, when the camera looks downward just at the road, and when it sweeps horizontally across the darkness. For most of the video, the car and camera are moving backwards. The director says that “there is almost no post-work involved in this video… there’re total of 4 shots combined together for the final video.” The dancers are three young women on roller skates; they emerge out of the darkness, gliding towards the car, and do their moves while the car continues to move backwards away from them. In the last minute of the video, the car turns away from the dancers, turning an entire 180 degrees; in the headlights, we see the road ahead blocked by another car, facing sideways across both lanes, which has been damaged in an accident; the singer lip-syncs from the front passenger seat. A deer (not alive, presumably stuffed?) stands motionless, behind and next to the car. Perhaps the car hit the deer, causing the accident? but that doesn’t explain its placement behind the car, which is damaged in the front. In any case, the effect is absurdist and surreal. The car then turns again, another 180 degrees, and starts to move forwards instead of backwards. The dancers are once again illuminated; but as the song ends, they skate away from the car, disappearing back into the darkness from which they emerged. The skate dancing is fairly abstract, and I find it hard to assign it any specific meaning — aside from being amazed at the dancers’ smoothness and virtuosity. But the empty road in the darkness feels deeply mysterious, with the camera tracking the center yellow-black stripe, and the music initially consisting of a bass line and hand claps. The skaters emerge as the singer’s voice does, and as additional layers of instrumentation are added. The overall effect is rathe poignant, as the beauty of the dance reveals itself for a brief time, and then (after we have seen the weird tableau of the accident) withdraws back into the darkness.
This is yet another video directed by Hiro Murai. Shabazz Palaces is a hip hop duo from Seattle, consisting of Ishmael Butler (a rapper who was one of the founding members of Digable Planets, a jazzy hip hop trio from the early 1990s) and Tendai Maraire (a multi-instrumentalist, originally from Zimbabwe, whose other band, Chimurenga Renaissance, combines American hip hop sounds with traditional Zimbabwean music). Their overall stance could be characterized as Afrofuturist (with science fictional takes on Black themes, setting both an imagined future and an archaic past against the pressures and oppressions of the present moment). In any case, Shabazz Palaces’ music tends to be oblique and spacey, with discontinuous textures, riffs and voices fading in and out, and enigmatic lyrics. #Cake is one of their more accessible songs, thanks to the repeated bass figure and vocal riff (“eating cake”). Murai’s visuals work to match the enigmatic density (and yet ligher-than-air slipperiness) of the music. (With a video like this, it is better to simply describe what we see and hear, rather than pushing too hard for specific meanings). The video has a dark, muted color palette, and features quick cuts between multiple shots that seem to be matched graphically (through visual similarities across the cut from shot to shot) rather than according to any narrative logic. We see a man running through empty city streets at night; sometimes we see his feet, sometimes his face, sometimes his whole body at a vast distance. We do not know who or what he might be running from. Part of the time we see him running in slow motion, which suggests a kind of stasis as in a nightmare: no matter how fast he runs, he doesn’t really get anywhere. These shots are intercut with lots of shots of interiors, vast spaces with high ceilings, broken objects scattered about, and graffiti on the walls. They seem to be the deserted ruins of factories, studios, workshops, or gymnasiums. These spaces are mostly dark, but either they have searchlights passing over them intermittently, or else they have distant windows admitting spots of daylight from outside. The camera often tilts, or stays motionless at odd angles. Enigmatic, oversized objects appear in these spaces: a pair of snakes, a statue of (I think?) some Asian goddess, an enormous rotating crown, the silhouetted figure or shadow of a dancer with horned headdress, and even the head of Ishmael Butler as he raps. There are also near-dark extreme closeups as the camera circles around Butler as he raps. At several points in the song, the musical textures shift and Butler’s rapping voice is replaced by the singing of a female vocalist (Catherine Harris-White from THEESatisfaction). These changes are also marked visually. The first time she sings, the camera goes blurry; then the runner stops and contemplates the reposing figure of a gigantic (100 feet tall?) nude woman. The second time Harris-White sings, the image of the runner is inverted; he seems to be running in the sky, with the lights of the night-time city glimmering below him. (At first he is running upside down; then he seems to be floating rightside up in the sky). We also see shots of the enormous woman walking through the city, as the sky lightens with the coming of day. All in all, the video conveys a mood that is disquieting, but also shot through with moments of wonder.
This is not a conventional music video, but a short film using as its soundtrack snippets from three songs on Flying Lotus’ album Until the Quiet Comes. Flying Lotus is an electronic producer from Los Angeles; earlier in the semester we watched Hiro Murai’s video for his song Never Catch Me (which postdates, and was certainly influenced by, the current video). Kahlil Joseph is an independet filmmaker – here is a good article on his work. Joseph has done music videos and short films for other artists including Shabazz Palaces and Sampha; he also worked extensively on Beyoncé’s Lemonade, which we will be watching later in the semester. Until the Quiet Comes is less than four minutes long, but it is both world-encompassing and devastating. We have an implicit story, conveyed in ravishing images, about the murders of young black men, shot in the Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts, Los Angeles. Surveillance helicopters fly overhead. The video is punctuated by images of water: images that are perhaps symbolic of change and rebirth. But we also see dead bodies floating in the water. Kids play in the fields surrounding the projects. There’s a quick traveling shot (at 1:24) of a young man and a boy sharing a bag of Cheetos. These are the people whose deaths we witness in the course of the video. The time scheme is nonlinear, however. Before that shot, we see the boy (Solomon Gibbs) pretending to shoot a gun, miming the actions with his fingers. But the gunshot somehow becomes real; we see its ricochets, and eventually the boy is hit. We see him fall in a rustle of juxtaposed shots, and then we get still images of him dead on the ground, a cascade of blood bubbling out from his body, and then smeared beside him, as in an abstract painting, as the camera looks from above. In the latter part of the video, we see the young man — played by the dancer Storyboard P — dead on the ground, at night from a gunshot wound (though we do not see the moment of his being shot). Images of his dead body are cut together with shots water, and of his corpse floating underwater. There’s a shot of somebody sitting in the passenger seat of a car (this is actually Flying Lotus himself). Then we cut back to the body, which twitches, animates itself, and rises up from the ground. The rest of the video is centered upon Storyboard P.’s dancing, which has a jerky, zombie-like quality, but somehow is fluid and graceful at the same time. (The article I linked to above says that one of the inspirations for Storyboard P.’s dance style is stop-motion animation). He dances his way, sometimes moving backwards and sometimes forwards, sometimes also in slow motion (or with body movements that resemble slow motion), past people in the neighborhood and ultimately into the car we saw earlier, which bounces (it’s a lowrider) and eventually drives away. How do we take this seeming resurection? While Storyboard P. is dancing, all the people he passes stand almost stock-still. This contrast between motion and stillness seems to structure the video in all sorts of ways. The video ends with a shot of the dead body floating in water, from below while the sun is visible above. Then there is a shot of the neighborhood at night, with emergency vehicles flashing their lights. Then a final shot of bubbling, flowing water, echoing the first shot of the video. All in all, this short film is a tone poem, based in social reality but lifted by color and composition into a realm of abstract beauty. It is filled with sadness and horror, but also love and (perhaps even) hope.