Music video commentaries (2)

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

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

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

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

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

Sophie, Faceshopping (Sophie and Aaron Chan, 2018)

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

Taylor Swift, Blank Space (Joseph Kahn, 2014)

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

Anohni, Drone Bomb Me (Nabil Elderkin, 2016)

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

Brockhampton, Sugar (Kevin Abstract, 2019)

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

Kesha, My Own Dance (Allie Avital, 2019)

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