More fun with music videos

“I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” Panic! At the Disco; “Fidelity,” Regina Spektor; and “Not That Kinda Girl,” JoJo.

Sean and I watched the MTV Video Music Awards on TiVo so that we could fast-forward through the commercials, boring acceptance speeches, painfully awkward patter, and performances by artists we don’t like or don’t care about. (We’re in our mid-20s—too old for MTV, really—so there was a lot of fast-forwarding. We are ancient.) In typical MTV fashion, they don’t actually show more than five-second clips of any of the nominees, and it’s the same dozen or so over and over again anyway, but it still put me in the mood to write about one of my favorite guilty pleasures: overproduced music videos. Whee!

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“I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” Panic! At the Disco.

I feel obliged to acknowledge that this band is trying to do something different, but ambition only gets you so far. Even the striking use of violins in the verse—employed, for once in pop music, as something other than a wall of sound—doesn’t make this song any less awful or the video any less ostentatious and absurd.

The charisma-free lead singer shout-sings the repetitive, overly wordy lyrics at breakneck speed with a herky-jerky rhythm that makes little sense musically or poetically. Sean contemptuously refers to the song as “bad Sondheim,” a summation that strikes me a hilariously apropos, especially since everything about Panic! At the Disco, from the poseur goth makeup to the video’s melodramatic plot, suggests untalented high school drama kids run amok.

The plot itself has an ugly undercurrent. The lead singer crashes a wedding to inform the groom that the bride has been unfaithful. Certainly the guy should know about his fiancé’s deceit, but Panic! At the Disco takes a nasty pleasure in unmasking her infidelities. The falsely coy whisper of “whore,” the haranguing of the woman at the altar, and the final exposure of her with her lover’s red face paint smeared over her mouth, like a carnivore that has gorged itself on a bloody carcass—all of this is presented not with sorrow or even with anger but with a sadistic glee, stepping dangerously close to misogyny.

Ultimately, though, the video is too sophomoric to be disturbing. Despite the high production values (if nothing else, the look is slick), “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” is simply too amateurish to deserve much more than an eye roll.

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“Fidelity,” Regina Spektor.

The title of Regina Spektor’s song is misleading. We usually use the word fidelity to refer to faithfulness in a sexual relationship, but Spektor is using it differently, to describe how the song’s narrator maintains a defensive distance from everyone: “I never love nobody fully,” she sings in an airy tone with sparse accompaniment.

The video dramatizes that self-protectiveness by placing Spektor in a sterile, black-and-white room with a phone that doesn’t ring and a man’s clothes with no one inside them. It would be depressing were it not for the buoyancy of Spektor’s performance and the charm of the song she has written. Most memorably, she dispenses with ordinary melisma and instead breaks a single syllable into a detached, staccato melody. The technique reflects the narrator’s self-imposed isolation in a refreshingly light-hearted way. (It also shows off excellent breath control.)

The lyrics themselves don’t dramatize growth on the narrator’s part, but the video looks forward: At the climax of the song, Spektor deliberately drops the heart pendant she has worn around her neck, and when it shatters, brightly colored powder (it looks like tempera paint pigments) explodes on the floor. Spektor changes, too. Suddenly she wears vivid red lipstick and earrings, a man appears in the previously empty clothes, and together they spread the messy, vibrant colors all over each other and the once-pristine room.

It’s a simple conceit, a simple visual image, but Spektor and director Marc Webb bring it beautifully to life. With lesser artists, the clarity and simplicity might have been dull, but Spektor and Webb fashion something crystalline. The explosion of color is perfectly timed, and Spektor’s face and voice are heartbreakingly expressive. Her performance, coupled with Webb’s delicately rendered visuals, creates a lovely character sketch—poignant and hopeful and romantic—in barely over three minutes.

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“Not That Kinda Girl,” JoJo.

JoJo wants you to know that she is “not that kinda girl.” Not what kind of girl, you ask? Well, that’s a bit muddier. The lyrics of her song seem merely to imply that she is not materialistic, you know, like all of those other girls. (“You ain’t impressin’ me / With your jewelry, your designer clothes / Or the games you try to play,” she sings with all the moral superiority a fifteen-year-old can muster, shaking her finger officiously in our faces.)

Rejection of materialism is laudable enough, but the video’s illustrations of that sentiment are bizarre. As JoJo rides in a Hummer stretch limo (truly an icon of anti-materialism), flanked by numerous adults wearing business suits and barking orders into cell phones, she lowers her window to gaze judgmentally at the hussies she passes. These brazen girls are—horrors!—flirting with boys, programming the boys’ telephone numbers into their cell phones, and (gasp!) applying pale pink lip gloss. JoJo will have none of it.

No, JoJo isn’t into chasing boys, who inevitably won’t give her enough space to enjoy “chilling with [her] crew.” As she sings this, she walks backstage to meet a crew of stylists who dress her and do her hair and makeup. JoJo then joins her backup dancers for a rehearsal, and when it is over, she leaves alone. Apparently she and her crew only have a working relationship.

Describing the events in the video makes it sound almost subversive, undermining glossy images of party-girl pop princesses with a rather pathetic depiction of an isolated professional teenager, but if director Fat Cats intended anything seditious, he neglected to inform pretty little JoJo. JoJo sings proudly, beaming and tossing her hair and shaking her finger with an empty-headed smirk. JoJo is not the kind of girl who befriends kids her own age and puts on makeup herself and spends an afternoon hanging out with people who aren’t paid to be there—and apparently she thinks that’s a good thing.