Fun with music videos: Holiday edition*

*These videos are in no way holiday-related.

“Love Story,” Taylor Swift; “Paper Planes,” M.I.A.; and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” Beyoncé.

Since returning to New York on Sunday, Sean and I have had time for unpacking, catching up on work, and not much else, and I’m feeling antsy, not having anything to write about, so I’m falling back on my favorite standby: music videos.

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“Love Story,” Taylor Swift.

Will Taylor Swift be embarrassed by this video when she grows older? Even Disney recognizes that girls usually get a little old for the princess fantasy by the time they reach nine or ten (hence the introduction of the new Fairies franchise, starring Tinkerbell, meant to recapture older Princess graduates), but eighteen-year-old Taylor is still dolled up in virginal faux-Elizabethan dress, still dancing Jane Austen–style in a candlelit hall, still posing Rapunzel-like in a small castle, and still cooing about her prince, her Romeo, her one true love, with childlike earnestness. She could be Snow White’s long-lost sister.

“Love Story” is astonishing in its unabashed happily-ever-after romanticism. It could have been written sixty, seventy years ago, so lacking is it in irony or snark or any kind of postmodern self-awareness, and for the novelty of that, I almost like it. The facile Romeo and Juliet allusions grate (and the throwaway aside to The Scarlet Letter is inexplicable), but those objections aside, the old-fashioned nature of the song is sort of cute, especially when the visual realization is so gauzy and literal, like a little girl playing dress-up.

But what really inspires grudging appreciation in me is the video’s frame (not present in the song itself). We first see a modest, present-day Taylor walking across what appears to be a college campus and locking eyes with some cute guy before we drift off into the old-timey someday-my-prince-will-come scenario, and that brief contemporary scene immediately positions the song as a fantasy. It doesn’t critique the fantasy, but the simple acknowledgment of the make-believe charms me. The song and the video and, hell, Taylor herself are still blandly pretty pabulum, but the frame, with its hint of coming maturity, gives the sticky-sweet “Love Story” a poignant undercurrent, however faint.

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“Paper Planes,” M.I.A.

When writing about music videos, I usually try to select one that’s mildly obscure, at least not a top-40 standard, and a few years ago, that could have been M.I.A. But when ads for Pineapple Express prominently featured this track, from Kala, the brash British–Sri Lankan hip hop star flew up the American charts (“Paper Planes” was just nominated for a Grammy for record of the year), so M.I.A. can’t be considered nonmainstream any longer. But I don’t care. I’m writing about “Paper Planes” anyway.

The song’s lyrics allude to drug-dealing and violence, and the chorus features rhythmic gun shots, an effect that MTV censored with a more ambiguous sound effect. But the video’s imagery undercuts that, teasing out M.I.A.’s satiric intentions. The video depicts not sensational stereotypes of immigrant violence but rather a hardworking immigrant community in New York. M.I.A. herself isn’t playing a thug; she’s selling sandwiches.

The funny thing is that the song works with the Pineapple preview, too, just in the opposite way. M.I.A.’s video laughs at those who imagine all immigrants to be gun-wielding, drug-dealing gangsters; the Pineapple preview laughs at sheltered, middle-class man-boys who imagine themselves to be gun-wielding, drug-dealing gangsters. And either way, the lilting, carefree tune is unbelievably catchy. Small wonder that so many people latched onto it the moment they heard it.

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“Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” Beyoncé.

I shouldn’t like “Single Ladies.” I find the song’s sentiments (why didn’t you claim ownership of me when you had the chance?!) eye-rollingly obnoxious, and I usually prefer videos with some sort of narrative or imagery for me to pick over (“Single Ladies” features only Beyoncé and two backup dancers in an empty space). Yet despite my own tastes, I have to admit that the video is rather amazing.

The deceptively simple black-and-white aesthetic matches the spare musical texture—often just Beyoncé and the accompanying beat—to great effect. And it all highlights the dancing, with is just fun: fabulously energetic, stompy, and impudent. The choreography manages to look at once inelegant and polished, and the three women perform it with a hilariously snotty attitude. I love it.

Plus, Beyoncé is wearing a cyborg hand. Why? I have no idea, especially as all that metal makes it difficult determine whether she has a ring on it—clearly a crucial concept here. I mean, I make fun, but she looks great, and the song, however obnoxious, is a brilliant earworm. Clearly, if the joke is on anyone, it’s on me.

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