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.

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