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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Gaga Intermission: Pop.Sci.Fi Part II

If you want to really understand music videos, sci fi pop videos are a great place to start. They already, after all, have an established genre they're working in that we can compare to other media. We understand science fiction tropes and we understand pop music tropes, so we can stat with a strong foundation and, from there, pick apart just why certain videos work.

And, occasionally, why certain videos stride into the territory of the staggeringly brilliant.

To pick apart some of this, I'm going to delve into what are probably two of the most interesting videos in this genre out right now, Nero's "Promises" and... alright, hold the laughter till the end, people, please... Katy Perry's "ET." Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's time for me to aesthetically critique a Katy Perry video. [downs the entire wine glass] Let's get this show moving, shall we?



Check out this video by Nero. This video is doing a lot of what we saw in WoRG1: we've got the predominantly white surroundings, we've got a dystopia where technology is used to subjugate and cut people off from love, and we've got a female lead that rebels against the society. We can also see its relationship to some of the works in Tuesday's article, going all the way back to Orgy's "Stitches." It's a great aesthetic that here, as in those other videos, is used to wonderful stylistic effect. The overwhelming whiteness of the scenery perfectly reinforces the sterilized atmosphere and, unlike in "Bad Romance," this sterility is never disrupted. It's all black, white, and blue.

The band they're dancing to is Kraftwerk Orange.
What's interesting, actually, is how completely opposed the two visions in "Promises" and "Bad Romance" are. Gaga's is flashy. It ends with her torching the bed of her buyer with a flamethrower bra--the sterility is destroyed. The dancing is spasmodic and extremely overstated. The cuts between individual shots are extremely rapid and often jump back and forth in time and space. In Nero's video, on the other hand, everything is drawn back and extremely understated. But it is no less powerful and, in some ways, is even more emotionally gripping.

There's only three real movements here plus intro and conclusion--the introduction at the beginning, the first scene where we see the taking of the pills and the fact that the main character isn't taking her meds, the second scene where we see the dance, and the tragic, 1984 style finale, where the pathetically brief romance shatters and our rebel is made to understand that She Loves Big Brother. When you put the last audio clip, "It's so... beautiful", what you have is not just the perfect five part PSSA essay (shout out to my American standardized test bullshit hommies!) but also a very simple rising action, short climax, and even shorter denouement. This is a far cry from the jumbled stories of Bad Romance and Alejandro, and by limiting the structure of the story so much each element stands out crystal clear, not hidden under the jumble of interesting visuals that Gaga is so fond of. So, one thing that we can learn here is that music videos have incredible stylistic freedom, but that means that their creators have to use the style consciously to reinforce whatever the video is saying.

Then, of course, there's the incredible power that comes from the tension during the climax. Rewatch that scene where our rebel hero and her ten-minute boyfriend dance. It's so slow, and so controlled, and so undramatic compared to Gaga's dance style... but every single fucking nerve is on edge, you can see their bodies quivering, you can sense the tension in the air. It's incredibly sensual, incredibly sexy, and incredibly heartbreaking if you know what's coming. It's the perfect setup for the silent anguished cry that we see as the two are ripped apart.

The dancing in this sequence serves as a good example of the distillation of Gaga's (and, consequentially, Pop's) use of traditional music video qualities in order to set up a science fiction story. As my lovely girlfriend Sara pointed out to me, the style of the dancing is very strongly tied to the individual characters. As a dancer, she noticed that the figures in the background are using smooth, controlled motions at every point. Yeah, sure, great, who cares, right? That's obvious. Well, maybe not quite as obvious as you might think. Look at that little movement they do as they move their hands upward and then back down. It's a very smooth movement. Now, even though our main characters are dancing together in a similarly slow and smooth way--which, again, really adds to the tension of the moment--their movements are not uniformly smooth. There's a slight accent on that hand flip, and that's what tells us, consciously or not, that these two are different. It's incredible how subtly this works in our minds, but it's undeniable that they stand out from the other dancers, even though they aren't doing the crazy gyrations that the main character was doing a few moments before.

Walk Like An Egyptian?
Now, of course, music videos have always used dancing, and often used dancing for quite effective storytelling purposes. "Thriller" is probably the best example of this. But I think what sets this apart is the fact that the dancing is really quite subtle, understated, and ultimately there to serve a story purpose. The dancing makes sense from a narrative perspective while also serving as a perfect way of showing the sudden growth in emotion in the two characters, with their very human dancing style subtly played off of the very inhuman dancing of the other drugged dystopians.

It's a good example, therefore, of how important dance is to music videos, and also how powerful it can be when integrated into the narrative of the video. For a sillier example of this, check out LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem," a great example of a video that explicitly plays with horror movie tropes. And, there's the chaotic dancing at the end of Katy Perry's "Firework" that expresses so effectively the vibrant message of the video as a whole. ... Alright, ladies and gentlemen, I said that last sentence with a straight face. Let's see how the rest of the article goes.



Since I've already tipped my hat here to the fact that this article is going to critically engage Katy Perry, an artist not known for the profundity of her work, let me just get my two great blasphemies out of the way right up front here.

I think ET is a stunning video and a stunning song.

I also think that Kanye West really bungles the whole thing up.

Now that you've presumably splattered your whiskey all over the monitor here, let me explain in a bit more detail.

Perry's piece sets itself up, in a way, for a harder struggle than Nero's piece. She's not putting together a narrative, really. It's much more of a tonal work that uses lots of different images to create a particular thematic response. To my mind, that's a bit harder, because it's very easy for that to come across as pretentious or a cop-out. But Perry largely succeeds for a few reasons.

Her images, for one thing, are interesting. They verge on the territory of the surreal, actually, in the traditional sense: they seem to come more from the unconscious mind than from any real desire to depict The World of Tomorrow. The recurring image of the deer getting eaten by a... cheetah, I think that is... certainly works in this way, especially since she ends up with deer legs at the end. This kind of thing doesn't really make sense literally, but she's building a system of symbols here, not a narrative.

Furthermore, she's similarly using style to reinforce her theme. If there's one overriding idea that the song and video center upon it is this idea of an attraction and obsession that moves beyond human terms into something truly fantastic. This is an interesting contrast to Nero's video, where the music was used to help explore a science fiction concept. Here, the science fiction and music are both used to explore a metaphor.

As a consequence, the style is much more lush and exaggerated than the toned down minimalism of Nero or Orgy. If we want to go back to our predecessors again (although, judging by the mediocre pageviews of my last article, no, "we" really don't even if "I" do) this video has a lot more in common with "Blue" and "Larger Than Life." Hell, it's theme even is similar to "Larger than Life," although it expresses that theme in a far, far more effective way than that video does. 1 The colors are vibrant, the movements fluid and full of strange shapeshifting, and the creators of the video have really gone out of their way to emphasize the strangeness of virtually everything that's happening.

"Lady Gaga? Never heard of her."
The video as a whole really expresses the kind of celestial, transhuman passion that Perry is trying to express.

Which is why Kanye is able to so fully fuck everything up.

Really, his sections are a disaster. Is the rap good? Oh, sure. Is the style good? Well, alright, I guess, although it's nowhere near as interesting as the other sections--one of its great flaws and possibly an indication that the director was just not that interested in jamming Kanye in. Is he flying around in Sputnik? Yes. Yes he is. And I've really got to hand it to whoever came up with that idea... that's just hilarious.

Sputnik.
But it does. not. fit. the theme.

Remember how I said earlier that this video sets itself up for a harder struggle because it relies so heavily upon symbolism and theme? Well, this is the problem with that manifested. Kanye's bits just stick out like a sore thumb because they really are all about the idea of Kanye fucking aliens, whereas the whole rest of the video is driving toward an idea of a sexual, sure, but also celestial encounter. Perry is off touching greatness, and Kanye is off touching... himself? Maybe. He certainly seems to spend every available moment stroking his ego, at the very least, in a way that totally intrudes upon the song and makes it all about him.

So, what can we learn from this? Well, what this tells us is that what makes sense as a musical choice (although I'm still not sold on the idea that this musical choice made sense to begin with) might not make sense in the context of the music video. The people who created this set out to portray a particular theme, and they really succeeded.

Kanye should have been jettisoned (Jetsoned?) in order to keep that theme intact.

Because, Kanye, I know you think you're super sexy, and I'mma let you finish, but...

[drool]

This is one of the sexiest guys of all time.

And he doesn't interrupt the theme to rap about it.

At any rate, what we have here is two very different but very effective ways of treating sci fi content in music videos. Both are indebted to their predecessors (it's pretty obvious that Perry is cribbing notes furiously from Lady Gaga--at least she's copying from the best, I suppose) and each expands on the tradition in quite different ways. There's a lot that one could work with here, between the use of style and setting, the use of dance, how the musical choices impact the video, and so on. There's probably much more than I can fully analyze here.

So, rather than gush on further about these videos, let me just leave you with this gem of a performance from will.i.am, which brings us full circle, back to where we began so many words and years ago, with those dancing robots in "Larger than Life":



Because beyond anything else, pop sci fi is about the movie and the music and how powerful and awesome the two are when used together.

Here, let's get some Reader Involvement. Your homework for this week is: find another science fiction music video, and post it in the comments section with your analysis. You've got the tools, let's see what you can do. I suspect that you, too, will find that will.i.am is a genius. Or something. As always, feel free to leave comments, complaints, or, best of all, your own interpretations, or e-mail me at keeperofmanynames@gmail.com . And, if you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, Netscape, or whatever else you crazy kids are using to surf the blogoblag these days.

1 It's worth remembering, though, what I said in the last article: The Backstreet Boys are more interested in coolness here than theme, so it's probably unfair to compare the two.

2 comments:

  1. I have to let you know that Will.i.am stole that, and didn't even do a good job of stealing it.

    On this past season of America's Got Talent, there was a group called Team iLuminate, who COMPLETELY obliterated the competition. COMPLETELY. (Of course, they didn't win, because PEOPLE ARE FUCKING STUPID. THEY VOTED - ...not the place for this complaint.)

    Anyway, Team iLuminate basically did this BUT BETTER. Hilariously, they used Katy Perry's E.T. one round.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8iAceuDv4U
    Skip to 1:30.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wow. I had never heard ET with Kanye in it before. I wish that had remained true. I like the original song, and Kanye... dafuq? The original song has a... story? Ok, not really a story, but something. And Kanye just ruins it with every word he says. Completely breaks the song, and completely breaks the video, which was pretty cool (once you ignore the Kanye they stepped in).

    ReplyDelete

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