Episode 2: The Meyers Touch

To the new subscribers I got this week: Hi there! My name’s Claire, and welcome to The Scopitone Tapes.

The concept of this newsletter, and my interest in writing about music videos in general, came about from the lack of in-depth coverage given to this particular corner of the music industry. Last year I wrote my undergraduate senior thesis on the topic, rather myopically thinking that that would quell any need to write on it any further. But everything about music videos – their aesthetics, the business behind them, their bizarre cultural indentations – continues to fascinate me to no end. How did Spike Jonze’s video for “Praise You” precede the contemporary mall flash mob? Should we expect more longform “visual albums” like Dirty Computer and Lemonade in the era of digital streaming? How did “Hotline Bling” catch on so goddamn fast? (Answer to that last one: Drake, James Turrell, and Instagram playgrounds.) Anyways, I kept blogging about videos at my current job, one thing led to another and now we’re here.

So here’s how this works: each week I go deep on some music video-related topic (director’s highlight, historical tidbits, odes to some of my favorite videos, etc.) while also sharing a round-up of my favorite new videos of the week. If I catch any good longreads or interviews or blogs related to videos, I’ll include links to them here, too. As of now, the structure of each letter is pretty freewheeling (especially this one, good lord). However, feedback is welcomed and encouraged, because otherwise I’m just tossing my favorite George Michael videos into your zombified inbox, and we wouldn’t want that. Typically these newsletters come out on Friday, but last week was a ~mess~ so you’re getting this edition today, and there’ll be another one in your inbox this upcoming Friday.

By the way, in case you were wondering, this is a Scopitone. (“Scopitone tapes” is a misnomer, they used 16mm film and not tapes, nerd shit nerd shit etc. etc.) Now, onto the newsletter.

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Episode 2: The Meyers Touch

I don’t know what Ariana Grande is thinking, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Leading up to the release of her latest studio album, Sweetener, Grande has released a trio of gaudily surreal videos directed by Dave Meyers, each one shifting the goal posts of her perceived star identity to accommodate something a little more avant garde.

To put it another way, Grande knows her target audience largely consists of hyperactive gay stoners, and she’s making adjustments. The first video, “No Tears Left to Cry,” released on April 20, depicts Grande – the most eccentric member of the pop world’s cheer team – drifting through a CGI metropolis, where in her spare time she waltzes up and down gravity-free hallways, hangs out with some dudes holding umbrellas, reveals her face to be a literal mask (one of several), floats through trippy time-space on a fire escape....I could go on. The next two videos only get weirder: “The Light Is Coming” is a Gondry-esque romp through the woods, while “God Is a Woman” is….so much. It’s too fucking much. Life can be so much.

This video came out, what, 10 days ago? And we have already forgotten about Ariana Grande fingering the earth? Or is she fingering the hurricane? Is the hurricane actually the earth’s vagina? If God is a woman (and the “God” in this video is strongly implied to be Grande), is the earth/hurricane her lover? Life is a mystery, indeed.

I think it’s best to just leave this scene up to interpretation. There’s a whole lot else going on in this video, what with the wolves and the choirs and the possible Houses of the Holy reference and the biblical verse made famous by Pulp Fiction. So instead of trying to decode “God Is a Woman” on a purely thematic level, let’s try to get a grasp on stylistically what the hell is going on here. And for that, we’re gonna have to discuss the director.

As I talked about in my letter last week, there are two key veteran directors of mainstream music videos who’ve been heading projects since the early to mid-1990s: Hype Williams and Dave Meyers. The paths that took each of them to the top of the business couldn’t be more different. Hype, a Queens native, worked tirelessly on video sets during the early days of hip-hop, hustling as a PA throughout the 1980s until someone eventually handed him a camera. Meyers, meanwhile, grew up in Berkeley during the height of the hippie movement and graduated from Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles, with a double major in Film Production and Philosophy. In the pop ecosystem, Hype and Meyers have comparable roles; they both tend to gravitate towards the same ultra-famous, larger-than-life pop/R&B/hip-hop archetype, and their videos mimic one another in overarching concept and subject matter (parties, rich celebs, chaos, shenanigans). But perhaps because of their vastly different upbringings and early film careers, the two directors’ approaches to filmmaking are near-total opposites.

Hype always puts the filmmaking front-and-center in his work. In an interview he did last month, he mentioned that he was inspired to direct after he saw what shoddy filmmaking was being done for early ‘80s hip-hop videos, and he wanted to add some stylistic flare to the medium. That’s become the backbone of his entire body of work. Whatever visual gimmick he’s chosen for a video, that’s his primary focus, and as much the star of the project as Kanye West or Beyoncé or whoever he happens to be collaborating with. You’d think this would be a highly distracting quality, but I’ve come to appreciate how you remember the actual content of a Hype Williams video not in spite of the gimmicks he’s using, but because of them. Take my favorite video of his, “The Rain,” starring Missy Elliott and Hype’s fisheye lens. The hair, the costumes, the dancing, and every other goofy creative choice in “The Rain” is made for that lens, to accentuate it as much as possible, and not the other way around. In turn, you remember what happens within the video because of the camera gimmick. Recalling it from memory, you don’t think of “The Rain” as “Missy Elliott in a trash bag” because of the trash bag, ridiculous as the trash bag may be – you think of it as “Missy Elliott in a trash bag with the fisheye lens.” Hype takes visuals that are already fantastically overblown and makes them inescapably so.

Meyers, meanwhile, is all content first. I don’t mean this in a broad, high-concept sense; he’s not Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze or Mark Romanek, writing video treatments that would blow anyone’s mind (or baffle it) on paper, before spinning the idea into something truly exhilarating onscreen. Rather, Meyers picks a conventional pop video treatment, or one that appears simple on its face – Ariana Grande drifting through a city, for instance – and injects it with strange moments that don’t always add up but guarantee you will not forget what you just watched. For instance, that gopher moment in “God Is a Woman.”

Why does this scene happen? I still don’t have an answer, and I doubt I ever will. Everything else, hurricane-fingering at all, thematically fits with what I know Ari is going for: “I believe in Goddess, the Mother almighty, creator of heaven and iconic anti-American declarations,” etc. I get it. She wants you to worship her, to speak in tongues, even. I still have no clue what the gopher is about. Maybe it’s supposed to be a beaver pun, which doesn’t land at all because it’s a fucking gopher. And she screams. And I scream.

Scenes like this aren’t entirely out of left field for Grande; her earlier videos with Chris Marrs Piliero mine from that same vein of abrasive, outlandish stoner humor. But Meyers’ videos are filled with these sorts of moments; even if they don’t screech the video to a halt mid-song, as the gopher scene does, they carry that same tone. His jokes are low-culture and raunchy, and many earlier attempts haven’t aged well – his splicing of Outkast with literal monkeys was especially careless – but more often than not his videos are deluged with nonsensical moments that are hardly laugh-out-loud funny, but help to lighten the load of the self-serious pop auteur. For example, Pink’s “Most Girls” falls in line with those dramatic, late-90s-early-2000s R&B dance videos set in some industrial warehouse or metallic spaceship, with song lyrics telling a man what’s what (a video genre that Hype was a master in), but Meyers sidesteps the histrionics by adding in a buff shirtless man playing the cello. It’s silly, it’s goofy, it goes along enough with what the song’s about to not seem completely out of place. That’s what Meyers is good at.

But “God Is a Woman,” is quintessentially Meyers in structure and execution, too. Let’s compare it to another recent work of his: “HUMBLE.,” the acclaimed Kendrick Lamar project from last year. Like “God Is a Woman” (and the two other Grande videos, to a lesser extent), “HUMBLE.” has around 8-10 “scenes,” settings, or visual motifs that he spends roughly the first half of the video introducing sequentially, never lingering too long on each one. He then spends the remainder of the video returning to certain “scenes” wherever he seems them fitting best. They are tied together through shared themes and style, with no detectable plot or storyline. That unmoored vignetticism, of moving from one composed scenario to the next without a “master” scene, is a classic Meyers format that he’s gone back to over and over again. He will make more narrative videos from time to time, and he’s definitely not the only director to use that vignette style, but you could make the argument, given how long he’s been around, that he codified the format and has made it his own stylistic trademark.

And yes, you could also make the argument that Meyers does use Hype-style visual gimmicks in his videos. This is something he’s done with much more frequency in recent years, since the production value of his projects suddenly increased circa 2015. (Compare one of his most famous early aughts videos with Missy Elliott, to how he shoots Missy Elliott today.) I’m still not entirely sure what prompted this, but I suspect his continued business partnerships helped him out, budget-wise. (Yep, he created that iPod ad series, and his music video for “The Middle” is one giant ad for Target.) On a style level, however, he uses these gimmicks differently than Hype; whereas Hype tends to pick one visual motif and stick with it throughout the video, Meyers tries out a bunch of them, often pairing a different technical trick with each vignette. Again, you can see that pattern all over “HUMBLE.” and “God Is a Woman,” particularly with the latter’s use of sketch animation mixed with live-action mixed with puppetry.

Taken as a trio, the three Sweetener videos look to me as though Meyers is trying to reach some level of artistic maturity. “The Light Is Coming” and “No Tears Left To Cry” aren’t really trying to be funny at any point – I would say the closest they come to having a Meyers-ism is the mask scene in “No Tears” – and what’s more, they’re far more expansive than Meyers’ prior works, literally and figuratively. Whereas videos like “Most Girls” would be shot in a very large box, “No Tears” immerses the viewer in a gigantic, dreamlike cityscape, and “The Light Is Coming” portrays an endless dark woods, punctuated only by eerie starship lights and strange bubble-like installations. Even “God Is a Woman,” while delightfully weird and frenetic, does its best to imitate the high art of Georgia O’Keeffe and the Sistine Chapel.

Still, I’d be surprised if this meant Meyers is turning towards more high-concept, experimental works. He is, after all, the most successful pop videographer currently working today, and in the current pop video landscape, where viral content is dispersed via memes and GIFs, videos function as a collection of parts rather than a whole meal. Meyers’ videos have evolved from Sour Patch Kids to artisanal sour candies, but either way, they’re all sweets.

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Videos To Watch

  • I know I didn’t get to talk much about Ariana herself in this newsletter, but she herself is a GENIUS with music videos. I stan “Side to Side” and “Into You” like nothing else. (The director of those two, Hannah Lux Davis, also directed Kacey Musgraves’ wonderful vid for “High Horse.”)

  • Speaking of which, Troye Sivan’s new “Dance To This” video (dir. Bardia Zeinali) features him and Ari doing a cute little sing-a-long at a community center. My colleague Harron Walker pointed out that it looks an awful lot like The Knife’s 2003 video for “Pass This On” (directed by the legendary Johan Renck). But the two videos end up going in wildly different directions, and I think they’re both worth a watch.

  • I generally love whenever a video is directed by a choreographer, because it means choreography that is edited together well in post-production (very important!) and is so mind-bogglingly good that it might turn into an internet challenge. Ciara’s “Level Up,” directed by three-time World Hip Hop Dance champion Parris Goebel, is no exception.

  • What’s super gay and has a good twist ending? Cheat Codes and Little Mix’s “Only You” (dir. Frank Borin).

  • Charlie Puth officially fucks now, and I know that because he got a video directed by Colin Tilley.

  • “Eastside” from Benny Blanco, Halsey, and Khalid, and directed by Jake Schreirer (Robot & Frank, Paper towns, Haim’s “Want You Back” video) is wholesome without being cloying, and a smart introduction to Blanco.

  • Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “Blueberry Jam” (dir. Tim Morton) is a fantastic sequel to Big Fat Liar.

  • In Jay Rock’s “ES Tales” (dir. Jack Begert and Dave Free), Jay pairs an immensely dark song with 8-bit video game animations.

  • As a drummer, I’m biased, but the new Lenny Kravitz video (dir. Jean Baptiste Mondino) is great. It is just drumming. And sweat. And nice lighting. I love it.

  • Peach Pit’s “Alrighty Aphrodite” (dir. Lester Lyons-Hookham) takes an old video cliché – playing the clip in reverse – and makes it interesting again with a frozen, moody atmosphere.

  • And finally, this letter’s throwback video: The Pharcyde’s “Drop” (dir. Spike Jonze), one of the first to use the above cliché, before it was a cliché. And yeah I did share a Jonze clip last week, but I don’t care!

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Links (News, Interviews, and Everything Else)

  • The 2018 MTV VMA nominees have been announced! I have a lot of thoughts on the VMAs in general that I’ll save for a later time, but I’m generally happy with this group, considering that they only look at the most mainstream of mainstream pop videos. Dave Meyers, by the way, has TWO nominations for Video of the Year (“No Tears” and Camila Cabello’s “Havana”). No doubt “Apeshit” will win, as it should. Lol @ “God’s Plan” for being nominated for “Video With a Message.”

  • Dave Meyers did an interview with the Atlantic last year, which only really scratches the surface of his work, but is still a good intro to him.

  • Some folks in Baltimore got spooked over a smashed-in police cruiser. Turns out it was just a prop in a local rapper’s video.

  • There’s a new Tom Petty video in the works and they want fan submissions.

  • Apparently Kevin Smith almost didn’t show up to Drake’s “I’m Upset” shoot because he thought it was a scam.

That’s all for now! If you have feedback, questions, comments, tips, etc., please direct them to ClaireShafferVevo at gmail dot com. And feel free to forward this email, share on social media, and encourage your friends to subscribe. We’ll be back next week with more vids. •