Episode 7: Real Puppets, Fake Award Shows

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The VMAs [gags a little] happened this week, and I have a few words to say about it after our weekly roundup. But first, let’s get to the ~videos~.

This Week’s Best Videos

This week we have Kristen Stewart, and some other things. As always, you can find all the weekly videos and classic videos in these handy YouTube playlists.

Interpol, “If You Really Love Nothing” (dir. Hala Matar)

K-Stew K-Stew K-Stew meet me in the bathroom.

Janet Jackson x Daddy Yankee, “Made for Now” (dir. Dave Meyers)

We saw pictures of Janet and Yankee filming this video in Brooklyn weeks ago, and it’s finally here! Not nearly as wild as Meyers’ other recent projects, but still a bright, ebullient dash through the borough. (One nerdy quip: I’m tired of Meyers’ see-sawing Dutch angles during shots where there’s not a lotta action going on. You can see that pretty clearly at 0:15-0:20. It looks/feels like motion sickness!)

Steady Holiday, “Mothers” (dir. Isaac Ravishankara)

This video is a sloooow burner but believe me, it’s all worth it. Odd similarities between the plot of “Mothers” and the plot of the first third of Mother!, that movie I still haven’t seen in full.

Christine and the Queens, “5 dollars” (dir. Colin Solal Cardo)

Héloïse Letissier channels Bowie, Mapplethorpe, and Mike Hadreas all at once here, which is all to say that this is a very queer video.

Villages, “Fool” (dir. Bob Gallagher)

This video uses a POV technique done first and best (and most NSFW) by Jonas Åkerlund. (Side note: At some point I’ll have to do a future newsletter on Åkerlund, my Swedish goth prince, who has directed most if not all of your favorite Gaga and Beyoncé videos. But for now, enjoy these photos of him and his badass stylist partner, Bea.) Anyways, this is the second-best use of POV camera I’ve seen in a music video. It features quite a twist.

Smokepurpp, “Nephew ft. Lil Pump” (dir. Millicent Hailes)

lmao I genuinely love that the most diverse crew of kids I’ve seen in a video lately is Smokepurpp’s gang of vampire looters. Brought to you by the same guy who directed this gem.

ASHRR, “Sometimes” (dir. Keith Musil)

Between this and The Happytime Murders, I’ve had it up to here with the puppets. But like…I can’t just not share a video like this.

David Guetta feat. Anne-Marie, “Don’t Leave Me Alone” (dir. Hannah Lux Davis)

This is a three-way Superbowl ad for David Guetta, the Kia Stinger, and having a SoundCloud boyfriend. Accordingly, it’s not HLD’s best work (check out her vids for Ariana Grande and Kacey Musgraves instead), but to me videos like this exemplify the medium inching back towards higher budgets and uninhibited excess. (Provided you get a car sponsorship, of course.)

Also notable: HLD borrows from K-pop video aesthetics heavily. And while the rising popularity of K-pop in America didn’t even get so much as lip service at the VMAs on Monday (because, to state the obvious, MTV’s full of out-of-touch dorks), the overseas industry’s influence gently looms over American pop visuals writ large. Explicit recognition will have to come at some point, I think. It’s only a matter of time. I just don’t know when, or if, we’ll get to see Black Pink appear in all their glory on the VMA stage.

Cardi B, “Ring (feat. Kehlani)” (dir. Mike Ho)

And this is K-pop mixed with old-school Floria Sigismondi.

Emel, “Kaddesh” (dir. Marion Petegnief & Sami Battikh)

And this is just…pure Floria Sigismondi, from Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi.

Hippo Campus, “Bambi” (dir. Kyle Sauer)

Kyle Sauer makes the music video equivalent of those minimalist, millennial-targeted subway ads that are also oddly gendered (e.g. For Hims, Thinx.). Again, not a huge fan, but good to keep tabs on. You might remember his Young the Giant vid that I shared in the newsletter. He also directed this Mike’s Hard commercial and this Warby Parker commercial that both feel very…Shane Dawson-esque? Listen, if there’s an aesthetic style we really don’t need to go back to, it’s Obama-era YouTube “comedy.”

Join Me in the Pines, “Bad Blood” (dir. Simon Daniels)

Q: Hmmm, this video seems gimmicky.

A: All videos are gimmicky.

Q: But this is just a bunch of cool kaleidoscope lighting and animation and effects.

A: Well…yeah. They look cool. Have you seen most videos from the ‘80s? They’ve all got this same perfect hybrid of theatrical and cinematic sensibilities. “Hey, so we’ve got a soundstage and we wanna make this look like a great performance from the artist, but we also got these neat visuals we can do with the camera. So let’s throw these colorful stage lights on, let’s pin up a cloth backdrop over there, get some props and costumes and makeup, and see what we can do. After all, we’ve got SFX animators in post!” And you know what? That technique really did work, because it did a great job of visualizing the song’s mood. In fact, those retro videos could be downright beautiful and win tons of awards.

Q: This video is no “Sledgehammer.”

A: You’re right. It’s no “Sledgehammer.” But it’s still fun to watch, and inoffensive, and the song’s catchy, so I don’t see an issue.

Q: Okay…well…this song’s a rip-off of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love.”

A: But here’s the thing…okay, three things.

1) I love Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love.” The way I feel about that song is how many people my age (i.e. young millennials) feel about Toto’s “Africa.”

2) Many songs sound like Steven Winwood’s “Higher Love.”

3) That makes me like this song even more!

Alright, so a word about the VMAs

Frankly, there’s no point in me diving into last Monday’s iteration of this shambling award show, because it’s ancient history. For everything that needed to be said, it was all said very well by Doreen St. Felix at the New Yorker, including the obvious:

“Like a creature focussed on its evolutionary fitness, MTV has, in recent years, been shedding its vestigial organ: music videos. The tired joke is that the network hasn’t aired programming based on its namesake (Music Television) for a decade…Ironically, the network’s aversion to video, fuelled by the fear that the medium seems arcane to a new generation, comes in a year when music videos have been somewhat revived. It’s arguable that not even Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” which won in the “Best Video with a Message” category, had a larger impact this year than Drake’s man-of-the-people video, “God’s Plan,” which showed him giving out a million dollars to civilians in Miami. It took home no awards. Even if it had, Drake wasn’t in attendance to collect them.”

She brings up a significant quandary here, which is how music videos become “impactful” nowadays and why even the most provocative works might barely leave a dent in the cultural strata. “This Is America” created an explosion of online discussion in the week it came out, but it couldn’t be meme’d. People certainly tried, to results were distasteful at best and downright racist at worst. But for Donald Glover, I think that was something of the point: he wanted white audiences to brush up against the walls of good judgment when they inevitably decided to make parodies of the video, or dance to the song at a party, or make custom “relatable” captions for the shooter and the choir getting shot. (I saw all kinds of images, from bad video games to Cheez-Its, being pasted onto the shooting victim with a bag over his head, and all of them made me want to jump out a building.)

However, in the long run, trollish marketing does not a good meme make. The risk does not beget enough reward. Meanwhile, Drake’s family-friendly camp, his faux-innocence towards his own melodrama, is what has makes “God’s Plan,” “Hotline Bling,” you name it, so memorable and meme-able online. People can extend the joke without descending to 4chan levels of nastiness. They can clown Drake without true malice. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the iconography of “APESHIT” or Dirty Computer, neither of which are particularly funny but provide enough to chew on for Internet Art History 101. Naturally, those sorts of videos – the ones that have actually made the most impact this year – were all relegated to the technical categories, which aren’t given out on the telecast.

I can’t expect the outdated format of the VMAs to capture that same lightning in the bottle for Gen-Z. (Ironically, the time they came closest was over 20 years ago.) I just wish they understood their audience, or somehow grasped that an unassuming clip of Rihanna twirling her skirt in Cuba was going to get more buzz than Nicki Minaj performing an exacting, flawlessly ordinary medley in the Oculus, aka the worst mall in America. The same goes for the videos themselves: kids these days don’t really want spectacle if it’s giving them nothing to work with, in quite a literal sense.

Please direct all feedback, questions, comments, tips, etc. 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. •