FamilyStone

The Christmas Movie: A Hate/Need Relationship

Dear Television,

HERE’S THE THING no one wants to admit about televised Christmas movies: they’re all horrible. Don’t get me wrong, there are beautiful moments in every Christmas movie: when Kevin rigs the entire house to look like a party dancing to “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” for example, in Christmas classic Home Alone, or every time White Christmas gives up the facade of being an actual movie instead of a Bing Crosby showcase.

But Christmas, at least in its modern, capitalist, de-Jesusified form, is an ideological construct that’s supposed to connote “family” and “love” and “celebration.” Many times, those feelings do arise — for me, it happens in the moment when my brother and I decorate Christmas cookies precisely in the style of our five and eight year old selves, which is to say like an expressionist hyper-sugared art project — but they’re almost accidental, or incidental, to the larger, awkward, passive aggressive interactions that attend family Christmas. It’s not our fault so much as the realities of modern society: most of us don’t live near our families, so when we all get together once (or twice) a year, it’s obviously going to be replete with frisson, which generates both positive and negative heat. The static, bland, overly positive rhetoric of Christmas thus helps paper over the dynamic, piquant experience of it.

And if Christmas is an ideological construct, then Christmas movies are its handmaidens. In each Christmas movie, “Christmas,” as a nourishing, essential event, is threatened in the first act, nearly lost in the second, and regained, in newly valuable, even more cherished form, in the third.

And once the Christmas movie migrates to television, repeating every year, often days on end, its purpose only amplifies. The Christmas movie, which itself underlines the importance of Christmas rituals, becomes part of the Christmas ritual! We can’t deal with our own complications of the Christmas ideology, so we retreat to watch others grapple with — and crucially, successfully address — those same problems. We feel better not because our Christmas woes have been solved, but the movie suggests that they are, ultimately, solvable.

In order for a film to become ritualized, however, it must hew to the ideological formula. It can be a little postmodern splintered, like Love Actually, or be filtered through the lens of comedy, like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but it must also work to vivify the understanding of Christmas as about family and love, as opposed to its historic ideological engine (Christ) or its contemporary one (Capital).

And it’s not just about family and love, but successful family and love. There’s a reason why the French film A Christmas Tale, a critical darling, isn’t shown on continuous repeat on TNT: the subtitles, sure, but it also refuses to posit Christmas, and the family it “unites,” as utopian or successful. It’s by turns bitter and blackly hilarious, and no one wants to think those things describe Christmas.

Which leaves us with a genre of Christmas television events that are ideologically and narratively similar, with slight variations according to narrative mode (comedy, melodrama). I would say they differ according to desired audience, but the desired audience of the Christmas movie is everyone, which only further unites the films in their PG (maybe PG-13) palatability.

To be clear, I like Christmas movies. Who doesn’t like ideological closure! It is preposterously reassuring! But “liking” something, and reveling in the comfort and joy that washes over me for 120 minutes before I return to the beloved catastrophe of my own family Christmases, is a very different thing than claiming a Christmas movie as “good.” I love the haze of just too much cheap champagne; that doesn’t mean I recognize it, or would tell anyone else, that it’s good.

Which is precisely why Bobby Finger’s taxonomy of Love, Actually is so helpful. As he explains, the film is “a glossy, big-budget film with borderline-detestable examinations of love and romance containing perhaps three genuine moments that seem to be of our own universe, but Love Actually is one terrible Christmas movie that has strong-armed its way into the hearts of millions (including my own) despite being absolutely terrible.”

He then proceeds to break down each of Love, Actually’s nine subplots, dividing what he hates (almost entirely narrative and ideological problems) and what he loves (almost entirely affective traits). For example, in the Hugh Grant/Martine McCutcheon subplot, he hates that it’s “the first of three subplots in which a man falls in love with his female subordinate” and, furthermore, that that subordinate is “constantly referred to as ‘the chubby girl.’” Yet he loves that “Hugh Grant is SO cute when he dances to the Pointer Sisters” and the moment when “she jumps into his arms and he catches her!!!”

Quoted this way, Finger’s points might seem a bit flip, but his tone, exclamation marks, and use of capslock perfectly reflects the affective experience of watching a Christmas movie, which is basically a long series of squeals, sighs, and your mom saying “that’s just great” while everyone else thinks it.

We both love and hate Christmas movies — are repulsed by them in theory and compelled by them in action. Which is precisely how I feel about The Family Stone. Let’s give Bobby’s taxonomy a try:

THE PREMISE: A large, sprawling “modern family” returns to their family home in Snowy Somewhere, New England. The eldest son’s girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker) is very uptight and the rest of the family is not very uptight. Hijinks ensue. 

I Hate:

  • The very idea of the large, sprawling “modern family,” in which every member represents a slightly different ideological strain, all of them progressive
  • Not living in Somewhere, New England
  • The construction of Sarah Jessica Parker, and her dedication to her career/getting shit done, as fundamentally at odds with being a loving family member.

Things I Love:

  • Progressive families are so feisty and ultimately lovable!
  • Nondescript New England towns are so quaint.
  • SJP’s transformation from a somewhat loathable character who merits, and wins, our sympathies.  When she dumps the egg thing all over everyone and then they all collapse in the kitchen laughing?  That is GREAT.

THE SUPPORTING CHARACTERS:

SJP is ostensibly the star here, but everyone gets approximately the same amount of screentime, effectively everyone into a supporting character.  Parents = Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson; Male Kids = Dermot Mulroney as upright but personality-less older brother, Luke Wilson as stoner slacker, Tyrone Giordano as deaf gay brother with black partner and adopted child; Female Kids = Rachel McAdams as crunchy acerbic teacher who takes no shit, Elizabeth Reaser as kind, agreeable, pregnant, and plot-less stay-at-home mom.  Plus Claire Danes as SJP’s charismatic, beautiful, socially graceful sister, Brian J. White as Giordano’s partner, and Paul Schneider as working class yet likable local cop.

I Hate:

  • The way obvious signifiers (e.g. Rachel McAdam’s NPR bag, SJP’s very tight bun) stand in for actual characterization
  • The way Tad (Tyrone Giordano) is laden not one, not two, but three types of Otherness (deaf, gay, and partnered with a man of another race)
  • The way that each relationship, ruined and potential, is predicated on finding love, which is part of why the two already happy couples get essentially no screentime
  • Any plot that posits that even people from very different walks of life can come together, reconcile their differences, and understand and love each other, given the proper motivation (Christmas, obviously)
  • The sheer number of people only reinforces the notion that a Christmas somehow gets better the bigger (and more present) your family is.

I Love:

  • The exquisite moment of (self)-recognition when I saw Rachel McAdam’s NPR bag and station wagon.
  • Luke Wilson c. 2005 and his slightly too small polos
  • Craig T. Nelson smoking weed with Luke Wilson c. 2005
  • Claire Danes’ glorious blonde hair
  • Bitchy Rachel McAdams
  • All of these supporting members together in one place, everything’s so crazy, no one knows what anyone else is doing, let’s all have big families!

THE PLOT: 

After SJP comes home to the liberal judgy family, hijinks do, indeed, ensue — eventually leading to some partner switching, some match-making, and lots of true love. But things have to get really bad first, and everyone has to cry when [huge spoiler for anyone who thought this was actually a romantic comedy, as one would based on the trailer] it’s revealed that Diane Keaton’s breast cancer has returned and she’s dying.

I Hate:

  • The feeling in my stomach at the big family dinner when SJP says a well-meaning but horrendously thing about how no one would hope that their child would end up gay because no one would wish that hardship on their child, and her obvious bungling is meant to stand in for a host of other well-meaning but egregious wrongs.
  • How stagey and obvious it is when Dermot figures out he’s in love with the girl (Claire Danes) who’s not uptight like her sister (SJP) and JUST HAPPENS to be gorgeous.
  • The weird interludes with the pregnant sister even though it’s clear that they edited out any plot complexity due to time constraints.
  • Feeling super emotionally manipulated by the surprise addition of a Cancer plot.

I Love:

  • Citing SJP’s drunk attempt to remedy her earlier wrong (“I LOVE the gays!”)
  • The moment when you see Diane Keaton’s mastectomy scar and break into tears
  • The moment when SJP gives everyone in the family a beautiful framed photo of Diane Keaton holding a child (suggested to be Rachel McAdams) and break into tears.
  • The moment when Paul Schneider shows up to ask Rachel McAdams out on a date and it gradually thaws her cold snarky heart.

THE RESOLUTION:

I Hate:

  • Persistent and naturalized conflation of Christmas narratives with heteronormative coupling narratives.
  • Cancer as narrative catalyst.
  • Paul Schneider ending up with anyone other than me.

I Love:

  • That Boring Dermot Mulroney ends up with equally boring Claire Danes, leaving the truly interesting characters (SJP and Luke Wilson) to hang out together.
  • SJP’s newfound chillness, as evidenced by the fact that she’s a.) dating a stoner; b.) wearing a v-neck sweater and c.) has her hair down.
  • Cathartically bawling as we realize that Diane Keaton is gone and everyone misses and loves her.
  • Rachel McAdams and Paul Schneider.
  • The mother of the family may have died and everyone misses her like crazy but EVERYONE IS HAPPY EVERYTHING IS AS GREAT AS IT COULD BE because FAMILY and CHRISTMAS.

Excuse the capslock: I’m too busy reveling as this particular Christmas ideology aims and hits its target of white, middle-class, educated people.

The Family Stone isn’t everybody’s Christmas movie. In fact, it’s not even that many people’s. It was a moderate hit and receives far less television play than Christmas stalwarts old (It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, White Christmas) and new (Love, Actually, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Elf). But Christmas movie fandom is not as simple as being attracted to the Christmas movie that’s directed at you. Christmas movies are directed at everyone, after all, or at least all white middle-class people, which is Hollywood shorthand for “all people.” It’s how we watch them, and with whom — how they, and their reductive yet charismatic messages incorporate themselves into an understanding of our own Christmases.

Growing up, my family never had a Christmas movie. We had cookie decorating and sledding and other rituals, but a movie was never part of it. As we grew older, and the rituals of childhood became less magnetic, movie-going — specifically, going to a matinee with my brother — became our ritual. But we’ve only seen one actual Christmas movie on Christmas, and that movie was, naturally, The Family Stone. It’s an intensely flawed film, but it marks an important — and one of the few remaining — rituals in my family, which is why I’ll watch it any time it comes on cable, anytime I remember the $4.99 copy I have stashed behind my more reputable DVDs.

In the end, it’s not the movie, or cute Luke Wilson, or even Christmas that I like. It’s the act of watching, and the even more important act of remembering.

“You have a freak flag. You just don’t fly it” —

AHP

¤

SFimage12813

Back to the Present of the Future: Continuum and the War on Terror

By Jonathan Alexander

I’LL BEGIN WITH A DISCLAIMER: as much as I love SF, time-travel stories are my least favorite.  Granted, notable exceptions abound: H. G. Well’s Time Machine, which arguably launches the genre of SF as a whole, and Greg Benford’s Timescape are both brilliantly executed fables that use time travel to meditate on social and ecological injustices.  In the hands of many SF TV writers, however, time travel seems largely an excuse to create impenetrable plot twists, a lazy narrative device leaving viewers scratching their heads and propelled to watch the next episode for some sense of resolution.  I love the Star Trek franchises, but their time travel episodes are amongst the worst offenders in this category of sloppy story-telling.

And then there’s Continuum.  The Canadian channel Showcase first broadcast this series in May 2012, and its third season is currently in production.  And despite my bias against time travel narratives, I think Continuum might be about the best SF TV I’ve seen in the last decade.  If you’ve missed it, you need to catch up before the next season airs.

Continuum’s plot primarily revolves around a future cop, Kiera (played by Rachel Nichols), who works in 2077 for the corporate state, federal governments having been taken over and run, in a rather fascist fashion, by profit-mongering corporations.  Kiera accidentally (maybe, maybe not) gets sucked into a time vortex that a group of condemned future terrorists open up shortly before their execution for having blown up corporate headquarters and killing thousands of people.  (Think 9/11 and the attacks on the WTC.)  The terrorists want to come back to the present to change things for the better (or at least their version of the better).  Kiera and the terrorists have to insinuate themselves into present day Vancouver–Kiera as a law enforcement agent, the terrorists as various activists, moguls, and present-day terrorists.  Along the way, Kiera and the terrorists run into a young Alec Sadler (played by Erik Knudsen), who, in the future, becomes one of the prime architects of the future corporate state, as well as the person who may be trying to sabotage the corporate state he’s created.  Kiera reveals who she is to Alec, who, a computer genius, is maybe not so stunned to learn that he will become the leading figure in creating the technologies that become the complete surveillance state of 2077.  Alec and Kiera help each other, for the time being, and are assisted and antagonized by a strong cast of characters, including Kiera’s police partner Carlos (played by Victor Webster) and former terrorist and now sketchy present-day entrepreneur Matthew Kellog (Stephen Lobo).

This sketch doesn’t even begin to do Continuum justice.  The plot increases in complexity with nearly every episode, leading you to a spectacular season two cliffhanger and leaving you wondering what the master plot really is: who really knows what’s going on, who’s pulling the strings, and what’s the end game?  Continuum offers us lots of loops, and at its best it’s reminiscent of Kage Baker’s delightful Company novels, which keep you guessing about what designs the future really has on the present. In less capable hands, such stories would be a mess.  But what salvages Continuum are the risks the show is willing to take with the viewers’ sympathies and identifications with different characters.

Let me explain.  When watching the first few episodes of Continuum, I have to admit I was kind of appalled.  Vancouver, where the story is set in both the present and the future, becomes a pretty but nasty place in 2077, a place where the trains run on time—or else.  Think corporate fascism–a timely trope given that, in the US at least, corporations are essentially given the same rights as people but also have access to incredible resources to enforce their will and manipulate the legal system.  The SF extrapolation is totally believable.  While we don’t get a complex sense of how corporations rule, we see many examples of their brutal and total control, complete surveillance, and limited protection of civil liberties; desirable commodities are only accessible to the bureaucratic class that keeps the companies running and profitable. The “smoking man” (William B. Davis) from X-Files plays the elder and future Alec Sadler, who seems to be in control of everything as head of the surveillance company running the state.  That casting choice alone signals that these are the bad guys.  Kiera is one of their hired guns, and we see her in multiple episodes, flashing back and forth between the present and the future, as a brutal enforcer, hurting those who defy the corporate police state.

But it’s her viewpoint we are asked to identify with primarily, and the story is largely given to us through her eyes.  And that’s our dilemma as viewers.  She represents an icky future, and you’re invited to sympathize with her desire to protect it.  Granted, she’s tracking down terrorists, who battle that state through 9/11-style attacks.  But wait: even that is complicated, because, well, you might not agree with their tactics, but you also don’t want to defend the fascist corporate state either.  And, as the series progresses, you are given no easy answers here about whom to like, or even whom you should be identifying with.  On one hand, we watch the corporate police state being born, particularly through the use of digitally collected information to keep tabs on the lives of citizens and arrest them even for sympathies that are anti-corporate; think of the Patriot Act as it might be administered by Wall Street.  One character from the future, Escher, represents a “corporation” that fully funds the Vancouver police force to stop the terrorists by any means necessary, especially after they blow up a building in 2012.  At one point, Kiera herself resorts to torturing Julian, Alec’s estranged step-brother who is helping the future terrorists in the present.  On the other hand, however, the show spares no love for the terrorists either.  Julian is made to look like a young Osama bin Laden, and his tactics seem especially sketchy; remember that blown up building I mentioned?  To complicate matters further, we also see how the present-day “terrorists” increasingly seem to want to fight with ideas, not force, and Kiera herself starts to doubt the justness of the future corporate state she’s trying to protect in the present.

You can probably tell that the show is steadily pitching itself as a complex reading of the war on terror at a time of economic crisis—a heady but smart conflation.    Early in the second season, we see Julian, in prison, reading The White Guard, an early book by Soviet-era writer Mikhail Bulgakov.  It’s a throwaway scene, but maybe a signal nonetheless if you’re paying close attention. Bulgakov, whose most famous work is The Master and Margarita, wrote The White Guard to depict the many factions (socialist, monarchist, etc.) fighting over Kiev during the 1917 October Revolution.  Bulgakov’s own sympathies were mixed, and he became a critic of Soviet policies, especially under Stalin.  So, Julian, the revolutionary, reading Bulgakov might be a clue that the show’s “take” on the war on terror, corporate malfeasance, and the economic downturn will not be simple.  At the very least, it’s hard to know who the good guys are, and your sympathies for one might have to change over the course of time as you weigh tactics, values, and endgames.

Such steady confusion of sympathies makes for heady, engaging viewing as your identifications with different characters form—and are then challenged.  The plots within plots call to mind Fringe, that rip-off of The X-Files.  But while Fringe and X-Files were willing to play with their main characters’ foibles, neither risked identifications as strongly as Continuum, which, at its best, makes you question your loyalties to characters as a way to make you question what you really think about terrorism, as well as how far we should–and should not–go in defending an unjust economic status quo.  Tricky stuff here.  You wonder, does the repression of terrorism in the 21st century actually result in the corporate take over?  And might the terrorists have a point in organizing against the nascent corporate state?

What begin as extreme poles–fascism and terrorism–steadily become more nuanced over 23 episodes.  Ultimately, Continuum might really be about the re-education of Kiera, who seems led to question who bad the bad guys really are, and if she herself might be a bad guy.  As such, in asking you to identify with her, the show might play to our re-education as viewers, or at least prompt us to question our sympathies in the war on terror and the desirability of having corporations call so many political shots.  Early in the second season, one of the more brutal future terrorists asks Carlos, the present-day police detective, if he’s ever bothered by the injustices he sees, the ways corporations seem to manipulate the law and citizens to turn a profit.  Carlos replies, “Guess I’m just used to it.”  Travis answers: “They need your complacency.”  The exchange seems pitched not just to Carlos but to us, sitting comfortably (for now) in front of our televisions.

In figuring a war on terror and the rise of corporate interests, Continuum pulls no punches.  Given its subject matter, it shouldn’t.  This is complex stuff, deserving of complex treatment.  You should catch up before the third season airs—or before the corporate state bans such provocative viewing.

¤

Late-Breaking Iran and China News: A 1979 Flashback

Strange+Rebels
by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

The weekend before Thanksgiving was a big one for international headlines. The biggest breaking story, coming out of Geneva, was of a multinational team of negotiators hammering out a nuclear-arms deal with Iran.  When John Kerry announced this agreement, American commentators reached quickly for historical analogies, focusing mostly on two years in the last century. Those happy about the agreement likened it to a 1972 diplomatic breakthrough: Nixon’s famous meetings with Mao. Those displeased by it cited a 1938 disaster: Chamberlain’s infamous appeasement of Hitler. Thinking about the news out of Geneva, as well as these polarized reactions to it, I was reminded of a different year: 1979.

Admittedly, that year’s been on my mind a lot throughout 2013, partly because it was a key one for Deng Xiaoping, and new President Xi Jinping has been striving to identify himself in people’s minds with that most powerful of post-Mao Communist Party leaders. I thought of 1979 back in June, for example, when Xi came to the U.S. to meet with Barack Obama in what has become known as the “Shirtsleeves Summit,” since the main photo op that came from the meeting showed the two leaders walking and talking sans coats and ties. As I noted in a commentary for the History News Network at the time, Deng’s 1979 visit to the U.S., the first by a Chinese Communist Party leader, had also included a memorable bit of sartorial symbolism: his donning of a cowboy hat at a Texas rodeo. More generally, in 1979, as he was consolidating his position as China’s paramount leader, three things Deng did was call for a pragmatic approach to development, push for social and economic reforms, and crack down on domestic critics (in that case, those involved in the Democracy Wall Movement).  Xi has done these same three things.

There is, though, a quite specific reason that 1979 came to my mind when the news about the Iran deal broke and analogies to both Nixon meeting Mao and Chamberlain giving in to Hitler began to fly: that year began with a January 1 joint declaration by Beijing and Washington proclaiming a full “normalization” of relations between China and the United States.  Some Americans hailed this 1979 agreement as an important step toward fostering world peace, but others denounced it as a case of a liberal President doing a dangerous disservice to a valued ally.  Complaints from some quarters then that Jimmy Carter had sold out Taiwan parallel closely some that are being heard now from those convinced Obama has done wrong by Israel.

The analogy is not perfect, which is only to be expected—nothing that happens in one century is going to be exactly like something done in the previous one. The Iran deal involves several countries, for example, whereas the 1979 agreement was between just two nations. And Obama’s policy on Iran has broken from that of his Republican predecessor, while Carter’s engagement with China carried forward things that Nixon and Ford had done.

Still, the more I think about the 1979 parallel, the more I’m convinced it is a good one, and a better China-related one than 1972.  One reason it seems more useful to look back to the late 1970s than the early 1970s is that when Nixon went to China, he met with a Chinese leader who had been in power for a long time, so the main question about Mao was how much he had changed.  Seven years later, by contrast, when the normalization of relations was announced and then Deng came to America, a lot of foreign talk about China focused, as much on Iran does now, on how novel a course a new leader vowing to move in reformist directions would take his country.

1979 analogies seem stronger still if we look at a second international news story that broke right before Thanksgiving: China’s declaration of plans to start monitoring the airspace above and around the islands known as the Diaoyu in Chinese and the Senkaku in Japanese. These specks of land, located near undersea oil reserves, are claimed by both Beijing and Tokyo but have been effectively under Japanese control in recent years.  Due to America’s long-term security alliance with Japan, as well as the White House’s commitment to maintaining the status quo where island disputes like this one are concerned, Kerry ended up having a very busy weekend indeed. He needed to follow up his upbeat statement on Iran with a downbeat one on Beijing’s proclamation of a new Air Defense Identification Zone that included the islands, criticizing it as a provocative and inappropriate move.  Kerry made these two statements so close together that separate articles on each appeared in the front sections of the same editions of some newspapers.

This simultaneous 2013 reporting of developments suggesting that relations between Washington and Tehran are moving in a positive direction, while tensions between Washington and Beijing rising represents an eerie inversion of the 1979 situation. This is because that year, which began with Beijing and Washington normalizing ties and Deng making a successful state visit to the United States, also witnessed the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini coming to power and denouncing America, and the start of the hostage crisis.

Again, the analogy is not perfect, especially since, thankfully, it is likely that we are seeing just a minor souring of relations between Beijing and Washington right now, not the start of any kind of full-blown crisis.  Still, it is relatively rare that stories concerning China and Iran jockey for the attention of the American public at the same moment, and one of the few times this has happened before was back in 1979.  A valuable visual reminder of the temporal overlap of China and Iran stories almost three-and-a-half decades ago is provided by the February 12, 1979, cover of TIME.  The main headline read “Iran: Now the Power Play,” and the image accompanying it and taking up most of the cover featured a stern looking Khomeini, shown in color, breaking through a giant black-and-white portrait of his own face, symbolizing that he was now a formidable man on the spot, as opposed to a figure in exile who provided a rallying point for opponents of the Shah.  Up in the right-hand corner of the cover, though, was a very different smaller headline and smaller image: it referred to Deng’s “triumphant tour” and showed two faces, that of the Chinese leader and that of Carter.

A final 1979 and 2013 note is in order, which has to do with the book whose cover is shown at the top of this post.  Early this year, my friend Christina Larson, who used to be an editor at Foreign Policy and is now China correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek, told me that, given my interest in placing China in comparative perspective and connecting the past to the present, I should be sure to get hold of a forthcoming book by Foreign Policy contributing editor Christian Caryl.  Valuing Christina’s judgment, when Christian Caryl’s Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the Twenty-First Century came out, I made a point of getting a copy.  Reading it, I was duly impressed.  And even though I’m unwilling to give up on the notion that 1989, with the Tiananmen protests and the fall of the Berlin Wall as well as many other major events, was an even more consequential year than 1979, at moments like this it is well worth remembering just how dramatic that often overlooked earlier decade-closing twelve-month period was.

swift

I Don’t Know I’m Beautiful

Dear Television,

I FIND MUSIC VIDEOS to be a lot of work. When someone sends me a link to a new (and frequently contentious!) music video asking my “thoughts?” I hide. Close tab close tab close tab. Time-wise, they’re not actually that bad. Unlike articles, you know exactly how long it will take to finish one, and usually it’s less time than skimming an article! But theoretically, even logistically, they are difficult creatures. This is partly because music videos enter my life as interruptions or interludes into my usual business at the computer — that of writing or reading — and my brain has a hard time dealing with the change in not just media, but genre.

Remember MTV? Remember their top 40 countdowns? Remember YTV’s Hit List? I grew up receiving my music videos not from the computer, but the television, screen. It was ideal, because music videos almost fit into the category of movies-on-TV. They are clips that one could dip in and out of (which is almost necessary when one is often coming into the middle of them, by chance), and that needn’t hold or build to much narrative logic to generate interest.

On TV, music videos resemble casual short films, and are not always immediately distinguishable from film trailers. The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Sky’s the Limit”? Spike Jonze’s short film. Foo Fighters’s “Everlong”? Michel Gondry’s short film. Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”? Both his and Bob Giraldi’s love letter to West Side Story. (Ahhhh music videos and musical theater do not get me started!! But if you want to get started, one word: Madonna.) Britney Spears’s “Lucky”? Short film about the making of a film. Very meta. Very clarifying. Music videos were literally made for television. Generically, they are something between the TV show, the movie, the commercial, the commercial-for-films, and the song — and they know it. But even if it’s hard to be a music video — to get it just right (as Phil’s stunning piece on Arcade Fire this week shows) — the aim is to make this difficulty look easy. As Annie suggested, something that can simultaneously convey surface and depth, as if anarrative nonsense were constitutive of and perhaps even necessary to the genre. Effortless meaning, or meaningless effort! Something like that.

It’s hard to be a music video, and honestly it’s hard to watch them. This is partly a problem of the medium’s time constraints paired its attempt to do too much. The music video is often at cross-purposes with itself: it must sell the song, sell the artist, and sell the album by way of communicating (or, a form of that, which is selling) a particular narrative. In calling the music video a casual short film, I’m getting dangerously close to labeling it as a commercial movie: digestible, easy, and made for some kind of magical lowest common denominator. This is not quite what I mean. As we know, not all anarrative music videos are successful.

Television is an organizing force, and even MTV must propose some kind of structure: countdowns, best ofs, or music video competitions. Often it is about what is winning or popular. But the internet has completely changed the value and exchange-value of the music video, and written commentary or criticism on the music video forces viewers to reconsider these images at a different speed and pitch. I honestly need to sketch graph to parse most of the music videos I watch. But the internet also allows us to rewatch videos in controlled and condensed spurts; this kind of viewing allows certain details and the internal structure of a video to emerge.

I find music videos to be a very complex, extremely loud, and incredibly close-up genre, especially when viewed in isolation on my computer screen. They’re uncomfortable and irritating and if their aim is to be immersive, then I’ve learned to respect this by approaching them on my own terms — in conditions conducive to paying attention. One must prepare for the internet music video! Television meant coming across them by chance, but the internet has perhaps paradoxically done the opposite: it has made the viewer work harder at curating their music video experience. Can you imagine if music videos just popped up while you scrolled websites? I would lose it.

My attempt to offer even the illusion of context back into music video-viewing is to continue thinking of them narratively. It is to consider them as still related to narrative film, or at least television, because I don’t think the music video has entirely forgotten its beginnings. The music video is aware — is, indeed, often hyper-aware, and this is partly what makes attempts at immersion seem so exhausting. The seams, at cross-purposes with one another, are constantly showing, and, as such, viewers often find themselves more at ease when the seams are simply made apparent as part of the music video form. The loudly self-aware music video is rewarding to watch.

Because if the music video is first and foremost televisual, then it must be conscious about its visual and musical oddness in the context of televisual narrative and structure even as it attempts to elide this discrepancy. Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together” is paradoxically not about irreversible disconnection, but about seamlessness. It is filmed in one continuous shot, and there is, not incidentally, a prominent transition by way of a television screen.

This 3 minute 36 second music video is an exceptionally self-conscious response to Taylor Swift’s exaggerated brand as a serial dater: her body literally effects the transitions in plot, music, and image.

Swift is especially good at literalizing generic scripts, which makes sense when you consider that her roots are the very narratable country song.

She is a lousy actress, so the blatant embrace of literalizing lyrics through gestures is pronounced in her videos aaaaaand it works!

She both is and isn’t the hot girl in “You Belong With Me.” She both knows and does not know that she’s a princess in videos such as “Teardrops On My Guitar” and “Love Story.” It’s an incredibly hard space for the female pop star to inhabit, especially since any straddling of the pole between self-knowledge and naivety all too quickly generates accusations of narcissism. But how much does she really know?, one asks. To acknowledge Swift’s intelligence is to maintain both a diegetic and extra-diegetic understanding of her music video narrative — to know that she is, in a way, blatantly acting out a stereotype as well as volleying it back at us. It’s, to return to Annie’s post, a way of reveling in spectacle while also allowing the viewer to participate. It’s fun! And perhaps this dual understanding of Swift is also what has been lacking in evaluations of “Bound 2.” At the same time, perhaps the intimacy of “Bound 2” is exactly what makes it difficult to watch. Take the uncanny one step too far, and viewers are irrevocably thrown out of any engaging loop.

If you think that I’m stretching, I would redirect us to what one might consider the simplest music videos — those of pop songs — to see how self-awareness is not just possible in the music video, but actually endemic to it. Even if the music video is largely made for the viewer’s pleasure, it is ultimately to benefit the artist. Interest always lies in the body on display, and the related economic interest is what makes it possible; music videos have, time and time again, capitalized on this fact by thematizing it in visual form. A multiplicity of perspectives is constitutive of the medium itself (it is partly what makes it so exhausting to watch). When the artist is directly addressing the camera, any potential emersion in their pop star aura does not preclude an awareness that we know they know they are being watched. Even when they are, unlike Swift, predominantly singing about you, the presumed viewer, there is never a moment wherein we forget that this music video is largely about them.

Take One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful”:

Maybe I don’t know I’m beautiful, maybe I do, but who really cares? What matters is that YOU, ONE DIRECTION, LOOK GREAT. I love how you flip your hair, Harry Styles. Gahhhhhh. See? Immersion by way of a sense of distance — it totally works! The music video is especially conducive to it. It’s also totally why adult women can get close to sincerely and wholeheartedly adoring One Direction.

The gift of the music video is that it doesn’t take much to theorize it; the music video already theorizes itself, theorizes its subject, brings viewers close by suggesting just how far away the singer really is. It’s built into its very form.

¤

Love

3 Ways of Looking at Arcade Fire

Dear Television,

EVERYBODY HATED “Bound 2.” I don’t mean the song. In fact, if you ask Yeezy purists, probably too many people liked the song (the lone example of Kanye West’s more mainstream chipmunk soul on an uncommonly aggressive album). No, everybody hated Kanye West’s video for “Bound 2.” (My favorite description of the background imagery is Andrew Goldstein’s suggestion that it’s the stock footage “playing under every Chinatown karaoke song I’ve ever sung.”) Critics and fans alike were upset by the video’s apparent lack of self-consciousness, its decadent embrace of cheese, its radiant narcissism. After months of bonkers interviews, groping publicity, and the greatest stunt-naming of an infant to occur in my lifetime, Kanye had finally lost it, and the result was his very first truly bad work of art.

Essentially, these criticisms were directed at West’s naivete. It’s terrible, but he thinks it’s good. Ha ha ha, what an idiot. From this perspective, Seth Rogen and James Franco released their wildly successful shot-for-shot parody, which parodied the video simply by reproducing it and adding in a tasty little bit of gay panic. The Rogen/Franco video assumes that, in order to turn a serious video into a joke, all that needs to be done is to call it a joke. In other words, what’s funny about this video is that Kanye West doesn’t know how funny it is. Rogen and Franco frenching and canoodling on that motorcycle mirrors the way they reach out their hairy hands to us. We exist, with them, on the side where people have self-knowledge. Kimye exist on the side of total, blissful, vulgar innocence.

What puzzled me so much about the reaction to this video was the public’s willingness to assume Kanye West is stupid. Kanye West whose albums basically have a time-share in Pitchfork Media’s top 5 albums of the year; whose production for Jay-Z and others defined the sound of the early 21st century; whose 2013 stage tour is literally bringing music critics to tears; and whose most recent album Yeezus dropped like the Second Coming on the popular music world this year. Despite this, Kanye West, apparently, has not earned our trust.

I don’t know what to do with “Bound 2.” Jody Rosen and Jerry Saltz have made convincing cases for what Kanye’s doing with visuality and the uncanny in the video. But, regardless of whether I agree with those readings, or whether I personally understand the video or not, it seems foolish to settle for a surface-reading of a video made by an artist with such weird, craggy depths. Upon closer inspection, “Bound 2” might not be anything, but a lot of critics went straight to assuming that it’s nothing.

Yesterday, Annie laid out, in grand fashion, a kind of aesthetics of music video emptiness. Today, I’d like to venture a read of music video ambition — or, put another way, music video fullness. To that end, I present three ways of looking at Arcade Fire’s “Afterlife”…

Afterlife #1: Black Orpheus


It’s not every year that “cultural appropriation” is on the public radar. This year, however, following the multi-stage debacle that was Miley Cyrus’s Twerkface Minstrelsy routine, critics have been enormously, unusually, alert to the dynamics of racialized cultural power onscreen. All of which is to say that I was shocked that this lyric video didn’t provoke more than even a small reaction in the online critical sphere. This video — the lyric video for “Afterlife,” released as a teaser for Arcade Fire’s new album Reflektor — is comprised of shots from Marcel Camus’s 1959 film Black Orpheus, which retells the Orpheus myth in the setting of Brazilian Carneval. The film was a huge hit upon its release — the music became a sensation of its own — and its infectious rhythms and brilliant color remain irresistible. In retrospect, though, it smacks of colonialism and somewhat uncomfortably portrays its Afro-Brazilian characters as naïve and superstitious. Arcade Fire here takes shots from the famous macumba ritual that occurs late in the film and cuts them together with shots of our protagonist Orfeu earlier in the film dancing and singing. The images are taken out of their context and recut to build the kind of vaguely sinister, vaguely danceable aesthetic Reflektor embodies. White people, black bodies, representation and control, authenticity and performance — why was this not a thing?

Rather than jump at the bait, this video made next to no impression on the critterati. Mashable, for its part, called the lyric video an “intensely romantic mini-movie.” The short piece does not mention that the footage is from Black Orpheus, but it does quote Arcade Fire’s Will Butler explaining that the song is structured around a Haitian percussion loop. This widely circulated pull-quote would explain a lot if the video featured any Haitians at all and was not, in fact, comprised solely of French and Brazilian actors portraying Brazilian characters. It’s not terribly ungenerous to say that this is a slightly wobbly rationale for what’s going on here. In any case, it strikes me as fishy that so few people were interested in asking a follow-up to this flimsy, potentially offensive, artist’s statement.

One notable voice for the minority of people who were at all interested in talking about this video was Hayden Higgins at The Atlantic. Higgins noticed this weird disconnect, in fact, and wrote a spectacular essay about Arcade Fire’s exploitation of Haiti and conflation, in the rhetoric surrounding this album, of a variety of African and Afro-Caribbean cultures. Arcade Fire, for Higgins, isn’t interested in these cultures so much as in the aesthetic they lend to whatever they touch. If we take Higgins’s reading seriously, it’s not hard to claim that Arcade Fire sought out a “black” sound just as much as Miley has been pilloried for doing. But Arcade Fire is smart, they know what they’re doing, and so we assume that they are the ethical, artistic, well-read folks here. (In fact, the Huffington Post headline claims that the lyric video, “acts as a Film Studies Course too.”) If it seems like nonsense, it must be because it’s over our heads.

Annie has pointed out that most music videos are all surface, and that seems to have led us to read only for surfaces. How are the dance moves? How little clothing is she wearing? What kind of shark is that? It took Miley bringing the minstrel tradition to the very top of the mix for anybody to notice it was happening at all. But just because we only practice surface reading of these texts doesn’t mean that some videos aren’t, intentionally or unintentionally, deeper. I suspect that the blatant artificiality, the fetishized surface-ness of “Bound 2” belies something more. Likewise, the surface of this lyric video — comprised almost entirely of dancing Brazilians, exotic-looking rituals, an ominous fellow in a skeleton suit, and, if you recognize the clip, a high-brow cultural reference — belies the work of appropriation and authentication Arcade Fire is trying to pull. Win Butler described the album’s sound as a “mashup of Studio 54 and Haitian Voodoo.” That statement only makes sense if you understand it as a description of a costume the band can wear, and that’s exactly, and all, that it is.

For their single “We Used to Wait” from The Suburbs, Arcade Fire commissioned a multi-media, Google Chrome spectacular — they also worked with Chrome to make a video for “Reflektor” — that essentially produced a personalized video experience based around the Google Satellite maps and Google Street View of each viewer’s childhood home. This was a video experience that dealt, literally, in surfaces. But the filmmaker behind it blended traditional music video footage with animation and the generic but intensely intimate images of Street View to create an experience of surfaces imbued with deep nostalgia. The video, even today, makes you feel, but not just through spectacle. It’s an admirable and beautiful experience, and it nods to the immersive possibilities of technology even as it bemoans the alienation of online communication. It’s a reminder that we ought to take Arcade Fire as seriously as they take themselves, if only because they don’t always get it right.

Afterlife #2: Greta Gerwig

What does Arcade Fire get from Black Orpheus? The veneer of intellectualism? The exotic groove of the African diaspora? Closeness to and superiority over ecstatic religious experience?

Ok. But what then does Arcade Fire get from Greta Gerwig? Indie chanteuse, post-mumblecore muse, gangly goddess Greta Gerwig has had, by some accounts, a pretty good year. In the spring, Noah Baumbach released his critically-acclaimed Frances Ha, a film starring and co-written with Gerwig. Regardless of whether you loved the film or hated it, it’s hard to deny that Gerwig’s aura is its reason for being. A satire of post-graduate malaise and Brooklyn hipsterism as well as a surprisingly conventional growing-up story, Frances Ha is inconceivable as a project without its star. It’s less a love letter from this filmmaker to his lover than an attempt to capture her spirit — capture like a picture and like a trap — to hold up as an amulet against the melancholy of aging. And so Frances Ha too is an act of appropriation.

Central to Frances Ha, in the same way that Diane Keaton’s singing is to Annie Hall, is Gerwig’s lurpy dancing. Both an object of ridicule and a thing taken weirdly seriously in the film, Gerwig’s technically bad, somewhat affecting (affected?) moves — she plays a struggling ballerina in the film — symbolize the protagonist’s awkward lunges toward connection, love, and adulthood. And the camera lingers on those moves, in practice, onstage, and even in the street. Gerwig’s dancing is the most honest thing in a film filled with dishonesties small and large (I would argue a fair number of those dishonesties belong to Baumbach). She can’t dance any better than she does, and that limitation is freeing. Each step is a statement of identity that can’t be either exaggerated or undersold or otherwise lied about.

Gerwig, despite the struggles of her character, has a blast in that film, and she brings that joyful energy to this, the best of the three videos. The video is — mostly — a long tracking shot of Gerwig dancing as Arcade Fire plays, and the video captures some of the same madcap intensity of director Spike Jonze’s great “Weapon of Choice” (is Greta Gerwig our generation’s Christopher Walken?). For a majority of the video, we are in a medium shot of Gerwig dancing to the camera, reaching out. It’s mesmerizing even as it’s maybe a little precious. The blazer Gerwig wears offers an additional physical constraint that, as those shoulders bunch up, becomes almost moving.

But this video isn’t good because Gerwig is Arcade Fire’s demographic or because it’s got a sense of humor, though the latter doesn’t hurt. Instead, this video is good because Gerwig is dancing to the song. Part of what makes the lyric video so uncanny and ultimately uncomfortable is that the dancers in the video cannot possibly be dancing to Arcade Fire. On a visceral level, the appropriation of their spontaneous, impassioned movements feels almost more invasive than the appropriation of their skin color or “exoticism.” The lyric video commits a low-grade historical fraud by forcing its subjects to dance to “Afterlife,” a song that is really only modestly, theoretically even, danceable.

And that’s what the lyric video is. It’s a theory, an aspirational collage made out of magazine clippings, a look book. This is what we want to be, this is how we want to sound, this is how we want people to respond to us. Jonze’s live video is exactly that: live. I don’t know whether it was Jonze’s direction that Gerwig should be suppressing an enormous smile the whole time, but whether it was intentional or not, it’s effective. It feels genuinely communicative with the music. And, oddly, that organic relationship — between the awkwardness of Greta Gerwig as a dancer and the awkwardness of “Afterlife” as a dance song — is made all the more tangible when Butler walks onstage behind Gerwig to croon the bridge. He’s all humorless sincerity — the shallow depth of the undergrad open mic poet — and Gerwig is all hysterical sincerity. They’re on a spectrum, but Butler sets Gerwig off. And a smile erupts because the beat is able to be separated from the band. Gerwig makes the song her own in a way that the dancers in Black Orpheus can’t — she’s given that control. And it really is a joy to watch.

Afterlife #3: ?

This last video, the official music video directed by Emily Kai Bock, is essentially a short film about a father and his two sons. The video begins with a dinnertable scene in which we’re introduced to a variety of tensions — between the father and his eldest son over what the father does for work, between the father and his youngest son over the son’s (presumed) Americanization, between all three over their seeming financial straits. The video then proceeds as three interwoven dream sequences (one for each character), all of which lead to the image of a presumably deceased wife and mother.

There’s no dancing, there’s no rapture, just beautifully shot longing, loss, and regret. On their last album, Arcade Fire aimed to represent the experience of the suburban teen. This album aspires to something maybe a little more universal, and so too do these videos. It’s clear the band thinks this song has legs, more precisely that there’s a profundity to it that can sustain multiple interpretations, multiple angles of entry: the primal energy of the macumba ritual, the awkward energy of Gerwig, now the experience of struggling immigrants.

There’s a lot to like about this third video as a piece of filmmaking, but it also feels a lot like overkill or overreach. Particularly, for a band that has thus far inhabited richly detailed worlds of intimate experience — the razor’s edge between childhood and adolescence, suburban ennui — this video reads as a kind of trick. Everybody experiences loss, right? Brazilian samba dancers, late-20s Brooklynites, the children of Mexican immigrants — it’s the Family of Man.

Except that it isn’t. More often than not, music videos revel in shallowness. What if the song is set in a high school? Hit me baby. What if she’s in love with a cartoon cat? Straight up! For two or three minutes, with the right song, a filmmaker can sustain any premise. Sometimes a nonsense premise yields a genuine emotion. Sometimes, however, a complex, dramatic, high-concept premise yields only the illusion of depth. At the end of the day, I get what’s going on in this video. I understand the narratives of regret and loneliness and class and pride because, however artfully made, they’re familiar. I’ll listen to the song, but I won’t watch this video again. I’ll watch Greta Gerwig dancing up a storm, or I’ll watch Kanye and Kim with my jaw on the ground, or I’ll cue up Black Orpheus and hear the sounds that made those people in the film really, actually move

Oh my God, what an awful word,

Phil.

MusicVid

How to Make a Music Video About Nothing: Ke$ha, Pitbull, & “Timber”

Dear Television,

WE WATCH MUSIC VIDEOS for three overarching and often related reasons: hotness, dancing, and story.

You might not like to admit to the first one, but the amount of hotness in videos can only suggest that we like it. Whether the video is for Drake or Tim McGraw, Miley Cyrus or Celine Dion, one of its goals is to reaffirm the singer’s overarching attractiveness. The camera fetishizes different body parts depending on the singer and the type of music he or she sings: Rihanna’s videos focus on her thighs and stomach, One Direction’s focus on their smiles, Adele’s focus on her highly emotive face. Even the video for, say, Nirvana’s “Teen Spirit,” with its slo-mo headbanging and anguished close-ups, is invested in fetishizing their particular brand of alternative hotness.

Not all videos have dancing, but those that do are addictive. Think of the best videos of the last 30 years: dance figures prominently in 72% of them, with noted exceptions for a “story” entries described below. All of Michael Jackson’s videos, Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?,” Britney’s “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” N*Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye,” Mariah Carey’s “Dreamlover,” Janet Jackson’s “If,” Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up,” MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,”  Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s “Shoop,” Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend,” Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” — we watch them again and again, because the dance, in singular or group form, is hypnotic.

But the hotness and the dancing are (very rarely) narrative: they’re the descendants of what film scholar Tom Gunning calls the “cinema of attractions.” Gunning used the term to describe the style of very early film shorts (think “The Sprinkler Sprinkled” and “What Happened on 23rd Street”) that didn’t adhere to established forms of narrative established by the theater. These films were operated like a game of “now you see it, now you don’t,” manipulatively addressing and arousing the spectator’s curiosity. Whereas “normal” narrative pretends like it’s a world unto itself, the cinema of attractions always knows it’s being watched. It presents a scenario, builds the tension, and then lets it explode. The muscles of Sandow the Strongman were an attraction; same for Annabelle and her Butterfly Dance. They’re on the stage; they even sometimes stare into the camera. They’re performing for the camera gaze rather than maintaining the subterfuge that the camera doesn’t exist. It’s vaudeville instead of theater, the variety show instead of the soap opera.

As camera technology became more sophisticated, the cinema began to adopt the three-act structure we now associate with narrative film, but the cinema of attractions never completely disappeared. Instead, moments of self-conscious spectacle integrated themselves into several genres: you see it especially in the musical number, the five minute fight scene, the never-ending gross-out joke. Even the slo-mo male gaze on a female body is a cinema of attraction, willfully violating codes of realism.

The narrative tries to paper over just how weird and implausible it is for, say, an entire school to know the choreographed danced moves to a song (hey Step Up), sometimes more successfully than others. But those moments of spectacle become the moments that matter: they’re the meat of the film trailer and the stuff you’ll find clipped on YouTube. They make SO LITTLE NARRATIVE SENSE, but we love them.

If music videos are hyper-condensed cinema, then it makes sense that they’d embrace and amplify similar techniques. On one end, you have the pure music video of attractions, replete with hotness, dance, and beautiful locations. These videos never detract from the message of the song, but they don’t add much to it other than, well, oomph. Beyonce’s Bob Fosse-inspired choreography has nothing to do with “Putting a Ring on It” other than, well, the moment when she points to her finger. It doesn’t mean they’re bad — see Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” in which the “narrative” is that a.) The Boss is handsome and b.) You could dance on stage — it just means that their mode of attraction is straightforward.


On the other end of the spectrum, you have the purely narrative video: something like the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s video for “Sacrilege,” Mumford & Son’s “Lover of the Light,” or Sigur Rós’ viðrar vel til loftárása,” all of which could be short, silent films unto themselves.


And somewhere in-between, the narrative meets spectacle. In a full-length film, you have enough narrative and exposition to suture over the moments of spectacular rupture. But in a music video, there’s just so little time to do that narrative work, which is why so many videos that attempt to tell stories, especially stories that don’t precisely match the lyrics of the accompanying song, fail so dramatically. Eminem and Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie,” featuring Megan Fox and Dominic Monaghan, works because the conceit is relatively straightforward: two people love each other yet abuse each other.


It’s quite literally melodrama: melos (Greek for melody) plus drame (French for drama), in which song is allowed to speak and amplify the drama onstage. Same for all of Taylor Swift’s oeuvre, which is characterized by its generally facile acting out of her songs. (See “Begin Again,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “Love Story”). Michael Jackson’s best videos — “Bad,” “Billie Jean,” “Thriller” — all functioned this way; same for Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River,” Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” Tupac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy is Mine,” or Britney’s “Toxic.”

But these videos aren’t without their moments of spectacle:


In contemporary Hollywood, executives use the term “blammos” to describe moments of spectacle — a sex scene is a blammo, as is an explosion, a car chase, a fight, or a musical number. Rumor has it that some execs institute a “blammo quotient” on blockbusters: one every eight minutes, for example — a calculation that certainly rings true when you watch the current summer fare. Applied to the condensed form for the music video, you generally have about ten seconds of narrative before you cut away to a spectacle shot, usually of an objectified body, best exemplified by “Toxic’ but also visible in, say, the “strut breaks” in Rihanna’s “What’s My Name” or the periodic return to longshots of Jennifer Lopez in “Jenny from the Block”; in A$AP Rocky’s “Wild for the Night,” there are no naked women, so the spectacle becomes the slums of the Dominican Republic, while Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride,” switches between the very suggestive sucking of a popsicle and close-up shots of cars.

My favorite videos are either full on spectacle or manage, improbably, to balance the semblance of a narrative with requisite spectacle. They’re not bloated or overly ambitious like Lana del Ray’s “Ride” or Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors.” They tell a simple, legible story, but they tell it with flash, but that flash somehow seems appropriate and motivated instead of gauche or awkward.  Videos as diverse as Madonna’s “Vogue” and Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” can do this — it’s all a matter of vision and fit

Which brings us to “Timber,” the new single from Pitbull and Ke$ha. Pitbull is a fascinating 21st century pop creation: he’s a Cuban-American entrepreneur who has wholeheartedly embraced product placement in his songs and image at large. His songs are incredibly catchy, always topical (“Timber,” for example, references a naked Miley Cyrus), and super radio-friendly. With his perma-uniform of white suits and sunglasses, he has come to stand in for my entire understanding of Miami. He is completely inoffensive — a rapper whose lyrics say very little and evoke even less. (Sample: “Me not working hard? / Yeah, right! Picture that with a Kodak / Or better yet, go to Times Square / Take a picture of me with a Kodak / Took my life from negative to positive / Just wanted y’all to know that”) As a Latino who signifies, visually and aurally, as “white,” he’s competing with Macklemore for most palatable, non-threatening, and highly lucrative rapper in the industry.

And as for Ke$ha, she’s a postmodern nightmare. As I’ve written elsewhere, she’s all surface, no substance. She seems to signify beauty, and sex, and rebellion, and weirdness — but poke that image and it deflates. From “brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack” to getting “sick and sexified,” there’s just no there, there. I have no doubt that Kesha Rose Sebert is an intelligent and savvy woman, but that doesn’t change the vapidity of the Ke$ha image.

There’s something alluring about an image that bereft of substance: I love hearing Ke$ha in the car the same way I love eating those pink, orange, and brown wafer sandwiches at church coffee hours. I taste something sweet, and then I taste nothing at all, save my unsatiated hunger.  Ke$ha, or the people who handle her image, have played with this vapidity: her video for “Blow” opens with the promise that “No mythical creatures have been harmed in the filming of this video,” and features a bunch of unicorn-masked men drinking champagne and getting shot at with rainbow guns by Ke$ha and special guest James Van Der Beek. It’s all mildly amusing and failed high concept, not unlike the self-staged play of your six-year-old niece.

It’s no surprise, then, that the collaboration between Pitbull and Ke$ha is at once completely meaningless and wholly addictive. It’s pure musical pastiche: there’s a power-country harmonica sample, a hip-hop vocal hook (that’s Ke$ha), and solid Miami club 4/4 beat.


Pitbull’s pre-hook:

Swing your partner round and round
End of the night, it’s going down
One more shot, another round
End of the night, it’s going down
Swing your partner round and round
End of the night, it’s going down
One more shot, another round
End of the night, it’s going down

Ke$ha’s hook:

It’s going down, I’m yelling timber
You better move, you better dance
Let’s make a night, you won’t remember
I’ll be the one, you won’t forget

Like so much of contemporary top 40, this is a song built on beats, not lyrics. The New Yorker’s recent piece on massive hitmaker Dr. Luke affirms as much: Luke (and other super producers like him) set a beat, and then they have people come in and shape words over them. The lyrics themselves matter far, far less than the song’s ability to make people move: all they need to be, in truth, is inoffensive.

The problem with these narrative-less, cliche-ridden songs, however, is that they make it really difficult to make any sort of coherent music video around them, especially if you don’t have any good dancers to just Ciara it up and make everyone forget that any music video should ever have a narrative ever again.

The only solution for a song of hollow signifiers? A video of the same. Only this particular video is so nonsensical, so completely unjustifiable, even on the basest of levels, that is perfectly manifests the state of the contemporary music industry.

I take that back: one half of the video makes quasi-sense. The video is “down home” in the way that True Blood is “down home,” which is to say that there’s a crappy, poorly-lit bar filled with women dressed like they’re auditioning for the Jessica Simpson role in the remake of Dukes of Hazzard. Ke$ha, of course, is one of them, and the spends this narrative foundling and dancing around various visual signifiers of backwards Southern/Westernness: saloon doors, antlers, cowboy hats, chaps, big beards, line dancing, jukeboxes, old trucks, long nails, fake bullriding, chickens, long nails, and trucker hats. It’s poor copy of Coyote Ugly, which is in itself a poor copy of an imagined South and/or West in which the “ladies of the night” paired cowboy boots with cut-off jeans and danced on the table instead of succumbing to syphilis and opium-addiction.

But! That’s all par for the Ke$ha course: this video could follow that narrative and be highly passable, if not notable. But how do you fit that with Pitbull’s brand? How does a white suit hang out in places with grass, or wood, or dirt? Especially if that white suit is too busy making paid club appearances to coordinate schedules with Ke$ha, who almost certainly recorded her hook days and states away from the verses of this song?

You put him on a beach. Playing with sharks? Maybe in Miami? With a girl. There’s some very brief gesture to the idea that the video of beach-bound Pitbull is playing on the jukebox in Ke$ha’s Western-Southern bar, but it’s fairly illegible. In order to distract from the gaping narrative disjunction, the director simply employs a full minute of rapid crosscuts between moments of spectacle: Pitbull touching sharks, Ke$ha leaning over truck suggestively, Pitbull with dancing lady friend in the background, Ke$ha fondling her own breasts, a single inexplicable shot of some brand of Vodka on a counter to coincide with its namedrop in the song, Pitbull’s tropical location, an aerial shot of a single shark, Ke$ha shaking her ass at the camera while grasping a saloon door, and so forth. The more rapid crosscuts, the more we’re led to believe that these narratives do, in some distant if indescribable way, belong in the same music video together.

The best videos either eschew narrative altogether or mindfully manufacture a space in which it can blend, as seamlessly as possible, with the requisite spectacle necessary to sell a contemporary music act. “Timber” suggests that in the age of computer-assembled mega-hits, there’s not only any need for artistry or originality — there’s not even a need for coherency. Why even gesture towards meaning when you can assemble a rapid stream of images that connote sex and money? Why choreograph, or plan, or direct, when you can just pile the things that please the most people most of the time onto one song and, by extension, one video?

I’ll always love the music video and celebrate the narrative experimentation — and revisiting of old classics — that MTV and now, YouTube, has afforded. But “Timber” is half-hearted masturbation without an orgasm; it’s citing everything you know without ever making a sentence, let alone an argument. It’s not new or experimental or exciting or evocative: it cost at least a million dollars, and it’s nothing at all.