Still more fun with music videos

“Daydreamin’,” Lupe Fiasco featuring Jill Scott; “Cheated Hearts,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs; and “Hurt,” Christina Aguilera.

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“Daydreamin’,” Lupe Fiasco featuring Jill Scott.

Featured vocalists on rap tracks all too often have wispy, little-girl voices, one interchangeable with the next, so rapper Lupe Fiasco’s choice to feature instead the luscious, soulful voice of Jill Scott makes me predisposed to like “Daydreamin’.” And I do like it. As Scott builds from a gentle patter to full-throated glory, Lupe weaves in a well-observed critique of the prototypical rap video. Ostensibly imagining making such a video of his own, he playfully explores how the genre often glamorizes violence, degrades women, and revels in material excess. With such subject matter, he easily could have come across as preachy or priggish, but his use of language is so smooth and his persona so laid-back that “Daydreamin’” manages to come across as thoughtful ribbing rather than thunderous condemnation.

Lupe’s implied argument would be more effective, however, if his own video were more compelling. Instead, the video is a muddle of disparate elements. As he raps, Lupe bums around some nondescript location (a junk shop? a record store?). The only part of his daydream to manifest itself is, weirdly, a cheap-looking dancing robot that distracts from his agile wordplay. I didn’t even follow the lyrics the first couple of times I saw the video, so puzzled was I by the presence of that stupid robot.

Just one visual aspect of the video works: Jill Scott. Appearing on album covers and television screens within the video, she is styled like Billie Holiday with a white flower behind one ear. Her luminous face is as expressive and magnetic as her powerful voice.

But Scott’s gorgeous retro look completely clashes with Lupe’s casual streetware and the contemporary setting and the bizarre robot. Nonsensical imagery can be fun, but “Daydreamin’” isn’t visually intriguing enough to pull that off. The lackluster hodgepodge simply doesn’t work, and that’s unfortunate, for the silliness of the video ends up overshadowing Lupe’s talent. Only Scott still shines. Even a dancing robot can’t upstage such a voice.

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“Cheated Hearts,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

One might not expect people singing a song called “Cheated Hearts” to be particularly joyful, but the dozens of fans who submitted clips of themselves singing along with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs track are gleeful, almost to a one. The giddy energy of the band’s video, which splices many of those clips together, is perhaps in part a tribute to the irrepressible fun of lip-syncing. Everyone loves to play at being a rock star.

To be fair, the song itself is energetic and spunky, a great choice for this kind of project. Using fan submissions might not have worked for another band, but the Yeah Yeah Yeahs pull it off. It helps that lead singer Karen O—with her short, floppy black hair and wild clothing—has a distinctive, easily imitated look.

More importantly, though, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are successful without being universally known top-40 material. Anyone can learn most of the lyrics to, oh, the latest Black Eyed Peas track just by walking through a mall or watching a few hours of television—you have to work to stay ignorant of that ever-present pop fluff—but the people who know the lyrics to songs by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are fans, and it shows when they sing along. Their lip-syncing isn’t ironic; it’s sincere and enthusiastic, and that kind of earnestness is endearing. The video is still a bit lazy and self-congratulatory on the band’s part, but watching the wide variety of Yeah Yeah Yeah devotees throw themselves into the song is fun even so.

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“Hurt,” Christina Aguilera.

Christina Aguilera can belt a power ballad with the best of them—no question. She has a dynamic, dexterous voice, of course, but she also has a natural sense of melodrama, bringing rich, weepy emotion even to banal sentiments. When she warbles, “You are beautiful,” you believe it because she makes you believe she believes it.

Listening to “Hurt” inspires a similar reaction. Christina is so sorry, so very very sorry, for the missed opportunities and the pain she has caused. She leans into every note with love and regret, and it’s affecting, however trite.

As a singer, Christina clearly aspires to join the ranks of Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, and Judy Garland, and her latest album, Back to Basics, suggests that she might have the potential to do so. In the “Hurt” video, though, she seems to be dreaming of being the twenty-first century Mary Pickford as well, and there she falls flat.

Christina plays a tightrope artist who, having found stardom, neglects her devoted father. Upon receiving a telegram informing her of dear Daddy’s death, she realizes what she’s done, but it’s too late, too late, too late, to make things ups to him. She falls tearfully to the muddy ground as stagehands dismantle the empty circus tent. Oh cruel world!

Christina can handle the pathos when she’s actually singing, but the video (her directorial—well, co-directorial—debut) often requires her to act silently while her voice plays in the background. The moment in which our spoiled tightrope girl receives that fateful telegram is the worst. The background spins out of control (a cliché I am so sick of) while Christina stays centered in the foreground, mutely casting her eyes about in distraction, pressing her hand to her painfully furrowed brow, and contorting her face into a Greek tragedy mask. It comes across as hopelessly silly rather than sincere.

When she is singing, she can emote naturally, but when she is silent, she tries to act, and that’s no good. With luck and continued maturation, Christina Aguilera’s name might one day be mentioned alongside those of her musical idols, but no one will ever, ever confuse the pixie-sized pop star with Meryl Streep.

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