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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.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Ways of Reading Gaga Intermission Chapter--Pop.Sci.Fi Part I

Pop music has a weird relationship to science fiction. Pop, as a genre, sometimes touches on sci fi themes, but I would argue that it's really only recently that pop has fully embraced the stripped down industrial aesthetic of more modern science fiction, as opposed to the more over the top Space Opera aesthetic.

If you've been following this blog for a while, you can guess at just who caused the big shift.

Reading the title might also help.

For your convenience, here's the first three articles in my Ways of Reading Gaga series. Call it the first trilogy perhaps. They're worth looking over before reading this one, if only because it's been a while since I wrote the first one. It's not really a prerequisite, though, I don't think.

While you're doing that, I'm going to go ahead and brush up on some of the precursors to the modern aesthetic that sci fi pop videos are working with. The precursors largely fall into two camps: Pop Positive Space Operas and Industrial Cynical Cyberpunk. Let's check them out:

SPACE POP OPERA POSITIVE

There are two obvious precursors to sci fi in pop. They come out of the 90s, and they're perfect example of the spirit of optimism and fun that characterizes these early modern pop forays into science fiction.

One is the video for "Larger than Life" from The Backstreet Boys:



And the other is Eiffel 65's dance hit "Blue (Da Ba De)," which you'll have to watch at this finely crafted link because the uploader is apparently prone to paranoid delusions. No, sir, allowing embedding will not get you sued. Uploading the video to youtube, though, might. Excuse my deep sigh of aggravation.

Anyway.

These are fun videos. I mean, you can tell that the stars are just having a blast with what they're doing. In particular, "Larger than Life" is totally ridiculous and nonsensical. It runs on an almost Michael Bay-level Rule of Cool. I imagine the creative process for the video revolved around statements like, "Wouldn't it be totally rad if I was, like, a robot? And there were a bunch of robots dancing with me? Rad." Or however the kids talked in the 90s. I think the video ultimately works, though, because they're perfectly comfortable pushing it over the top and running with the craziness of it, what with the space battles and dancing and that robot with the tv screen head.

Similarly, Eiffel 65's "Blue" is also basically just a fun, self-consciously silly video, what with the bandmembers shooting lightening out of their hands and so forth. But the content of the video also nicely encapsulates the era's optimism. Note the key idea in the lyrics: the song's protagonist is living in a blue world because "he ain't got nobody to listen to." In short, he's living a sad life because he doesn't have music. This is the reason why the blue aliens in the video kidnap one of the musicians: they need music. (This is the point where you go "B'awww.") The video ends happily with Eiffel 65 returning to the alien planet to perform, and music is used to bring the two cultures together.

The message of the videos and their accompanying songs, then, is that music has power. It's a force that is truly larger than life. And, what's more, its fun as well, a thing to lift your spirits. This makes the space opera aesthetics perfect. They hearken back to a kind of science fiction driven more by camp and overblown heroics than the kind of dark drama of perhaps more "hard core" sci-fi.

It also strikes me as an excellent summation of the 90s as a whole, at least in the dominant culture here in America. The ideology is ultimately one of optimism, excess, a promise of a triumphant future free of cold war fears.

Of course, every civilization has its discontents...

INDUSTRIAL CYNICAL CYBERPUNK

On the other side of the spectrum, huddled out of the mainstream and picking away at the fascade of hopefulness presented elsewhere in culture, was a whole world of alternative and industrial music, roiling and full of teen angst and disaffection.

The prime example of this, coming at the end of the 90s, is the industrial band Orgy with their video "Stitches":



What a contrast. And what an interesting precursor to "Bad Romance," no? What we've got here, ladies and gentlemen, is an unabashedly science fiction-influenced deconstructive music video. The setting is decidedly cyberpunk, meaning that it's influenced by the grungy, grim meathook future of hackers, corporate hegemony, and technological ubiquity championed by authors William Gibson and, later, Neil Stephenson. 1 Furthermore, we already see some of the stylistic elements that Gaga will use later in her videos: stark whites and blacks, machine cleanliness, and, above all, reference to the conventions of the music video as an art.

Let me just transcribe a bit of the text present on the translucent museum walls:

"This video contains everything every other video has had or will have in the future. Only - this video will never exist as a completed film."

That's right, the museum walls contain an explanation of the setup for the video we're watching. It's mindboggling modernist self-reference at its absolute finest. And, what's more, the video largely consists of satirical analysis of more typical videos. Consider the random flashing lights which we see working but never see actually lighting the band. Or consider the shaky camera work, simulated for the rather unimpressed observer by the hydraulic platform.

And, of course, there's the Obligatory Female. Those shots are probably the best, and most deconstructive, of the video. It is clear that the fetishized woman is there not for any artistic or narrative purpose but because she is, well, "obligatory." These decisions are made solely because someone feels that they are required for this sort of video. And ultimately it's all about commodification and the transformation of the band into a simple object to be bought or sold. I don't think it's a coincidence that the shot of the director's fee, displayed in what seem to be rather large bills, comes directly before the Obligatory Female shot and the wonderful pan shot that moves from the standing woman to the CD single, allowing both the single and the woman to be labeled with the same word: "product." Not all that different from Gaga's Bath Haus, when you think about it.

Interestingly, both this video and the ones above are self-effacing, but in strikingly different ways. The first simply do not take themselves overly seriously and embrace a sense of silliness. The second plays the band members up as less intelligent, with their vague, stumbling requests for more strobe lights and so on. This is, of course, tinged heavily with irony, as the video oozes cleverness. It is clearly not the product of a feeble mind. So, the self-effacement here is actually directed outward at the bands that Orgy is parodying with their deconstruction. Harsh, guys. Harsh.

Pop.Sci.Fi IN THE AUGHTS

The post-Gaga world is largely a synthesis of the two approaches, or at least a far more complex and diverse field of science fiction storytelling than was perhaps previously possible. To some extent this can be explained by the fundamental change in mood between the optimistic 90s and early Aughts and the current late Aughts and early Teens sense of a crazy, unstable world.

In minor form, we can see this in videos like Niki Minaj's Fly or Britney Spears's (herself a pop star of the 90s) Till The World Ends. Let's pick some of those apart to see the changes that have taken place:



Nicki Minaj's video is interesting because it is, in many ways, clearly a follower of the industrial science fiction aesthetic that Gaga uses in Bad Romance and Alejandro. There is the burnt out, dystopian wasteland, the strange outfits, the emphasis on strong black/white contrasts, the strange outfits, the military undertones, and seriously, do all the sane fashionistas die in WWIII? Those are clearly Gaga-influenced clothes, at the very least.

What's interesting is that this video does not have the same kind of narrative or thematic complexity that Gaga's videos do. Whereas Bad Romance is a deconstruction of music videos that also examines binary oppositions of love and destruction, and Alejandro sets up a complex portrait of a dystopian warlord, Minaj's video generally focuses upon a more accessible theme of triumph over adversity. Not a bad theme, but the simplicity of the theme, and the symbolism at the end of the video of the plants growing through the rubble, seems at odds with the complexity of the set pieces and the sense of a narrative waiting just around the corner.

In a way, then, the video is almost a return to the 90s pop model, in that it ditches narrative and complex themes in favor of a broad overall message. This, to me, makes the video somewhat less interesting. It has none of the fun of "Larger than Life" but none of the fascinating complexity of "Stitches." And yeah, it hearkens back to the optimistic outlook of the 90s videos, but only in an almost self-deceptive way, and certainly not in a way that seems particularly original. I'm not sure that its style is enough to carry it. This is particularly interesting to me because it highlights the fact that a fairly good song (I do like Minaj's rapping) doesn't translate necessarily to a strong video.

The exact opposite force is at work in the next video:



This is a pretty generic song. It's not even on the level, really, of her earlier work, and the lyrics are pretty insipid, but the video... ah, now the video works. In fact, it actually works in a very clever way. Its aesthetics are drawn from the modern obsession with dystopian collapse and Mad Max-esque freak styles, of course.

Lord Humongous can be seen in the background of one shot, according to rumor

The really wild thing about this is that the apocalyptic imagery is used as a means of justifying the 90s-style hedonistic glee. If the world is falling apart, we might as well party. It's not exactly a productive message, sure, but it certainly fits the zeitgeist. Even though the message is problematic, I can't deny that the song and the video work perfectly to express it.

I just glanced over at the television and saw a commercial for some sort of lobotomized reality TV show and, quite frankly, I'm beginning to wonder if ol' Britney isn't right about the end of Western Civilization...



It's ok, though, because will.i.am has a plan. He's going to fly into space and commune with Mick Jagger (RIP), which will allow him to become the Star Child.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, wrapping things up neatly is will.i.am's masterpiece of what the fuck T.H.E. The song title itself is amazing for its recursive value: THE becomes THE Hardest Ever becomes THE Hardest Ever Hardest Ever, and so on, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. And the video itself is... well...

It's hard (aha ha ha) to know where to begin with this video, honestly. Perhaps the best place to start would be with the TV Trope known as Beyond The Impossible (note: it's now been renamed Serial Escalation, and Beyond The Impossible means something else. I would humbly offer the suggestion that this sucks/is bullshit. Therefore, I'm just going to go ahead and use the old definition). Taken from the anime Gurren Laggan, the term refers to media that constantly escalates some aspect of itself till you can't quite believe what you're seeing anymore. And THE sure does that, with its steadily more powerful and more ridiculous means of transportation. What's interesting, for our purposes, is that it steadily escalates the ridiculousness in a way that draws on science fiction. What's really wild, in my opinion, is the way it drives back away from the stark blacks and whites of modern science fiction music videos and eventually gets to a kind of explosive absurdity that rivals anything from the 90s. 2

will.i.am: channeler of the cosmic genius. This is the single goofiest graphic I've ever produced.

And in the process, it parodies, almost shot for shot in some places, the end of 2001 A Space Odyssey.

Sweet gibbering balls.

I mean, really, the implications of this are staggering. This video binds together both of the other contemporary videos, and finally explains the reason why the mummified remains of Mick Jagger (RIP) have, in the past year, become such a powerful icon. Mick Jagger (RIP) is the alien monolith! Sensing the end of the previous stage of human evolution, and the collapse of traditional civilization (as seen in Britney's video) with the advent of what I've decided to copyright as "the hard men" (as seen in Minaj and will.i.am's videos) The Jaggerlith has come to bring us into the next stage of development!

And with the guest appearances from both J-Lo AND the Jaggerlith, it would not be wrong to say that the video...

...is full of stars.



So, what we've seen, broadly speaking, is two trends in science fiction videos that periodically merge together to form strange hybrid creatures: one focused upon dystopian or deconstructive concerns, the other focused upon fun and a continual push toward an un-self-conscious state of ridiculousness. Lady Gaga seems to be the central focal point of the recent merge and resplintering of the two strands, but who knows where things will go from here.

I have some guesses, though.

Tune in Saturday for the second part of this two part series within a so far six part series, where I delve a bit more deeply into two particularly interesting contemporary videos, including one that is quite possibly my favorite music video of all time.

And maybe by then I'll have figured out why J-Lo is also inside the monolith...

This started as a one part article. Just like Ways of Reading Gaga in general, actually... 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 One might argue that this science fiction genre somewhere lost track of the word fiction... Other, far better authors than I have noted how Gibson and Stephenson both now find the present day a suitable setting for their novels. I leave it to you to ponder those implications.

2 All credit goes to my girlfriend, Sara the Bibliothecary, for noticing the color changes.

2 comments:

  1. What, no Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars? Too old or too epic? X)

    ReplyDelete
  2. David Bowie cannot really be incorporated into any analysis of contemporary pop because he always predates pop movements by about five years, primarily by inventing them first. (For instance, he invented glam with Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars & Aladdin Sane, and shortly after glam started being called glam, he released Diamond Dogs, which not only was proto-punk but directly inspired a large number of both the early punk and early new wave artists.) You could say that Bowie's use of science fiction imagery in videos was in part the genesis of it in the work of other artists (which may or may not be bullshit), and that in twenty years every music video will closely resemble the video for The Stars Are Out.

    ReplyDelete

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