One of my BA dissertation tutorees has asked me to work on Childish Gambino’s fascinating, controversial music video “This is America” (2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch/VYOjWnS4cMY) and I’m happy to have the chance of returning to a film genre that I neglect too much. Ages ago (or so it seems), I published the essay “El cuerpo en el videoclip musical: Más que carne fresca” (in Meri Torras (ed.), Corporizar el pensamiento: Escrituras y lecturas del cuerpo en la cultura occidental. Pontevedra: Mirabel, 2006. 175-194), which came from a seminar on the same topic which I taught at UAB. I will always remember a hilarious moment in it. I had decided to debate with students The Prodigy’s video for the song “Smack My Bitch Up” (1997). I had more than a little distaste for the lyrics (just a monotonous repetition of “Change my pitch up!/ Smack my bitch up!”) but the video directed by Jonas Åkerlund is still one of my favourites. It narrates from a first person point of view a riotous night in London, with plenty of booze, drugs, and sex. The spectator assumes that the invisible protagonist behind the camera must be a man but the big final reveal is that this is actually a young woman. When I walked into the room, I saw that one of the students was an elderly lady and, ageist me, I worried that she might be scandalized. Funnily, when the video was over, she raised her hand and asked me very eagerly “can you play it again, please?” Everyone laughed.
I wrote a few years later another article on a music video, “Unstable meanings, unstable methods: Analysing Linkin Park’s song ‘What I’ve Done’” (José Ramón Ibáñez Ibáñez & José Francisco Fernández Sánchez (eds.), A View from the South: Contemporary English and American Studies. Almería: Editorial Universidad de Almería, 2011. 150-157), in which I showed how even when a song is popular there can be very little agreement on what it actually means. The song appears to deal with a man’s regrets about his past misbehaviour, either because he has been a drug addict or because he has been abusive in a relationship, or both. In contrast, the video directed by one of Linkin Park’s members, Joe Hahn, shows the band playing in the desert with the performance intercut with a montage of documentary images, mostly showing the conflicts in which the USA have been involved. Chester Bennington’s passionate singing changes radically depending on what you decide the song is about: a heart-felt apology from a single man speaking for himself perhaps to a woman, or a heart-felt apology by an American man ashamed of his nation and asking the world for forgiveness. And this just because some images were added to a performance in the music video.
Back to my student. She is also taking a Practicum with me consisting of doing academic activities connected with Literature and Culture. Since the actual content is very open, I have employed her so far as my research assistant for my MA course on gender in animated children’s fiction and will employ her now producing a guide of the best American music videos of the 21st century (for online publication on UAB’s digital repository and under her name, not mine). This is for two reasons: one, I think that working on other music videos will enhance her understanding of Gambino’s video for her BA dissertation; two, I very much wanted to learn from a much younger person about the current state of the music video. There are always lists of the best at the end of the year and, inevitably, I stumble upon this or that music video on YouTube or browsing the international press. I must say that, unfortunately, I seem to have lost my former passion for pop and rock, which lasted until I became incapable of working with the music on and found listening to it outside working hours incompatible with the lots of reading I need to do. Besides, I could never accomplish the transition from the album to the Spotify list, without which following the ups and downs of current music styles is hard enough. I know, more or less, who is who but if asked to name ten great songs of the last decade I would be lost. Yes, quite sad –perhaps I should teach a course and get back on track!
I agreed with my tutoree that she would select 50 great music videos of the 21st century and then we could decide how to write about them for the guide. She sent me the selection last week and I spend a few wonderful hours on Saturday enjoying a list if not of the best at least of the very good music videos which the past two decades have given us. My student has mostly chosen elegant, well-made videos that illustrate great songs by a notable variety of US performers. I’m not going to comment on the list itself (I keep that for when she publishes the guide) but I will say that, as she and I know, all lists are bound to be very personal even when the person making the selection tries to be as open-minded as possible. Everyone has favourites and in the immense world of popular music there is no way two persons can agree on what is best. It is, besides, very hard to say in which ways a music video is a quality work, for, surely, some great videos corresponding to not so popular songs must pass unnoticed, whereas other videos get noticed just for the song, not because the video has any filmic values. Surely, the video for Luis Fonsi’s hit “Despacito” has no special values as a film, despite being the second most played video on YouTube ever (behind “Baby Shark”!). Even worse, some music videos have become extremely popular for very wrong reasons, and I’m thinking here of the exploitative images in Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”.
This leads to me to video number 51 –“WAP”. My student did not include it in her selection but “WAP” is no doubt the most talked about music video of 2020. Here are some notes. “WAP” is a song published by New York rapper Cardi B (born Belcalis Marlenis Almánzar in 1992) featuring Texan rapper Meghan thee Stallion (Megan Jovon Ruth Pete, b. 1995). The song, which mixes hip hop, dirty rap, and trap, deals quite explicitly with sexual matters, with both artists singing and rapping about women’s sexual preferences and their expectations regarding men’s performance during sex (‘wap’ incidentally is an acronym for ‘wet-ass pussy’). “WAP” was generally well-received for its expression of female sexual agency but its dirty lyrics (https://genius.com/Cardi-b-wap-lyrics) were also a source of enormous controversy, with some criticizing them for their vulgar language. There was quite a backlash from conservative politicians (i.e. Trumpian Republicans) who even asked for some form of censorship, though their complaints mostly helped “WAP” to become an even more popular hit. Most progressive media outlets defended Cardi B’s raunchy song as an expression of black female empowerment through popular American culture’s reverence for the rebellious artist.
The music video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsm4poTWjMs), directed by the extremely experienced Collin Tilley but with plenty of input from Cardi B herself, made the controversy even more vivid, with figures such as British comedian Russell Brand arguing that there was little difference between pornographic sexualization by men and the supposedly self-empowering presentation of the women in it. The video shows Cardi B and Meghan thee Stallion, dressed in sexy outfits by haute couture designers (Nicolas Jebran, Thierry Mugler), walking in an extravagant mansion full of powerful women similarly dressed. The imagery uses plenty of animal print decorations and psychedelic colours in the style of Willie Wonka’s factory. A pool scene offers a sensual dance routine (by JaQuel Knight) imitated countless times on TikTok. The video features non-singing cameos by Kylie Jenner, Normani, Rosalía, Mulatto, Rubi Rose, and Sukihana, all contributing to enhancing the representation of female power. The video was celebrated, like the song, and soon hailed as one of the best of 2020, if not the best. However, beyond its sexiness, the video became a source of criticism for its use of live animals (with big cats appearing as pets for rich women) and for the presence of white celebrity Kylie Jenner. Cardi B defended her choice, arguing that race should not be a consideration (Jenner has been often accused of appropriating black culture) and that Kim Kardashian’s sister also appears as her personal friend.
There is an immense difference between Gambino’s “This is America” and Cardi B’s “WAP” but both have something in common: they are a wonderfully compressed representation of a rich bunch of interconnected issues, and require a savvy audience to make sense. I understand why my student is interested in the former far more than in the latter. Gambino’s issues, focused on racial discrimination in the USA, seem to be far more serious socially speaking than Cardi B and Meghan thee Stallion’s hymn to the hyperactive vagina. Yet, each knows its audience very well. Gambino throws one allusion after the other to events every black person in the USA should be able to identify whereas Cardi B appeals to those who follow the ins and outs of celebrity culture and of black female empowerment in the American music circuit. If you don’t know any of the celebrities appearing in the video, you will be mystified –though I remain mystified about why Rosalía accepted appearing in a sort of torero outfit without singing at all. Kylie Jenner’s presence is not, in my view, insulting in racial terms but because unlike Rosalía she is no artist and Cardi B hardly needs her to endorse her own art. Gambino, by the way, appears naked from the waste up in his film but this is not intended as a sexy display of his quite sexy anatomy. In contrast, Cardi B and her colleague Meghan display their curves in all their glorious abundance. In one of the scenes Cardi B’s breasts are quite visible, even though the nipples are covered, and this is when, like Russell Brand, I did doubt whether this was empowerment or self-exploitation. My own idol, Kylie Minogue, has found much more classy ways of being her own woman –and no, this is not prudery but a certain tiredness after seeing women claim power by showing their bodies for the last thirty five years, since Madonna started the trend. I recall dealing with the exact same issue in my 2006 article regarding a video with Jennifer Lopez…
See? These tiny films, lasting on average 3 minutes, are food for thought in ways much longer films are not. Half advertisement, half art the music video still survives and, from what I see in my 50+1 songs exploration, has a great future ahead. I’ll make sure to be more alert to it.
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