Post-company fun with music videos

“Born Free,” M.I.A.; “Tightrope,” Janelle Monáe featuring Big Boi; and “Islands,” the xx.

A couple weeks ago, Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt Mary Sue, and my brother, Michael, all visited New York to see Sean and me. Everyone had a great time, but it was sort of exhausting, and Sean and I spent the following weekend holed up at home to recover. This weekend, I’m buried underneath a freelance project I’ve neglected, what with the family craziness and subsequent decompression. So basically, now I don’t have anything to write about, which means it’s time for my favorite filler: music videos!

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“Born Free,” M.I.A.

Originally, I wasn’t going to write about “Born Free” (and I’m still not going to imbed it here). In fact, I intended to specifically mention in my silly little intro (see above) that I had chosen not to write about M.I.A.’s controversy-courting opus—even if it is one of the buzziest videos released in the past month or so—because I consider that video politically shallow and thematically incoherent, certainly not meaningful enough to justify its shocking-for-the-sake-of-shocking violence.

But I couldn’t leave it at that, of course. I had to peevishly note that merely casting redheads as the repressed class in your depiction of hardcore colonial violence and genocide does not actually say anything of import about hardcore colonial violence and genocide. If anything, the redhead stunt seems a little bit flip. I know “gingers” are sometimes subject to teasing, particularly in the U.K., but come on. Most of the time, anti-ginger sentiment is literally a joke, like in South Park or (more obscurely but no less hilariously) The Catherine Tate Show, so the reveal of who, exactly, is being rounded up in M.I.A.’s video comes across as a bizarrely distasteful jest. And then there are the bottle-throwing kids in keffiyas and the IRA sloganeering and the American soldiers committing horrific atrocities, and it’s a hopeless muddle that really doesn’t add up to anything.

But it’s gotten a lot of attention, which was ultimately the point, I’m sure, which wouldn’t bother me so much if people didn’t act as though the video must mean something. It doesn’t. “Born Free” solemnly (and pretentiously) depicts terrible things, but it does so without insight or eloquence and certainly without subtlety. And honestly, I’m kind of annoyed with myself for doing exactly what she wanted and talking about it and, you know, exposing another half dozen people to it, but I really needed to get that rant out. And now I’m done. Yay! On to better things!

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“Tightrope,” Janelle Monáe featuring Big Boi.

There are numerous reasons to love Janelle Monáe’s new video, which is set in an asylum where dancing is prohibited (according to the opening title card) due to its “subversive effects,” notably “its tendency to lead to illegal magical practices.” That premise, for one thing, has a sense of poetry about it, an air of myth; it feels true and resonant in an elemental way. Then there’s Monáe’s voice, strong and agile and forward, and the cameo from Big Boi, whose rapping is as smooth and lyrically rhythmical as ever. The mirror-faced overseers are understatedly eerie, and the costumes elegantly eccentric, with nearly all the patients, men and women alike, wearing crisp tuxedos with pant legs ending a few inches above the ankle, the better to see the feet.

And that’s good, because the best, most lovable thing about the video is the dancing, so the feet deserve that showcase. I strongly suspect the choreography is drawing on dance traditions I don’t know (there’s definitely something early-twentieth-century-ish about many of the steps), but you don’t need to be well versed in the history of African American dance to appreciate the energy and syncopated fluidity of the dancers’ movement.

It’s just so innocently joyful. Despite the grim setting—the bleak, peeling walls of the institution and those creepy, too-powerful sentinels—everyone in the video radiates joy. The dancing communicates not weary resilience but an irrepressible spirit, a people who refuse to let the magic in themselves be restrained. It’s beautiful, and I can’t watch it without smiling.

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“Islands,” the xx.

The dancing in “Islands” is very different, reflecting a very different song. “Islands” is ostensibly a love song, but the tone and the lyrics imply not euphoria but suffocation; the repeated line “I am yours now” comes from a speaker who feels stifled, trapped, subsumed. (One can only hope that no one has tried to use this song as a wedding reception.)

“Islands” exudes airless melancholy, and the video lands upon a great device to illustrate that: repeating the same sequence—about eight or nine seconds in length—over and over and over. Six dancers mechanically perform the same steps, the camera does the same slow pull back, and the three members of the band sit on the same couch—again and again and again. But it’s not on a loop. The formation of the band shifts (though they’re always lounging about, deflated), and we gradually realize that some of the dancers are beginning to resist the sequence they’ve been performing so robotically.

It’s sad yet somehow invigorating when the sequence finally collapses at the end. Only one dancer is left, and the stage burns around her as she doggedly hits her mark for the last time, but the others are gone. Maybe they’re lost, maybe they’re hurt, but maybe they’re free.

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Thank you to Sean for teaching me how to embed videos at the correct aspect ratios. I’m pretending to be more of a real blogger rather than someone who takes several days to draft a single post. Baby steps!