“Not Ready to Make Nice,” Dixie Chicks; “Here It Goes Again,” OK Go; and “Deja Vu,” Beyoncé.
Even in New York, not much goes on in August. The big performing arts organizations are between seasons, the film studios put out their worst movies, and it’s too damn hot to venture outside anyway. So I’ve decided to indulge in one of my true guilty pleasures: music videos. Happily ensconced in my air-conditioned Astoria apartment (provided that Con Ed doesn’t decide to cut the power again), I’m writing about a few of the gesamptkunstwerk* miniatures that have captured my interest lately.
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“Not Ready to Make Nice,” Dixie Chicks.
The Dixie Chicks’ latest single unmistakably alludes to the 2003 controversy over lead singer Natalie Maines’ offhand statement that she and her fellow chicks are “ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas,” so the obvious thing to do with the music video would have been to make it overtly political. But director Sophie Muller takes a more subtle, haunting approaching by interpreting the twangy ballad with German expressionism.
Muller plays beautifully with the different meanings associated with the light and dark. Maines tries in vain to wipe black tar from her hands but succeeds only in sullying her white Victorian dress. Clouds of inky black swirl ominously on a white screen. Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, the other members of the trio, appear in white dresses with black vertical stripes. White picket fences, elders whispering in the darkness, grime-stained hands, beams of light — the imagery evokes innocence and guilt, shame, parochialism, repression and ultimately salvation.
The video takes what could have been limited by specificity and turns into something broader and more powerful, and it’s utterly gorgeous. Maines’ face is as expressive and magnetic as her voice, and Muller makes great use of her pained but passionately defiant demeanor in close-ups. “Not Ready to Make Nice” is a stunning song on its own, but the video’s treatment makes it transcendent.
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“Here It Goes Again,” OK Go.
Usually gimmicks in music videos annoy me — if the visual interpretation doesn’t grow from the music or the lyrics, it’s pointless — but I can’t help but make an exception for the goofy videos of OK Go. Their 2005 video, “A Million Ways,” featured the members of the indie quartet performing an intricate amateur dance number, supposedly choreographed by the lead singer’s sister, in a single take in someone’s backyard. The straight-faced conviction with which they executed the jazz hands, box steps and spins was hysterical.
The band latest video, “Here It Goes Again,” takes the same aesthetic and ups the ante: This time, the choreography uses six treadmills: four pointed in one direction, two in the opposite direction, and all of them moving. The band members, none of whom look much like professional dancers, jump from treadmill to treadmill as they perform their steps. They drop to the ground and let the treadmills carry them underneath their fellow band members’ legs. They vault over the fronts of the treadmills and land with surprising grace on treadmills on the opposite side. And again, it all happens in a single take.
The video is frivolous, but all frivolity should be this captivating. How long does it take the guys to master these steps, especially when they’re performing them on moving platforms? How many takes do they need before they execute the choreography perfectly? If the gawky, mop-headed one is the lead singer, why is the bald, bespectacled one doing the lip-syncing? And where did the guy’s sister get the inspiration to take the gawky-looking but surprisingly nimble quartet and create a perfect outtake for Waiting for Guffman?
Who knows. But if nothing else, it’s brilliant viral marketing.
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“Deja Vu,” Beyoncé.
Apparently many of Beyoncé’s fans are not fans of her latest video. Several thousand of them have signed a petition demanding a reshoot, citing “unbelievable and ridiculous” fashions; lack of a “clear story or theme”; and “unacceptable interactions” between Beyoncé and Jay-Z, who is featured on the track.
This cracks me up. What in the world have these people been watching previously? Beyoncé spent much of “Naughty Girl” in an enormous champagne glass, she writhed orgasmically in the sand in “Baby Boy,” and she shimmied against a seemingly indifferent Jay-Z (who had just set a car on fire) in “Crazy in Love.” Beyoncé has a grand tradition of risqué sexual gyrations, incomprehensible set pieces and questionable sartorial choices in music videos. Why stop now?
Besides, Beyoncé wears some glorious clothes in “Deja Vu.” I’m particularly fond of the red and black halter dress she wears while running through the woods (not to be confused with the strapless cream dress she wears while running through the tall grass or the crimson mini dress she wears while running alongside the lake or the little green bubble skirt she wears while running through the sand). So she gets a bit crazed on the beach, creating a miniature sand storm with all her stomping around? She also pulls off the back bend to end all back bends as she segues into the next set piece. That has to count for something.
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*Opera composer Richard Wagner coined the term gesamptkunstwerk (which means total artwork or synthesis of the arts) to describe how he thought opera should not be just a musical presentation but an all-encompassing artistic extravaganza, in which music, theater and visual art work together for dramatic effect. It’s pretentious as hell, but I love to think of music videos as contemporary examples of that philosophy. Plus, it’s just funny to think of, say, a Jessica Simpson video as Wagnerian. Hee!