Between-holiday fun with music videos

“It’s OK,” Cee-Lo Green; “The Suburbs,” Arcade Fire; and “Dancing on My Own,” Robyn.

Every year I swear to myself that this holiday season, I won’t neglect my blog so badly, and every year a heavy workload, bad colds, and various holiday events and obligations conspire to humble me. Eventually, I’ll be getting to the new Harry Potter movie and Black Swan and, I hope, a concert or two, but for now: music videos! Yay!

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“It’s OK,” Cee-Lo Green.

The amazing thing about Cee-Lo is that his voice is so bright and agile, his demeanor so sunny, and his music so blissfully retro that he can make even the most spiteful songs sound bubbly and endearing. One of the man’s big singles is titled “Fuck You,” for god’s sake, and somehow it’s so honeyed and accessible that Gwyneth Paltrow, of all people, can plausibly pull off a cover (albeit with the radio edit “Forget You” lyrics) on the increasingly sugary Glee. That’s bizarre, to say the least.

And yet, I don’t really mean it as criticism. I guess it bothers me a little that the song’s borderline-misogynist lyrics go down so smoothly with his sweet musical stylings, but to be honest, those stylings are so charming that I can’t work up much indignation. Cee-Lo’s just too damn talented, mixing genres with incredible fluency and virtuosity. How can anyone resist?

The video for “It’s OK” has the same sort of charm. Director Matt Stawski layers ’60s-style graphics over heavily stylized live action in a way that matches Cee-Lo’s own use of soul elements in contemporary hip hop. And the result is beautiful: glamorous and hyper-real, with an eye-poppingly vivid color palette. I don’t quite understand why Cee-Lo’s ode to the girl who got away is now, apparently, an ode to three such girls (though at least they’re distinct rather than interchangeable). But whatever, I don’t care. The video, the song, Cee-Loo himself—all delightful. How can anyone resist?

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“The Suburbs,” Arcade Fire.

I assumed that the video for “The Suburbs” would the typical rot-underneath-the-shiny-surface-of-suburbia sort of thing—the dead horse that American Beauty killed off tenfold more than a decade ago—but director Spike Jonze’s take is neither satiric nor realistic. It’s more unsettling that I expected and, frankly, more opaque, to the extent that I’m not entirely sure what Jonze or the band members are getting at or how I feel about it. But Jonze is a great, atmospheric director not only of movies (obviously) but of some truly classic music videos for Weezer, Fatboy Slim, and Björk, among others. That alone makes “The Suburbs” worth considering.

So I’m considering it. As the music begins, the video serves up typical suburbia imagery—carefree kids riding their bikes down over-wide streets lined by over-large houses—but soon complicates that with hints of military occupation—helicopters, razor wire atop the chainlink fence at the edge of the community, masked men in fatigues patrolling the neighborhood. I suspect this is some sort of meditation on how Americans might feel about the seemingly endless wars we’re engaged in if we had to actually deal with the gritty realities of those conflicts on a regular basis, yet “The Suburbs” doesn’t slam that idea; it isn’t polemical. To the contrary, the video seems more concerned with the subtler ways in which external violence affects ordinary people, breeding mistrust, shattering innocence, and fomenting misplaced anger. The final conflict has nothing to do with the military vehicles on the street, but in a way, maybe it does after all.

And regardless, the video and the song itself convey a sad, sour nostalgia with deceptive power. My favorite Jonze–Arcade Fire collaboration is still the first teaser for Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, set to Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” (not that Jonze himself would have put together the teaser, but it still uses his images, and it’s absolutely lovely), but “The Suburbs” snuck up on me. The nature of the police state and the cause for the demise of the boys’ friendship might go unexplained, but explanations aren’t necessary to create a emotional world.

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“Dancing on My Own,” Robyn.

Robyn’s dance pop is something of a palate cleanser after Arcade Fire’s alternative ennui, but it’s not vacant fluff. In fact, the video has a sweet poignancy thanks to Robyn’s remarkable ability to convey vulnerability without sacrificing dignity. Alone, as mere text, the lyrics could be pathetic (“I’m in the corner, watching you kiss her … I’m right over here, why can’t you see me?”), but as Robyn sings them, they convey pain but not desperation. She’s hurt, but she’ll still dancing, and ultimately she’s moving on, acknowledging to herself that it’s time to “say good-bye.”

In the meantime, the video vividly illustrates how no place breeds loneliness quite like a crowd. The packed, red-lit club is a press of couples with only Robyn unpaired—which is why there’s a kind of heroism to her dancing. She moves aggressively, pumping her arms with forceful, insistent energy, as though she’s physically beating back despondency. Dancing keeps her alive. The simple poetry of that makes me smile.

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