Grimes Takes You to Hell

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One recurring trope in science-fiction is the man-made apocalypse, a gloomy, deserted world that’s inhabited by those unlucky enough to witness the side effects of human error. Sometimes it’s from careless behavior like wastefulness, or the threat of a new technology that spreads fear and eliminates empathy, or even the rise of an anarchal state awash in violence. When discussing her new video for “Go,” Grimes hints at the cause for her nightmare-fuel video with: “In the inferno, people’s actions in life echo eternally,” later adding “We shot a bunch at the Salton Sea, which is basically an apocalyptic wasteland filled with dead fish because of human carelessness, a hallway of bullet holes à la Korn ‘Freak on a Leash.'”

Grimes casts herself as the beleaguered Dante, traveling through a unique layer of hell with Blood Diamonds as a particularly flossy Virgil (chain and all). Unlike the bullet in Korn’s “Freak on a Leash” that pierces through everyday objects to cause disruption and chaos, the bullet holes in Grimes’ video is a nod to violence that’s already occurred. In fact, at this point one functions more as a peep hole that peers into the blacklit, filtered dance that Grimes (Dante?), performs.

The 90s style rave-as-futurism outfits and imagery are reminiscent of Katherine Bigelow’s 1995 film Strange Days, where pre-Millenium Los Angeles is on the verge of chaos in the wake of corrupt cops and new technology that threatens to desensitize citizens to violent imagery. It’s interesting that this particular stylization continues to function as a sign of descent into hellish territory, and at this point I’m not 100% sure why, but I feel like nu-metal might be partially to blame.

Angela Bassett in Strange Days

Angela Bassett in Strange Days

It’s worth noting, especially considering Grimes’ bindi-wearing and somewhat sketchy past of cultural appropriation that “Go” also has pause-worthy racial aspects. Though the dancers in the video could be any race, seeing as how the lighting distorts and some of them are wearing masks, in shots of Grimes dancing and wearing a dress in a way that reads future-exotic by way of vague Asian influence, Grimes creates a future (albeit bleak one), inspired by people of color that doesn’t feel like it needs to specifically reference them. Writing about Grimes’ video for “Genesis” (which had similar problems), Julianne Escobedo Shepard called the practice “attaching vague ethnic allusions to coolness without context.”

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Here’s to a future with less of that.

It’s Hard Out Here For Lily Allen

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In 2008 Katy Perry described herself as a “thinner version of Lily Allen,” a peculiar jab that turned out to be an amalgamation of what caused Allen’s rage at the music industry. In her earlier years with the release of Alright, Still, Allen’s weight and “unconventionality” were talking points (and in some cases, selling points) to an extent that when she lost weight around the time of her follow-up album, It’s Not Me, It’s You, she sarcastically swiped back on her hit “The Fear” with “Everything’s cool as long as I’m getting thinner.”

Allen has always been acutely aware of the shelf-life of women in the music industry, a beauty and youth based package that, inevitably, would leave her behind. In “22,” Allen relates this to non-singers, a catchy pop tune bemoaning the plight of an aging woman. (“It’s sad but it’s true how society says her life is already over.”) It almost seemed like Lily Allen had taken this to heart and was going to retire from music for good, until the announcement earlier this year that she was working on her third album.

And lo, it’s “Hard Out Here” for a bitch.

In Lily Allen’s New Video Probably Went Over Your Head, Kathy Iandoli summarizes the difficulties of Allen’s life following her departure from music:

The years that followed for Lily Allen were pretty brutal. She miscarried more than once, met with tweets from “fans” who said things like “I’m glad your baby died” and other pleasantries. When she finally gave birth (twice), she was called fat a number of times and accused of “falling off.” She changed her name to her married name, Lily Rose Cooper, and was called a kept woman. So she brought it back to the née status and was accused of going through another divorce. It truly is hard out here for a bitch.

The “Hard Out Here” video, a satirical pop culture send-up of music industry misogyny, begins with her manager bemoaning her post-baby weight gain, until a newly-liposucked Allen makes a comeback of sorts in a cartoonishly over-the-top music video. Besides the obvious swipes at Robyn Thicke with lines like “who will tear your butt in two” and the glorious balloon display of “LILY ALLEN HAS A BAGGY PUSSY,” the majority of the video satirizes the self-objectification of young singers, notably Miley Cyrus.

I’ve said this about Miley before, but her sexually liberated front is really a carefully calculated appeal to the most basic straight male fantasies, and I couldn’t help but think of that when Allen’s manager tries to teach her how to twerk in the “Hard Out Here” video. The twerking, along with the white woman (Allen) objectifying her women of color dancers in order to assert her dominant sexuality, seems pretty familiar to anyone who has seen or read anything about Miley Cyrus in the past year. This is an interesting point on Allen’s part, but the execution is very flawed.

Allen’s got a bit of her own internalized misogyny that she’s dealing with, notably in the lines “I don’t need to shake my ass for you because I’ve got a brain,” which I’m sure the many brilliant ass-shakers of the world take issue with. The idea that overt sexuality and liberation are mutually exclusive is just flat-out wrong, and I would counter that with Rihanna’s “Pour It Up” video.

Allen’s use of women of color backup dancers as a Miley slam mostly ends up feeling awkwardly racist. The close-up shots of butts twerking and bottles popping aren’t something that Miley invented (duh), and in fact, it’s her appropriation of those signifiers that got people talking about Miley to begin with. There’s a lot to critique about how young women singers are marketed, and at points Allen is spot on (The part where she makes a dancer pose for Polaroids, a la Terry Richardson, is fucking brilliant), but at some point she ends up perpetuating sexist views of what, exactly, makes a woman empowered.

This is Not a Sexual Revolution

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When I was fourteen, a much older man sat next to me while I was waiting for my friend in front of a bookstore. She was buying one of those teen magazines that talked a little too much about LOVING YOURSELF on the same page with weight loss tips, and I hated standing in lines because I was a little awkward, so I sat on the bench outside. The man who seated himself next to me reached over, grabbed my hair, and started telling me how pretty it was. This classic story of harassment would be one that would be repeated over and over again throughout my life, with me feeling varying levels of fear and discomfort, but that will always be the time I point to when I realized that even though I was young and wasn’t ready, I was already being sexualized.

I think of this when I hear or read about the sexual coming of age of young pop stars, women who grew to fame in their teens and eventually get countless stories written about how they are “shedding their Disney image” by revealing a different sexuality at 20 than they did when they were 16. When Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez hit the magic number of 18 (The number that the men of the Internet have decided that it is acceptable to objectify) a local alt-weekly ran the story Now That They’re Both 18, Let’s Finally Discuss It: Who’s Hotter, Demi Lovato or Selena Gomez?

The fascination with the maturation of young pop stars is the most honest way I’ve seen media outlets deal with the sexuality of young women. For minors, the leering is creepy and a faux pas, but is still largely present, but the explosion of Look Who’s All Grown Up media smirking (Which happens with other celebrities too. Christina Applegate and Alyssa Milano immediately come to mind.) suggests that the result is inevitable.

The most recent case is Miley Cyrus, whose video for “We Can’t Stop” gave a lot of writers pause. Gone is the sixteen year-old sweetheart, and in her place is a raunchy, culturally appropriating, overtly sexual human being. Miley, who seems to have recently discovered that black people exist (please read On Miley Cyrus, Ratchet Culture, and Accessorizing With Black People for context), takes a page out of GQ’s definition of sexy by finding new ways to roll around on top of a bed. NPR’s When Pop Stars Flirt With Bad Taste proclaims that “self-objectification is part of today’s ritual of romance,” but the importance of appearing sexually available if you’re a young women with records to sell is not something new.

What’s irksome about Miley’s video is that it’s not a sexual coming-of-age, but a creeped-out male-gazey fantasy that tries to substitute itself for one. The path for young, white singers from accessibly cute (but still sexualized) to the narrow mold of sexy (with a depressing lack of agency) has been clearly drawn, so it shouldn’t be surprising when they follow it. Choices don’t exist in a vacuum.

Women of color don’t have this same option, which makes Miley’s appropriation in her video that much worse. Good Girl Gone Bad is typically the story of white women, who have the benefit of being viewed as starting off with innocence, which, in turn, can morph into creeped-out infantilization.

Part of why I like Die Antwoord’s video for “Cookie Thumper” (which, to be clear, I mostly don’t like), is that it takes the objectification of a young white girl and makes it uncomfortable. Yolandi Visser dressed as an orphaned school-girl is subjected to creep-shots of her underwear, but later when she becomes overtly sexualized in the most gross, destructive way, the video seems to taunt “Isn’t this what you really wanted to see?”

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If the video was going for subversion, which I sort of hope it was, it fails for a number of reasons. In the end it still reinforces the idea that it seemed to be hitting back against– that young girls and innocence are sexy– through the numerous underwear shots and school-girl spanking. If you leave with anything, it’s mostly confusion over the muddled message, the unclear line of what is actual agency and what is being set-up to meet expectations.

For Miley Cyrus and countless other ingenues-turned-dynamos, that confusion is also present, and largely reflected in the lives other non-famous women. It’s easy to grow up and discover your sexuality, but it is much harder to prevent that from being commodified.

Blurred Lines of Consent

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I’ve been reading what I can about Robin Thicke’s hit “Blurred Lines”, and part of why I feel the need to put my two cents in is because I actually really like the song. It’s fun and catchy and I always turn up the volume to yell “YOU DA HOTTEST BITCH IN THIS PLACE.” But my enjoyment of it doesn’t really negate the fact that it’s sketchy, to put it nicely.

The video isn’t really worth my time discussing because it seems like it’s mostly calculated view-bait. Videos that are banned from YouTube are typically part of the marketing strategy, a sort of salacious invitation that most (including myself) can’t resist. But when you actually watch it, it’s mostly topless models cavorting. Not too interesting, except at some parts their hair isn’t covering their breasts. (“Like a stupid fashion magazine, right?” -Bob’s Burgers)

The fact that the song is called “Blurred Lines” itself is just so ooomph. “I know you want it” itself isn’t too bad, because the song kind of implies that he’s talking to a girl who’s too shy or too much of a “good girl” to express her sexual desires. But if the lines are blurred, how do you know she wants it?

(videos is NSFW)

I remember a few think pieces about consent in R&B and I think that that’s an important thing to talk about, as long as it doesn’t blame R&B for the rape culture that makes the problems in this song go relatively unnoticed. Problems in the genre are actually problems in music and the culture at large, which is why when Two Door Cinema Club uses one of the most misogynistic album covers that I’ve seen in a long time, it’s not an indictment on all babyfaced Irish dweebs. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think we shouldn’t be talking about “Blurred Lines”, Miguel’s hugely creepy “How Many Drinks?”, or the Weeknd’s lyrics that verge on date rape. But that’s a small part of a bigger picture, and R&B is actually packed with women right now who are singing not only about consensual sex, but female enjoyment and revelation in it.

Right now you can’t turn on a hip-hop station without hearing Kelly Rowland’s “Kisses Down Low” or Ciara’s “Body Party”. “Kisses Down Low” is one of the few songs in recent memory that is instructive about cunnilingus (meaning the lady is describing how she wants it MUCH LIKE A MAN WOULD DO), and “Body Party” is so enthusiastically consensual (“You can’t keep your hands off me” followed by “I can’t keep my hands of you”) that Ciara cast her current partner, Future, in the video.

A few years back Latoya Peterson was interviewed by Spin about the supposed maturation of hip-hop with the moral decline of R&B, and she had some pretty interesting things to say about how music isn’t catered to women.

“Generally speaking, pop culture is not interested in the desires of women. Every industry has this problem. There’s no Bechdel Test for records, but generally what women are doing isn’t considered noteworthy unless it’s tailored for male consumption. Trey Songz may get to be eye candy and Kanye gets to have a few reflective moments, but that doesn’t mean society suddenly has started caring more about what women want.”

He might “know you want it” but Robin Thicke’s type of leering, gauche fantasy of a woman who is too shy to voice her desire (or even worse, doesn’t desire it at all), is very far from this world where women write and control their own narratives.

Female Friendship and Pool Parties

This is such a great video:

I really love that Lightning Dust’s “Diamonds” is essentially a love song (“Whisper to me that you’ve had enough / Apologize that you’re not in love”), but the video tells a story of a different kind of relationship. One by one, three women get into the swimming pool with a lack of self-consciousness (I have a fear of pools and bathing suits so I’m probably projecting), and then begin to execute a synchronized swimming routine. For me that was pretty unexpected, as female friendship isn’t exactly something that’s as celebrated as, say, male friendship or heterosexual relationships. It’s also really awesome that the women in the video have different body types than I’m used to seeing in music videos, and that seems like a conscious decision on the part of the director, Helen Reed.

Women can be friends! And they’re not even sharing makeup tips! (Though let’s be real, that’s fun as hell.) I think part of what’s so remarkable is that this isn’t exactly a popular narrative, partially because feminine competition is highly encouraged, and also if women aren’t really seen as fully-developed people, they aren’t capable of maintaining meaningful relationships outside of those that they have with men. So it’s really cool to see a video like this that’s so nonchalant about it.

I had similar hopes for “Friend Crush” a while back, but the video is really ambiguous about who the song is for. It could be for another woman platonically, but the video seems pretty sexualized so in my head it’s a sexual relationship between two female friends. It could also be about a dude but I’m gonna pretend that it’s not.

John Grant’s Solitude

From what I know about him, John Grant generally keeps to himself. His albums (specifically his latest effort Pale Green Ghosts) are the kind of exposure that he’s more comfortable with. He addresses love, loss, and anger along with his HIV-positive diagnosis, which, since it was divulged at a Hercules and Love Affair show, has become one of his identifying attributes, whether he’s comfortable with it or not.

It’s probably one of the loneliest albums I’ve ever heard, and the video for “Pale Green Ghosts” is the perfect visual for that. Grant is by himself the entire time, but his presence is so captivating that he doesn’t really need another person in any of the shots. It’s kind of weird to describe someone as having a definitive presence, but Grant reminds me of Orson Welles in a lot of not-so-subtle ways (and it’s not just the beard).

The video for “Pale Green Ghosts” is hard to interpret, but the shots of Grant opening a trunk and walking with a shovel seem to imply that he is burying demons. It’s breathtakingly gorgeous, but in a way that fills you with dread instead of longing. Images of Grant’s face flash by time after time with the same sorrowful-but-determined expression that almost overshadows the scenery of the video, and Grant on his own is sad, but still communicates self-exile, which is a lifestyle that Grant appears to lead on his own.

Your Webcam Loves You

My weak spot for webcam music videos can be directly traced to the “frequently sings in the mirror” category (No hairbrush needed! I would have a headset). There’s something really intimate and voyeuristic about it, because you’re watching something available to you, but at the same time it’s not for you. The webcam functions like a two-way mirror in videos like this, because the performance is controlled but also able to be viewed by others.

TEETH’s “Care Bear” is a really great example of this. The low budget video really works because it chronicles different stages of webcam performance. The first shots of the video are of people getting ready to film themselves- they’re putting on lipstick and fixing their hair, which is a familiar routine to anyone who has every taken so much as a self-portrait of themselves. From there, the video moves into exhibitionism. The different people in the video, who have already been revealed as carefully stylized, dance and lip sync to the song. The stylization and the process of that is also pretty important when you look at the gender-bending in the video. Gender as performance is easily noted here, as (people who appear to be) men adorn themselves with lipstick and wigs before they begin to lip sync.

[I also really hope that one dude has on a mud mask and is not doing some sort of gross blackface.]

Q.U.E.E.N. and the Ruling Class

Further cementing my opinion that Janelle Monae is an important lady, the video for “Q.U.E.E.N.” was released this week.

Monáe and her crew (including Erykah Badu as “Badoula Oblongata”) have been frozen and preserved as dangerous rebels who disguised freedom movements “in songs, motion pictures, and works of art,” but come to life when two girls start to play “Q.U.E.E.N.” on a record player. We find out later that the rebellion is class-oriented (“They be like “ooh let them eat cake”/ but we eat wings and throw them bones on the ground”), and the crime in the rebellion is artistic expression. Monáe starts by wearing an authoritative fringe suit (rebel gear), but periodically switches to a striped dress that (nearly) matches her backup dancers. Every time she wears the same dress as her backup dancers, their hair (which was previously different on each woman) turns to the same short trim cut. It’s a commentary on individuality (which should be hammered in by the line “am I a freak?”), because while they are all conforming for brief, sporadic periods, Monáe’s dress is still slightly different, with longer sleeves and different stripe placement. I didn’t catch that until I viewed the video for the second or third time, so it’s a subtle but important reminder that even when we appear to conform, it’s kind of an impossibility.

Monáe’s dialogue at the end (“They keep us underground working hard for the greedy, But when it’s time pay they turn around and call us needy”) is part of her well-documented acknowledgment of class struggles, and the video is a celebration of art-as-social-rebellion (think of the man on the typewriter: “We will create and destroy art movements in ten years”). Monae also asks “will you be electric sheep/ electric ladies, will you sleep?”, which is a reference to Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Monáe has previously fashioned herself as the android Cindi Mayweather as a statement on alienation, so the electric sheep who dreams of the android is the person who strives for individuality.

The struggle for individuality and the lower class are pretty closely intertwined, as the symbols of the lower class (Monáe’s uniform tuxedo, for example) are largely based on the stripping of singularity and the focus on servitude. Monáe wears her suit (at the end of the video) to pay tribute to the serving class that she came from, but subverts the meaning of the suit by being a rebellious individual. For her, the suit is a fraction of the past that she keeps with her, and a symbol of solidarity to those who remain in the same position. The “Q.U.E.E.N.” video is largely a tribute to those class struggles, and an affirmation that it’s something that’s important to her.

Banned Love

I’m calling this post “banned love” because this video was insta-banned from YouTube (to be fair, unsurprisingly), but itis thoroughly NSFW NSFW NSFW NSFW so if you are in a public space I suggest you bookmark the video and watch it when you’re away from eyeballs that don’t belong to you.

“Mindfuck” is the first single released from Brooklyn R&B artist Ian Isiah’s upcoming LP, and the video is certainly a mindfuck if gender normativity is something that’s really important to you (Not a Neophyte is firmly in the “roll your own” category when it comes to gender, for what it’s worth). The video is overtly sexual, watching two lovers engage in extremely intimate moments – so much so that it almost feels invasive on the part of the viewer.

Ian Isiah is bejeweled and wearing false eyelashes on a bed with a sheer canopy, getting close with boychild, a gender non-conforming performance artist. boychild’s gender identity is purposely and famously ambiguous, but Isiah appropriates feminine signifiers (like the jewelery and makeup) to muddy his own as well. The result is what could be your typical love scene in a romance movie, with the exception that the roles of man and woman (or man and man/ woman and woman) are indefinable.

Weird, Lonely People

I initially glossed over Young Galaxy’s “Pretty Boy,” probably because it came out during a week that was absolutely loaded with new music releases (The Thermals, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Junip), but on second look/listen I think that both the song and the video are pretty noteworthy.

The song is about connecting with someone through mutual feelings of alienation (“And I know that you feel isolated/ and I feel what you won’t say/ I don’t care if the disbelievers understand/ You’re my pretty boy, always”), being brought together and experiencing a fondness for someone through shared estrangement from other people. As an added bonus, the subject of the song is a “pretty boy,” and it’s used here without the negative (to some people) connotation of “man who looks like a woman.” Being a pretty boy is the equivalent to being attractive in a feminine way, which is both celebrated (Tiger Beat) and scorned (everywhere else), but Young Galaxy’s Catherine McCandless is singing from affection and not sexual attraction.

This is explored in the video, as the two characters are wearing disconcerting rubber masks. The masks are a signifier of weirdness, or more specifically, the feeling of being too strange to connect with other people. They wear masks because they are outcasts, and when they find each other, they recognize kinship because of their similar presentation. They are the only two people in the video wearing the masks, which is a reflection of how they understand and relate to one another as misfits.