Recently Logan Hill contributed a piece for Vulture on the invigoration of music video production on the Internet following a dry spell for the medium on television. Of course, folks have noted this as YouTube, Vimeo, Vevo, and a host of other clip-sharing sites became ubiquitous alongside MTV’s continued programming choices to inundate their audience with reality shows. The network recently took “Music Television” out of its logo. For a moment, it seemed like DVD collections like Palm Pictures’ Directors Label series would step in and make music videos more available to the public, but clearly the Internet has won, even invigorating the careers of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry.
While I don’t see this move as little more than a shift indicative of how we consume media, I would also like to point out that many of these headline-grabbing Internet sensation music videos are notable for another reason. The scandal and celebrity associated with these big-budget clips center on female pop stars. In the past year, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Shakira, Janelle Monáe, Erykah Badu, and M.I.A. have made garnered attention and controversy with clips inundated with sexual and/or violent imagery that might not fly on post-network television but keep the blogoshere typing, Tweeting, and uploading. Alongside those artists, fringe acts like Peaches, Yo! Majesty, and Gossip — all peopled by queer musicians — have garnered some recognition for their work.
On the surface, the presence female pop stars have in reviving the music video format also recalls MTV’s nascence. Many note that the first clip the network aired was The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” But Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run” followed it, along with a whole host of female pop stars who battled rock acts and hair metal bands for programming supremacy. The Go-Go’s, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner, Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Eurythmics’ lead singer Annie Lennox all catapulted to stardom during the network’s infancy, as art rock acts like Kate Bush also received some stateside recognition.
While the current stable of video stars seem to subvert conventional femininity by playing with camp and excess, I’m actually inclined to read many of these artists as ultimately normative. Many of the video narratives, regardless of costuming or cultural references, tend to rehash contrived narratives about young women getting rowdy in the club and letting her (hetero)sexual inhibitions run wild. I believe Badu’s “Window Seat” and M.I.A.’s “Born Free” challenge these offerings however, by either making female nudity at once mundane and endangered or by dispensing of the female pop star altogether to focus on government-sanctioned ultraviolence. Monáe’s approach might be the most refreshing as she recontextualizes rock and R&B’s cultural origins within a female body covered up in menswear that’s ready to teach you some new dance steps.
In addition, many of these musical artists are working with established male video directors. Gaga revived the career of Jonas Åkerlund, who originally made a name for himself working with Madonna. While it’s easy to read these directors as auteurs, I’m inclined to point out that some of them have established collaborative relationships with these women across several projects. This also recalls how Gondry came into the cultural lexicon. While we may now think of him as the visionary behind White Stripes videos and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, an Icelandic pop star named Björk selected him to direct his first English-language music video after years working in France. The clip was for “Human Behaviour,” which launched both of their careers in the states.
I’d like to bring up in the current emergence of female pop stars on the Internet is that almost all of them are solo artists taking sole focus on big-budget music videos. While I don’t want to suggest that these women are not musicians, or overlook the fact that Beyoncé tours with an all-female backing band, I find it disheartening that we aren’t seeing as many images of women and girls creating video images as collaborators, whether between female artists and directors, as members of a band, or female artists who collaborate with one another. While Lady Gaga and Beyoncé have been known to work together, as have M.I.A. and Santigold, it would be nice to see more music videos with a group of women or girls as the focus.
Likewise, I also find it frustrating that so many of these big productions have to be so moneyed, most notably Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s “Telephone.” Perhaps a new group of bands and musical artists in collaboration with one another will also make names for themselves as music videos continue to thrive on the Internet. Who says you need a big budget and an iconic pop star to make a clip for the ages?
I guess I should care about Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s nine-minute music video for “Telephone.” Gaga created the concept with director Jonas Åkerlund. Gaga and B are lesbian partners on the run. But . . . ugh. Okay, I’ll briefly outline my thoughts.
1. Since Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” many pop stars have attempted to make lengthy, elaborate, concept music videos work. I can do without all of them, including “Thriller.” Yes, it’s one of the most popular music videos of all time. But I think Jackson’s transformation and the dance routines could stand alone without the slasher movie date night plot, although it’s worth it for his intimation that he’s “not like other guys.”
2. The lesbian jailbird subplot seems subversive but it doesn’t play out that way to me. Most of the actresses are normatively feminine, which plays into the long-standing heterosexual male fandom of the women in prison film genre that the video is hailing. In addition, they’re ornamental, meant to bolster Gaga’s edgy pop star image. If you need any further evidence, witness the “butch” that makes out on (not with) Lady Gaga in the prison yard.
3. I love Gaga’s yellow dye job, which I first saw at the Grammys. As if her platinum blonde tresses and black eyebrows weren’t enough to reveal the hair color of conventional white femininity to be unnatural, she takes its fakeness to a more lurid extreme.
4. Also, Gaga’s telephone headdress is pretty sweet.
5. I think all the product placements speak for themselves.
6. Supposedly, Gaga and Beyoncé are in a romantic relationship here. And this is somewhat interesting in terms of Beyoncé’s career trajectory, as there was a rumor several years back that she was considering starring in a screen adaptation of Sarah Waters’s Sapphic Victorian romance Tipping the Velvet. But they don’t seem like a couple to me. There’s no shared intimacy, no easy rapport. In fact, apart from them joining hands at the end of the video in a clear homage to Thelma and Louise, they really don’t interact at all. Oh, except when Beyoncé feeds Gaga or chauffeurs her criminal girlfriend to their next crime seat. B may sit behind the wheel, but she’s driving Miss Gaga.
7. Also, Beyoncé looks like a real girl doll here. A real girl doll abiding by white people’s notions of what “good” hair looks like and what make-up palettes are flattering. She moves like a robot too. In fairness, both pop stars do, but I still think that B is following Gaga’s lead.
8. I’m not sure about what to do with Gaga and sandwich-making. Perhaps it’s getting at the grotesqueries of processed foods like Wonder Bread and condiments. Perhaps it’s a commentary on the soul-deadening routinization of feminized domestic labor, thus why she’s situated in what looks like a prison kitchen.
9. Thinking back on processed foods, note that Gaga and B’s mass murder takes place at a diner. For one, the diner is a site of fetishized Americana and thus a symbol they might be attempting to destroy (or at least reconfigure, as evidenced by Gaga’s stars and stripes hippie chick get-up). But also notice also that B is Gaga’s decoy and that B snares a black man with her feminine wiles. This man, like many other patrons of color, is killed because the perpetrators slipped poison in his food. Note the racial connotations of what was on his plate too: biscuits, gravy, grits. In other words, highly caloric Southern cooking that often gets associated with particular African American communities, perhaps of which Houstonians like Beyoncé might associate.
Apparently this saga will continue. Let’s hope Beyoncé makes Gaga her driver in the next installment.
So, I’ve been wanting to write about Ladytron on here for a little while now — specifically since revisiting Light and Magic during the holidays. Expect a future post on the cover of Softcore Jukebox, which is where I’ll most likely discuss at greater length that Witching Hour was a really good pop record and a big musical step forward for the band.
For now, I’ll just throw up the music video for “Ghosts” from the Velocifero. I’d been wanting to feature a few clips that focus on women and guitars in a non-Whitesnake kind of way. Think of it more as an extension of my previous clip about music videos that feature women in open spaces. Enjoy it with two old-school music videos for Elastica and The Cardigans.
Directed by Spike Jonze
“My Favourite Game”
Directed by Jonas Åkerlund
Directed by Joseph Kahn
It’s pretty easy to objectify and make normative lesbian sex (for more on the subject, I recommend Ann Ciasullo’s essay “Making her (in)visible: Cultural representations of lesbianism and the lesbian body in the 1990s” as a starting point). Music videos, which already have a bad rap for objectifying female bodies for a (presumably) male audience, are no exception. But what happens when the musician is having sex with herself. And not just masturbating, but going to town on her twin?
First up, we’ve got Björk.
And, more recently, P!nk.
I for one think this is awesome — simultaneously an assertion of the self, the self’s sexual desires, and the self’s fragmentability. Also, this assertion is channeled through queerable female bodies (Björk as cyborg; P!nk as a model of “butch feminine”). An assertion from famous, marketable pop stars, no less.