Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sociological Discussion: Music Videos and America

Today we're going to revisit the sociological discussion I began last week about two music videos: Lady Gaga's "Telephone" and Marina and the Diamonds' "Hollywood." If you haven't seen them, you can visit this post.

My friend Joe of Your Daily Joe was one of the first to comment, which was a great way to start. Keep in mind he's in The Business when you read this:

These videos are intentional poseur pieces. The people in the videos don't embody a lifestyle or attitude or mentality. They don't live it. They're just trying it on and seeing how it feels. Hyper-stylized, self-conscious, unrealistic. They celebrate the most superficial aspects of iconography. This is the Tarantino mentality. You're not supposed to suspend disbelief and buy into what you're seeing. You're supposed to see it as a work. You remain detached from it, and appreciate it for its studious understanding, reproduction, and implementation of ideas and images.

Contrast this with, for example, filmmaking movements of the past. Sergio Leone was an Italian who wanted to make American movies - his western and gangster films are a unique blend of a desire to BE American, despite the limitation of being culturally Italian. The French New Wave films were an effort to take the best elements of American film conventions and use them as the building blocks for culturally French films. In both cases, a new form was born.

These videos are part of the on-going manifestation of irony in culture. They're not interested in creating something new. They want to evoke and recreate something cool. It's cool for coolness sake.

I mean, the video for "Telephone" has nothing AT ALL to do with the song. The lyrics are about being annoyed about getting phone calls while you're out at a club. The video is Lady Gaga's version of Quentin Tarantino's version of '70s exploitation movies... which were just low budget versions of movies with higher aspirations to begin with.

...But it's great. Lady Gaga is something extremely rare in the music business. She's someone with ideas. She set out to accomplish a vision. She's an artist, and her subject is celebrity. She's accomplished an impressive amount in a very short period of time. I'll be interested to see if she can sustain that over a long career.
Love his insight, especially about irony, intentional poseur pieces and the comparison with Tarantino.

My friend Bob of PIVOT POINT responded:
I concur heartily with what Joe has said--at least about Marina and the Diamonds. The Lady Gaga video first required me to "sign up" or "sign in" before viewing it. I don't like to "sign up" or "sign in" generally, so I skipped that one.

I couldn't help but contrast Marina's performance with those of other singers whom I admire, who sing nakedly from their guts, from their soul. You know they're intensely oriented toward hearing something unique and moving from WITHIN--and only then, as committed artists, do they strive to transmit, to translate, that inner passion outward to a rapt audience.

But here it's all about showing off--kind of smirkily guffawing in complicity with a subversive audience which smirkily guffaws back. What is it they say about Hollywood?--It's just high school, but with better lighting. Does everybody now slaver to be an American Idol, just so they can suck on their 15 minutes of fame?

I know when the Spirit moves me. I know what it feels like when the incandescent arc of inspiration leaps from a performer and sizzles right through my nerve ends, into my bones. That's what I'm after! "Painted cakes do not satisfy hunger."

As to what this says about our pop culture in general? It's all about consuming, isn't it? About buying and selling; about packaging the product seductively or sensationally in an uber- competitive marketplace so you'll stick out from the crowd and score big.

Marina's on the make, yet she's so cool, mocking,ironic and in the know--hey, just like us! In that respect, although she may be British, she's as cynically savvy and postmodernly American as virtual apple pie.
Showing off? Absolutely. I like his last line especially about American as virtual apple pie. That made me giggle.

Next Kim Williams added:
i'll second much of what has been said, although i'm not at all claiming that i could have said it so well.

my contribution is that although i see intense creativity in both of these videos - they just don't convey any message of substance (or at least interest) to me. in short - what's the point? a lot of work for shock that overshadows limited content.

random thought - does this 'art' parallel the same communication form shift we see in the surge of Social Media popularity? lots of noise - benign noise - with limited thought and reflection.
Some really good questions, which I don't think I have any answers for... but if you have some thoughts, my gosh, please tell us :)

Next, Do you see me? added:
I love the lady ga-ga video. I think she is to this generation what Elton John was to mine. Completely over the top, talented, attention whore, but has something to say. I don't see these as vapid shells or benign noise - of course I see social media as relevant as well. Telephone is a statement on the most pervasive modern technology the world has ever seen. Over a 100 years of putting our ear and mouth to a device to communicate electronically. I'm sitting in the MSP airport - the bastion of white, middle class America. Everyone is talking on a phone, but I suspect most have never heard nor seen Lady Ga Ga. I think her video is a lot of eye candy in which to wrap her message. Or maybe not. Maybe the prison setting is the metaphor for contemporary conventionalism of which the phone is the ultimate icon?
And, finally, my friend Ruth added:
The image of a beautiful woman scantily clad in the American flag - to represent America - is used in both videos, although it seems intentional in the second and merely incidental in the first. Both seem to be poking fun at the image, although Gaga's sense of humor is so wry that I think it gets lost under the snapping teeth and flashing eyes. Marina's tone is more playful, confiding, enough to convince me (an American) that she must be excluding me from her observations. I like watching these together; Marina seems to egg Gaga on.
All of those brought up so many more questions and thoughts about these videos for me that I'm sure I'll be pondering far into the future. Meanwhile, here are some of my thoughts about the videos:

First off I feel I should preface this by saying that part of the reason I wanted to discuss these is that I feel that even though neither of these women are taking what they're doing seriously, as Joe pointed out. However, I still feel that there is merit in examining the way they play with different ideas and images. I think that like children, adults also work through and grapple with ideas and concepts through playing with them. I also think that in many ways, musicians, like artists, are usually wearing some sort of (metaphorical) mask when they perform. And just like masks do for other cultures, the "masks" we wear also show our conceptions of the world around us.

Lady Gaga's "Telephone" I find fascinating because, to me, the video is just one long gender war. First off, the song itself is about women who are being harassed by their boyfriends, one assumes, while they are out dancing in the club. This might seem like a "so what" thing to some people, but to me, it is evidence of a particular frustration with women who can't go out and be trusted by their partners. This is based largely on a friendship of mine where when the girl and I went out to dance, her boyfriend would harass her through texts and phone calls, accusing her of trying to sleep around with the boys and the bar and even with me. He'd get completely irrational, full of rage, and incapable of believing anything she said. One night it got so bad that she called her service provider and changed her number while we were out. So, this stuff can get pretty intense.

The video imagery and ideas also demonstrate to me a clear tension between the sexes. First off, the video starts in a women's prison, a realm where men supposedly have no influence, but all of the women are scantily clad as if to fulfill a male fantasy. In this I see that women, despite what they're doing be it working out or being incarcerated far from the public eye, they still feel the pressure put on them by the males of society to be "sexy" in whatever way society is telling women to be (these days, apparently it's no pants.)

The second scene in the diner again shows a gender tension. Two women are "getting a man back" for being abusive or otherwise awful, the small interactions we see between them imply. And since Gaga and Beyonce are connecting themselves with "bad women" in pop culture visually (like convicts, Madonna, THE CHARACTER FROM KILL BILL, and Thelma and Louise), they take the "bad" way of dealing with their problems and poison him. But they don't stop there! They also poison the rest of the restaurant, implying that when gender relations break down, the rest of society suffers. And then she dances around the corpses in an American flag outfit. Don'tcha just love it? It's like Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burns.

I also think the "Let's Make a Sandwich Scene" is a great subversion of cooking shows, where women (usually) are taught how to cook for others. Instead, they're learning how to kill.

So maybe I'm reading too much into it, but that's what I mainly got out of that video, which is why it intrigues me so much.

Marina and the Diamonds "Hollywood" I like for how it plays with and mocks the American Dream. This is due in part to how I've lately been thinking about America and how ever since its conception it's been based on dreams that for the most part don't play out in reality, but they are dreams that still attracted innumerable immigrants to our shores and dreams which Americans still tend to believe in. Stuff like: if you work hard in America, you will get rich, which is only true for those with good jobs.

Anyway, that's the background I'm was coming from when examining this video. I find the imagery fascinating, because she's pointing out that the American ideal is youth (cheerleaders and football players), beauty (not a plain person to be seen here), money and glamour (shine and glitz and wastefulness) and celebrity.

I like how Marina basically just throws herself into a sea of red, white and blue and wades around in it, proclaiming how she's "obsessed with the mess that's America." Through her lyrics, she shows that she's aware that America isn't the dream we have of it, but that she is still in love with that dream despite knowing the reality, which is something I think that we all tend to do. She also sings "Hollywood infecting your brain," which I think demonstrates the power of our "dream machine" to spread American ideology and fantasy to the rest of the world.

Another thing I found interesting was that she says that "The American Dream is the American queen" which doesn't leave any place for men in the American Dream. Men don't feature too prominently in her video, except as support cast (the football with the cheerleader, the faux Rebel Without a Cause with the faux Monroe), and since overwhelmingly men are still in most of the positions of power in the US, I find it odd that in her idea of the American Dream they don't seem to have a place at all.

So those are some of the things that made me want to discuss these videos. Thank you so much to everyone who took part! And, of course, if you still have something to say, feel free to do so in the comments!

Related post:
Let's Have a Sociological Discussion

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1 comment:

Kim Williams said...

well said. thanks for the mention. seems i have a limited perspective on these things. i can understand all of what you are 'seeing' and i know have a different perspective on these videos. frankly - i had trouble watching the first one - the images bothered me. the second video was more enjoyable and did speak some interesting things about US culture.