Was it really only a year and a half ago that MTV cancelled TRL? It seems like a lifetime since that fateful final
episode, a whimper that had critics all over sounding the death-knell for
the music video. Looks like reports of the video-as-art-form's
demise were greatly exaggerated, since 2010 is shaping up to be the year that music
videos matter again.
Now that they've been freed from their indentured servitude -- promotional clips doled out (and of course censored) by the hip
gatekeepers of MTV -- today's music videos can appear out of nowhere, without fanfare, and run longer than a commercial break. This week marked the release of M.I.A.'s long-form
diatribe "Born Free" -- a gratuitously violent and nasty piece of cinema that, by
my count, is the fourth important work of music film to have hit our monitors in
the last few months.
Maybe it's because
today's artists have learned their lessons from video stars of the past: that if
you have a grand enough vision, and you are willing to risk scorn and ridicule
in the pursuit of spreading your particular gospel, you can still put out a
visual statement that will have everyone gabbing at the virtual watercooler for
at least a few days of furious tweeting.
Arguably the first grand video
statement of the year was Lady Gaga's "Telephone" video with Beyonce -- at this
point, anyone who had anything to say about Gaga's gratuitous violence, mayhem,
fashion and, er, product placement has already said their peace and then some.
Servers were crashed as fans and casual computer users alike flocked to see
what the hubbub was about, and a brief internet meme was created out of the
concept of smoking sunglasses. But the surprising thing turned out to be that
this video was not going to be the hands-down video event of the year -- as
shocking as Gaga tried to be, the most outrageous was still yet to come.
A few weeks ago, noted oddball
soul belter Erykah Badu unveiled her "Window Seat" video. If Gaga/Beyonce's
Jonas Akerlund-directed spectacle was a gleeful romp through homicidal lunacy,
Badu's video was notable for its opposing tone, a piece of shrieking agitprop.
As the Dallas native strolls naked through Dealey Plaza, a gunshot sound forces
her to the ground at the end, the purple CGI blood emanating from her body
forming the word "groupthink". The video was filmed in one take with no permits
pulled in front of crowds of unsuspecting witnesses, a guerilla filming move
that resulted in a disorderly conduct charge being slapped on the singer. But
the $500 fine was, certainly, a pittance compared to the phenomenal free press
the video gave to Badu. She later commented that "my performance art has been
grossly misinterpreted by many," a telling line in that it correctly places the
video not in the lexicon of video greats like "White Wedding" and "You Might
Think", but rather amongst the company of the more avant-garde wing of cutting
edge performance artists. The video really reminded me of the work of Andrea Fraser, in
particular her piece "Official Welcome", where she slowly disrobes in the midst
of an art awards ceremony. Standing naked before a shocked audience, she closes
with the statement "I'm not a person today. I'm an object in a work of art."
Perhaps Badu felt a similar sentiment as she began to sense the
misunderstanding in the reception to her thinkpiece?
If Badu's video seemed
ponderous and self-important, it seems light and airy compared to the NSFW
downerfest that is the video for "Born Free". The creation of director Romain
Gravas, the clip really only makes sense upon a second viewing, when it becomes
clear that what we are watching has more in common with the dark sarcasm
of Children of Men or "The Twilight Zone" than, say, the searing
political film-making of Gravas' father, the legendary Greek rabblerouser known
as Costa-Gravas. Costa-Gravas made an indelible mark on the world of political
film-making with the 1969 true crime assassination thriller Z, a film
that investigates the dark netherworld where truth dissipates and political
callousness trumps all other human senses. It would be easy to run a straight
line between a film like Z and the jarring political sensibility of the
"Born Free" clip-- except that "Born Free", unlike Z, does not take place
in the real world, and is instead a parable of racial intolerance and fascism
with all the subtlety of classic Sterling-era sci-fi. That isn't to say that
the video lacks a gutteral punch, because it most definitely does; more
importantly, it is instantly debatable, and will probably be dividing its
viewers on opposing sides from now until, say, the next polarizing event video
hits the interwebs.
That said, I still don't think
that "Born Free" will ever generate the pure zeitgeist-tapping shitstorm that
met the viral arrival earlier this month of Insane Clown Posse's "Miracles"
video. There really was no inbetween on "Miracles": you either thought that it
was a brilliant game-changer for the normally violence-bathed ICP, or you were a
seemingly sensible person who thought that the video was the worst thing ever in
the history of things. In many ways, the song and video seem to have been
designed to work as a taunt to the non-Juggalo universe, a cuddly and doe-eyed
paean to wonder and magic that seems in complete opposition to everything ICP
Nation stands for. Lyrics like "Music is magic/pure and clean/you can feel it
and hear it/but it can't be seen" make it difficult to ascertain the seriousness
of the Juggalo charm offensive here -- is this tune a smarmy attempt at playing
fake nice a la A.C.'s Picnic of Love album -- or is this yet another side
of the ICP universe that outsiders will never understand, along with the
Tolkein-esque mythology behind the duo's braindead-seeming exterior? The truth
is that it's both, and neither -- it's probably just as
much of a sincere statement of conservative naivete as it is a "fuck you" to
critics and non-fans worldwide. Either way, though, the far-reach of this clip
means that even non-Juggalos everywhere spent weeks parsing the intent of lines
like "Magic everywhere in this bitch" -- and you can bet that the masked duo are
laughing all the way to the virtual bank.