Music video commentaries (4) – Rihanna

Here are the latest notes for my music videos class.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music video commentaries (3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music video commentaries (2)

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

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

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

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

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

Sophie, Faceshopping (Sophie and Aaron Chan, 2018)

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

Taylor Swift, Blank Space (Joseph Kahn, 2014)

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

Anohni, Drone Bomb Me (Nabil Elderkin, 2016)

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

Brockhampton, Sugar (Kevin Abstract, 2019)

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

Kesha, My Own Dance (Allie Avital, 2019)

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

Music video commentaries (1)

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

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

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

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

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

Chet Faker, Gold (Hiro Murai, 2014)

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

Shabazz Palaces, #Cake (Hiro Murai, 2014)

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

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

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

Charles Soule, ANYONE

Charles Soule’s recent science fiction novel Anyone was published in 2019, but I only got around to reading it in early 2020. If I had read it in time, I would certainly have included it in my roundup of my favorite science fiction of the year. Anyone has a brilliant premise that is worked out through an exciting thriller plot. I won’t go into the details of the narrative, except to say that it is quite exciting, with lots of surprising twists and turns. But I do want to think through the implications of the novel’s central premise or novum, and that requires a certain amount of plot summary, including a consideration of the (amazing) ending. Therefore I have a WARNING: there are SPOILERS in what follows; I cannot really discuss the book without them.

The novel’s premise is an old science-fictional idea, but it is worked through in a fresh and highly original way. The idea is: transferring your mind into somebody else’s body. In the book, this technology is extrapolatied from the actually-existing practice of optogenetics, in which neuroscientists use flashes of light to manipulate the brain. In the novel, if you see the right sequence of flashes, you suddenly find yourself in somebody else’s body. Your own body enters into a coma, or a vegetative state, until your mind returns to it. The person whose body is inhabited loses consciousness, and only regains it when the intruder departs; they have very little sense of what is happening when somebody else is acting and experiencing with their body; they retain no memory of it when they awaken. This technology is, unsurprisingly, called the flash; the company that markets it is called Anyone, since the promise of the procedure is that you can become anyone at all.

This set-up might seem, at first glance, to be a Cartesian, dualist one: mind and body are entirely separate. But it’s not that simple. Mind never exists separately from body; your consciousness needs to be embedded somewhere, embodied in an actual brain. If the body you are in dies before you can transfer somewhere else, then you die mentally as well. Your mind is never entirely free and unconstrained; it is both limited and shaped by its physicality. The body you find yourself in makes a difference to what you can do, and how you think and feel. When you transfer, you always have to make adjustments, because the body you newly find yourself in is shorter or taller, older or younger, heavier or lighter, and perhaps differently enabled and/or differently gendered, than your “prime” (your original body).

This means that inner and outer cannot be cleanly separated. On the one hand, a character reflects that every person “had his [sic] own secret self that came to the surface no matter which body he was wearing.” There are tell-tale signs that signal your mental presence, no matter which body you inhabit at the moment. But this is only true to a certain extent. At the same time, your facial expressions and physical gestures just feel different when you are embedded in a different body; the way they come out is subtly but unavoidably changed.

This ambiguity is inherent to the nature of consciousness. Gabrielle White, the scientist who discovers or invents the flash, reflects that “the self-model was utterly complete and bounded in the human mind — a person’s sense of themselves was a conceptual object, transferable from one brain to another relatively intact.” But this is only a limited observation; since the novel also insists that your identity is more than just your self-model. Who you are also depends on the body you have (or should I rather say, “the body you are”?). Your personhood is mediated by gender, bodily habits, aging, disease and injury, and so on: that is to say, by factors that are at once physical (rather than exclusively mental) and that are socially mediated (rather than being entirely innate). Gabrielle also quickly realizes that,

even after only ten minutes inside another physical self, it was obvious to her that a great deal of human experience had nothing to do with the brain. It was the body. Each parcel of flesh and its particular configuration of pluses and minuses created a unique reality. In other words, it wasn’t just the software — it was the hardware too.

When you flash into another body, you retain psychological continuity with your past self; but you also inhabit the world differently (something that will not surprise the phenomenologists). And this happens in ways that you could not have predicted, let alone understood, in advance. All this makes me wonder if Soule got the term “self-model” from the philosopher Thomas Metzinger). For Metzinger’s whole point in using this term is to point out that the “self-model” is in fact a model of who one is, rather than being the entire content of who one is. I use my self-model to navigate the world, but it remains the case that who and what I actually am, as a physical and animal being in a physical world, leaks out far beyond the boundaries of the self-model. The self-model is a representation that does not fully contain, and does not fully map on to, that which it represents. Metzinger draws the nihilistic conclusion from this that the “self” does not exist; but I am rather inclined to think that Metzinger’s argument in fact gives us clues to a positive understanding of what the “self” actually is, as a limited and finite, but entirely positive, entity. It is not a question of debunking the mind’s powers of self-reflection and meta-reflection, but rather one of situating these powers.

In any case, I think that this latter alternative better explains what is going on in Anyone. As the novel recounts it, my self-model can continue to exist in a different body from its initial one; but adjustments are always necessary due to the physical nature and social positioning of the substitute body. A corollary of this is that not all bodies are equally suitable. Soule does not flinch at this prospect. The novel goes so far as to imagine horrific scenarios in which human beings have their minds flashed into the bodies of rats, and in which an adult’s mind is flashed into the body of an infant. In these cases, you find yourself in a body whose neural architecture is inadequate to the mental capacities of your self-model. The result is a sense of suffocating imprisonment. The characters who are flashed into rat bodies have terrifying experiences; they suffer full-fledged psychotic breakdowns once they are restored to their primes.

The novel reaches out from these metaphysical speculations in order to consider the social, ethical, and political implications of the flash. Gabrielle initially has utopian hopes for the technology. It has the capacity to change social attitudes on a vast scale. Everyone could experience, from the inside, what it is like (in Thomas Nagel’s famous phrase) to have a body that is differently gendered, aged, or abled from their own. At the same time, the technology would prevent us from categorizing other people on the basis of first impressions, which is to say judgments about gender, race, and so on:

If you can’t tell who’s inside the skin of the person you’re talking to, maybe you can’t judge them so quickly based on the color of that skin… Black, brown, white, gay, straight, boy, girl, trans, young, old, disabilities… none of that would work as it does now, with the world putting you in a box from day one just because of your face, your hair, whatever.

The novel suggests, however, that these hopes are, well, a bit naive. This is because the potentialities unleashed by any technology are themselves dependent upon, and tied up with, the ways in which the technology is implemented. In Gabrielle’s case, she doesn’t own the rights to her own discovery. A venture capitalist has funded all her research, and he gets to control all the results. Gabrielle at first tries to hide her discovery of the flash from him. She wants, not to make money from it, but to develop it further; and she rightly fears that the venture capitalist will not do this in the right way. But this only ends up making things worse. Gabrielle is unable to escape either the ironclad provisions of “intellectual property” law, or the violence of the venture capitalist’s hired thugs.

The novel is divided between two plot strands. The first one, set roughly in the present, tells the story of Gabrielle’s discovery, and how she loses control of it. The second is set 25 years later, and shows us a world in which the flash has become the dominant technology, and changed world society in all sorts of ways. Some of the consequences are unequivocally good: the climate crisis has been alleviated, because people have largely abandoned air travel and other fossil-fuel-intensive technologies. Why bother halfway around the world, when you can just flash into the body of somebody who is already there? Others are more ambiguous: there does seem to be a reduction in racism and sexism, if not to the entire extent that Gabrielle had hoped for.

But monopoly ownership of the flash technology has its downsides as well. Some of these are reminiscent of the ways that, today, the liberating potentialities of digital technologies have been compromised by corporate control. The Anyone corporation (also known punningly as NeOnet Global) does not charge exorbitantly for its flash services, because it wants everyone in the world to use the technology. But much like Google et al. today, only even more so, it engages in full-time surveillance of everything that takes place over its network, and as a result it owns immense quantities of data about everyone. (There is also an illegal, underground “darkshare” flash economy, in which the technology is used by criminals and others who want to do things undetected; but the police’s top priority, in collusion with NeOnet, is to suppress this). Anyone also extends its control over users by enforcing limitations to the flash technology:

The first of the Two Rules of the flash: if one dies, both die.
The second: no multiple jumps. If you’re in a vessel, you can’t move to a second without flashing back to your prime first.

The Two Rules are supposed to apply to everyone; people are told that they are intrinsic to the flash technology. But in fact this is not the case; they have only been added on arbitrarily. Certain people are secretly exempt from the Rules: they are, in effect, able to live indefinitely, perhaps forever, by continually jumping from one body (once it is injured or gets too old) to another. Stephen Hauser, the CEO of NeOnet, reserves this unlimited use of the technology for himself, for his chief thug/enforcer, and for a global elite known as the “Centuries.” He bribes prominent people with the prospect of immortality, in order to get them t0 serve his interests (and he can take the gift away again, if they don’t cooperate).

There is also the crucial question of the flash’s one-way structure. What happens to somebody whose body is taken over by another mind? It is actually a vampiric process. Usually, the “vessel” is just unconscious for the interim; they awaken once the occupation is over, without a clue as to what the user of their body did — but with whatever physical injuries might have been incurred. The question is why anyone would consent to this in the first place? Though the novel doesn’t go into great detail on this, it is evident that the answer is economic. If I am affluent, I can take a vacation by paying to inhabit someone’s body in a distant location. But if I am poor, my only hope of earning money may be by renting out my body to the rich tourist. Labor seems to operate in this way as well: skilled workers are flashed to a workplace, where they inhabit the bodies of unskilled locals, who are paid even less than they are. It’s even worse with the victims of the Centuries: a older person takes over a younger, healthier body, and never gives it back. The ultimate form of exploitation is murder. Flash technology seems to perpetuate, and even intensify, economic and colonial exploitation — a situation that is far indeed from Gabrielle’s utopian dreams.

In all these ways, the flash technology ultimately works as a kind of dystopian panopticon — much as the contemporary Internet already does, only even more so. And it sets in place a power structure that is almost impossible to dislodge: there is really no way to touch either the corporation as a structure, or Hauser and the other individuals who run it. In the first, near-present plot strand, Gabrielle is definitively dispossessed when the venture capitalist not only takes the technology from her, but also uses it in order to imprison her consciousness in the body of her infant daughter. In the second, 25-years-in-the-future plot strand of the novel, the now-grown-up Gabrielle-in-her-daughter’s-body looks for a way to disrupt the tyranny that she has inadvertently created. There are lots of great plot twists along the way, but the upshot is that she cannot do it. In one particularly notable sequence, she manages a media takeover. She demonstrates, in real time, over the network with billions of people watching, that the Two Rules are lies, and that it is possible both to flash into a succession of bodies, including into a new body when your prime dies. But despite her demonstration, nothing happens. The very next day, her stunt has been entirely erased from the media archives, and nobody else remembers that it happened.

Fortunately, the book does not leave us just with the bleakness of this unsurpassable impasse. But the sheer, brilliant extremity of how the novel ends testifies to how difficult it is to disrupt the control society, and to unleash the liberatory potential of (actually-existing, as well as extrapolated) digital technologies. In the novel’s final pages, everything that we have understood so far is pretty much blown to smithereens. Gabrielle manages to radically alter the flash technology, so that now it works in both directions. Everybody finds themselves in somebody else’s body. You no longer render somebody else unconscious when you flash into their body, because they simultaneously flash into yet another person’s body as well. Everyone becomes someone else. And this is a completely random process: “Everyone would be a traveler, everyone would be a vessel. At random.” Gabrielle’s final stroke of genius abolishes the restricted, vampiric, capitalist economy of flash usage, replacing it with a sort of Bataillean general economy — or perhaps with something like Nietzsche’s Eternal Return as re-interpreted by Pierre Klossowksi. The world is opened up to a universal promiscuity of circulation and exchange. There is no restriction and no control; no stability, and no foreknowledge of who you will become. This also means that there can be no mechanism for payment, or for the accumulation of wealth:

Lawyers become soldiers. Dancers become farmers. Men become women. Young become old. Women become men. Old become young. More than seven billion people, all over the world, become someone new…. *All of humanity is all of humanity*. There is no rich, no poor, no light, no dark, no young, no old…

Instead of the naive (or merely wishful) utopianism of Gabrielle’s initial thoughts about the flash, we get at the end of the novel a much more radical utopianism, one in line with Fredric Jameson’s dictum that “utopia is not a positive vision of the future so much as it is a negative judgement of the present” — and a disruption of that present. Or as Soule’s narrator puts it: “It may not last, but it begins, and that is something.”

There is one important corollary to this vision. Even as she frees the world, Gabrielle abolishes her own selfhood, sending her mind (or her self-model) to the flash equivalent of /dev/null in Linux. This final stroke is a gift to the future.For it allows Gabrielle’s daughter, whose body she has used as a mere vessel for twenty-five years, to awaken and become fully conscious and fully embodied on her own — as she had not been since infancy. We learn from this final twist that when you are reduced to being a vessel, your consciousness isn’t entirely absent; the daughter’s consciousness has existed for all this time in a virtual, nascent state. She is now an adult mentally as well as physically, by virtue of having for so long observed everything that her mother has thought and done. Now this consciousness has finally been actualized. The last line of the novel reads, referring to the daughter: “You are you.” The identity of the self-model is only achieved through the radical contingency of bodily exchange. Where can she go from here? Nobody knows, and that is the novel’s achievement.

Favorite science fiction, 2019

Here are my favorite science fiction novels (or in a few cases, collections of stories) from 2019. As before, I make no pretensions toward completeness or towards numbered or objective rankings — these are simply the new SF books I liked most this year, among whichever ones I have read. I am mostly oriented towards what might be considered science fiction proper, as opposed to other speculative fiction genres like fantasy; as well as towards overt genre writing, as opposed to speculatively oriented literary fiction. But of course, these sorts of distinctions are unavoidably inexact. The list therefore includes a number of books that would more likely be classified as fantasy rather than science fiction, but that were sufficiently SF-adjacent to hold my interest.

  • The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders. This dazzling novel takes place on a tidally locked planet; one side always faces its sun and is extremely hot; the other side faces away and is extremely cold. Human colonists can only live on the terminator between the two sides. It is always twilight for them; the lack of any solar cycle, or indeed any variation in the light, makes it hard to establish regular sleep patterns. There are two cities: one is harshly authoritarian, and has legally enforced regular sleep times. The other is ostensibly anarchist — which means, in practice, that it is controlled by Mafia-like gangs that violently enforce their supremacy. With no fixed sleep times, there is very little in the way of scheduling; people just go to sleep whenever they feel tired or find it convenient, and lots of people are permanently sleep-deprived. From this starting premise, Anders engages in unusually rich and complex world-building, raising all kinds of issues along the way, including reflections on gender and class, on power and aspiration and inventiveness, on technological dependency, on ecological relations among humans and between humans and nonhumans, and on hybridity and transformation. There are great sentient aliens, as well.

  • The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie. This is a fantasy novel from an author whose previous novels have all been science fiction (most notably, the gender-bending Ancillary trilogy). It operates through a highly original conceit that I can only call a theory or theology of multiple gods (and emphatically not of a singular, capital-letter God). The multiple gods of Leckie’s world in this novel are effectively immortal, yet materially circumscribed. They are bound to — or perhaps one could better say — particular physical objects, and their powers are vast, yet finite and localized. Each is a solitary being, though they communicate with one another, and often with human worshippers who feed them energy and in turn receive favors from them. I have never read anything quite like this book, but its conceptualizations are not far from those of a panpsychist power metaphysics.

  • Infinite Detail, by Tim Maughan. This brilliant near-future novel is divided between alternating “Before” and “After” chapters – that is to say, before and after the actions of an anonymous hacker group that takes down the entire Internet, thereby disrupting globalized supply chains, along with much else, thus putting an end to most commodity production along with the ubiquitous surveillance that we have become all too used to. The “before” chapters show us the dystopian mechanisms of control that have come alongside digitally-maintained affluence (for some) and deprivation (for others). The “after” chapters present what might at first glance be dismissed as just another post-technological dystopia – but which at closer examination is something else. Yes, the post-Internet society, as Maughan describes it, is decidedly non-affluent, with fascistoid armies rampaging across the landscape and locked-down localites dominated by petty gang bosses and warlords. But actually there is more than meets the eye, including forms of democratic cooperation and artistic production, and minoritarian or non-totalitarian uses of digital technologies. Maughan asks us seriously to consider that the deprived future world he presents to us might in fact be less oppressive than the consumerist, high-surveillance and micro-managed digital dystopia that we actually live in today. Orthodox science fiction criticism regards the genre as essentially utopian; Maughan redefines what this might mean. Much as I am attracted to the ideal of fully automated luxury communism, it may well be that such a vision is total fantasy, and that Maughan in fact offers us the best possible alternative to neoliberal global domination.

  • The Rosewater Insurrection and The Rosewater Redemption, by Tade Thompson. These are the second and third volumes of Thompson’s amazing Rosewater trilogy – I discussed the first volume, which came out several years ago, at greater length here. An alien invasion takes place, not in the so-called developed world, but in near-future Nigeria. The US has devolved into an overt police state, and hidden itself behind a paranoid firewall. The UK has disintegrated due to alien intrusion effects. But Nigeria remains as ground zero for the encounter between human beings and the alien life forms. The second and third volumes of the trilogy are entirely worthy of the first; we get a complete and interconnected narrative that combines sociological observation and social criticism with bio-cybernetic technologies and much else. Lots of my favorite science fictional tropes are here, but transposed into a new key.

  • The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley. This is the second sf novel by an author whose other works can be categorized as harsh, bracing feminist fantasy. (The first was the brilliant The Stars Are Legion from 2017). This novel is Hurley’s revisionist take on military science fiction, combined with an inventive time travel premise. Military sf has both obnoxiously idealized (e.g. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers) and unsparingly displayed the horrors (Haldeman, The Forever War) of organized militarism with its endless conflicts. Hurley’s book is an updated entry in the latter category; it takes place in a fully neoliberalized and technologically heightened society in which corporations have overtly displaced nation-states as the units of conflict. Soldiers are transformed into pure energy so that they may be transported at light speed to the interplanetary battlefields at which they are rematerialized. But the protagonist is unmoored in time as a result of this process, so that she experiences her different military missions in nonlinear order. (So you could think of this novel as The Forever War meets “Slaughterhouse-Five*). The time loops ultimately provide an escape from what is otherwise endless neoliberal/imperialist horror. The book’s final vision is therefore both poignant and hopeful, even as its time-paradoxical nature leaves us uneasily aware how unlikely such an escape from the neoliberal time prison actually is.

  • Radicalized, by Cory Doctorow. This book contains four unrelated novellas, all compellingly political in their implications. The first one is about immigrants who, even when they are finally allowed into the United States, face harsh exploitation, enforced by proprietary digital technologies — until they find ways to hack the technologies for themselves. This story folows lines that are familiar from much of Doctorow’s earlier fiction. But the other three novellas are much more fresh and surprising. One is about older white men who are radicalized into acts of domestic terrorism, except that their targets are not the imaginary ones that propel right-wing terrorism today, but rather health insurance companies that have refused payments for medical procedures that could have saved their loved ones. Another one gleefully deconstructs the ruling-class fantasy of retreating into a bunker in order to sit out (and survive, unimpacted) political/economic/environmental catastrophe. And best of all, there’s a story which is basically Superman meets Black Lives Matter; the story movingly but unswervingly demonstrates the inability of liberal empathy and fair-mindedness to fight against, or even minimally deal with, the systematic and socially-embedded structures of police violence under white supremacy.

  • Waste Tide, by Chen Qiufan. This is the English translation of a powerful, near-future Chinese SF novel. It takes place in a Chinese city, based closely on the actual city of Guiyu, that has become a world center for the recycling of electronic waste. Junked computers, cell phones, etc., as well as worn-out biological prosthetics, are disassembled so that rare metals and polymers can be recovered for re-use. The workers are overworked and poorly paid, while the corrupt post-communist ruling class, combining hyper-modern and old-fashioned forms of oppression, appropriates the profits. The processes of disassembly also result in massive toxic waste, and the workers have short life spans as a result of poisoning and infection. In such conditions of hyper-exploitation, it’s nearly impossible to accumulate enough savings to be able to afford to move elsewhere. All this becomes the setting for a dazzling high-tech thriller involving artificial intelligence, and both computer and biological viruses. The novel reminds those of us in the West of aspects of the current global world order that we tend to overlook; beyond this, it is brilliant for the way that it raises and recombines technological issues, socio-political ones, and conditions both of political economy and of the way new forms appropriate and transform old traditions.

  • Exhalation, by Ted Chiang. Chaing is one of our finest contemporary science fiction writers; this volume, his second collection of short stores, contains pretty much everything he has written since the previous volume, Stories of Your Life and Others was published in 2002. The stories in this new volume range from just a couple of pages long to novella-length. They are all treasures, and I cannot here comment on all of them. I will just mention that I wrote at great length about one of the stories here, “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” in my 2016 book Discognition.

  • Sweet Dreams, by Tricia Sullivan. This was actually released in the UK in 2017, but I am including it in this list because it only received its first US publication in 2019. I wrote about it here.

  • Children of Ruin, by Adrian Tchaikovsky. This is a sequel to Tchaikovsky’s 2015 sf novel Children of Time. That book dealt with the remnants of humanity trying to terraform distant worlds, inadvertently leading to a society of upraised (boosted to human-level intelligence) Portia spiders. This book takes a mixed crew of humans and spiders to another terraformed world, this one inhabited by upraised octopuses. They also encounter a non-Earth-originated intelligent lifeform, more or less like a sentient, and highly computationally efficient, sort of slime mold. This volume, like the previous one, is brilliant in the way that it imagines and articulates the nuances of intelligence in nonhuman form. Spider intelligence is very different from mammal intelligence, and cephalopod intelligence is different from both. All the intelligences in these books ultimately operate on underlying forms of computation, which is what makes communication between them possible at all. But these intelligences are always embodied, and remain radically distinct from one another because of their different biogenetic and sociocultural characteristics. These novels explore the rich terrain in between the fantasy of total communication and communion, on the one hand, and the opposed fantasy of absolute, radical otherness, on the other.

  • Walking to Aldebaran, by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky is an alarmingly prolific author; the majority of his books are fantasy, none of which I have read. But this year he published a second science fiction book in addition to Children of Ruin. This one is much shorter, just a novella. It is totally unrelated to the Children series, but mind-blowing in its own way. A alien, clearly constructed labyrinthine structure is discovered in the outer solar system that seems to provide shortcut transit (through interdimensional wormholes? we never find out) between solar systems and worlds that are otherwise inaccessibly distant from one another. Our narrator is an astronaut who is separated from the rest of his team, and finds himself walking through and exploring the folds and caverns of the structure. I don’t want to give away the plot here; let’s just say we have an unreliable narrator, and a story that combines old-fashioned science-fictional “sense of wonder” exploration with plot twists worthy of Edgar Allan Poe.

  • Stealing Worlds, by Karl Schroeder. This novel is a powerful thought experiment that considers the utopian and dystopian potentialities of combining the technologies of augmented reality glasses, massively multiplayer role playing games, ubiquitous networks, and artificial intelligence. At worst, this could lead to a new form of surveillance-based extractive capitalism, with corporations controlled by self-perpetuating algorithms that have optimized themselves for rent-seeking. This is just a small extrapolation from the ways that, already today, both banking and financial institutions, and high technology companies, are trying to create conditions under which they can extract payments from all transactions (even ostensibly non-economic ones) in which human beings take part. But against this dystopian situation, Schroeder proposes a vision of cooperative networking, an economy decoupled from the imperatives of finance, and most importantly, the input of nonhuman actors (trees and forests, rivers, ecosystems) into decision-making processes. (This vision was first sketched out by Schroeder in his 2014 short story “Deodand”). This is the first science fiction novel I have read that contains a shout-out to the philosophy of speculative realism (Levi Bryant and Tim Morton are explicitly mentioned).

  • The Iron Dragon’s Mother, by Michael Swanwick. This is the third and final volume of Swanwick’s “Iron Dragon” trilogy of deidealized fantasy. All three novels take place in the parallel reality of Faery – but Swanwich envisions a Faerie whose magic entirely coexists with the uglinesses of Victorian Era capitalism, and the overload of 20th-century-and-following branding and consumerism. The first volume of the trilogy, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993), is IMHO one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written – it is brilliantly imagined, and ferociously nihilistic in tone, sort of like the punk rock cover version of traditional fantasy. I didn’t like the second volume, The Dragons of Babel (2008) anywhere near as much, though it has its powerful moments. This new (final?) volume strikes me as better than the second, though not as good as the first. But it is still rich and powerful, and it gives us an admonition on the next to last page that we ought to keep forever in mind: “The world is choking on old stories. Tell new and better ones.”

  • And Shall Machines Surrender?, by Benjamin Sriduankaew. Whatever you might think about the author’s past activities in fandom, she has undeniably become a powerful author of posthuman BDSM-lesbian fairytales. She writes both science fiction and fantasy; I prefer the former (as in this book) because there is also lots of stuff about artificial intelligence, cyborg beings with non-binary genders, and the pleasures (as well as limitations) of living in a total-surveillance, algorithmically-governed society. In any case, Sriduangkaew writes in a highly-wrought prose that I find irresistible.

  • The Future of Another Timeline, by Annalee Newitz. The author has recently described this novel on Twitter as “a book about angry Jewish girls traveling through time and kicking the ass of the white supremacist patriarchy.” I can’t really better that description, so I won’t try. I will just note that in this book we get, among other things, a glimpse of the Great Columbian Exposition held in 1893 in Chicago, riot grrl rock in an alternative timeline, a vision of the ancient kingdom of Petra, and even a visit back to the Ordovician Period, when trilobites were the world’s dominant life form. The book is an inspiring feminist vision, behind which we get troublingly reminded of the fragility even of the greatest human accomplishments, and therfore of the need to continue struggling. I wrote about this novel at greater length here.

  • Beneath the World, A Sea, by Chris Beckett. Chris Beckett is one of my favorite contemporary science fiction writers, but this beautifully mysterious book is different from anything else I have read by him. (A chapter in my forthcoming book Extreme Fabulations discusses Beckett’s Dark Eden trilogy, and I published review of his novel before this one, America City). Beneath the World, A Sea is about a remote region in South America, the Submundo Delta, where biological forms, and maybe even the laws of nature, are different from anyplace else on Earth. What seems to happen in the Delta is that your most repressed and unwelcome unconscious thoughts and desires emerge, and you are forced to confront them. It’s a realm of truth, but also (and therefore) a realm of neurotic misery and depression. Moreover, even to get to the Delta, you need to pass through another region, the Zone of Forgetfulness, whose nature is such that, whenever you leave it, you are unable to remember what you did or what happened while within it. It appears, as far as we can tell, that here people cast off their inhibitions entirely, and do things that they would never countenance were they able to remember having done them. So the novel is really about people of various white European mindsets — the narrator is a hard-headed cop; we also meet scientists, anthropologists, artists, hippies, colonialist administrators, and capitalist entrepreneur types — all of whom attempt, and all of whom fail, in their various ways, to come to grips with the disconcerting otherness of the Zone and the Delta. The novel recalls both Lem’s Solaris (with its alien intelligence that repels our efforts to understand it) and the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic (with its Zone where noramal Earthly categories do not quite seem to apply, and which less discloses anything about itself than it responds to those who would explore it and exploit it by reflecting back their own prejudices and limitations to them). But Beckett brings to this novel a sense of metaphysical and psychological disquiet and displacement that is more in tune with our neoliberal present than is the case with those novels written under conditions of “actually-existing socialism.”

  • The Deep, by Rivers Solomon. The Detroit techno band Drexciya invented the mythology of an underwater realm, inhabited by the descendants of pregant African women who were thrown overboard from slave ships during the Middle Passage. The children of these women continue to breathe in the water, as they did in the womb, and they create a utopian, high-tech society, safely apart from the horrors of land and air. The experimental hip hop band Clipping revised and extended this mythology, with a 2017 song that imagined the Drexciyans no longer safely apart from the surface world – for now they have to deal with worldwide ecological catastrophe, and with current efforts by large corporations to mine the seabed. Rivers Solomon picks up the story and again reimagines it in this novella, which turns on the dilemma that the Drexciyans can afford neither to forget nor to remember the traumatic history from which they originated: to remember the traumas is ti be crippled into inactivity, but to forget them is to lose any sense of what defines them as a community with a common history. I wrote at greater length about this powerfully affecting novella here.

  • To Be Taught, If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers. Chambers writes science fiction that is exuberantly multicultural — her galaxy is filled with wildly different species, different genders, different social/familial/reproductive arrangements, different forms of intelligence (both biological and computational), and so on. At the same time, her novels have a decidedly retro emotional feel — they are entertaining, and even comfy, in a way that recalls Golden Age science fiction (if only that older sf hadn’t been so white, patriarchal, and heteronormative). It’s a peculiar affective combination, and I know people who have been turned off by Chambers’ upbeatness and utter lack of cynicism or even irony. This has never been a problem for me, but YMMV. In any case, To be Taught… is my favorite book of hers so far. It’s a standalone novel, apart from the Wayfarers series of her other books. There is very little plot or drama; a group of scientists simply examines the various life forms (none of them reaching human-scale sentience) on a number of planets in a solar system 14 light years away from Earth. The novel succeeds in imagining forms of life that are truly different: they don’t fit into anthropomorphic (or mammalomorphic) categories at all. Yet they are also free from any tinge of the uncanny (such as we find in “weird fiction” from Lovecraft a century ago, all the way to VanderMeer or Mieville today). To my mind, this is not a flaw, but a positive accomplishment, and an important one.

  • This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone. This book is kind of a spy romance, in the form of an epistolary novel. Two women are ruthless agents on opposing sides in a universal war that involves time travel — it is fought by both agents going back or forward in time in order to change the very shape of the timeline. The two spies are always setting traps for one another, and outwitting one another. It reminded me, actually, of Antonio Prohias’ Spy Vs Spy comic strips, that appeared in MAD Magazine when I was a kid. In any case, the spies leave letters for one another, each taunting the other for defeating her plans. As things progress, the spies gradually fall in love with one another, and look for ways to defect from the war they are both involved in, in order to be with one another. I found this novel cute and engaging. It was fun to read (though I didn’t love it quite as much as many people on the Internet seem to have done).

  • Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir. This book is ostensibly a mix of space opera and horror-cum-murder-mystery, but it is actually lesbian goth fanfic of a very high order. The prose is lively (or deathly, if you prefer), the plot twists are outstanding, and the highly emo love/hate relationship between the two protagonists (one woman a magician, the other a fighter/bodyguard) intensifies without ever letting go, and gets resolved in the most weirdly twisted manner imaginable.

  • Interference, by Sue Burke. This is the sequel to Burke’s previous novel Semiosis. These books are about sentient plants, the dominant life form on a planet that has been colonized both by human beings escaping the ecological and political catastrophes on Earth, and an equally intelligent arthropod-like species. Where the first novel was mostly about how the human settlers both learn about the sentience of the native plants, and learn how to coexist with them, this second novel widens the scope, giving us a multispecies variety of viewpoints and (often unreliable) narrators, and a wide range of different forms of intelligence, and different sorts of social and political arrangements. I wrote about the novel in greater depth here.

  • The Secret Commonwealth, by Philip Pullman. The second volume of the Book of Dust trilogy picks up the story of Lyra ten years after the end of the His Dark Materials trilogy. Wonderfully inventive, as Pullman always is; and deeply expressive of Pullman’s own sort of vital materialism (in clear opposition both to the dogmatism of organized religion and to any sort of eliminativism and reductionism). Pullman is still exploring his great theme, “the amorous inclinations of matter” (to quote from his early masterpiece Galatea), with a lively and inventive narrative of an alternative world. Also, the book ends on a cliffhanger — Lyra, and a number of other characters towards whom we have become affectionate, are all in deep trouble — and I cannot believe I will have to wait several more years for the third volume, with the resolution.

  • A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine. The author of this novel is (in ‘real life’) an historian of the Byzantine Empire; and she puts her knowledge to dazzling use in this novel, focused on a galactic empire reminiscent both of Byzantium and of the (long dominant, but now declining) American imperium. The protagonist is the newly-appointed ambassador from a distant space station, sent to the center of the Empire, and needing to negotiate her way through a dizzying complexity of social rituals, political infighting, and plots and counterplots, all the while striving to somehow maintain the independence (or at least, semi-independence) of her home, which the Empire is anxious to absorb. Besides being tense and thrilling, the novel plays powerfully with the way that different cultures have different customs and rituals, and different underlying assumptions. The narrator is somebody who has grown up entirely fascinated with the Empire’s art and culture — much the same was as people today, in far-flung parts of the world, have been fascinated by American movies, music, and sports. But she is uncomfortably aware that this sort of fascination is very different from being an insider of the culture one is fascinated with. She needs to learn how to negotiate the vast complexities and unexamined assumptions of the Empire, which are alien to her despite her lifelong fascination with them. In addition, she needs to grasp how the Empire is not a monolith, but riven by political and economic privileges and by class conflict. And above all, she also needs to come to terms with her increasing realization that she is in fact a colonized person whose obsession is with her colonizers. The different cultures do not meet on anything like equal terms, and no matter how many of the Empire’s arts, sciences, and general assumptions she adopts, she will never really be one of them, but rather always seen as a barbarian outsider. Add to this artificial intelligence and other cybernetic technologies, and the novel as a whole involves cognitive estrangement (often said to be the defining characteristic of science fiction as a genre) to the max.

  • Escaping Exodus, by Nicky Drayden. Drayden’s previous novels are best be described as something like magic realism, set in an African context (Drayden is African American, but she lived for several years in South Africa). The present novel, however, is full-blown space opera. Human beings of various nationalities and backgrounds live in an interstellar flotilla; Earth is only a very distant memory. The humans have outgrown the generation starships that originally brought them to the stars, and they haven’t found any planets around other stars that are sufficiently Earth-like to live on. So instead they live in the innards of gigantic (Moon-sized) spacefaring beasts; they are essentially parasites, drawing sustenance and shelter from the animals within which they live, and from the animal’s other intestinal fauna and flora. The animals are mortal, however, and whenever one of them dies the human beings have to evacuate, and capture and colonize another one. Add to this the social arrangements, involving rigid class hierarchies, poly-marriages arranged for political or economic advantage rather than love, gender-role inversion, and revolutionary stirrings among the lower classes that are viciously repressed by the ruling class. And cap it all with a forbidden (because cross-class) love between two young women. What’s most remarkable about the novel is its squishy biotechnology; Drayden imagines in discomforting detail what it might be like to live within another organism’s vascular systems. In addition to the politics of race, class, and gender, ecological politics plays a central role, as the people gradually realize that they are killing their hosts, and thereby destroying themselves, through the unchecked exploitation of their resources. The novel is wildly inventive in its particulars, and compelling in its overall bio-ecological vision.

Music videos, 2019

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).

  • 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.

Robert Markley on Kim Stanley Robinson

The University of Illinois Press’ series Modern Masters of Science Fiction continues to provide the gold standard for recent science fiction criticism. I have previously written about Gerry Canavan’s book on Octavia Butler and Gwyneth Jones’ book on Joanna Russ; I have just read another excellent volume, Robert Markley’s book on Kim Stanley Robinson. Markley gives a thoughtful and comprehensive overview of Robinson’s voluminous output (even though KSR is one of my favorite currently active science fiction writers, there are still a lot of his books that I haven’t read; Markley covers all the novels — except for the latest one, RED MOON, which was published after Markley’s volume was already written — and several important short stories as well). Markley traces the intertwined themes running through Robinson’s work: his socialist politics, his largely positive view of science and working scientists, his historical imagination (which leads him to write revisionary histories of the past as well as speculative histories of the future), his concerns about the environmental crisis and visionary efforts to imagine ways of dealing with it, his broader vision (both scientific and spiritual) of ecological interdependence, and his accounts of dreams of interplanetary exploration, travel, and settlement, together with his counterbalancing sense of our necessary groundedness in the Earth. Above all, Markely charts how Robinson seeks to nurture possibilities for hope amidst all the dystopian dangers that we face, and his sense of utopia as a process, rather than a destination. Perfection is impossible, and limits are inevitable; but this doesn’t mean that we need to settle for things being as bad as they currently are. Markley both gives us insightful readings of Robinson’s fiction, and sends us back to that fiction, asking us to read or re-read it, and to ponder it more deeply.

Sue Burke, Interference

Sue Burke’s new science fiction novel Interference is the sequel to her previous book Semiosis. That book introduced us to Pax, a superhabitable Earth-like planet some fifty-six light years away. Human colonizers, fleeing an ecologically and politically ravaged Earth, arrive on Pax; they must learn to get along with the native life forms. These include, most notably, intelligent plants. All the plant species on the planet are sentient to varying degrees; they are often engaged in Darwinian struggles against one another as well as against the animals who feed on them. There are also a number of language-capable animal species too, including the predatory eagles and the scavenging bats. (The colonists give names reminiscent of Earth species to all the life forms they discover, even though their biochemical makeup and descent are quite different). Pax also has a population of large arthropod-like beings known as the Glassmakers; intellectually and culturally, they are at least the equals of Homo sapiens, though their manners and outlooks are unsurprisingly quite different. In Semiosis, the human community learns, over the course of several generations and about a hundred years, that in order to survive they must give up their colonialist/pioneering/conquering mentality, and instead negotiate ongoing relationships with the other species. By the end of the novel, a stable community of human beings and Glassmakers has been established, with both species in effect playing the role of “service animals” for Stevland, the intelligent bamboo species that dominates the portion of the planet on which they live.

Burke draws on recent scientific research that has discovered that, already here on Earth, plants are sentient in the sense that they actively sense and monitor their environment, they are able to learn and remember, they make decisions among possible alternatives, and overall they respond flexibly to the situations in which they find themselves. Plant neurobiology is a real scientific subfield. For more on this, see the recent books by Daniel Chamovitz and by Monica Gagliano. Only animals have cells specialized as neurons, but non-specialized plant cells exhibit the same physiological bases for thought — electrochemical reactions and transmissions from cell to cell — as animal neurons do. Of course, Burke’s intelligent plants on Pax are extrapolated far beyond anything that actually exists on Earth. But such further specialization, on the basis of already-existing biochemical processes, is not wildly implausible. Intelligence in varying degrees is a useful adaptation, evidenced to some extent in all living organisms on Earth, and there is no reason why it could not develop further. On Pax, plants have cells specialized in similar ways to animal neurons {Another science fiction novel that includes speculation on neural cells added to plant architecture is Joan Slonczewski’s The Highest Frontier}.

You definitely need to read Semiosis first in order to make sense of Interference. But given that, the sequel at least equals the previous book, and adds layers of richness to Burke’s world-building. Interference picks up the story about a hundred years after the end of Semiosis. The human/Glassmaker/bamboo community is largely doing well. Life on Pax is not quite a utopia, but it arguably allows for a greater degree of flourishing than most of the actual social formations we are familiar with here on Earrh. There are all sorts of minor injusticies, power differentials, and petty disputes and jealousies. And there is a lot of work to be done: many advanced technologies have been lost, and metals are generally not available. Nonetheless, the small society on Pax, organized around one single village, offers a lot of room for personal idiosyncrasies. Many things are done collectively, and resources are shared on a mostly equal basis. Everyone has access to food and shelter. People accrue obligations to one another, but there is no money. Glassmaker society is matriarchal and somewhat hierarchical; among the human inhabitants there seems to be gender equality. Humans and Glassmakers together make decisions on a more or less democratic basis, though there is no doubt that Stevland, the intelligent bamboo, has ultimate authority.

But Stevland is not a dictator; it understands that its own well-being is entirely intertwined with that of the two other sentient species, as well as with a wide variety of other plant and animal life with which it remains in communication. The politics of Pax rests upon the biological conditions of commensalism, mutualism, and symbiosis. One of the best things about both novels is the way that Burke imagines such relations arising out of Darwinian competition. Burke’s vision stands in opposition to selfish gene theory, but it is in general accord with more recent theories about the evolution of cooperation, multi-level selection, and ecological webs of multispecies dependencies. Burke does not skimp on the horrors of predation and parasitism; some of the competition among species described in both volumes is violent to the point of extermination. But the novels also insist on the ways that mutual dependencies are also a crucial part of evolution; cooperation itself evolves, and complex forms of life could never come to exist without it. Most importantly, perhaps — at least from a human point of view — is the fact that the multispecies community on Pax maintains a more or less steady state, in terms of energy, ecology, and economics. It does not strive to endlessly expand in the manner of all too many human societies on Earth, ranging from ancient and early modern despotic regimes all the way to contemporary capitalism.

The ground for all this was already established in Semiosis; but Interference pushes things a lot further. The second book has a wider scope than the first. Interference starts on Earth, and we witness a near future involving massive genocide followed by the establishment of an ecofascist regime. This helps us appreciate, by contrast, the positive aspects of life on Pax — despite its dangers, and its lower levels of technology and material well-being. At the start of the novel, Earth has lost contact with Pax; a spaceship is sent there on a scientific mission, to find out what happened as well as to check on the animal and plant life. This allows Burke to avoid the danger that is often attributed to utopian fiction: a portrait of a more or less stable and satisfying social situation can lead to a boring, conflict-free narrative. Instead, we get massive cultural and political conflict, already among the human beings on the spaceship, even before they arrive; and all the more so, once they have arrived, between them and the humans on Pax, not to mention all the other species.

I will avoid spoilers at least to the extent of not recounting any of these conflicts in detail. I will restrict myself to several observations. The book extends the range of sentient species further than had already been done in the first volume. Imperatives of both violent conflict, and grudging or active cooperation, together with instances of both understanding and misunderstanding, continue to ramify in Interference. Burke does not extend her vision of sentient diversity to the extent of radical incommunicability, i.e. the existence of intelligences so different from one another that they are unable to communicate at all. But she does try to imagine how sentient arthropod (Glassmaker) intelligence might in fact be quite different from ours, and plant intelligence even more so. This is highlighted in Interference by the way that each chapter of the novel has a different narrator: we get Earth humans, Pax humans, Glassmakers, and plants. The ongoing events are described from vastly varying perspectives. Interestingly, it is the human narrators who come out the worst: they range from badly misunderstanding what they experience, to seriously delusional, to outright sociopathic. The Earth humans come out as far worse than the Pax humans, though the latter also show serious limitations. The chapter narrated by a Glassmaker is somewhat more understanding and sensible than any of the human ones; and the chapter narrated by Stevland is the most rational, observant, emotionally balanced, and self-aware of all. We also get, from Stevland’s perspective, a powerful sense both of the plant’s stable rootedness and rhizomatic proliferation, and of the constriction it feels from being unable to really travel.

In short, Interference gives us an absorbing and exciting story, but it also asks us to think about how things might be otherwise than what we take for granted, both for better and for worse. In particular, it thinks about emotion, intelligence, and the problems of living with others in both a biological and a sociological register. It neither reduces social processes to biology, nor pretends that biology is irrelevant to our own species being (or to those of presumptive other intelligent beings). It extends Darwinian perspectives to the social and intellectual realm — and it does this in ways that are opposed to, and offer a useful counterpoint to, the nastily reductive fictions of’ so-called ‘evolutionary psychology.’ All in all, Interference, like its predecessor, is science fiction at its best.

Annalee Newitz, The Future of Another Timeline

Annalee Newitz’s new science fiction novel, THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE, is about to be published – it comes out on September 24. Here is my review. I got to read an advance copy of the novel thanks to Netgalley, which asks me in return to write a review. I loved the novel, but in order to explain it I will need to be a bit nerdy. I will try to avoid too many spoilers, but give a warning when one I cannot omit discussing is about to come up.

The novel is set in a United States, and a world, that is similar but not identical to our own. In the world of the novel, time travel is a reality; there are five portals, in Canada, Jordan, Mali, India, and Australia, which allow people to travel into the past (but not into the future). Nobody knows who or what forces created the portals; they have existed for hundreds of millions of years, at least since the Cambrian and Ordovician periods. Time travel is an object of academic study, in the field of geochronology, which seems to combine geology and history.

There are two main protagonists in the novel. Tess is a geochronolgist and a professional time traveler; she is based in California just-past-the-present (in the year 2022), but spends a lot of time in the late nineteenth century. Tess is tough and resourceful, but also deeply troubled. Beth is a teenager in Irvine, California in 1993, who is fascinated by geochronlogy, and also likes to go hear riot grrl bands. Newitz gives us vivid descriptions of a number of such bands, which never actually existed but which really ought to have; this alternative-punk invention is one of the pleasures of the novel. Of course, Tess’ and Beth’s trajectories intersect over the course of the book; but in the interest of avoiding spoilers, I will not say anything more specific about how this happens.

Aside from the existence of time travel, the biggest difference between the world of the novel and our actual world is that, at least at the start of the novel, abortion is still illegal in the United States both in 1993 and in 2022. The timeline is also different in other subtle but important ways. Reconstruction was not brutally halted in the world of the novel as it was in our own world in the 1870s; and as part of the process, women were given the vote (half a century before they actually attained it) alongside black people. On the other hand, the Victorian backlash against women’s sexuality was even more brutal in the world of the novel than it was in ours.

But due to the existence of time travel, all this is subject to revision. Tess and her friends use time travel not just to do scholarly research, but also to change history in various ways. How this is done is one of the main innovations of THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE. Usually in science fiction, the paradoxes of time travel are sidestepped by using the multiple-worlds theory of quantum mechanics. If you change the timeline, in effect you create a new universe that diverges from the previously-existing one, without abolishing it. This allows you, for instance, to go back in time and kill your grandfather without thereby eliminating your own subsequent existence; you still exist in your own timeline, but you also create a different one in which you are never born. The trouble with this approach is that it means that you cannot really change anything; even if you go back and kill Hitler and create a world without the Holocaust, the world in which Hitler and the Holocaust happened continues to exist as well. This is unsatisfactory, because it means that you cannot really ever change things at all.

But THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE takes a different approach. Here, there is only one timeline. If you succeed in changing things in the past, then the present you return to is altered as well. Only the person who went back and intervened can remember the earlier state of the timeline; everyone else only remembers the past the way it was revised. At one point in the novel — WARNING: HERE IS A SPOILER THAT I CANNOT AVOID DISCUSSING — Beth gets pregnant, and has an illegal abortion. Later, after Tess has changed the timeline so that abortions became legal in the late 20th century after all, Beth instead remembers going to a Planned Parenthood clinic for the abortion, which she gets despite being vilified on the way by fundamentalist-Christian extremists. Only Tess knows that abortions used to be illegal in 1993, but became legal back then due to her own “edits” of the timeline. I enjoyed the mind-bending nature of this metahistorical revisionism.

What this leads to is a time-editing war, between feminists and misogynists. Both sides go back to the past in order to change historical outcomes. As the novel traces this history of revisions to history, we go back not only to 1993, but to the famous Chicago world’s fair (the Columbian Exhibition) of 1893, to the Nabataean Kingdom of 13 BCE, and even to the Paleozoic Era, when the world was dominated by trilobites. Along the way, Newitz drops a lot of vivid historical references, most of them more or less true of our own world. We meet a number of personalities who really existed in the late 19th century, including the notorious censor Anthony Comstock, and the really cool feminist anarchist Lucy Parsons.

You can read this book as an empowering feminist story — I don’t think I am really giving away a spoiler when I say that the good guys win — but also as an intensely thoughtful form of speculation (which is what science fiction at its best does). In the course of its rousing story, THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE asks us to think about a number of big subjects. For instance: how does history happen? To what extent do Great Men – or Great Women – make a difference, and to what extent does it depend on collective action? What is possible at any given time, and how are possibilities limited? Do small changes make a difference, as opposed to major historical events? Or another example: how do memory and history work in the case of individual personalities? In the course of the novel, Tess breaks one of her group’s main taboos, which is that you aren’t supposed to change your own personal timeline; as a result, she suffers greatly from extreme cognitive dissonance.

The novel also makes us think about contingency and precarity. Even when the feminists succeed in changing the timeline for the better, we remain aware that the bad guys could try to change it back. I think this speaks to one of the biggest issues that we are facing today. In order to keep hope alive, we need to have some sort of faith in the possibility of progress. The gains made by people of color, by women, by gays and lesbians, by trans people, and so on, over the past fifty years, give at least some credence to the hope expressed by Martin Luther King, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But at a time of Trump and all the other fascistoid leaders in power around the world, and the renewed attacks in the US on fundamental freedoms like abortion rights and voting rights, we must also realize that these victories are precarious, that we can never totally guarantee that they will last, that we cannot take anything for granted, that we must continue struggling and remain vigilant. This is grim, but it is not a counsel of despair: and it is something that we really need to keep in mind in these troubled times. THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE is one of those not-common-enough novels that addresses important questions, and really helps us think about them.